Still Life

Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006) stands somewhat at the intersection of the director’s earlier, more distinctly fictional, narrative films, and with his more recent, documentary style releases. While there is a plot and characters, this picture also captures a specific moment in time and records a pronounced and profound shift in the Chinese landscape and the culture around the Three Gorges town Fengjie. In so doing, Jia crafts what remains his greatest work, and indeed, it is one of the best films of the last 25 years.

The film follows, first, Sanming (played by Sanming Han, a relation of the director’s), a character who first appeared in Jia’s Platform (2000). He travels to Fengjie in search of his wife, Missy Ma, who, with their daughter, left him 16 years ago. The reason for the delay in tracking down his family is unclear. He’s told by her brother that she is away, working elsewhere. It’s best if he just waits, which he does, getting a demolition job in the meantime. Apparently around this same period, in a nearby section of the destruction- and construction-ridden region, Shen Hong (played by Tao Zhao, another frequent Jia collaborator), arrives in search of her husband, whom she has not heard from in roughly two years. With the assistance of one of her husband’s coworkers, she manages to track him down. Neither of these stories end entirely happily, though there is a sense of contentment being reached.

While these domestic dramas are unfolding though, the film’s other main thread begins to unspool. As much as anything else, Still Life is about this national project, the Three Gorges Dam, a hydroelectric dam that spans the Yangtze River. It’s about the harsh conditions of its devoted workers, some sacrificing — literally — life and limb. It’s also about how this endeavor is presented. Governmental publicity touts the project as a grand effort supported by Chinese leaders like Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. This is something for the people to be proud of; and in fact, there has been success with the enterprise. 

Yet, while this is being perpetuated, we also see how the flooding of the region will adversely affect its inhabitants. (To be sure, the engineering feat has also had its fair share of drawbacks). Marks on rocks and walls indicate the future water level. In detached and powerful views, we notice just how much lies below those markings: homes, businesses, human existence. This will all be destroyed. These people will have to find a life elsewhere. And while this tragic juxtaposition is being presented, Jia also shows how the river area has been developed into a tourist attraction. The result is bitterly comic.

An occasionally critical view of Chinese politics and society has not always made it easy for Jia, though as noted in a New York Times article, Still Life was approved by the Chinese Film Bureau and was co-produced by the state-operated Shanghai Film Studio. A reason for this, according to Jia: “The impact of the Three Gorges project is phenomenal. It’s not something the government can cover up.”

The title of this film goes two ways. On the one hand, it does seem to describe the form of the picture — typical of much of Jia’s work — as well as the temporarily idle life of its two main characters. In the case of the former, many shots in the film are held for a considerable length, a pace unusual compared to the quick cutting style of most American releases. Slow pans of the landscape and its inhabitants going about their business and static, observational shots of the same dominate much of the picture. In the case of the latter, both Sanming and Shen spend a substantial portion of their time immobile, waiting, watching, wondering.

On the other hand, Still Life seems ironic, as this area, and the lives of its people, in a broad and quickly dire sense, is becoming more disturbed and uncertain by the day. There is nothing sedentary about what is transpiring around them. Buildings are being demolished from all sides, boats and trucks are constantly moving, hauling sand bags and people up and down the river and the roads. Still Life is actually in many ways a depiction of lives frequently in flux.

As with other films by Jia Zhangke (some of the best include Platform, The World (2004), and 24 City (2008)), there are moments of “art film” whimsey. Chinese characters and their English translation — for cigarettes, liquor, toffee, and tea — appear on screen. Are these singling out precious commodities? Do they carry a deeper meaning? About 40 minutes in, a UFO of sorts soars across the sky and seems to divide the two stories of the film. And later, a rather bizarre looking structure lifts off like a spaceship (perhaps it’s the UFO?). 

Upon release, Still Life was widely heralded, ending up on many “ten best” lists for the year. The influential French film journal "Cahiers du cinĂ©ma" chose it as the second best film of the year, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named it the best foreign film, and it took home the top prize Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

At the end of the decade, "Film Comment" contributors placed it at number 27 on its list of the best films from 2000-2010. Platform came in at 11, The World at 24, and 24 City at 98. Four films in the top 100 — That should say something about Jia Zhangke’s place in contemporary world cinema. 


Rio Bravo


When people speak of films made in the past, sometimes lamenting that “they don’t make them like they used to,” they are in many cases recalling not just the quality of these movies, but also the apparent effortlessness, the appealing nature of the stars, the style, and the story — in other words, what classical Hollywood cinema did best.

Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, from 1959, is one of those films. This picture, one of the greatest Westerns ever made, is a flawless and immensely enjoyable work. It’s a movie that in tone, plot, and form is noteworthy.

They just don’t make movies like this anymore.

Howard Hawks was well established (if not properly lauded) as one of America’s most talented and consistent filmmakers. He had made superb pictures in a variety of genres, including the screwball comedy classic, Bringing Up Baby (1938). But in 1955 he decided to try his hand at the big budget epic spectacular. The result was Land of the Pharaohs. The result of that was a flop.

After this debacle, Hawks spent some time in Europe, where he was more highly regarded as a cinematic auteur. Four years later, he returned to America, and his first film would be in the characteristically American genre of the Western.

Hawks had excelled here before, with 1948’s Red River, starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. In was in fact Wayne’s performance in this picture that led John Ford to later cast the actor in The Searchers (1956), possibly his greatest role. Ford had worked with Wayne several times before, but only after seeing the Hawks picture did Ford realize that Wayne “could act.”

For Rio Bravo, Hawks and Wayne had more than just another Western collaboration in mind. They were also thinking politics. Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon had been released seven years prior, and Hawks and Wayne didn’t think much of its more liberal take on society. Made as a rather overt analogy for the Communist witch-hunts that were plaguing the nation, and Hollywood in particular, High Noon starred Gary Cooper as a sheriff who, after the threat of imminent danger, is deserted by the community he had worked to protect. He spends the film alone, trying to get help, but none comes, save for the final intervention of his wife, played by Grace Kelly.

Hawks and Wayne saw this and did not approve. If a sheriff was a true professional, which in any good Western he should be, he wouldn’t need help. He should be able to go it alone. (They were also decidedly more conservative in their political leanings).

And this is where Wayne’s Sheriff John T. Chance comes in.

After arresting Joe Burdette for murder, Chance finds that his town is besieged. Joe’s brother, Nathan, has sent a horde of men to watch over the town, over Chance, and over the jail. Wayne though is not totally alone in his efforts to safeguard Joe and keep him locked up. He has the assistance of a surly old man, Stumpy, played with typically amusing goofiness by Walter Brennan, and he’s got the ex-sharpshooter, now recovering alcoholic, Dude, played by Dean Martin, a year after his stellar turn in Vincente Minnelli's excellent Some Came Running. And eventually, he gets the eager and earnest Colorado, played by Ricky Nelson, giving the film some youth appeal, a conscious decision as the Western was steadily loosing its luster, especially among young people.

But the difference with Wayne’s sheriff and Cooper’s is that Wayne’s is constantly down-playing his need for help; he doesn’t want others to get involved. He even struggles to avoid a relationship with Angie Dickinson’s charming yet possibly shady lady Feathers, and that takes a considerable devotion to solitude.

Nevertheless, as the film progresses, Wayne’s motley crew assembles and stands their ground. At one point, Chance is asked about this team. Someone wonders if that’s all he’s got. “It’s what I’ve got,” he responds.

For a Western, Rio Bravo is remarkably insular. In this genre of wide open spaces and natural vistas, Hawks goes in the opposite direction. This film takes place largely indoors, in hotel rooms, bars, the jail. When we are outside, it’s primarily along the main street of town, which is itself surrounded by buildings (the location is a good example of Old Tucson Studios as a movie set).

The pace is unusual too. Clocking in at almost 2 1/2 hours, Rio Bravo takes its time. A case in point: With the action heating up, with tension building, and with only about 20 minutes left in the picture, one would think that the film would be progressing steadily toward its conclusion. But instead, Hawks gathers his four main characters and puts them in the jail, just waiting. And when you’ve got Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in a film, if you’re going to have them wait, you might as well have them sing. So that’s what Hawks does. For a couple minutes, the film essentially takes a break while the men belt out a few numbers (Even Brennan sings along. Wayne does not). And that’s all. Then it’s back to the movie.

In the end, what stands out most about this film is its casual greatness. Everyone involved seems to be having a great time. They’re in no hurry. They seem to enjoy each other. They, like the characters in so many Hawks films, are professionals, fully in command of their performances. In many scenes, they’re just hanging out. But every minute of it is remarkably engaging. Sometimes the basic narrative is secondary. You just want to be with these people. And Hawks has never been better himself. He lets the film play out like an old master would. To quote Chance when talking about Colorado, “I’d say he’s so good, he doesn’t feel he has to prove it.”

There’s much to take away from Rio Bravo: its endearing characters, its humor, and its daring opening — essentially, we’re watching a silent film, with no dialogue, for about the first five minutes.

Wayne and Hawks would work together twice more following this collaboration, in two additional Westerns: El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970), the former basically a reworking of the Rio Bravo plot, and the latter Hawks’ final film.