Friday, August 18, 2017

Three years after the Dragon

What is near and what is far? There are questions which may well not survive the art of cinema. How do things go about reaching us from the ends of the earth? And how are we to see them coming? Populations, news and drugs are a part of these things. They are at the heart of Year of the Dragon (1985) and of Michael Cimino’s films. Seeing again Year of the Dragon, on Canal Plus, three years on, makes us realise just how much this question will never be one for television. On television, what is far is always-already-there, an ‘old faithful’, with neither aura or fripperies. TV’s real exoticism is what happens ‘at home’, when by chance something happens which we were far from suspecting. With cinema, things went quite differently and it wasn’t unusual for great directors (Cimino is sometimes one) to take on journalists’ issues. Funny kinds of journalists, convinced that ‘everything is meshed’ and you only have to pull a thread to bring – why not? – the whole world to you. A world they would be crazy enough (paranoia is the word) to fit into one film. 
‘This goes back a long way’ is the leitmotiv of captain White, the furious hero disguised as Mickey Rourke in Year of the Dragon. This what? This everything. The activities of the Chinatown gangs, which go back to the Sino-American mafia, which goes back to the Hong Kong triads, which goes back several thousand years in China and to the historical presence of Chinese in the United States. Not to speak of the drugs arriving from Bangkok on a Polish ship, the Kazimierz Pulawski, a quirk of fate when you think that White also comes from a long way away – from Poland to be precise – with a painful detour via Vietnam. Resentment too goes a long way back, like anger which is better tasted cold and grudges which push back the limits of the world. 
We remember the ‘controversy’ that greeted the film on its release: was it racist or not? On TV you can see more clearly how much the racism is only a petty rationalisation of what Cimino still has it in him to film with the voraciousness and folly which any director worthy of the name can’t but possess, and which always exceeds his ideological limits. 
Year of the Dragon has to be seen as a (sometimes futile) exercise in style on this question of what’s close and what’s a long way away. This is the effect TV has on the film. What has to be seen is how Cimino tries everything before getting to the only confrontation which could tie up every loose end in the film. What has to be seen is the way Cimino builds up his scenes from big camera movements, within which there’s a proliferation of actions which aren’t simultaneous (as on TV), but parallel (as in the cinema). Once, the crucial question was how to get close to things. But where the zoom has replaced the actors’ movements with the movements of our eyes, Cimino thrusts Rourke like a living zoom into the thick of what suddenly shifts from ‘too far’ to ‘too near’, from jealousy to phobia. 
So, for Cimino, it’s also necessary that what’s far recedes as what is near gets closer*. About halfway through Year of the Dragon there are some extraordinary scenes. Criticised by all the other characters in the film, analysed and completely exposed, Stanley White collapses under the strain and becomes a wreck for several scenes. That’s when Cimino abandons him without warning and follows his enemy, the seductive Joey Tai, the young Chinese mafia leader, on a ‘business’ trip into the Thai (or Burmese?) forests. An incredible episode where we are compelled to ‘identify’ with this character, who is after all the villain of the film. Cimino succumbs to a very strange temptation, that of replacing his deadbeat lawman with his sworn enemy and granting him a nice piece of adventure movie. 
The result is that when we return to New York and the Polish choir at the funeral of White’s wife, we get something like a poignant illustration of the kind of movies Cimino’s unconscious dreams about. Movies with ever-wider concentric circles, where the threads connecting what’s close and what’s far are woven before our eyes, where the whole world communicates with itself. This was, incidentally, his stroke of genius in The Deer Hunter, moving without warning from Vietnam to Pennsylvania, and it’s this kind of thing that made Cimino (up until The Sicilian) so special a director. 
This is only a temptation though. Whether to enlarge the circles to infinity or to plunge into the target’s heart, where only one of the two men can survive? Year of the Dragon opts for the second solution, the one more in keeping with its stale moralism, but against the nature of Cimino’s talent. 

* The ultimate image of the double phobic movement: the vertical shot down the clock tower staircase in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
First published in Libération on 14 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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