In my essay on Jia Zhang-ke’s Ash Is Purest White that appears in the current issue of the Reader, I asserted that “one of the more compelling things about the film [which takes place over 17 years] is how you can never predict when Jia will flash forward in time. It’s one of those movies . . . in which time exists as an autonomous force.” Writing that line made me think about other movies that cover long stretches of time in such an idiosyncratic fashion, movies that subvert the conventions cemented by too many routine biopics.
Lesser films have trained viewers to expect certain things from narratives that follow characters over multiple decades. Characters decide on their ambitions for life as children or young adults (as if we’re supposed to know what we want out of life by that time), and spend the rest of their adulthoods achieving or longing to realize those ambitions. Sundry “little” observations in the first half will return, and with greater weight, in the second (as if our lives ran on smooth, cyclical paths). Relationships will exist mainly to teach the protagonist something about living. These conventions add to the illusion that time is a sturdy, dependable thing that moves us progressively toward self-actualization. Below are capsule reviews from the Reader archives of movies that subvert that illusion either subtly (by rendering time’s passing poetically rather than prosaically) or radically (with jarring edits or sudden transitions).
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp It’s almost impossible to define this 1943 masterpiece by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was ostensibly based on a cartoon series that satirized the British military class, yet its attitude toward the main character is one of affection, respect, and sometimes awe; it was intended as a propaganda film, yet Churchill wanted to suppress it; it has the romantic sweep of a grand love story, yet none of the romantic relationships it presents is truly fulfilled, and the film’s most lasting bond is one between the British colonel (Roger Livesey) and his Prussian counterpart (Anton Walbrook). Pressburger’s screenplay covers 40 years in the colonel’s life through a series of brilliantly constructed flashbacks, compressions, and ellipses; Powell’s camera renders the winding plot through boldly deployed Technicolor hues and camera movements of exquisite design and expressivity. It stands as very possibly the finest film ever made in Britain. With Deborah Kerr, Roland Culver, and James McKechnie. —Dave Kehr
The Long Gray Line John Ford’s first film in ‘Scope also happens to be one of his major neglected works of the 50s—a biopic of epic proportions (138 minutes) about West Point athletic instructor Marty Maher (Tyrone Power), who was a mess-hall waiter before joining the army but returned to West Point to become a much-beloved teacher—an example of the sort of “victory in defeat” or at least equivocal heroism that comprises much of Ford’s oeuvre. Adapted by Edward Hope from Maher’s autobiography, Bringing Up the Brass: My 55 Years at West Point, the film is rich with nostalgia, family feeling, and sentimentality. It’s given density by a superb supporting cast (including Maureen O’Hara at her most luminous, Donald Crisp, Ward Bond, and Harry Carey Jr.) and a kind of mysticism that, as in How Green Was My Valley, makes the past seem even more alive than the present. Clearly not for every taste, but a work that vibrates with tenderness and emotion (1955). —Jonathan Rosenbaum
1900 Great moments stud Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1976 Marxist epic, but the end result is ambiguous. Robert De Niro is a landowner, Gerard Dépardieu is a peasant; they share a birthday and most of the history of the 20th century—the fall of feudalism, the rise of fascism, and two world wars. In the film’s four-hour version, at least, the characterizations are hazy and the narrative seems jerky. Some scenes are banal and offensively simpleminded. But patience, ultimately, is rewarded with a welter of detail and some mighty fine camerawork. With Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Stefania Sandrelli, and Sterling Hayden. —Dave Kehr
To Live With this epic account of a Chinese family from the 40s to the 70s, Zhang Yimou seems to have abandoned the high aestheticism of his Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern for a more popular and didactic kind of filmmaking (The Story of Qiu Ju can be seen as a transitional work). To Live (1994) is masterful in its own right, and filled with so many barbs at the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath that Zhang was forbidden to make any films in China with foreign financing for two years (though the stated charge against him was illegal distribution of this film). Adapted by Yu Hua and Lu Wei from Yu’s novel Lifetimes, the film focuses on a wealthy gambling addict (comic actor Ge You) with a pregnant wife (Gong Li) and young daughter who loses his family’s fortune and becomes a shadow puppeteer shortly before civil war erupts; ironically, it’s his recklessness as a gambler that eventually saves him from execution, the first of many sociopolitical paradoxes the movie has to offer. Some of the story’s details recall Farewell My Concubine and The Blue Kite, but Zhang has his own story to tell and his own points to make. His film grows progressively in meaning and resonance as it develops. Highly recommended. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Eden Taking place over 21 years, this 2014 French drama by Mia Hansen-Løve covers the rise and fall of garage, a house music subgenre that reached the height of its popularity in the late 1990s, yet the film never feels like an epic or even a period piece. As in the writer-director’s Goodbye First Love (2011), an exhilarating sense of the present moment overwhelms all; the time is always now. Again the theme is lost innocence: the hero, modeled after Hansen-Løve’s brother and coscreenwriter Sven, gives up a promising academic career to become a DJ and grows moderately famous, but the high he gets from making music gives way to decadence and ultimately despair. The camerawork is so fluid and the settings so brimming with detail that one feels washed away by the film, recognizing the hero’s decline only when he does—that is, too late. —Ben Sachs v