Wong Kar-wai/Norah Jones | My Blueberry Nights

prof_blueberry_sm.jpgWhen Norah Jones was cast as the lead in My Blueberry Nights, the English language debut of maybe my favorite living director, Wong Kar-wai, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

 

 

 

 

  

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I worked at a Borders in 2002 when Norah Jones’ debut album, the Grammy-winning, 20-million-copies-worldwide-selling Come Away With Me came out, and I sold that damned album to hundreds of bourgeoisie white women in the course of a year or so. Despite this, I couldn’t bring myself to hate it — and I’m usually really good at passing judgment in situations such as this one. Later on, I read various interviews with Jones in which she would recommend musicians I love, like Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Tom Waits, and I knew that there was more to her than all of those loud-cell-phone-talkers knew. So, of course, when she was cast as the lead in My Blueberry Nights, the English language debut of maybe my favorite living director, Wong Kar-wai, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

"I suggested the Cassandra Wilson, the Otis Redding and the Cat Power stuff," Jones says regarding her musical taste’s influence on the outcome of the final film’s soundtrack. That is to say that she influenced it a lot; if you toss Norah’s own songs on there, about the only musician that she didn’t suggest was Ry Cooder. Wong has a tendency to find one song that evokes a certain mood or feeling and then use the same track repeatedly throughout the film (see his usage of The Mamas and the Papas’ "California Dreamin’" in Chungking Express or Nat King Cole’s "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" in In the Mood for Love for fantastic examples of this), so it doesn’t leave a lot of space for a packed track listing on the soundtrack. "The Greatest, I think, is the best album of last year," Wong enthuses regarding his pick for the track he uses in the New York scenes in Nights.

You have to understand, Wong has a bit of a track record in using untested pop stars as lead actresses in his films, and to great success. The best example of this is in the aforementioned Chungking Express, where he uses Asian superstar Faye Wong in a pivotal role. In My Blueberry Nights, aside from Norah Jones, Wong gives a role to another untested pop star, Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) herself. "The one thing I notice is that singers have a very good rhythm," Wong says about this tendency. "Faye and Norah and Cat Power, they are very different in a way, but they share some similarities. They have very good rhythm."

That isn’t to say that female singers are the only people that influence the end result of wkw’s work. Wong is known for having very visually sumptuous films, thanks in no small part to his usual stable of filmmakers (most notably production designer/editor William Chang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle), and that style has to be informed by something. "I like some of the early photos of Berenice Abbott," Wong explains about the visual influences his trek through America took on.

"She always shot through all these diners with all these signs," he says of his tendency to have his cinematographer, Darius Khondji (Doyle was busy with M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water when Blueberry Nights was set to go into production), shoot the action through the window of a diner — wherein this diner and others like it most of the film’s action takes place.

Similarly, if you’re as sworn to the cult of Wong Kar-wai as I am, you might wonder how the switch away from usual cinematographers Doyle and Mark Li Ping-bin suited Wong, since his visual style is his most recognizable auteuristic trait (among many). "I’ve worked with Darius before on some commercials," Wong explains. As much a fan I am of Doyle’s and Ping-bin’s, the saturated purples and blues and the elegant slow motion and all of the other trademarks of Wong’s style are all front and center in My Blueberry Nights, which leads one to think that the real creators of the wkw visual style are really William Chang and Wong himself. Maybe his cinematographers don’t have as much to do with it as everyone has always expected. Either that, or Wong is a genius at finding the world’s best cinematographers, which also stands to reason (Doyle is Australian, Ping-bin is Taiwanese, and Khondji is French/Iranian).

prof_wong-kar-wai.jpg"I wasn’t that familiar with [Wong kar-wai], and then I watched In the Mood for Love, and I was like, ‘That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! You know, if I could get anybody to film me, that’s the guy to do it!" Jones says about her introduction to Wong’s films after finding out he was interested in casting her. Jones has an odd tendency to stare deeply into your eyes when you’re interviewing her, which is odd for someone like me. For one, being in St. Louis, I’m not accustomed to interviewing people face to face. When I do, oftentimes the interviewee isn’t bothered to make eye contact at all, regardless how good or bad the interview might be going.

A good example of more what I’m used to is Wong, who really does wear those sunglasses that he’s wearing in every picture you’ll ever see of him. (In fairness, I interviewed him in an open-air restaurant on the beach in the French Riviera in May, but I also attended press conferences inside, and those glasses never came off.) Jones actually has an amazingly unspoiled nature, which seems like it would have to be something near impossible at this stage in her life, after all that touring and all those Grammys and all that money and, you know, being Ravi Shankar’s daughter and all. For example, regarding her experience at the gala premiere of the film (which took place the night before I interviewed her), she says, "I had to find my shoes; I took my shoes off during the screening because my shoes were very uncomfortable, and as soon as the credits started rolling and people started clapping I thought, ‘Oh crap! I’d better put my shoes on!’

"I did this film because I wanted a great experience," Jones explains about her decision to take part in it while on a break from recording and touring. Hopefully this great experience will open her career up to even more possibilities and get her exposure beyond the SUV-driving suburban set, and maybe it can help Wong find a bigger audience for his films here in America as well. It was announced even before My Blueberry Nights that Wong is in pre-production on The Lady From Shanghai, starring Nicole Kidman. The days in which I show Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love to everyone I know might soon be over, because it shouldn’t be long before everyone knows about them anyway. | Pete Timmermann

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