Tom Verlaine died a couple of weeks ago. He was the front man and lead guitarist for the legendary punk band Television. Their song “Marquee Moon” (from the album of the same name) is one of my all-time favorites:
It’s a great song. Musically polyphonic, its guitars draw out jazzy, independent-and-interlocking riffs. Verlaine’s dreamlike lyrics muse over the strangeness of life and death. After three verses, the song steps back from itself and Verlaine and guitarist Richard Lloyd trade meandering guitar solos that build momentum over minutes before a forceful climax. Then, after the peak, as you think the song’s about to end — where else could it go? — the beat kicks back in and the whole thing starts over. Wonderful. (And at over 10 minutes long, a great bargain at the jukebox.)
I bring this up because Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” actually kind of reminds me of “Marquee Moon.”
Set over about a year, it tells the story of a family in Taiwan as they navigate different stages of their lives: Patriarch NJ, a frustrated businessman whose midlife crisis drives him to revisit an old flame; his wife, Min-Min, whose midlife crisis drives her to a Buddhist monastery in the mountains; his mother-in-law, elderly and incapacitated by a stroke; his brother-in-law A-Di, who has a new wife and and new baby and and no money; teen daughter Ting-Ting, embattled with the difficulties of first love; younger son Ying-Ying, a sensitive and observant boy who feels acutely the powerlessness of childhood and struggles to find a voice.
“Yi Yi,” translates literally to “one by one” or “individually,” and it lets its characters exist independently of one another, using editing and subtext to comment on where they overlap thematically. The film’s English title, “A One and a Two…” is meant to evoke a jazz band’s lead in. In an short essay that accompanied the Criterion Collection DVD I watched, Yang says that he wanted “Yi Yi” to be like jazz: free, playful, loose.
That approach, independent and interlocking riffs draped by poetic rumination on life, is what reminds me of “Marquee Moon.” Both it and “Yi Yi” are sophisticated, elegant examples of popular art at its best.