What, exactly, is the work of Ed Cachianes? Every now and again, he puts forth a short film. These might reductively be called mashups, as they’re composed primarily of clips and bits and bobs that obviously result from decades of voracious immersion in American pop culture (and beyond). But that’s like saying, possibly, that early Cubism was obsessed with headlines because its artists used scraps of newspapers.
Now he’s brought us something different. Set to Joni Mitchell’s “Chinese Café,” which is also the film’s title (and set as evocatively as was Roxy to the music of Sondheim), this new one blends several strands, in much the way that the song itself weaves in haunting lines from “Unchained Melody” as it tells a tale of suburban anomie. In one sense, Cachianes is creating a sort of middle-aged man’s reflection on the lives of our mothers as they themselves entered middle age: the kitchens, the housework, the steady stream of TV kitsch, and the even-more endless stream of cigarettes (in a way, it’s astonishing that anyone raised in the ‘sixties still has lungs, our parents smoked so relentlessly). In another – and in a deeper way, I think – he’s also telling the story (as the song does, to a point) of how the times in which they lived shaped those women’s dreams and regrets, and more than that: how those dreams and regrets have shaped our own.
As he often does, he uses a mix of images familiar and less so, stocking his threnody with just enough leavening of known faces that help tell the story without ever sidetracking it, and ending, in a way that’s deeply moving, with an extended reaction shot in which a remarkable gamut of expressions play across the exposed, vulnerable face of Cloris Leachman, an underappreciated artist, from The Last Picture Show.
That is something, in regard to Mr. Cachianes, that one very much hopes this is not. Each new work seems to get deeper, richer, and (in the Shakespearian sense) stranger. I’m not, alas, deeply familiar with the works of Joni Mitchell, so I don’t quite know what place “Chinese Café” has in the minds of people who are so. I do know that it’s now a song I’ll listen to always with a memory, created here, of a half-resigned, half-still aching woman singing to her friend Carol, probably in a smoky kitchen as the TV plays some advertiser’s fantasy. They’re the women who raised us, Carol and her friend, and they’re gallant souls. It’s not all bleak, I realize; after all, it blazes forth, Oz-like, into flaming color for a few bright moments, and there’s something in Cloris’s eyes that says that somehow, against all odds, perhaps we’ll make it through. After all, time can do so much…