Ang Lee (right) spoke with Michael DiGennaro, who taught Lee’s sons, in MHS’s McClain Auditorium.
By Steven Rome
Ang Lee has always been an outsider. Born in Taiwan to parents who had escaped from China, he was a shy, unremarkable student who often found his mind wandering in class. Stifled by the rote learning in Taiwan, he came to the United States and studied theater in college. The only problem was that he could not speak English well enough to pursue a career in acting. He turned to film where he found a home, trailblazing his way to becoming the first Asian recipient of the Academy Award for Best Director, winning for “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005. He won the same award for “Life of Pi” in 2012.
Lee also found a home in Larchmont, sending his two sons to Mamaroneck High School. On Jan. 7 his fellow residents joined him at the high school, packing into McClain Auditorium to see him speak as part of the “Notable Neighbors” series organized by The Center for Continuing Education.
Dr. Michael DiGennaro, who retired from MHS in 2008 after teaching English and film for 34 years, moderated the event. Among his students were Lee’s two sons, Haan and Mason. At the event, attendees first watched a montage of clips from Lee’s movies. The selections highlighted the filmmaker’s diversity and breadth (spanning two languages: English and Mandarin), his ability to capture the power of the natural world and his talent for conveying emotion through visuals in quiet, compact scenes.
“The silent moment speaks more than language,” Lee said, observing how his movies have become “quieter and quieter” throughout his career. This has not diminished the effect of his films. DiGennaro noted they create a mirror-like effect, forcing viewers to contemplate themselves at deeper levels.
Much of the discussion focused on how Lee’s background as an outsider has informed his work and affected his career. His position outside the mainstream creates somewhat of a contradiction in his approach to film: In one sense, his alienation from what he called a “docile” society in China that “doesn’t speak up” led him to his fascination with the “imaginary world,” which [he believes] is more truthful.” He embraces fantasy and explores the power of the imagina- tion in many of his movies. Yet the lens of the outsider has made him look at society with a critical eye and has compelled him to depict the world as it really is, absent of box office tropes.
“Something that struck me from the event was how he really viewed his angle as an outsider from both traditional Chinese culture and American Western culture as part of the reasons he is able to produce such genuine and successful content,” Michael Albert ’16 commented.
For example, Lee has examined the American West in a number of his films. “When people don’t know what to do, they go West,” Lee said, discussing the popular romantic notion, which also exists in China. However, Lee reimagined his setting as “The Real West,” rebuffing the common Hollywood myths. He said he does more research than any American filmmaker, which causes his western settings to differ greatly from, say, those of Quentin Tarantino. “I can do the wrong thing by doing the right thing,” he said. “But I have become comfortable in that troublesome zone.”
It is not only Lee’s daring to be original that has vaulted him to such heights, but also his ability to get actors to perform their best. He told the audience he thought he could have been a good actor him- self, but he never had the chance to prove himself. On second thought, he said to laughs, “Maybe I’m better at telling people what to do.”
Lee said one of his main talents is his chemistry with his actors. “I can feel their vibe,” he said. “When their throats tighten, my throat tightens.”
DiGennaro will be teaching a course on Lee’s movies in the upcoming term at The Center for Continuing Education, which offers classes to adults in the community. The “Notable Neighbors” series aims to bring renowned local residents back home to speak about their work. In the fall, Elizabeth Kolbert ’79, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist and MHS graduate, spoke about her research on climate change.
“I conceived of ‘Notable Neighbors’ when I began this job two years ago because there are so many accomplished and talented individuals in our community,” Blythe Hamer, executive director of The Center for Continuing Education, said. “I think people really enjoy learning from and about their neighbors.
“One of the most wonderful moments of the evening for me was when [DiGennaro] related the story of teaching one of Ang’s films to a class with Ang’s son attending in it,” she said. DiGennaro’s Advanced Placement English Literature class watched a variety of film clips involving food and wrote essays analyzing how it was used. (Darren Bosch, who currently teaches the class, uses the same project.) A clip from “Eat Drink Man Woman,” capturing the precise, violent and sensory aspects of preparing traditional Chinese foods had DiGennaro’s students speculating on different psychological theories about what Lee was trying to convey.
Then his son raised his hand and said, “I think my dad just wanted to get the audience hungry for Chinese food.”
Lee, however, said his son was “too young” when he asked to merit a full explanation.
It was “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), his fourth movie, based on Jane Austen’s novel, that, in Lee’s words, brought him to the “Hollywood big leagues.” It netted over $43 million at the box office and a nomination for Best Director at the Golden Globes.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) boosted Lee to a new level of success. Grossing over $128 million and winning four Oscars, the martial arts-inspired film reflected the director’s interest in his cultural roots and fascination with fantasy.
Lee’s outsider sensibility drew him to “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), a short story about a gay couple that moved him to tears– which he transformed into a wildly successful film and a cultural force. Although Lee said the movie was first and foremost a love story, rather than gay cinema, the cultural impact was widespread.
“The timing was right,” Lee said of the mood in the country toward homosexuality. (He did, however, admit he was worried, when the movie “hit the shopping malls, they would lynch [him].”) DiGennaro, however, said he always thought the opposite was true: It was Lee’s poignant film that began to push public opinion toward favoring gay rights. Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
“Artists are always guinea pigs,” Lee said.
The movie was also a turning point for personal reasons. His father had recently died, and Lee said he had a “very tired mentality” that had him contemplating retirment. With “Brokeback Mountain,” he decided to take on a smaller movie “that no one would see,” he said, chuckling. What became the most successful film of 2005 “nurtured me back to loving filmmaking again,” Lee said. “It’s about pure love.”
“Ang Lee is a personal hero of mine for two reasons,” Hamer said. “He creates movies that resonate with emotional truth and physical beauty, and he is honest, thoughtful, and without artifice.”
That authenticity radiates from a remarkable range of settings and subject matters, from 18th century England to the Pacific Ocean, the Civil War South to mythical China. “I have a lot of curiosities,” he said. “I don’t like to be categorized.”
“I think his huge variety of films throughout his career is very impressive,” Emma Shpiz ’16 said. “He has directed films such as the ‘Hulk’ all the way to action films completely in Mandarin, and all have been very successful.”
Perhaps this diversity reflects how Lee has never quite been comfortable with any one setting- -except, of course, the cinema. “Movies–that’s vacation,” Lee said of his occupation. “It’s hard work, but it’s happiness.”
Photo courtesy of Steven Rome