Cinema and Other Impossible Pursuits

A series of casual essays on film and culture.

Hey Jude, or Boyhood – a collage

vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h39m48s664Jude Swanberg, son to filmmakers Joe and Kris Swanberg, has been stealing scenes throughout his infancy. To date, Jude has appeared in 8 films, in roles of varying capacity, but it’s been clear for some time that we are witnessing his earliest years through the cinema of his parents. It seems likely that this will decrease as he ages – babies are much cuter to photograph, and have less bodily autonomy with which they can resist their exploitation. However, the intersection between his real world identity and his on-screen vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h39m35s817development produces curious resonances, that at minimum deserve some contemplation.

Joe and Kris are both members of the virtually defunct mumblecore movement of the mid-aughts, a style that focused on naturalism, spontaneity, and the authenticity of place and relation. In some ways, it look a leaf out of the hard-line principles of the Scandinavian Dogme 95 movement – led by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, et al. – in the necessity and pursuit of so-called reality. But they were vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h40m56s391also motivated by a DIY tendency, a desire to produce films using cheap materials speaking truths that might only be worth showing to their closest friends and acquaintances. That’s the kind of intimacy these filmmakers sought, as if you were living in their own home with them.

It makes sense, then, as Joe Swanberg in particular has transformed from making films about disaffected 20-somethings resisting attachment to domestic strife and family vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h41m39s944dynamics, that his own family would come into play as a subject of his films. Much more ought to be explored along these lines, as Swanberg’s cinema has changed greatly since the release of his film Drinking Buddies, a few months before the birth of his child.

The following video is a collage of clips and sequences from 7 films in which Jude appears. Those films are Marriage Material (2012, Joe Swanberg), Empire Builder (2012/14, Kris Swanberg), Happy Christmas (2014, J Swanberg), Uncle Kent 2 (2015, Todd Rohal – sequel to Joe Swanberg’s Uncle Kent), Digging for Fire (2015, J Swanberg), Joshy (2016, Jeff Baena), and most recently Win It All (2017, J vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h42m08s674Swanberg). In each of these films, Jude is appropriately cast as himself, or some screen version of himself, named Jude.

Some things that I noticed as I was editing the final version – Jude is often doing one of three activities as an infant, eating, bathing or playing. That elemental triad dissolves over time, but it also solidifies and hones: Jude plays more of a role in preparing meals or doing chores; by the penultimate film he makes everyone breakfast! There is also an interesting overlay of a surrogate family structure that appears in each film, mirroring vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h42m43s224Joe/Kris/Jude in real life, often with one or both portraying a parent. [In EBHCUK2J,
Joe plays the role of Jude’s father; in WIA, J, and UK2, Kris plays the role of the mother.]
Kris also appears as the “landlord” in Happy Christmas, a wry reference to the fact that that house, which reappears in Win It All, is Joe, Kris, and Jude’s actual house.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/212718506″>Hey Jude, or Boyhood</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user27122233″>Ben Creech</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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Lists and Self-Portraiture

Lists are an indispensible part of my encounter with the world, especially when it comes to art. When I was younger, it was lists like AFI’s Top 100 &co and eventually “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?” for film, but it was also Rolling Stone and Empire’s lists of movies, albums, books. Time put out a list once of the 100 best novels of the modern age, and it spurned me to seek a number of them out, just because they were on the list. In my travels, I’ve always felt like my own navigator, but lists were my maps. They were the primary means by which I discovered new things to love. I discovered Funkadelic, Lou Reed, Earl Sweatshirt, John Coltrane, Wong Kar Wai, and countless others because they were compiled in someone’s list.

But they are funny things, these lists. There’s an inherent suggestion that a hierarchy is being produced, a ranking, subjecting each object in the list to a specific numeric value. This is part and parcel of the form, to be sure. But art’s not that simple, the world’s not that fucking simple – translating the great complexity into a numeric value is and has always been a fool’s errand. What then is the goal of making lists? It’s kind of an unanswerable question, one that I’ll probably continue to seek to understand each time I end up going through the process.

My approach has always been pretty straightforward. I don’t think that you can even access or conceptualize an “objective” side of something, so I reject the idea that the order of items on a list should tend towards a standardization – that is, if Citizen Kane or Vertigo isn’t at the top of my list, that doesn’t make it wrong. However, given the numerical form of the project some kind of objectivity sneaks in somewhere – you are, after all, forced to make some kind of choice through the process. So I tend to think that what I’m producing is the “objective-subjective” – an accurate and honest depiction of my account of these works and the world. I’m not freed from the prison of my perspective, but I can focus on it and attempt to describe it accurately. As a result, whenever I make lists, it tends to be a very introspective, meditative practice. It’s an examination of the ways in which I make myself in relation to the particular sphere I’m thinking of as I work through the process.

Lists have a tendency to crescendo towards the top, like a countdown, where maximum anticipation is withheld til the final moment. What this often produces, especially in the one-page-per-entry culture that has emerged from “listicles”, is a sense that the final one is “Best” and all that precede lose that race in some capacity. Second on the list is second place, and the same with third; even through the top ten this remains true. Then suddenly the reasonable gaps get larger and larger. We might say top 20 instead of top 18. Or top 50, top 100 – these make sense to us as well. Something strange emerges when you zoom back from a list’s pinnacle that intrigues me to my core.

An example, to maybe clarify what I mean – it is almost a rule that the works that most intrigue me in someone else’s list are between 13-18. Why is that? I don’t know exactly, but I have theories. At some point it could be confirmation bias, like I’m just wondering if I will already. But I honestly think it has something to do with the deference many lists play to canon, earned or not. Because the first film is thought of as “Best,” the film you choose ultimately speaks volumes. Same with top five – these are THE five films that make the top five. Dial it on back to top ten, and we’re still going. But suddenly the pressures off just past ten, and the list-maker is able to relax a little bit, and let slip some titles that they really hoped would make it further. As I type this, I don’t know what my 13-18 are, but I bet it speaks volumes about me in ways that I’m not necessarily familiar with. If this makes no sense at all, I understand. Some of what I’m trying to describe is stuff that makes some intuitive sense to me from years of poring over lists of works, of noticing differences between publications and personalities, between institutional canons and underground pantheons. And yet, I think there is something to the idea that we perform the items that make it into the upper echelon of a list, to such a degree that it signifies differently.

At the end of the day, though, this is all pretty much relative. If I’m sitting down, and Vertigo keeps getting higher and higher, it’s not because of some obligation to put it up that high, it’s at least out of some internal belief that it should be – whether that’s out of deference to my individual sense or the world’s. What system we use to organize our thoughts around making a list is itself already such a part of our personality that a list can reveal it just the same.

Which is really the point I think I’m leading to – that lists have the ability to show us another person. Sometimes it’s a bunch of people that vote, and in those instances we are shown the composite portrait of those participants, and the list is like a child with many parents. But list-making is often a form of self-portraiture, or at least it can often aspire towards that.

In that sense each item in this list (and trust me, countless more) is like a small picture in one of those dope mosaic photos of my face. And because of that, it requires that I think about each entry in a fundamentally different way than I’ve grown accustomed. Some folks, like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Oscar Best Picture Nominations group their canons alphabetically, sidestepping the numerical problem. I like to keep it in, though, because it’s part of how I go through the process of making a list in the first place. That makes the numbers in my list more of a residue of its production than a grand assertion of objective value.

Susan Sontag wrote something I’ll be repeating until I die in her famous essay Against Interpretation: “In the place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.” One of the reasons I reject the search for that “objective value” is that it is a hermeneutics, a translation that compresses a soul into its bare essentials. But I also reject it because it produces a way of thinking about art, and thinking about people and the world, that is fundamentally based in domination, exclusion, cultural rigidity (which produces close-mindedness), and a class-based hierarchy of taste.

In the place of that, I would rather see an expansion of love. These are collectively movies I love. The ones near the top I do love a bit more than the ones near the bottom, but to the bottom of my gut these are great fucking movies, every one of them. And they have made me who I am at this moment. I hope the list never stops changing.

  1. Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)
  2. Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami)
  3. City Lights (1932, Charles Chaplin)
  4. Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
  5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
  6. PlayTime (1968, Jacques Tati)
  7. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
  8. Sunrise (1927, FW Murnau)
  9. Ugetsu monogatari (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi)
  10. L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo)
  11. Partie de Campagne (1935, Jean Renoir)
  12. Wings of Desire (1988, Wim Wenders)
  13. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
  14. Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman)
  15. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
  16. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  17. Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks)
  18. Celine and Julie Go Boating (1975, Jacques Rivette)
  19. Voyage to Italy (1963, Roberto Rossellini)
  20. Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)
  21. Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson)
  22. Rashomon (1949, Akira Kurosawa)
  23. Grand Illusion (1937, Renoir)
  24. Vivre Sa Vie (1962, Godard)
  25. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
  26. Pierrot le Fou (1965, Godard)
  27. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
  28. Life, and Nothing More… (1992, Kiarostami)
  29. Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick)
  30. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)
  31. Stalker (1977, Andrei Tarkovsky)
  32. The Tree of Life (2011, Malick)
  33. All That Heaven Allows (1955, Douglas Sirk)
  34. 8 ½ (1963, Federico Fellini)
  35. The Devils (1971, Ken Russell)
  36. Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)
  37. Man With a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)
  38. Videodrome (1982, David Cronenberg)
  39. Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodore Dreyer)
  40. I Am Cuba (1964, Mikhail Kalazatov)
  41. The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
  42. Peeping Tom (1960, Michael Powell)
  43. Chungking Express (1994, Wong Karwai)
  44. There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
  45. Magnolia (1999, PT Anderson)
  46. Down By Law (1986, Jim Jarmusch)
  47. Fanny and Alexander (1982, Bergman)
  48. Blow Out (1981, Brian De Palma)
  49. Shock Corridor (1963, Samuel Fuller)
  50. Inglourious Basterds (2007, Quentin Tarantino)
  51. Pulp Fiction (1994, Tarantino)
  52. Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton)
  53. Solaris (1972, Tarkovsky)
  54. My Own Private Idaho (1991, Gus Van Sant)
  55. Dekalog (1989, Krzysztof Kieslowski)
  56. Paris, Texas (1984, Wenders)
  57. Red (1995, Kieslowski)
  58. Vertigo (1958, Hitchcock)
  59. Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)
  60. The Godfather (1972, Coppola)
  61. La Jetee (1967, Chris Marker)
  62. North By Northwest (1959, Hitchcock)
  63. High and Low (1963, Kurosawa)
  64. The Rules of the Game (1939, Renoir)
  65. The Exterminating Angel (1961, Luis Bunuel)
  66. Daisies (1966, Vera Chitylova)
  67. Distant Voices, Still Live (1988, Terence Davies)
  68. Diary of a Country Priest (1954, Bresson)
  69. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973, Victor Erice)
  70. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, Jacques Demy)
  71. The Killing (1956, Kubrick)
  72. Ran (1985, Kurosawa)
  73. Contempt (1963, Godard)
  74. The Godfather, Pt. II (1974, Coppola)
  75. A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes)
  76. Satantango (1994, Bela Tarr)
  77. Don’t Look Back (1965, D.A. Pennebaker)
  78. The Earrings of Madame de… (1953, Max Ophuls)
  79. Jules and Jim (1962, Francois Truffaut)
  80. 3 Women (1977, Robert Altman)
  81. M (1931, Fritz Lang)
  82. Histoire(s) du Cinema (1998, Godard)
  83. Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carne)
  84. Good Morning (1960, Yasujiro Ozu)
  85. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
  86. Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)
  87. Seven Samurai (1954, Kurosawa)
  88. Taxi Driver (1976, Scorsese)
  89. Singin’ in the Rain (1954, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
  90. Pan’s Labyrinth (2005, Guillermo del Toro)
  91. In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray)
  92. In the Mood For Love (2000, Wong)
  93. The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
  94. The 400 Blows (1959, Truffaut)
  95. Hard Boiled (1992, John Woo)
  96. Kes (1969, Ken Loach)
  97. Mothlight (1963, Stan Brakhage)
  98. Boyhood (2013, Richard Linklater)
  99. Germany, Year Zero (1948, Rossellini)
  100. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Tarr)
  101. Barry Lyndon (1975, Kubrick)
  102. Fitzcarraldo (1982, Werner Herzog)
  103. A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Powell & Pressburger)
  104. Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman)
  105. Bigger Than Life (1956, N Ray)
  106. Dr. Strangelove (1964, Kubrick)
  107. Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuaron)
  108. A Face in the Crowd (1957, Elia Kazan)
  109. Taste of Cherry (1997, Kiarostami)
  110. Stagecoach (1939, John Ford)
  111. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, Monte Hellman)
  112. A Man Escaped (1957, Bresson)
  113. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959, Alain Resnais)
  114. The House is Black (1964, Forough Farokhzad)
  115. Ace in the Hole (1961, Billy Wilder)
  116. The Master (2012, PT Anderson)
  117. Act of Killing (2013, Joshua Oppenheimer)
  118. F for Fake (1974, Welles)
  119. Rebel Without a Cause (1955, N Ray)
  120. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965, Russ Meyer)
  121. Adieu au Langage 3D (2015, Godard)
  122. Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)
  123. The African Queen (1951, John Huston)
  124. Mommy (2015, Xavier Dolan)
  125. Rumble Fish (1983, Coppola)
  126. Carlos (2011, Olivier Assayas)
  127. Army of Shadows (1969, Jean-Pierre Melville)
  128. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Scorsese)
  129. Punishment Park (1971, Peter Watkins)
  130. World on a Wire (1972, RW Fassbinder)
  131. Damnation (1987, Tarr)
  132. Gimme Shelter (1970, Albert & David Maysles)
  133. Days of Heaven (1978, Terrence Malick)
  134. Floating Weeds (1959, Ozu)
  135. Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich)
  136. The Tarnished Angels (1957, Sirk)
  137. Le Samourai (1967, Melville)
  138. Holy Motors (2012, Leos Carax)
  139. The Mirror (1975, Tarkovsky)
  140. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1974, Herzog)
  141. Some Like it Hot! (1959, Wilder)
  142. Late Spring (1948, Ozu)
  143. This is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi)
  144. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)
  145. The Battle of Algiers (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo)
  146. La Haine (1995, Matthieu Kassovitz)
  147. Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier)
  148. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, W Anderson)
  149. The Big Sleep (1946, Hawks)
  150. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977, Bunuel)
  151. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Bunuel)
  152. Dazed and Confused (1993, Linklater)
  153. Lessons of Darkness (1992, Herzog)
  154. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)
  155. Django Unchained (2012, Tarantino)
  156. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2013, Terrence Nance)
  157. Ikiru (1952, Kurosawa)
  158. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967, Godard)
  159. The Life of Oharu (1952, Mizoguchi)
  160. Grindhouse (2007, Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, et al.)
  161. On the Waterfront (1955, Kazan)
  162. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Welles)
  163. Goodfellas (1990, Scorsese)
  164. Boogie Nights (1997, PT Anderson)
  165. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)
  166. (nostalgia) (1971, Hollis Frampton)
  167. Charulata (1964, S Ray)
  168. Nights of Cabiria (1957, Fellini)
  169. Nashville (1975, Altman)
  170. To Be or Not To Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch)
  171. Computer Chess (2013, Andrew Bujalski)
  172. West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
  173. Under the Sun of Satan (1987, Maurice Pialat)
  174. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985, Paul Schrader)
  175. Modern Times (1936, Chaplin)
  176. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, W Anderson)
  177. Johnny Guitar (1954, N Ray)
  178. Chronicle of a Summer (1960, Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin)
  179. Written on the Wind (1956, Sirk)
  180. The Searchers (1956, Ford)

The Hamlets of Tombstone

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Lately, I’ve taken to watching films a lot like I listen to albums. Sometimes I pull out lyric sheets and follow along with an album, attentive from beginning to end, constantly activating my mental response to the work at hand. I link together passages of poetry; I connect the literary components between songs, and have a much fuller glimpse of the themes that underscore the album. But at the same time, this leaves less and less to discover upon later encounters, and the experience can be a little overwhelming. As a result, most of the time I put on an album until it commands my attention, until it says something that forces me to take note. This way I get a feel for the album’s vibe, for it’s stylings, the sounds that make it unique. I hear first what it offers generally, until my thought is more provoked by something it says, usually a single lyric or passage that I can’t shake, and I return until I get a better sense of that initial kernel. Unpacking it often leads me directly to the album’s core, giving me a framework for looking at, listening to, making sense of the work; it also stands as a reminder that the work itself is busy at the same task, and either of us (or both) will likely fail, because the questions that need art in order to ask them are not easily answered.

As I watched John Ford’s My Darling Clementine this morning, the contradiction that grabbed my attention presented itself almost immediately with the one-two punch of the opening scenes. Wyatt Earp is moving cattle through the Old West with his two brothers, and he stops a pair of veteran cattle rustlers to ask directions, when they offer to buy his cattle for a price by the head. Not being very familiar with the economics at the time, it’s hard to say for sure, but given the reactions of everyone involved, it would seem they made a very good price for his cattle. Wyatt’s brother in a later scene drools over a $25 trinket of silver, so when they offered $5 a head for cattle it must have been quite a lot for him to turn down. Earp’s reaction didn’t upset them so much as baffle them, though; he simply was not interested in money. So they direct him to Tombstone off in the distance, wishing him a fun, late evening.

Wyatt Earp walks into town and all he really wants is a shave. After getting lathered up, the barber cannot take more than one go with the razor before bullets start flying through the shop. Earp walks out, beard still lathered up, demanding some order, some police/sheriff/marshal presence that will stop the gunman and protect the citizens. They are all terrified of a drunk “Indian” who won’t stop shooting, and even go so far as to hand in all their badges, seconds before Earp enters the scene. When he sees that no one is willing to silence the man endangering the town, Earp storms in, and seconds later walks back out, dragging the man by his heels. This spectacle of Wyatt Earp, US Marshal, has them all aflutter – here is a lawman who won’t crumble under pressure, who knows how to handle situations efficiently, and who, moreover, has the restoration of order as his primary motive. They offer him the post of town marshal, in almost the exact same way that the earlier cattleman had offered him a price on his cattle. He similarly refuses both their low- and high-ball offers before retreating with the same goal in mind – he simply wants to take his cattle to California. He is merely passing through town, and has no desire to stay.

These two juxtaposed scenes are magnificent. They reveal a jaded lawman, with a mysterious past (what exactly happened at Dodge City, Earp’s old marshal post, is left unclear throughout the film, though it is referred to), who seeks the simply pleasures of having his own herd, the ability to make something for himself. He does not want to stand up for any code, or to really even do much of anything. This is surprising in a protagonist. If left alone he would have continued on to California, raising his cattle, enjoying the ride. Or maybe, being who he is, he would have found trouble anyways, who knows? What we do know is that our protagonist, our “good guy,” isn’t particularly interested in being our “good guy.” He has had his story, his moment in the sun, his crisis, and loss and grief, all back at Dodge City, and wants something a little harder to find than drama – the lack of it. Perhaps this isn’t the best formulation of the thing Earp seeks (it may evade words for a while), but it’s the beginning of understanding his position for the rest of the film.

As perhaps you can imagine, what happens next upends Wyatt Earp’s goals for himself. As he walks back to his camp after finally finishing his shave, a rainstorm has begun, and a symbolic one at that. The deluge erodes what was left behind, begins the process of erasure. The open vistas that were even visible in Tombstone’s night are gone – the backdrop could simply have been a black cloth for how much we see outside of the foreground. And then there’s the foreground: Wyatt’s youngest brother has been killed, and his cattle stolen. Pots are full of water, and overflowing, but the water has nowhere to go. We face a crime scene wiped of all evidence, we see a tragedy that is hours from the possibility of prevention; the rain cleanses the world of all but it’s facts; it obscures presences and reveals absences. The absence of a brother, the absence of a herd; these absences are made visible by the rain, by the blackness that waits beyond the downpour, reminding us there’s nowhere to run.

So the herd Earp wanted to raise is now gone, so he can’t really go anywhere to get it, he can’t take it to California, he has nowhere to go, and a brother to bury. He doesn’t want to be a lawman, in spite of his apparent gift for it, but he is put in a position where he is in need of justice, or some structure by which he can make sense of the tragedy that has happened to him. This project with his brothers, remember, is of utmost importance to him. It is valuable in itself, not for what it brings him, not for the money he might earn, nor the notches he might add to his belt as the new marshal. He turns down glory, money, respect, even the knowledge and power that come from doing good – “doing good” is no longer valuable in itself the way it was back in Dodge City. So when he becomes the marshal of Tombstone it should at least be clear to us that our “good guy” has no interest in “doing good” and acts as an agent of the Law while also containing within himself a profound contempt for the Law.

Wyatt Earp becomes Marshal Earp again, and the first thing he does is establish a friendship with local saloon owner Doc Holliday. Doc is a profound alcoholic, who seems to be in the middle of his thousandth recovery, and is mostly driven by his self-loathing. He’s got a clichéd sense of where he is headed, always on the run, but as with Earp the past that he runs from is perpetually obscured. We see some of it, though, through the titular character, Clementine. She’s an old girlfriend, or maybe an old wife, but someone he left behind years ago, who has been chasing him ever since. The way she tells it, the road to Tombstone is meandering and several years long, with way too many stops along the way. Doc has been coasting from town to town, never staying very long, always moving on. In a sense he stands in for a demented, lonely version of Earp’s dream – to just keep moving and enjoy the view. But Doc never enjoys the view, always swapping his empty glasses for full ones until they’re empty again. There’s a sort of awkward situation with a local girl sleeping with Doc, but after Clementine’s arrival it’s clear that his current flame is simply the nth repetition of the pattern that began with Clem. Each town that he passes through is only interesting for being part of the sequence of towns that led here, which is only accidentally where Clementine caught up with him – it could just as easily have been the town prior or after.

The beleaguered dream team has their first situation the next day, at a local theater performance. Granville Thorndyke showed up the night before on Earp and Doc’s first meeting, but as a comic anticipation of the crisis that would follow. Thorndyke doesn’t show up to his performance and almost as a result incites a riot, where the townsfolk (strangely) want to take the theater manager on a rail around town. It’s almost as if they are asking permission to have fun, as if the people will be entertained one way or another. But Earp insists that they give him a chance to rectify it first, saying that he believes he can find and bring back Thorndyke so he can put on his Shakespearean show. They find him at a bar, being taunted and goaded by the Clanton boys – the sons of the cattle rustler at the beginning. They mock his “poems” and demand that he sing or entertain them in some fashion, and with accompaniment by the local “minstrel” he begins reciting the most famous monologue in Western literature – Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” speech. Here it takes on a dimension of immediacy that it tends to lack.

You know the words, right? By the time you get to the end, almost all of the lines are classics: “To sleep, perchance to dream,” “shuffle off this mortal coil,” “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” I’ve heard these words a thousand times, and I can ramble off the first few lines like a math student reciting digits of pi – by rote. Words, just like that, removed from a context, can simply become facts, bounded by hard and soft syllables, signifying nothing. They become habit, especially with this individual text. It is perhaps the most parodied of Shakespearean lines, and yet also his most somber. (Though Hamlet doesn’t speak for the bard – his asking the question and spending so many words on it is reflective of an aspect of his character as well, but that then is the context through which we can understand the monologue.) They could have chosen anything from anywhere, but they went with this, and this works very well in this scene. The actor’s fear for his life is precisely the motivating force behind the monologue he delivers. Should he perform for them, be their pet actor, or should he refuse? Should he suffer the slings and arrows that is his outrageous fortune? To act here is to live, and so he asserts his presence, his will in a space disposed against him, but to act here is also to die, to bow down to a thug twisting his arm with a pistol.

Wyatt Earp and Doc are also present for the monologue; they discover him moments before he begins and sneak in to watch what happens instead of make their presence known. Doc actually has to finish it out for Thorndyke, since he becomes too drunk to finish, and it’s a sight to behold, realizing Doc knows the rest of the speech. It reveals something about his past, his education, and the life that he keeps trying to squash that keeps rearing its head. But when Thorndyke rattles off the bit: “For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s [insults], the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the [abuse that virtue takes from vice],” you get the sense that he’s speaking directly to the two men, who are confronting in that precise moment the delay of the law, the scorn of the Clantons, the two women that Doc has to choose between, as well as the expectations of their ostensible office. “To be or not to be” is bound up in what the two men want outside of the present moment as well – Doc seemed determined to Not Be as efficiently as possible, drinking himself to oblivion as his mysterious illness advances, and Wyatt’s actions are motivated by some of these same questions that he might ask himself – do I do nothing? Let them kill my brother? Do I seek justice? Is justice possible? The question that Hamlet is asking throughout is whether or not it is worth dealing with a knowable pain, and enduring something that is difficult, painful and hard, or going forward into the unknown or unknowable. For Hamlet, death is that beyond, but here it needn’t be a self-interrogation over the possibility of suicide. In this context, what we are talking about is the exceptional difficulty of action. Do we “rather bear the ills we have [or] fly to others that we know not of”? Hamlet’s speech ends by asserting that our resolve for a particular course of action only makes sense if we haven’t thought about it – that thinking forces us into a kind of paralysis, whereby the currents of a particular enterprise might turn awry, and lose the name of Action.

Doc finishes the speech, and utters those closing lines. They take him by surprise almost, as if he didn’t have to finish the lines, but found that he was the only person able to. It goes against his whole persona, and the words that he knows by rote, but never revisits render themselves anew to him. Which is to say that it doesn’t violate his character but reveal that we lacked a complete understanding of it. There is a brief standoff with the Clantons and Wyatt Earp, but everyone leaves safely and heads back to the theater (which we don’t really see). This is a transformative moment for the film, for the characters, as the poetry commands each of their attentions in turn. Even the Clantons are visibly disturbed by the monologue, dismissing it scornfully as a pretty transparent way to try and banish its significance from their minds.

It is shortly after this sequence that Clementine actually comes to town, and begins looking for Doc. She means to reunite with him, to assure him that she is on board with whatever his life is, that she wants to be his partner in it – she has come virtually prepared to move to Tombstone. She looks for him several times, but even though she has found him, out of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she can’t actually locate him for a while. She disrupts his Tombstone-life, presenting herself (and alongside herself, his self, and his past) as an option that he must choose or deny. If he denies it, it means he chooses his newly jealous and newly possessive girlfriend Chihuahua, whom he has no intention of choosing either. Doc has stumbled for what must be a decade through the Old West, never having had to make a decision. There is a brief sequence where this indecision, or the pressure of this decision, leads to his fleeing town, and being cornered by Wyatt Earp in the middle of the desert. He needs Doc’s help if he is to find justice for his dead brother, and so cajoles him, finally, into action, away from choice, away from reflection. But in a certain other sense, Earp also solidifies Doc’s problem, by offering him a route that still resists making a choice. It’s an odd ontological moment for choice and action – what precisely would it mean for Doc to act, here? Would acting be showing up for Earp’s call to justice? (Is Earp’s call to justice something more than selfish?) Would Doc be acting if he chose Chihuahua, or Clementine? Does he desire something more or less? And speaking of Earp’s presence as the town marshal, what crimes is he seeking restoration for aside from the ones done to him? He decides to go after the Clantons, but only because he knows they killed his brother. Is his decision to take them down action? Or is it the lack thereof?

It seems to me that each of these men (the women in the film are frustratingly lacking in complexity, making this a drama mostly between like 6 or 7 men, with women arriving as options among a spectrum of action – they make few choices themselves) faces something inchoate, beyond understanding, beyond restoration. They stitch themselves to some structure, because they see within that structure some redemption, and that redemption is so enticing because it places them squarely within a register of meaning and significance, whether it is Doc’s self-destructive drinking and isolation as a kind of punishment for “the kind of person he is” or “what he deserves,” or Earp’s return to the Law in the hopes of finding justice, but also being an agent of the “good” (ensuring conversely that his vengeance will be justified by the system he has enmeshed himself within). They have the ability to stitch themselves to anything – Doc could very well decide to be concerned about running a good saloon, Wyatt could buy another lot of cattle, they could find love and start a family, but they have to stitch to something in order to organize their lives, to demonstrate and plumb their meaning. But inevitably something happens to disrupt that stability. This happens without fail, in films and in real life. People find that the structures that produced meaning for them fail to do so after a certain time, usually because something happens that rips the two apart at the seam. I imagine we’re all probably just like this – bundled up nonsense struggling to form words, to express ourselves, always being betrayed by the spaces we set our sights on for self-actualization. Doc wanders into a bar and finds himself reciting Hamlet, Wyatt wanders into a town and can’t leave without dead brothers and stolen cattle.

The rest of what happens in the film is mostly predictable. The Clantons make their situation worse by killing Earp’s other brother, and provoke the famed shootout at the OK Corral. Doc dies here, hilariously because of his cough (he coughs, and in coughing lets down his guard, and reveals his position; his hand is still at his mouth when the bullet hits him). So too do the Clantons. Wyatt hangs up his badge (again), and gets out of town (again), but this time with very direct plans – he needs to find his father to tell him of his two dead brothers. His plans have cancelled for the moment – its unclear if he’ll ever get a herd of cattle to take to California – but he is also set on a new path, with a new purpose. Before he was attached to the Law, and found by exhausting it that it only added dead bodies to the account. Now he is driven by his responsibility to his family. He’s also taken a shine to Clementine, Doc’s old lady who has decided to settle in Tombstone and help build their school, promising one day they might see each other again. But Clem has nothing to chase in Wyatt, and Wyatt has other pressing concerns to attend to.

There’s no promise of resolution here. I used to be good at faking that, at whipping up a final paragraph that expressed the complexity of the problem in such a way that demonstrated it’s importance, and offered a potential answer, but I don’t really see a way out of this forest. I feel kind of like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno, stuck in a forest, uncertain if the way I’m headed leads me out or deeper in. But that’s not too different from Wyatt Earp at the precipice of Tombstone, just looking for directions. Not too different either from Doc ending up in a bar and having to provide the words to complete another person’s speech. Both of them were just kind of coasting, feeling out the vibe until something commanded their attention, too. I dunno. Keep asking questions, keep refusing answers.

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Artificial Realism, or the Reality of Images in A Woman is A Woman

“Et moi, qu’est-ce que je suis?”

“And I, what am I?”

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-13h56m17s24There is a palpable contrast, almost shockingly so, between A Woman is a Woman and the films preceding it in Jean Luc Godard’s career. The earlier works seemed to delimit a very clear stylistic register: black and white, 16mm film stock, handheld cameras, jazzy editing, free form storytelling, a presumed naturalism. These are, for the most part, the chief identifiers of the first stage of the French New Wave, and are to be expected from the time period, but with A Woman is a Woman, Godard shifts gears: shooting in color, using glitzy filters, lens flares, quasi-diegetic music; the films manages to transition from the rugged, macho gangsterism of the prior features to a glamorously staged musical. On the one hand, the film could simply be said to be aping the styles and conventions of a different genre – namely, the Technicolor musicals of the 40s – and exploring the extent of its mutability. After all, Godard has already indicated an attachment to the plethora of genres in American cinema. But on the other, it marks a violent shift outward, to the exterior of images, to the thinness of their artificiality, and the realisms that can be found on the frontier between performance and identity.

But first, a detour: Andre Bazin was a prominent film and cultural critic for a decade and a half before he founded the influential Cahiers du Cinema, which we know featured Godard on its staff. Much of what he is remembered for now is espousing an aesthetic of realism, based on his belief that the essential quality of the photograph is its relation to reality. In 1950 Bazin wrote an essay on the Norwegian film Kontiki, directed by Thor Heyerdahl, in which a group of sailors-cum-filmmakers attempted to recreate the Polynesian voyage, sailing across the Pacific with limited technology (e.g. their camera) and documenting it. The film is captivating, in part because it is incomplete – every time the filmmaker-voyagers encountered some obstacle, like a large whale or a storm, they were forced to put down the camera and manage the events at hand. The event of the film’s production, and the film’s object are virtually indistinguishable, and because those two zones overlap and obscure each other, each image takes on a kind of crystalline quality, where two conflicting realities become visible. It is not one or the other of these that is significant, but the contradictory co-presence of both.

kontiki_pressemotiv_16The reality effect produced by Kontiki’s incompleteness has a sort of corollary in Godard’s features up to this point. Both Breathless and Le Petit Soldat feature jump cuts, a jagged rupture of visible continuity, in which a character or background changes abruptly. This, prior to Breathless, was conventionally regarded as an error made during the production of the film; usually the sign of a small budget in which the filmmakers could not afford to remedy their mistake. This sign of sloppiness also confers a kind of reality effect; this is perhaps most visibly exploited by the contemporary genre of found footage horror films. However, in Godard’s films, they are not errors, but affectations – grace notes, chosen intentionally for the sake of style. They reveal the films as ostensibly amateurish while also acting in opposition to a legacy of film editing conventions. It is this affectation that distinguishes the two gestures and threatens to position Godard’s cinema against the realist polemic of Bazin’s writings.

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-13h54m36s36If Godard’s flourishes are simply a mode of duping the viewer into a secure sense of reality, they work in opposition to what Bazin wrote about, and against the whole project of realism in the age of ideology. Filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica in Italy, and theorists such as Siegfried Kracauer and Christian Metz had already realized how easily realist strategies are manipulated to entertain audiences (cf. the aforementioned found footage horror films), and all called for new images of realism. The Italians had already begun their attempts, which we have come to know as neorealism, and to which we can already see connections with Godard’s early films. But Godard saw the way their images could be used to deceive as much as reveal, and in A Woman is a Woman, he seems to create a new kind of image. Having recognized the various artifices of realism, it is almost as if Godard abandons the project of realism in toto, substituting the artificial for the real, the mask for the face, and producing, through style, the crystal images Bazin saw in KonTiki.

“It’s mostly just bad theater.”

A Woman is a Woman tells the story of a crisis between two lovers, Angela and Emile, who are at odds over having a child. Angela has decided one afternoon that she would very much like one, and is ovulating to boot, but Emile is reticent for various reasons. They fight and yell and Angela ultimately threatens to sleep with the next person she sees: Emile’s best friend Alfred (who flirtatiously courts Angela on the side). Much of this is carried out with an air of performance: the characters address the camera, their actions are exaggerated, they reveal a kind of showmanship, theatricality that exists between them, as if the social roles they embody are as thinly fictional as characters in a film. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Emile, Angela and Alfred are actually just characters, ontologically speaking, who do enact a brief drama in pictures – but more on this later.

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-14h06m15s117There are two fights in particular where this theatricality erupts, shows its face. In the first, the couple is fighting over the central drama: they feel differently about the possibility of a child. The scene begins with Angela’s suggestion, and Emile’s mild acceptance. He is willing to have a child, but at some indefinite point in the future, when they are both stable. And of course he wants her to be happy, but not necessarily at his own expense. This escalates, to the point where they are traversing their apartment amid mutual protestations, all shown in the limited time and space of a single shot (as Godard is wont to do). Immediately after Angela makes her threat to sleep with the next person she sees, a knock comes at the door. It is a strangely ironic knock – we practically expect it, and are halfway expecting Alfred, the only character we know so far to walk through the door. At the very least we expect Angela to stay true to her hastily made promise, at least in service to the drama at hand. But instead, two police officers enter, and their fight dissipates over the officers’ concern for finding a local serial killer. The real world asserts itself, lays claim to their private drama and reveals its inherent smallness, its limited relevance. Their drama only matters to them (and us), but where we often substitute the stage for the world, here the world is far more inchoate and resistant to reduction.

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-14h05m55s168Later in the film, the couple is bickering again; only this time language begins to break down for them. Language is clearly a struggle for Angela, whose French is often broken, and the cause of many a pun (including the film’s title), but simply struggling with one’s second tongue is not necessarily a reason for the gulf that separates the couple. Rather there is this immeasurable distance between them, a distance that language helps to bridge, and yet it has failed them. So they resort to an iconic game of grabbing books off the shelves and using the titles to insult each other. “Monster,” “Eva-te faire foudre” (“Screw off!”), and other insults are not quite hurled at each other as read, shown, revealed through found objects in an almost surrealist turn of events, but it isn’t long before the couple gets up together and tries to collect all of the best (read: most insultingly titled) books before the other. It’s an odd scene, one where the frustration between the two becomes a replacement bridge – they both feel they cannot speak and be heard, and so they each emphasize the thinness, futility, and subjectivity of their frustrations through blocks of language that were neither uttered by them nor intended for such a dispute. What is particularly interesting about this, though, is that the breakdown of language is not something that the characters experience alone. We, too, are searching for hidden meanings in the books they bring, and struggle to make sense of the chasm that separates these lovers.

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-14h00m26s194This surface of theatricality is doubled in Angela’s occupation. Angela works as an exotic dancer at a club not far from where she lives. She sings cabaret songs, dances, strips, and all to a vivid panoply of expressionist lighting. She performs. She puts on a show. She plays a part. During whole sequences here she addresses the camera, confronting its gaze, making visible the transaction of voyeurism taking place. During one such dance, the camera cuts away from the boldly lit Angela to look at the projector mounted near the ceiling at the back of the room. vlcsnap-2014-07-30-13h59m39s245We watch as the color filter changes, and realize that the shifts in lighting, which evoke passion, lust, sensuality, are themselves just textual effects meant to elicit those sensations. The narrative rug is pulled out from under us, and we see precisely the manner in which we have been duped by the show. I associate this move with German playwright/theorist Berthold Brecht, an idol of Godard’s, and one of the most influential writers on theater in history. Reductively, his aim was to reveal the stage to the audience, to assert the power of the Real by making visible the contours of the fiction he was creating. This alienation effect produces and reveals the schism between the stage and the action played upon it. But, more on that in a moment.

“I wish I were in a musical, with Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly.”

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-13h54m41s91A Woman is a Woman is rarely described without Godard’s own genre mash-up term – Neorealist Musical. It’s something of a nonsensical designation, but jamming the two words next to each other, a la the same principles of montage we’ve discussed, does produce a strange kind of synthetic meaning. Neorealism, as I discussed in this essay, was a movement in postwar Italy, where non-professional actors, diegetic music, working class subjects, location shooting, and a focus on the struggles of day to day life produced a kind of new realism, outside of the tropes of Hollywood and other cinematic conventions. Musicals, on the other hand, are known for their glitter and glamour, wild expressionism, where actors sing the thoughts they might otherwise act, and a kind of conventional narrative structure, with happy endings and good feels in abundance. It seems impossible to simultaneously care about the “reality” of something and also watch as a group of people breaks into song to talk about their emotions. And yet, watching this film, and the way it plays with music and image, it is clear that Godard’s term is intensely useful for discussing it.

As the film begins, we are met with a jarring series of musical themes that begin and trace a classical kind of melody, one rife with possibilities for sing-alongs. And just when it hits its peak, the soundtrack drops out and we hear banal street sounds, all traffic and horns and footsteps on cobblestones. But then the music picks back up again, and we remember we are in a musical; it lifts us up, carrying us higher, elated by just the feeling of the music. And it drops us just as quickly. Already the film is telling us “This music is a sham.” It is pulling the Brechtian rug out from under our musical aspirations and reminding us of the hard concrete that awaits us when we fall. Music here is fiction, fantasy, illusion – all of the things that are the opposite of reality. Right?

Let’s think back to that first fight, the one where Angela and Emile are interrupted by the police. The fact that their fight is revealed to be inconsequential, theatrical, excessive doesn’t change the fact that it is really what the characters feel. They live in the heightened states of emotions that the film gives them license to portray. They aren’t calmed by the fact that they are acting emotionally. They aren’t assuaged by the essential unreality of it. So is it even false to begin with? I don’t think so. Just as their fight is real to them, just as their emotions and desires ricochet around that room, just as Angela bathes herself in a deep purple glow, and just as she sings her way through problems, these are the manifestations of their lived experiences. The music and the musical qualities of the film are not opposed to that realism; they are the texture of it. When we witness the apparatus, when we see the fights reduced to book titles, when we lapse into song and dance, we see the artifice by which their world is constructed; the musical sequences are not violations of the neorealism, they are the fictions themselves which organize the characters’ various worlds. We might even say that these fictions are both untrue and real.

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-13h56m47s50There is one song that isn’t cut short though, and it’s a fantastic moment in the film. Angela is at the diner with Alfred, and she goes to the jukebox to play a song she likes by Charles Aznavour (recently star of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player). As it begins, the two of them stop talking and simply listen to the song. A whole silent abstract narrative unfolds over the course of the song, as Angela weeps silently and Alfred retreats into himself, both revealed as the lonely individuals they are, even as they share a two-shot. The song is not interrupted, it is not cut short. Instead we listen to the entire piece, over a solid three minutes, and experience an actual song in real-time. It’s such a small moment of true encounter. Only instead of seeing them nakedly, we see more clearly the masks they hide behind. For Alfred, this is a mask of braggadocio and goofiness (where now is his smile?). But for Angela what we see is that the refuge of music is no longer able to keep back her tears. Both of them confront, if not each other, themselves and their secrets, their lies, their escapes.

“I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy, but it’s a masterpiece.”

What’s with this title, though? A Woman is a Woman? Are we supposed to agree with it? Is it ironic? Do we jump and say “Aha! A woman is more than the word woman!” Or can we talk about womanhood being a thing produced by language? Or how about the discursive contours of our existence, where any thing is always and only the word that designates that thing? A cup is a cup? An essay is an essay? And if we were to protest and say that the statement is false, that a woman is almost certainly not a woman, where would that lead? The only point of departure is at the edge of language, where we’d lack a word to tell us what a woman were instead. So, is it simply a banal utterance of tautology? Does it say anything? There is a reference to the title somewhat late in the film, where Angela mishears Emile’s wry comment about how “Une femme est infame (A woman is nefarious/infamous).” But even this doesn’t fully account for the strangeness of the title. Perhaps we should come back to this beguiling issue.

The question remains – is this film a comedy or a tragedy? We are used to the convention of distinguishing between the two narrative drives, the former indicating the perseverance of life, continuity, even pleasure and happiness, while the latter signifies death, the harshness of reality, the inevitability of conclusions. Well, the film is a bleak film, filled with emptiness, loneliness, unrequited love, unconsummated desire, loss, and profound struggle. It is also punctuated by moments of joy and happiness, communication, bonding over pop songs, connections between people, poetry, beauty. It’s immediately clear that this is not an either/or scenario but a both/and, it is an upheaval of a false dichotomy that we use to distribute our experiences into dramas that are intelligible.

When Angela disappears on stage behind her theatricality, and sings wistful songs about cultivating male desire, we can sense a staggering loss behind her words. As much as she puts on her masks to entertain, to maintain, to manage her relationship, to brighten her world, it is only that will to brightness that illustrates precisely how dark it is. So when the film reaches it’s points of highest comedy, these reflect in turn, the darkest passages; and when the relationships seem at their most stressed, when it seems impossible for it to get darker, comedy erupts. Tragedy and Comedy here only direct us to each other, like a never-ending circuit. Each only points to its own inability to account for reality, so that the tragic becomes a kind of cosmic joke while the comic elicits the deepest sadness. The two are co-constitutive.

Maybe this is because they are themselves simply other masks. They don’t reveal or reflect the world, so much as already stand to interpret its events. They pare away the rest until a clear vision emerges, but this vision is artificial, manufactured, delimited from the world it appears to show. The unreal and the true are here merged, so that comedy and tragedy simply become additional untruths that structure our world, and pale in comparison to the genuine article in all its inchoate complexity. What A Woman is a Woman serves to reveal, then, is not the thing itself, out there in the distance, the real world, the truth, as it were. It opens us up to the falseness of our own images, the limited nature of our narratives, the unrelenting closed-ness of our attempts to reduce the world.

So, then, are we wrong to do so? Are we doomed to simply make false images, images that are untrue and yet pervade our discourse? I don’t know, but I don’t think the film speaks towards some mass condemnation of this instinct. Rather, it lights upon the notion that it is through producing images, through producing artifice and illusion, regardless of intent, that we produce meaning. And meaning is hard to come by in the grand indifferent universe that we inhabit. But meaning can only be made, it cannot be found, and the process of making it is through our countless daily theaters.

In another essay, Andre Bazin distinguished between two modes of filmmaking that he could see developing in the 20s through the 40s. There were those filmmakers who privileged the image, the spectacle, the artifice, and those who privileged reality, the things that the image could not access, but which could direct the viewer to contemplate those very things. We might think of Neorealism and Musicals as occupying opposite ends of that spectrum, but here they are brought together. Here, we don’t get reality, or even simply images, but the textural reality of images, the artifices of realism, the contours of language. To say “a woman is a woman” is both to say everything and nothing at the same time, and it is that simultaneity of speech that concerns me here. What are the fictions that structure our lives, and can we glimpse them? Can we see the image in it’s own truth? Both as an actual and virtual image?

Angela asks, while appropriately looking into a mirror – an object that reproduces a false, two-dimensional version of herself – “Et moi, qu’est-ce que je suis?” which translates to “And I, what am I?” or perhaps even better, “And me, what is it that I am?” The answer, which doesn’t really exist, will always be incomplete, if taken to mean something beyond the language with which it is uttered. But the essence of this film seems to be the recognition of that incompleteness, and our reconciliation with that fact. I don’t really have answers here, but then again, the answers would be only false, perpetually incomplete renderings of what I’d hope to express, so that’s alright. In the end, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.

 

This is the fourth entry in my year-long Godard Project. The other entries can be found here.

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In Defense of Minor Works – Godard, Auteurism, and Le Petit Soldat

MV5BMTQ2NzczMjQyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzU0NDAyOQ@@._V1_SX640_SY720_Le Petit Soldat plays out much like its precursor, Breathless. A young, half-intentional criminal is torn between his crime and the woman he loves. The two are so similar, in fact, that aside from a few major differences, you could almost mistake a scene from one for the other. Those differences are huge – here we get to add war, torture, and espionage to doomed romance, extremes and intentions completely absent in Breathless – but they are nothing compared to the similarities, the stylistic proximity, the vestiges of a neorealist drive in Godard’s early work. In many ways, Le Petit Soldat feels like a kind of ghost or shadow of greater films, or what we frequently think of as a minor work. But somehow, while I would rate it lower on the scale than most Godard films I’ve seen, I still enjoyed watching it, and felt like I could make out Godard a bit better through having seen it.

The basic narrative thrust revolves around Bruno’s hesitation and indecision regarding his latest mission. He works in Geneva, spying for France to avoid actually fighting in the Algerian War, when he is ordered to kill a local resistance leader, to prove his mettle. He spend most of the film debating whether or not to kill this Palivoda character, or otherwise distracting himself from the decision. He meets Veronica Dreyer (certainly an allusion to the Danish filmmaker Carl, though his influence went mostly undetected by me), who is played by the inimitable Anna Karina. Karina was Godard’s muse for the better part of the sixties, during which time they married, divorced and maintained a working relationship. Several of Godard’s films seem to be as much about his relationship with Karina as they are about cinema and other abstract pursuits.

petitsoldatThis is the film where Anna Karina first appears. She would go on to appear in 7 more films by Godard, and she is his most beguiling subject of the era. She confronts the camera, staring back at the audience, never quite aggressively interrogating them, nor jovially winking, but somewhere in between, Karina’s disposition towards the lens is rather one where she notices you, but specifically that you are watching her. She means only to communicate that she is aware of the situation, almost as if she caught you staring while riding the subway. But it’s also as though she is attempting to reconcile her basic object-ness in Godard’s world, the object of his camera, of his gaze. She sees herself as a character-in-reality. And because Godard’s films always blur a line between fiction and documentary, engaged in producing as much as defining or limiting, these two different Karinas, the actress and the character, blur together indistinguishably here.

And just as Karina is able to derail an essay devoted to a film that isn’t particularly about her, so too does she derail Bruno’s decision-making process, and he spends the film oscillating between choosing Veronica Dreyer or Palivoda. Godard is known for his terse, half-ironic maxims that he declares and subverts with equal furor; among these, perhaps none is quite so relevant as his assertion that the only thing you need for a movie is a gun and a girl. Violence and sex. There are days while watching Godard films that it feels as though he is oddly sincere in this, revealing strange currents of misogyny that run through his work (speaking of Karina’s perpetual objectification…). But the way that Godard pulls back the lens and reveals structures of thought that chain us down suggests just as frequently that this comment has an ironic turn, that stories have been built, systematically through the history of narrative, to be reduced to two basic functions, that art is still animalistic, that narrative constricts worlds of possibility, reduces an erotics into a hermeneutics. Not aiming to solve any real problems here, I’ll just leave the contradiction there – that Godard is torn between the immanent and transcendent, between the girl and the gun and the “girl and the gun,” between Dreyer and the Algerian War.

le-petit-soldat1The film ends in a way that looks even more nihilistic than the ending of Breathless, where Bruno decides to kill Palivoda so he can be free to love Veronica, but her secret ties to the Algerian resistance are cause enough to be tortured and killed by the French police. Bruno ends up a murderer and alone, borne into a future of misplaced fanaticism and regrets, a worse fate than Michel’s melodramatic death, and far less fun.

9418337_origThe stark, no-fun situation climaxes in Le Petit Soldat with the infamous scenes of torture, on both sides of the war. We watch Bruno as he is waterboarded in the hopes of fighting the French, and as mentioned above, we see Veronica tortured unto death. These scenes caused the film to be banned in France until 1963, often displacing it on various filmographies. But Le Petit Soldat is more of a piece with Godard’s earliest stuff than what immediately follows (in the form of Contempt and A Woman is a Woman), particularly in its somewhat old school approach to realism. Godard has yet to experiment with color and the artificiality that comes along with it, and his disposition towards “realism” becomes much more complex as his films develop a more explicit, formal, and Brechtian sensibility of style. But here, his films resemble the postwar Italian films known as Neorealism.

tumblr_mcijnoH6f51qizch9o1_500I feel like I’d do Neorealism a grave injustice if I even pretended to give a thorough summary of it, so this gloss should be taken with a tiny grain of salt. But in the years of rebuilding and poverty that followed WWII in Italy, filmmakers took their cameras out of the studios, into the streets, to film real people doing real things, fishermen playing themselves, actors being non-professional. There is a concern for the limitations of the image, too, where the borders are often exploited and indicated instead of obscured, in the case of most mainstream films. The goal was to show the world, or enable audience members to see it more clearly. Godard didn’t have images of poverty really. He didn’t have a blown out cathedral to shoot in, ruins and empty streets to capture in long tracking shots. He had the cosmopolitan and thuggish streets of Paris, and for the first several years he shoots films with these figures as his subjects. Ripped from headlines (in the case of Breathless and Vivre Sa Vie), or shot using jagged, non-professional editing and handheld cameras. They feel somewhat like drafts of each other, related in some gut way. The same style can be glimpsed in Charlotte et Veronique, all shot on location in Paris, following around young women experiencing banality. Also in Charlotte et son Jules, which feels like a single long take*, where a young, couple spends real time in their apartment. Both of these, combined with the languid apartment scene in Breathless, and the series of encounters in Le Petit Soldat serve to illustrate the idea that Godard’s tendency towards neorealism in these early works is simply directed towards a different kind of subject than the Italians, one that is blighted and alienated (in that peculiarly 60s way), and yet hopeful that there is a possibility for escape from the system.

I mentioned early on that this appears to be a minor work, and I did imagine I’d tackle that idea a lot sooner than I’ve managed to, but all of these diversions and digressions have all gotten me, in a roundabout way to my point about minor works. One impulse, a general impulse when it comes to define tricky words, is to suggest that minor works don’t really exist, that we’ve somehow managed to concoct a way of dividing things like Hamlet and Macbeth from Two Gentlemen of Verona that is nonsensical. And that would be fair, I bet I could be convinced of that fact if someone really tried. But right now it rings false, because my thinking of this as a minor work isn’t in conflict with its charms, this is not an indication of some sort of cognitive dissonance.

Le Petit Soldat 5What if, instead, minor works are the ones so banal, so – let’s say – ordinary, that they feel like the ones that fade into the background, but they actually create the background. I don’t mean to say, “[in a goofy, sarcastic voice] They are all interesting for being uninteresting!” Rather, that this film, which has so much in common with the director’s earlier work, seems laden with repetitions, can find it’s identity among the odd dissonances between the things that persist and the things that change. It doesn’t seem to tap into the kinds of truth and vision awareness that his other films do, but it seems to seem to. And this goes a long way towards revealing the human artist at the center of the film.

Auteurism more or less caught on after a series of articles written by Godard, Truffaut, and their cohorts at the Cahiers du Cinema. The idea was simple – somewhere between the various works of a given director, that director’s personality could be identified. It wasn’t so simple as the suggestion that a director was the sole author, nor was it necessarily bound to the idea that the discovery of this artist and deferment to their interpretations of their work was ideal. It was more a kind of method, a way of inquiring, a set of objects to study, and a way of specifically liberating them from the culture industry that produced them. If directors could be authors, then films could speak directly to audiences. Auteurism was as much a polemic as a move towards ennobling cinema.

Le Petit Soldat, then, can be said to reveal aspects of the personality of Godard that otherwise lie hidden, cracks and seams that fragment the work, but draw attention to it’s being a work, a sophomoric work, by a young director struggling to follow up his landmark debut. Trying to say and show something “important.” Discovering the pleasure he finds in photographing Anna Karina. Shooting in the streets. Defining, revealing, producing himself.

This is the third entry in my year-long Godard Project. The other entries can be found here.

*Another of Godard’s abrasive, polemic and yet still ironic claims is that “Tracking shots are a question of morality.”

Shaking the Habitual; A (Personal) History of Breathless

BreathlessBreathless and I have been together for a long time. I first saw the film almost 6 years ago to the day, and immediately I was won over. The youthfulness of the picture, characters, ostensibly my age, roaming the romantic (in both senses of the word) streets of Paris, the jazzy score and many other features conspired to win my affections, and they were victorious. The improvised dialogue that felt like poetry, the life that bled off the screen as quickly as its protagonist. Almost 4 years ago to the day, I first saw a 35mm print of Breathless screened during a weekend jaunt to Chicago for my 21st birthday. Today I’m writing about it, after having seen it for what has to be at least the 40th time. It seems almost impossible, in theory, to even begin writing about the film – I’ve felt it to mean so many contrasting things in my 6 years with the film. In fact, this very essay has been spinning its wheels (hence the delay in publication) because writing it, and thereby fixing its meaning for a moment, seemed to be an immeasurable task, as though my goal were to compose an elegy that could be erected beside it. Instead my goal is to avoid, as much as possible, the viewing habits and clichés that prevent me from seeing the film anew, to try and glimpse clearly the fullness of what the film is trying to express and how it is trying to express it, starting from the beginning.

The first time anyone saw Breathless (or A Bout de Souffle) was in March of 1960. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, known then as an acerbic, polemic critic, the film marked one of several historical entry points into one of the most vibrant and vital periods in film history, the French New Wave. Claude Chabrol’s film Le Beau Serge and Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatres Cents Coups were the other earlier markers, coming in 1958 and 1959, respectively; all three filmmakers were critics at the prestigious Cahiers de Cinema. As critics, they railed against mainstream, contemporary French cinema, which aimed for a “Tradition of Quality” not unlike most mainstream cinemas – narrative simplicity, literary adaptations, impressive spectacle. (It is worth noting the similarities between this Tradition and the current fare being produced by Hollywood, with the added developments of sequels, IMAX, and 3D to accompany the characteristics already mentioned.) As Godard &c transitioned into filmmaking, they were presented with the ability to make their ideas about cinema manifest, to demonstrate the potential of their theories.

large_breathless_blu-ray1But why then? Why this group of filmmakers (which also included Agnes Varda, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and sometimes Alain Resnais, among others)? As with everything, there is no one cause, no single path, but many lines of descent. One of the major causes would have been the towering influence of Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française. Langlois oversaw the collection and curated the screenings (often three a day, without repeats) of this national establishment devoted to preserving a history of cinema. And the critics from the Cahiers would go here, to see, experience, evaluate, discuss, dissect, analyze, and in other ways beyond counting interact with those multiple lines of descent that led directly to them. It was through the work of Eisenstein that the possibility of political change emerged, through the stylistics of American noir and melodrama that they discovered their own voices, through the legacies of auteurs* such as Hitchcock and Hawks that they developed a polemic and an ambition – to make films as if one were writing, as personal, eccentric, political as they themselves were willing to be.

With access to the bulk of film history up to that moment, Godard was able to watch as the techniques and styles utilized by innovative, visionary filmmakers were gradually co-opted and compromised by mainstream cinemas. Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet filmmaker of Battleship Potemkin, developed a style of montage (alongside his contemporaries) that is very different from how we think of it now. It was out of the conflict of two opposing images that meaning could be generated, out of the clash of discontinuity. But while Eisenstein used this to reveal in the mind of the spectator a sense of social injustice, it wasn’t long before his styles were completely appropriated by Hollywood for the (now, quite clichéd) montage sequence, consisting of multiple moments stitched together to create continuity – a training regimen that helps the hero win the race, a detective following her lead through loud, obscure streets. That sense of discontinuity provoked by montage was sullied by its usage to create and define continuity.

However, one cannot simply go back to montage, to a long since dispersed and contaminated style, in order to redo what Eisenstein did – that, too would be appropriation. But Godard witness more than the fall of the Soviets. With each new revolutionary technique – Italian Neorealism, American Noir, French Impressionism, German Expressionism, et al. – be eventually, inevitably subsumed by the very things they sought to counter. From this perspective – that Godard and his compatriots at the Cahiers and Cinémathèque had a uniquely privileged vantage on the history of cinema – it would not be too far outside of the question to consider this brief window of time to mark the turn towards a cinematic historical consciousness. Godard is not just striking out for new ways to say things, he is troubled by the whole grift that speech embodies, the prison in which it chains him, the ease with which those in power can take away anything he might make.

title_breathless_blu-raySo now then, we arrive at A Bout de Souffle (whose French title is nicely situated between the breathlessness of anticipation and drowning). The film was based on a treatment (a text that describes all of the main story beats) written by Francois Truffaut, which was in turn based on a real life story, taken straight from the papers. A man, Michel Poiccard, has hotwired a car in Marseille so he can return to Paris. En route, he shoots a police officer, and finds himself on the run from Johnny Law (it ain’t no trip to Cleveland). If Michel had his druthers, the object of his infatuations, Patricia, would join him on the lam to Rome; he also has to pick up some money from and old friend. In a scene that continues to dazzle me, Michel and Patricia dawdle in her apartment (which he actually, kind of, broke into…) for 30 of the film’s 90 minutes. He is persistent in his requests to sleep with her again, and she tries to talk with him about books, art, music – all of which he shrugs off. It feels like real time, but that’s really, I think, because of the improvisatory nature of the scene, but more on that later. After they leave, the film takes on a darker tone, with the all too real world creeping in at the edges of their private, quasi-romantic whatsit. Michel pbreathless-stillicks up his money, as the cops get closer and closer, and the two drive around as they discuss the same kind of transcendent nothings they’ve discussed for the whole film. They realize they can hide at a friend’s house overnight, and leave in the morning, but after an oddly staged row between the two – where they each speak their points simultaneously, an overlapping dialogue – Patricia goes out for a drink and telephones the police to identify Michel’s hiding spot. In a wonderful turn of events, Michel decides to stop running, because the whole tough-guy thing is exhausting, and even refuses the gun proffered by his indebted ami, only to have it thrown back at the last second. When the police see a gun in his hands, he is shot, and in perhaps one of the most absurd, yet iconic death sequences in film history, Michel stumbles down an entire Parisian block before crumbling to the ground and coughing out his final cigarette draw.

There’s not a whole lot there, no real heft of narrative that we can look at and see, “Oh, the hunt for that whale is a way of peering into the depths of obsession” or “that knight is going to play chess with death and hope to survive.” We can’t extract a whole lot from the story on it’s own, at least the way we typically think of stories. Sure, we could cling to a false moralism about the consequences of crime, or the (cinematic) fickleness of broads, or some such thing that the story relates to us, but these would all be half-assed endeavors. For starters, in spite of his clear criminality, Michel seems to be an innocent, in the way that a child seems to be an innocent – unknowingly caught up in a drama larger than themselves. Michel doesn’t fit into our normal idea of “thug,” he doesn’t appear to be malicious, or to enjoy the murder he commits in cold-blood, instead he seems to be playing a role, lost in a world of make-believe. Well, lost or hiding.

Breathless.mkv_snapshot_00.19.00_[2011.09.20_15.19.15]There is a scene during the first third of the film (before the languorous apartment scene) where Michel approaches a Humphrey Bogart movie poster (the film being advertised is The Harder They Fall) and sizes himself up, as though at a mirror. He drags his thumb across his lips (a gesture to be repeated throughout the film), and seems to be a transparent fan of the hard-boiled actor’s work. It becomes clear, then, that Michel has a kind of complex where he asks himself what Bogart would do. How might Bogie get out of this pickle? How would Bogart skip town and get the girl? Bogart would shoot the police officer, Bogart would steal the cars, Bogart is the epitome of this idea of masculinity that Michel has bound himself to. It’s unclear how long he may have been doing this, or even if he could ever be said to have been doing it totally (and not in some sort of complex, fragmented way), but the film, as much as anything, traces his gradual abandonment of the habit he has built up around this strange cult of personality. Patricia, who never parrots him, and is in many ways contradictory to Michel, sits at the root of his unmasking.

large_breathless_blu-ray2xThroughout my time with Breathless I have found Michel and Patricia to act as various ciphers, coded symbols that delimit a certain metaphorical exchange. Michel feels like cinema, with his constant darting in and out of theaters and admiration for Bogart; Patricia feels like an admirer of high art. Similarly, Michel seems to stand in for postmodernism alongside Patricia’s modernism. There’s an easy man/woman binary that one could latch onto, but there’s also French/American and broke/employed that are just as close. There is a sense that the two characters embody the kind of dialectical montage we can see in Eisenstein’s cinema, where they exclude each other, yet also make love – a clash between them which generates meanings. But the characters are human, all too human, to be simply a cluster of finite symbolic oppositions.

breathless (1)There’s a trivial anecdote about the film’s production that I’ve always held dear, as it speaks to all of the ways in which Breathless is inchoate, unruly, and urgently so. Godard, apparently, would not work from the treatment composed by his colleague, which was used to secure funding for the film’s production, but would scrawl lines of dialogue on napkins during his taxi-cab rides to the set or location for the day. His script was non-existent, and so it never became stale. It is even reported that Godard shouted lines to the two leads during the majority of the apartment scene, so that they wouldn’t know what they were about to say in advance, so as to make their speech move closer to actual, intimate, humans talking to each other, instead of dialogue that would inevitably be composed and calculated to achieve some purpose: insidious, realist, or otherwise.

breathless3There is also a pervading skepticism in Breathless, one which doubts the sincerity or integrity of those gestures that, I think, lies at the foot of my perpetually renewing fascination with the film. Take the figure of Michel, a man who acts like Humphrey Bogart (who, in turn, acts like a fictional hard-boiled character in many of his films), who is in love with a woman he can’t possess like the movies suggest he might (who would buckle under his initial suggestion). He kills a cop, but it feels staged, performed, as if he’s stuck in a virtual reality game, and can’t tell the world from the fictions. He does sleep with the girl, but only after something disrupts his fantasy – a vision of Patricia kissing another man. Before that moment, it is as if he thought that being a “gangster,” playing the role of a criminal would reap him all the rewards that that role insures. He’s kind of an idiot, but he is an idiot who performs a role to the world, wears a mask that he prays someone might notice. He’s not particularly redeemed by any of his actions, but he is kind of lovable, in part because he is something of an innocent.** But what becomes clear about Michel is that he is never quite clearly the thing we see when we look at him. There is a thinness to his performance that doesn’t ever describe or reveal the person beneath the façade, but which does make apparent the fiction that governs our perception of him. We cannot imagine that the surfaces of things are any longer the things that lie inside – they are merely surfaces. (This is not to argue the existence of essences, or priority of surfaces over essences, or anything that teeters over into some kind of larger metaphysical claim, only to identify difference in a place where difference is typically compressed or erased.)

So, when we take these two ideas together – that surfaces are truthful in relation to appearance/performance, and that the realm of the symbolic is virtually overridden by the accessibility, the intimacy, and the other gestures of realism that the film utilizes – we arrive at a strange contradiction where we can begin to question the film itself, and its motives, the results of its styles, the arbitrariness of its themes. Instead of standing in as a grand metaphor, as some stylistic juggernaut, Breathless readjusts our sense of movies, relocating the invention and cultivation of a fictional world to the moment of that world’s production, the true ontology of the photographic image. We see not a window into a world, but a screen projected upon, a text to be infinitely read. We see a man and a woman, a film.

large_breathless_blu-ray_4xThis seems to me to be precisely the nuance of what I love, and have always loved, and am perpetually discovering about Breathless: that somehow I’m stuck between thinking the film is never the same – that it changes each new time I see it – and thinking the film is perpetually a dappled mirror, reflecting and refracting whatever I bring to it, so that it is I that changes and not it. But that uncertainty is the very thing that Godard seems to mean to provoke in the viewer, that our vision might be readjusted so that we no longer mistake the film for something else. With Godard, with Breathless, we see cinema – totally, tenderly, tragically.

This is the second essay in the Godard Project, a year long journey through the films of Jean-Luc Godard.

*I’m placing this as an aside for now, though certainly the concept will come up again and again throughout this project. A brief explanation of the term: coined by Truffaut in 1955, it refers to the potentiality of recognizing consistent themes and styles over a body of work that makes room, in cinema, for the presence of an artist or author. It was a concept greeted with immediate hostility, and for good reason – the suggestion that the director of a film could be the sole authorial voice in a production that relied upon collaboration was clearly nonsense. But I think it is more a way of locating voice, locating authority, instead of delimiting the abilities of others; there have been numerous works written on the auteur status of producers, actors, cinematographers, and even editors. The general idea is the hope of recognizing a consistency among a body of work, not in defining the meanings of those works by recourse to some author.

**This is now my second mention of innocence in relation to Michel. I mean it somewhat in the sense that Martin Scorsese does in his appreciation of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket [http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/887-bottle-rocket].

Introducing…, The Early Shorts of Jean-Luc Godard

I love the beginnings of careers. Those early stories, albums, films where some burgeoning artist is finding their voice, trying to separate it from their influences, trying to say something “important” as they settle into a rhythm and style. It is during these works that they are often at their most pliable, all of the things they paint, write, film have an immediacy to them, a fragmented freshness, where we might glimpse a bit of the obsessions to come, the true themes that govern that artist’s body of work. Martin Scorsese’s debut film touches on the idea of a doomed masculinity constructed by cinema long before he would make Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. Thomas Pynchon’s early short stories reveal a fascination with the futile quest for meaning and a peculiarly postmodern sensibility towards other literary sources, both of which become transformed into his trademark paranoia and intertextuality in his full novels.

French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard sprang onto the scene in 1960, apparently in full armor, with his debut film Breathless. To this day it is hailed as one of his greatest works, and one of the greatest films throughout the history of cinema – it was a game changer. But it did not come into this world ex nihilo, it was the culmination, in many ways, of the styles and techniques Godard would hone while making a series of five short films in the mid to late 50s. These films are rather innocuous on their own, and only occasionally gesture to the poetry and style of Godard’s later works, but they witness him in the decisive moment of his transition from film critic to filmmaker, which is arguably still incomplete.

cahiers103Before making films, Jean-Luc Godard wrote essays and reviews for the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema. Here he penned screes against the state of contemporary French cinema and its “Tradition of Quality.” He called instead for a cinema that was real, personal, inspired by Italian Neorealism (e.g. Roberto Rossellini) and Soviet Montage (e.g. Sergei Eisenstein) cinemas, one that revealed the political in the personal, and vice versa. Along with several of his colleagues at the paper – to wit, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and others – Godard eventually left to make the films that he was demanding should exist. His style, as we can gauge from this, was always already dependent on an idea of what cinema is and should be, as well as informed by a knowledge and polemic surrounding the history of cinema.

zk_pictures_206_127_ff47f733In 1953, a surprisingly early year, Godard shot his first film, a documentary titled Opération béton or Operation Concrete. This film is mostly unremarkable among his films; it lacks most of the flags that signal Godard’s films – ambiguity, editing, stylistic innovation. It documents the construction of a dam, where he used to work with his mother’s lover, and aside from some interesting shots, it seems to have no connection to his later works. Construction Equipment in Operation ConcreteWe could point out the fact that it is a documentary, though, and draw a through line between this and his later socially-political works, or perhaps think of the similarities between how construction machinery is depicted here against the depiction of the city in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, or even, if we were so inclined, talk about how Godard’s rhyming title and blasé narration anticipate his droll whispers in the same film, or his generally playful handling of quotidian life in several of his 60s films. A strong case for all of those would be possible, but they also indicate precisely the things to avoid when looking at earlier works: retrojection.

Retrojection is the act that occurs when we align a past according to a specific narrative as a result of seeing the present that it led to. It amounts to selectively identifying key points among an indeterminate cluster in order to make claims about their determinateness. It is a twisted form of fatalism that regards the present as the only result of the past, and the past as the only way to the present – the same kind of mentality that sits at the center of a ethos that pulls bootstraps. This is the thing to avoid when checking out early works, which are never aware of the future artist, but only struggling with that artist’s problems in their own present. Moving forward, we can begin to see glimpses of future Godard’s aesthetic concerns, but we will also see his foibles, his unerring childishness, and his petulance in full blast.

The second short film directed by Jean-Luc Godard is Une Femme Coquette, or A Coquettish Woman. This film is apparently quite hard to locate, and I have not seen it. If anyone has a link to an online copy of the film, I’d rather like to catch it, though I am fully aware that it, like Operation Beton is mostly a curio among a sea of other great films by Godard.

All the Boys Are Called Patrick (France, 1959) 2His third film, however, is quite interesting, and my favorite among these early shorts. The full title is Charlotte and Veronique, or All the Boys Are Called Patrick, though I have mostly heard it referred to by the subtitle, due to the basic thrust of the plot. Patrick, played by a young Jean-Claude Brialy (later to appear in A Woman is a Woman), appears to wander through Paris picking up girls. We definitely see him with three over the course of the film, but the suggestion is quite clearly that he picks up more than that, as most of the film occurs over the course of a single day. Charlotte and Veronique are the two female protagonists, roommates, best friends, students who can be found reading and studying on an average afternoon. Patrick comes across both of them, and plays to their visible interests.

all-the-boys-are-called-patrickWith both girls, Patrick adopts a similar strategy, harass them about what book they are reading so that he can discover some way to flatter them and impress them, so that they might agree to go on a date with him. In both cases he is successful, first by presenting himself as a lawyer, and then (upon the discovery that Veronique is actually studying law) as an engineer. He spins a yarn for each and then gets them to agree to go out with him on different nights. Later, when they are at home, giddy over new possibilities, they chance upon discussing some other Patrick, deserving in some way of their affections, and they each remark on how “all the boys are called Patrick,” both in awe that each of them will be seeing a Patrick this week. The next day, as they are out looking at postcards of artworks, Patrick appears, arm in arm with another girl, and they surprise each other by simultaneously identifying him as their Patrick. The film ends with the two roommates deciding to go on their dates with each other.

charlotteetveroniqueThere are quite a few things here that can be seen to foreshadow many of Godard’s later concerns and trademarks, first of which is the use of “French New Wave black & white.” This is more than a color palette, though it is also that – a muted series of greys that are punctuated by harder blacks, as though the whole thing is processed through a filter that compresses the other colors. It is also a sensibility, a je ne sais quoi of a certain 60s French “cool.” They all smoke cigarettes, they have postcards of artworks pinned to their walls, they wear stripes and speak philosophically. But most of all, they posture, they adopt roles and play them out in a way that locates each of their identities in their performances. The great reveal of All the Boys… is not just the visible appearance of French New Wave style so much as characters who are lost in their own performances of personae. The discovery that all the boys appear to be named Patrick is a discovery of the underlying fictions involved in the girls’ encounter with the world, a discovery that is essentially Brechtian, and a clear early version of a set of themes that Godard will develop and explore throughout his career (the distance between image and language being particularly significant). It is still early, and still somewhat lacking in the precision and clarity to be found in the later works, but this seems to be the first film that we could think of as truly Godard’s.

His fourth film, however, is completely different. Une Histoire D’Eau or A History of Water is not so much a radical departure as a new experiment in filmmaking, as it sees Godard take over production of a film abandoned by Truffaut. Truffaut’s film was more or less a romantic comedy, a probably light and sweet and entertaining gem from his proto-career, but Truffaut never finished the project, and Godard picked up the scraps to make something for himself. He used the footage that Truffaut shot, but recorded new audio – surreal, jarring narration and a percussive soundtrack – to accompany the images. This kind of encounter, between sound and image, is fundamentally drawn from the Soviet montage school, where meaning was produced by the conflict between two different images, not through the continuity of two similar images. It also speaks to the same distance that Godard will attempt to bridge between language and image; with this film, we have the ability to follow one or the other, or to follow the two together which produce an oddly realist and erratic parable of two people dealing with local flooding on their way to Paris. Another curio, another experiment, but indicative of Godard’s early obsessions all the same.

charlotte-et-son-julesGodard’s final film before 1960 introduces his collaboration with Jean-Paul Belmondo, often an on-screen surrogate for Godard, channeling his thoughts, insecurities and confronting his often sexist/misogynist flaws. He talks incessantly, seems to wish he were cooler than he is (though, honestly, who has ever been cooler that Belmondo with a newspaper?), and most importantly lopes through the city lost in his own world of art and politics, distant from the people he appears to interact with. In this film, Charlotte et son Jules or Charlotte and her Jules, Belmondo plays Charlotte’s film-and-art-obsessed boyfriend who launches an attack on her when she briefly comes home to pick up something before heading out. He unleashes a tirade on her, criticizing her every fault, revealing he regards her with increasing contempt, and interestingly makes clear through his own self-admissions that his criticisms are born out of a double standard, applied unevenly to both of them – namely that he is able to do things that she isn’t. He doesn’t let her speak until the end of the film, when she reveals she was not there to break up with him, but only to pick up her comb, and his tirade simply revealed his own inner demons more than it spoke to anything in her.

This reversal is similar to the one in All the Boys… as it undermines much of the masculine performance that precedes it. The difference between when we first encounter Patrick and when his plots are undermined reveals a lot of the person that lingers behind the façade. Likewise, here, with Jules – he is a mostly insecure person who finds solace in art, but also finds reasons to attack in others the things he loathes about himself. These are traits that will be familiar to anyone who has seen more than one Godard film from the 60s; they are present in almost all of his selfish, male protagonists. But we also see once more a pulling of the rug, a reveal that demonstrates the inherent fiction to the drama that preceded it, some reversal of performance and narrative that takes refuge in the nonsensical, the absurd, the “real.”

On a final note about this final early film – the voice of Jules is not Belmondo’s, but is actually dubbed by Godard himself. Godard’s voice will begin to appear frequently in his films, but this is its debut appearance, and as part of another layer of performance on his part. The rant of Jules is not just written by, but actually voiced by its author, presenting us with another distance between the image of Jules speaking and the words which he does not, in fact, speak.

These four films reveal the early Godard in his coming into being: they isolate future concerns, and illustrate abandoned ones. Female protagonists won’t return for a few years, and even then only intermittently, inspite of the fact that they sit at the center of two (perhaps three with Une Femme Coquette) of his earliest films. When he begins making films full-time, he will focus more on technical and political experimentation instead of the pared down narratives that are present here, most of which seem to lead directly to Breathless than many of his other works. But on the other hand, they point to issues that will be impossible to solve over the next 6 decades, issues that Godard will continue to suss, massage, tease apart, and break down to discover the bugs that lie under the rock of our linguistic structures, our processes of forming meaning. What abject somethings lie in wait for us when we seek to understand?

……………………………

It’s not that the films of Jean-Luc Godard are hard to understand, it’s that they begin to chip away at your sense of what understanding even is. Making sense isn’t impossible so much as the very problem faced by these films’ protagonists, and as they struggle, slouching towards some sense of meaning, we become acutely aware of our own struggle towards that. As they have their illusions of sense undermined by these Brechtian reversals, we, too, have our interpretations revealed as illusory fictions, as momentary points of satisfaction along an otherwise rocky series of cliffs where we will find no purchase.

But even this seems too harsh – the films have their distinct messages and themes, general complaints about the modern world, and joys located in the discovery of beauty. Alphaville’s meditation of love and poetry is not a condemnation of society so much as a refusal to obey the regulations of the state, and Vivre sa Vie, while it ends in tragedy, is about the brief, transcendent joys that are central to the experience of life. It is perhaps more true to say that Godard’s films liberate us from rigid systems of being into new life, new awareness of the world that surrounds us; they open our eyes to the essential beauty and ugliness of the world, and work towards eliminating the latter.

This post is titled Introducing…, in part because of the obvious – it provides an introduction to the work of Jean-Luc Godard, by way of his own introduction to filmmaking generally. It is also, however, the first essay in a series of essays I intend to write over the course of the next year, in which I view each of his films, both feature and short (obviously limited somewhat by availability), and attempt to document my experience of his body of work. This isn’t an attempt to understand Godard, or to understand any of his films, per se; I have already indicated my suspicion towards that possibility. It is also not an attempt to evaluate, to determine which Godard films are worth checking out and which ones are not. I intend to begin from the assumption that each film is worthwhile and attempting to resolve some kind of problem, to discover that problem and to discuss the effect that the films have on me.

This begins a project that could also be considered a writing exercise – controlling the object of my writing so that I might better explore my own voice, my own philosophical and aesthetic interests, to hone my abilities as a writer and to do so through a regulated encounter with a towering body of work. My writings won’t be analyses exactly – they will be as much a series of confrontations with myself as with the works, and the result might be better described as confessional than instructional. After all, how does one write about Godard 60 years after he began changing cinema, when people have been writing and interpreting his work ever since? I suppose that is what I hope to find out.

*While all four of the films I have discussed here can be found online through the usual sources (e.g. YouTube, Vimeo, etc), with the exception of Operation Concrete, these films have also been released as special features on various DVD releases. Charlotte and Veronique is available on the Criterion DVD of A Woman is a WomanUne Histoire D’eau is available on the Criterion DVD and Bluray of Truffaut’s The Last Metro, and Charlotte et son Jules is available on the Criterion DVD/Bluray/Dual-Format releases of Breathless.

City Lights, and the Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes

title_city_lights_blu-ray_Charlie Chaplin’s 1932 film City Lights must have come as a bit of a surprise upon its initial release. The silent era had ended a few years earlier, and while City Lights cannot be called a “true” silent film (it has a synchronized soundtrack, and the first thing we hear is a garbled version of Chaplin’s own voice), it bears most of the stylistic trademarks we associate with that era and Chaplin’s art. For starters, his cinematic persona, The Tramp, gets into all of his usual shenanigans, with the iconic duck-waddle and twirling-cane still intact. And in spite of the general audience’s waning favor for silent films, City Lights proved to be his most successful film, and the one nowadays most cited as his masterpiece.  One reason for this, the reason I’d like to explore here, is that it presents the fundamental ethos that runs through Chaplin’s body of work in its purest most abstract form, and as it pertains to the primary sense of cinema – vision and blindness.

850_city_lights_blu-ray_2xThe story is two-pronged, and involves the Tramp’s relationship with two people he stumbles across while avoiding cops and looking for money. The first is the Blind Flower Girl, who leaves him stunned. The mere sight of her shakes him out of his routine, and he is lost in that moment, agape. He sweet-talks her for a bit, in part because she believes he exited a car he was merely passing through, but when that car leaves, and she believes he has left with it, Chaplin lingers. He doesn’t want to disturb her fantasy of him, nor his fantasy of her, and he sits nearby, until she splashes him with water by accident – classic hijinks.

Lost in the flower he has received from her, The Tramp wanders about the city until late at night, barely looking up. Eventually, he finds his way to a kind of pier or dock, and almost fails to notice a drunken man trying to commit suicide. Emboldened by his newfound love, and hope for life, Chaplin convinces the man not to kill himself, but not before almost drowning himself through a series of slapstick accidents. When the man finally pulls Chaplin out the water, he thanks him endlessly, and proclaims the Tramp to be his lifelong friend. This man, revealed to be a millionaire, cannot see through his drunken haze to register the Tramp’s indigence, and they go arm in arm to a party.

It is already visible how much of the film’s central thesis revolves around misperception. The flower girl is literally blind, but the Tramp and the millionaire are not that much better off. All of them see people, and the world, the way they wish to, but in each case, at various points, something stops them from doing so. Chaplin is absorbed in his flower, and suddenly has to see the despairing man in front of him; he was also absorbed in his flight before having his world shaken by the girl. The millionaire couldn’t see the world beyond his precipice either, and was shaken from it by the Tramp. The girl’s epiphanic visions are yet to come for the most part, but even she has been shocked that someone finally paid attention to her, even if just on a human to human level; her blindness and almost beggar-like status keeps her in the same social caste as the Tramp.

As the film proceeds, Chaplin spends more time with both of them, even borrowing his friend’s car with which to entertain the girl. He keeps up both facades, hoping neither will ever find him out and ruin the dream he seems to be living. But the Tramp is not alone in this – all three seem to be oblivious to the world outside of their own direct experience. The millionaire gloms onto a new friend who must go everywhere with him, the girl doesn’t stop speaking to her mother of the rich man who loves her. None of them actually perceive the world around them clearly, something we have the benefit of recognizing, being positioned at the “objective” distance provided by the camera.

This distance also provides us another advantage – we see many of the jokes coming. This isn’t to say we predict them, but that we can witness their various causes. The Tramp and the millionaire get into a brawl at a party because no one sees the world clearly, because everyone is too wrapped up in their own personal drama to see the chairs being used by other people, or the balloon strings that are not spaghetti. When, later in the film, Chaplin swallows a whistle, we are the only ones who can actually make sense of the scene, which is utterly disturbing to the other guests. Chaplin begins to speak, and all that comes out is a short chirp instead of language, something fitting for a character who has never produced the sound of words in his entire existence. But this scene also speaks to the succession of revelations we witness in the film, the ruptures of the real, where the world presents itself to any number of onlookers. Chaplin’s swallowing the whistle, and producing an array of sounds is something unanticipated, and perhaps even impossible to anticipate, but this is precisely what secures its significance. The jokes in the film are funny because the participants can’t expect them; the narrative is dramatic because the characters cannot see far enough in the future. For every scene the catalyst for trouble is born out of their respective failures to provide an account for the world.

But something begins to slip in the performance put on by the Tramp. Upon visiting the girl’s house one day, he discovers something that her blindness (and her mother’s inability to get outside her own performance) prevented her from seeing – she is about to be evicted. What’s more, to add financial strain to the picture, he discovers that an operation can be paid for that will allow the blind flower girl to see again. All he has to do is wrangle up enough money. So the Tramp begins to become the person he was playing, begins to seek out extra work to actually pay for their rent and the potential surgery. He wanders through several jobs, trying to scrounge up the necessary funds, but just when he is on the verge of making it, on the verge of winning the last bit through a boxing match, he loses everything and retreats to his locker room, with the gloves of Damocles hanging over his head.

As he leaves, distraught, he sees his millionaire friend again. The two separated earlier in the film as soon as the millionaire sobered up, and we haven’t seem him for a while, but here, newly soused, the man welcomes the Tramp with open arms: “Old Friend!” he yells. The millionaire is back to struggling, and asks the Tramp for advice, which is given freely. But here’s the thing – his advice in this situation is not useful because it matches up with a persona that Chaplin is fighting to maintain, the advice doesn’t come from the fantasy, but from the real struggles we have recently witnessed Chaplin enduring. We have seen his work struggles, how difficult it is for him to make do in times of need, and it is precisely those experiences that allow him to counsel his friend. He plays the part, for sure, but the words he speaks are true because they come from his true self. When the millionaire hears Chaplin’s own story, not of his poverty, but of the girl he loves, for whom he is sacrificing everything, the millionaire offers him an easy $1,000. Hopes of happy endings abound. But just then, just as the two have reunited, and the millionaire has glimpsed a modicum of the Tramp’s being, they are robbed and the millionaire is knocked out in the dark. When the police arrive (spurred by an early call from the butler, not from the crime scene), they attempt to arrest Chaplin shouting  “WHO IS THIS MAN?” He darts off, and delivers the money to the girl, offering her his love and a wistful farewell, never knowing if they will ever meet again. Just outside, he is arrested, and sent to jail.

The police don’t see the Tramp, they see a tramp. They see a person with a proclivity towards crime, not a criminal. The millionaire sees a friend, even if his drink allows him to ignore that friend’s difference in class. The girl sees a generous man, which she mistakes for wealth. We see a buffoon, wandering about the world from job to job, from person to person who pay him mind for just a while, until they see him for “what” he is – though even that vision is constituted by blindness. “Who is this man?” is a question that must go unanswered throughout the film.

850_city_lights_blu-ray_X03The denouement, the last few minutes of City Lights, are not only its most elegiac passage, they speak the truth that lies at the center of the film. It is an arbitrary amount of time later, maybe weeks, months, years. We see the blind flower girl is no longer blind, and her newfound vision has enabled her to advance from street merchant to full on shop owner. She sells flowers that are displayed in big glass windows to upscale patrons, and with each one you can see a glimmer of hope pass over her eyes, seconds before it dissolves into disappointment. It is a tragic thing to witness by itself – she seeks someone who helped her more than anyone, but she also knows that that person will recognize her when they come in, and that she has no way of doing so. Her only chance is to recognize the texture of their hands, but with every departing customer, that downward look, that frown of hers grows deeper and more intractable. The Tramp appears. He wobbles through the street, his clothes in worse tatters than before. Some punks hawking newspapers rip out his underwear through a hole in his pants, and he stumbles on the sidewalk, used to this kind of torment, used to the day-in, day-out misery of life. Until. Just then. He looks up, and sees the flower shop, and through the glass is his beloved. He recognizes her instantly, and his recognition is the self-same rupture of the real that the whistle provided, that the flower provided, that the millionaire, and the police, and the Tramp himself have come to represent. She mocks him at first, tickled by her “new suitor,” this poor man who has clearly taken a liking to her. It is striking that their first mutual encounter occurs through a pane of glass, she can only see his external features, compressed with a certain distance that types him as Tramp, as Homeless Man, and never as Chaplin, Charlot, the person who sits behind the image he presents to the world. She exits the store to offer him money, which he refuses, preferring a flower. As she hands it to him, she finally sees him for who he is, not simply recognizing the man who helped her, but seeing in a flash all that we have seen, acknowledging the suffering he endured to reach this point, recognizing all that they share, not as potential lovers but as co-humans who were always invisible to the world, and she sees him. “Is it you?” “You can see now?” “Yes, I can see now.”

annex-chaplin-charlie-city-lights_nrfpt_01This is the moment where vision begins. Vision is not simply sobriety, or removing yourself from the distractions of the world – how oddly familiar is the Tramp’s behavior with the flower in the age of the smartphone, oblivious to his surroundings? – it is encountering the world in its truth. Notice that we are still kept from a classic happy ending. We do not know whether the two will go on to live happily ever after, or what their life might be like. Their glance at the end is not one that has a future to it, it is only in the present. They simply regard each other as co-humans. This is the ethical thrust of City Lights: that we cease to simply look at the world, and begin to see it. Even if that is just the beginning, even if vision only gives us a tiny bit of ground on which to move forward, it is the only thing that allows us to leave the island of the self and journey outward into the world.

Bad Boys – Wandering a Misshapen World

It's Terrific!

It’s Terrific!

Too often we get into the habit of recalling and repeating a phrase in the place of reconsidering its truth. I don’t mean to suggest that we are always purloining expressions, though this may also be true. Rather, we seem to have a tendency to settle a matter (“Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time.”) and leave it settled, without any real regard for the conditions of the moment in which that verdict was passed (and more importantly, how those conditions may have changed since then). Perhaps if we took another glance after a while we might discover that something in it, if not something in us, has changed, and thereby consider it anew.

Over time, by repeating our judgments again and again, they become fossilized and their tangible meaning dissipates. One example of this might be the topic I explored in my last piece, the debate about style and substance – we simply repeat the expression, unaware that it fails to capture both our thoughts and the aspects of the film it describes, failing us twice over. Another example is how it appears in discussion of certain filmmakers, whether it is Tarantino’s violence, Lynch’s dreams, or Michael Bay’s explosions. We have simply settled the matter, and thereby take it as writ, that these directors’ films center around these subjects.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 11.22.31 PMBut perhaps I’m drawing Michael Bay a bit thin. It is evident, I think, from my title and cavalier associations (I have now included him in a discussion of Lynch, Tarantino and Welles, all of whom have greater critical street cred than Bay) that this essay will focus on his debut film, Bad Boys. So what is it that we say about Michael Bay, that has become such a habit we barely recognize it’s potential to distract us? Well, it is commonly remarked that his films do feature explosions, but perhaps the full significance of this small observation should be drawn out. Michael Bay’s movies don’t just feature explosions, they are explosive – they are big, loud, bright, they rake it in at the box office, and while critically out of favor, his films remain perennially popular. His films, in short, represent that particular kind of American excess, balancing between a certain gaudy decadence and mindless destruction.

However, sometimes we mistake appearances for essences, and vice versa. While I think the critiques against Bay’s films are valid, especially later in his career, I have come to disagree with them, simply because I find it reductive. We have mistaken the world Bay shows us with a world he condones, and as a result have failed to perceive the films in all their complexity. (A similar critical confusion arose a couple years ago with the release of Lars von Trier’s AntiChrist, where most of the debate revolved around whether the film was critical of misogyny, or was itself misogynistic.) Similarly, we can think of Bad Boys as being a film that features explosions and undermines them at the same time. How does it do this? Through its construction of a hyperreal landscape through which its protagonists grope for knowledge and meaning, Bad Boys struggles with the very issues central to the postmodern experience.

Let’s start by defining some terms. I threw in a big one back there, “hyperreal landscape,” which could just as easily be purple prose as anything else, so I want to make sure my meaning is clear. The hyperreal is most commonly associated with the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who proposed a quasi-historical model built around copies and originals. The hyperreal is the point within this precession where copies become indistinguishable from the originals, and meaning and identity become so complexly knotted that we can never really find a way out. Baudrillard considered this hyperreality to be constitutive of the Postmodern. For our purposes, we might think of the hyperreal in relation to cinema – initially a kind of copy of the world, which then comes to supplant the world it was copying. I don’t mean to suggest we mistake the copy for the original – we are always aware that we are watching a film and of its specific unreality – rather we enter into an uncanny space where we affirm and deny the reality of copies, we become disoriented and confused, almost like when we can’t quite tell if something is from a memory or a dream.* With this in mind, the hyperreal landscape that characterizes Bay’s film is one that looks and feels like a distorted world that exists only within the imagination of Hollywood. Like a demented, misshapen world, the Miami of Bad Boys bears little referent to the Miami in Florida, but is instead an arena where the boundary between movies and reality is increasingly hard to find, and the characters that wander through this desolate place struggle even to locate themselves within it.

Dr. Caligari

Dr. Caligari

One film set in this kind of world (though not this kind of world) is the 1919 silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Through a framing device, we can tell that the jagged, misshapen space where the bulk of the film takes place is not, strictly speaking, “real.” The Expressionist features are inside the narrator’s head, and they reflect his inner madness and angst made manifest. The characters who play their parts within his unfolding drama are made strange by the world they inhabit. Likewise, the postmodern, hyperreal landscape of Bad Boys is one that is immediately visible as unrealistic, but works to reveal preoccupations and anxieties that are present within our contemporary psyche in much the same way.

Club Interior

Club Interior

I do not intend for this notion of landscape to take a purely metaphorical turn, though. The characteristics of the diegetic space of Bad Boys, like Caligari, are misshapen. Look at this still of the club where several scenes take place; it feels lifted out of a German Expressionist painting all on its own. Explosions, cars, fast edits, the women, the criminals, all of them seem strangely extracted from a false world. Or perhaps another, better way of putting it is that the unreality of the world of the film asserts itself constantly, so that we never quite fall under its spell, nor do we mistake it for the world. It is a misshapen wasteland, filled with all the detritus familiar to the postmodern scene.

bbConsider the title. Unlike the title of the Sean Penn film, which simply refers to the characters as the center, here Bad Boys spins a complex web of signification. Instead of simply pointing us to the behavior of the cops at the center (who, let’s be real, aren’t “bad cops” like Harry Callahan et al.; they are far too goofy to be considered “bad”), the title more insistently recalls the theme song of the reality show COPS. The two protagonists sing it multiple times in the film, and it is clear that the show has had a kind of influence on them. Interestingly (and perhaps significantly), the two can never quite recall the lyrics – they only know the lead-in. It is as if they are singing what they can remember from the theme song of their lives; it is as if they see themselves as reality television stars, with hidden cameras potentially lying in wait all around them. They perform for these cameras they can’t see, and seem to be acutely aware of an audience at every turn. (This on it’s own is as unremarkable as it is recognizable in the post-Facebook age, but given that it featured as a theme of two art films from last year, Matteo Garrone’s Reality and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, it seems well worth mentioning that Michael Bay may have beaten them to the punch.) In this way, we might conceive of the two protagonists identities as “mediated,” in that they find (and lose) themselves through the image they project, and struggle to locate their true identity amidst the plethora of copies appearing on screens.

Identity confusion

Identity confusion

Another fitting example of this central confusion occurs within the opening minutes of the film. Will Smith is going on about his expensive car without cup-holders, while Martin Lawrence is eating fast food; both are focused on these signifiers of excess, while we regard them with a Brechtian awareness of their absurdity (which, I would contend, is present in the film, not accidental). It isn’t long before something happens (something inevitably must), and the two are caught bickering by a couple of car thieves, who try to steal Mike’s car. Martin Lawrence makes two, almost back to back claims that intrigue me immensely: in protestation to the criminals, he raises his hands and insists that they aren’t like Wesley Snipes, they are just a couple of average guys; when he knocks the guy down, he shouts out “Wesley Snipes! Passenger 57!” These twin claims, which negate each other, reveal the inner turmoil that persists throughout the film. These two cops are regular guys, average people (with perhaps their idiosyncrasies of individuality – wealth, children, ambition, etc). We could see them as being people we know. And yet, they find themselves stuck in this strange world where that identity is made incompatible. It is as if they have crossed through a movie screen, and find themselves in a movie-world, looking for cameras, performing for an implicit audience, while insecure about its perpetual absence.

This strange limbo in which they find themselves is predicated on the very site of production of the cinematic image. Their dislodged sense of identity comes from an awareness of a camera that does not exist in their diegesis, or at least their (diegetic) projection of a elusive camera that might record all of their actions. This camera, as we know, is present to create any film, and yet invisible to the characters within the film. Classical film construction dictates that the spectator occupy a space where they can see without being seen – this is ultimately why it is so disorienting when a character looks into the camera. They meet our gaze, when no one has ever met it before. This technique has been quite popular throughout the history of cinema, but I only bring it up to draw attention to its inverse, which is present in this film. Instead of a character meeting the gaze of the spectator, here the characters seek the spectators; they look around their setting for a camera that might be recording them. Without the presence of a visible camera, they seem to know that their world is incomplete, that they are characters in a film but cannot seek out the crew.

In the sequel, Smith and Lawrence find themselves in a video/electronics store, and participate in one of the strangest scenes in recent action movies. The two of them bond in this soundproof room, finally opening up about their problems, finally discussing their anxieties, with each other and in their personal life, and finally, in essence, taking down their shield. They are real with each other for the first time in both movies, and they do it unknowingly in the presence of a couple dozen spectators. I only bring this scene up to suggest that it is when their projection of a camera becomes manifest that they are able to be the down-to-earth characters that I’m essentially arguing they are. If they fear a camera that they know is present but which they cannot find, it is only when that camera becomes visible, asserts its presence in their diegesis, that they are able to subconsciously stop exerting the energy in finding or hiding from it. What is at issue here is not whether they like being seen, but that they know they are being seen by an un-see-able watcher. Here that watcher exists in their world, and opens the doors of their characters.

Germany Year Zero

Germany Year Zero

Now that I’ve moved to the subject of seeing and being seen, it’s time to bring up a film that rushed strongly to mind when I recently re-watched Bad Boys. Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Germany Year Zero follows a mostly mute, expressionless boy as he wanders the streets of Berlin in the wake of WWII. It was shot on the streets, and depicts a world reeling from its own unreality. It is truly difficult to see the images of a broken down Berlin, bombed out to a shred of its existence, and come to terms with their real material presence in the world (at that time). The film also marks one of the great transitions in cinema, described exhaustively by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, from a cinema of motion (and actions, deeds, events) to a cinema of vision (and seers, visionaries). The boy in Germany Year Zero becomes a voyeuristic stand-in for the audience who tries to grapple with a new reality in the wake of a postwar trauma. I have already outlined the ways in which Bad Boys strikes me as a film set in a postmodern wasteland, but to grossly abuse parallel prefixes, I think it similarly deals with a cinema grappling with the fallout from modernism.

Where the Italian neo-realists became concerned with vision and sight, and how their characters acted as viewers upon their world (much like the camera and the spectator, in turn), it seems that the cinema of the last 20+ years has had a different concern, one that exists an iteration past the Deleuze’s visionary cinema. In the place of analogous watchers, we have subjects aware of or at odds with their place within a machinery of vision. It is no longer unidirectional. They don’t turn towards a camera to destabilize our view of the diegesis, or to alert us to our role as voyeurs, they turn towards the camera in order to not find it, in order to search for it, in a way that reflects our fragmented identities where we sound off into the void of the internet, with our Facebook statuses and the Twitterverse, hoping to be heard. We are at odds with the simulacrum of a world that we have built, whether it is through cinema, digital media, the internet, whether it is the realization of a national Orwellian phone tap, or the proliferation of cameras (and of “reality” television) making our lives feel constantly documented. For us, our image is attempting to supplant our identity, and we can’t tell which is real.

Bad Boys is certainly not the only film to grapple with these ideas, nor is it the best. But it does seem to be focused on these peculiarly postmodern protagonists in ways that I have not seen dealt with critically. Perhaps my argument here is little more than pointing out the ways in which Michael Bay acts as an agent of the asserted present within a historical continuum. If not he, than someone else would have made this film; it was, tautologically, of its time. But it we cling to our descriptions of the film, cling to the things that we have decided to understand about it (because what is the value of a truth we refuse to reconsider?), then we fall prey to the same things these characters do. We mistake the description for the thing, our account for the experience. The copy for the original. Language for art.

-Ben Creech

*This is one hell of a gloss of Jean Baudrillard, of whom much more could be said. Check out his “Precession of Simulacra” from Simulation and Simulacra if you’re interested in reading more.

Style over Substance – A Critique of Emptiness

Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God Forgives (2013)

I don’t quite know what it means, but I left the theatre for Only God Forgives with a smile on my face. It’s a brutal anti-revenge flick, a nauseous fever dream, but one punctuated with a kind of surprising absurdity, like the half-joke someone makes after an awkward, embarrassing confession. In many ways the film is a continuation of the previous film by the director Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011’s Drive; in just as many it is a jarring departure. Both are characterized by an overwhelming abundance of style, even an obsessive fascination with the sheen and texture of colors and surfaces more than the narratives that carry them along. They each have stories, mind you, plots that define the worlds they live in, and yet the two films were received in polar opposite ways. While Drive was one of the best-reviewed films of the year, Only God Forgives is vying for one of the worst, sitting pretty with a strong 35/100 on Metacritic.

This kind of turnaround isn’t unheard of: Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is one of the most famous flops in the history of cinema, and it was hot on the heels of The Deer Hunter. The thing that has caught my attention though is not so much that it is being critically panned, but the language that sits at the center of these pans. Most critics are accusing Only God Forgives of privileging “style over substance,” or some variation therein. David Edelstein puts it in the title: “An Awful Stylized Exercise in Stylish Style”; Michael Phillips’ only compliment for Refn is his skill in interior design; Variety’s Peter Debruge calls it “an exercise in supreme style and minimal substance”; the examples are numerous. Sitting at the center of most of the criticisms of the film is an apparent dearth of so-called “substance” and an excess (call it pretentious, call it indulgent) of “style.”

For me, I think that this is an incorrect way of stating their issues with the film. We have come to think, as film-goers, that style and substance are opposed to one another, opposite ends of a spectrum on which all art can be placed. In this system, the best films lie clearly in or near the center, with an appropriate balance of style and substance, and anything that teeters too far in either direction is to be rebuked for its indulgent wanderings. But this doesn’t seem quite right to me. It seems that throughout its history, anything that lays claim to art cinema has at its inception fallen victim to these cries, from the early works of FW Murnau to recent endeavors by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Furthermore, style and substance, as I will show, are inextricably bound, tied up together, inseparable. Style is simply the way in which substance presents itself, it articulates and defines the substance; style cannot exist without it. These critics have legitimate issues with the film(s), but those are not issues that stem from a lack of substance; rather they are symptoms of a primary misrecognition of substance.

Sucker Punch (2011)

Sucker Punch (2011)

Before I get ahead of myself, though, let’s take a minute to consider the criticism. What do we mean when we say a given work has too much style and too little substance? In everyday speaking this concern is, quite simply, that a work doesn’t really seem to be about much. (“It’s pretty, but is it art?”) The substance of a film boils down to the what while the style is the how. It pays attention to its formal qualities, which it appears to execute with the precision of a master, whether those qualities are cinematography, lighting, editing, or occasionally acting (though this component seems typically to qualify for substance). On one end of this spectrum might be director Zach Snyder, whose films often fall prey to this criticism. Sucker Punch, for example, had a number of sequences that were lauded for their technical abilities; thematically and emotionally, however, critics failed to connect to it. Substance appears to need both of these things: thematic unity/cohesion and emotional resonance/consistency.

Take as another example Xavier Dolan’s 2011 film Les Amours Imaginaires (a.k.a. Heartbeats). The film is not as widely seen here in the US, but that’s just as well. Check out the short, stylish trailer below, and the style/substance criticism seems to be perfectly applicable to this film. It has long sequences in slow motion, the production design (costumes, lighting, cinematography) pops, and by and large the film seems to be about attractive people (including the director himself) longingly looking at each other. Considering that the gaze of the camera is simply substituted for the nexus of gazes constituted by the characters, and we have a film that is virtually tautologically self-indulgent, stylish and insubstantial. Because it appears to be interested in taking pictures to capture the qualities of physical attraction, we might even go so far as to say that the “substance” of Heartbeats is analogous to the film it is printed on: mere celluloid, printed with images that have themselves as their only reference.

But see, this is precisely the point. If nothing else, Dolan’s film lives in a world where the thinness of attraction and desire is manifest. The film is not about the fact that these characters long for one another, lust after one another, or look at each other – it is about how they do all this. While this is captured through the stylistic gestures of the film, from its vibrant, abstract tableaux to its slow-mo, hip-soundtracked sequences, they are not, nor can they be, divorced from the substance of the piece. Critics who defend stylish works like this will often resort to retorting that in these films the style is the substance, but I don’t think its quite that, either. Rather, the style directs us towards the substance, it signals it, draws it out, and identifies it for us, so that we might recognize it.

Attempting to separate style from substance is not only a futile task – it is an absurd one. And yet the criticism that a given film lacks substance has persisted for decades (in cinema, that is; much longer in other media), even if such a claim is later revised. There is even an insidious historical edge to this criticism: it seems to be predominantly directed to films that are otherwise valued as high art – films that experiment with form, forging new ways of making meaning in the cinema, from the works of Godard to Tarkovsky.  Now I’m not trying to suggest that the criticism of a film’s insubstantial quality is characteristic of a certain philistinism; rather, I believe that the critique of emptiness stems from a fundamental misapprehension of the film at hand.

Night of the Hunter (1955)

Night of the Hunter (1955)

These critics who label a film empty aren’t idiots (though some might beg to differ). It’s not as if these voices come from a single place of overly puritanical or conservative criticism – these voices can be heard across the critical spectrum. When Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter came out, it was universally panned, because the film seemed to be too loose with its stylistic gestures, flaunting beautiful images without much of a thematic, emotional, or ethical core to ground them. Now we recognize it as a masterpiece (and it is one of my personal top ten favorite films). What happened in the decades between its premiere and its resurrection? I think when we saw it upon its release we expected it to be a particular kind of film, and when the film was different, was interested in other things, was focused on stranger themes, was on the fringe of cinema, we failed to recognize what it’s substance was. The film was never empty, but we saw it as empty because we thought it was going to be filled with something else.

This seems to be the central disconnect present in many of these films. I was recently ensconced in a debate over the 2002 M. Night Shyamalan film Signs. As soon as it was mentioned, a friend immediately criticized the aliens’ invasion strategy, in particular, their failure to recognize that the planet was covered in something that posed a deadly threat to them. For him, the film was no good, it had no value, because a film must make sense, and this clearly did not. What my friend missed, though, is that this is not what the film is about. The film is in no way concerned with the aliens that attempt to invade Earth, or their techniques and mistakes. Signs is about family and faith, about the relationships between people in the face of an immense catastrophe. Now we could debate whether or not it is any good, but my friend and I were essentially talking about two different films. Many of the criticisms of emptiness are plagued by this misapprehension: they mistake certain moments or themes as central to the film, and when those aren’t explored, to them, the film appears to have never been about anything at all. (To reduce it to a straw man, imagine someone watching Citizen Kane as if it were a biopic of William Randolph Hearst; the film would quickly lose its appeal and appear to make several biographical errors, and the viewer might soon tire of it. Yet the film endures…)

The other thing that binds the films frequently accused of lacking substance is their concern with surfaces. I’m not suggesting that they are all surface, or all style, or something like that, but that their concern is with the thin layer between performance and identity, between cinema and reality, between masks and the faces they hide. Think of an egg: an egg without a yolk might be called empty and without substance, because it lacks the thing we are used to seeing within it. But a Faberge egg, while decadent, is not lacking in beauty. These films, too, are seemingly thin, but are interested in the things that lie between the cracks, the identities that hide behind the faces, the particular modality of the image itself (not necessarily the thing it represents so much as embodies).

To return to the film I began with, many critics have expressed their disappointment in the newest effort by Nicolas Winding Refn, precisely for these reasons. They expected the film to be concerned with particular themes and issues. And at first glance, it seems like that might be the case, only it never chases those leads to their conclusion. This has lead many to disparage the film for its apparent lack of content. For me, though, the film is nothing but content. It is about the gulf that separates internal and external selves, the chasm that divides Julian’s blank, paralyzed face and the torrents that clearly run through him as he struggles with avenging his brother’s death. It is about violence in it’s purest form, as something we are confronted with, assaulted by, that we deal with visually as much as through touch. Violence is a thing imagined, that is trapped inside your brain, an event that you repeat a thousand and one times, when its reality is far shorter than we ever recall. One punch thrown, one bullet fired, one limb lost, one face bruised – it is all over so quickly, and yet the specular violence of it lives in a whirlwind in our brain, possessing our thoughts, provoking our fears. If Only God Forgives can be reasonably compared to Lynch, it is because that internal maelstrom is one that so closely resembles Lynch’s nightmarish dreamscapes.

But that is all really to say that I find the film far from empty.

It might seem from this essay that I think the criticism of emptiness is always in error, but that’s not quite true. I’d rather say I’m perpetually suspicious of it, especially when it is accompanied by an indication of the presence of style. I tend to wonder why the filmmakers worked so hard to accomplish something without content. They certainly thought they were saying something. But then there are the other films, you know, the ones we all agree aren’t any good. What about them? Is there anything there?

I can’t think anything but yes. Making any kind of art is a productive process – something is always added to the world. In a simply physical, tautological sense, there is always a there there. You may think it is no good, I may think it is no good, we may all think it was a waste of time to see, but its not nothing. It exists, if nothing else, in its very enunciation, and it speaks to its own production. It may speak poorly, or with a bad accent, but it speaks nevertheless. It is legitimate to hate something, to feel that it wasted your time, but for it to have done so it must exist, it must have form, and it must have content. Otherwise what is there to critique?

-Ben Creech

PS. I would be very interested in doing much more research on this topic, to see how this criticism has appeared through the ages, how many times it has been revised canonically, and how many times it has disappeared into obscurity. Naturally, the moments when the criticism of emptiness is most egregious are the only ones we ever notice – the ones for which they are ostensibly spot one would naturally disappear from sight. But this is a blog for casual essays, and so I won’t go quite that deep just yet.

Thanks for reading, post your comments down below. I’m hoping for fisticuffs.