Thursday, December 11, 2008

Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde: The Marriage of Technique and Theme

The opportunity to see Arthur Penn's BONNIE & CLYDE in an unadulterated and contiguous form (that is without censorship and commercial interruptions) brought forth the ability to see certain striking cinematic stylistics and risk taking performances. I was particularly taken with the opening shot and the opening sequence of the film. After the opening credit montage of what appeared to be authentic snapshots of the real Bonnie and Clyde there is a magnificently complex opening shot that begins with a close up of Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) applying red lipstick to her lips. The shot then shifts into a close up of Bonnie's face and then pulls back to reveal that we are looking at her face as reflected in a mirror. This opening shot, although seemingly a simplistic affair, actually required two focus pulls, a short pan and a zoom out all of which had to be perfectly timed with the rhythm of Bonnie's movements. It is interesting from a technical point of view because of the high degree of difficultly of getting the rhythms of the camera movement and the rhythms of the body of the actor to synchronize so that there wouldn't be any distracting distortions of focus or detail. Here, Penn and his cinematographer Burnett Guffey (The Harder They Fall - 1956) are establishing the fact that this film will not settle for an easy way out of specific details that other traditional Hollywood films would do. The technical dexterity and determination has a thematic corollary in the overall design of the picture; that is that Bonnie & Clyde will attempt something different and will go boldly and frankly towards that difference in its presentation of the sexual and violent nature of its story. Where other Hollywood 'professionals' and those from the old guard would have easily simplified this opening shot by turning it into a single medium close up of Bonnie in the mirror- Penn and his cinematographer (and by extension, Warren Beatty as producer and Dede Allen as editor) chose to announce the boldness of the entire film with a boldly complicated opening shot. In short, their technique is signifying their theme conceptualization of the story. If we move beyond the technique of the opening shot we find that there is a sexual suggestiveness which has Bonnie's lips in full close up with red lipstick as if she were kissing all of the male members of the audience; the shot establishes a raw and rare intimacy between actor and spectator in a non-pornographic film. For as the opening shot melds into the opening scene we discover that Bonnie is nude and alone in her bedroom. The opening sequence becomes a dance (or rather a stripped tease) between the naked Bonnie and the observing camera. Every edit to a different camera position entices the male audience member with the notion that he might see Bonnie's naked breasts, a wisp of pubic hair, her buttocks, etc... Yet, Bonnie remains elusive, turning her body away from the camera just before it gets to its next position so that "the goods" are kept just out of our eye's reach. Her to-be-looked-at ness, to borrow the phrase from Laura Mulvey, is a window through which we might see the entire film. When she looks out of the window, part of the window frame bars us from seeing her breasts, frustrating our desire, but igniting the hope that the next camera shot will give "it" to us. The reverse camera shot from Clyde's perspective when he looks up at Bonnie in the window-proxies our desires to Clyde, because unlike us the audience members whose view is controlled by the camera, Clyde is free to see all of Bonnie. He can see her nudity, her pubic area, her breasts; he can see all of the goods and thus Clyde becomes the proxy of audience male desire. This is an important transference for the film since Clyde's sexual dysfunction later in the film further frustrates those males who might want Clyde to slide into Bonnie for their own sake. But, it is not that Clyde is sexually dysfunctional, but rather that Clyde is a virgin. He is a virgin adult male and this is what makes Beatty's performance of the virgin adult male all the more shocking since he would have been climbing up to the height of his stardom as a "Hollywood Hunk" at the time of the film's production and release. Beatty played against his own growing star persona with his portrayal of the adult male virgin in Clyde Barrow. In deference to Mulvey, Beatty also presents his to-be-looked-at-ness in his demeanor, style of dress, the archetiture of his upper body which is on display when he is in his wife-beater tee-shirt and although he is not disrobed to the degree of Dunaway, we have to acknowledge that the female spectator was also given a raw and imtimate -albeit psychological- look at masculinity. Clyde's virginity is confirmed for us after he and Bonnie finally do make love and Clyde asks her, in a moment of post-coital giddiness, if this is the way," you're supposed to feel after," it. Here we realize that Clyde has never had sexual intercourse before and their previous sexual attempts were masturbatory instead of penetration. Such a dramatization of male sexual inexperience is theme that had never been touched on before in American cinema. In fact, Mike Nichols, The Graduate which was to come out in January 1968, six months after Bonnie & Clyde follows a theme of male sexual inexperience, humiliation and disturbance that would continue through John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). So I admire this film both for its visual technique which announced its boldness and distinction from previous traditional Hollywood cinematic techniques as well as the film's overall boldness in its presentation of male sexual inexperience in an era of increasing sexual freedom.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Negative Vision and Post-War Pessimism in Jean-Luc Godard's WEEKEND

As the words," End of cinema," melds into the "Visa de Controle" official stamp of approval for exportable French films at the end of Jean-Luc Godard's WEEKEND (1967) one is left to contemplate the bitter taste of Godard's deliberately negative vision of life in France and western culture twenty-plus years after WWII. Godard seems here to be the first in a line of European art film directors to create a negative 'magum opus'; a nihilistic and deliberately harsh view of the world. Following Godard a few years later was Antonioni's ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) with its student protests and those unforgettably beautiful stylistized explosions shot at incredible speeds in wide screen panavision to capture the details of the girl Daria's view of the destruction of bourgeois materialism. Several years later was Pasolini's SALO (1975) which was another negative, brutal and harsh view of the world. And following Pasolini several years later was Robert Bresson's L'ARGENT (1983) yet another view of a world reduced to money, materialism, murder and mayhem. Was it the promises of a humanism unfulfilled after the horrors of WWII that seemed to fuel these director's negative statements; these self-consciously determined pessimistic views of the world? It is particularly curious when we look at the early work of these directors and see a romantic, spiritually uplifting, or rebounding humanism and then we come to these darker films- some of them are even final films like Pasolini's SALO and Bresson's L'ARGENT. Yet with Bresson at least we can see that his pessimism developed by degrees starting with MOUCHETTE (1967) and increasing with each subsequent film, but with Godard, Pasolini and Antonioni this negative vision is so sudden, so startling that one often looks for external biographical information as a means for explaining why their films turned so horrifically negative. With Pasolini one is quick to identify the marriage of his beloved Nineto Davoli and the impossibility of own romantic fulfillment at the impetus for SALO. Although we find that this would be only one contributing factor and certainly is not satisfactory for explaining SALO or Pasolini's intentions with that film. For Antonioni we have little biographical information to attribute to his negative vision, but instead that he had come to America as an explorer and what he found was already extant in the youth, the culture and the times. A similar method informs Bresson's L'ARGENT in that he was merely capturing the changes that he had noticed in contemporary 1983 as compared with his immediate post-war experiences. Society was changing and not for the better. Yet with Godard and WEEKEND one is quick to use his divorce from Anna Karina as an impetus for his dark vision. If PIERROT LE FOU was "the last romantic couple" as he suggested in many interviews, then WEEKEND is a deliberate inversion of PIERROT LE FOU with a husband and wife on the run- but not for adventure, not to escape the constraints of bourgeois conformity and materialism- but instead the couple is on the run as a plot to secure and get insurance money from a relative before they die. There is even a subplot that involves the husband plotting to get rid of the wife and the wife plotting to get rid of the husband after they have received the insurance money. What makes WEEKEND so disturbing is that it is relentless in its view of society governed, controlled and manipulated by money and materials. People are merely soul-less automatons, arguing and fighting with each other over tiny bumps and dings to their cars, blood curdling screams after an accident not for the loss of life, but for the loss of a designer handbag. Emotions are displaced onto materials. People are identified by the designer clothes they wear or the cars they drive. The class struggle is reduced to the hurling of insults back and forth after a car accident between a farmer and a young bourgeois couple as static and disinterested witnesses look on without intervention. Make no mistake about it, WEEKEND is reducio ad absurdism. Interestingly, unlike Ferdinand and Marianne in PIERROT LE FOU who tell stories to finance their poetic and wild adventures across the land, in WEEKEND Corinne (Mirelle Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne) have stories told to them, stories that don't interest them, stories that don't tell them anything that they want to know. They are read passages from French Revolutionary manifestos, the parable of the pebble, passages from Aime Cesaire's anti-Colonialist poem, a discourse on Mozart and Modern music, nothing interests them except money and they'll stop at nothing to get it. Even after the two have lost their way and joined a cannibalistic cult in the woods WEEKEND continues its assault on Modernity, civilization. And yet unlike Pasolini's intentionally irredeemable SALO- there is something that redeems Godard's negative vision- a certain something in Godard's soul that could not be suppressed even for this his most negative film: his wicked humor. WEEKEND is a very funny film with punchlines as much visual as they are in dialogue drawn at the very end of Godard's episodes. Consider the Anal-yse sequence where Corinne goes into explicit detail about a three way sexual experience (eggs, masturbation and all) and at the end of it the psychoanalyst (her lover) asks her to stop talking and "work him up"- as if he wasn't worked up enough already! The hilarious "scenes from Parisian Life" sequence among the kid with bow, Corinne, Roland and the kid's mother after he bumps her car. It's like something out of a farce they way they fight and insult one another. Every episode in WEEKEND is staged like a Jacques Tati film gone mad! Is it a coincidence that both WEEKEND and Tati's PLAYTIME were filmed in 1967? In Tati's PLAYTIME we watch as Mr. Hulot (Tati's Everyman Francais) is both amazed and disturbed by the so-called modern transformations of consumer society with its plastic chairs and impersonal rapidity. We, the audience, are placed in the position of a bemused Mr. Hulot in Godard's WEEKEND- but this isn't playtime- its a nightmare with jokes thrown in. And isn't there something so delicious about the ending of WEEKEND where the wife eats the freshly cooked meat as the cult leader explains that it is the flesh of," a couple of English tourists and a little bit of your husband for flavor"! Quickly, Corinne tells the cook to save her some more of the meat for later. In WEEKEND Godard presents his most pessimistic view of the finality of post-war society having abandoned its humanism in favor of materialism, consumerism and capitalism, but he lets us in on the joke. Bon anniversaire, Jean-Luc!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Two or Three Things I Know About Him: The Misogynistic Tendencies in Godard's 60's Films?

We have been avoiding it like an 800 pound gorilla in the screening room. Although many of us (Cineit, Two Weeks from Everywhere, Tlog Bitle) have glibly acknowledged the misogynistic tendencies in some of the Godard films we have been watching, we have not been willing to openly discuss the issue at length with honesty and clarity. I have already noted that in BREATHLESS the issue of misogyny is inextricably linked to Godard's use of the "Femme Fatale" of film noir and the portrait of the late 50's/early 60's woman's search for independence from patriarchal-familial oppression. Ambitious women were forced to choose between their love lives and their careers, much the same way as today's women find themselves making the same choices albeit without such fatal consequences. Patricia in BREATHLESS snitched on Michel for reasons of 'common sense', rationality and the fact that she had surmised from that long intimate apartment scene with him that their love and his life would not last very long. Patricia made the decision any woman in her position would have had to make: Michel had to be sacrificed if she wanted to go on living- independently. In Godard's subsequent film, LE PETIT SOLDAT with Anna Karina we do not see this 'femme fatale' motif used as the Karina's character of Veronica is caught in the web of French government and FLN spying and counter spying. If fact, her death (by torture no doubt) is held off-screen, sparing us the details and the sentimentality. But with LES CARABINIERS, UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME and continuing through to CONTEMPT and MASCULIN/FEMININ women occupy a tenuous position in the Godardian cinematic world. Under Godard's gaze the woman has three faces as 1) a victim of male patriarchy ( Nana in VIVRE SA VIE or the 'Seductresses 3rd class in ALPHAVILLE), 2) a nouvelle femme fatale placing her ambition above her relationship with a man (as BREATHLESS, MASCULINE/FEMININ) or 3) the cause or the insigator of bourgeois ideals, materialism, artistic and moral vacuity (as Venus and Cleopatre in LES CARABINIERS, Camille in LE MEPRIS (Contempt) or Juliette in DEUX OU TROIS CHOSES QUE JE SAIS D'ELLE (Two or Three Things I Know About Her). Interestingly, in CONTEMPT Paul blames his artistic vacuity on Camille. He claims that he got the apartment and wants to provide (presumably) the bourgeois ideals for Camille. Yet in the film Camille makes it a point of saying how fondly she remembers when Paul was just a writer and the two of them lived in a small apartment with nothing. Thus, it was Paul who was reaching for the bourgeois ideals, but when he failed or had a crisis of conscious he would blame Camille. He did this by asking," Do you like the apartment?" Goading her into agreeing so that he might absolve himself for having sold his integrity to someone like the sleazy American producer Jeremy Pokosch. In Two or Three Things, Godard seems to be again placing the onus of blame for bourgeois materialism on the female, in the sense that it is the woman who prostitutes herself to afford the luxuries beyond her or her husband's means. More than this, because the male characters in Two or Three Things concern themselves with politics and current events, Juliette's shopping, prostituting and general empty existence is all the more unfavorably juxtaposed with the men's activities. It is as if Godard could not acknowledge that there were men who were also 'buying' into the bourgeois ideals of the new consumer society. Juliette was not alone in wanting these ideals of consumer society. Although he whispers his observations about the Gaullist regime's changes to "Elle: The Paris region" his film only shows us a gender partitioned view of these changes. So although Godard alternates his presentation of the female throughout his 60's films there is a preponderance of criticism leveled at the female for being the instigator or the cause of the blind acceptance of bourgeois ideals and materialism. Such criticism is problematic only in so far as it excludes the man from the pursuit of these ideals or allows the man to blame the woman for his pursuit as Paul tried to do in CONTEMPT. Perhaps these tendencies are not so much misogynistic as they are chauvinistic in that we are given only one gender as the object of the critique. Yet with WEEKEND Godard seems to change again and allow the man to share some of the blame, so that it might be more prudent to say that Godard constantly alternates the relationship of gender to materialism and bourgeois ideals in such a way that one film cannot contain or express the whole of his criticism. Considering the fact that Karina in Godard's last film with her, MADE IN THE USA played a gun-wielding "bogart-like" character it would seem that we have to accept the chauvinism of the previous films as expressions of the era in which the films were made. Just as one as to accept the explicit racism in John Ford's THE SEARCHERS as an expression of the racism inherent in American society in the 1950's so also might we see those chauvinistic tendencies in Godard's work of the 1960's as reflective of French society at that time.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Associational Narrative Form in Godard's MASCULIN/FEMININ

My initial reaction to MASCULIN/FEMININ after the screening was one of perplexity and stupefaction. I thought that the film was," all over the place," and lacked a certain thematic unity that could be discerned in all of Godard's previous films no matter how far he might have digressed from the plot. But my previous post on the elided scene of Paul's death has now caused me to re-examine MASCULIN/FEMININ (Henceforth simply M/F) after wrestling with the film in my head for several hours last night. Now I believe that what Godard has accomplished within M/F is the exploration and expansion of a new type of cinematic narrational form that I call: associational narrative form. It is called associational because the concept is similar to Sergei Eisenstein's theory of association montage, but practiced not at the level of the justapositioning of shots, but instead at the level of mise-en-scene and the juxtaposition of dramatic actions within a scene. Eisenstein described association montage as the combination of shots as means of creating," chains of psychological associations... As a means for pointing up a situation emotionally." (1) He uses an example from his film STRIKE to illustrate the concept: In STRIKE," the montage of the killing of the workers is actually a cross montage of this carnage with the butchering of a bull in an abattoir. Though the subjects are different, "butchering" is the associative link. This made for a powerful emotional intensification of the scene." (ibid) Despite critic Andre Bazin's vehemence against montage and his oversimplification of Eisenstein's concepts we have seen this form of associative montage before in the opening of Charlie Chaplin's MODERN TIMES (e.g. workers and sheep) and of course Francis Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (e.g. The butchering of Colonel Kurtz and the slaughtering of a water buffalo). In both instances there is a powerful intensification of emotion wrought from the justaposition of the different, yet associatively similar shots. In MODERN TIMES there is the emotion of humor elicited from the juxtaposition and of course in APOCALYPSE NOW there is the emotion of 'horror'. But knowing that Godard and the other New Wave directors were all put in a rather precarious position vis-a-vis montage and Bazin's "democratic" mise-en-scene there was a concerted effort to find new ways of cinematic expression without resorting to Soviet-style montage aesthetics or repeating the deep focus mise-en-scene of Welles and Renoir. Of all the French New Wave directors we know that Godard explored and experimented the most within these two parameters, adapting and changing his style with almost reckless abandon; opening new stylistic door ways and seeming to dare anyone to go through them. M/F presents us with another one of these sytlistic doorways by applying the notion of association montage to mise-en-scene and dispensing with classical cinematic narrative.
Quickly, in Classical cinematic narrative form every scene has a direct causal relationship to the preceding scene that endorses the purposive conveyance of dramatic information; that is, there is the deliberate organization of dramatic information from the end of one scene through to the next scene rather like Stanislavsky's concept of the "spine" of the play. In fact, this purposive conveyance follows from the tradition of the Elizabethan theatrical tradition where dramatic action was both physically unified under the proscenium arch and thematically unified via the causal relationship of scenes and Acts to one another. For instance, Act 1: Scene 1 of Shakespeare's Macbeth introduces the three witches who announce that they will meet again to," meet with Macbeth," thereby establishing a causal relationship and dramatic purposiveness to Scene 2 which describes Macbeth's military achievements on behalf of the king. Thus, each scene has a direct causal relationship to the next via the movement of dramatic material within one scene that builds on that initial movement- gaining in momentum through various scenes and Acts until the climax: the showdown with Macduff and the beheading of Macbeth.
It is my contention that what Godard has done in M/F is that he has dispensed with that form of classical cinematic narrational form which was borrowed from the theatre that I have previously described and he has created a full length associational narrative form; a narrative form where the causal relationship of purposive dramatic action from scene to scene has been muted in favor of presenting a juxtaposition of various dramatic actions within a scene that involves a rich interplay between the principal characters and background characters that the story is not following in contiguity. For instance, in the opening cafe scene where Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) introduces himself to Madeleine (Chantal Goya) and the two discuss a mutual friend, the scene changes from a series of perpendicular counter-shots to a wide angle reverse shot of the cafe which has Madeleine and Paul balanced on opposite sides of the frame in the foreground and another couple with a child seated together at table in the background. (2) The husband and wife are in great emotional distress and the sound of Paul and Madeleine's conversation is muted as the background sound of the husband and wife's argument in brought forward on the soundtrack. This is a deliberate inversion of what is known as the point of audition where," the choice was between a [sound] recording that duplicated the camera position, so that the volume given the dialogue would change as the picture cut, say, from a close up to a full shot, and one that would insist on the independence of the audio from the pictures, keeping the microphone close to the mouths of the characters even when they were seen from far away." (3) In the case of this opening scene in M/F Godard has chosen to increase the volume of characters who are the furthest away from the camera and decrease the volume of the main characters who are in the foreground of the shot. It is in this way that the mise-en-scene is being split into two planes of dramatic space instead of using two different shots (e.g. one of Paul and Madeleine and another of the the couple). The scene continues with the husband angrily leaving out of the cafe with the child and the wife going back to the table for her purse. She pulls out a gun and rushes outside of the cafe and shoots him in the back. He falls dead. She throws the gun down and runs away with the child. Here we are given two different dramatic events that are not organized by a plot, but instead have been associated together via mise-en-scene, camera placement, and soundtrack emphasis. The beginning of one relationship between a young couple is juxtaposed with the destruction of the relationship of an older couple. By associating the two circumstances via mise-en-scene instead of montage the spectator is forced into a different relationship with the film. The spectator cannot look for classical purposive dramatic action within a scene, but must now re-orientate themselves to a form of narration where different circumstances are divided within the frame and contrasted with each other. Associational narration form in M/F as the duel effect of 1) forcing a comparison and contrast between the two circumstances which expands the narration from that of simply a set of characters to the relationship between a set of characters and their environment; and 2) introduces a higher degree of fatalism within the film as the associations build up resonances that seem to impinge upon the characters by the film's end.
This associational narrative form had also been practiced briefly in earlier French New Wave films. In Agnes Varda's CLEO de 5 a 7, the first cafe sequence (Chapitre 2: Angele de 17h:08 a 17h:13) where Cleo meets with her personal assistant Angele and is upset over her tarot card reading and her impending cancer test results. When she finally calms down and orders a coffee, she drinks it as Angele engages in a discussion with the cafe manager off-screen. The camera moves in closer to frame Cleo as she drinks on the right hand side of the image and on the left side of the image we can see a couple at another table behind her breaking up. The effect is much the same as in Godard's M/F but here Cleo's anxiety is compared with her assistant who doesn't think the situation is that grave and her anxiety is contrasted with the couple whose love is falling apart. Cleo relationship to her environment is emphasized between the sound of her assistant telling a story and the sound and image of the couple breaking up next to her. The mise-en-scene has been split in two on the image track and in three on the sound track. There is a fatalism increased in these associations that eventually resonate within the character as the film reaches its finale. Thus, via camera placement and the emphasis of sound (first on the assistant's voice and then on the dialogue between the couple) associational narration juxtaposes mise-en-scene to break up the causal relationship of classical narration. Godard explored associative narration in VIVRE SA VIE (the machine gun fire in a cafe as well as Karina observing a happy couple at a table next to her) and UNE FEMME MARIEE (as Charlotte overhears two young girls discussing sex and boys behind her at a cafe). Yet in M/F Godard pushed this narrative form to the forefront by using the technique beyond simple cafe scenes. The scene on the Metro which quotes Leroy Jones' THE DUTCHMAN is played out as Paul looks on at the two black men and the white girl. Also when a man threatens Paul with a knife and then uses it to kill himself or when Robert distracts a military chauffeur while Paul paints an anti-Vietnam slogan on his car. Each one of these examples does not have a direct causal relationship to the scenes which proceed them but instead builds up a chain of associations that cannot be resolved until the end of the film.
The true meaning of associational narrative form is not found in the sequential order of the narrative where scenes build upon previous scenes, but instead the meaning is suspended until the final scene or final actions or circumstances that we witness happening to the principal characters. Only at the finale of an associational narrative does the spectator have the opportunity to fully assess the meaning of the various dramatic juxtapositions. During the film one only encounters the startling effect of the juxtapositions as when the man stabs himself in front of Paul in M/F, but after the final scene one can recognize both the associational structure and discern its meaning which is usually (but not always) a pre-figuration of the fate of the principal characters. In M/F it is the theme of murder and/or pre-determined suicide that prefigures Paul's murder or suicide at the end of the film. The narcissism of a pop-star is pre-figured in Madeleine by Bridget Bardot learning her lines for a play in the cafe scene as well as the interview with a consumer product scene. Thus, associational narration is a process of pre-figuring the fate of principal characters via the observed fates of background characters; it is a process whose meaning or thematic associations are not fully revealed until the finale of the film.
Finally, another important feature of the associational narrative is episodic construction or the use of scenes as independent episodes that fade out or cut to black and stand separated from the preceding or following scenes as self-contained narrative units. We see an episodic construction in Cleo de 5 a 7, Vivre sa Vie, and in M/F. Episodic construction is yet another means to insure that the film's scenes are not to be read as having a direct causal relationship to preceding or following scenes since the episodes can begin and end arbitrary to the plot and don't have to adhere to a strictly contiguous linear temporal order. I believe Godard employed this strategy in M/F as a means of finding a balance between Bazinian aesthetics and the significance of montage to cinematic expression. We know that Godard was at pains to reconcile his allegiance to Bazinian aesthetic notions of long take and democratization of mise-en-scene with his knowledge of montage as an important syntactical function of cinematic expression. His ideas about associational narration can be seen germinating as early as 1956 in his article, Montage My Fine Care, which he wrote for Cahiers du Cinema. In the article Godard states that," if direction is a look, montage is a heartbeat. To foresee is the characteristic of both: but what one seeks to foresee in space, the other seeks in time... talking of mise-en scene automatically implies montage." (4) Here we can see that Godard realized the importance of montage and mise-en-scene as expressive tools of cinematic narration and that he could effectively alternate between the two principles by emphasizing one or the other within a single film. Associational narration is attempt to practice montage at the level of mise-en-scene by juxtaposing different dramatic events between the principal characters and the background characters within a single scene. Instead of cutting to various shots, aspects of the mise-en-scene are "enlarged" (e.g. the use of sound in M/F or the use of titles in Une Femme Mariee) to create the juxtaposition in a unified field of view. The murder or suicide of Paul at the end of M/F forces the spectator to see these juxtapositions as pre-figurations of the final circumstances of a principal character whose fate is that of death.


(1) Page 57, FILM FORM, Sergei Eisenstein. Harvest. New York. 1949
(2) Godard is again here deliberately avoiding the use of a standard shot reverse-shot sequence by shooting Madeleine in a straight on medium shot and Paul from a side angle medium shot of his profile.
(3) Page203, FILM PRODUCTION THEORY, Jean-Pierre Geuens, State University of New York Press, Albany. 2000.
(4) Page 39, Godard on Godard, ed. Tom Milne, Da Capo, New York 1972.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Evil Behind a Pretty Face: Godard's MASCULIN/FEMININ

There are many events within Godard's MASCULIN/FEMININ that are intended to shock the viewer: 1) the murder of a husband by a distraught wife; 2) the self-immolation of a Vietnam war protester; 2) the two homosexuals kissing in a movie theatre; 3) the use of Leroy Jones dialogue from his play DUTCHMEN on the train; 4) The man who stabs himself in the abdomen- but by far, in my opinion, the most shocking event within MASCULIN/FEMININ occurs not only off-screen but in a scene cut out from the film: the death of the main character Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud). In the final interview scene with Paul's emerging pop singer girlfriend, Madeleine (Chantal Goya) we get the tail end of a description of Paul's 'accidental death' from falling out of a high rise apartment while trying to take photos (presumably of Madeleine) by Catherine-Isabelle. When she leaves the room, Madeleine is brought in and quickly says that what Catherine had said about the way Paul died was correct. She had nothing more to add. When she was questioned about her pregnancy and what she was going to do she mentions that Catherine had told her about using a curtain rod (presumably to inflict an abortion) and the camera holds Madeleine's sweet and beautiful countenance for a few silent moments before fading to black. The End. What is shocking here is that doesn't seem truthful that Paul died this way... One gets the feeling from the emotionless delivery of the cold facts that both Catherine and Madeliene were lying to cover up for something sinister. In fact, because Godard does not show us this death scene (as he had been so careful to show us in his previous films) the truth of the interview is held in desperate ambivalence from our knowledge of the Paul character whom we have followed throughout the film up until that point. Was Paul led out to the balcony under some pretense and pushed? But why and by whom? If there was something sinister about Paul's demise, then we have only our previous observations of the main characters to drawn on. The fact that during an interview earlier in the film between Paul and Madeleine we learn that Madeleine would consider her self to be the "center of the world" and her constant narcissism in front of the mirror says more about the motivations for her involvement with Paul's death than could be explained with standard Hollywood exposition. That Madeleine and Paul's relationship had been deteriorating in the last third of the film along with ascension of her career brings us back to the independent woman who thwarts the patriarchal structure by 'getting rid of the man in her life' as in BREATHLESS. Again this is a different presentation of the 'femme-fatale' that had been previously understood from film noir. In film noir the female is somehow involved in the criminal activity of the man and has to 'throw him over' so to speak to enrich her self; greed becomes a significant motivation for the classic femme-fatale. (See: Wilder's Double Indemnity, for instance) But in Godard's (re)-presentation of the femme fatale her reasons for 'throwing the man over' have to do with her Independence in the modern world, her ambition to become something in real life that causes the man to become a burden. In BREATHLESS Patricia (as a new femme-fatale) wanted to become a journalist. But in MASCULIN/FEMININ isn't it true that Madeleine wanted to be a pop singer more than anything, even love itself? Of course, I am making more of this speculation than could perhaps be discerned from the film itself, but the coldness, the almost clinical discussion of the fact of Paul's demise by the friend of his girlfriend and then his girlfriend who adds nothing personal to her witnessing his death makes the film end on a note of circumspection that itself cannot be denied. That Madeleine would contemplate using a curtain rod to abort their child now that he is gone betrays something 'ghastly' in her personality and something hideous emerging in the youth culture at that time: blinding ambition. The gender roles that were being investigated in Godard's film reveals how the changing roles of women literally destroy the preeminence of patriarchy by destroying the man; he is not rescued, he is not mourned he is simply dispatched without emotion. It is interesting that both BREATHLESS and MASCULIN/FEMININ have final shots of a woman's face; a face that was perhaps rightly described by feminist critic Laura Mulvey as," The Janus Face of the Female in the films of Jean-Luc Godard." Man might've learned how to kill without emotion on the battlefield, but women learned how to kill a man at home without emotion also.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Godard/Meta-Narrative/Pierrot Le Fou

Another viewing of Godard's Pierrot Le Fou (1965) has finally allowed me to be able to articulate what has fascinated me so much with this particular Godard film. I have been fascinated with Godard's strategy of meta-narration. The concept of meta-narration is simple enough to explain, it is narration about the act of narration. Meta-narration is analogous to the use of a meta-language. For instance when you learn a foreign language often times you have to have the foreign language explained to you in your native language. If you were learning French some French terms and concepts would have to be explained to you in English. Thus, English would be the meta-language used to explain the object-language (French) to you.(1) Godard practices this technique at the level of narration in Pierrot Le Fou. He creates fantastic sequences where the characters Pierrot/Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Marianne (Anna Karina) speak about what their characters are doing, will do or have done so that the (object) story becomes divorced from the images that we see and the sounds that we hear. It is with this strategy of meta-narration that Godard is able to detach the cinema from its slavish devotion to communicating a story in a linear sequential order. More than this, it is by deliberately limiting what we can see on the screen that Godard expands what we can hear on screen and conversely it is by limiting what we can hear on screen that Godard expands what we can see on screen. Nowhere is this strategy better demonstrated than in the "C'est Moi, Marianne" sequence of the film; a sequence that has always captivated my cinematic imagination from the first time I encountered it. The Meta-Narration begins with Marianne and Ferdinand speaking off screen about their characters:
Marianne: Marianne tells a story about...
Ferdinand: Ferdinand.
M: A story...
F: Complicated.
M: I knew some people...
F: It's just like during the Algerian war.
M: I will explain everything to you.
F: Waking from a terrible dream. Frank had the Keys?
M: I'll explain everything to you.
F: You were lovers?
M: I'll explain everything to you.
F: Did he make love to you?
M: I'll explain everything to you. A story.
F: Complicated.
M: ... leave very quickly.
F:... waking from a bad dream.
M: I know some people.
F: Politics.
M: An organisation.
F: Go away.
M: Gun-running.
F: In silence... in silence.... in silence.
M: It's me, Marianne.
F: He Kissed you.
M: A story.
F: Complicated.
M: I knew some people.
F: You were lovers.
M: Using my apartment.
F: It was like during the Algerian War.
M: I have a brother.
F: Waking from a bad dream.
M: Leave in a hurry... leave in a hurry... leave in a hurry. (2)
We hear this Meta-Narration, that is characters talking about themselves as characters in a story, telling each other bits and pieces of each other's story. One should note the non-linearity of the dialogue. The repetitions (a la Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais) of narrative information that tell the past and present simultaneously. Yet, the images on the screen show us another set of events from a marvelously constricted point of view. In fact, the images on screen are silent (that is have no diegetic sound as the voices are heard over it). What we see (or don't see but can understand) is that within Marianne's apartment a man has been murdered with a pair of scissors in the back of his neck. His body is laying on the bed and has been there for some time. We see Ferdinand walk into the room and we see Marianne reacting to someone coming in the door that is out of our view. She runs and hides behind a open refrigerator door while Ferdinand runs back into another room (out of our view). When the man enters the room (it is Frank whom we know from a previous scene) we see Ferdinand come back into the room as Frank sits on the bed (where the corpse was, but has now been removed presumably by Ferdinand). Frank looks surprised to see Ferdinand and then Marianne appears and distracts him as Ferdinand cracks him on the head with a champagne bottle. As Ferdinand drags Franks body out of the room, Marianne grabs a gun and begins looking out over the patio for an escape route. Then, through a series of startling and exhilarating jump cuts that jump forwards and backwards in temporal order we see the two climb down from the apartment and escape. My words don't do justice to the way these actions were presented because it is all done cinematically by use of a tracking shot with the camera placed outside on the patio looking through the windows. The camera tracks forwards, backwards, pans left and right and in so doing it obscures just as many actions as it reveals. What this series of camera movements force us to do as spectators is to become involved in the telling of the story we are only partially seeing on screen. Did Ferdinand remove the corpse from the bed? He must've because Frank sat on the bed without noticing the corpse. Who is going to hit Frank with the champagne bottle? The two characters exchange the bottle a couple of times before striking him with it. And again we must remember that the soundtrack carries the off-screen voices of the previous dialogue along with Antoine Duchamel's ominous and tragic music score weaving in and out along with the "silent" actions on screen. Thus, here by use of Meta-narration Godard was able to reveal the polygamous nature of cinematic narration; that is image can tell us (and not tell us) acts of narration that can be divorced from what the soundtrack can tell us (and not tell us) about acts of narration.
This Meta-narrative technique was perhaps first explored cinematically by Alain Resnais and Duras in Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) where we have a character recounting events in her past that we can see but that are not always anchored to what we are seeing. The technique was again explored in Truffaut's Tirez sur le Pianist (Shoot The Piano Player- 1960) and later tentatively by Godard in Une Femme est Une Femme, but here in Pierrot Le Fou Godard expanded his use of the technique and made it the driving force behind his "lovers on the run" narrative. By emphasizing a meta-narrational strategy in Pierrot Le Fou, Godard was shifting the cinematic emphasis of traditional narrative representation. Specifically, by using meta-narration at points in the story where most classical Hollywood directors would dramatize the expositional events (e.g. the escape of Marianne & Ferdinand or showing the police investigating their trail) Godard could place greater cinematic emphasis on the "fantastic" adventures within the story rather than the strictures of the plot. With Pierrot Le Fou, Godard had the best of both worlds: the playful cinematic dynamism of an adventure story with "the last romantic couple" along with the fatalistic trajectory of a "lovers on the run" plot that unified the disparate comedy and the multiple allusions to poetry, painting, literature and previous films within the adventures.
(1) This use of a meta-language is also used in symbolic logic where one has a meta-language used to describe a parenthetical object language: (A v ~B) Cf. page 136 in The Logic Course: The Bluestorm Textbook by Steven DeHaven, Tempest Media Inc., Calgary. 2001
(2) Classic Film Scripts: Jean-Luc Godard, Pierrot Le Fou

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The 'Soft' self-reflexivity of Truffaut's La Nuit Americaine (Day For Night)

It all seems so bizarre... Critics have often thought that Truffaut's La Nuit Americaine was a minor film. Even though the film won the academy award for best foriegn film in 1973, there is something missing; something not quite right about the film. I believe that I can emphatically say what is not quite right about this film: It is a film that reveals that Truffaut had become what he had so despised in his article," A Certain Tendency in French Cinema." Here he is in this film, playing a film director named, Ferrent, but making an out of date classical mise-en-scene un-new wave highly theatrical film called, Je Vous Presente Pamela. It is so mockingly self-ironic as to not be funny at all- more like pathetic. One of the reasons I believe the film lacks inspiration is that the most undeveloped character within the film is, THE DIRECTOR. Let me say that again, the very reason the film lacks inspiration is that the most underdeveloped character within it is, THE AUTEUR. Truffaut deliberately downplayed the emotional commitment of the director character (perhaps to spare himself any pointed criticism) and in so doing he reduced the director to a simple manager. A person whom people ask what to do next or where should this go. He hid himself within the film and in so doing obscured the purpose of the entire effort. Sure it was mildly interesting to watch the cast and crew (play) with each other, but there is so much more to making a film. In fact, has it not been said that a film doesn't really become a film until it is edited. Directors are sometimes tyrants. They sometimes have affairs with their leading ladies. More often than not they hate their leading ladies (e.g. Polanski and Dunaway) or there is a male cast member with whom they go toe to toe (e.g. Herzog and Kinski). And that Truffaut doesn't even include scenes between himself and his cinematographer (he's worked with some of the best, Coutard, Roeg) or his music composer (he's worked in close collaboration with some of the best, Herrmann, Delerue)- or even show the troubles directors have with producers (most in this film were aimicably resolved- not so in real life) is in a phrase a bunch of romanticized crap. In many ways, Truffaut was revealing what he had become: a hack. He says over and over in the film how he lowers his expectations as a film is being produced up until the point that he just wants the production to be finished in any way possible and this my dear friends is "Hack talk". For if you aren't even inspired during the production of your film, how are you ever going to be inspired during the post-production? So yes, it all seems so bizarre here is one of cinemas greatest champions of the auteur theory making a film about making a film where the director is nothing more than a beleagured "manager" shelpping his way through an uninspired project with little emotion and even less inspiration. Perhaps that's why the George Delerue music plays over those books about, Hitchcock, Godard, Welles, Bresson, Dreyer that Truffaut's character had ordered, he knew who the real auteurs were and that he was losing touch with what he loved the most.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Godard’s Une Femme Mariée, Pornographie à la Bertold Brect

The opportunity to view Jean-Luc Godard’s UNE FEMME MARIEE (1964) after many, many years of trying to track down a good copy allowed me to fully comprehend the richness of Godard’s achievement within this film. The story is simple and can be summarized as this: a married woman carries on an affair with an actor. She sees him whenever her husband (a pilot) flies out of town. When he returns they argue over previous arguments. The two share a son from the husband’s previous marriage. She finds out that she is three months pregnant. When her husband flies out of town again she shares a final tryst with her lover in an airport hotel before her lover has to leave out of town for a stage play. As always with Godard the story is never as compelling as the way it is told and in the case of UNE FEMME MARIEE never was a tale of tail told so compellingly.
What was always and is still the most striking aspect of UNE FEMME MARIEE was not its commonplace story, but instead the phenomenal images organized by Godard and Coutard. The trysts between Charlotte (Macha Meril) and her lover Robert (Bernard Noel) and Charlotte and her husband, Pierre (Philippe Leroy) are presented in a series of ever-increasingly fragmented images. Images that not only partition the body of the woman in the calculated perspective of the observing male, but images that also accentuate her body as a male possession visually and physically. These fragmented images of the female body, the male gaze and the male's hands ceaselessly caressing these partitioned areas actually increase the erotic importance of off-screen space in a method that no other film has done since. The very positions of the body of the woman and the hands of the man -or the upper body of the man and the hands of the woman- imply sexual positions and sexual acts that were not being shown explicitly by Godard and indeed could not be shown by Godard at that time. Thus, images of fellatio, cunnilingus, anal and vaginal penetration are implied by the severe limiting of what we can see. In some shots, it is impossible to discern with absolute certainty the location of the body off-screen by the relationship of the hands, arms, or legs of the two figures to each other. For instance, in one shot which frames only Charlotte's legs as she lays on the bed, her lover's arm enters the frame perpendicular to the raised position of Charlotte's leg; the perpendicularity of the lover's arm implies that he was either kneeling down at the end of the bed or suspended by some contraption to create this enigmatic image. Other fragmented images clearly imply fellatio and/or cunnilingus, but because of Godard's distancing effects (e.g. no sexual undulation, blank stares into the camera, and the statuesque positionings of the characters within a severely constricted frame) the implied sexual act is an afterthought to the incongruous images presented. For example, Godard even plays with these distancing effects by having a medium close up shot of Charlotte looking contemplatively off screen with a finger on her chin. Only after she starts to move and talk, do we realize that it was not her own finger on her chin, but rather the finger of her lover from an off screen position that clearly implies cunnilingus. Thus many of the fragmented images are sexually charged by the eroticization of not what is on screen but instead by what the synecdotal arrangement of body parts on screen imply about the positions of the whole bodies off-screen. This is pornography by the negation of that which is pornographic. What cannot be shown is still known to the 'enlightened' audience by the evidence of things unseen. Godard and Coutard evoke a certain erotic faith in their images of marital unfaithfulness on the part of the audience who cannot see the (w)hole, but know that it is there. It must have been quite a hilarious irony to both Godard and Coutard when the French censors (besides changing the name of the film from 'The Married Woman' to 'A Married Woman) forced them to edit out a shot of Charlotte removing her panties (which Godard replaced with a visual pun- the shot of a her husband's plane because in French the word plane means 'shot'), but none of the censors decided to do anything to the bevy of shots that imply a panoply of sexual acts.
Yet in spite of the visual and formal brilliance of UNE FEMME MARIEE the presentation of a married woman with a lover is more troubling for what Godard leaves off screen about both the husband and the lover. Specifically, we see Charlotte's trysts and we instinctively pass a moral judgment upon her, but the frequent business trips of her husband, as well as the final voyage of her lover all imply that they were also unfaithful. Yet Godard never mentions the infidelity of the husband and the lover. His omission of the unfaithfulness of men no doubt opened him up to charges of male chauvinism and misogyny. Although to his credit he has several 'Brectian' interview sequences with the actors where an unheard off-screen voice asks questions about the role of memory, the present, conscience and the relationship between the characters. Most importantly here is a sequence called "Le Theatre et L'amour" (the theatre and love). In this interview scene we have Charlotte asking Robert about his real feelings about love. Robert stumbles badly in trying to articulate his thoughts about love while simultaneously hiding his true feelings. That Charlotte is the one mercilessly interrogating him redeems her character by giving her an intelligence that lifts her out of the audience's judgment of her as self-serving and indecisive. Through this interview scene we can infer that she knows that Robert is no better for her than her own husband whose attempts at controlling her are just as painful to her as his frequent absences from her.
More troubling than Godard's omission of male infidelity is his thematic disjunction of scenes about Nazi death camp trials being held at Auschwitz (where her husband and his acquaintance had just stopped to see before returning home) and the fact that as part of a cover for their final tryst Charlotte and Robert stop in at a cinema to see Alain Resnais powerful documentary on the Nazi death camps, Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog). Now one could argue that by including the subject of the Nazi death camps in to a film about marital infidelity Godard was drawing a critical comparison to the seriousness of the past (The holocaust) and the frivolity of the present (infidelity), but for whatever reasons this thematic disjunction evokes a sense of the lost consciousness of contemporary post-war French society. This is a theme that Godard would take up again with greater clarity in his next film, ALPHAVILLE (1965).
In spite of this thematic disjunction, UNE FEMME MARIEE is one of my favorite Godard films because of its bold experimentation which pointed out that there are no limits to the expressive power of cinema no matter how much you limit what can be seen.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Logic/Cinematic Grammar/The French New Wave part 1

-If A looks at B, then B is the object looked at by A. Therefore, A looks at B.-

If we can tentatively agree that the Point-of-View shot sequence is the modus ponens of the basic logic of cinematic grammar, one can invite other notions into a general argument about The French New Wave (1959-1968) as a cinematic movement. Namely, that the various idiosyncratic styles of all of those filmmakers associated directly or by circumstance to The French New Wave were filmmakers who deliberately or instinctively defined their cinematic style via their aesthetic relationship to the use of the point-of-view shot sequence. Some filmmakers avoided this basic cinematic grammar to a greater degree than others. For instance the classic point-of-view shot sequence is anathematic to the cinematic ecriture of Anges Varda (Cleo 5 a 7, Le Bonheur) and Jean-Luc Godard, whereas it is employed with various disruptions in the work of Francois Truffaut (Les Quatre Cent Coups, Tirez Sur Le Pianiste) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour, L'annee Derniere a Marienbad). But the point-of-view shot sequence is absolutely essential to the cinematic ecriture of Robert Bresson (Pickpocket), Eric Rohmer (Ma Nuit Chez Maude). In these examples we can see that the radical cinematic styles that was to characterize The French New Wave were styles that either sought to find another way to express the basic modus ponens of cinematic logic or sought to express more in adhering to its use. Supporting this argument is the fact that French film critic and founder of Cahiers du Cinema, Andre Bazin had already voiced his disdain for montage and his exalting of the use of long take and 'democratic' mise-en-scene which goes a long way in explaining how important the classic point-of-view shot sequence is to understanding the development of French New Wave cinematic stylistics.
Before going any further with this argument let's back up and return to the notion that the point-of-view shot sequence bears a striking resemblance to one of the oldest argumentative forms of logic: modus ponens. In logic the most basic valid conditional argument form is: If A, then B. A, therefore B which is recognized as the modus ponens argument form. In the cinema, the logic of one of the most standardized forms of cinematic grammar can be described as: If a character looks off screen and the next shot is of an object, if the following shot is returned to the same character then that character is looking at that object. The return shot is the shot the sutures the off screen glance as that initial character's point of view within the fiction.(1) We can simplify this editorial procedure as: If A looks at B, then B is the object looked at by A. Therefore, A looked at B. This is a basic cinematic rhetorical form that can be a visual corollary of the modus ponens argument form. Its conditionality is accepted as an indicative mode based upon its repetition either within the film or across a wide variety of films throughout history until the present. The evidence is that it is so widely understood by so many people across so many cultures, languages, and other differences.
If we can agree that modus ponens is a fundamental characteristic feature of mental reasoning, then it stands to reason that the application of this form of mental reasoning would find its way into the rhetorical structure of cinematic grammar. That is, older forms of reasoning that prefigured the cinema would aid and abet the organization of visual and auditory material in a narrative. Sergei Eisenstein had already pointed out to us that many aspects of cinematic grammar (the rhetorical organization of visual material to transmit a narrative) was prefigured by the 19th century novel. Most importantly, by the internationally known work of Charles Dickens. Eisenstein notes that there is an opticality in Dickens that," gives us an image clothed in an excess of characteristics." (2) Moreover, he established a link between Dickens opticality and Griffith's narrative strategies that formed the basics of early cinematic grammar. I believe that it is the deep underlying rhetorical structure basic to mental reasoning as seen in language (words, sentences) that in turn formed the basis for the ordering of visual and auditory material in Classical cinema. This is a point that may have already been addressed by semiologist Christian Metz, but I am only interested in looking at the transpositional development of this deep underlying structure from language to cinema.
If we start quickly from Ferdinand de Saussure's observation that," No word has a value that can be identified independently of what else there is in its vicinity," we find a form of mental reasoning that is primarily associative; that is, elements communicate via their juxtaposition- their sequential ordering with one another. (3) What can be accepted as true in language finds its corollary in the cinema through images and their juxtaposition- their sequential ordering that communicates a narrative or suggests associations that communicate a narrative. For instance, the Russian Formalists were quick to notice that," the meaning of individual shots gradually becomes clear because of their contiguity and sequentially."(4) This observation was confirmed by Lev Kuleshov and the now famous Kuleshov effect where the same shot of an actor's expressionless face was juxtaposed to another shot of an object and depending upon the content of that following shot, audiences inferred what the actor must have been feeling about that object- even though the actor's face had remained the same. This we can understand was an early demonstration of the point-of-view shot sequence and how the arrangement of shots evokes mental associations between the spectator and the images that are ultimately reflected back into the narrative. Thus, it was not the simple symbolic linguistic structure of language (sign/signifier/signified) upon which the cinematic grammar was based, but instead it is based upon associative forms of mental reasoning that becomes a rhetorical structure that can be transposed from the understanding of language to an art form.
The point-of-view shot sequence was standardized as a basic form of cinematic grammar by the success of early filmmakers (Porter, Griffith) and the classical Hollywood studio film which was seen and understood internationally. This is what brings us to the establishment of The French New Wave, because we know that after WWII various cine-clubs reopened and the French could finally see all of the American films that had been made during the German Occupation which had banned them. More than this, the Cinematheque Francaise which was operated by Henri Langois was the center of cinematic education that was attended by the various key members of the French New Wave: Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Charbol, Varda... et all. Having exposed themselves to the standardized techniques of cinematic grammar via the Hollywood studio system in the b-films they championed by directors who deviated from that standardized grammar as much as they could, it was inevitable that to find their own cinematic voices they would have to 'rebel' as much as possible from the standard. Think of those decidedly different films like Nicholas Ray's opening heliocopter shot in They Live By Night or Welles' deep focus and anti-montage strategies in Citizen Kane and we can see the seeds of rebellion being s(h)own to those young critics who would soon become young filmmakers.
Thus, the point-of-view shot sequence was a standard of cinematic grammar through which French filmmakers could choose to avoid, utilize sparingly or adhere to strictly to develop their own cinematic 'ecriture' and discernible style. We can discern the importance of the discussion of the point-of-view shot sequence (or the shot/reverse shot) in French film culture via French film theorist, Jean Mitry's statement that," the shot/reverse shot technique lends it self to misuse for the fact that it provides easy solutions." (5) The easiest solution to finding a way to organize visual material is to use the standard rhetorical form -the modus ponens of cinematic grammar: the point-of-view shot sequence to communicate a narrative. But to establish an auteurist style in such a way as to separate oneself from the herd and be an artist is by finding other ways and means of communicating that narrative by breaking or reformulating that cinematic grammar. Wasn't that the real mission, the summa bonna of the movement we romanticize as The French New Wave?

(1) See Daniel Dayan's "The Tutor Code of Classical Cinema" in Bill Nichols Movies & Methods Vol. 1
(2) See "Dickens, Griffith and Film Today" in Sergei Eisenstein's Film Form Vol. 1
(3) Page 114, Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics
(4) Page 15, Formalist Film Theory by Herbert Eagle, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1981.
(5) Page 62, Jean Mitry's The Aesthetics & Psychology of the Cinema.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Le Mepris- Marriage is a bitch!

Those of us who love the work of Jean-Luc Godard are often in love more with what he does with the camera, sound, music and editing than we are with the actual dramatic storyline within his films. The dazzling tracking shots, severely constricted camera angles, rapid editing, long takes, and all of the disruptive cinematic techniques that we expect from the French New Wave, but are embodied within the work of Jean-Luc Godard over several decades. Le Mepris (Contempt -1963) presents us with multiple dramatic story lines presented as a self-reflexive document of a film about a film being produced. It is one of Godard's most supreme narrative achievements of his 1960's period. This complex story of a marriage in self-destruct mode carries within it Godard's most mature vivisection of the relationship of man to woman and woman to man seen from multiple perspectives. The classical perspective of man and woman is between the characters of Odysseus and Penelope in the version of the Odyssey being filmed within the film by Fritz Lang. The modern perspective is between Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Bridget Bardot). When disappointed American film producer Jerry Prokosh (Jack Palance) hires French screenwriter Paul Javal to come to Italy and re-write scenes for his film of the Odyssey, Jerry introduces a theory about the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope. He says," I think Penelope has been unfaithful." This modern change to Homer's text causes great discussion between Jerry, Fritz Lang and Paul. It is an attempt to bring an ancient text into modernity by violating the meaning and original design of the work. As Fritz Lang angrily told Paul," You either do Homer's Odyssey or you do nothing at all!" This attempt to bring The Odyssey into modernity by violating it is revealing of the changing roles of women and men in the sixties as juxtaposed to men and women (as property) in ancient times. Thus, when we get our intimate look at the 'real' relationship between Paul and Camille we are witnessing the emotional torment that these changing roles were exerting upon a marriage. Watching Le Mepris is like watching a train wreck in slow motion with the beautiful music of George Delerue consecrating the wreckage with blissful and yearning stings; a dirge for a marriage destroyed by modern times.
At the heart of Le Mepris is a dangerous game being played by a man and a woman upon each other. It started like this: Film producer Jerry Prokoch had heard that Paul's wife was beautiful and when he meets her he decides to take her back to his chateau in his two seater red sports car. When he asks if he can take her there, Paul says yes even though Camille does not like Jerry and doesn't want to go. From this moment, their marriage was doomed. Here Camille wants Paul to act chivalrously and protect her from Prokoch. She wants him to 'keep her close' to him by refusing to let Jerry drive her to the chateau without Paul. She wants Paul to treat her like his property; to play the old role of husband, owner, protector, provider. On the other hand, Paul, it seems, felt that if she truly loved him what did he have to fear for letting her go with Jerry to his chateau? After all, he was coming there by taxi and would arrive just a few minutes after them. Should Paul have really been worried that his wife would cheat on him with a sleazy American producer? If she really loved him what did he have to fear? Should Camille really have made such a big deal because Paul wouldn't do what she wanted him to do? Are not these the hypothetical questions that under grid every marriage in one way or another? Does not every woman want her freedom, but also to rattle the chains of her indentured heart in a relationship? Is not a man expected in some way to act like a man from the days of yore- up until a designated point? From that moment, that moment when Paul did not play the white knight- Camille lost respect for her husband and she tormented him exquisitely in that long, slow motion, domestic scene in their apartment. Paul pretends like he doesn't know why Camille is acting so bizarre. By the time he asks her," Was if because I sent you with Prokosh that day," it is too late. Indeed, Paul sends her off with Prokosh again when they are in Capri. Here, Camille makes sure to kiss Jerry so that Paul can see them. She has upped the ante, so to speak. But so has Paul, for earlier he had been caught patting the script girl/translator on the ass by Camille. The great power struggle between husband and wife plays out against the production of an epic film. In the apartment when Paul slaps Camille he does so because he knows she is making fun of him; he knows that he has lost her respect. But when Paul tries to man-handle her again, Camille strikes back him with a fusillade of blows about the head and chest. Before they go to Capri, Paul takes a gun with him. Things had gotten ugly. This power play is based upon what a woman expects from a man; she expects him to understand her whims and oblige them. Was Camille asking for the moon? No. She just didn't want to go with Jerry and she expected Paul to pick up on this and keep her close to him. It was a test of faith on both of their parts. Paul trusted her not to be unfaithful. A test that Paul failed and later Camille would intentionally flunk with disastrous results. These type of of games are played even today between men and women. Women want to be independent, feminist, but they still expect a man to be chivalrous and oblige their whims. But chivalry in and of itself requires that the women not be independent nor feminist; it requires that she submit to the will of the man. Oh sure there can be a kind of pragmatic truce between the two positions but one would have to know how to alternate (be chivalrous and allow her independence, be independent and allow him to feel chivalrous) but such a position is only temporary. There comes a point where it is either/or and not both. The marriage between Paul and Camille could not withstand the test.
One has to wonder how did Godard, whose previous dramatic work in male and female relationships was more juvenile and fetishistic (e.g. the child like questions in Breathless or the photo-interrogation in Le Petit Soldat), how did Godard know about this type of mature interrelationship between man and woman. Clearly, Le Mepris has many affinities with the real life relationship between Godard and Anna Karina. The choice to make more commercial films to support the bourgeois lifestyle that marriage strongly makes one conform towards was clearly weighing upon Godard in real life. That Godard had sent Karina off into the hands of another producer (the theatre) in Rivette's production of La Religiouse as he prepared to do Le Carabiniers and Le Mepris tells us something about where this self-destruction of a marriage was born. Many have noted that Piccoli as Paul wore a hat that was extremely similar to Godard's own hat. In fact during the Capri sequence when Fritz Lang is filming on the boat one can see Godard playing Fritz Lang's assistant director wearing almost exactly the same hat as Paul passes by him. In fact, if we consider a little more of Prokosh and Paul's theory of the Odyssey we find that both think that Odysseus stayed away from Penelope on a ten year journey because he was fed up with marriage; fed up with the bourgeois comfort and confines that closed him off from the world. That Godard went away to Italy to shoot Le Mepris (without Karina) reveals the source of the fictional detail, isn't it tantalizing to think? Le Mepris shows more than any of Godard's work one of the themes that was do linger through Pierrot Le Fou and even Weekend: Marriage is a bitch. One has to know how to play the game and adjust when it changes, sadly Paul and Camille/ Godard and Katrina could not.