Tuesday, September 23, 2008
In viewing Alain Resnais' celebrated 1959 first feature, HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR, after many, many years I have a chance now to give it a certain scrutiny that allows me to see why this film is a masterpiece- a revolutionary masterpiece. I believe that the non-linear cinematic narrative began with this film. It is rare that we can find a film that is an inaugural point for a 'cine-genre' (i.e. a genre specific to the cinematic art form), but I believe that Resnais' HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR is just such a film. It is a film that reveals that dramatic 'temporality' or the actual historical time represented in a story is arbitrary to the shyzhet or the organization of the shots that tell a story. In classical Hollywood cinema the switching to the represented 'past tense' which in turn highlights and defines the represented 'present tense' was heavily coded by the use of the 'blurry lap dissolve shot' and music (usually harp glissandos) that noted the transition. A character could narrate the events of the past while the spectator is shown these past events without getting lost in the transition to and from past and present tense. Parallel editing was a precursor to the coding of past and present tense in that the filmmakers (Porter, Griffith, Eisenstein and others) could suspend one narrative thread while showing another narrative thread that would eventually be reconciled in the finale of the story. For instance, the house fire and the firemen racing from the firehouse to the house on fire. These cuts needed no musical transition or blurry lap dissolves for the story context allowed the viewer to reasonably assume that the two narrative threads were somehow interrelated. Yet, Resnais in HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR dismisses the use of lap dissolves and music to signify the transition from past to present. Moreover, Resnais uses several different tools of conventional cinematic grammar to construct a non-linear narrative where dramatic time is arbitrary to narrative time. These tools of cinematic grammar can be catalogued as such: the graphic match cut, the point of view shot, the voice over and finally the intertexual use of documentary and re-staged historical footage. As this item I am writing here is too brief to consider all of these tools I will concentrate on Resnais' use of two of the most recognizable: the graphic match cut and the point of view shot. A match cut was most often used in classical Hollywood cinema to make the actions in two different shots appear continuous. The match cut was a cut that was made on the action and was a standard tool of continuity editing and basic cinematographic grammar. Resnais takes this idea of a match cut and uses it to establish a compositional similarity between shots of two different time periods as well as a similarity between two similar actions in two different time periods. Because Resnais used this type of cutting to match actions or compositions that are similar in the narrative material that represented the past and the material that represented the present the non-linear narrative could now be free to develop without the restrictions of having to signify through music, dissolve or intertitle what is now the past and what is now the present. The first significant graphic match of temporal discontinuity occurs when the French woman looks at her Japanese lover on the bed where they have just made love. He is lying on his stomach with his right arm extended outward from his body. The next shot is of a man whom she loved (a German solider who died 14 years ago) lying fully clothed in the same position on the ground after having been shot. Although it is impossible at this point in the narrative to know who this man is, the sudden cut to a shot of another man in a different time period laying in the same position is the beginning of non-linearity in narrative cinematic discourse. For the representation of past and present are no longer dependent upon theatrical or musical cues, but instead can be represented cinematically via montage at the filmmaker's thematic discretion. The second tool of non-linearity is found in Resnais use of the point-of-view shot which is yet another standard device of classical Hollywood representation. Here, the shot of a character looking is juxtaposed with another shot of an object and then a return shot of the character. This system of suture as it was described by Dayan many years ago, is disrupted by Resnais for he uses the point of view shot to intertwine the past within the present. During the French woman's recounting of her love affair with a German soldier during WWII Resnais cuts to shots of the woman riding her bike and the various meetings of the two lovers. Suddenly he cuts back to the French woman and her Japanese lover and the two of them are looking off-screen as if they were spectators to the events that had just transpired. As if just as we, the audience, were watching the images of the past, so were they the characters themselves. The use of off-screen glances and a shot of an object is standard cinematic grammar that establishes a character's point-of-view, but in HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR the object being looked at is a fictional representation of the past. The object being looked at by the two characters in the present are the two characters in the past. By use of the graphic match and the point-of-view system Resnais was able to find a new way to represent the past in the present tense of a narrative without recourse to the conventional codes of cinematic grammar that defined past from present. More than this, by using the conventional tools unconventionally Resnais was able to go from past to present with an astonishing fluidity that had never been seen before and was advanced upon in his next film, L'ANNEE DERNIERE A MARIENBAD. I believe that HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR was revolutionary because of these advances in cinematic grammar that propelled the cinema into a new non-linear mode of temporal representation.
In his book, Notes on the Cinematographer, Bresson states," Flatten my images (as if ironing them) without attenuating them." (pg.11) This statement at first appears too cryptic to be of any use until one sees and becomes intimately familiar with any of Bresson's works. For it seems that Bresson had carefully developed a method of "flattening" his images (or rather reducing the expressive nature of a shot) so that when his images are juxtaposed next to one another via montage meanings can be communicated to the audience with precision. How is this flattening done? I believe Bresson achieves this "flattening" by his consistent and unerring use of a 50mm lens while shooting his films and a consistent and unerring control of costuming. On the first point, it was widely known and Bresson had mentioned in numerous interviews that he only used a 50mm lens when shooting. (Cf, Robert Bresson by James Quandt) Why? Because he believed, and rightly so, that the 50mm lens (also called a 'normal lens') approximates the view of the human eye. This standard lens has one important function in cinematography," with a normal lens, objects appear as they would to the naked eye, in terms of size and proportion." (Laytin, Creative Camera Control, pg. 21) By using a lens that approximates the view of the human eye Bresson deliberately 'retards' the expressive potential of a shot by forcing its depth of field and the relationship of objects and space to remain consistent with the human eye. Unlike, say Antonioni's use of the telephoto lens in the opening sequences of THE RED DESERT which flatten objects and space by collapsing foreground, middleground and background or the deep focus cinematography of Gregg Toland which exaggerates the details by keeping all of the different 'grounds' in focus (CITIZEN KANE, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) the shot in Bresson's work is deliberately restricted to the 'normal' view of the human eye so that he might better be able to use montage (or editing) to precisely control the meaning of his shots via the cinematic grammar through which they are juxtaposed. An example of this precise control of the shot can be found in PICKPOCKET during the scene when Michel is confronted by a man who demands his wallet (portefeuille) back at the exit of the Metro. The medium shot begins from a low angle on the feet and legs of the passengers as they ascend the stairs out of the station. The camera pans slightly to catch the feet of a man that stop and turn about in front of another pair of man's feet abruptly. The camera then tilts up quickly to capture the man facing whom we now see is Michel just as he demands his wallet back. Here the narrative information of the shot has been carefully reduced (only shots of anonymous feet and legs) so that when the camera tilts up we are given just enough visual information to move the narative forward on a precise detail. Our intitial disorientation with the shot (who are these people? Where is Michel?) is answered for us by two precise movements of the camera (pan/tilt) and thus the expressive potential of the shot is reduced in the effort to retain artistic control over its meaning. On the second point, Bresson's characters usually wear the same costume throughout the entire film or for unusually long amounts of narrative time. In his early films- particularly, A MAN ESCAPED, since the main character was in a German prisoner of war camp this restriction of a character to a single costume had a plausible story context. In later films, though, this restriction of a character to a single costume had seemed to develop for Bresson a significance beyond simple story context. For instance, in PICKPOCKET, Michel wears the same suit for the entire length of the film. In fact all of the characters wear the exact same costumes in spite of the notation of lengthy passages of time. Why? I believe this restriction of costume was one of the methods through which Bresson controlled and limited the expressive potential of the shot; the meaning of a shot is 'flatten' because with the character wearing the same costume throughout the film there is less external or rather, extraneous 'mise-en-scene' to distract the eye. We can recognize our 'hero' and his supporting cast immediately from their surroundings. Another reason for this restriction of costume is that it encourages the spectator to concentrate on the internal nature of a character rather than the external characteristics; external characteristics which were superfluous to Bresson. If a character is constantly changing costumes throughout a film, although it may be plausible in the story context, it encourages the spectator to constantly 're-judge' the character in light of his new apparel and keeps our eye attuned to the external characteristics of man rather than his internal nature. (One should easily see why the story of King Arthur's knights would appeal to him since the characters in Lancelot du Lac are most always seen in their 'shining' armour.) It is through these specific methods that I believe Bresson achieved the 'flattening' of the image he so desired so that he could control the meaning of his images and sounds via montage rather than within the shot as a completely expressed whole.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
I feel it necessary to post my thoughts here about Jean-luc Godard's BREATHLESS because my earlier post was concerned with the characters and not the form and structure of the film. Although most writers mention Godard's use of the Jump Cut in BREATHLESS and other filmmakers of the French New Wave little is understood about the purpose of these 'jump cuts' other than the shock value such cuts had to audiences and critics at the time. I believe that Godard uses the jump cut both for its radical 'dejunctive' power (it violates the continuity rules of so called 'films of quality' that Truffaut despised in his article, A Certain Tendency of French Cinema) and for various pratical narrative purposes. If we consider the early scene of Michel driving from Marseilles to Paris in a stolen car we can note two important things: 1) the jump cuts here functions to accelerate the narrative; to compress the length of time where Michel is driving and talking to the audience. 2) Here in this scene the jump cut is used to startling effect as Michel is captured in various poses and thoughts like a cubist painting. The jump cuts here both compress time and destroys the temporal continuity without disturbing our sense of a unity of space. Later in the film, Godard and his cinematographer Coutard, create carefully controlled tracking shots that function as well timed sequence shots (e.g. when Michel goes to visit his friend at the travel agency). The camera literally waltzes around the characters and the space forwards and backwards in long takes (that is without a cut). But at the end of the long takes there is a jump cut, when actors appear in different positions from their positions at the end of the long take. Here we can also note two things: 1) the jump cuts at the end of the long take sequences were quite possibly motivated by the fact that the film inside the camera had reached its end and the camera had to be reloaded. Thus, the jump cuts at the end of long takes are not motived by a need to compress time, but instead by a need to maintain 'story' continuity. 2) The characters who change position at the end of a long take are most often shown at the destination of where they were going during the long take. For instance, when the Cops come into the travel agency to inquire about Michel, there is a jump cut that goes from them entering the establishment to the two characters standing at the counter making their inquiries. Here narrative continuty is maintained at the expense of spatial continuty. There are many examples in BREATHLESS where the jump cut is used to accelerate the narrative (e.g. the conversation between Patricia and her boss in the restaurant) by compressing time and fragmenting the presentation of a character or characters, but also we see the jump cut used as a way to call attention to the ending of a long take sequence shot where there was no physical cutting of the shot but rather a cselection and omitting of objects and actions within the frame. The jump cut and the long take (a signature of Godard's cinematic style) is an artistic sythesis of Bazinian realist aesthetics and Montage editorial effects. In effect, the jump cut and the long take are two forms of montage; the former is a dis-ruption of the shot and the latter is the disruption of the temporal arrangement of actions and objects within the frame. Both the jump cut and the long take/sequence shot are forms of artistic editing. With BREATHLESS Godard succeeds in removing himself from the Bazinian straight jacket of realism and retaining -indeed improving upon- the conceptualization of montage as first articulated by Eisenstein.
What is most striking about Melville's Bob Le Flambeur are the games of chance upon which the theme and the very plot of the film rests. Life is not presented to us as determined by cause and effect, but instead by the invisible whims of "madame de chance" or lady luck. Bob, the main character, lives his life by a faith in the whims of chance; he lives with a kind of 'blind faith' in the return of good fortune. Though he may have lost nearly everything in his nightly escapades there is a certain optimism in his character that reveals his 'charm' and the charming effect he has on friends, acquaintances and the audience. The 'rebounding' nature of Bob is detailed for us in the opening scenes of the film which catches Bob at a low point in his luck, having lost nearly everything at every game he has played. Yet, miraculously during his early morning wanderings he, by chance, sees a beautiful girl, too young to be out on the street, buying some French fries before she is wisked away by a horny American sailor. It is this chance observation and the meeting between the two later in the film that will bring him good fortune at the price of more bad fortune. It is in this way that the entire film of Bob Le Flambeur is balanced with downs and ups so to speak where a loser's luck changes without any rational cause into a winner- all one has to do, according to Bob's actions, is never take youself out of the game. We see the whims of chance demonstrated for us emphatically by the breathtaking finale of the film. Here, Bob has spent great effort in assembling a crew and borrowing set up money to rob a casino of 800 million francs, but while waiting in the casino for the scheduled time of the heist, he starts winning- and winning big. Fortune has cast its light upon him in such a way that he nearly forgets his own plan (which would have been foiled anyway by various snitches). The film presents us with a curious success- not by man's willful labor (the planning and execution of the heist) but instead it is a success given to the character by chance. Of even greater interest is the way the film ends, not with the unfornature death of Bob's protege, Paulo, but instead with a humorous exchange among Bob, his friend Roger and the Police detective that reveals that Bob will get off from the charges of criminal intent and be allowed to enjoy his fortune. What one comes away from after having seen Melville's BOB LE FLAMBEUR and knowing that he shot this film with the great cinematographer, Henri Decae, intermittantly with sporatic funding- what one comes away with after having seen the film is the consistancy of mood, the sustained measure of the film's pacing, actions, and its tightly composed images. For a film produced under such chaotic circumstances, it is Melville's vision, or rather, the consistancy and the sustaining of his vision that holds this atmospheric essay on chance and fate together. Melville was perhaps the first to show us that criminals can be gentlemen also and that there is a difference between the gangster and the nihilist that was to soon be blurred with Godard's BREATHLESS only a few years later.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Knowing, as we do, that Jean-luc Godard's first feature length film, A Bout de Souffle (BREATHLESS, 1960) was a revolutionary work of the French New Wave film movement does little to calm the worries of some of today's viewers who are at pains to understand the motivation of Patricia (Jean Seberg). It is Patricia who "snitches" on her lover, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and subsequently hastens his death at the hands of the police. What seems like a bizarre turn of events is really a simple inversion of a film noir/gangster film convention. Where usually a street-wise and "hard-boiled" male character would escape from a clever femme fatale or turn her in to the police Godard has simply inverted this convention in a film that has a conventional story told in an unconventional cinematic context. One should remember John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON with its unforgettable parting lines from Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) to Bridget O'Shaunassy (Mary Astor), which goes something like," If they give you twenty years, I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you by that sweet little neck of yours, I'll always remember you." Here in this traditional film noir, Sam Spade turns in the femme fatale. Moreover, in many other gangster films and film noirs that preceded BREATHLESS, the man is most often 'done in' by the femme fatale as in Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). So it should be no surprise that Patricia's duplicitous nature in BREATHLESS is really only a continuation of the femme fatale genre convention- albeit without the intricate plot entanglements that so often trapped the doomed couple in the previous films. In fact what we witness in BREATHLESS when Patricia 'snitches' to the police on Michel is her own escape from doom, her difficult, but clever avoidance of a shared tragic entanglement with Michel. For he is a man whom she knows will not live long; he is a man whom she knows will destroy her with his 'love' for her. In many ways, BREATHLESS itself is an inversion of a later Godard film, PRENOM:CARMEN where the femme fatale explains to her lover that," if I love you, then that's the end of you." This is entirely the predicament of Patricia who knows that if she accepts Michel love (by way of his offer to run away to Italy) then she will end her own independence as a woman: his love would be then end of her. The femme fatale in BREATHLESS is a new kind of woman independent and avoiding the traps of previous doomed film noir and gangster film couples. We can surmise that Godard was aware of this new femme fatale he was creating when he has Patricia do the same gesture of Bogart as Michel lay dead in the street as if to suggest that she is the one who has come out on top- she has avoided a fate that she would have shared had she accepted Michel's love.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Perhaps it is time for all of us to realize that Francois Truffaut's Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows) is the greatest film about vagaries of adolescence ever made. Even if we include in this brief canon of films about adolescence: Michael Curtiz's ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), Luis Bunuel's LOS OLVIDADOS (1950) Rene Clement's LES JEUX INTERDITS(1952), Nicholas Ray's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), Larry Clark's KIDS (1995), Gus Van Sant's ELEPHANT (2003) The 400 Blows ranks at the top of the list because even though it is perhaps the most intimate portrait of male adolescence it is also a searing portrait of adult hypocrisy. What Truffaut seems to capture by centering his film upon the experiences of Antoine Doniel is the dupicity and eroding empathy of post-war adults towards a generation of children born during or just after World War 2. In effect, Doniel (the 15 year old actor who stars in the film) is a victim of an adult generation that is constantly sending him the mixed signal of," Do as I say, but not as I do." This mixed signal is particularly discernible regarding the relationship of Doniel to his mother whom he catches kissing another man while he is playing hooky from school In fact, it is this pivotal event (filmed in just such an off-handed, even casual manner) that becomes a major turning point in the relationship between Doniel and his mother as she attempts to emotionally bribe him to keep him from telling her husband and his step-father her secret. Our sympathy and our emotions are tied to Doniel via the two slaps he receives within the film. The first slap is from his father which is delivered in front all of his schoolmates in class after he has told a lie about his mother having died as an excuse for why he was absent at school. This slap although it is well deserved serves two functions: 1) it shames him in front of his schoolmates and that shame is transferred to the audience as we have all certainly felt that kind of shame even if we have not shared the exact same circumstances and 2) the lie itself was a kind of 'sublimated' loss of feeling between Doniel and his mother that is revisited upon him as a slap in the face for having been born. The second slap is from a male attendant at the junvile observation center where he has been sent after having been caught stealing a typewriter (machine a ecrire) from his father's job. This slap, although it occurs right in front of the other inmates, has less of an emotional effect upon Doniel and reveals the 'hardness' of heart that is growing within him. One might ask, is it simply the parents fault for juvenile delinquency as the canon of previously mentioned films might lead one to easily conclude, but I believe and Truffaut is empathic in his dramatic demonstration that this delinquency is born from the child hearing things that he shouldn't hear and seeing things that he shouldn't see. To be specific, Doniel is always placed in a privileged position to hear his parents arguing (at first about their relationship and then about Doniel) and later seeing his mother committing adultery and the emotional bribery she tries to use upon to cover it up. Later in the film we find out that Doniel as also heard (from a conversation between his mother and his Grandmother) that his mother wanted an abortion; that he was not wanted and the effect of all of this privileged information is at the center of the declining experiences of Doniel and perhaps to a certain extent all delinquents, because this information has an emotional effect that is most often never addressed by adults who blithely believe that children cannot comprehend the duplicity of adults. It may be the adult perception of adolescence itself that Truffaut is challenging with his masterpiece, LES QUATRE CENT COUPS.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
As much as we love to understand the French New Wave as an inaugration and canonization of the director as auteur/artist, we would do well to note also that the French New Wave was an inaugration and canonization of new, adventurous, experimental, courageous and inventive cinematographers. From Henri Decae, Raoul Coutard, Gilsend Cloquet, Pasquali DeSantos and many others, the genius of the French New Wave is inextricably linked to the openness, comraderie and collaboration of the French New Wave cinematographers with the director/ auteurs. What Truffaut might have been raging against in his article," A Certain Tendency in French Cinema," was not just the stilted adapation of literary subject matter, but also the stilted cinematography that incarcerated these adaptations as "cinema of quality" but not a cinema of dynamism. When we look carefully at Henri Decae's work in Claude Charbol's LES COUSINS we should be startled by the purposeful dynamism through which the work is delivered to us in its cinematography. The opening shot of LES COUSINS is of the character of Charles leaving the train station. The shot begins from a high angle and then dollies in to a medium close up which frames Charles' suitcase as he leaves through the station turnstiles. It is the fluidity of movement in this opening shot that is superfluous to the narrative but emphatic in demostrating the subsequent visual style of the film. Decae establishes a certain detachment from characters by moving his camera away from characters to capture their milieu. His camera pans in 360 degrees, dollies and tracks through the apartment and the bar that the characters inhabit to emphasize the 'cinematic context' wherein which this drama unfolds. It is not a static representation of characters in a narrative (a la the cinema of quality) but a dynamic presentation of characters in a the context of the cinematic artform. To move beyond the cinema of quality and get to a 'French New Wave' there had to be two technological advances: lightweight mobile cameras and faster and more sensitive film stocks. Decae takes advantage of both of these advances in LES COUSINS. One has to look in wonder (even today with the poor low light resolution of some digital cameras) how Decae was able to shoot the party sequence where Paul turns out the light and moves through the apartment with only a candlelabra as the single light source. Was there an edit when the lights were turned off to switch to a faster film stock? Did he control the camera's f-stop in sync with the lights as they were switched off? Or was the film stock so flexible that it was able to handle the sudden shift from full electric lighting to candlelight? However the sequence was constructed it was certainly a monumentous showcasing of the dexterity of the faster film stocks that helped to establish the groundbreaking appeal of the French New Wave. Moreover, the camera is constantly moving (circulating) around the apartment in this sequence which suggests that the 'jib' or armature upon which the camera was situated was small enough to fit within the location and smooth enough to make this sequence a testament of French New Wave cinematic dynamism. So when we look at the French New Wave movement we should bear in mind that collaborative spirit between director/auteur and cinematographer that changed our understanding of the cinema as a dynamic artform and not just a medium to record a theatrical performance.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
This first short film by Francois Truffaut is distinguished by 1) his use of a mobile camera; 2) his lyrical obsession with a sensual female; 3) allusions to early cinema; and 4) his use of an adolescent male or group of adolescent males whose emotional development is stunted. In this film we see nearly all of the thematic material that was to preoccupy Truffaut for much of his cinematic oeuvre. Les MISTONS opens with a brauvura sequence of reverse "traveling" shots of a beautiful girl on a bike as she rides her bike to met her boyfriend. These shots are linked together by dissolves that despite the credits that are layered over them, reveal Truffaut's insistence on the "reality" of his location shooting. This sequence is the cinematic equivalent of his polemic "A Certain Tendency in French Cinema." Truffaut's disgust with the contemporary French cinema reliance on in-studio locations, set design and static framing are here destroyed in the opening sequence of shots from this his first film, LES MISTONS. He also alludes to an early film by the Lumiere Brothers," L'arrosseur Arrosse" in a comic sequence that was recreated and inserted within the film. Of greater interest is the 'emotional stunting' of the young male protagonists of the film (the les mistons of the title) who are too young to understand the tribulations of love as the young woman of whom they were so obsessed changes after the death of her boyfriend. This inability to mature emotionally is a signature dramatic theme found in the famous "Antoine Doniel" series of films Truffaut created including his first international success, LES QUATRE CENT COUPS (The 400 Blows), and later in STOLEN KISSES, etc. It would seem that many of Truffaut's films are explorations centered on the theme of characters confronted by a need for emotional maturity after a lyrical moment of splendor. I am thinking now of JULES ET JIM after the death of Jim and Jeanne Moreau's character; how Jules almost 'emotionlessly' walked behind their caskets unable to 'feel' their deaths; unable to emotionally mature, but forced to now out of circumstance. LES MISTONS provides an interesting key into the rest of Truffaut's films.