Friday, October 31, 2008

Godard's Banned Film (The film we should have seen)

Throughout this course on French New Wave cinema we have mentioned Godard's banned second film, LE PETIT SOLDAT (1960- The Little Solider) a number of times in discussion of the work of various new wave directors as well as Godard's own work. Well, I for one would like to state that Godard's LE PETIT SOLDAT is a major achievement in his career and stands as an amazing testament to vargaries of terrorism and the pecularities of torture. Those of us who have read about LE PETIT SOLDAT know little more than those who have never heard of this film. We know that it is about FLN and the Algerian war crisis that was rocking France during the late fifties and sixties. We know that the film was banned upon its release and was only shown three years later in 1963 after Godard had completed several other films. We know that this is the first film to feature his soon-to-be wife, Anna Karina, the star of his major work in the 1960's. And we know that the film features torture, but various writers including but not limited to Richard Neupert dismiss the film as a 'dull grey' work where Godard cannot decide which side of the issue of terrorism and the Algerian conflict he agrees with. But none of these writers ever discuss the amazing detexity and fluidity of the camera and editing in this film. (Although this was noted by biographer Colin MacCabe in his book on Godard) For those who might have been looking for how Godard would advance the formal practices of the New Wave after BREATHLESS, LE PETIT SOLDAT is a dazzling display of where Godard was going to go. The aggressive opening sequence of the film is crammed with all of the techniques one associates with the New Wave including, jump cuts, swish pans, rapid editing, elliptical scenes, narration and the dead pan humor which was so typical of Godard. More than this, LE PETIT SOLDAT gives us a chilling portrait of terrorism, counter-terrorism and the arbitrary and brutal nature of such actions. The film is even more relevent today as America practices counter-terrorist techniques of using torture to extract information. The film is startlingly vivid even in its plaintative black & white style. The film also presents a motif that Godard would return to again and again in his work: that of the 'secret agent' or the person living a double life. This occurs in ALPHAVILLE and in PEIRROT LE FOU where characters are involved in some kind of intrigue that has a diasterous effect in the story. It is unfortunate that some critics would want Godard to choose a side when his main concern is the effect of politics upon an individual (a theme he would also return to again and again). The final open ended shot of the film really sends a chill down my spine as I realized how easy it is to commit a terrorist act and recede into the background of normality. I urge everyone to see LE PETIT SOLDAT because even though my initial reaction to the film was lukewarm, upon seeing it a second and third time, I realize that it was one of Godard's most daring works of the 1960's and it deserves a new appreciation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My Least Favorite Godard Film

Jean-Luc Godard's third film Une Femme est Une Femme which featured his wife Anna Karina was released as his second film since Le Petit Soldat was banned by the French government for its depiction of torture (a secret that the French had been using brutal torture tactics in the Algerian war was not to be exposed for years to come). Une Femme est Une Femme was described by Godard himself as a musical comedy or rather a comedy that uses music as part of its expressive means of making comedy. It is my least favorite Godard film even though the film displays many of the cinema"tics" that make Godard one of the greatest and most interesting filmmakers of the La Nouvelle Vague. What exactly is wrong with Une Femme est Une Femme? The cinematography by Raoul Coutard is in color and top notch. The performances by Anna Karina, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Brialy are finely tuned and alternately hilarious and dramatic. Various sequences are comedic highpoints such as when Belmondo (Frederic) and a man he owes money to curse at each other (in jump cuts) as they cross the street, the domestic scenes between Brialy (Emile) and Karina (Angela) continue the New Wave tradition of torturously romantic intimate relationships, the strip club scenes are alternately repulsive and attractive and feature many of Godard's convention breaking editoral strategies- so what exactly is wrong with Une Femme est Une Femme? I believe that it is the story's premise that ultimately deflates Godard's cinematic souffle. Angela, a part time strip club performer, suddenly decides that she wants to have a baby -out of the blue- and when her live in boyfriend Emile is less than excited about the idea she asks his friend Frederic if he would oblige her request. Now granted, Godard is sending up the usually thin premises that most musical comedies as a genre are based upon, but here the immature nature of all three of his main characters are too weak to sustain such a "mature" idea as having a child. It seems strange to request from one of our most notoriously anti-narrative filmmakers that his story should be more plausible, but perhaps it is not so much the story as it is the characters that should be more plausible. Angela has no real motivation to be a mother (she's not married to Emile, they barely make enough money to live together, both still engage in various flings with other people). The premise of Une Femme est Une Femme is too implausible to sustain all of Godard efforts. It is this immaturity within his characters that make such a mature gesture of wanting a child seem contrived. It is too easy to dismiss Une Femme est Une Femme as un cadeau pour sa femme that is as Godard's gift to his beautiful new bride and to that extent it is simply a gift in color to Anna Karina and nothing more. As their real life relationship began to grow in its complexity, so also did Godard's films, from Vivre sa Vie onward through to CONTEMPT (a film more about their marriage even though Karina is not in it). It might also be interesting to speculate here that the impetus for the premise of the story within Une Femme est Une Femme is the fact that Karina had been nagging Godard to have a child in real life as well as creating a film that would showcase his wife's star potential. Colin McCabe in his recent biography, Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy reveals that Karina had a miscarriage that resulted in the birth of a stillborn child that left her infertile inbetween- Une Femme est Une Femme and Godard and Karina's masterpiece, Vivre sa Vie. So the speculation as to the impetus for the story premise in Une Femme est Une Femme has some credence in my opinion given these real life events. Godard has always excelled when he is connected to an equally ambitious female (e.g. Anna Karina, Bridget Bardot, Anna Wiazemsky, Anne-Marie Mieville) and although Une Femme est Une Femme might be considered an interesting failure by some (myself included) it's critical and commercial failure upon the time of its release also points out the sevrity of the backlash against the New Wave in France at the time. It should be noted that Une Femme est Une Femme won awards at the Venice Film Festival and not at Cannes, just as Truffaut's second film, Tirez sur la Pianiste, was also a critical and commerical failure in France. But whereas Tirez sur la Pianiste is a re-discovered masterpiece because of the complexity of its narration and characterization, I don't know if we can consider Godard's Une Femme est Une Femme a masterpiece for such complexities are missing within it. I will close here by saying that I think that the actual second film by Godard, Le Petit Soldat is the real re-discovered masterpiece by Godard, despite the rather tepid overview given of the film in a recent book on the New Wave by Richard Neupert; Le Petit Soldat is an important film in Godard's career and a masterpiece of style, characterization and political counterpoint. The banning of Godard's second film and the critical and commerical trashing of Truffaut's second film are in my opinion symptomatic of a larger cultural backlash against the New Wave in France by those of the old guard. More on this later...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jules & Jim, but not me

Contrary to the popular saying, the third time is not, I repeat, not the charm as far as it concerns Francois Truffaut's beloved film, JULES et JIM, and myself. JULES & JIM reveals a decades long friendship between the German-born Jules (Oskar Werner) and his bff French-born Jim (Henri Serre). Intervening in that friendship is a woman, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) who eventually marries Jules and has his child, but then begins sleeping with Jim- with the blessing of Jules who doesn't want to lose Catherine completely. This emotionally torturous menage-a-trois is made all the more difficult because Truffaut 'emotionally retards' the Jules character and creates an idyllic scenerio that betrays real human emotions. Even if we concede that Jules was so deeply in love with Catherine and so deeply in friendship with Jim that he would condone their love affair, the emotional torment that Catherine sends Jules through time and time again (e.g. various affairs and adventures with mutual friends, disappearances for months at a time) would drive even the most devoted man to madness. Yet, in keeping with a thematic trait I noticed in all of Truffaut's work (from the short film LES MISTONS through LES QUATRE CENT COUPS (The 400 Hundred Blows) and TIREZ SUR LE PIANISTE -Shoot the Piano Player) Truffaut's male characters are emotionally stunted individuals who are either unwilling or unable make the leap into maturity as it concerns their relationships with the women in their lives. While this thematic trait was endearing in his films of adolescence like LES MISTONS and certainly in his masterpiece LES QUATRE CENT COUPS it reaches its apex in TIREZ SUR LE PIANISTE. After TIREZ this thematic trait becomes a disturbing form of masochistic torture that pushes the story within his films into a 'no-man's land' of emotional incredulity. What I mean by that specifically is that in JULES et JIM the breakdown of the menage-a-trois is inevitably going to be based on jealousy. Jealousy is a real human emotion; it cannot be avoided. It can be concluded but it cannot be avoided. The real conflict within JULES et JIM is within the character of Jules, himself. He is either unwilling or unable to come to terms with his emotional dependancy upon Catherine no matter how much she humilates him. This emotional stunting of the Jules character is what inevitably makes us judge him as pathetic. An alternate way to have saved this story and the character would have been to include an emotionally explicit scene with all three of the characters in bed together. Unfortunately as we have it JULES et JIM is a flawed work of insufferable timidity and masochicism. At the end of the film Jules has nothing but his memories to live with and I'm sure he would have a difficult time with the guilt. Were it not for Raoul Coutard's transcendent cinematography (the film is littered with extraordinary visual sequences composed with dynamism far beyond when it was made) and the seductive music of Georges Delerue I don't think I could have sat through this film a third time. After his characters go beyond adolescence I just don't believe that Truffaut could ever hit the right emotional note... and yet maybe in giving us such a sustained portrait of male emotional stunting he was both confessing to us and warning us. Perhaps I will see this film a fourth time.

Monday, October 13, 2008

On Eric Rohmer and his Antitheticism

"I should be much more frightened of being wrong and finding out that the Christian religion was true than of being wrong in believing it to be true." - Pascal, Pensees

If the films of Claude Charbol are considered less New Wave because of the downright nastiness and unsentimental presentation of his characters, then the work of Eric Rohmer might also be considered less New Wave because of the serious crisises of consciousness, spirit and intellect through which he presents his characters. To put it succinctly, Charbol is that unsentimental antithesis of the sentimental Truffaut as Rohmer is the less humorous antithesis of the humorous Godard. One could be tempted to pursue this contrast between Rohmer and Godard further if one were to note that both filmmakers have quoted the work of Blaise Pascal. Rohmer quotes Pascal in Ma Nuit Chez Maud (My Night at Mauds- 1969) and Godard quotes him much later in his controversial Je Vous Salute Marie (Hail Mary -1985). But where Godard places the discussion of Pascal's wager over shots of a character struggling with a Rubic's Cube, Rohmer emphatically demonstrates a real life crisis that is aided and abetted by Pascal's wager. In My Night at Maud's Rohmer gives us the character of Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who believes that his destiny is predetermined but nonetheless finds chance distracting him at every turn. This overtly religious work was perhaps too pious to be considered "new wave" and featured none of the "pop" cinematic tricks associated with the movements two most popular directors, Godard and Truffaut. For instance, there are no jump cuts, no direct addresses to the camera, no blurring the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic music (in fact there is no non-diegetic music at all in Maud's). But there are some important similarities. For instance there is a magnificent use of location shooting and natural light in My Night at Maud's. The cinematography is by the great Nestor Almendros and it should be no surprise that both he and Rohmer take advantage of the winter setting by placing one of the films most emotional scenes outside in the snow at the top of a hill overlooking the town below. What may account for Rohmer's informal separation from the New Wave is that he was critically at odds with Godard and Truffaut since his days has editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinema after Andre Bazin passed away. "Rohmer's role at Cahiers began to deteriorate as Rivette, Doniol-Valcroze, and Truffaut in particular began to pressure him to open up the critical range of the journal. His refusals surprised them... at one point while trying to stop his inevitable ouster, he actually began sleeping in his office at Cahiers to defend his position by physically occupying the premises." ( 251, Neupert) In the end, Rohmer was forced out. His lack of critical innovation can be found in the almost Bressonian presentation of his films, but his mature thematic vision (he was much older than Truffaut and the others) is what actually sets him apart from the New Wave. His concerns were of a much more mature nature; a nature that had Truffaut had lived longer might've have also become his own. Thus, we might say that Rohmer was New Wave for an older generation of moviegoers. His thematic concerns of religion, morality, conscience and chance were certainly thematic preoccupations that would not become of interest to Truffaut or Godard until their later years. His style is not one of faddish acceptance of what might superficially be defined as New Wave. The lack of the use of jump cuts should not be our only defining criteria for whether or not a filmmaker was New Wave. Our judgment has to reside in the fact that these critics turned auteurs each established a discernible style and thematic preoccupation that prior to Cahiers du Cinema had not been thought of as artistic expression.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Anges Varda's and the Subjective Documentary Technique

Anges Varda is the only woman filmmaker identified with the French New Wave and her willingness in her landmark film, Cleo From 5 to 7 to break conventional editing rules, blur the distinctions between diegetic and non-diegetic music, use non-professional actors and shoot on location makes her work an achievement no less worthy than those of the men we usually associate with the French New Wave (Truffaut, Godard, Charbol, etc). What concerns me the most in her film Cleo From 5 to 7 is Varda's technique of creating what she called a "subjective documentary". What sounds like an oxymoron in the art of cinema, since a documentary is supposed to maintain an objective distance from its subject matter, is really the breaking of classical Hollywood editoral convention to give us a glimpse of "reality" behind the thin viel of fiction. Let me explain, in several sequences of the film Cleo, Varda tampers with the editoral convention of the point of view shot (also known as the shot/reverse shot or the system of suture). Normally, in a classical narrative film we have Shot A of a character glancing off screen, Shot B of an object or another character and then a return to Shot A of the previous character whom we are now certain was the controller of the point-of-view. The gap between Shot A and Shot B has been effectively, sutured by the return to Shot A and the transferring of these editioral actions to the fiction. (See Daniel Dayan's The Tudor Code in Bill Nichols Movies & Methods for more detailed discussion of this technique) This is a convention that is so specific to the cinema that it is rarely mis-understood. In Cleo, Varda tampers with this tried and true system by shifting the placement of her camera in the "subjective" shots of the system. For instance, in the famous Cafe Dome sequence of the film, Cleo (Corinne Marchand) a pop-singer who is awaiting the results of a cancer biopsy, goes into a cafe and plays one of her songs on a jukebox to gauge the reactions of the audience. As she walks around the cafe with dark shades on we are given a furious montage of shots of the patrons, workers and bystanders who are too engrossed in their own situations to listen or care about the song on the jukebox. Varda tampers with the point-of-view system by shifting the camera placement on the people Cleo is supposed to be observing. The camera shot in a conventional film is usually matched with the 'eye-line' or notional glance of the character looking, but in this sequence the camera is in positions that do not and cannot match the position of Cleo's glance which is obscured by her dark sunglasses. The effect of this 'tampering' with the standard shot/reverse shot is to "objectify" the camera by seperating it ever so slightly from the character. It is in this seperation from the fictional character to captured cinema verite that Varda is able to create her subjective documentaries. By modifying the shots of what Cleo could be looking at we get a 'documentary-like' presentation of contemporary life in Paris circa 1962 when the film was made. In the cafe sequence we get all types of conversation, from the Algerian war (a risque subject at the time) to relationships ending. By seperating the subjective shot from the fictional character Varda is able to incorporate more of "reality" into her fiction by capturing events and moments that were happening right during the shooting. For example, the Frog man sequence where Celo walks into a crowd of people watching a man make a spectacle of himself by eating live frogs in the street is pure cinema verite (the capturing of real "non-staged" events by the camera) that she has intergrated into her fiction by simply "loosening" the conventional form of a point of view shot. There are many instances within the film that prepares us for this technique, especially when Varda cuts to a moving shot and then cuts to Cleo who is walking which forces us to make the fictional connection that the first shot is Cleo point of view. In effect we have Shot B and then Shot A rather than the usual Shot A, Shot B, then return to Shot A that forms the point-of-view shot. This loosening of the formal struture is announced to us immediately in the first scene after the Tarot card reading. When Celo flees the psychic in fear and pain over the reading of her future she walks down several flights of stairs in stunning sequence of jump cuts and seperated point-of-view shots that render the experience cinematically rather than 'realistically' or conventionally. Varda's subjective documentary technique rests on her ability to separate the conventional structure of the point-of-view system and incorporate 'objective' shots of real life into the fiction. Varda is able to have it both ways: she is able to create and sustain a fictional character while simultaneously adding in bits and pieces of 'reality' that comment, contradict or reveal the politics and circumstances of the culture that surrounds the making of the film.