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.