Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Between Grief and Nothing

Auguste and Louis Lumière are two among the founding fathers of cinema and serve as the cornerstone of the French film industry. Their actualities spark a new fascination for moving pictures unlike any of their predecessors. Their cinématographe popularized film worldwide as they screened without regard to class or social status. This notion is important to highlight, as it sets the precedent of film as the art of the common man.

Four firms dominate the early industry; however, George Méliès stood out because he broke the Lumière mold with surrealist films like A Trip to the Moon (1902) and opened the medium to endless possibilities. The industry grew strong until a slump around WWI when funding for film making drops drastically and an import quota of 1:7 must be established to prevent total devastation. This lull in industry activity fosters an era of false myth which gives rise to André Bazin and his Cahiers du Cinéma after WWII. François Truffaut wrote in the Cahiers that these false myths were killing cinema. This threat of death birthed the New Wave and among its’ defenders were the Young Turks, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

The New Wave critics admired classic Hollywood films, but as directors they made films more like the Italian Neorealist with a dash of French experimentation. The New Wave directors had a serious lack of funding pouring in because as critics they were seen as uncompromising nay-sayers who seemed to be making films only to prove a point. This situation forced them into similar constraints of Italian Neorealism, while similarly freeing them from Hollywood conventions; i.e. locations over sets, simple set-up over complex action and camera movements, unknown actors, and spur of the moment shooting in public locations versus studio lots with extras. Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955) illustrates all these points. Her film is all on location incorporating real footage of fishermen at work and play. On top of this backdrop are two actors who walk about discussing their relationship in a totally self-absorbed fashion. There isn’t too much experimentation, though the high concept conversations about love and life and the beautiful scenery is very French.

In some cases, like Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, that dash of experimentation was more like the main ingredient. Rivette began later than the other New Wavers and focused on long grandiose improvisational films, like his crazy thirteen hour long Out 1 (1971). Out 1 is full of improvised characters and pays no attention to the notions of efficient story telling. Godard also made grandiose films, but not in scale or complexity, his were high concept. Godard never stopped being a critic and used the film plot as a tool to continue critiquing the industry and society. One of the techniques Godard uses time and again to do this is breaking the fourth wall. He utilizes a number of different wall breaking techniques, such as having the actor look directly into the camera and address the audience, incorporating conversation about the film and film making in the dialogue, and through on screen text.

In Godard’s Breathless (1960), Jean-Paul Belmondo talks directly into the camera addressing the audience about his disregard for their preference in scenery, whether ocean, city, etc. Again, at the end of Breathless, Godard has Jean Seberg turn directly into the camera and blankly question the meaning of the translation of Belmondo’s dying words. This second turn to camera is very Felliniesque, see Nights of Cabiria (1957). François Truffaut more tastefully honors Fellini’s breaking of the fourth wall at the end of The 400 Blows (1959), when a 14 year old Jean-Pierre Léaud reaches the ocean and then hauntingly turns to the camera. Truffaut adds a dash of that French nuance when he decides to freeze the frame and zoom slowly to Léaud’s face. This announces the gaze much more directly. It is possible for one to miss the more subtle variations on the fourth wall break in Fellini or more recent films. The French New Wave directors, Godard in particular, do not want the audience to miss a thing. As Godard continues to make films his announcements become louder and more direct.

Another of Godard’s methods is to discuss the film or other films in the dialogue of a scene. Godard makes direct reference to the films of his New Wave contemporary, François Truffaut, in A Woman Is A Woman (1961). In these scenes Anna Karina comes across Maria Dubois who acts out the title of her film, Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and later Jeanne Moreau who tells Karina that filming on Jules and Jim (1961) has been going well. I’m not sure what the purpose of these scenes are except to plug projects and have fun. Godard continues to have fun throughout this film as it is his attempt to flip both the classic romantic comedy and the classical musical on its head. The subject matter involves a couple who aren’t married, another guy, and babies—no mixing allowed in classical rom-coms, not to mention the nudie dancing. I think the most experimental and strangest parts of this film involve the sound. The sound is all over the place, spliced between vocals is musical score and again awkwardly added as accent to action and dialogue in scenes. There is also a long sequence where characters sit around and listen to music which alters their emotional state.

In Godard’s later film Weekend (1967), the Husband and Wife discuss their frustration with the crummy film they’re in because everyone they meet on the road seems to be crazy and talks nonsense. In this same scene, Godard utilizes another of his methods, on screen text, to clarify and comment on what is happening. The bourgeoisie Husband and Wife become frustrated with a nonsensical Emily Bronte, author of the book Wuthering Heights, who will only answer their questions with logical proofs. So after their complaining on cigarette break, they light her on fire while screaming, “This isn’t a book, this is a film. Films are life!” The scene begins with a title card that reads something like “The Lewis Caroll Way”. Lewis Caroll was a champion of the use of logical word-play and nonsensical dialogue to convey an alternative meaning; I leave the individual to interpret the meaning of this scene.

These methods are clever, humorous, and groundbreaking at the time. However, they are constant in Godard films and become distracting. Truffaut utilizes similar methods in his films but, in my opinion, more tastefully. As opposed to openly and obviously calling out how “shit” the film and society is, he shows images and tells stories. Truffaut talks about his film to the audience subtly in Jules and Jim (1961). In this film, Truffaut uses a narrator to progress the action and make comments about the characters and action while giving us insider information and summations of goings-on. This method reminds the viewer that they’re watching a film in a subconscious way. The effectiveness of either method is debatable. I think both methods are legitimate tools, each with their own purpose. As a cinephile, however, I personally prefer the latter over the former as it is more so a tool of entertainment and less an educational device.

The disturbances go beyond disjunctive storytelling and jump cuts to become a visual and/or audial nuisance. Irritation was apparently Godard’s intention as he thought the film as entertainment was a bourgeoisie concept that served to oppress the viewer. His subject matter became more and more alienating and finally, when political times got rough, he used the cinema like a propagandist to push New Left anti-establishment ideals. He abandoned the New Wavers and circled the wagons with his new New friends. After personally attacked by Godard, Truffaut makes some great points about both Godard and film making as an art. First, he angrily wrote back to Godard telling him that he was being a “piece of shit” and was truly the phony, who merely needed to play a grand role, any one would do. He later discussed film making in comparison to painter Henri Matisse. Truffaut said in hard times, the artist becomes tempted to allow his art to become subservient to an idea. In film, when this happens he becomes a propagandist—obviously referring to Godard. He then went on to describe how Matisse lived through three wars untouched. He completed his art without political influence. He suggests that this is not merely art for arts’ sake but art for beauty, for others, art that consoles. This is the role I see for the cinema as it is the fine art of the common man.

Film being my religion, I wish Godard would have practiced separation of church and state. I think there is a more artful way to convey a message and if it is lost in translation, then so be it. Those people who miss it are the same people you couldn’t pay to see one of his political films. I found Cloud Atlas (2012) to be a very Godardian post-modern film where I think the Wachowskis perfect his techniques. They make reference to other films and concepts through imagery and dialogue while repeating the same narrative over and over without repeating the exact same clip over and over as Godard does in films like Weekend. Another movie I thought of was Atonement (2007) where Joe Wright challenges many things, the reliability of narrative among them. Rodrigo García’s Nine Lives (2005), Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), all these films do clever things without becoming a nuisance. But hindsight is 20/20, and I suppose this is where I have to admit that none of these film makers would be where they are without the New Wave paving the way. As Colin MacCabe put it, “"From Hollywood to the Third World, from the mainstream, to the Avant-Garde, Godard's name is perhaps the only one that occurs wherever cinema is discussed or produced."

The influence of the New Wave has definitely been a lasting one, especially that of Godard. References are made to his movies and characters in many films beyond the farcical remakes of Breathless, Breathless (1983) and John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Ebert points out the influence on Hollywood’s 1967-1974 golden age, “You cannot even begin to count the characters played by Pacino, Beatty, Nicholson, Penn, who are directly descended from Jean-Paul Belmondo's insouciant killer Michel.” Breathless is directly quoted in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) when the lovers on the run seek refuge in a cinema from the police pursuing them. I think you’re right when you say that Godard’s characters in Breathless and Bande à part (1964) are authentically hip. I think Truffaut has similar characters in Jules and Jim and his films have something authentically hip about them as well, though sentimental, so we refer to it as timeless. The difference in my opinion is the honest outwardly expressed sentiments of Truffaut versus the rebellious vapid characters as fronts for philosophy and pop culture of Godard, which inspire emulation and sentimental feelings. Truffaut allows us to become intimate with his characters while Godard’s are prostituted to ideals and copied.

Though he thought he was necessarily progressing the medium and properly applying film making strengths, I believe Godard became little more than a clever propagandist and delivered a small blow to the New Wave. I think much of this opposing point of view dynamic of Truffaut and Godard comes from their different backgrounds. Truffaut from poverty, without love, comes from nothing and finds salvation in the world of cinema and takes his place amongst the greats. Godard from wealth, has everything he could want, comes to the cinema as a rebellion from the world he once knew, tries to revolutionize the medium and takes his place amongst the greats. I’m no psychiatrist but it seems like we’ve got two man-children externalizing and imposing their own experiences and world views onto the open ended medium of cinema. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing; it is just illuminated because of their dramatic rift. I believe their lasting impressions are an exact reflection of the medium’s true strength—to imprint consciousness and interpret it to the masses. I think it does go awry in the absolutes of Godard. He was a clever propagandist; there is an art to what he does. His plots were good and I think it’s a shame they will never see fruition but I also can’t turn away from his films. Truffaut is my favorite of the two as I appreciate the deeper and longer lasting connections I’m able to make with his characters and storylines. Godard may have wanted to change the world but we can only change ourselves.

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