Friday, February 27, 2015

The Conformist (Il Conformista)

Dominique Sanda on the set of The Conformist (1970) with director Bernardo Bertolucci

THE CONFORMIST (Il Conformista)             A                    
Italy  France  Germany  (107 mi)  1970  d:  Bernardo Bertolucci           
restored in 1995 to (111 mi)

A marriage of direction and cinematography, this is one of the more sumptuously beautiful films in all of cinema, an extraordinarily stylized mix of sexualization and politics that become fused in a cinematic explosion, a candidate for one of the greatest films ever made, perhaps the singlemost influential movie of our times, without which we would not have Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), with the director insisting upon the same cinematographer after having seen this film, or THE GODFATHER (1971, 1974, 1990) saga, which utilizes the same luxurious richness of color along with similar attention to costumes and art design.  Along the lines of CITIZEN KANE (1941), Bertolucci’s film is a monumental collaboration of artistic expression on a grand scale, utilizing the breathtaking photography of Vittorio Storaro, the exquisite elegance of art director Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and the sublime 1930’s-era French costume designs by Gitt Magrini, not to mention a musical score from Georges Delerue.  One of the memorable central scenes of the film was even recreated in a Soprano’s (1999 – 2007) third season episode entitled Pine Barrens directed by Steve Buscemi.  Adapting a 1947 novel by Italian writer Albert Moravia, who also wrote the novel that inspired Godard’s CONTEMPT (1963), the author is known for his psychological realism and open treatment of sexuality that reflect the anxieties of contemporary times.  Moravia’s novel was inspired by the 1937 assassination of two of his cousins in Paris who had been working for the French resistance movement.  Opening in 1938 in Rome, the story concerns a central protagonist Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who identifies with the prevailing political group in power and tries to normalize himself behind a mask of fascist aristocracy, who is petrified at the idea he is a homosexual, making him feel different, like he has something to hide from the world.  While the reasons aren’t initially clear, we learn through flashbacks that he’s been traumatized by a childhood incident where he was sexually abused by a family chauffeur, Pasqualino “Lino” Seminara, Pierre Clémenti from BELLE DE JOUR (1967), where Clerici accidentally shot him with his own gun, continually thinking of himself afterwards as a killer and an assassin. 

The restless inner workings underneath the narrative continually altering the time structure hold an essential key to understanding what is a remarkable character study.  Tormented by memories of his childhood, history intrudes into Clerici’s real life, where the often repressed subconscious rises out of its hibernation with a powerful impact.  While the actual structure of the film may not have been determined until the editing room, Bertolucci adopts a complicated flashback technique, constantly shifting backwards and forwards in time, reflecting Clerici’s anxiety-ridden state of mind, as the director’s love for extended sequences are constantly interrupted by informative childhood flashback sequences that comment upon the present, where his family life was also marked by equally decadent and mentally unstable parents.  These experiences have left him feeling uneasy and uncomfortable in his own skin, where Clerici’s response to his clearly dysfunctional childhood is to hide from it by acting as normal as possible.  To this end, Clerici embraces Italian fascism and joins the Secret Service, where to be a conformist is to be a fascist.  It is not enough, however to join the ranks of the organization, as instead his role is to seek out anti-fascists, where he is assigned the job to assassinate his former teacher, leftist Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who has fled to Paris in exile where his powerful voice constantly railing against Mussolini must be silenced.  In contrast to the claustrophobic look of Italy, Paris is expressed as the city of freedom and openness, a veritable fashion center of the world suddenly bursting with a surreal use of color, an altered sense of reality, perfectly represented by the professor’s wife, Dominique Sanda as Anna, the French wife of an intellectual with lesbian tendencies, who represents glamor and beauty, everything Clerici refuses to be, as she is the exact opposite of the wife he chooses.  Stefania Sandrelli is Giulia, equally beautiful but a thoughtless, conventional-minded woman who avoids asking questions about his career, the most perfectly content middle class wife for Clerici who craves a traditional marriage, one whose entire background is grounded in family, church, position, and moral values.  Clerici uses his own honeymoon in Paris as the time and place to carry out his assignment, where the newlyweds take a train ride to Paris with the sunlight bursting through the window, accompanied by fellow Italian agent Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) who follows his every move throughout, handing him a gun with a silencer at the Italian-French border.     

Trintignant is such a perfect choice, immersing himself in the role, as he’s an actor who specializes in being an everyman who can pass through the streets unnoticed, yet exudes intelligence, remaining quietly thoughtful and reflective.  As Clerici he’s something of a ghost of a human being, carrying around his hidden secrets inside him that churn around in his anxious and unsettled frame of mind, like his secret attraction to Anna, who is introduced earlier in brief sequences, once in the fascist ministry and again in an Italian brothel, where she exists almost as a fantasy, an ideal woman who exists in a mystery.  Bertolucci’s recreation of Paris in the 30’s shows his love for such a grand period of cinema, reflected in the sensuality of the women’s costumes and their indulgence into Parisian glamor, where not everything is seen in a conscious way, but the continual brilliance of the atmospheric mood intercedes into reality.  In this vein, one of the strangest scenes in the film is Clerici’s Italian wedding party, called the “dance of the blind” sequence, which was initially cut in the Italian release, but was actually shot in an underground basement location where you can see the feet of people walking by through the street-level windows, a graphic representation of the subconscious.  In addition, it includes a large group of blind people in sunglasses, friends of Italo (José Quaglio), Clerici’s blind friend, a fascist that runs a radio station, a reflection of the blind populace that voted for Mussolini, yet the banquet scene is shot in an exotic party atmosphere with streamers and different colored hanging Chinese lanterns.  Clerici visits his parents before he leaves for Paris, where his mother is a morphine addict living in a decaying villa surrounded by unswept leaves blowing in the wind while his father is confined to an insane asylum, shown in an outdoor scene at the Palazzo dei Congressi, originally constructed for the 1942 world’s fair, but cancelled due to Italy’s involvement in the war.  Bertolucci utilizes the surviving architecture and décor of the period, where this EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma) district in Rome is a remnant of the architectural dream of Mussolini, as it was built to celebrate twenty years of fascism. 

Armond White from The New York Press, Before The Devolution | Manhattan, New York ... - NY Press      

Three geniuses teamed up to create The Conformist: director Bernardo Bertolucci, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Their 1970 collaboration was as momentous as the work of Welles & company on Citizen Kane, showing a new generation how to look at movies. This was quite a feat after the many high-art film innovations of the 50s and 60s. BSS synthesized it all—playing with edited time, color, space, form—and then upped the stakes: taking modern cinema back to the arch romanticism of the silent era. In 1970 no one had ever seen a color movie that was as much a visual phenomenon. And it’s still a knock-out. This week’s rerelease at Film Forum proves that The Conformist has been the single most influential movie of the past 35 years.

It came before the de-volution. Bertolucci, Storaro and Scarfiotti worked with the belief (now gradually eroding in the digitial-video age) that cinema was, foremost, a visual art form; that its richest meanings and distinctive impact were the result of images. Images designed to amaze, ideas expressed through illustration, emotion conveyed through the tonalities of light. All that is now taken for granted through today’s barbaric video practices where indie films look like home movies. Watching The Conformist is, more than ever, like being a starving man widening his eyes at a king’s feast. The mist-shrouded view of the Eiffel Tower, the stroboscopic train ride, the high-contrast scenes in a radio studio and many other memorable sequences reawaken one’s senses. You seem to taste “cinema” for the first time.

By the time Clerici contacts the professor in Paris, cineastes will appreciate that the professor’s address and phone number actually belonged to none other than French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.  While he’s immediately attracted to the professor’s wife, she’s more interested in spending time with Giulia, seen pampering her on a Parisian shopping spree throughout the afternoon while Clerici has his private meeting with the professor, reminding him of his college thesis on the myth of Plato’s cave (Allegory of the Cave), shifting the light in the room, becoming a standing shadow himself, beautifully visualizing a metaphor while commenting on the illusions of politics and sexual desire.  In the myth, enchained prisoners see reflections of themselves on the walls of a cave illuminated by a burning fire, mistaking their shadows for reality.  It’s a unique separation of light and darkness, between the divine and a human being, where light is a form of consciousness, while darkness reveals the unknown, something that must remain hidden.  Clerici’s privately repressed lust for Anna is revealed through peep-hole sequences, where he’s seen spying on her in various states of undress, where both she and the professor are aware of Clerici’s fascist sympathies and the danger he represents, where Anna’s pursuit of Giulia may largely be for the benefit of Clerici’s roving male eyes.  Both women dress extravagantly for an evening dinner and dance engagement, where the virtuosity of Bertolucci’s gliding camera style is especially evident in the operatic dance sequence bathed in a sensuous texture as the two women are entwined in a feverish, erotically charged dance that unleashes itself in an orgiastic frenzy.  This leads to a scene in the snowy woods the following day, exhibiting some of the most exquisite use of light and shadow in a motion picture, where the assassination attempt is eloquently photographed as cinematic art — glorious, powerful, and dramatically effective.  With sunlight streaming through the trees, the set-up itself is breathtaking to behold, where time literally stops when the optimum moment is at hand.  In the lingering stillness, the psychological intrigue accelerates through the agitated inner workings of the killer’s mind, with the viewer wondering where his sympathies lie, but the seemingly peaceful calm is broken by the decisive brutality of the events, turning into one of the more stunning scenes of the film. 

While the entire film is shot in a dizzying array of crisscrossing angles that parallel the freely moving flashback technique, it’s a fairly simplistic story told in a beguilingly complex manner, delving into all manner of Freudian psychosexual issues concerning a confused and cowardly man who has for years tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, vowing to “build a normal life” for himself, yet his very soul hinges on the thought of sexual panic.  The extreme aesthetic, with an elaborate color scheme, exotic use of light, and the grandeur of nature on display seem to taunt Clerici’s narrowly skewed interests, where the moral turmoil of his political and sexual confusion eventually become overwhelming, especially as time jumps ahead to the fascist defeat, which completely undercuts his fabricated life and everything he’s stood for, exposing his failures, along with others like him whose unquestioned following of a brutal regime allowed fascism to flourish.  In the aftermath of Mussolini’s death, when he suddenly sees the man on the street that he thought he had killed earlier in his life, Lino the chauffeur, still alive and trying to seduce another young man, he becomes unhinged, as if he has an internal explosion, publicly denouncing all his former friends as traitors, homosexuals, and murderous accomplices.  While the film is an indictment of hypocrisy and fascism, not to mention conformism as a means of finding a safe haven, it is also a tragic psychosexual descent into utter futility, as all his life Clerici’s constant desire to sacrifice his values and surround himself in a normal life of anonymity was based on the idea that he was different, that he was molested and abused, little more than damaged goods in an otherwise decent and moral society.  Liberation has always been conformity’s constant enemy, and now suddenly he finds himself alone in a world that makes no sense, where he’s a stranger literally to himself, unaccepted by the new prevailing order, refusing to identify with the collaborating enemy within, shaking his feeble, weak-willed spirit to the core, where his biggest fear rises to the surface and once again looms mysteriously over his life, powerless to turn away, lost in an ambiguous fog of illusion, paralyzed, helpless and impotent.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sans Soleil

SANS SOLEIL            A                    
France (100)  1982  d:  Chris Marker

L’éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.
(The distance between the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the times.)
—Jean Racine, preface from Bajazet, 1672 (opening in French version)

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place.

—T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday, 1930, Poetry X » Poetry Archives » T. S. Eliot » "Ash Wednesday"   (Opening in English version)

Basically a 1980’s time capsule, largely based on an assemblage of footage shot from 1978 to 1981, Chris Marker has created a poetic non-fiction film essay which explains man’s existence, beautifully expressed with humor, insight, and an extraordinary breadth of thought, essential viewing for anyone who has a thirst for knowledge.  The film uses written letters full of images, sounds, and ideas from a wandering cameraman (a stand-in for Marker himself) to express the essay’s content along with weird electronic sounds produced by Michael Krasna on EMS VCS3 and Moog Source synthesizers.  Concentrating mainly on contemporary Tokyo, the film also contains footage shot in the Portuguese West African colonies Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, two of the poorest and lesser known countries on the continent, but also Iceland, Île-de-France, and San Francisco, where the filmmaker tracks down all the original locations in Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo.  An abstract ballet of contemporary thought, Marker hones in on what constitutes thought, ideas, cultural difference, mortality, memory, the imagination, and even the art of filmmaking itself, where the film exhibits an all-encompassing Buddhist Herman Hesse Siddhartha sensibility, with the suggestion being that the human spirit is in all things and all things are in the human spirit, where woven into the fabric of the film are stream-of-conscious images that reflect the flow of human imagination simultaneously flooding the brain with thoughts and images, each human being undergoing similar streams of thought, where all are interconnected even when sitting in a theater or standing silently in the same room, as there is a collective flood of consciousness taking place that broadens our grasp of what it is to be human.  Coming on the heels of The Grin Without a Cat (Le Fond de L’Air Est Rouge) (1977), where for a significant period in the late 60’s and early 70’s Marker had been working closely with militant French left wing film collectives SLON and ISKRA, this was a return to personal filmmaking, perhaps the defining work of his career, a tour de force essayist film where it’s still, nearly half a century later, hard to believe the complexity of personal thought injected into just 100 minutes.    

Part documentary, part travelogue, and part poetic essay, Marker uses only a 16-millimeter camera (blown up to 35 mm) and a standard cassette tape recorder in a film that contains no interviews, graphics, or explanatory information, and no synchronous sound, but instead consists entirely of an unknown woman (Florence Delay in the French version, Alexandra Stewart in the English version) who serves as the narrator reading and commenting upon a series of letters received from an unseen friend (entire text seen here: : Chris Marker : Sans Soleil), a fictitious free-lance cameraman traveling around the globe expressing his thoughts along the way, who we later learn in the closing credits is named Sandor Krasna.  Neither the woman nor her friend are ever pictured, their relationship remains shrouded in mystery and is never explained, yet the film is a flood of images and philosophical reflections of the cameraman, where the woman invariably begins each sequence with “He wrote me,” “He said,” or “He told me” as he wanders back and forth between Japan and the Cape Verde Islands on what he calls “a journey to the two extreme poles of survival.”  Stretching the limits of what could be called a documentary, the film is an escalating free associative kaleidoscope of ideas and personal revelations while also offering meditations on time and memory expressed in words and fleetingly gorgeous images from various places around the world.  In the opening sequence we hear from the narrator, “The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965.  He said that for him it was the image of happiness.” However, by the end of the film we learn that the site where the picture was taken on the Icelandic island of Heimaey was destroyed in 1973 by lava flow from Eldfell, an active nearby volcano that destroyed half the town.  This temporal nature of existence becomes a prominent theme throughout, as nearly everything seen in the film either no longer exists or is barely recognizable in its current form. 

In the 60’s Marker traveled to Tokyo hoping to shoot the Olympics, a job that ultimately went to Kon Ichikawa in the form of TOKYO OLYMPIAD (1965), but developed a love affair with the country and its culture.  While the view in Japan and Africa is inevitably seen through the lens of a Westerner in a foreign land who is never seen interacting with the natives, or even asking them questions about their lives, but instead sees in the smaller details a larger view where he’s attempting to navigate life for the entire planet.  What’s immediately noticeable is how easily Marker literally overwhelms the viewer with an intensity of experience that is rare in cinema, as few of us can match Marker’s level of engagement, where even subjects that might not ordinarily capture our interest become fascinating material in Marker’s hands, suddenly elevating our attentiveness simply by how it is presented, using experimental film techniques to add amusement, a bizarre electronic soundtrack that even though it sounds dated, also adds a futuristic dimension, as electronic computer technology, so prevalent today, was only just being discovered in such a raw and primitive form.  Marker’s cinematic techniques make it all seem so playfully mysterious, including clips from Japanese films and television, exploring the all-pervasive presence of manga and anime, spending time daydreaming with the passengers on a circuitous network of trains, with their criss-crossing electric power lines, watching a drunk Japanese man directing traffic, witnessing the crowds intermingling with the public festivities at Shinjuku Square, already overflowing from the traffic from Shibuya Station, one of Tokyo’s busiest railway stations, where he discovers already in progress a blessing for broken dolls, where they end up being thrown into a fiery pit, also a blessing for the animals at the Tokyo zoo that died the previous year, or a temple shrine consecrated to cats, literally surrounded by white ceramic statues of cats, known as maneki-neko, a popular symbol of good fortune, where in each case the idea of processing complex information is suddenly seen in a new light, as the director himself seems to relish in the delight of discovering strange public rituals happening on the streets of what was then contemporary Japanese society, where the camera becomes fascinated by what it sees. 

Colin Marshall from The Quarterly Conversation, December 3, 2012, Our Curious Man in Japan: Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, and Films that Stand for Us:

This time, Marker’s lens, by way of Krasna, opens onto the wider Japanese population, and not only the segments of it watched by Western business pundits during this brief era of profitable doomsaying. “I bow to the economic miracle,” reads another of Krasna’s missives, “but I really want to show the neighborhood celebrations.” We see these neighborhood celebrations, strikingly captured, but we also see strictly regimented teenage street dances; the bleeping catharsis of video arcades; museums of animal copulation and genitalia-themed sculpture; dispossessed blocks “of bums, of lumpens, of outcasts, of Koreans”; and a great deal of haunting, blue-glowing imagery shot straight from Japanese television sets. All this has a surface strangeness, a first-order wackiness, the kind to which Westerners still thrill when watching, say, Japanese commercials. Yet, acquire just enough understanding of the Japanese tongue and this foreignness ebbs away. A void opens up, demanding a strangeness more complex and enduring. In Marker, we have the man to fill it.

One of the common motifs of the film is to take established pictures and put them through a Spectre Image Synthesizer machine designed by another fictional artist Hayao Yamaneko, suddenly reshaped and reconfigured in a “Zone,” a reference to Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), an isolated and heavily guarded region that operates according to inexplicable, unearthly laws of nature, churning out otherworldly, near psychedelic imagery, where the visual transformation resembles how initial thoughts and ideas change and evolve over time, continually becoming something completely different from what it was at the start, representing a kind of human growth, as we constantly replace old ideas with new ones, where there is a constantly shifting brain pattern at work as we continually shed our former skin with a process of continual renewal and rebirth.  With this incessant drive towards the future, there is a futuristic, sci-fi element that lends itself to a dreamlike atmosphere.  From one of Krasna’s letters, “I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo.  They have substituted themselves for my memory.  They are my memory.  I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape.  How has mankind managed to remember?”  Even as Marker was making Le Joli Mai (1963), he was wondering what that film would mean to people in the years to come, drawing a link to this film by contemplating its place in the future, wondering out loud how it might be perceived after a significant passage of time.  Concerning himself with “the function of remembering,” Marker, in turn, questions how our collective memory, filled with individualized recollections, forges an official version of history.  In the process, no doubt, countless numbers of incidents or experiences are lost in the forgetfulness of time, some quite intentionally by the prevailing powers, while only certain, often manufactured stories are used to write and actually embellish a nation’s history, like the exaggerations of a fish story, where the size of the fish always gets bigger with each repeated telling of the story, literally creating their own version of national identity.  Marker travels to the Ponta do Sinó lighthouse tower, seemingly located at the end of the world on the desolate Cape Verde island of Sal, discovering one of the last working lighthouses anywhere in the world whose lamp continues to be lit by oil, an outdated practice that has long since disappeared.  In other travels to Guinea-Bissau he finds stark images of working-class people, like fisherman and women in the market place, freeze framing on one woman who actually smiles, and for a brief instant glances at the camera, which lasts a twenty-fourth of a second, “the length of a film frame,” while offering a commentary about the nation’s revolt, eventually toppling the Portuguese colonial rule, a revolution that inspired young intellectuals and budding revolutionaries from the continent of Europe at the time, but then adds somewhat despairingly, “Who remembers all that?  History throws its empty bottles out the window.”

“We do not remember.  We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.  How can one remember thirst?”  In our present age, images have become a substitute for memory, a parallel reality often at odds with our own recollections, which are subject to self-interest and distortion, much like written history, where “Memory is not the opposite of forgetting but its lining.”  While unusual at the time, interjecting one’s own subjective viewpoints into a documentary is certainly not without precedent.  Norman Mailer’s non-fiction novel The Armies of the Night (1968), his own personal testimony told in the third person, won a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, which is probably not that different from Walt Whitman’s 19th century diary of the Civil War, Specimen Days (1882), the man who wrote in the Song of Myself section (Section 33 | IWP WhitmanWeb - The University of Iowa) of his epic poem Leaves of Grass (1855) the words “I am the man.  I suffer'd, I was there.”  Robert J. Flaherty, considered the father of the documentary, staged much of NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922), interjecting a woman to play his wife, also giving him a fictional name (which was actually Allakariallak), yet it shows us a kind of ethnographic truth.  Perhaps time has finally caught up to Marker, and all these other visionary reporters of the world around them, as this practice has become the norm, where fact and fiction are often indistinguishable in the strange hybrid of movies being made today.  Despite the failures of the 60’s idealism and the failed revolutionary movements, where other more cynical leftists have become bitter and bogged down by their own ideological dogma, sounding dry and overly professorial to the point of being tedious, like Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D (Adieu au langage) (2013), Marker displays a surprising amount of optimism in his hope for the future, generated, one supposes, by his incessant curiosity, displaying a probing and inquisitive nature always driven to look below the surface into a deeper meaning of things.  In fact what other film would take us through the historical uprisings of the once colonized Bijagós archipelago off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, using images from another documentary source, interweaving fake memories with real ones, while also revisiting the locations used in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, finding most still intact, where Marker is similarly drawn to Hitchcock’s obsession with the delusion of memory, where a character in the film literally invents a visual double pulled from another dimension of time and applies it to the present, referring to a memory that exists only for him, and one that only he could decipher.  Mixing true memories with stock archival footage while in search of a larger truth, that is precisely what lies in store for prospective viewers of this film when attempting to extract significant meaning into their own lives, as the narrator recalls, “I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances.  In a way the two worlds communicate with each other.  Memory is to one what history is to the other:  an impossibility.”  Quoted in his June, 1994 essay entitled A Free Replay from Positif 400, A free replay (notes on Vertigo) by Chris Marker - Chris Marker, Marker writes, “the vertigo the film deals with isn’t to do with space and falling; it is a clear, understandable and spectacular metaphor for yet another kind of vertigo, much more difficult to represent — the vertigo of time.”  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Goodbye to Language 3D (Adieu au langage)

GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE 3D (Adieu au langage)       D+            
France  Switzerland  (70 mi)  2013  d:  Jean-Luc Godard          Official site [Japan] 

Had anyone without the name of Godard attached to this film attempted to find a release for this mishmash of a movie, no one on this planet would have picked it up, yet 3D theaters are packed to the gills with audiences wondering why this man is such a legend in the world of cinema.  When his career began, the French New Wave ushered in a new way to tell “old” and conventional genre stories, love on the run, gangster flicks, youth alienation, where the young guns took their cameras out of the studios and into the streets, giving the appearance of spontaneity and more energy feeding from all directions, where a more playful style brought in new audiences.  All the attention of the cinema world was focused on the heralded French filmmakers of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and even Éric Rohmer.  To his credit, Godard has outlived them all, so he continues to draw accolades while he bears a reputation as a “radical” or an “innovator,” which is dubious at best.  What stands out most both from his 60’s period until today is how so little has changed in his cinematic style, as he borrows liberally from other sources, whether it be music or literary quotes, and then throws them into the narrative flow of his films as if he’s the author himself, rarely giving credit to the lines he’s actually stealing, or the cinematic methods of others, as instead it becomes part of the Godard inspiration.  If students tried this in an academic paper they would fail for plagiarism, but the legend of Godard is heralded as a cinema great.  What this actually proves is not that he knows how to make great films, which continues to be in some question, but that he’s earned the distinction of being the last New Waver standing, so this alone guarantees celebrity status.  If his films tell us anything about the world of movies, it’s that even more than politics, producers sell their product based on name recognition.  Like Warhol and his Campbell's Soup Cans, Godard is a recognizable brand, becoming one of the leading purveyors of celebrity art.  In the 60’s, Godard continually made silly pop references, where his films were often as breezy as reading magazine articles, where it was the photo spread that drew all the attention, including the fashionable looks of the beautiful women, where few paid attention to the foolishness that was occurring onscreen, or the way sexist men persistently and inappropriately browbeat and mistreat women, as if the gangster myth is his secret to success, where he was quoted with what has become his movie mantra, “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun,” taken from a Godard Journal entry May 16, 1991. 

The Cinematic Essay
According to Godard, “there are two kinds of cinema, there is Flaherty and there is Eisenstein. That is to say, there is documentary realism and there is theatre, but ultimately, at the highest level, they are one and the same. What I mean is that through documentary one arrives at the structure of the theatre, and through theatrical imagination and fiction one arrives at the reality of life. To confirm this, take a look at the work of the great directors, how they pass by turn from realism to theatre and back again.” (Mussman, Toby (ed.). Jean-Luc Godard: a critical anthology. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968, p. 82).

The same applies to Godard’s films, which oscillate between the genres of fiction and reality. A genre mixture which Louis D. Giannetti describes as follows: “Many of his movies cut across ‘genre’ distinctions, combining documentary realism, stylised tableaux, propaganda, whimsical digressions on art, culture, and sociology in a bizarre and often bewildering mixture.” (Giannetti, Louis D. Godard and others: essays on film form. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975, p. 20). This kind of cinema is incompatible with conventional storytelling and plots, creating quite another narrative style. Or as Godard proclaimed in an interview: “The Americans are good at story-telling, the French are not. Flaubert and Proust can’t tell stories. They do something else.” (Narboni, Jean and Tom Milne (eds.). Godard on Godard: critical writings by Jean-Luc Godard. London: Secker & Warburg, 1972, p. 223).

What he said in 1965 about Flaubert’s and Proust’s inability to tell stories and interest in doing something else, was also aimed at Godard himself: “I don’t know how to tell stories. I want to cover the whole ground, from all possible angles, saying everything at once.” (Giannetti, p. 19). So he tried something else in the late 50’s and early 60’s, when he entered the film arena with his world of controversial, paradoxical, and poetic fragments. Gradually, he developed the cinematic essay for his own purpose: creating the artistic freedom to express oneself on all levels, by using all kinds of artistic expressions, all kinds of narrative structures and genres. In 1962, after having made four feature films, Godard described as follows his approach to the double role of a critic becoming a filmmaker:

A writer for Cahiers du cinéma, Godard once recalled in an interview that “As a critic, I thought of myself as a filmmaker. Today, I still think of myself as a critic, and in a sense I am, more than ever before. Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed. I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in novel form or novels in essay form: only instead of writing, I film them. Were the cinema to disappear, I would simply accept the inevitable and turn to television [as he in fact did ten years later]; were television to disappear, I would revert to pencil and paper. For there is a clear continuity between all forms of expression. It’s all one. The important thing is to approach it from the side which suits you best.” (Narboni, p. 171) 

At least early in his career, men and women were involved in relationships and actually spoke to one another, where love almost always took a backseat to more important stylistic cinematic issues, like the way the woman is dressed, or the degree of nudity shown, or the flashy car, some mandatory senseless shootout, or capturing the advertisement posters on the street in essential shots with the feature characters.  Godard was quoted in the introduction to Richard Roud’s book Godard in 1967, “To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.”  Style over substance became a catchphrase associated with early Godard films, which never delved deeply into character studies, but remained very much on the surface, where any evidence of authenticity or reality was submerged into a near subliminal state, preferring to bathe the screen in artificiality, like a technique out of the Hollywood musical era, where vibrant color, sexy women, and gorgeous on-site locations filmed by a master cinematographer like Raoul Coutard could make idyllic Mediterranean locations literally light up the screen.  This was the method to his madness, as it was the ticket to his early success.  Much has been written about the French New Wave, and Godard himself, who is not bashful in print, having started his career as a Cahiers du cinéma film critic in the early 50’s.  But if you jump to his films of today, human beings are no longer recognizable, or the words coming out of their mouths, which bear no resemblance whatsoever to human characteristics, but instead sound like slogans or more stolen quotes, catchphrases that supposedly reveal something essential about what we are watching onscreen, but have been reduced to sounding ridiculous.  People simply don’t speak to one another in this manner, where nothing onscreen bears any resemblance to reality, but has become completely artificial.  No longer do men and women engage in conversations where they actually talk “to” one another, that would involve listening and feeling, essential components to “living,” but instead they simply talk “at” one another, where the emotionless detachment and utter disdain outweighs anything cinematically being communicated, where real life has all but been extinguished.  There isn’t an ounce of passion or authenticity, the life blood of the cinéma vérité style of the French New Wave films, especially those early 60’s films Godard made with legendary actress extraordinaire Anna Karina, a true screen presence and as luminous as ever on celluloid, where she was divorced from Godard in 1968, the turning point in his career.  Remove her from the picture and all the fun is gone, where you’re left exclusively with the melancholy and often morose musings of the director, where his film of cliché’s becomes an overbearing journey of edicts and decrees, like Julius Caesar issuing proclamations that must be followed to the letter by his minions, where there are learned professors like PhD film theorist, historian, and prolific writer David Bordwell, [David Bordwell], who analyze this film literally line for line and shot by shot. 

The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette  James Monaco, p. 110-111, 2004 (pdf)

For (Richard) Roud, “one cannot hope to convince his detractors; on the contrary, a book which tries to explain Godard’s aims and methods may well only confirm their objections; they will learn more exactly what it is they object to.” True enough, but what is the cause of this split?

First, that aspect of his work—the multiplexity of its language—which has made him, as Roud says, “for many…the most important filmmaker of his generation,” is off-putting for others.  At its best, this reaction evinces a healthy disrespect for effete estheticism and apolitical avant-gardism. At worst it is simply evidence of a closed-minded, rigid classicism which sees art as subject to a set of invariable laws and the critic’s job is essentially judgmental…

Second, and more important, Godard’s films require participation. Trained as we have been to expect instant gratification from our cinematic commodities, we have too little preparation for appreciating the kind of open dialectic which forms Godard’s films. They are not machines designed to measure out quanta in entertainment in effective rhythms, but, as he has said many times, essays—tries. They form questions; they don’t draw conclusions. So as not to “cheat” his audiences, Godard announces this in the subtitles of many of his films…Masculine Feminine (in 15 Acts) (Masculin Féminin: 15 faits précis)…These are not finely crafted, finished esthetic objects meant for relaxed consumption; they are sinuous, struggling, quirky, unfinished, tense, and demanding essays. They are meant for active, not passive viewers. 

The obsessive hero worship attached to the name of Jean-Luc Godard is stunning, especially with so much of his work bordering on mediocrity, where his films today suggest elitism and pure snobbishness, yet still he has legions of followers that literally worship every word that comes out of his mouth as if he is the founding father and spiritual voice of cinema itself, anointing him as a true cinema god.  As to whether he is deserving of this kind of loyal and obedient reverence that borders on cult worshipping certainly feels misguided, especially having seen the lethargic nature of his previous effort, Film Socialisme (2010), where he didn’t even bother to provide translated subtitles for the American theatrical release, instead calling it “Navajo English,” where the subtitle was comprised of no more than three words.  Despite the rave reviews then and now, this mostly incomprehensible, non-narrative style of film is really no different than anything else he’s been turning out for decades, where one can only describe the effort as “aimless indifference.”  There is no connection to anyone onscreen, absolutely none, and no attempt to make any connection, instead his preferred working method is to write films that are as dramatically inert as possible, where nothing is happening and there is no acting of any kind, just flat, emotionless and expressionless reading of words, oftentimes making no attempt at disguise, but simply reading passages out of a book.  Often he’ll just show us the book, nothing else, or the image of a highlighted name of a French philosopher Jacques Ellul on an i-Phone.  This is what passes as cinema, which has all the critics heralding a new radical approach from the “master,” but it’s as dry and uninvolving as anything you’re likely to see all year.  If anything, it’s the anti-cinema, as it simply fails to register as essential viewing.  Outside of some saturated colors that make for a few luminous images, that work just as well as photographs, Godard gives the audience no compelling reason to see this film, and don’t believe the hype that’s it’s the best use of 3D ever, as it’s mostly insignificant.  While there are a few 3D camera turns of superimposed imagery, this amounts to about ten seconds and feels more like a marketing gimmick, reminiscent of a cultural strategy from the 60’s counterculture when in 1971 social activist Abbie Hoffman wrote Steal This Book, urging interested readers to bypass the capitalist structure of paying for a book and literally take it for free.  That would be the radically appropriate way to watch a Godard film today, because the current $10 – 15 dollar ticket price is highway robbery for as uniquely disinterested a film as this, which most will find endlessly monotonous, a movie that gives the expression “art film” a bad name, and an over-hyped example of old-fashioned Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus snake oil salesmanship at its best, where you might as well call this film “The greatest show on earth.”      

Pull out all the superlatives, and then look again and presto! — the magic is gone.  Now frustratingly and agonizingly dull, bordering on pretentious and overly intellectual, what once passed for interaction is gone, where instead of a comprehensible storyline, entire films are little more than a series of obscure references and brief monologues spoken to no one in particular.  Godard does excel in the use of oversaturated colors, but it’s not enough, feeling overly tedious and just not very alluring to the viewer.  It happened some time ago when Godard lost interest in filmmaking, per se, and instead found a revitalization with video imagery, where his 8-part video project HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA (1988 – 1998) is an examination of cinema itself, where who better than Professor Godard should lead a series of exploratory lectures on the history of cinema, pulling imagery out of everything that has come before to make a comment on contemporary times.  While no one doubts the significance of this major undertaking, though few in America actually experienced a live screening, the film has mostly become an essential tool in film studies classes, where bits and pieces are reviewed and analyzed, and the idea of compartmentalizing cinema takes on a new significance.  It was British filmmaker Peter Greenaway who was quoted in 2007 as saying, “Thirty-five years of silent cinema is gone, no one looks at it anymore.  This will happen to the rest of cinema.  Cinema is dead.” (Greenaway announces the death of cinema - and blames ...)  Godard would concur, reinventing himself in a new kind of cinema that does not even need to be watched in theaters, but can be streamed online or watched on computers or television sets via DVD’s, where viewers can utilize the pause and rewind buttons at their leisure.  This significantly alters the viewing experience, where there’s no relationship anymore to the communal theatrical experience, where people congregate and share ideas afterwards through lengthy conversations and discussions.  Instead, people take to the Twitter network or churn out thoughts or entire reviews on various websites, where social media is now the engine of cinema discourse, where cinema is no longer confined to theatrical distribution but is open to the entire world.  How else does one explain accessibility in such faraway places around the globe, where it’s computers that are actually keeping us connected.  One of the more intriguing juxtapositions in GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE is placing a relatively emotionless modern character (Héloïse Godet) next to television screen images of exaggerated silent film melodrama, where extraordinary heights are depicted next to a complete absence of emotion, where Godard continually fills the room with emptiness, where repeatedly the film likes to drift off into existential nothingness.  One reason Roxy the dog (Godard’s own pet) is such an appealing character in the film is because it has some life to it.  It “acts” alive, playing in the grass outdoors, unlike the lifeless human zombies that otherwise inhabit the movie. 

While the film follows around a couple, Héloïse Godet as Josette and Kamel Abdeli as Gédéon, there is precious little connection ever expressed between them, where they’re never seen actually engaging one another’s full attention, but instead each seems to be lost in their own world, occasionally spouting some commentary, like something read in a newspaper, or passages from a book, where nothing uttered has the remote feel of ordinary conversation, but must rise to the level of something significant or professorial, which adds an air of pretentiousness to the entire film.  For some reason, likely Godard’s instructions, Josette throws her clothes off in nearly every scene, spending most of the film naked, offering no real commentary other than men like to look at naked women.  The soundtrack also is filled with sporadic gunshots ringing out, as if fulfilling Godard’s original prophecy that “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.”  While the use of a ferry is a regular occurrence, the entire film has the feel of an overall journey, where there is no real time line, as audiences are whisked in and out of fragmented sequences at will, seemingly with no rhyme or reason, which could easily be different time frames, where the overall feel is sketchy at best.  As is Godard’s tendency, rather than dwell on ideas or expand on them, he prefers to simply introduce random thoughts throughout, as if each is itself a paragraph or essay on knowledge, but one for the audience to discover.  It’s as if Godard is instructing the audience to pause, pull out your i-Phones and look this up, read a few paragraphs on the subject or as much as you please, and then continue with the film, pausing with each new reference, which is exactly what many are prepared to do.  At the same time, there are brief snippets of music, where as soon as it becomes recognizable, Godard cuts to something else, where nothing is ever allowed to develop.  This concept of cinema through fragmentation or viewing only individual sections at a time seems to play into the idea that the modern film audience simply has no patience for sitting through an entire movie anymore and that their attention span is challenged.  Therefore Godard is making movies for an attention deficit disorder (ADHD) world, as if we can no longer read, hold a thought, or carry on a conversation.  While he’s always made literary connections, the idea of simply showing the image of a book in 3D suggests they’re already outdated and not in much use anymore, but have also become part of the forgotten relics, like silent era cinema.  The constant jump cuts and jarring interruptions, along with so many repetitive images and sounds, turns the film into a video loop that should be running continuously in some art museum where viewers could drift in and out at any particular section or return to it sometime later, where twenty minutes is all anyone would need to spend with this film.