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.

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