Monday, March 29, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 11: Numéro deux (1975)

Numéro deux (1975): viewing - first

My final encounter (at least for this marathon) with the 70's work of Jean-Luc Godard was Numéro deux, a mysterious, haunting and epochal experimental essay film Godard made in 1975, following the dissolution of the Dziga Vertov Group and his collaboration with Jeanne-Pierre Gorin. It also marked the beginning of a lifelong creative and personal relationship with filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville. The film begins with Godard alone in an editing room giving a somewhat cryptic monologue that seems to be a thinly veiled account of how this movie came to be made. The bulk of the rest of the film takes place in a blackened room containing only the presence of two television screens (recalling the visual aesthetic of Le Gai Savoir), which at first seem to be displaying arbitrary and random images of people murmuring sparse, poetic dialogues, before it becomes apparent that we are witnessing a family of six (mother, father, boy, girl, grandmother, grandfather) and being given an intimate glimpse into the sexual, economical and philosophical textures of their lives. The dual television screens often juxtapose multiple characters pov's and dialogues against each other, which often makes for challenging and ambiguous disunions in the visuals as we observe the members of this family and come face to face with the myriad dysfunctions that accompany them.

top: Le Gai Savoir (1969); bottom: Numéro deux (1975)

The mother and father (amidst a fight over the mother's infidelity) engage in graphic sexual activities, which are rendered cold and clinical and disturbing to watch, despite the almost voyeuristic nature in which they are presented. Equally disturbing is a scene where the parents show and explain their genitals to the curious, isolated children, presenting them as a mouth and pair of lips that kiss when in love, an analogy which works in stark contrast to the way these acts have been presented to the viewer up to this point. Godard seems to be out to mine some uncomfortable truths from these taboos and fractured relationships. Take this piece of dialogue either spoken or thought by the husband (the film is vague on this) of his wife late in the film: "I think of his mother's cunt. Why do I mind when guys stick there cocks in? I'm thinking of love. To screw and be screwed. Sometimes, she's the man and I'm the woman. Since I'm a guy, sometimes it's like I was screwing another guy." The character clearly contemplates sex as basically the opposite of how it's been described to the children; a soulless, loveless act between two interchangeable genders disconnected from their genitals and each other. Also take the grandparents, who only come into focus in the second half of the movie. The grandmother is frequently engaged in cleaning work, rarely exposing her face while ruminating on her mortality, while the grandfather, a crabby drunk, sits around thinking of days long gone and wallowing in self pity. After summing up a forty year span of his life in about two minutes, he sits at a table, naked from the waste down, and opines: "It was stupid, but that's history. It's not the movies....Sometimes I look at my prick. That's not the movies. The proof we don't have time for movies." It's a moment that stings, both because of the defeated delivery of the lines and also out of a twinge of brutal honesty, in part because one can't help but feel that it in some way might reflect Godard's own disillusionment with cinema at this point in his career.

The backstory to how Numéro deux was made is quite interesting; producer Georges de Beauregard proposed that Godard remake Breathless. Godard accepted the offer, however after Beauregard had successfully raised the funds it became apparent that Godard had no intentions on remaking his landmark cinema debut; instead he spent most of the money buying additional equipment to finish his previous work Ici et ailleurs, then upon completion of that project quickly churned out Numéro deux with Miéville to fulfill his commission. Similar to Le Gai Savoir, I found Numéro deux to be a fascinating film if only as an aesthetic object, but clearly its intrigues go far beyond that. Aside from the trenchant view of its subjects and the exploratory techniques of the filmmaking on display, the movie as a whole has an air of anxiety around it. It very much feels like something of a creative crossroads for Godard, and according to most of what I've read about the film (Ed Howard's piece over at Only The Cinema is a must read), it created the path Godard would trail creatively for most of his following career. It's of course hard for me to say I "enjoyed" Numéro deux, but it certainly held my rapt attention, and after finishing it and letting the experience marinate, I have to say I've found it to be one of the most unique and singularly fascinating Godard films yet. It somehow feels like an appropriate way for me to wrap-up my brief foray into Godard's 70's work, and I'm highly looking forward to what the 80's have in store.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Scenes From A Career #1 - Luis Buñuel

Scenes From A Career will be a new regular feature here at The Blue Vial, where I highlight various directors who are important to me and showcase my favorite images and moments from the span of their careers. These are images that have both resonated with me in a profound way, and work as a testament to the singular vision and talent of the filmmaker who realized them.

Deciding who to pick for my first installment was not hard at all; Luis Buñuel is not only one of my favorite filmmakers, but also the man who inspired the name of this blog, and I feel it's only appropriate that I begin with him. This pioneer of surrealism made masterpieces from the moment he entered cinema to the moment he left this planet, creating rich works of both scorching, wicked fire and charming, playful grace - all along the way composing some of the most stirring and inspired imagery I've ever had the pleasure of viewing.

“If someone were to tell me I had twenty years left, and ask me how I'd like to spend them, I'd reply 'Give me two hours a day of activity, and I'll take the other twenty-two in dreams.'” - Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 10: Tout va bien (1972); Letter to Jane (1972)

Tout va bien (1972); viewing: first

Tout va bien was the final feature film produced from Godard's collaboration with Jeanne-Pierre Gorin under the name of the Dziga Vertov Group. With its respectable budget and the presence of two stars cast in the leading roles, it was the closest thing to a commercially viable film Godard had made since Week End. Tout va Bien begins cleverly, citing its Brechtian influence during the opening credits with a voice repeatedly calling scene numbers and clapping the slate, eventually cutting to a hand signing a series of checks while two directors in voice-over (Godard/Gorin?) discuss various aspects of getting a political movie made. We are subsequently introduced to a couple (Jane Fonda, Yves Montand), she an American reporter living in Paris with her lover, a former director who's been relegated to commercial work. One day the couple visit a meat factory to conduct an interview with the manager, only to find him imprisoned in his office by the workers who have gone on strike. The couple become briefly trapped in the manager's office as well, and eventually the movie shifts its focus in the second half to a time in the future focusing on the couples struggles, both with their rapidly deteriorating relationship, and with their individual existential anxieties during the volatility of '72 France, where the echoes of the events of May '68 are still extremely palpable.

There are many extremely interesting things going on in Tout va bien, among them the daring mise-en-scene, which removes the fourth wall from the factory setting, rendering it a cutaway and showing all of the activities taking place inside at once. There is also a phenomenal back-and-forth tracking shot towards the end that nearly outdoes the famous one in Week End; this one taking place in a large supermarket that at first seems to be highlighting the mechanical nature of consumerism before turning into a stark outburst of violence and revolt. There are also unfortunately some stretches of tedium where Tout va bien feels ponderous and lacking in Godard's typically poetic visuals. Of course the movie indulges in Godard's leftist leanings and Maoist beliefs and becomes quite talky in spots that were a little too trying for me. Something about the film also felt antsy to me as it jumped all around; I wish it had sustained more of its ideas, and also developed the relationship between the Fonda and Montand characters more (they are actually quite good in their roles). Despite the emotional disconnect I felt with the couple, the film is at its best when it's drawing parallels between their relationship and the tumultuous political climate of France post-May '68. These moments are poignant, sobering and inspired, and by far the most successful and emotionally resonant achievements of the picture for me.

One of the more interesting things I read about Tout va bien in its (surprisingly little) section from Richard Brody's book Everything Is Cinema is that Godard had actually been in a motorcycle accident and month long coma prior to shooting, and was really only involved in the development of the film on a conceptual level. Gorin himself did the majority of hands on directing, and perhaps this accounts for the overall lack of, I dunno, spark(?) that I felt while watching the movie. Something was definitely missing here for me, visually speaking and just with its overall feel and energy. While Tout va bien didn't completely work for me, and doesn't really inspire me to rush and seek out other Dziga Vertov Group works, I am glad I watched it because, as I've said previously, you can always count on a film with Godard's name attached to be at least interesting, and on that level Tout va bien has a lot going for it.

Letter to Jane (1972); viewing: first

Probably not the best thing to watch while on the verge of falling asleep (as I was), Letter to Jane is a 50 minute follow up to Tout va bien that focuses on a photograph of Jane Fonda during her controversial visit to North Vietnam, while Godard and Gorin talk through voice over throughout the duration of the film and scorn Fonda for not entirely clear reasons. Their critiques link the photo to everything from Tout va bien and its central question (what is the role of the intellectual in a revolution?) to the class struggle to capitalism and so on. It is analytically dense, going so far as to break down the blocking of the photograph into symbols of the respresented countries politics. It also analyzes the faces of both Fonda and the anonymous Vietnam man in the background and compares them to other notable mugs such as Marlon Brando, Renee Falconetti, John Wayne and Richard Nixon in an attempt to figure out why exactly Jane Fonda's face in the photo lends itself to separation while the Vietnam's remains a part of its surroundings.

There's not a whole lot for me to say about Letter to Jane; it is obviously quite didactic and was a bit of a chore for me to sit through, even at its slim running time (being tired of course made it more difficult). This isn't helped at all by the fact that Godard and Gorin are both speaking English here in consistently monotonous drones that quite simply aren't that rousing to listen to, despite the fact that a lot of the time they are actually saying some compelling stuff. The film is aesthetically and formally interesting however, and does make a good companion piece to Tout va bien, and certainly should be of some interest to Godard fans. Once again, didn't completely do it for me, but glad I watched it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 9: Vladimir and Rosa (1970)

Vladimir and Rosa (1970); viewing: first

Vladimir and Rosa was one of several films made by Jean-Luc Godard and his collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin under the name of the Dziga-Vertov Group. The group was formed to potentially usher in a new cinema - one that relied heavily on Brechtian technique to express its political ideologies in polemical, essay-style films. I've made no qualms about the politics in Godard's films being of little interest to me, and so needless to say the prospect of these films left me a bit wary. However if I want to come to the greatest understanding and appreciation of Godard as a filmmaker that I can (the ultimate goal with this marathon after all), no era must be left unturned, and so I stuck in a copy of Vladimir and Rosa and prepared for whatever was to come. My knowledge of the film prior to viewing was minimal; I knew it dealt with the trial of the Chicago Eight, and that's pretty much it. So I will tell you I was extremely (and pleasantly) surprised to find that viewing Vladimir and Rosa ended up being quite an enjoyable experience.

The title Vladimir and Rosa refers to the narrators of the movie, Vladimir Lenin and Karl Rosa (Godard and Gorin), who compare their omniscient perspectives to those of a bird in the sky who can see rain in the clouds before anyone else can, and indeed they will be our guides through the film, which is basically structured around a series of coarse Brechtian skits involving the trial of the Chicago Eight, the group of people arrested for protesting during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The Chicago Eight of the film however don't correspond exactly with the eight people in the real life trial; only two of the subjects in the film are actually patterned off the real people, those being Bobby Seale (Bobby X in the film), the black panther whose trial was eventually severed, and David Dellenger. We are introduced to the Eight being arrested in a overtly Brechtian scene involving fake blood and cops wielding phony batons, and from here a majority of the movie takes place in the courtroom where the trial is being overseen by the loud, annoying, fascist oaf Judge Himmler, a caricature if there ever was one. These scenes portray the courtroom as a kind of cartoonish bedlam, especially the moments with Bobby X on the stand, bound by chains with guns held to his head, where he eventually utters the best line in the film: "You can jail a cake, but not a revolution." There are also memorable scenes that take place out of the courtroom, one of the best being between Anne Wiazemsky (Godard's wife at the time), and Dellenger (Claude Nedjar), which takes place in an apartment and has the pair discussing and arguing the exploitation of women in the workplace and the oppression they endure due to the social status quo. The scene culminates with a text written by an African woman being read aloud by the characters and is probably the most overtly didactic scene in the film, but is so ripe with playful touches (including Wiazemsky handling Dellenger like a puppet) and honesty from the actors that it somehow feels remarkably real and interesting.

Godard and Gorin often appear themselves during the movie, in such notable scenes as one where they pace around on a tennis court with a microphone, interviewing each other with a machine that distorts their thoughts as they speak them, or in scenes where the pair portray a fascist cop and judge, one of the particularly interesting moments involving Godard zipping down his fly and pulling a baton out of his pants where it clearly appears as though he's about to pull something else out. Godard is energetic and spry during these scenes, bouncing around and doing physical routines with a sly grin on his face, and it made me think of a feature on the Pierrot le fou Criterion dvd, where Anna Karina in an interview talks about how youthful and energetic and vibrant Godard was all of the time in private, but few would ever see this side of him. I think one of the reasons Vladimir and Rosa works so well is because Godard does feel free and revived and energetic here, and we see it and feel it, not only in his appearances but in the flow and vibe of the movie. Godard and Gorin are obviously deeply fascinated with the subjects the film probes, and seem to be relishing the experience of making this film in their own style. Vladimir and Rosa is, when all is said and done, a serious yet winsome piece of filmmaking that balances out its polemical and political elements with a dose of cheeky humor and playful wit, and shows that though Godard had faded from the spotlight during this time, he was nevertheless still creating compelling and unique cinema.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 8: Week End (1967); Le Gai Savoir (1969)

Day 8 wrapped up my viewing of Godard's 60's work with a rich sojourn into dark surrealism and a challenging essay film that I'm conflicted on.

Week End (1967); viewing: second

Week End was by all means the dividing line in Godard's career. It would mark the end of his "Cinematic Period", the prolific and impressive stretch of more narratively conventional genre films that lasted for most of the 60's, before giving way to the more intensely political and radical "essay" style of films that would mark the next phase of his career. Week End is, however, a fiery beast of its own; a blacker-than-black apocalyptic road comedy driven by a vignette structure and full of surrealist flourishes that attacks everything from the class struggle to consumerism to U.S. politics to (literally attacking) famous literary figures. In short, nothing is safe from its bite.

Audaciously asserting itself through intertitles at the beginning as both "A film adrift in the cosmos", and "A film found on a dump", Week End centers on a husband and wife, Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corinne (Mireille Darc), who at the beginning are discussing their wishes for Corinne's father to be killed so that they may collect the inheritance. The film follow the couple (who, it becomes quickly apparent, are planning each others deaths as well), endlessly across the country in a series of alarming vignettes as they travel to Corinne's parents house to collect the inheritance. The despondent, apocalyptic atmosphere is almost overwhelming in this picture, with fires on the road side and wrecked cars and dead bodies constantly littered about, all of this fully on display in the most famous sequence from the film, a nearly ten minute tracking shot detailing a seemingly endless traffic jam the couple must navigate through. Godard takes every opportunity to skewer his bourgeoisie caricatures, as in one scene where after a nasty car wreck and fire, Corinne screams in anguish for many seconds before we realize the source of her agony is the designer handbag burning in the car. Brechtian technique is also of course prevalent in Week End, as the couple is constantly making references to the fact that they are merely characters in a movie, and seemigly use this as an excuse for their own heinous actions, which includes one particularly venomous scene where they attack English poet Emily Bronte and burn her alive. Eventually the couple are captured by a group of cannibals who reside in the woods, hippies who address each other by codenames such as "Johnny Guitar" and "Battleship Potemkin", and here Rolando and Corinne will each meet a different fate - one becoming the predator and the other the prey - leading up to one of the most haunting final shots Godard's composed yet.

I initially watched Week End during a period where I was getting heavily into surrealism and viewing stuff by Bunuel and Cocteau and Rivette (among others) on a regular basis. At the time I knew I really liked it, but was hesitant to fully embrace it, probably because I was put off by some of its Godardian qualities: the occassional launches into political rambling, the use of Brechtian technique and the odd relationship between the visuals and music etc. But watching it again at this pivotal moment in both my marathon and Godard's career, I had no qualms in fully embracing this wicked, potent film - it's truly a maddeningly ambitious and angry work with poison coursing through its veins and teeth to spare, and it quite appropriately ends Godard's most famous period of filmmaking with a bang in the form of a bold declaration: Fin de Cinema. End of Cinema.

Le Gai Savoir (1969); viewing: second

Godard's 1969 Le Gai Savoir was originally produced for (and subsequently rejected by) French national television, and instead received a brief release in French theaters before being banned and relegated to relative obscurity in the context of the rest of Godard's 60's output. The film stars Juliet Berto and Jeanne-Pierre Leaud as Patricia and Emile, two people of ambiguous origins (the film hints they may be otherworldly) who meet on a barren, blackened sound stage nightly over the course of three years to engage in various methods of dissolving image and sound in order to go "back to zero". Le Gai Savoir is thus an essay film built around this contemplation of the nature between sounds and images and layers and how they interact with one another, examining and deconstructing this relationship through use of stills, intertitles, and a dense barrage of philosophical abstractions.

The first time I saw Le Gai Savoir, I was left pretty mystified. I knew that the prominent aesthetic of the completely black room with only the mysterious characters lit was very appealing; there is a classicism and quiet beauty to it that - along with the presence of the two wonderful stars - makes it extremely interesting and pleasing. But I remember feeling almost overwhelmed at the density of the material and dialogue, and indeed a second viewing confirmed for me that this is, quite simply, a film that I have a hard time grasping. It is by far the most didactic film Godard had made at this point, and while it's not busy indulging in nearly inscrutable philosophical abstractions and reflections, it's heaping on a barrage of still photographs and thick political proclamations dealing with Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, among others. It at times becomes almost sensory overload, and I have a feeling that with the characters constantly talking over each other, and with the stills and intertitles likewise overlapping their dialogue, the subtitles can only do so much, and there is a ton of stuff that likely just didn't translate (a problem I've also heard some have with Godard's supposed magnum opus, the Histoire(s) du cinema series). There are plenty of charming moments here though, among them a word association game played with a small boy and an old ultra-fascist man, and various little references both Leaud and Berto make to past characters they've played in Godard films. I'm glad I watched Le Gai Savoir again, because it is quite the curious object and feels like it's spilling over with ideas, but it's one that still remains shrouded in a kind of murky obscurity to me. While it's not one of my favorites from the 60's when all is said and done, it's poetic aesthetic and interesting formal approach still make it worth watching for any Godard fan. At the end of the day though, I just have to admit it's one that went a bit over my head.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 7: Anticipation (1967); La Chinoise (1967)

Day 7 saw the late addition of a lesser known short from this period, as well as an unexpectedly entertaining foray into the political youth.

Anticipation (1967); viewing: first

Anticipation was Godard's contribution to the 1967 Joseph Bercholz production The World's Oldest Profession, a compilation film dealing with the subject of prostitution through different periods in history. Bercholz tapped six French directors to each come up with a segment, and Godard concocted this extremely odd yet thoroughly interesting futuristic tale of John Demetrios (Jacques Charrier), a traveler from another planet visiting Earth who, immediately after he lands, decides to grab a prostitute and have some fun. However, his prostitute doesn't speak, a fact which bothers him a great deal, so he trades her out for one who can stimulate him on a verbal level. Thus arrives the replacement, Eleonore Romeovitch (Anna Karina, in her last appearance for Godard), and everything seems to be in order, but alas, when John asks her to take her clothes off, she replies that she can't; that's not what she's meant to do. She's a prostitute of "sentimental love" rather than a prostitute of "physical love". In other words, a prostitute who loves in language. On this version of Earth, true love, a reconciliation of the two types, is deemed illogical and outlawed. You just simply can't have both. Or can you?

Obviously Godard was a clear choice to participate in this anthology; prostitution may very well be the most consistent thematic thread running through all of his 60's work. Anticipation, with a running time of twenty minutes, is clearly meant to be somewhat of a companion piece to Alphaville. Both films are futuristic, sci-fi stories shot in black and white, dealing with outsiders and their relationship with a prostitute, and with true love prevailing in each to crash the computerized fascist regime around them. Interestingly enough, I got a mild Lynchian-vibe from many of the touches in Anticipation; the eerie, almost industrial score pervading in the background; the odd, deliberately clipped mannerisms with which John speaks; and most notably one absolutely bizarre sequence where John and Eleonore, as maybe a type of foreplay (?), engage in an utterly strange activity that involves spraying each other in the face with a water bottle as they eagerly lap up the liquid with their tongue; certainly a suggestive and, quite frankly, disturbing few shots. Overall I found Anticipation to be extremely interesting, both aesthetically and conceptually, filled with striking imagery and compelling ideas, and with not a moment of its twenty minutes wasted it manages to accomplish more in that brief time than the majority of features produced in Hollywood today. It's a highly interesting footnote to the body of work Godard produced in the 60's, and one well worth seeking out for fans of the director.

La Chinoise (1967); viewing: first

Godard's 1967 loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Possessed was the surprisingly entertaining La Chinoise. I say surprisingly because coming into this film, I was well aware that it was the most overtly political film Godard had made yet at the time, and seeing as how Godard's politics is one of the least interesting aspects of his films to me, I almost approached the film with the mindset of expecting to be a tad put off and uninterested. The result ended up being far from that. Set almost entirely in the apartment of its five main characters, all young French students and fervent Maoists, La Chinoise uses parody and humor to chart the course of this group through its initial plans in setting off a revolution to its eventual dissolution.

The group is centered on a couple, Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Veroniqe (Anna Wiazamsky), and also includes Henri, Kirilov, and Yvonne (the sublime Juliet Berto). Guillaume and Veronique slowly push harder and harder for a terrorist style attack to trigger off a revolution, and Kirilov and Yvonne seem to be content going along with this, but Henri vocally disagrees with this course of action, and the key moment in the film comes when he separates from the group after a vote leaves him in the lurch. Veronique, in particular, seems to be thoroughly blinded by her ideals, and the greatest sequence in the film comes when she and a former professor of hers sit on a train together and have a lengthy discussion on the practicalities of triggering a revolution using violence, and how in what ways Veronique's situation differs from past instances of successful revolution. In short, the professor is trying to give her a reality check, so disillusioned is Veronique. The two are positioned in front of a window which blurs the environment outside as the train hurtles on and they engage in this discussion, giving one the sensation of the world literally passing them by as they are stuck in the muck of these issues. I'm not sure if that's what Godard intended, but it's what struck me and I thought it was an amazingly poetic touch.

Eventually an assassination is planned of the Soviet Minister of Culture, though the film makes it clear from early on that this group is improbable to accomplish anything at all, and watching the assassination get completely bungled up is equally frustrating and amusing. The film is also ripe with Brechtian technique, giving us many shots of the slate in front of the camera, and even one of Coutard himself filming the action. Though La Chinoise is indeed firmly entrenched in the politics of its time, it still retains enough bite, playful humor and brilliant Godardian touches to make it an enormously interesting and entertaining affair, even for those, like myself, who lack knowledge of the myriad politics discussed in the film and the various references and gestures made towards them. It is a hopeful sign that the impending political films from Godard won't be entirely inaccessible for me, and will indeed retain his signature wit and impressive visual originality.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Note on the Godard Marathon & NCAA this week

For college basketball junkies such as myself, this week is one of the very best of the year, as I'm sure all of you who have filled out your multiple brackets for the NCAA tournament can relate to. And even with as much fun as I've been having with the marathon so far, the tournament takes precedent for me. With games on all day, my free time will mostly be dedicated to basketball, so needless to say my progress on the Godard films will slow down a bit for this week.

I have only three films from Godard's 1960's period left before I chart into unknown waters with the 70's stuff and his work with the Dziga Vertov Group. I should have no problem squeezing the three 60's ones in, but seeing as how I will want to be fully focused jumping into the 70's movies, I'm not sure how many, if any, of those I'll get to this week.


Godard Marathon Day 6: Made in U.S.A. (1966); 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)

Day 6 once again offered a strong pair of films, one of which I've had a pretty massive change of opinion on.

Made in U.S.A. (1966); viewing: Second

Godard's 1966 Made in U.S.A. received a single showing in the U.S. at the '66 New York Film Festival, before settling into obscurity in the states for over 40 years, tied up in legal matters over adaptation rights, before finally being given deluxe treatment from the Criterion Collection with a superb DVD release in 2009. The film (dedicated in its credits to directors Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller) is supposedly based off the novel The Jugger by the late, great crime fiction writer Donald E. Westlake, and opens with Paula Nelson (Anna Karina, in her last starring role for Godard), investigating the death of her lover in an undeniably French version of Atlantic City (inhabited by characters named Mizoguchi and Richard Nixon and streets named Preminger), having arrived there to meet him and learning that he has very likely been killed. Paula sets out for answers, and encounters many shady individuals along the way, eventually getting drawn deeper and deeper into a thick web of political conspiracy that produces more mysteries than answers as the body count steadily ratchets up. This ubiquitous sense of ambiguity and mounting inscrutability recalls the other major influence on Made in U.S.A., Howard Hawks classic film-noir The Big Sleep.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't care much for this film the first time I saw it. It was one of the first few Godard's I watched, and while the slim running time (85 minutes on the dot) and vibrant imagery got me through the viewing, the plot utterly lost me halfway through, thus turning on the autopilot and leaving me with really nothing to hold onto when all was said and done. Being much more familiar with Godard's style now and armed with the knowledge that you actually have to - get this- pay really close attention during these films, I settled down for another viewing with a clean slate and open mind, ready to absorb every image and sound produced from this challenging work. And challenging it is. In fact more so than any other Godard I've seen to this point, Made in U.S.A. demands that you pay rapt attention to every detail; and even then, like The Big Sleep, I'm fairly sure you're not really supposed to understand everything that's happened. What I suspect made the film much more digestible for me this time around was being able to somewhat separate the stuff you're supposed to grasp from the stuff you just have to let go. Coming at it from this angle - and subsequently not overwhelming myself with the desire to understand everything- resulted in what was, quite surprisingly, one of the breezier and more sheerly enjoyable viewing experiences I've had during this marathon yet.

This is not to suggest that there isn't significant weight attached to this work; if Godard was just getting his feet wet in the political pool with Pierrot le fou and Masculin, feminin, then he dunks his head completely under the water with Made in U.S.A. Godard's anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist sentiments are as distinct as ever, and the film is very much wrapped up in the political happenings of the moment, with quite a few references to matters such as the Mehdi Ben Barka affair. Occasionally the movie even devotes single shots lasting a few minutes to a simple tape recorder playing back a long winded, leftist diatribe spoken by Paula's dead lover, Richard (the voice of Godard). Even when some of this stuff went over my head, Made in U.S.A. is so ripened with unique, stunning imagery and the most complex sound design I've heard in a Godard picture yet, that on a purely sensory level I was never less than fully engaged. But make no mistake about it, there are plenty of wonderful (and wonderfully coherent) sequences contained in Made in U.S.A., and while it may not be the most accessible Godard film of the 60's, I think its dense, challenging nature is very much a part of its ultimate appeal. It's a film you have to work with, but it makes the rewards all the more sweeter. I am shocked at how much a second viewing changed my feelings on this work.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her
(1967); viewing: Second

Here, on the other hand, is a film that needed no second viewing from me to confirm its greatness; however, watching 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her for a second time did in fact prove to be every bit as rich and mystical of an experience as I had remembered. Filmed at the same time as its predecessor Made in U.S.A., 2 or 3 Things... is ostensibly about Juliette Janson (Marina Vlady), a Parisian housewife and mother who doubles as a prostitute during the days to supplement her consumerist-driven desires. She treats both the dishes and clients as equal tasks, handling each with a quick and cold efficiency, and while she's not giving herself (and the viewer) dense philosophical abstractions to ponder, Godard whisks the camera away from her to show us a Paris under constant reconstruction, and to whisper into our ears his own thoughts and musings on everything ranging from politics to groceries to the very creation of the Earth itself. The latter being contained in an absolutely brilliant sequence where Godard ruminates and quotes literature over a closeup shot of a swirling cup of coffee that seems to contain no less than the entirety of the universal cosmos.

It's a difficult film for me to talk about quite frankly, so rich and layered is it with ideas and digressions and gestures that even after two viewings, I feel as though it's not nearly enough to grasp everything being presented here. But it's effect on me has been profound nonetheless; rarely does one see a movie that is so totally engrossing on both an intellectual and sensual level as 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is; it's borderline hypnotic in its effect. The film opens in bold style, first introducing us to Vlady the actress and giving us a few details about her, before cutting to introduce her now in character as Juliette, and one gets the sense that they could likely be one and the same, and that it may not matter which we perceive her as, and that at any point in the film it very well could be either of them speaking to the camera. The movie also has fun playing with the question of who the eponymous "Her" could be; Godard announces in the opening that it is, of course, Paris. But the subsequent playful introduction of Vlady/Janson immediately calls this into question, and the sheer scope of the film's subjects may even suggest the the "Her" could refer to something far grander. This film is also notable to me for, among other things, introducing the exquisite Juliet Berto, for whom I will always harbor a monumental crush on. It's only fitting that her sole sequence, in which she has a conversation with Julliete's husband in a diner, is one of the very best in the movie. 2 or 3 Thing I Know About Her is an absolutely wonderful film, perhaps the most beautiful and poetic Godard I've seen yet, and I count it as the third true masterpiece I've watched at this point in the marathon after Contempt and Pierrot le fou.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 5: Pierrot le fou (1965); Masculin, féminin (1966)

Day 5 would prove to be the highpoint of the marathon so far, as I viewed one stunning masterpiece, and the wonderful film that followed it. (Note: there will be no updates over the weekend, the marathon will continue early next week)

Pierrot le fou (1965); viewing: first

Since throwing together this marathon, Pierrot le fou is probably the single film I've been most curious to see. I came very close to watching it a few times during my initial and short-lived Godard run awhile back, but for some reason was never able to quite pull the trigger on it; perhaps I was a bit intimidated by its reputation. So it was with much curiosity and surprisingly tempered expectations that I threw the DVD in, sat back, and settled in for this purportedly politically-infused, nihilistic adventure. I would emerge approximately 110 minutes later having experienced the most singularly fascinating Godard film I've seen yet, and having encountered both a crucial turning point in this brilliant directors career and in my own experience conducting this marathon as well.

Pierrot le fou is an ambitious, enraged masterpiece, a road movie involving "the last romantic couple" and their adventures, that also functions as a patchwork of the many genre films Godard had done previous to this. Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a jobless aspiring artist, living a typically hollow bourgeoisie existence with his wife and children. One evening after a party, Ferdinand is driving home the family's last minute babysitter Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina) whom Ferdinand has had a past relationship with, and on the spur of the moment the couple decide to completely abandon their current situations, and together hit the road for a life of crime and all sorts of other mischief. The theme of the criminal couple on the run of course recalls Breathless, and random but welcome musical numbers interspersed throughout the film strongly evoke A Woman Is A Woman (starring both Belmondo and Karina). Familiar character names from the past pop up frequently, such as Odile and Lazlo Kovacks. There are probably numerous other mentions to previous films that I've missed, and with all of this Godard seems to be simultaneously tipping his hat to those genres he once held so dear, and putting them in his rear view, ushering in a new direction in his cinema that would mirror his current political awareness, which is strongly hinted at in the recurring mentions of Algeria and Vietnam that frequently appear during the picture.

There is certainly a nihilistic vibe that persists throughout, and the ending especially in some ways feels like a wounded, primal howl from Godard, quite possibly mirroring his own feelings of artisctic isolation, and his desire to move into new territory creatively. In some weird way it almost feels suitable that Pierrot le fou is also Godard's most beautifully visual, aesthetically refined film. The gorgeous, vivid colors pop off the screen in stunning compositions, and Coutard's camera feels more sophisticated than ever. It's hard for me to describe the impact this movie had on me: I was literally stunned. Having watched these films in chronological order, and also reading along with each corresponding chapter in Brody's book, this feels like some sort of either monumental culmination or complete rebirth. Very possibly it is both, and I am almost inclined to say it's Godard's purist film for some reason. There is a scene in the first half of the movie where Belmondo and Karina, in a spontaneous act of their rebellious natures and the freedom they are enjoying, weave their car off the road and into a lake. It's quite easy to picture the car as Godard's career, and the lake as a vast jungle of cinematic possibilities that lay ahead. This is the film I've been waiting to see in this marathon, because I think it marks a new level in my appreciation for Godard as an artist, one that I won't be able to back down from, and that is incredibly exciting to me.

Masculin, féminin (1966); viewing: first

Still reeling from Pierrot le fou, I was unsure whether or not I was even up for another movie. But my buzz pervaded and I said what the hell, and popped in Godard's followup Masculin, féminin. I was soon glad I did, as this is truly yet another wonderful film. The plot centers around charting the activities of a group of five friends, the focus of which is centered on the relationship between Paul (Jean Pierre-Leaud) a young would be intellectual, and Stephanie (the impossibly cute Chantal Goya), an aspiring pop star. The film opens as the two meet in a cafe, and later after Stephanie helps Paul get a job, the two begin seeing each other seriously. The other characters are Paul's friend Robert, a smug and quite ugly chap who helps Paul balance out his growing political fervor with juvenile games aimed at getting primo glances at pairs of breasts, and Stephanie's two friends Elisabeth and Cathrine, whose activities involve...well nothing more than basically coming across as vapid, materialistic shells. This is highlighted in one stunning long take as Leaud (switching jobs to a pollster midway through the movie) interviews a girl chosen by a magazine as "Ms. 19" on a variety of topics, exposing her for the shallow, uneducated being she is. It's the first time I can see where the accusations of Godard being misogynistic may hold some water, but I still think even amidst this he's clearly going for something a little more substantial. Again, female liberation is a theme that strongly seems to be hinted at with the end, a crossroads for the Stephanie character and her conservative ideals. The film really works wonderfully for me as something that could be put into a time capsule; a perfect snapshot of what it was like to be a youth in this specific time and place, as well as being a fascinating portrait of the mentalities of these characters.

I have no doubt that this day was a turning point in my view of Godard as an artist. These two wonderful films I've watched seem to portend the exciting path Godard's career would take, a path I am fascinated to follow and appreciate as I continue with this marathon.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 4: Alphaville (1965)

I was only able to squeeze in one movie for Day 4, but it was a doozy.

Alphaville (1965); viewing: first

Godard's follow up to 1964's A Married Woman was the stylish and strange Alphaville, a blending of classic noir and sci-fi genres that saw Godard cast French star Eddie Constantine in the role of Lemmy Caution, an agent from the Outer Lands who has infiltrated the city of Alphaville posing as a journalist, who in reality is on a muti-part mission: to destory Alpha 60, the super-computer that runs Alphaville, and locate and kill its creator Dr. Von Braun. Anna Karina (divorced from Godard by this point but present nevertheless) plays a prostitute named Natasha, who in addition to being Eddie's eventual love interest, is also Von Braun's daughter. Complicating matters further, Alpha 60 has outlawed the expression of any emotion in Alphaville, so the brainwashed Karina has no concept of "love", and thus can't reciprocate Eddie's feelings.

It is a wholly unique and interesting entry into the Godard canon, and it once again felt like Godard at still this early point in his career was pushing himself into new and exciting territory. There is a bit of a sci-fi nerd within me, so seeing Godard put his unique spin on this specific genre was pretty thrilling. With the city of Alphaville he creates his own version of a future dystopian society, flooded with an ominous atmosphere that's made all the more fascinating as he explores the intricacies of this crazy place and inevitably sprinkles on one philosophical reflection after the other. Among those discussed is one that was also prominent in A Married Woman, and that is the idea of people living in the past versus people living in the present. I think it marks a subtle, yet interesting parallel between the two films, each that in one way or another deal with a female in dire need of liberation.

Eddie Constantine is just remarkable as Lemmy Caution. With his no bullshit attitude, awesome voice, and scarred face in all its haunted glory, he literally could have popped right off the page of any old private eye cartoon. Karina is equally good as the innocent who has in most ways been robbed of her soul. The voice of Alpha 60 (a constant throughout the movie) is quite a trip; a guttural and disturbing ooze of a voice, a character in itself, and the scene where it interrogates Constantine in a room was one of my very favorites. Another chilling scene comes when Constantine is led by Karina to a large swimming pool, where people who have shown "illogical behavior", that is, shown human emotion, and are given last words before being shot to death and dumped in the pool, as spectators look on unaffected. Alphaville did become a little muddled for me in the middle, but my attention was always sustained during these periods by the sheer screen presence of its stars and by Godard's always arresting visuals, of which there is certainly no shortage of here. It's a weird, yet captivating and occasionally poignant tale, constantly brimming with ideas, about the worth of human emotion. It also contains one of the strongest and most touching endings I've seen in a Godard picture yet. As food for thought, I'll leave you with this interesting excerpt from Richard Brody's book Everything Is Cinema :

"Alphaville would be another attempt, like A Married Woman, to show that Karina's true emotions had been distorted and suppressed by irresistible external influences and forces. The main drama of the film would be the effort of Lemmy Caution to teach Karina's character to say the words "I love you." Through an extraordinary filter of genre, it would be a film in which Godard was desperate for life to imitate art."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 3: Band of Outsiders (1964); A Married Woman (1964)

Day 3 brought me a couple of Godard films from 1964, one an acknowledged classic that I am fairly lukewarm on, and the other a lesser known gem that proved to be quite surprising.

Band of Outsiders (1964); viewing: second

After the troubled production and disappointing box-office return of Contempt, Godard conjured up Band of Outsiders, a much more accessible and critic friendly offering. Ostensibly a crime picture, Outsiders deals with Odile (Anna Karina), a lonesome and easily impressed schoolgirl who falls in with a couple of young criminals (Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur), and who together decide to rob an old man living in Karina's house. The plot is simple enough, but of course it merely works to service Godard's intentions of flouting conventions and giving this genre tale his own, distinct spin.

It's tough for me to pinpoint exactly why, after two viewings now, Band of Outsiders has failed to have much of an impact on me. Richard Brody's excellent book Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard says of Outsiders: "Though otherwise free from direct interference from Columbia's executives, Godard did too good a job of internalizing their standards and fulfilling their wishes. Band of Outsiders is one of Godard's least substantial and adventuresome films, as well as his most conventional one." The word that sticks out to me there is "adventuresome". It occurs to me that this adventurous feeling is a big part of what makes these 60's films feel so alive and potent. Even if that sense of adventure doesn't necessarily come from the content of the narrative itself (Vivre sa vie), it is nevertheless always present in one form or another. If that adventure is in Band of Outsiders, then it is present to a much lesser degree; despite its warm and free atmosphere, the film sometimes just feels like it's lacking a charge. Karina does a good job, but the limits of Odile's character inhibit her from being able to bring all that much to the part. Likewise, Frey and Brasseur are fine as Franz and Arthur, but part of the problem is that these characters, who have their occasional charm, are mostly just flat and unappealing. Even some of the typically "Godardian" touches added to the film feel a bit unsure, such as Brasseur's over-the-top demise.

Of course, there are some glorious moments. Probably the best known scene (and my favorite) is the Madison Dance, a sequence where Karina and the two guys do a charming dance to a jukebox in a diner, and Godard as the voice of the omniscient narrator tells us precisely what's going through their heads during this seemingly joyful act of expression. Another great little moment comes when the trio, killing time before their big heist, decide to break a world record by running through the Louvre as fast as they can. Band of Outsiders, I should make clear, is not a film I dislike at all, and though I've harped on some of the negatives, I actually do still have an affection for it. Godard continues showing a striking command of his visuals, and you can always count on him to at least make an interesting movie, which Band of Outsiders certainly is. It just simply feels slight compared to what I've watched up until now.

A Married Woman (1964); viewing: first

Why isn't this movie more well known? It's actually really wonderful. I quite frankly had never heard of it before putting together this marathon, and only included it after being told it was an essential part of Godard's 60's oeuvre. Like other Godard films of this time, the broad plot outline is fairly simple: A married woman, Charlotte (Macha Meril) is engaged in an affair with older actor Robert (Bernard Noel), while living out a mundane, materialistic day-to-day life with her husband Pierre (Phillipe Leroy) and son. When she finds out from the doc that she's pregnant, and she doesn't know who the father is, she must make a decision on how to proceed with her life.

Godard made A Married Woman in the wake of his divorce from Anna Karina, after finding out she was having an affair. This obviously accounts for some of the deep connections the film has to Godard's real life situation: Meril's hair is of course done in the typical Anna Karina style giving her a remarkable resemblance, and as Brody points out in Everything Is Cinema, the age of the actors playing the roles all corresponded to their real life counterparts; those being Godard, Karina, and the actor she was having an affair with. But aside from those touches, what also makes A Married Woman feel like an extremely personal film (maybe his most personal yet), is that it is the most overtly philosophical work Godard had done at this point in his career, possibly reflecting an existentialist mindset he was experiencing in the wake of his divorce. It also has a very abstract and experimental visual style as well, and for me it very often felt like an early draft of the kind of thing he would go on to do with 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Meril's narration is mostly comprised of a string of associative, stream of conscious thoughts that bolster this existentialist mood. The full title of the movie is A Married Woman: Fragments of A Film Shot in 1964, and indeed many of the shots we get of Charlotte are only as fragments, individual body parts, being caressed and cared for as almost materialistic items, disconnected from a person.

Godard also employs all kinds of visual tricks and interesting editing throughout, making this a compelling follow up to the charming yet slight Band of Outsiders. I am baffled as to why this is not as well known as his other 60's work; it is equally as impressive and original as any of them. It's a fascinating film to watch, and felt like Godard both trekking into new, exciting territory and laying new ground for things to come. A Married Woman was the first of four films in a row in my marathon that I will be viewing for the very first time, and if this was any indication of things to come I should be in for a real treat.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 2: Vivre sa vie (1962); Contempt (1963)

My Godard marathon continued today with a couple of early 60's essentials. Here are some brief thoughts on each:

Vivre sa vie (1962); viewing: Second

Talk about going from one extreme to the other; A Woman Is A Woman was by far the lightest Godard I've seen yet, and likewise Anna Karina spent the movie dolled up, batting her eyelashes playfully and floating on a cloud of charm. With 1962's Vivre sa vie, things got decidedly more somber. The film deals with the tragic tale of Nana (Karina), tracking her course from an independent minded free spirit working at a record store, through her poverty, eventual plunge into prostitution, and ultimately her death. The film is structured within 12 "tableaus", each starting with a kind of chapter heading, telegraphing the action that is to take place on the screen for us. It's an interesting idea, and is further evidence of how Godard's early 60's films pushed the limits of how stories can be told on the screen.

This was originally one of the first Godard's I saw, and I remember really responding to it on that first viewing. Likewise, I enjoyed it quite a bit this time as well. The film really underlines how good of an actress Anna Karina was; de-glamorized and forced to use body language as much as words, we see a much different actress here than in A Woman Is A Woman. Her performance is quite remarkable, and undoubtedly the most famous scene from the film, where she watches Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc on the big screen as her gorgeous eyes burst with tears, is a beautiful, emotional gut punch, and it works so well because of the sheer authenticity Karina brings to the moment. Another fantastic scene towards the end has Nana (unknowingly) waxing philosophic with an old man in a restaurant, and here Karina invokes the perfect mixture of curiosity and perturbed defensiveness. The movie also marks a difference in the way Godard's camera captures all of this; the wild, restless and bouncy movements on display in Breathless give way here to a calmer, more observant and thoughtful approach. The scene where Nana sits in a police station, having been arrested for attempting to rob an old lady, has her framed in almost a silhouette, and as she bows her head down and admits her crime, coming to the realization that she can't even cut it as a criminal, it strikes a poetic chord that I've yet to really see at all in the first two films I've watched in the marathon. I do feel that the "12 tableaux" structure occasionally gives the film a somewhat disjointed quality, possibly keeping the viewer from fully engaging with Nana and her plight, simply for the sake of being novel. But the film works for so many reasons, among them showcasing the versatility of Karina and the rapid maturation of Godard's visuals, that it was an absolute treat to watch again.

Contempt (1963); viewing: fourth

As I alluded to in my initial post on Preparing For A Godard Marathon, Contempt was the only Godard film that I unabashedly loved out of the ten seen by me prior to this marathon. I remember watching it for the first time and being so bowled over that I went back and watched it again the very next night, and then again with the wonderful Robert Stam commentary merely a few nights later. Michel Piccoli and Bridget Bardot are both wonderful as the couple whose marriage rapidly disentegrates as Piccoli's Paul becomes involved in the re-writing of a Hollywood adaptation of The Odyssey, helmed by Fritz Lang (playing himself) and produced by the predatory Jerry Prokosh (Jack Palance).

I really love everything about this film, and feel pretty strongly that it flirts with perfection. I love that, despite the epic feel of the movie, Godard was still able to give it a remarkably personal spin, most notably in the sequence taking place in the couples apartment (my favorite in any Godard film), where Piccoli wears a tie and hat, and Bardot dons a short black wig ala Karina in Vivre sa vie, and as their fight quickly descends into dire, irreversible territory, it's virtually impossible not to see it as a bleak, lifelike recreation of the director's tumultuous marriage. I was aware of the troubled marriage between Karina and Godard, but reading Richard Brody's Everything Is Cinema, which goes into the gritty and uncomfortable details, it really paints the whole thing in a new, almost operatic light. I love how Georges Delerue's sweeping, haunting score swells up constantly throughout, giving even the most insignificant moments a monumental feeling. I love the entire, almost mythic third act, set on the astoundingly gorgeous Villa Malaparte in Italy. And certainly I loved going back and experiencing it all again with this viewing. I don't hesitate in calling Contempt one of my very favorite movies ever. Even if Godard would never go on to make another film on quite this scale, it at least showed that he was capable of branding his own, personal style onto such a rich, extravagant cinematic experience.