Thursday, April 29, 2010

Godard Marathon: Final Thoughts/Crude Rankings

29 films in 7 weeks, spanning 45 years. One director. My plan to run through the essentials in the oeuvre of Jean-Luc Godard was something that had been brewing in my head for awhile. As I first talked about in my initial post Preparing For A Godard Marathon, I went through a large handful of the director's work awhile back, and though I was unquestionably intrigued by the films I was watching, I skipped around the years with little knowledge of how Godard had evolved as a filmmaker over the decades and the intimate ties between his cinema and his life, and was thus entirely befuddled and, quite frankly, put off by a few of these works that played as a kind of cinema I never knew existed, let alone had seen before. And so while I initially chalked the experience up as a kind of "Interesting filmmaker, but I'm not quite sure I 'get it' " type deal, I was never close to being satisfied. Does one really have to be an academic to appreciate this filmmaker? Can a regular guy who is just interested in interesting movies enjoy watching these films? These were the question that nagged me. And so this marathon was born.

So now that I'm done, now that I've watched a majority of Godard's essential films in order, what's the consensus? Well, in short: I've found the experience of watching these movies, and the experience of reading, discussing and thinking about them to be one of the most rewarding cinematic ventures I've ever partaken in. In my "Preparing..." post, I stated - in admittedly obscure terms - that my goal with the marathon was to "get a better handle" on Godard, and to "identify the shape of this man's body of work; something that would make sense of it all." I had a small epiphany around the midway point of the marathon where things clicked, and I realized what my real goal was; I wanted to simply learn how to watch a Godard film. An abstract notion yes, and one that I feel I'm still in the process of learning (and one that will continue as I revisit these film in the years ahead). But I certainly feel as though this marathon has given me a leg up. It is rare to come across a filmmaker such as Godard; one who so thoroughly challenges your preconceptions of what cinema is and can be on a consistent basis; one that, through even his most subversive works, is able to conjure up such beauty and stimulation as to render the final product something much closer to a piece of glorious art than merely a "film". The fact that Godard's work over the years remained so resoundingly personal was perhaps the biggest revelation for me, and it's another fascinating aspect that makes his body of work one of the most singularly unique and compelling in all of cinema.

So needless to say, I deem this marathon a grand success. At the very least, it's given me a fair amount of insight into a director who remained enigmatic and impenetrable to me for a long time, and it's also given me a large handful of rich, exciting cinematic works to revisit and scrape more from for years to come. My original intention was to do this on my own, without blogging about it at all. I finally decided that it would be neat to keep a record of my initial reactions and thoughts on these films for future reference, and so while the write-ups were often sloppy and done in a hasty manner, I like to think that they at least accurately reflect my raw impressions. Getting comments in the comments section was one of the funner aspects throughout all of this for me. In particular, Ed Howard from Only The Cinema, who helped me comprise the list of titles for the marathon, provided commentary throughout that was just awesome; insightful, intelligent and full of tidbits. Erich Kuersten from Acidemic always had kind words and gave me a plug over at his great site, which was really cool. Doniphon, another frequent commenter, is in the early stages of going through the films of Jean-Pierre Melville (another filmmaker I am sadly lacking in) at his wonderful site The Long Voyage Home, and I will enjoy keeping up with that. And I implore everyone to check in with Jake at Not Just Movies, who's been conducting his own run through of Godard's films (his project predates mine), and the intelligence and thorough analysis he brings to his breakdown of these films has never failed to amaze me.

At first I thought it would be fun, once I was all finished, to rank the films from the marathon. Then I figured that these rankings are always kind of goofy and arbitrary, and it'd be a little silly for me to rank all these films on mostly just first impressions after driving home the fact that they are, for the most part, incredibly dense and no doubt command repeat viewings. Then I said, ah what the hell, someone might find it interesting. So here it is, my rankings of all 29 films I watched during this marathon, warts and all, and obviously open to constant revision as I continue to revisit them in the future:

1. Contempt (1963)
Pierrot le fou (1965)
Passion (1982)
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966)
Nouvelle vague (1990)
. Week End (1967)
Notre Musique (2004)
. A Married Woman (1964)
. La Chinoise (1967)
10. Masculin, feminin
. Hail Mary (1985)
. Made in U.S.A. (1966)
13. First Name: Carmen (1983)
. Vladimir and Rosa (1970)
. Vivre sa vie (1962)
. JLG/JLG, autoportrait de decembre(1995)
Helas pour moi (1993)
. Numero deux (1975)
. Breathless (1960)
. King Lear (1987)
. Alphaville (1965)
. Anticipation (1967)
. A Woman Is A Woman (1961)
24. Band of Outsiders (1964)
. In Praise of Love (2001)
. Le Gai Savoir (1968)
. Tout va bien (1972)
. A Letter to Jane (1972)
. Detective (1985)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 17: In Praise Of Love (2001); Notre Musique (2004)

In Praise Of Love (2001); viewing: first

Ravaged with a nasty bout of allergies (as I've been for the past week, ugh), I finally settled in for my final day of Godard viewing. Up first was Éloge de l'amour aka In Praise of Love, the 2001 feature from Godard that I knew very little about, apart from the fact that while it received a pretty dismal reception from American critics upon its initial release (a mere month after 9/11), Godard aficionados generally tend to hold it in extremely high regard as yet another epochal film in the directors oeuvre. The film is a quiet yet deep meditation on age, love, memory and of course, cinema, that is split up into two parts: the first, filmed in black and white and set in Paris, deals with a man named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) trying to realize a project that is to be about the four stages of love: "the encounter," "physical passion," "separation," and "reunion." For this project, he is seeking a mysterious, unnamed woman (Cecile Camp) whom he feels will be perfect for the part of the lead character, Eglantine, and goes about tracking her down. Around the hour mark, the film switches to saturated, acidic color and the title card "Two Years Earlier". Here, in addition to learning that indeed Edgar and the mystery woman (whose name we learn is Elle) had a history together, we are shown the story of the proprietors of a hotel who are former Resisters, and have sold the story of their lives during that period to Steven Spielberg to make a Hollywood film out of, starring Juliette Binoche.

By now I've gotten quite used to the abstract methodology of these later Godard films that places minimal importance on plot, and major importance on emotion and the senses, and have found for the most part no trouble connecting with the majority of them on both emotional and aesthetic levels, getting swept away by the poetic beauty of the images and the graceful flow of the dialogue. Those qualities are undoubtedly present in In Praise of Love, and while I did admire the film quite a bit, I never found myself completely enraptured by it, and yet I am utterly baffled as far as identifying what it was that kept me from fully embracing it. There were things here I loved: the switch to brilliant colors for the last half hour; the use of literary quotations once again for much of the dialogue that seemed heartfelt and unusually poetic; and one particular scene towards the end I found to be simply gorgeous, involving Elle questioning her grandmother on her wartime experience. The grandmother sits with Elle and recounts tales of traveling across America, relaying her experiences in the concentration camps to audiences who listened to and viewed her then the way people do television now. There is a pronounced sadness to the scene, and all throughout it the grandmother is holding a lit cigarette at rest, her hand positioned underneath a lamp, the smoke rising up through the top of the shade giving the impression of a quiet volcano spewing steam. It's a poignant visual metaphor for the years of pent up emotions the grandmother has obviously been carrying around, and which are only now finally being expressed in the presence of her granddaughter.

And yet for all of the wonderful things, I still can't help but feel that something was lacking for me here on a single viewing, and I just can't rank this among the best Godard pictures I've seen. It's frustrating for me that I'm not able to work out what exactly it is that left me slightly underwhelmed; there were many things particularly in the first hour of the film, having to do with the relationship Edgar has to an older art dealer and various characters appearing in both segments that highly confused me, and perhaps this aspect of the film (an aspect I felt was probably an important one) will clear up for me with future viewings, and allow me to pick up some subtle stuff I missed. But I would be lying if I said that In Praise of Love didn't leave me quite intrigued, especially in regards to its form and the implications behind it. And don't get me wrong, I did feel the ideas coming out of it and the undercurrent of sadness and nostalgia here. I just didn't feel it for some reason. And so I will leave it at this: Though there was something missing for me in the experience, I am far from through with this film.

Notre Musique (2004); viewing: first

My last film in this Godard marathon is 2004's Notre Musique, a haunting and despairing movie separated into three parts inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy: the first part, titled Kingdom I: Hell, is a 10 minute montage of war footage - both real and fake - depicting the carnage of battle and the suffering that is brought about by war, set to classical music. The second part, titled Kingdom II: Purgatory, takes up the bulk of the film, and it introduces a narrative involving Godard himself arriving in Sarajevo to give a lecture at an arts conference. A second narrative strand introduces us to two young women; the first, Judith Learner (Sarah Adler), is a Jewish journalist from Israel, who has come to speak to the French ambassador to Bosnia regarding peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The second women is named Olga (Nade Dieu), and is the niece of Godard's translator, who broods and expresses to her uncle the desire to commit suicide. The third segment, titled Kingdom III: Heaven, shows Olga, now apparently in the afterlife, wandering around a wooded area by the sea guarded by U.S. Marines. She eventually settles down near a young man eating an apple, and the film ends as she takes the apple from him and begins eating it, in a bit of Garden of Eden imagery.

Notre Musique is above all a deep and lyrical reflection on the meaning of conflict, the effects of war, and the fragility of communication. It is also of course firmly entrenched in Jewish history and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, a subject I am sadly undereducated in. Nevertheless, the performances are wonderful all around, particularly Sarah Adler as the Judith character, and do a great job, along with Godard's thoughtful camera, of conveying the gravity and historical significance of the images presented. The film is also fascinating for its structure, introducing the viewers first to a literal Hell by way of brutal war imagery, then to the Purgatory of its characters trapped in the void of a life surrounded by tragedy and pointless violence, and finally with a tortured soul roaming about an enigmatic afterlife. There is a great profundity to the way Godard ties the various themes together, and it in many ways to me feels like his wisest and most considerate work. It is certainly the most accessible of his later films, with a somewhat cohesive narrative framework and more intimate cast of characters. It goes without saying (and I feel like a broken record to keep harping on this in every writeup) that a film as dense as Notre Musique will surely require multiple viewings in order to sift additional meanings from its various layers and complexities, but for right now I am content in saying that it's up there for me alongside my favorites of all the late Godard films I've watched recently. Pretty stunning stuff.

Friday, April 23, 2010

My Top 5 Most Powerful Movie-Music Moments

As powerful as The Image in cinema can be, sometimes the right song placed at the right time can have the transcending power to turn a given scene into the type of raw, emotional experience that keeps most of us returning back to the movies over and over.

Though I've given this list the not-so-dubious "Top 5" title, I would like it to be known that this is pretty far from comprehensive, and these 5 are basically off the top of my head. Nevertheless, they are 5 moments that completely blew me away (note: there may be spoilers). I've also limited it to songs that are not original to the films, as opposed to original scores, as that opens a whole new area that I would really have to think about. In no order:

Roy Orbison's "Crying" in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive

I'll just go ahead and get this one out of the way. The Club Silencio scene from Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite scenes ever, and Rebekah Del Rio's version of "Crying" is an emotional gut punch for the viewer, one that's mirrored by the emotions of the Diane and Rita characters. The whole sequence is just haunting, mysterious and deeply moving, especially when one realizes the significance of the pair's emotional breakdown. I've probably seen it 100 times and it never fails to give me chills.

Corona's "The Rhythm of the Night" in Claire Denis' Beau Travail

I am in awe of this scene, the ending one from Claire Denis' 1999 masterpiece, that manages to take a radio-friendly novelty song like "The Rhythm of the Night" and essentially make it a cathartic canvas for the tortured soul of Denis Levant's Seargent Galoup. The meaning of his wild and uninhibited dance, alone and out of time in the empty dance club, is left up to the viewer. But the raw sense of catharsis present in the scene, along with Levant's force-of-nature performance, makes it one of the most breathtaking endings I've ever seen.

The Velvet Underground's "Candy Says" in Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz

Yes, I am one of those who consider Fassbinder's 15 hour magnum opus to be one of the great achievements in all of cinema. It's a bleak, emotional roller coaster matched by few, and it's most heartbreaking moment comes in the wild and surrealist two-hour Epilogue. The moment involves our tortured protagonist Franz Biberkopf, in odd makeup that gives him the appearance of a sad clown, begging his enemy (for lack of a better word) Reinhold to release him from his suffering. Franz, who has been through the ringer over and over again, proclaims with tears in his eyes "I don't know anyone who's suffered like me, so pitifully, so wretchedly." while the haunting chorus to the Underground's "Candy Says" hums in the background. It's a moment of overwhelming power and honesty that's stayed with me ever since I first viewed this masterpiece.

The Commodores' "Nightshift" in Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum

For my money, no one uses music better in movies these days than Denis, and another example is her wonderful 35 Shots of Rum. In a diner late at night, a father dances with his daughter, and as the opening notes to The Commodores' ode to lost loved ones begins, the father steps aside to let her boyfriend have the next dance. He then watches the portrait of young love in front of him with sad, resigned eyes as inevitability strikes him. While the father's loss is of a different sort than that in the song, the connection is not lost, and never has such an epochal life epiphany been played so subtly and tenderly.

The Cranberries' "Dreams" in Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express

Though the song (Faye Wong's version of course) plays multiple times throughout this movie - my favorite from Wong Kar-wai by the way - the greatest is the part where it plays over the montage of Faye cleaning and redecorating the apartment of cop 663 (which she has broken into) with feverish glee. There is a pure joy and exhilaration to this scene that never fails to put a smile on my face, no matter how down and out I am. It also helps that Wong's version of the song is killer - and perhaps even catchier than the original. It's a movie I cherish and a scene I have watched countless times. Pure cinematic exuberance.

Feel free to leave any of your favorites in the comments.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 16: Helas pour moi (1993); JLG/JLG - autoportrait de décembre (1995)

Helas pour moi (1993); viewing: first

Helas pour moi is a deeply mysterious and abstract retelling of the Greek myth of Alcmene, the mother of Heracles and wife of Amphitryon, who has a brief and unknowing affair with Zeus over the course of three nights after he disguises himself as her husband. Here, Alcmene is represented by Rachel Donnadieu (the radiant Laurence Masliah), and Amphitryon by her husband Simon Donnadieu (Gerard Depardieu). Zeus in this story is God, and is played as a small, shadowy and peripheral figure with a gurgling, guttural voice (reminiscent of the voice of Alpha 60, the computer system from Alphaville), and indeed late in the film he appears to inhabit the body of Depardieu's character and play out Godard's own version of the myth. Before you arrive at that, the film introduces you to a host of characters who ruminate and contemplate and journey in and out of the frame constantly, most importantly among them a publisher named Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley), who is tracking down the Donnadieu's for the purpose of documenting their experiences (I think).

It's certainly one of the most challenging and elusive Godard films I've seen yet, and while I'm not going to pretend as though I came close to understanding everything that happened (as though that's possible with any of these later films), I will say that I was at least able to connect strongly with it on an emotional level. This is a movie rippling with anxiety of all sorts: the anxiety of isolation and romance ("I think a lover only wants to love, and not the other in front of him."), and when the Depardieu character reveals himself as God halfway through, the theme of reconciling one's love of God with romantic love recalls the existential anxiety that was experienced by the main character in 1985's Hail Mary . There is one quick scene in particular, involving Depardieu comparing falling asleep to jumping into an endless dark hole, that really spoke to me and felt like a microcosm of the dark, anxious undercurrents running through the movie. If the film's not somber enough for you by this point, just wait until Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is read multiple times over ominous imagery, and that should give you a sense of the darkness being dealt with here.

Of course it goes without saying that the film is wallowing in visual beauty, and Caroline Champetier's sumptuous photography is as ravishing as any I've seen in a Godard film yet. The interesting thing in Helas pour moi is that the turbid emotional climate of the film often times gives these gorgeous images an uncharacteristic sense of urgency, a feeling likely heightened by the palpable dread infused in the haunting performances of the leads. I also really loved a visual motif that runs through the film, where often a shot will begin out of focus and then be slowly brought into focus, an aesthetic that to me felt like memories slowly coming back into someone's head (or even being created), giving many of these moments a wonderfully ethereal edge. I will say that I got a bit frustrated at the film a handful of times, as aside from the general confusion and non-sequitors abound, Godard allows his characters dialogue to overlap one another frequently, and for this overlapping dialogue to overlap quick intertitles. During these scenes the subtitles would flash by so quickly trying to fit it all in that I would have to rewind over and over again just to catch everything. But all in all, Helas pour moi is one of Godard's darkest and most puzzling films, a stark meditation on life and love and myth, and despite its obscurity I still found it to be a rewarding and intriguing experience. And I really loved this quote by Jonathan Rosenbaum in his piece : "I’d much rather hear Godard talking to himself than Spielberg addressing half the planet."

JLG/JLG - autoportrait de décembre (1995); viewing: second

JLG/JLG - autoportrait de décembre is pretty much exactly as the title says: a cinematic self-portrait of the eccentric filmmaker. Taking place mostly in his Swiss home and areas surrounding, JLG/JLG documents, in the usual abstract and confounding ways, various aspects of Godard's personal and creative lives. On the personal front, we are given scenes showing Godard thoughtfully pacing through his apartment while ruminating, quoting literature, sketching, writing, and of course operating various screens and tinkering around with images. We even see him playing tennis, and his spry movements and energy here reminded me of the entertaining physical presence he showed in films such as Vladimir and Rosa and King Lear. On the creative side, we see late in the film (which clocks in well short of an hour) Godard in his editing suite, working with a blind assistant while he appears to be editing Helas pour moi. It's probably the most interesting sequence in the film, and seems to hold some deep insight into the methods that made up Godard's film making during this period. Taking place in December, the film, as expected, digresses numerous times into shots of nature; this time with chilly overcast skies and snowy landscapes creating the scene, and these shots are breathtaking as always and give the film a rich texture. There is something about the snow in this movie that makes it feel all the more personal.

This first time I saw JLG/JLG I liked it very much, responding to it mostly on an aesthetic level, but also being extremely interested in the subject of Godard himself, who was very much an enigmatic figure to me at the time. Of course, he is still largely mysterious to me even now, however being more familiar with his interests and style, and being keyed into some of the idiosyncrasies of his personality made the film all the more enjoyable for me this time. Despite its running time, it's a dense work, as dense as any of his post-60' s stuff, but it also plays as a tone poem to the methods of a man who's always worked outside of the box. I very much enjoyed watching JLG/JLG again, and can only imagine that this is one that I will grow even fonder of with future viewings.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 15: Nouvelle Vague (1990)

Nouvelle Vague (1990); viewing: first

Godard's Nouvelle Vague is a wonderful film, a rich tapestry of music, image and language whose grace and invigorating sensual beauty are nearly unparalleled in the director's oeuvre. Once again, as is the case with most of these later Godard films I've watched, there is a narrative present in only the loosest sense of the word. This time it primarily involves two characters, a man and woman played by Alain Delon and Domiziana Giordano. The Giordano character knocks over Delon in the street with her car, takes him in, and the pair become lovers while staying at her beautiful summer estate. One day the two go out water skiing, the man falls in the water and she let's him drown. Some time passes, and Delon reappears (as either the dead man resurrected or the dead man's brother). The two jump right back into their romance, this time with Giordano taking a more passive role in the relationship and Delon a more dominant one. Once again they return to the lake, and it is now she who falls into the water. This time, however, there will be a different outcome.

Of course, following the "plot" is not critical to experiencing Nouvelle Vague. This is a film to be admired and felt on a sensual level, and it never let's you forget that as William Lubtchansky's elegant photography fills the frame with opulence and beauty at every turn. Much like Hail Mary and First Name: Carmen before it, Nouvelle Vague trains its eye towards nature in all its glory, incorporating many images of rippling waters, trees swaying in the wind, brooding overcast skies and so on. I think part of what made this movie so enjoyable for me was that I was able to let go of any expectations of following a coherent narrative fairly early into the viewing, and simply allowed myself to take in the majesty of the images and the rich textures and moods of Manfred Eicher's amazing music, whose incorporation marks somewhat of a return to classicism for Godard, who here opts for a sweeping, cinematic score instead of simply sampling classical and pop music for the soundtrack as he had done with his last handful of films.

The third important component in this film of course is the dialogue, which is entirely made up of literary quotations and texts from various works throughout the history of literature, including Hemingway, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Dante, Bataille, Schiller, Lacan and Chandler, amongst others. This of course recalls 1985's Detective, which likewise used literary quotations for a majority of its dialogue. In that film however, the dialogue, for me, seemed to work merely as a way of injecting novelty into a muddled and disjointed premise that never added up to a compelling whole. Whereas in Nouvelle Vague, it is a key component to what Godard seems to be going after, a literary function of his plan to - as Richard Brody writes in his book Everything Is Cinema - "reconceive the history of cinema, and his place in it, as a biblical allegory". Whether Brody's take on the film is accurate or not (I also like Jonathan Rosenbaum's piece which describes the film as "a meditation on the end of the world"), there is no denying that Nouvelle Vague is a late masterpiece from Godard, a carefully crafted work of art that filters and refines the beauty of the world through its abstract eye and provides a powerful cinematic experience of lucid, overwhelming splendor.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 14: King Lear (1987)

King Lear (1987); viewing: first

King Lear wrapped up my viewing of Godard's work from the 80's, and it is a dense, mystifying and often fascinating film - only loosely based on the canonical Shakespeare work - where Godard seemingly resurrects both the image and cinema from a zero state after a devastating nuclear catastrophe. The film follows a man by the name of William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth (theatre director Peter Sellars) on a journey through a land nearly obliterated from the effects of the Chernobyl incident - which has destroyed all works of art as well as most of civilization - as he attempts to rediscover and collect the plays of his famous ancestor. He will cross paths with many important players along the way, among them: gangster Don Learo (Burgess Meredith) and his daughter Cordelia (Molly Ringwald); the mysterious Edgar and Virginia (after Allen Poe and Woolfe, played by Leo Carax and Julie Delpy); and the eccentric Professor Pluggy (Godard himself), a gravel voiced sorcerer donning a headpiece of audio/video wires who is obsessed with experimenting with various television screens and images. The film follows this group of characters as Professor Pluggy searches, through a variety of experiments, for what he calls "the first image".

I will give King Lear this - it never lost me. Or rather, it never lost my attention. I found the experience of watching it extremely muddled, and I was often scratching my head trying to discern what exactly was happening in the narrative (or what there was of one), but there are so many fascinating touches here that my mind was never allowed to wander in the midst of my confusion. The imagery is par for the course for 80's Godard - that is to say, excellent. And there is a wonderfully haunting ambient score lurking in the background, a touch I particularly loved that perfectly matched the gloomy apocalyptic atmosphere. The Professor Pluggy character played by Godard is really fun and quirky, and while I couldn't understand over half of what he was saying (I really wish this had come with subtitles, despite it being Godard's only full English language film), the stuff I did catch was mighty interesting, having to do mostly with the creation of images and the symbiosis between these images and human emotions. One sequence in particular stood out for me towards the end of the movie with the Pluggy character - involving him placing petals back onto flowers through reverse photography - as one of the more poetic and poignant scenes I've seen in these 80's films yet.

Similar to my experience with Passion, I can't really say how much I was able to glean from a single viewing of King Lear. As I've said, I did find it to be a consistently compelling film, though one with a bevy of murky elements that left me in the dark. Hopefully I will be able to sift through these on future viewings and the picture will congeal a little better for me. It did aid me to read the section for King Lear in Richard Brody's book Everything is Cinema and it helped shed light on some of the film's more confounding elements. I found it particularly helpful to learn that King Lear is a film fully informed and molded by the circumstances it was created in. For instance, in the curious opening, we see author Norman Mailer and his daughter (actress Kate Mailer) in a hotel room discussing adapting King Lear as a modern mafia story. We actually see the scene twice, the first time played through normally, and the second time with a voice-over from Godard, chastising Mailer for his "star behavior" and telling us how the writer and his daughter left the set for good after the scene we are viewing was shot. It turns out that Mailer was originally tapped to pen the screenplay of the film for Godard, then eventually agreed to actually star in the film, but found Godard to be so disagreeable on his one day of shooting that he quickly abandoned the movie entirely. I had no idea what to make of that beginning initially, but I found the Mailer anecdote to be fascinating, and I am always intrigued by a film like this that incorporates the biographical aspects of its production into the final product; it's really interesting stuff.

I went back and watched Passion again the day after my original viewing, and that confirmed for me that the film was a true masterpiece and one of my very favorite Godard's yet. While I can't speculate as to whether the case will be the same for King Lear (Passion hit me emotionally on a gut level; King Lear didn't really at all), it is a movie I feel almost as equally compelled to revisit immediately, and to read as much information available on it that I can get my hands on. Though this first viewing left me with a bit of uncertainty, the film has genuinely intrigued me and even haunted me a bit, and I suspect there to be a wealth of ideas and revelations for me to discover in King Lear past the single, hazy experience I had with it.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 13: Hail Mary (1985); Detective (1985)

Hail Mary (1985); viewing: first

Hail Mary is Godard's controversial 1985 modern retelling of the story of Mary and the Immaculate Conception as found in the New Testament. The film stars Myriem Roussel (the deaf, nude extra from Passion and the violin player from First Name: Carmen) as Mary, a fairly typical teenage girl who plays basketball for the school she attends, works for her father's gas station, and dates Joseph (Thierry Rode), a dropout cab driver who doesn't have much going for him. One day a mysterious stranger named Gabriel arrives via plane to inform Mary of the news that she will become pregnant, a monumentally difficult pill for her to swallow, seeing as how she is a virgin and is in a strictly chaste relationship with Joseph. The film then deals with Mary and those close to her attempting to reconcile this impossible situation and Mary's apparent role in God's plan.

I was mildly surprised and rather pleased at how gracefully and tactfully Godard approached this subject matter. There are all kinds of routes this material could have taken, turning it into some kind of anti-media or anti-religious statement that could have mirrored the type of didactic stuff Godard was producing merely a decade earlier. But 80's Godard had something different in mind, and wisely keeps the events and their ramifications concentrated solely on the small group of characters who are directly affected, creating a quiet intimacy and beauty to the story that is underlined by the gorgeous visuals. The film frequently cuts away from the story to show images of sunsets, rippling bodies of water, flowers swaying in the wind and a luminous moon, and their incorporation gives the film a certain meditative quality that beautifully contrasts the emotional tumult experienced by Mary. And Roussel is a revelation as Mary; I enjoyed her in her previous two appearances for Godard just fine, but here she brings emotional intensity and depth to the role and delivers a performance as capable as any given by a leading lady for Godard before. Hail Mary is - like the previous two Godard's I've seen from this decade - deliberate, reflexive, philosophically complex, and slow - but never boring; it is in fact quite fascinating. I particularly loved the ending: we flash forward a couple of years in the future as Mary and her son Jesus stroll in the park, when Jesus suddenly runs away, shouting that he is off to take care of "his father's affairs." We then see Mary in a gas station parking lot, embracing her sexuality for the first time as she applies pink lipstick to her mouth, and the final, haunting shot lingers on her vibrant, colored lips, uncomfortably pooched into an awkward, quivering oval shape.

I also want to note that the version I saw was preceded by a wonderful short feature directed by Anne-Marie Mieville titled Book of Mary, which deals with the daughter of a recently divorced couple and her experience commuting back and forth from her father's new apartment. It's a poignant and sharp little movie that in its short running time deals with the subject of divorce in a more thoughtful and realistic way than a multitude of feature films concerning the same topic have.

Detective (1985); viewing: first

During post-production on Hail Mary, Godard embarked on a more commercial offering for producer Alain Sarde with the intention of box office success that would in-turn help pay for Mary. That film ended up being Detective, an homage to retro detective themed movies and novels. The plot (and there is only the slightest remnants of a "plot" present in Detective) concerns a variety of people staying in a hotel and the different situations and mysteries they're all mixed up in. These include: a trio (Aurele Doazan, Jeanne-Pierre Leaud and Laurent Terzieff) investigating the unsolved assassination of someone named "The Prince" that occurred in the very hotel room they are staying in two years prior; a couple (Nathalie Baye and Claude Brasseur) attempting to collect a debt from a boxing manager (Johnny Hallyday) who is himself indebted to the mob and has a fixed fight coming up; and a Mafia boss (Alain Cuny), who wonders around the hotel with his crew threatening everyone.

I'll be perfectly honest: this one just didn't engage me. It's tough to pinpoint exactly what went wrong; the threadbare plot wasn't an issue for me (Passion was probably even more elusive in its narrative, and I found that an utter masterpiece), but something about this movie just felt so jumbled and tough to digest. It is quite possibly the most verbose Godard film I've seen yet, almost obnoxiously so at times, and apparently the vast majority of dialogue spoken in Detective is quotations and literary citations. I wish I'd known that before I watched it, I wouldn't have strained so hard to make heads or tails out of what everyone was saying and trying to connect the dots. The casting by all means looks inspired on paper, but I just felt a kind of distance between the camera and the characters, almost as though Godard detested having to work with a more mainstream collection of actors, and refused them the intimacy and care he so often affords his actors. And the performances themselves were fairly tepid and restrained I felt, just lacking in some kind of spark. Johnny Hallyday being an exception, his sad, soulful eyes were a perfect match for the faux pride and defeated body language of his character who finds himself trapped in a potentially fatal corner. There are certainly things I liked here; the hotel setting recalls Resnais at times and lends itself to some really striking imagery. As always, Godard does some interesting things with image and sound experimentation, and the dense barrage of allusions to past cinema and literature ensures that there will be more to gain from repeated viewings. And I do plan on revising Detective sometime in the future; I'm at the point now where I find Godard too fascinating a director to simply write-off any one of his movies after a single viewing. But as far as first viewings go, the movie just felt scrambled, hard to keep up with, and uninspired compared to these other movies from the 80's that have been wonderful. It ultimately left me with not much to hang my hat on and unfortunately resulted in one of the lesser experiences I've had in the marathon yet.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 12: Passion (1982); First Name: Carmen (1983)

Passion (1982); viewing: first

My journey into the 80's films of Jean-Luc Godard started with 1982's Passion, a thoroughly bewildering yet richly emotive and beautiful film that to me felt as personal as anything I've seen from Godard yet. The movie tells, in its own elusive way, the story of a small group of characters in a little town in Switzerland, among them a Polish director (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), who is plodding through the laborious filming of a big-budget picture that is essentially made up of gorgeously composed tableaus of classic paintings and notable historical moments. The other important characters include Isabelle Hubert as a rebellious factory worker, her boss (Michel Piccoli), and his wife (Hanna Schygulla). The Hubert character begins an affair with Jerzy (the characters names in the film are actually that of the actors playing them, in an interesting meta-flourish), while the Schygulla character auditions for a role in the film and ends up in an affair with the director as well, while Michel Piccoli constantly lurks in the background as the menacing factory owner with an unnerving chronic cough.

Of course, Passion does not spell all of this out for the viewer, and I'm not even sure that I have the details above entirely accurate. It is a challenging and extremely elliptical work, and is not so much worried about narrative cohesion as it is moments of fleeting, evocative beauty and its themes of the intimate and inseparable connection between art, creation, love, and yes, passion. This is beautifully summed up in the film's most powerfully gorgeous scene, where Schygulla and Radziwilowicz sit in a room and watch the tape of her audition, and as Schygulla squirms uncomfortably with self-consciousness at viewing herself on the screen, Radziwilowicz's hand gently comes into the frame to caress and cradle her head with affection, which leads to a semi-recreation of the very audition scene they are viewing while lush operatic music plays over the background. It is a scene of almost overpowering emotion and tenderness, and it nearly took my breath away. What I experienced with Passion was a film of stunning sensual beauty about the fragility of the artistic process, but there is no doubt it's operating on many other levels I've not even tapped into yet, and it feels like a futile task for me to discuss it with much meaning after only one viewing, but it definitely left a pretty big impact on me, and is one I can't wait to revisit sometime in the near future.

First Name: Carmen (1983); viewing: second

First Name: Carmen was the first non-60's Godard film I originally saw awhile back, and to be perfectly honest, it didn't do a whole lot for me that first time. It is an adaptation of the Bizet opera Carmen (which I am completely unfamiliar with), and tells the story of Carmen (Maruschka Detmers), an attractive young terrorist who falls in love with a security guard named Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffe) during a botched bank robbery. The two share a brief and torrid love affair before Carmen tosses her lover aside as quickly as they got together, and tragedy ensues.

Despite that initial viewing underwhelming me, there were images from this film that I was unable to shake from my head, even months after viewing; the pair lying on the bank floor in a passionate embrace in the midst of smeared blood and a dormant rifle laying next to them; the Joseph character hugging a blue static screen tv in longing while a Tom Waits song plays over the soundtrack; the gorgeous shots of the beach that continuously pop in and out of the film, punctuating some of the more poetic moments. Godard himself even has some memorable moments in a delightful performance as Carmen's uncle, a "sick" filmmaker named Jean-Luc Godard dealing with cinematic exile and looking to make a comeback film. So I definitely knew something was there, and I was eager to give the film another shot with a completely different perspective, and wasn't shocked in the least to find that I enjoyed it much more this second time around. I suspect the problem for me that first time was that I quite simply wasn't patient with the film; its methodical pace and almost vignette structure lost me somewhere in the middle and I felt a strong disconnect with the characters for some reason, I just didn't care about them. This time, I was able to simply sit back and let the quiet beauty of the movie sweep me away. There is an intoxicating quality to First Name: Carmen, with its lush photography and orchestral score, and I think my patience with the movie this time allowed me to engage with the obsession of the Joseph character, to feel his pain, and thus to attach some very real emotional resonance to those striking images that made such an impression on me that first time around. The experience of watching First Name: Carmen again is precisely what I was hoping to get out of this marathon, and while I probably still like Passion a little more between the two, I certainly found it to be a deeply compelling and affecting work, and I'm pretty thrilled I was able to get this much out of it from only a second viewing. Needless to say, huge start to 80's Godard for me; these two films were really fantastic.

Saturday, April 3, 2010