Sympathy for the Devil (1968)

Sympathy for the Devil (1968) movie poster

director Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 12/14/2016

Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (or One Plus One as he originally titled it) mixes studio footage of the Rolling Stones recording and re-recording what would become one of their signature songs with weirdly staged political treatises.  What was Godard going for here?

The only real connecting piece is the fluid tracking camera following various staged scenes and equally roaming the studio as an eye and an ear.  The studio work might fascinate a fan, but the fact that all the work is on a single song could wear on anyone else.  The creative process isn’t really so much explored except more spied upon.  That the song turned out so well is perhaps a testament to their efforts.

The other sequences, which resemble aspects of Godard’s previous film, Weekend (1967) wind up feeling more a potential critique of the Marxists and revolutionaries that it seems Godard was actually trying to appreciate.  Though the camera prowls with studied care, the ham-fisted and poorly-spoken activists seem cartoonishly simple and lacking eloquence.  For the eloquence they lack, pretension they do not.

I think it was around this time that Godard decided that cinema shouldn’t be any fun if it’s going to be effective and political.

Film Socialisme (2010)

Film Socialisme (2010) movie poster

director Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 07/10/2014

For all the Jean-Luc Godard films I’ve watched in the past decade or so, I hadn’t ventured past the 1960’s.  At all.  So, as his 2010 Film Socialisme was dropping off Netflix streaming, I thought it a good chance to explore.

Godard shot the film on digital video, the first of his films to ever employ that technology entirely.  It makes sense.  It is the medium of the present.  But it makes a lot of it look like cheapened documentary or even home movie footage rather than the work of an aueteur.

I don’t really know what was going on.  Actually, it’s 102 minutes of not really knowing what’s going on.  Only about 30% of the dialog is translated in subtitles, an intentionally confounding thing.  It may have had something to do with the fact that the film features a litany of languages and images from a number of different countries, taking place as it does on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean.

Cynically, I thought to myself that this might have been a clever way to fund a holiday for himself.

It’s not entirely bad or anything.  I just couldn’t make much of it.  Like the “Socialisme” of the title.  I don’t know.

Alphaville (1965)

Alphaville (1965) movie poster

director Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 05/26/2014

I’ve come, over the years, to be quite the fan of Jean-Luc Godard.  In film school, I think I was more ambivalent to negative, appreciating but not really enjoying any of his films that I’d seen.  But in the years that I’ve been keeping this film diary, I’ve now see most of his early films and have come to particularly and specifically enjoy them.  Personal favorites have been Pierrot le fou (1965) and Bande à part (1964), and while I’ve been watching the films at scattershot over the years, I hadn’t revisited Alphaville, which was an old classmate and friend’s personal favorite.

Alphaville was one of Godard’s films that I preferred in college, but still had mixed feelings about.  It had been fifteen to twenty years ago that I had last seen it and the only reason I hadn’t revisited it was probably because I was making way for the films that I had never seen.

Alphaville is a science fiction film, though being a Godard science fiction film, it’s hardly a thing of pure genre.  In fact, it’s an early example of genre mash-up, if you will, pulling in Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy Caution (a regular detective character that Constantine had played in numerous films over the years), it’s also a hard-boiled noir.  This mixture of noir and science fiction has long been cited as a key influence on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), so by proxy, the film has had tremendous stylistic impact.

One of the other extraordinary things about Godard’s choices in the film is the use of no special effects or even set design, costume design to depict a world of “the future”.  Instead, he uses existing buildings and objects that have a particular modernist style, futuristic perhaps, but very much things that existed in France in the mid-1960’s.  The conceit is clever (nothing has to be designed, no speculative future imagined, per se), but it also offers a strange, naturalism to the flavor of the film, naturalism within its very odd artifice.

Because Godard’s films acknowledge film and artifice regularly.  In breaks with narrative, odd moments of humor, toying with the viewer’s expectations.  There is a resultant style that feels distinctly different from other Godard films while remaining extremely typical of Godard.

It’s easy to see the appeal of this noir future stylistically.  It’s something that has developed to a level of cliche over the years, but there is something compelling within it, cultural aesthetics that “speak” louder than words.

And there is Anna Karina, whose loveliness seems to grow on me every time her face appears onscreen.

One funny thing that struck me is that within in the science fiction rubric, Godard’s social critique comes off perhaps less radical.  The genre lends itself so much to social critique, the depiction of any future state reflects a concept of how that state evolves to be, how it reflects the realities of the present in possibly exaggerated fashion, how all science fiction has some “cautionary” nature to its endemic “predictions”.

Godard’s work is typically quite politicized, radical in the way he approaches the goals of each film, sometimes with more overt challenges, sometimes with more play within the pleasures of the cinema.  The experiment of Alphavillie is no less so, but perhaps approaches similarities in the genre even as it strikes out at its conventions.

On top of everything, it’s a “cool” movie.  It’s hip.  You could easily play it at a midnight movie setting or with other cult films and its coolness, ironically played or not, still play as cool.  The black and white frozen modernity is still as stylish today, maybe even more stylish, than it ever was.

Contempt (1963)

Contempt (1963) movie poster

director Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 01/01/2014

My first film that I watched of the new year was Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt.  I’ve been slowly working my way through Godard’s films over the past decade, though still only through his earliest films.  But some years back, Contempt played at the Castro and I was very curious to see it, but somehow it fell into my long, long movie queue, languishing among hundreds of others.  I’m currently trying to prioritize some of the major films that I’ve never seen as part of my movie queue.  And Contempt is the first of those.

I think I understood that Contempt was perhaps a bigger budget film for Godard.  I think somehow I thought that maybe it was even produced via Hollywood, which seemed quite odd (and totally erroneous).  It was produced by Italian producer Carlos Ponti and featured the red hot Brigitte Bardot in her rather altogether.  As well as American star Jack Palance and ever quite notably legendary director Fritz Lang playing a version of himself.

The film is indeed about “contempt”.  Contempt in Bardot’s relationship with her screenwriter boyfriend, Michel Piccoli, contempt for producers (Palance plays the overbearing American film producer), contempt for the state of cinema in Europe circa 1963.

What interests me so much about Godard is how much of a radical he remains, how radical his films still are.  Certainly there are contemporary directors who look to the French New Wave for inspiration and some perhaps more slippery joie de vivre.  But Godard took cinema head on, quite deconstructively, not embracing the pleasures of traditional Hollywood narrative film but endlessly riffing on them and subverting them.  For all the great cinema, it’s the few true radicals that truly challenge the form.  And from such simple things as speaking the film’s credits to its protracted relationship sequence, to the open discourse on cinema itself, you really don’t see such level of subversion really anywhere.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not so much, it’s films like his Bande à part (1964) or Pierrot le Fou (1965) that range more into pleasure that I find myself liking the most.

Contempt struck me as different and at first I thought it was the cinematography.  Maybe it is.  But I guess that he worked with the same cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, that worked on other of his films.  It has a lushness to it, visually (an I’m not talking about Bardot’s bare bottom).  The music strangely churns at emotion, often out of context, often with similar refrains.  The film feels different, even where it feels quite typical of Godard.  I did enjoy it.

Fritz Lang is particularly good and the multi-lingual master film-maker trying to make The Odyssey true to some vision.  The film is one of the classics of the “films about filmmaking” genre.  Quite interesting.  And as it’s on Criterion, it has a very erudite commentary.

Not at all a bad way to begin the year in film.

Bande à part (1964)

Bande à part (1964) movie poster

director: Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 06/30/2012

I saw Bande à part at the Castro Theater,  I want to say, 10-11 years ago and I was really taken with it.  When shortly thereafter, it came out on Criterion Collection DVD, I bought it and then never watched it.  I loaned it out to several people, offered it as a recommendation, called it my favorite Jean-Luc Godard film.

In recommending it again, I wound up watching it for the first time in years with a couple of friends.  It’s strange and surprising how much of the general imagery stayed imprinted in my brain over that time (and over the many other films that I’ve seen in the interim).

Made in 1964, as part of Godard’s earliest output of films, his Nouvelle Vague period, it’s considered his most accessible film, and to some, that might sound like a criticism.  Godard’s films are often defined less by pleasure than they are by challenge.  Rupturing the traditions of narrative cinema (in which the process of story-telling, the camera, all awareness of the experience are all crafted out of the viewer’s experience) is foregrounded.  Narrative film, besides drawing one in and inducing the pleasures of the process, also allows pathways for ideological information to be delivered in a subconscious or unconscious way.  In other words, rupture is a political process, and for Godard, sometimes his films are more political than narrative.

The fact that Bande à part revels a bit more in the joy of cinema isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Ruptures are used for fun as well as social commentary, such as the noted “minute of silence” in the film, or the breaks in the music and narration during the dance sequence.  The pleasures stretch beyond narrative, extending to simple visual pleasure.  And no visual pleasure is quite as keen in Bande à part as the wondrous visage of Anna Karina.  She’s as beautiful in this film as in any she ever made.  And it’s a grand pleasure to see the Paris and the cafes of the early 1960’s, inducing in me a wish that I could travel not only to the continent but back to that time and place.

Since I saw Bande à part at the Castro all those years ago, I’ve seen a number of other films of Godard and I’ve come to like more and more of his work.  I was struck that Une femme est une femme (1961) would be a companion piece to Bande à part.  I also was struck so much by Pierrot le fou (1965), so now I have a couple of favorites of Godard films.  And I still have a lot left to see.

Breathless

A Bout de souffle (1960) movie poster

(1960) director Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 07/26/10 at the Embarcadero Cinema, SF, CA

In junior college, I took “Film 101” three times.  The first two times I took incompletes, only finally getting a grade for it in the last go around.  “The 3rd time’s the charm,” as they say.

It was in the second of these Introduction to Film classes that I was introduced to Jean-Luc Godard and his seminal 1960 film, Breathless.  And I didn’t like it.  I was 18 probably, and despite the context that the teacher gave to the film, implanting the concepts of “jump cuts” and the general dissonance that Godard brought to “break” with traditional film techniques, I didn’t enjoy the film.  I found Jean-Paul Belmondo annoying, didn’t care for the misogynistic or chauvinistic attitudes, and just, perhaps, wasn’t “ready” to appreciate Godard or the tropes and concepts of the French New Wave.  I know, not very open-minded of me.  But there you go.

Oddly enough, some 20+ years later, after graduate studies in film and any number of movies, books, classes, experience, this is actually only the second time that I’ve watched Breathless.  And here the film is now, in it’s 50th anniversary release, in a newly restored print overseen by cinematographer Raoul Coutard.  And, for me, the experience is a world apart from that of my 18-year old self, watching the film on video, in the confines of a junior college classroom.

One striking aspect of Breathless, which I’ve noted in other French films of the period, is the fascinating “capture” of the world of the film’s present, apprehended largely in the locations in which the filming took place.  And this is powerfully evident in Breathless.  From the Champs-Élysées to Montparnasse to the Place de la Concorde and the many roads and avenues and cafes, the film comprises a multitude of snapshots of a now distant Paris, which of course would have been utter contemporary at the time.  Consider the automobiles, the many that Belmondo’s Michel steals throughout the play of the film, and the dapper styles of Belmondo and the uber-stylish and beautiful Jean Seaberg, the film has an air of pure style and aesthetic that is transporting and almost quaint.

While this is a matter for the present, to look back on a Paris of 50 years ago, to people who are in some cases long-gone, is an element of cinema true in perhaps many old films (if not all), and it may not be the most purely relevant gaze to cast on Breathless, I would say it’s awfully hard not to have a reaction to that style and character.  Godard chose to shoot in the streets of Paris with a film crew pared down like that of journalists of the time, so this capture is not by any means entirely accidental or lacking meaning.

Godard’s more radical cinematic techniques, not simply the jump cuts or the dissonant street noises that obscure the dialogue or the off-screen dramatics that would normally take the foreground in a narrative, but his wholly politicized approach to breaking down the narrative devices of traditional Hollywood cinema still seem quite radical even today.  Because big feature cinema production is still adherent to the traditions and practices established prior to Godard’s film; these discordant approaches, breaking the audience’s connections to the characters and the story still jar us, they still make for a different cinematic experience, one of the self-awareness of sitting and watching Breathless, rather than being caught up and lost in the world and story of the diegetic film world.  While some elements of these techniques became absorbed into the language of film, and this film influenced filmmaker upon filmmaker, film upon film, it’s still quite uncommon to see a film made that is so intentionally challenging of audience pleasure and engagement.

Not that Breathless is the extreme for Godard in this respect.  Far from it.  The film has much of the joy and beauty and pleasure still deeply within it that make many of Godard’s early films quite charming and fun, discordant yet enjoyable, and why they aren’t just a burden to endure as some of his other films might be argued to be.

Godard’s Breathless is well worth seeing for the first time or the second, or simply again.  It’s modernist and modern, post-modern and complex, a glimpse of a Paris now long past, a riff on love and crime and perhaps a cynical existentialism.  It’s pleasure and displeasure, and will probably not strike any two people the exact same way.  And in many ways, this is a testament to the power and innovation of this film, even 50 years later.

Godard has grown on me over the years, and while I’ve come to like some of his films better, or still dislike others of his films more, I have the pleasure of seeing Breathless now and still seeing how understandable it was to react negatively back many years ago was.  But how much better it is to appreciate it here and now.

Made in U.S.A.

Made in U.S.A. (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 04/04/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I don’t know why it’s taken so many years, but I’ve finally become smitten by the French New Wave.  Mostly, actually, via the films of Jean-Luc Godard, particularly his earlier works, starting with Band of Outsiders (1964) and most recently with Pierrot le fou (1965).  And while I’ve actually seen about half of the films he produced in the 1960’s.  Mostly, I am catching up on DVD, but when opportunity arises, I like to see these films theatrically.

So, when Made in U.S.A. was being shown at the Castro Theatre, I thought to myself “I am so there!”  And I was.  But oddly enough, Made in U.S.A. actually harkened more of one of the first of Godard’s films that I’d seen, his 1967 film Weekend, which I saw in film school and then again on some other trope, probably film school again, and I really didn’t care for it.  It’s a more politicized film, less romantic, full of chaos and random “noise”, a dissonant film that was not meant for “pleasure”.  And really, in Made in U.S.A., you have a similar sensibility at work, not yet as fully as we see in Weekend, but one that is moving in that direction.

I think that this is what set me away from Godard initially.  I think that I assumed that all his films had a politicized, unromanticized, anti-cinema aesthetic that went with them, one in which visual pleasure or cinematic enjoyment were incisively challenged.  And it’s not that there are not aspects of his working against many of narrative cinema’s mechanisms in all of his films, but in some, especially Band of Outsiders, you see joy and love amidst the critique, and there is visual pleasure, comedy and fun as well.  It’s this sort of character of his films that has drawn me towards his work more of late.

Made in U.S.A. is really a half-way point between these two sensibilities.  This showing of the film in the United States is essentially the film’s first release here.  Godard borrowed a narrative from a Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake) crime novel and reanimated it with uber-irony and comic play, a lens through which his critiques and ideas are formed here.  Apparently, due to having never paid Westlake for the rights, the film was never allowed into the United States, perhaps furthering the irony of the title and possibly part of the film’s critiques.  It’s also the final feature film of his that starred his beautiful then-wife Anna Karina, with whom he was going through a divorce at the time of the film’s production.

Shot in vivid color, the film does in fact “play” a lot.  At one point, there is a comment that the film is like a crime film directed by Walt Disney or something.  It’s saying quite literally what it’s playing with, Americana and the detective genre, but strange, cartoony perhaps.  Karina is usually wearing bright colors and is often off-set by bright background colors, often primary colors, of painted building facades, or signage.  Advertising imagery, pinball machine decorations, pop art, all played out against a paint-by-colors detective story, yet still one where information needs to be uncovered.  There stands the simple genre structure, deconstructed, yet utilized.  Of course, the mystery is much less about what happened to Anna Karina’s lover Richard (as the narrative tries to unfold), but the mystery is much more about what the heck is going on in the film?

Godard drops cultural references all over the place from characters named David Goodis and Otto Preminger to Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara.  There are stabs are broader humor, which are (intentionally) flat.  And ultimately there is a politicized dialogue/monologues about “the left” and “the right”, the Communist Party, and a was in Algeria.

The mixture is also interspersed with acutal noise.  Richard’s last name is always bleated out by airplane noise, car horns, or machine gun noise.  Airplane noise is a constant as well, and the taped recording of a voice is highly dissonant as well.  When contemplating the film’s qualities, the question arises about the amount of intended pleasure versus the amount of intended displeasure.  And the other question is about how much of the film’s actual “meaning” is meant to be understood.  Or is the film mainly playing to open dialogue, inspire questions, or just make one constantly aware that they are watching a film that is nothing like a relaxing movie-going ride that one might be more used to.

Like Weekend, I think the film has much intentional dissonance, visually, audiably, and even intellectually.  From some early moments, it feels like it still wants to have fun.  Perhaps they were having fun in making it.  But the experience on the outside is one of not so easy answers, not so easy responses, and certainly no belly laughs.  Do I “get” this film?  I don’t know.  Did I enjoy it?  Not so much.  Does that mean I think it was not good? Not necessarily.  Would I recommend it to anyone? Serious filmgoers only.  Not the casual approach to the French New Wave.  Perhaps this is a place in which the French New Wave starts waving goodbye, moving into the politicized late 1960’s, influenced by the Vietnam War, and the social revolutions and changes taking place.  It’s no longer the suave and hip late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the honeymoon (and the marriage) is over.  The social criticism is ripe, and cinema is no longer as beautified and idolated.  It’s time to get radical.

Pierrot le fou

Pierrot le fou (1965) movie poster

(1965) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 08/06/08

Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most significant and challenging directors in cinema.  It’s kind of amazing how many important films he made in the 1960’s.  It’s also amazing how radically he approached the issue of cinema, the issues of cinema.  It’s still striking, even now, how much he challenged and questioned, utilized in his films, which feel like ongoing discourses on life, culture, politics, art, you name it.  It’s a lot to take in.  It’s a lot to have put out.

It’s kind of weird, but looking back over my film diary, since I’ve seen a bunch of Godard films, but it seems that the only one that I’ve watched in recent years is Une femme est une femme (1961).  Maybe I caught another while I wasn’t updating, I don’t know.  His films are a challenge for me, I would think for most people.  It’s not just that they are non-conventional, but rather that they work in direct opposition to convention, they are a critique of convention, in many ways, a meta-critique of everything.

Pierrot le fou was recently re-released via Criterion, a clean print, which played theatrically locally not long ago.  I missed it when it played the Castro.  I noticed it’s coming to the Red Vic in a week or two.

The film has a loose narrative.  Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina (about as beautiful as women are allowed to get) escape their lives down to the French Riviera, romping, hiding from society, ranting about love, writing poetry, jumping around on things.  Their love and frolics become challenged with an strange turn of events regarding a crime caper, a brother who is a gun runner (is he a brother or a lover?), and ultimately everyone gets killed.  Belmondo wraps his head in dynamite and explodes.

There is fun and lightness in the frolicking.  It is not joyless.  But it is also not embracing.  There is a constant striking at the subjectivity, a concentrated self-awareness, a sensibility that the film might actually have not had a script (which I have read was something the Godard has said).  It’s never really about the story, though in many ways it is about the romance or the concept of a cinematic romance.  About the concepts of genre, of art.  Many images of modern and classical art pop to the screen, populate the walls of rooms, books and films are verbally referenced.  It’s an ever-moving romp.

I can’t say that I can totally get my hands around it.  It’s very colorful, in striking contrast to Godard’s earlier black-and-white films.  It reminded me of a later Godard film, Week End (1967), which is much less about love or narrative, much more political and apocalyptic.  These films seem very much of a similar ilk, road movies fraught with disasters and modernism, and post-modernism.

I think I’ve better enjoyed Godard’s work on the big screen.  It takes energy to watch his films, focus, concentration.  His work still seems quite polemic even now, forty years later.  And it’s still challenging.

Une femme est une femme

Une femme est une femme (1961) movie poster

(1961) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 05/19/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

Really getting into a bad habit of falling too far behind for these entries. I saw this film over a week ago. It’s not as fresh in my mind as it once was.

Jean-Luc Godard’s interpretation of the romantic comedy seems, on the surface, strangely “lite.” The challenges and disjunctures to the narrative and the distancing effects that Godard uses to keep the viewer from getting caught up in the film as story are in heavy use. Music swells during certain scenes in over-the-top fashion, only to suddenly cut off in mid-note/emotion, replaced with soundtrack silence or street noises. A moment or two later, the music rushes back in, occasionally blotting out the dialogue. Godard uses visual disjunctures as well, the characters directly address the audience, bowing before enacting one scene. The big difference is that Godard seems to play a lot of the elements for laughs.

And some of it is quite funny and charming. I really liked the way that the characters used the book titles from the shelves to silently insult one another while lying in bed. Ironically, this is perhaps one of the most truly narrative sequences in the film, in a sense, figuring the least disjunctive.

The film’s title A Woman is a Woman perhaps speaks to the real underlying subtext of the film. This has probably been analyzed to death elsewhere, so I apologize for the cheap goings-over. The beautiful Anna Karina, Godard’s wife at the time this was filmed I believe, plays a stripper, caught in a love triangle, between her boyfriend/lover and his best friend. Karina’s character, Angela, is obsessed with becoming pregnant and her desire for this conflicts with that of her boyfriend Émile and is essentially the source of the conflict. What the film is saying about a woman being a woman, I can’t really say, but it does seem to seek to define that according to some stereotypically significant aspects being female, the ability to become pregnant/give birth and the ability to be sexually objectified. The film’s attitude toward these things might be debatable…

I found the film quite enjoyable. The radical nature of Godard’s work seems both still very relavant and yet oddly quaint in a way. Some of the stylistic elements and characteristics of his work have been absorbed into the common language of film, though the bulk of what he attempts to do still remains clearly outside of film-work, totally housed within the avant-garde or underground cinemas. But there is this other side of the film as a document of a now historical Paris, of a dynamic period of film production that seems for lack of a better term, almost “quaint.” I think that might sound horribly insulting, but it’s not meant that way.