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Posts Tagged ‘Jean-Luc Godard’

The Eternal Present

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

“No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” — the master computer Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).

There’s an interesting piece in Forbes this morning by Anthony Wing Kosner on the Harlem Shake meme, a massively duplicated performance piece which is spreading virally over the web, and which, by now, has probably peaked. Kosner offers a succinct summary of the meme, noting that “ the Harlem Shake meme has a simple form: with the first 30-seconds of the song Harlem Shake by the DJ and producer Baauer in the background, a single person does something in the presence of others (who act as if nothing is happening), and then all of a sudden everyone is doing something together. The sound snippet is divided equally between the electronic tropes of the ‘build up,’ and the ‘bass drop,’ and the juncture between the two is punctuated by a deep, pitch-shifted voice commanding, ‘do the Harlem Shake.’ Unlike the video response parodies for Gangnam Style, Call Me Maybe or Somebody That I Used To Know, making a Harlem Shake requires very little preparation. This is not only because of the short duration, but also because the ‘’something’ that ‘happens’ doesn’t matter. It could be anything.”

Kosner intriguingly links this phenomenon to Douglas Rushkoff’s soon-to-be-released book Present Shock, adding that “before you accuse me of taking this class of 30-second trifles too seriously, consider them in relation to Present Shock, the soon-to-be released book by Douglas Rushkoff [see Kosner's review here.] The book, subtitled When Everything Happens Now, is a follow-up to Alvin Toffler’s 70s touchstone, Future Shock. Where Toffler argued that the pace of change was radically accelerating, Rushkoff finds that time itself has now metastasized to the point that all we can see is the present moment.

This ‘presentism’ effects every corner of our lives from finance to politics to entertainment. And the meme, whether it be an image plastered with ironic type, an animated gif or, as in Harlem Shake, a short video, is the perfect cultural expression of Present Shock. We don’t have time for the five-act play—give me the 30-second video! [. . .] Rushkoff explains, ‘Essentially, this is a presentist society’s equivalent of mass spectacle [ . . .] We don’t have overarching stories that we’re a part of, no national narrative really—just lots of opinions.”

To [an] audience of publishers he made the point that as much as we want to give our audience what they want, the impatience of the readership and the desire for everything to be à la carte, changes the way we now write non-fiction books. Instead of the grand five-act play structure of previous tomes, we have a series of chapters that essentially say the same thing about different topics.

Like a fractal, you can ‘get the picture,’ at any point. And Baauer’s song is just that way. Undoubtably Harlem Shake has sold a bunch of downloads since the meme took off, but most people have only heard the first 30 seconds, and the rest of the tune adds no significant development. Once you get it, that’s all there is.

Rushkoff continues, ‘So something like this stands in for the centralized broadcast spectacle. It’s interactive, in that people actually ‘make’ one of these things. And being in one, or knowing people who are in one, or even just knowing this phenomenon exists ‘when it’s happening’ is a form of connection. In some ways, the brevity of the fad makes it all the more tempting to participate in. It’s going to be over so soon that you want to get in on it before it’s not cool anymore.’”

But this “eternal presentism,” which I agree certainly exists, is certainly not a new concept, and both Rushkoff and Kosner instantly put me in mind of Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant vision of the future Alphaville, made way back in 1965. In the 21st century (actually then-contemporary Paris), a master computer, Alpha 60, rules society with an iron hand, and issues dictates which must be followed upon pain of death. Everything is informed by consumerism; genuine emotion is outlawed. A man is executed in a swimming pool spectacle for  the “crime” of weeping when his wife dies; vending machines instruct consumers to insert a coin for some unspecified product, only to receive a token marked simply “thanks” — nothing for something, the hallmark of 21st century imagistic commerce.

In short, everything that both Rushkoff and Posher notes is absolutely true — as Alpha 60 says to private Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who is sent from the “outerlands” to destroy the massive computer, ”No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” Lemmy responds, “I refuse to become what you call normal.” Alphaville ends on an optimistic note, with Alpha 60’s destruction, but the present offers us no such panacea; the computers have won. Everything is available online, but no one really wants anything of substance; they just want the latest fads and trends, tailored to their own tastes.

When this happens, we forget what the past has taught us, and thus the future becomes dependent solely upon the fad and whim of the moment, instantly disposable and utterly without consequence. It’s interesting that as Godard has cut down on his output as a filmmaker in recent years, his most recent films have developed a strong link to the past — to the culture of another era, in books, music, art, films — which Godard obviously mourns and celebrates simultaneously. But Godard knows that the past is gone, and irrecoverable, and the future is unknowable; we are all forced to live, whether we like it or not, in the eternal present.

No one remembers the past any more. And that’s precisely the tragedy of the present.

Truffaut and Godard in Defense of The Cinémathèque Française, 1968

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard speak in defense of the Cinémathèque Française.

This 60 second spot ran in numerous French film theaters during the events of May, 1968, when the future of the Cinémathèque Française under the leadership of Henri Langlois was in jeopardy. French cultural minister André Malraux, at the direction of then-president Charles de Gaulle, tried to fire Langlois, who had founded the Cinémathèque Française, and was a hero to young cinéastes. The reaction was immediate – Truffaut, Godard, and the rest of the French Nouvelle Vague directors simply weren’t going to let this happen.

The protest against Langlois’ attempted dismissal quickly became an international affair, even in the pre-internet era, and filmmakers around the world threatened to pull their films from the Cinémathèque’s collection unless Langlois was reinstated. Eventually, Malraux backed down, and Langlois was restored to his post, though with reduced government funding. This advertisement played a small part in the affair, and it’s refreshing to see two world renowned filmmakers coming to the defense of cinema as an art form.

Here’s a rough translation:

Godard: “In general, films are shown commercially for seven years. After that, they’re shown in art theaters, like this one.”
Truffaut: “If their life can sometimes be extended, it’s thanks to Henri Langlois’ efforts in preserving them at the Cinémathèque Française.”
Godard: “If you’ve chosen to see the film you’re about to see tonight, or if you like to see a film you enjoy several times, you are already a friend of the Cinémathèque.”
Truffaut: “So become a member of the Committee for the Defense of The Cinémathèque Française now.”

This brief film was shot on March 14, 1968; you can see it by clicking here, or on the image above.

Jean-Luc Godard on Film Criticism, 1963

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Here’s a remarkable interview with director Jean-Luc Godard shot for French television in 1963, just after the release of his masterpiece Le Mépris (Contempt).

It’s both fascinating and a bit sad that Godard describes film criticism of his era as essentially an “honest” field, noting that critics are always “sincere,” whether he agrees with them or not, compared to today, when film criticism has become primarily a fan-based enterprise, and the daily critics are more under pressure than ever before to conform to commercial demands. Godard, of course, started out as a critic before he became a filmmaker, and as he admits in this clip, some of his early reviews were often “cruel” towards certain filmmakers and their works.

But at the same time, he doesn’t seem to mind the same slings and arrows when they’re directed at him, just so long as the critics really mean what they say. Godard also speaks frankly of the commercial pressures brought to bear on him by producer Joseph E. Levine during the making of the film, and demonstrates enormous grace under pressure in the process. It’s a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the world’s most innovative and often controversial directors; absolutely essential viewing.

Masculine/Feminine (1966)

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Click on the image above to see the original French trailer for the film.

“We’d often go to the movies. We’d shiver as the screen lit up. But more often,  Madeleine and I would be disappointed. The images flickered. Marilyn Monroe looked terribly old. It saddened us. It wasn’t the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make… and secretly wanted to live.”

Jean-Luc Godard went through his most brilliant period as filmmaker in the 1960s; though he is still active today, it is for his work in this period that he is best remembered. It was during the ’60s that he had his finger firmly on the pulse of the youth movement, and was already becoming deeply interested in class issues and politics.

Made for less than 150,000 dollars and shot in flat back-and-white by the great Willy Kurant, Masculin, féminin (1966) chronicles the rise of young pop singer Madeleine (Chantal Goya, in real life ruling the ’60s French pop charts with her “ye-ye” hits, catchy songs of transient adolescent passion and romance), who will stop at nothing in her rise to the top.

Along for the ride are Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a rather aimless revolutionary drifting through a series of dead-end jobs; Elisabeth (Marlène Jobert), who acts pretty much as Madeleine’s groupie; and Robert (Michel Debord), a punk revolutionary who sees hypocrisy at every turn. Much of the dialogue centers on the differences between the sexes, and the fears, hopes, and desires that confronted teens in the 1960s.

Godard’s style was, and is, revolutionary; breaking into the narrative at random intervals, he offers the viewer bold intertitles that comment on the action (the most famous being “This film could be called the children of Marx and Coca-Cola. Think of it what you like”). There is also a stunning ten-minute take in which the real “Miss 19″ of 1965 (Elsa Leroy) is directly interviewed by Léaud off-camera, as she professes complete ignorance about world politics, methods of birth control, and anything other than the disposable pop world of the moment.

Godard also throws in bits of pop theater, as two actors (one of them the Algerian director Med Hondo, in an uncredited role) perform a scene from LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman on the Paris metro, while Paul looks on in horror as the scene degenerates into a subway shooting. Godard’s vision of the world, here as elsewhere, is sardonically nihilistic; a man confronts Paul with a knife in an amusement arcade, and then, for no reason, turns the knife on himself, plunging it into his stomach.

In another sequence, a man trying to set himself on fire to protest the Vietnam War has to borrow some matches to make good his threat. Brigitte Bardot turns up in a café cameo, and much of the dialogue is improvised, but at the same time, strictly controlled by Godard’s intensely personal vision. Once seen, never forgotten, this is a moment frozen in time, and one of the key films of the French New Wave in the 1960s.

You can see the entire film here; click on the “cc” button for English captions.

Band Of Outsiders (1964)

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (Bande à part, 1964) finds the director in an unusually playful mood; this black and white feature is from Godard’s early period, and is a combination of sketches and improvisations, loosely wound around a thin narrative thread.

The gif above is of Arthur (Claude Brasseur), Odile (Anna Karina) and Franz (Sami Frey) doing “The Madison,” a dance sequence that sort of “interrupts” the film — which is very free form in any event — for no particular reason at all, other than the audience’s enjoyment.

As Any Taubin famously noted, “Band of Outsiders is the Godard film for people who don’t much care for Godard: a proto-slacker mood piece about two nondescript guys trying to persuade a beautiful girl to help them commit a robbery. Adapted from Dolores Hitchens’s Fools’ Gold, an American ’50s crime novel published in France as part of the pulp Série Noire, it’s more [Jean] Renoir than [Samuel] Fuller—the least preoccupied with American culture of any of Godard’s ’60s films [. . .]

Godard’s adaptation vacuums the novel of its predictable character psychology and plot twists, leaving only the most minimal narrative. In between the play-acted and the real shooting, the film kills time with a series of set pieces: the celebrated mad dash through the Louvre [. . .] and of course, there’s the sequence where Odile, Franz, and Arthur dance the Madison in a half-empty café (the sequence that both Quentin Tarantino and Hal Hartley fell in love with and borrowed for their own films).”

You can view the dance sequence from Band of Outsiders here, or by clicking on the image above.

Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963)

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Has there ever been a more beautiful, more tragic film than Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963)? If so, I can’t think of one offhand. It’s also one of the most trenchant examinations of a relationship in collapse, as well as offering a behind-the-scenes look at the mechanics of filmmaking, featuring no less a personage than director Fritz Lang as himself, trying to make an intelligent film adaptation of The Odyssey, despite the continual interference of his distinctly unpleasant producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance).

Seeking a more commercial approach to the material, Prokosch hires screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) to do a rewrite. Accepting the assignment, Paul loses the affection of his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), who realizes that he is selling out, simply to make cash on a project which has no artistic integrity. As for his part, Lang refuses to take sides on any of this, and watches as the film, and the marriage, both slide toward the abyss. He’s seen it all before. All of this is set to a compelling, ravishingly romantic musical score by composer Georges Delerue.

Some have critiqued the film recently for its basic plot premise, calling the idea of “selling out” antiquated — after all, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do these days, sell out to the highest bidder? Maybe not, suggests Godard, who even today, continues to make deeply personal and idiosyncratic films designed only to satisfy his own needs and desires, and still finds an audience for them, nonetheless — perhaps “selling out” is just as undesirable as it always has been, a recipe for artistic and personal bankruptcy.

The Limits of the Image

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Here’s an image by Michelle Lyles from the web, which she titled “God had some fun painting the clouds this morning,” which is stunningly beautiful. But it got me thinking about the limits of the image, and what it can and can’t express. As transcendent and Wordsworthian as this image is, it can’t convey the experience of witnessing this morning sky firsthand. Jean-Luc Godard’s oft-quoted maxim “it isn’t a just image; it’s just an image” is part of what I’m getting at here, but what really is at stake is the essence of the image, and what it really represents.

As film critics, theorists, and historians, we are obsessed with images, and continually deconstruct them as part of our daily work. Yet in the end, the image above is simply a series of pixels and color tones on a screen, possessing only a phantom existence, which it would have even if it were fixed on paper as an analogue photograph.

André Bazin commented that if one looked intently at an object with a  camera, one might be able to document the essence of that which was being photographed. But in reality, all one comes away with is a portion of the experience, an aide de memoire to remind one of the experience, but not contain it. I’m curiously suspicious of the power of the image to sway us emotionally, or to allow us to drift into sentiment; it asks the viewer to be transported to another space or time, and yet the experience of that moment remains beyond authentic recall.

Perhaps this is why I have so few photos of vacations, family members, and the like, and have only been photographed a few times; images always fail, always interpret, always deceive by their very nature. The nature of the cinema is illusion, and the nature of illusion is to make that which is not real seem actual. But it isn’t. It isn’t even “just an image.” It’s a deception — something designed to evoke a certain response, or randomly executed by chance. It’s only a talisman of the real, and possesses no reality of its own.

Alphaville (1965)

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

“No one has ever lived in the past. No one will ever live in the future. The present is the form of all life.” – the super computer Alpha 60, in Godard’s Alphaville

Jean Luc-Godard’s Alphaville (1965) is one of the most effective visions of a Dystopian future every created for the screen. Working with American-born French cult actor Eddie Constantine, Godard crafted a science-fiction narrative of the future, working in then-contemporary Paris, shooting mostly at night with available light, as he tells the story of Alpha 60, a gigantic computer than controls the zombified citizens of Alphaville, a futuristic metropolis in a distant constellation in interstellar space. Constantine plays Lemmy Caution, a tough-as nails secret agent, whom he had also portrayed in a series of crime thrillers to diminishing returns before he teamed up with Godard.

Caution has been sent to Alphaville to destroy Alpha 60, free the citizens from its control, and rescue the beautiful Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina), the daughter of Professor von Braun, aka Leonard Nosferatu (Howard Vernon), the creator of Alpha 60. Lemmy accomplishes all of this in his usual tough guy fashion, while simultaneously matching wits with Alpha 60 in a philosophical battle of the wills.

Alpha 60: “What is your secret? Tell me, Mr. Caution.”

Caution: “Something which never changes, day or night. The past represents its future. It advances in a straight line, yet it ends by coming full circle.”

Everything about Alphaville is corrupt; women are exhibited as objects for purchase, vending machines dispense cards saying “Thank You” in return for a franc (or “nothing for something”), and anyone in Alphaville who displays the slightest bit of emotion is immediately sentenced to death. Shooting in crisp black and white with his signature cameraman, Raoul Coutard, on a budget of roughly $100,000, Godard transforms images of Paris at night into a hellish depiction of the future, when no one cares about anything anymore, and hope, love and faith have been forgotten.

Here’s the trailer, which is typically Godardian. If you haven’t seen the film, click on the image below now; this is proof that a sharp, cold, and superbly calculated vision of the future can be accomplished with a few actors, existing cityscapes, and an imagination which was, at the time, boundless.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the entire film, in French with English subtitles.

Persona

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona

It’s somewhat scandalous that I haven’t written a line on Ingmar Bergman yet, except to note that when his film The Touch failed at the box-office, and he found it impossible to get American distribution for his next project, that producer/director Roger Corman came to his rescue with partial financing and American distribution for Cries and Whispers. So, here’s a word or two in praise of Persona, perhaps my favorite of all of Bergman’s films, although I am partial some of the early work, especially Wild Strawberries.

Persona represented a huge leap forward for Bergman, who came from the theater, and for most of his life, would direct a theatrical production in Sweden each winter, and then venture forth with his stock company of actors and technicians to shoot a film every spring. Persona was to have been shot in the studio, but it almost immediately became apparent that this arrangement wasn’t working out, and so Bergman transported his crew and his actors — the two key actors are Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman — to his summer house on the island of Fårö, where his own house, as well as several local buildings, were used for the shooting,

What sets Persona apart from Bergman’s earlier work is its lack of theatricality; its austere sculptural presence; its plastic uses of the possibilities of the moving image, as when the film rips, or falls out of focus, or freezes; and especially the film’s hyper-edited, deeply self-reflexive introduction, in which Bergman conducts a whirlwind metaphorical tour of his imagistic past.

The set-ups in the film are flat, spare, and striking, and the overall embrace of aberrant, jarring cinematic devices reminds one inescapably of mid-60s Godard, especially with regard to Bergman’s lighting, sets, and his use of uncharacteristically long takes, using a static set-up to record minutes of action at a clip.

Bergman, however, publicly stated that he thought little of Godard’s work, commenting on one occasion that: “in this profession, I always admire people who are going on, who have a sort of idea and, however crazy it is, are putting it through; they are putting people and things together, and they make something. I always admire this. But I can’t see his pictures. I sit for perhaps twenty-five or thirty or fifty minutes and then I have to leave, because his pictures make me so nervous. I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have the feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me.”

This dislike became even more pronounced as Godard’s career progressed, when Bergman fulminated that “I’ve never gotten anything out of his movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. Godard is a [. . .] bore. He’s made his films for the critics. One of the movies, Masculin/ féminin, was shot here in Sweden. It was mindnumbingly boring.”

But when I first saw Persona, in a screening I will never forget at the Garden Theater in Princeton, NJ, when it was first released (after being awake for some 36 hours working on films and various other projects), although I was dead tired, the film immediately jolted me awake, because it seemed to reflect the influence of no one so much as Godard, in framing, in style, in structure — in every respect.

Bergman’s usually dark and forbidding lighting, his rococo frames, overstuffed with suffocating bric-a-brac — quite intentionally, for many of his earlier films were period pieces  — were now cleared away, and the result was that the actors were in the foreground, rather than their surroundings; they created the world they existed in, rather than having it created for them by the sets and costumes. With Persona, Bergman entered the modern world.

Even Cries and Whispers, despite its enormous commercial success, seemed a throwback to Bergman’s earlier films, as if were escaping back to his childhood, and certainly the same can be said of his last films, especially the obviously semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander, which to me, at least, was a ponderous bore. Persona, on the other hand, was fresh and new, and I remember thinking, with great force, how much Bergman had absorbed the philosophical and stylistic influence of the French New Wave filmmakers, especially Godard, who shares with Bergman a somewhat cold and unforgiving vision of the world, though Bergman, in his last years, seemed to become increasingly sentimental.

So, what can I say — I think Bergman protests too much. Persona is obviously indebted to Godard, and to the breakdown of cinematic tradition that personified the 1960s, whether he knew it, or admitted it, or not.

Here’s Susan Sontag’s take on the film; see what you think.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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