Tuesday, July 31, 2007

alphaville, by jean-luc godard

For the third week of our film club, Skunkcabbage and I moved on along the Godard axis, this time watching Alphavile (1965), Godard's take on science fiction.

Like Band of Outsiders, which we watched last week, Alphaville gets a lot of mileage out of decontextualizing and repurposing noir conventions. Take a look at our star, tough-guy actor Eddie Constantine playing detective Lemmy Caution, seen here skulking around, you know, detecting things:

The central conceit of Alphaville is taking this type of hard-boiled figure and placing him in a science fiction context, specifically the context of the futuristic dystopia. Alphaville is a city governed by a computer, Alpha 60, who essentially makes all its decisions rationally, based on probability-matrices. This crushes the human spark in the usual dystopian fashion, although Godard's visualization of it is at times striking:

Anna Karina returns in this film, this time playing Natasha Von Braun, daughter of a prominent scientist. She's essentially the science-fiction version of the character she plays in Band of Outsiders: instead of being a cute French schoolgirl who is naive about sexuality, here she's the dystopian lost girl, who needs to be taught to love in a society that's forgotten the meaning of the word, yadda yadda yadda:

All of feels a little bit standard, which is part of the point—since the material feels so familiar, Godard can sketch it quite economically and rely on us to fill in the gaps. This extends to the entire setting, which makes no effort to be especially futuristic, but simply constitutes itself by using suitably dystopian environments selected from the contemporary city, trusting that we'll simply imagine them as science-fictional. Works pretty well; here's the building where the authorities execute free thinkers:

Like in Band of Outsiders, the effect of all this economy is that it opens up the film for digressions. The digressions are a little bit less successful here: whereas in Band the digressive material is mostly antic horseplay (which chafes interestingly against the central crime plot), the digressive material here is more lyrical and experimental. I tend to like lyrical and experimental, but the experimental material here is primarily a meditation on the value of love, and the use of radical techniques to make a point that's not especially radical just isn't that interesting.

Elsewhere, the film proves itself to be smarter than that. There are various moments where we see that Godard's interest in thinking actively about the conventions of filmic narrative is beginning to broaden into an interest in thinking actively about the conventions of language in general: the phrase "I'm very well. Thank you so much" is uttered repeatedly by characters in the film, never in response to an actual inquiry about someone's well being (reminding me of the gifts that are reflexively exchanged in the permanent Christmas of Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985)).

It's a sly commentary on the way that convention can override meaning, only mildly undercut by the moment, late in the film, when Natasha struggles to remember the words "I love you." When she finally manages to speak the phrase, it's clearly seen as a triumphant moment—but certainly "I love you," just like "Thank you so much," is a phrase that has the risk of being spoken automatically, emptily.

Skunkcabbage's write-up is here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

band of outsiders, by jean-luc godard

One of the rules of the "film club" that Skunkcabbage and I have formed is that each film must connect to the previous one in some way. So, since last week I picked Rushmore, a film influenced by the French New Wave's appropriation of noir, this week H. picked Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders (1964), one of the masterpieces of the French New Wave.

Looking at this shot kind of sums up the engine that drives Band of Outsiders:

Those dudes on the right (Franz and Arthur) look pretty much like they could have stepped out of an American noir or hard-boiled pulp novel, and, sure enough, in this particular film they are interested in stealing a pile of cash. So far, so familiar. The movie's brilliance comes from playing off of these types as types, and crashing them together with an incongruous type, represented by the woman here on the left, Odile, a young French schoolgirl. Let's get a closer look:

She's played by Anna Karina (Godard's wife at the time), and her doe-eyed glory is echoed by any number of contemporary Euroesque actresses: let's say Uma Thurman, Chloe Sevigny, and Audrey Tautou, for starters. Perhaps the Tautou comparison is the most fruitful, because, like Amélie Poulain (the character Tautou plays in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie (2001)), Anna Karina's Odile is a bit of a naif, especially with regard to sexuality. Here she is gearing up for a kiss:

But she's also incredibly charming—in various twee indie ways. Note that, when on her bike, she uses proper hand signalling methods:

So, essentially, Band of Outsiders takes as its premise this question: what happens when you crash together true-crime types with a girl who seems like she's emerged from a Belle and Sebastian song?

Since the characters and their scheme all feel familiar so familiar that they can basically be represented with a few basic cues, the film is freed up to permit all manner of digression. (This is essentially the same trick that gives Pulp Fiction (1994) a lot of its appeal, and let's recall that Tarantino's production company, A Band Apart, takes its name from this film.) The proposed heist is so simple that it requires almost no energy to plan, and so the film's entire middle segment concentrates entirely on the characters roaming around Paris engaging in various forms of jackassery: driving around, visiting book stands, racing through the Louvre, reading true crime stories out of the newspaper, going dancing:

It is through this process that we begin to realize that Franz and Arthur aren't really the two-dimensional toughs that they initially appear to be, but rather are closer to being slacker types who have simply learned tough-guy mannerisms from B movies and dime novels (see also: Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket (1996), the Tarantino-scripted True Romance (1993), and Pulp Fiction, again). It is also around this point that the movie's narrative gradually shifts from heist plot to love triangle.

It is to the film's enormous credit that it manages to keep all the plates in the air: it resolves the heist plot in a fashion that exploits the potential (both comic and dramatic) inherent when a hipster-plotted crime goes awry, and also satisfyingly resolves the love triangle. This alone would be an impressive feat, but it's worth noting that what really makes Band of Outsiders a masterpiece is that it manages this while also continually playing with and usurping the formal features of film itself: Godard makes dramatic scenes ludicrious by shooting them in long shots instead of close ups; he chops the score into fragments, so that phrases that signify "something dramatic is happening" start up and cut out erratically; a voice-over narrator summarizes the first ten minutes of the film for people coming in to the theatre late, remarks on the potential for a sequel, etc. etc. In this way, Band of Outsiders stands as a perfect piece of postmodern cinema, underlining again and again the film's status as a manufactured artifact in a way that should feel familiar to fans of, say, Hal Hartley, or to anyone who went to see Grindhouse (2006).

Godard's later work gets really obsessed with this trick of short-circuiting the expectations of cinema-goers, or otherwise denying them the cathartic release that comes with narrative: I'm considering choosing his apocalyptic train-wreck Weekend (1967) for next week's film club installment as an example.

Friday, July 13, 2007

rushmore, by wes anderson

p>Regular readers of this blog may have noted that I've been doing a lot more writing about film recently, both because of the film class I taught in the spring and the newfound convenience of getting eclectic films in my hands (via Netflix). This trend is likely to continue for a while, since on my roadtrip to Texas, Skunkcabbage and I decided to try to get together and watch a film a week—ideally to blog about it.

Thus formed, our two-man film club met for the first time yesterday, starting off with Wes Anderson's Rushmore, a film I picked, not least because it has a few things to say on the perils and joys of club-foundation:

Those of you who have seen the film will remember that the Bombardment Society is only one of a staggering number of extra-curricular activities that Max (our protagonist) is involved in. Special props to the Criterion Contraption for astutely pointing out something I hadn't fully realized before, namely, that "Max's manias are fueled by unhappiness as much as narcissism," that they form "a calculated campaign of distraction from genuine pain." (Whether my film club and ambient workaholism is the same is a puzzle for some future therapist to figure out.)

In any case. What I really want to talk about today is not Max Fisher at all, but rather film noir. Skunkcabbage, I think rightly, zeroed in on a faint noir flavor present in the film; in his write-up he refers to the film as "noir played prosaic." I think he's right about this, although I think that, like Hal Hartley, Wes Anderson is influenced less by noir directly, and more by these conventions as filtered down through the French New Wave (specifically Godard). (For an example of how noir conventions might transpose to a school setting without taking this circuitous route, one might try the very fine Brick (2005), by Rian Johnson.)

One effect that thinking about Rushmore as a noir has is that it highlights some of Anderson's lovely, idiosyncratic choices. For instance, the character in the film who is probably the most traditionally noir-ish is this guy:

This is the character (winningly played by Mason Gamble) who utters crackerjack tough-guy lines like "I know about you and the teacher" and "Who sold you that crock?"

Wes Anderson films aren't without their problems (I've written about some of them here), but I really do stand by Rushmore as a great film. I could go on (to talk about Rushmore without talking about Bill Murray's career-defining performance is folly), but I've got other things today that need doing.