Wherein bon vivant Ben Livant and I (Dan Jardine) speak our minds about movies, mostly.
Monday, July 11, 2011
Welcome to Godard 101, an unofficial and unaffiliated online undergraduate seminar where Ben and I take on the great man and his works, doing our best to understand how Jean-Luc got from there to here. First up, Ben and I took a look at Breathless, the film that, along with Francois Truffault's 400 Blows, blew the roof off the joint back in 1960, kicking off the Nouvelle Vague and recreating cinema. Pretty heady shit. Then, we reviewed A Woman is a Woman, which you can find here.
To Live Her Life (France, 1962, Jean-Luc Godard)
And Dan Begins:
Vivre Sa Vie (To Live her Life) is Jean-Luc Godard's fourth feature film in the first three years of his film making career. Given the range and scope, not to mention tremendous growth, that is evident in these films, this is startling to consider. In three short years, Godard has moved through a variety of genres, explored a wealth of ideas, developed a number of groundbreaking technical innovations, and quite simply evolved into one of the most important film makers of his generation. A masterful blend of innovation and intelligence, To Live Her Life is, to this very early point in his career, Godard's crowning achievement.
It is clearly evident that the influences on Godard's cinematic ouevre range far and wide. For all the movies that he references (and adores) there is a novel, a symphony or a philosophical tract that plays a significant role in determining the style and content of his work. In To Live Her Life Godard explores the Brechtian idea of conveying a story with as much detachment as possible, in order to move beyond "simplistic" emotional responses and towards something that he views as more significant, namely thoughtful intellectual analysis. Tellingly, French philosopher Brice Parain makes an appearance in the film's penultimate (of twelve) tableau, wherein he counsels Nana that the full power of language to communicate cannot be achieved until we view life with non partisanship.
Furthermore, Godard's stylistic choices consistently underline this approach. Time after time, Godard makes it difficult for the audience to see (and, by implication, grow closer and attached to) Nana, as her visage is shot from the back or side, in full shadow, other people or objects are placed between us and her, or the camera simply moves off of her. Supporting this approach is Anna Karina's performance as Nana, who sports a bob haircut and plaintive doe-like eyes, and looks like a young Juliette Binoche. This is her third film with Godard, who by this point has become her husband, and they are clearly sharing a common vision here. Throughout much of the film Karina maintains a cool demeanor, an aloof manner that is rarely rattled despite the increasingly challenging situations. Adding to this distancing effect are Nana's vain attempts to console herself and others through vacuous expressions of self-help, such as "everything is good. All you have to do is take an interest in things."
I must interrupt myself at this point, in case I am making the film sound like a dry treatise or a tough slog. That would be terribly unfair to Godard's fourth, and to this point in his career, best film. Indeed, it would take a hardhearted individual to be unmoved by the story of Nana, a pretty but disaffected 20 year-old Parisian girl, as her life slowly spirals down the drain. When Nana weeps during her viewing of Carl Theodore Dreyer's seminal The Passion of Joan of Arc (the parallels between their situations are instructive as well), or when she dances exuberantly and coquettishly around a pool hall, her suffering and joy expose us to profound levels of empathy and humanity. Early on in another conversation, we hear of a small child who theorizes that once you remove the outside of something, what you have left is the inside, and when you remove the inside, what you see the soul. In Nana's responses to two of Godard's great loves, movies and music, we catch glimpses of what is within Nana. How can we not care deeply about this girl, no matter how many barriers she and Godard put up between her and us?
Thematically, the film is a clear indictment of the male dominated capitalist system that uses and abuses Nana for its entertainment. More pointedly (and personally), To Live Her Life ponders the cruelty of Godard's vocation. Nana begins the film as a record store clerk who dreams of becoming an actress. The equation of movie making industry with prostitution is overt when we see Nana's aspirations lead her to a sleazy encounter with a shady photographer, and in short order, she enters "The Life" as the French call it. Godard approached similar notions in The Little Soldier, as Karina's character Veronica is similarly objectified by Bruno is a photography session that clearly marks the power divide along gender lines. After making this fateful career choice in To Live Her Life, Nana attempts to hold onto her slender hopes for the future by mouthing the sort of power of positive thinking epithets mentioned above that have guided generations of the delusional in their belief that they can sell their talents to a cannibalistic system without losing their souls. Like the balls that get bashed around the pinball game that foregrounds a pair of important scenes in the film, Nana is caught in the teeth of the machine, and her only terribly inadequate defense is delusion and feigned disinterest. Ironically, while Godard (and Brecht) encourage us to detach and intellectualize, it is not an approach that does a tragic victim like Nana much good.
Challenging, affecting, and compelling, To Live Her Life is essential Godard.
OK, ok, let's just put this film in the most basic biographical context of the director. The fact that he could make and release this film right after he had done A Woman is a Woman, nevermind the aesthetic affront of the New Wave - the economic challenge to the movie industry, the refusal to conform to any sort of established reputation, to churn out a replica of a previously popular product, to NOT make a commercial sequel... counter culture!
My LifetoLive (1962) could not be more different than A Woman is a Woman. But for the purposeful exploration of obviously "incorrect" formal and technical choices, you'd be hard pressed to recognize that the two films are by the same director. But hey, A Woman is a Woman was already another thing altogether in relation toBreathless. And I haven't even got The Little Soldier (1960) to see, made in between Breathless (1959) and A Woman is a Woman (1961) but banned by the French government until 1963.
I am going to have to see The Little Soldier at some point, that's for sure, as it deals with the Algerian war and puts torture at the centre of the treatment. What sort of mise-en-scenedoes Godard provide for THAT subject matter? I continue to question his depictions of violence. In My LifetoLive, there is a bit of rough-handling of a women by men that is realistic enough, but there are a couple of scenes involving guns - including the final scene of the film - that are for me problematic. The other scene that happens in the middle of the film has in common with the violence in Breathless that it is subjected to a high degee of idiosyncratic stylization. One sequence in this is fuckin' cool man! But overall, the scene is clunky, and the final scene is just clunky, so I must keep scratching my head on this issue.
But whatever undergraduate paper I want to write on that topic will have to wait. Meanwhile,My LifetoLive is an almost brutally candid and remorseless slice of life about an individual who attempts to take responsibility for wanting what she wants and doing what she does. That we see objectively her downward mobility and the risks associated with this, that eventually she simply finds that she has put herself in harms way, this is depicted without a shred of sensationalization or even sentimentality. In this way, the existential dignity of the character is upheld. In case we might have missed this, towards the end of the film she has a long conversation with a stranger about it in the context of communicative-epistemological validity; yup, Plato, Kant and Hegel are name-dropped.
Yet at the same time, we cannot identify with the protagonist. Nor are we meant to. MyLifetoLive is almost clinically detached. On this score, Godard employs a mixture of b/wverite-like cinematography and all sorts of dramatic alienation gestures to interfere with audience empathy. Sometimes we are just not shown the faces of characters who are - not just speaking - listening too. Or in one passage, dialogue is not heard but rather given visually in subtitles. Even the breaking up of the narrative arc into 12 acts that are introduced with surtitles that announce the main plot points about to be shown; all of this contributes toa quasi-documentary vibe as shot by a camerman with a cruel streak in him, as if we could see more clearly by being forced to wear an eyepatch over one eye.
And you know what? Maybe we do. My LifetoLive is a muscular work of considerable power. At the very least, it has to be acknowledged among the best cinematic portrayals of prostitution for dispassionately regarding it as a practical option, an employment choice, albeit in a narrowly circumscribed socio-economic situation. The demise of the protagonist is presented without one ounce of breast-beating, she is neither to blame or a victim. This alone makes the film something strong with which to contend. Not sure how a feminist take on this should read.
As GODARD 101 continues, I can note for the record two common traits. In all three films so far there are moments in which characters look directly into the camera, although to very different effect. For example, in A Woman is a Woman, they do so to break the frame and share an aside with the audience. In My LifetoLive, it comes off as a feature of the veritemannerism, as if the character is being shot telephoto from far away without even knowing it. The second common trait is the dropping out of the audio track entirely. I believe what Godard is doing in these moments is compelling us to return to silent film, very briefly suspending us in the visual universe in an arresting way.
Bingo! Detached. No shit.
Once again, Godard's cinematographer Raoul Coutard deserves effusive praise, though I failed to mention him in my review. His lighting alone is remarkable--so many scenes shot in shadow, or with obscured views, yet all the information we need is still available. I wonder if Gordon Willis studied Coutard closely?
And what about Legrand's work here? Talk about your about-faces. After the downright goofy experimentation of A Woman is a Woman, he comes back with this haunting, elegiac neo-classical score that guides us to the inevitably tragic ending.
We are in agreement, then, this is a motherfucking great film! I see (elsewhere) that you have read my review, (good points about Coutard and Legrand, by the way; clearly the leader of the New Wave had collaborators.)
When I wrote that review, it was all I could do not to say things that would have made it necessary to slap the thing with a spoiler alert. By the time I got to reviewing Contempt, I couldn't hold back; made mention of the movie-within-the movie of ToLiveHerLife that worked on at least ten levels. Oh man, come on! That usage of Dryer is too much!
But in my review of ToLiveHerLife I nearly spilled the beans about the camera suddenly ingesting amphetamines in a perverse attempt to treat a bad case of Parkinson's; erratically skipping across the interior shot at a hundred miles an hour to the sound of machine-gun fire, as if searching for the exterior action on the other side of the window. Technically so cleaver and aesthetically so innovative, but even more, ontologically valid.
Yes, the subject matter is finally meaty (haven't seen the earlier picture about the war) but the big news with ToLiveHerLife is not just that Godard is clearly attending to such subject matter. It's that his alternative rhetorical strategies are not just aesthetic window dressing, they have become genuine communicative means for the delivery of semantic substance. In short, a form/content dialectic.
As far as I can tell, you hit the nail on the head about ToLiveHerLife with respect tophilosophic detachment. This issue becomes more and more pronounced with Godard in increasingly problematic ways as the issue of political engagement becomes equally if not more adamantly articulated. One way to get at this is to regard Godard's adoption of Brechtian techniques as only stylistic initially, changing over the course of the decade into a full methodological commitment that knows what it's for. Mind you, this deeper development entails adherence to the principles of Brecht rather than dogmatism about particular techniques. And none of this discussion should be taken as an intellectual effort to reduce Godard to Brecht.
Especially this early on. Actually even more than Brecht, Existentialism seems to me to be the main conceptual force field for ToLiveHerLife. I appreciate you making it clear that the film is not without affective power, but I believe you were too emotionally overtaken by it in your assessment of the protagonist as a "tragic victim," an interpretation you advance with considerable detail about how she is "caught in the teeth of the machine." Call me a "hardhearted individual... unmoved by the story of Nana," but I find your response to the story one-sided even though you acknowledge her "fateful career choice," (emphasis added).
I have always found the outlook of Camus and the early Sarte to be pushing a sort of private heroism for the petty bourgeois non-entity alienated in mass society, a Stoicism for the godless middle-class. Even so, I respect certain aspects of the philosophy, one of the most basic being that the Existentialists demand of human agency that it assume responsibility for its actions. It seems to me that this side is just as much in evidence as the side that's getting your attention. Hence, I feel compelled to quote from my review of ToLiveHerLife:
"My LifetoLive [ToLiveHerLife] is a muscular work of considerable power. At the very least, it has to be acknowledged among the best cinematic portrayals of prostitution for dispassionately regarding it as a practical option, an employment choice, albeit in a narrowly circumscribed socio-economic situation. The demise of the protagonist is presented without one ounce of breast-beating, she is neither to blame or a victim. This alone makes the film something strong with which to contend."
I hear you regarding the influence of existentialism in the film. No doubt, part of the reason is that we need to accept that Nana made the choice to enter this profession, and must be heldto accounts for that. That said, I also think that we need to recognize that I suspect that she had few other choices available toher. Further, once immersed in it, she became downright delusional (all those slogan-ridden pep talks) as she attempted to detach from the soul crushing effects of her choice.
It's not that she made a definitive choice to enter the profession. Of course, it was a series of decisions given her changing circumstances. I'm not pushing a legal case here to determine culpability in order to satisfy a right-wing libertarian mindset about holding the individual toaccounts. When I used the term "agency" before, I was indicating at a philosophic level the general volition of a person, the will power in consciousness.
Back when computer technology was first being brought into recording studios, Keith Richards was asked how an old analog rocker such as himself could possibly deal with the world of sonic possibilites opened up by digital sampling and such. He responded: "It's not how many choices you have - it's can you make one."
Actually, it is not Nana's series of decisions unto prostitution that are at the heart of the Existential framework of the story. It is rather, her choice to leave her husband and baby in the first place. And by the way, it is THIS that makes ToLiveHerLife challenging on the feminist front because, hello, she becomes a whore and a dead one at that.
But it is also what makes it that much more important not to take sides, either to assign blame or victimization. ToLiveHerLife is not a morality tale for the left or the right. The film is not entirely apolitical and I do see the interpretation you do to some extent. But again, philosophic detachment for an almost documentary vantage point is the dominant quality in my estimation.
I hear you. I guess my point is once Nana has entered into the profession, she is pretty much trapped, and it is by the men around her. so there is a feminist aspect to the interpretation that still works a little. Where such an interpretation threatens to fall short is in Nana's enigmatic decision to leave her poor husband...AND BABY! How unconventional must that have been? And what better way to keep your audience at an emotional arm's length from the heroine? I mean, what kind of selfish mother leaves her baby? And with such flimsy reasons, her hubby's poor, and she wants to break into the movie business. Further, it is herfemale friend Yvette who talks her into it as well ("it's not that bad.") But once in, Nana is so completely alienated from the work, and the power relationship with men so clearly defined, it is hard not to apply a Marxist reading to Godard's tale.
It's also hard for me not to feel for Nana after watching her connect with Joan of Arc, another woman dealt a mortal blow by a male dominated culture. Nana's life, just like her facial expressions and dewy tears, mirror Joan's. Both made decisions that would lead them totheir deaths, but they are making those decisions in a fucked up world controlled by people other than themselves. A rat in a maze makes decisions, but it doesn't build the maze.
No. You do not hear me. You continue to impose moralism on the film that I am saying is not in it.
I will grant you that there is a degree of opaque Marxism about the the downward class trajectory of the character. But there is no political position taken about this. It is purely descriptive, in no way judgemental. Think Joe Friday in Dragnet: "Just the facts, ma'am."
In connection with this class-observant description is the far less opaque observation of the character's female status. It is quite clear that the character's socio-economic decline is fundamentally due to her circumstance as a woman and you are especially sensitive to this. But again, the film is not passing judgement. You are. Less extremely put, you are grappling to extract from the film the potential for passing judgement. But the ambiguious status of the character's womenhood is not amenable to either a left or a right feminist reduction. (There is right-wing feminism, don't forget.)
You react to me drawing attention to Nana's decision to leave her husband and baby as if I was subjecting the character to conservative condemnation that you have to admit is sorta reasonable, especially for back when the film came out. But I was not suggesting that it is reasonable to be shocked about this. Or not shocked about this. Godard is simply documenting a case and I was simply pointing to what was more definitively a decisive moment for the character compared to her incremental evolution into prostitution.
Actually, it is not "more definitively a decisive moment," (emphasis added.) It is most definitely THE decisive moment. Her decision to leave her husband and baby is not "enigmatic," as you call it. It is just a fact. But it is the event that is the pre-condition for everything else that follows, the fact against which everything else must be understood. The moral meaning of this understanding is simply not determinate. This is what I was intending to convey in my initial review of To Live Her Life when I wrote: "Not sure how a feminist take on this should read."
I agree that the movie is unsentimental about its depiction of Nana's choices, and her grim experiences once she chooses prostitution, but I'm not sure that I am in complete agreement that there is no encouragement to pass judgment. After all, she DOES leave her husband and baby in order to pursue her own dreams. And the husband does propose the reason (because he is poor.) And while Godard makes no overt effort to suggest that this is foolish or selfish, it is hard for the audience to avoid coming to that conclusion once we see what happens to her over the course of the film. That way, Godard gets to have his cake of detachment, and eat his audience's more personal interpretation too.
"...it is hard for the audience to avoid coming to that conclusion..."
No. YOU cannot avoid coming to that conclusion.
You say Godard wants to have his cake of detachement and eat his audience's more personal interpretation too. In saying this, however, you admit that it is the audience's interpretation, not his; and you admit that it is more personal, in other words, yours.
One thing is for certain. It is not mine. I guess we will just have to agree to disagree. Of course, you are entitled to your experience of the film
I complimented you for mentioning the music before and I meant it. But I am now wondering if it has not overwhelmed the rest of the film for you. What is there actually in the text?
"Godard makes no overt effort to suggest..."
Nevermind what Godard makes no overt effort to suggest. Be mindful of what Godard obviously makes every effort explicitly to convey.
Facts. Not feelings. Is not To Live Her Life one of the coldest, analytical, damn near clinical films you have ever seen?
It's a case study conducted by an amateur sociologist without an ounce of trust for the tools of the sociological trade; a non-professional punk who delivers to the government agency that was misguided enought to hire him, a report utterly useless for propping up the policies of the current regime.
But a film score IS textual. Legrand's score was composed and used by Godard to make a (for lack of a better word) editorial comment on the material. The music makes us feel something about the story and Nana's character. Likeways with the lighting and framing that he has Coutard employ during the Joan of Arc viewing. Godard chooses to light and frame Nana so she is a doppelganger for Joan. I don't think he does this simply because Nana sees the comparisons between her position and Joan's. I think Godard sees those comparisons as well, and his choices in this scene amount to something more than a completely detached sociological case study.
While I agree that for most of the film, this is Godard's mantra, and I would also agree that the film is cold and analytical...MOST of the time. However, I do not think it is all just me; Godard has his moments of editorializing, and these draw us into the story at a more affective level.
Well argued. As always, I am the extremist. But you know me, I find so often I have to exaggerate a point in order to make it.
Thank you for taking the bait regarding Legrand's score. Of course you are correct that it is part of the text and once again, it's damn good. But Godard did not discover every alternative approach to the medium and I hold counterfactually that had he been exposed to the extremist (heh heh) principles of Dogme 95 that for him came 30 years too late - To Live Her Life would not have had a score at all.
I realize that this is a retro-speculative argument that can not be verified. So let me put it alternatively in terms of Godard's own actual historical situation. It just did not occur to him that he could make the film without any music whatsoever, it was literally inconceivable. He was still too devoted to THAT convention. In short, I am saying that To Live Her Life should have been scoreless. (Ain't I a the God of Godard?) But I will admit once more that Legrade's score is part of the text and cannot be ignored.
As for the inclusion of Joan in the film - you win. I don't get to say (three times now) that this works on at least ten levels without allowing one of those levels to be the editorializing you say it is.
To nurse these wounds, however, I am left with the balm of hearing you concede that the film is tending towards detachment most of the time. And now I challenge you to assess the film not according to this or that part but as a whole, as a unified totality. In what overall direction is Godard going? Why?
Looks to me he's moving towards an increasingly intellectual approach to cinema, because he agrees with the philosopher in this film that one must become detached from life to find truth. Pushing emotional buttons is not an avenue to understanding life; rather, it will more often than not derail your search.
Yes, science. The thrust is towards social science. Not art. In a goddamn work of art! THAT's the dialectic!
I think I read in passing that that guy in the film was Godard's actual philosophy professor at the time.
And what about that scene? Not too often you get a convo like that in a movie. I'm looking forward to the coming remake of To Live Her Life, directed by Tony Scott, starting Jennifer Aniston, with Harrison Ford finally acting his age in the cameo as the philosopher... replicating the original dialogue word for word. John Williams will score the rest of the movie, naturally.
Yes, this is an amazing scene all right, and clearly points us in the direction of where Godard would be going, if what I've read about his 60s/70s films is on target. Turns out that all Nana is really looking for is love, but even that cannot be trusted, according to the philosopher.
If I ready you correctly, you see Nana's breakdown of the fourth wall in this scene as a documentary-style affectation. I tend to view those direct looks into the camera as an appeal to us in the audience. What she's appealing for isn't completely clear--empathy? understanding? help?--but seems to me yet more evidence of Godard's editorializing, emotionally appealing to us to identify with Nana's position.
But, since we have already left that argument behind, I reckon I should move on as well...
How dare you cut yourself off! Just because I said that we will have to agree to disagree, this does not mean that you have to agree to agree to disagree. Seriously though, please pursue whatever topics and arguments you want.
That said, I would have to watch the scene again and closely to come up with an interpretation of the visuals, never mind argue with you, so preoccupied by the dialogue was I. At that late stage in the film, the protagonist's breakdown of the fourth wall was for me easy to let slide by because the conversation was some major hardball epistemological angst.
That it was. I cannot imagine how the scene must have played in the cineplexes of that day, nevermind today, when we have full knowledge of the sort of egghead that Godard was to become.
Still and all, gotta come back to this: Great motherfucking movie.