Wherein bon vivant Ben Livant and I (Dan Jardine) speak our minds about movies, mostly.
Friday, July 15, 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. This was followed with an examination ofTo Live Her Life, then Contempt and finally, The Little Soldier.
Next up, a more playful Godard.
Band of Outsiders (France, 1964, Godard)
Well, come on. Little kids would like this film. Here we have the triumph of what I have to call folk cinema. There's a direct line between BandofOutsiders and YouTube. And I mean this now in the best democratic way. With this film, Godard raises no-budget, on-location-by-necessity, script-as-you go, home movie-making to the level of high art. There are lots ofcultured allusions and high-brow puns but maybe even more fun-loving inside jokes and pulp parodies. As I've found in all of his films so far, the violence is awkward and compromised but this time out, the degree to which it takes on a ludicrous tone is inescapably in your face, just a couple of missed rehearsals shy of camp.
Which is the whole point. BandofOutsiders is the celebration of amature cinema that Godard had been reaching for since Breathless but hadn't been able to reach yet because - to modify a line from Elvis Costello - he kept on getting in the way. The brazenly inventive reversal ofestablished aesthetic codes and technical rules is ostentatiously intellectual in the previous films, their general accessibility notwithstanding. Call it the over-excitement of youth.
In BandofOutsiders, however, the director is grown up enough to stop showing off. The story-boarding and cinematography remain just quirky enough to signal the irreverence for professionalism that is the life blood of The New Wave, but Godard is relaxed and playful. I want to be clear. It's not that his sense of humor finally comes out. It was there from the start. It's that BandofOutsiders is the first of Godard's films to demonstate restraint on his part, the minimalism of the mature.
So when the flagrant New Wave gestures happen, they are the deliciously special icing on the cake. Of course, I have in mind the scene in the soda shop when the characters decide to conduct a minute of silence and as per his other films the director shuts off the audio track entirely. - but hardly for a full minute; one of the characters butts in with words to the effect: Enough of this device Jean-Luc - everybody gets it already!
Or what about the dance scene? This has got to be one of the most attractive displays in the whole history of movies. The child-like enjoyment, the organic warmth, the erotic appeal yet without the slightest trace of sexual tension - it's feels as good to watch as a video of your kids getting together with their cousins at the family reunion; (you know, everyone just tipsy enough to feel the bond but not drunk enough to start bringing up old wounds.)
Talking about that dance scene now, it sounds like no big deal. But again, this is the whole point. To capture and present something that so transcends the limitations of the medium, that brings to us an authentic moment and allows us to participate in the pleasure of it... what else to call this but high art? Or the ridiculous race through the Louvre, (which the Critereon edition [very informative] informs me is a reference to not one but two movies from the 20s)... like I said, little kids can get with this film.
I exaggerate the point in order to make it. There's no getting past the basic fact of the story being about a heist gone bad - hey, talk about amatures! - with an ending that's happy but not happy enough to be made into a ride at Disneyland anytime soon. Godard himself described it as "Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka," (Wiki). It's not that the characters are complex in a disturbingly amoral maze. On this score, Godard in BandofOutsiders continues to deal with stick men who get to emote a wide range of feelings and utter all sorts of statements from the banal to the profound, but have no history, no social fabric, no real situation beyond the immediate situation which is an excuse to make a movie in a new way. Still,BandofOutsiders has a patina of tragic realism that Godard achieves through the force of his visual aesthetic, the naturalism of the performances - Anna Karina truly is a natural, she's remarkably good, clearly providing the emotional core to Godard's big ideas - and the illusion ofspontaneity in the camera movement and editing.
The latter is probably the rock bottom technical issue behind the brilliance and success of this film. As YouTube makes evident 99.999999 percent of the time, everyone wants to make movies, thinks they can and can't. BandofOutsiders is a hand-held production out on the street many years before the advent of cameras light-weight and compact enough to facilitate this sort of shoot. How in hell did Godard and Raoul Coutard - long overdue for recognition here in GODARD 101 - do it? That it wasn't until they did it that everyone realized it was cool and copied it when it became technically non-problematic to do so, well, what is the educational purpose of GODARD 101 if not to teach this lesson?
I wrote a review for this one many years ago for Apollo Guide. Before responding to anything you have said, I will, in a move that has a Godard-ian level of self-reflexivity about it, quote my review extensively. I have inserted present day comments and clarifications in [square brackets.]
BandofOutsiders, perhaps the greatest [in the light of the fact I had not yet seen Vivre Sa Vie when I wrote this review, I would today alter that to "most fun"] of Jean-Luc Godard’s “early films,” continues his fascination with the movies of America, as he takes on the tropesof the caper flick, the gangster film and the romantic entanglements of a love story built around a cinematic ménage a trois, with equal dollops of deftness and intelligence. Even before the story begins, Godard toys with us, referring mock-heroically to himself in the film’s credits as “Jean-Luc Cinema Godard" ["Godard is Cinema" or "Cinema is Godard."] Later, we see another bit of self-referential mockery in the “Nouvelle Vague” store sign: Is the French New Wave cinema just another fad, like hoola hoops and 3-D glasses, that we will ride until it crashes on the beach?
Everyone knows that Paris in spring draws lovers with its romantic nectar, but what of its winter? In this film, Godard shows us Paris at its most grey and frumpy, like a dowager stripped of her jewellery. Placed in this entropic setting, our anti-heroic trio, the magnetic Arthur (Claude Brasseur), quietly intense Franz (Sami Frey) and singularly stunning Odile (Anna Karina), seems vital. However, their plans reveal a paucity of hope, an attraction to the plebeian and an appealingly human uncertainty. These are not the young rebels ofGodard’s Breathless; they are [more] world-weary and elementally sad. They are struggling to emerge from the shadows cast by the predominately American movies (see the lads imitate gangster shootouts and strike mobster poses) and novels (the heroine Odile is named after a popular novel of the time) that they’ve watched and read. They seem like characters fatalistically trapped in a story beyond their control, so that even while they plot the caper that will prove their downfall, they lack the intelligence and will to believe they might succeed.
While his characters seem trapped [by this point, I think we can confidently identify this as an important recurrent theme in Godard’s films], the director is determined to free himself from the conventions of the crime/ caper genre, and plays with our expectations at every turn.
Godard’s films are generally more rewarding for film aficionados than the casual viewer, because he is riffing on so much that has come before, ripping away at the conventions that constrain genre pieces, and asking us to consider deeper truths that are often glossed over in mainstream entertainments. Here, the ironical contrast between Godard’s poetic voice-over musings, which quote everyone from Rimbaud to Breton, and the apparently banal or inane actions of his protagonists, who themselves quote everyone from Shakespeare to Verlaine, though sometimes with a complete lack of awareness, acts as a provocateur. One wonders what is the staying power of film, that it is able to make us care about such supercilious characters, fatalistic figures who seem to exist within the tropes of American crime and caper flicks, with little identity of their own? These are figures that wonder, as Godard notes in an early voice-over, “if the world was becoming a dream or if a dream was becoming the world.” The movies are the fantasyland from which these characters were born, and into which they wish to escape. Reality, unfortunately, refuses to play along with their scheme, and disaster is the only plausible result.[Or is it? By pulling off both a "realistic" and romantic ending is Godard indulging himself and/or the audience?]
The film is ultimately only gently reproachful of the corrosive effects of American pop culture. In a final, delightful tweaking of the nose of American filmmaking, the proclivity to sequel-itis, two of our heroes manage to escape only slightly scathed, and we are promised further adventures in this new and exotic destination. BandofOutsiders has a jazzy, loose-limbed quality, and the throughout is light and jaunty, preventing the potentially serious tones underpinning the film’s critique of Americana from getting too biting or nasty.
Here end-eth my original review.
I am glad you mentioned the Godardian flashes, moments that are integral to our discussionof Godard's development as a filmmaker, such as the goofy moment of silence, the zany race through the Louvre and the wonderfully playful and strangely dance sequence, as evidence of Godard's evolution as a new wave director. His irreverence here works on several levels, both within the story, as well as within is development as an auteur.
And speaking of development, or lack thereof, Godard is still peddling the same inept approach to cinematic violence, as the final shootout scene is reminiscent of some of the bumbling cop moments in The Little Soldier, and the clumsy presentation of Nana's death in To Live Her Life. It is more excusable here in that BandofOutsiders has a more overtly light tone, but it does suggest that Godard remains uncomfortable with presenting the fleshier aspects of human existence on screen.
There is a disagreement between us - yay! - but first I will say that it seems to me we are mostly in agreement. And it is nice that in highlighting different aspects, there is a cooperative division-of- labour feeling coming off our two reviews when taken together. You mentioned your appreciation of me discussing certain things you passed over. I want to return the compliment and mention what I especially liked in your discussion and contribute to these points.
Your characterization of winter as entropic is biologically valid but with respect to the social setting hyperbolic. Even so, your observation is spot on. We have spoken in person more than once about the silver shimmer coming off Jarmusch's b/w Dead Man. Well, BandofOutsiders has exactly the greyness, the frumpiness you ascribe to it. Is this the result ofcertain grainy film stock? Coutard using certain cameras/lens? (Have to revisit the Criterion interview, he does talk about the gear, if I recall correctly). Or how much is due simply to the fact that the sun wasn't out much that season? Who knows and whatever. There is this special b/w vibe coming off the film that somehow gives a b/w pathetic falacy. The atmosphere is at once light and breezy yet dark and dreary.
You raise a number of thematic issues that I think are definitely in evidence in the film. I do think it is correct that this time out, the director is asking about the staying power of film compared to literature. Godard is famous for making citations of other movies but the literary presence in BandofOutsiders is striking. In fact, an ongoing challenge for the director in all his films is to synthesize his often unscripted approach to scene construction with his need to include highly verbose passages. His dialoge often features direct quotations from books, sometimes knowingly spoken by the characters and sometimes not, (to say nothing of the audience). In BandofOutsiders, the bookishness of what comes out of the characters mouths feels especially pronounced, I suggest, because they are not cultured bourgeois sophisticates, eh? Quite the contrary, they are working-class losers, to put it bluntly. So their ability to move from pulp-speak to fancy discourse is a loud feature of the film. And it lends credence to the impression that Godard is wondering if it is possible to make movies that have the staying power of certain books, some of which having transhistorical authority .
Also insightful is your attention to the characters' confusion of real life and imitative fantasy. This is one of the big hobby horses of postmodern semiotics, wherein it is observed that media simulacra cross the line from being representative substitutes to experiential surrogates. Not to go down this rabbit hole too far, it is nevertheless correct of you that the characters in BandofOutsiders are crossing this line themselves given their steady diet of Hollywood escapism and the like. This speaks to the light heartedness/dark under belly of the film already noted. For at the end of the day, our heros are still just kids and this is a big part of why the film has the charm it does. On this one hand, their imaginative playfulness, their fantasy life is totally cool. But at the same end of the day, our heros are adults who should know the difference between a game and real life and on this other hand the film gets ugly.
That this ugliness is related to the status of the characters as working-class losers, there can be no doubt. Yet, it is just as much the case that their proletarian credentials are what make them the "little guys" for whom we can root. You allow and enjoy yet still question the validityof the partially happy ending of the film. It is yet another sign of the b/w-ness of everything involved. Two survivors out of three heros ain't bad. So we'll take that score and call it a team victory too. In case you're looking for confirmation, Criterion helpfully points out that the final shot of the couple on the boat with a nice dog in the scene just to put the cherry on the sundae, this is a down-to-the-dog-dude! replication of Chaplin.
So much for the page on which we are the same. Time for the promised disagreement.
YOU: "Godard’s films are generally more rewarding for film aficionados than the casual viewer..."
ME: "Well, come on. Little kids would like this film."
I disregard that your statement is a generalization and care only about it's applicabilty to the particular film under discussion, (for the time being anyway). In my review, after celebrating the childlike charm of the film, I get around to acknowledging the adult ugliness, (the Chaplin finish isn't totalitarian enough for Disney). So my statement should not be misread as a sales pitch for BandofOutsiders as the entertainment at your seven year old's birthday party. What is at stake here is my main thesis about the film:
"Here we have the triumph of what I have to call folk cinema. There's a direct line between BandofOutsiders and YouTube. And I mean this now in the best democratic way."
And I could quote myself some more and elaborate still further, but frankly, my review is just sitting there for you to re-read. Suffice to hammer home that a Village Voice critic labelled BandofOutsiders "a Godard film for people who don't much care for Godard" (Wiki) and there is a reason why you called the film "perhaps the greatest" of his early films in your Apollo review when you were less of a Godard aficionado than you are presently in the process of becoming.
Thanks for piggy backing on some of my comments and providing additional insights.
Now, on to the "disagreement."
I guess when we spend so much time agreeing on Godard, you've gotta take your disagreements where you can find 'em. But I'm not gonna put too much energy into defending my statement, given that (a) it was made years ago, when I was still a relative Godard-ian neophyte, and now consider it an ill-informed opinion (b) I was (as you note) referring to his films in general, not BandofOutsiders specifically, though this is a rather flimsy (I actually typed "filmsy" here first. Not exactly a Livant-ian level pun, but again, take 'em where you can get 'em) defense, given that I did make the statement in the review of BOA. That said, at the time I was not participating in Godard 101, and did not anticipate writing about other Godard films in rapid succession. If I had, I suspect I would have saved such a comment for a more appropriate film.
Finally, I'll simply add this: you're right. BOA is probably the most accessible and viewer friendly of all the early Godard films, so my generalization is particularly ill-placed in this review. Thanks for gutting it. It deserved to be gutted. So, turns out, we're not in much disagreement after all. Ho hum.
Ho hum indeed.
And just when it was "gutting" fun.
(By the way, I like filmsy for flimsy big time. Gonna use it to describe any movie by, say, Terrence Malick; who has a new one out that, as per usual, the critics adore, Monica informs me. Reckon we'll be looking at it down the road.)
Anyway, we both know I'm an asshole. Thing is, even though I said I was looking for a fight, I knew you were going to go down after my first punch, because you're not an asshole. I knew that you would give it up to me that I'm right. Point being, I wasn't really looking for a fight. I was fishing for a compliment. In being negative about your statement, I was actually hoping that you would keep our cooperative division-of-labour going by commenting on my main positive idea about the film. Alas, I was so busy hitting you were it hurts, you have rightfully paid no attention to this. Fortunately for me, however, I am an asshole who will work solo.
In my thesis I am only secondarily concerned with the accesibility of the film for the audience as this is related to my primary concern for the status of the film in Godard's art. I say he has crafted a "folk cinema" or "amateur cinema" - as "high art." There is to BandofOutsiders a studied primitivism - think of Bob Dylan's work happening at the same time - not voyeuristic slumming or sanitized theft but rather a genuinely appreciative submersion into the culture of the subaltern.
This appreciation was already on display in Breathless. But the submersion there was blocked by excessive formalist hijinks. With BandofOutsiders, Godard pots back, allows plot to operate in a much more coherent way, yet stays true to his New Wave school. The result is a film that is not just more accessible to the "casual viewer" (I'm still an asshole) but for the "film aficionado" (still asshole) is an outstandingly good work of art. (Dude, have you looked at my revised crit pic?)
Yes, I am an asshole. But this is only because I will gut a guy in order to make a class conscious point. It is crucial for me that BandofOutsiders is at bottom (1) a working-class story (2) told in a petty bourgeois intellectual way (3) that working-class audiences can get with. But (3) is for me merely the "confirmation" of the interpenetration of (1) and (2), which for this petty bourgeois aficionado is the important intellectual object.
In closing (it does happen) I forgot to mention before that I would be interested to hear you elaborate on your own thesis that entrapment is an important recurrent theme is Godard's films. As our debate - ho hum NOT! - about To Live Her Life revealed, I was less inclined than you to view the protagonist in this way. And I have to say that this disinclination of mine continues for the protagonists in BandofOutsiders. While I agree with you that there is a fatalistic feeling to their course of action, it is still their course of action.
You are too hard on yourself. Or perhaps I am not hard enough. Either way, if you're an asshole, it is the right sort of one, as you hold me accountable for my filmsy (heh) assertions and over-generalizations.
As for your last request, I believe that I have asserted my thesis earlier when I crafted an analogy to rats in a maze. While rats in a maze can and do make decisions and move in all sorts directions, they do not build the maze. So, in Godard's films all these characters are racing around, doing this and trying that, the reality is that their (socio-political, historical, economical) context prevents them from doing anything substantial, from affecting any real change in their situation or condition.
And as for your assertion that this is an essentially democratic effort by Godard, in the contextof the rest of the films of his that I have seen, I would have to concur that it comes closest to taking a folksy approach and/or celebrating a working class point of view. That said, everything is covered over in a Godardian intellectual veneer. When you point to the interest he (and his characters) take in literature, I believe you are pointing at Godard's real interest here. He wants cinema to become an art form as significant and influential as literature. He has similar interests in all his films, I think, as his characters regularly philosophize about all forms of art. Will cinema take its place among high brow art forms like painting, sculpture, music and literature? If so, can it do so while remaining essential a populist art form?
Not that I want to get ahead of myself, but I suspect that the economy of scale required to create movies will become of significant interest to Godard going forward (particularly after his experiences with studio interference during the making of Contempt), into his post-1968 student protest Maoist phase.
That said, I've just watched Alphaville (now that was a trip!), wherein Lemmy does manage to dismantle the Matrix, so I might have to revisit that thesis in light of this development.
It's already so working for me! Filmsy. Really good for any ideas too far removed from reality that start to fill in for it; as in, "simulacra [that] cross the line from being representative substitutes to experiential surrogates," like the smile of the Chesire Cat with no cat attached; or even the fully illusory, like the non-existant clothes of the emperor that everyone witnesses as existing.
But the rats DID build the maze man! If not the rats, who? God? Nature? Chance? Or does the maze just make itself? Today it appears that the maze does indeed make itself. The maze is now a matrix. But it is not The Matrix. This is to say that it only appears to be making itself.
But this appearance is nothing but - wait for it - filmsy.
When I submitted my first GODARD 101 review to you about Breathless, I stressed that I would be paying particular attention to Godard's New Wave as a journey to a revolutionaryworldview. Kafka is cool but he gravitates to Marx. Not to sweep his ambivalences under the rug, or cover up his pessimism, even cynicism with wall-to-wall commie carpeting. But I do have to insist that the entrapment you see recurring is not the entrapment of rats in a maze that wasn't built by the rats themselves. It is the entrapment of rats in a maze who built it and there is in Godard's development an increasingly ferocious exposure of this, a revolutionary attack on the - here it comes again - filmsy.
Seriously. The fuckin' word IS my term paper!
It is really the authority of books that Godard wants to acquire for cinema. This is the revolutionary upshot of my point. The transhistorical power of hand-script was imposed by the literate ruling-classes and their servile intelligentsias on the illiterate masses. The democratic significance of the vernacular printing press is taught today even to high school history students. Godard is staking a claim for cinema as the Media of The People. This is something culturally and ideologically larger than "taking a folksy approach and/or celebrating a working class point of view." The Cultural Revolution happening in China is the big context for what I am arguing. I must insist again that you begin to acknowledge this context. If Godard wasn't reading Mao's little red book while making BandofOutsiders, he was just about to.
Yeah, Lemmy does manage to dismantle the Matrix - so there! I await your reflections on Alphaville.
Rats build the maze, but not the rats we are watching in the film. And rather than question its construction or challenge its design, they choose to function within it. They aren't rebels, trying to change or destroy the maze, but mere criminals, who try to "get around" the aspects of it that impede them. So, I see where you (and Kafka. And Godard) are going here. They are trapped by their own limitations, as well as by the strictures of the maze. To be fair, of course, it is not easy for a rat to attain the level of consciousness necessary to realize that the game is rigged, particularly when raised and educated in a maze that doesn't recognize that this is the case.
I think this is getting altogether too hypothetical, convoluted and theoretical for this particular discussion...
Besides, Lemmy Caution you; I've got some things to say about Alphaville, as soon as I figure out how I got this tattoo on my neck...
Rather than the trailer, I'm giving you the dance sequence that we both dug so much: