Wednesday, February 25, 2009

And all the Rest is Cinema 2

Continuing from here:

Several points need to be made at this point. To begin, the definition of “cinema” in its specificity (that is its distinction from theatre, painting or literature) was one of the central motifs of the 1950s Cahiers group. That such-and-such a film is “Cinema” was the highest term of approbation that Godard, Rohmer, Rivette or Truffault could bestow; the later famously declaring that Boris Karloff’s death scene in the bowling alley from Howard Hawkes’s Scarface “isn’t literature. It may be dance or poetry. It is certainly cinema.” Or Godard himself on Nicholas Ray:

If cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to. While it is easy to imagine John Ford as an admiral, Robert Aldrich on Wall Street, Anthony Mann on the trail of Belliou La Fumee, or Raoul Walsh as a latter day Henry Morgan under Caribbean skies, it is difficult to see the director of Run for Cover doing anything but making films. A Logan or a Tashlin, for instance, might make good n the theatre or music hall, Preminger as a novelist, Brooks as a school teacher, Fuller as a politician, Cukor as a press agent - but not Nicholas Ray. Were the cinema suddenly to cease to exist, most directors would in no way be at a loss; Nicholas Ray would. (Godard on Godard 43)

This is high praise indeed and one can see the beginnings of a sense of vocation - Brody will speak of the “religious conversion” that overtook Godard as he sat in the various movie theatres around Paris catering to cinephiles. Not only is cinema an utterly distinct, if not superior, art form, the Director is the Artist Hero who can do one thing and one thing alone - make movies, and in making them, create this thing called “Cinema.” This is clearly the underlying aesthetic that forms at least part of the background of all Godard’s films and should not be pre-emptively dismissed as Romantic Auteurism. (Brody is, it must be said, very good about pinpointing what la politique des auteurs was really about, not so much as a theory of interpretation but as a kind of filmic poetics for the New Wave). All arts define themselves by their specificity, even if, or especially when, the boundaries of the artistic practice are perforated or ill formed.

The second observation to be made is that the contention of cinema attributed the Brody (correctly, I think) to Godard is not necessarily a conservative, right-wing or Anti-Semitic concept. And to be fair, Brody does not suggest that there is some inexorable logic that leads from auteurism to the Anti-Semitic conservatism that Brody argues lurks at the heart of Godard’s films. What Brody will do instead is indicate how the details of Godard’s fundamental conservatism lead him, or at least point him in the direction of, an Anti-Semitism that will sometimes shield itself in Anti-Americanism.

So what are the details of this cultural conservatism? Brody does not come right out and say it, but he implies that the germ of this tendency incubates at the heart of the New Wave itself. To begin with, Brody takes very seriously the culture wars that took place in the late 1940s-early 1950s, with the Communist denunciation of film intent on “depraving our [French] children by the glorification of gangsterism or erotic images, propagating the spirit of submission to the great benefit of religiosity” (12). That a certain chauvinistic theory of nationhood is present here should go without saying. Truffault writing film criticism, and getting good and much-needed money to do so, for the nationalistically right-wing Arts, as well as Joe-College type stunts played by the young men hanging around cafes and cinematheques are glossed by Brody as being connected to a sense these young men had of being extra-territorial in terms of the dominant cultural landscape:

The [Cahiers du Cinema] band’s right-wing stunts and sympathies, so soon after the end of the German occupation, suggested a wilful association with evil, a punk-like overturning of values. They also suggested the seemingly insurmountable distance between the young movie lovers and the official culture in which they desperately sought their place. Although they were, in practical terms, outsiders, intellectually they were insiders whose autodidactic fury suggested their craving for mastery of the canon. Godard’s own political provocations, which included his German pseudonym, Hans Lucas, and his article on political cinema [where he drew no qualitative or moral distinction between Soviet or Nazi propagandistic depictions of fervour], pointed to the underlying problem that the young future filmmakers of the CCQL/Cinematheque circle faced: despite their intellectual sophistication, they were condemned to anonymity, obscurity, marginality, unless they found a radical way to break into the French film industry, unless they found a way to attract attention. (23)

Effectively, these young men were, Brody insinuates, Left-baiting out of resentiment (going beyond the reasonable statement that films from America were perfectly good films from the point of view as aesthetics to brandishing right-wing or even pro-Nazi leanings in order to epatez les bien-pensants). However, Brody suggests there is more to it than that: there is the also the question of the Cahiers group’s defence of “classicism”, which Brody leaves largely undefined, but seems to suggest a certain, yes, cultural anti-modernism vis-à-vis narrative, character, order of plot, and, most of all, the primacy of the emotional truth of a film as opposed to its conceptual framework.

That Godard’s work should be seen as “anti-modernist” seems counterintuitive at best, and the emphasis on the “emotional” reality of film seems as un-Brechtian as one can coherently get. But at least in the early Godard, Brody suggests that Brecht was not an influence at all, claiming instead that it was the “philosophical modernism of Sartre and Camus” (29) and that Godard’s trajectory was a “conservative” revolution:

Based on the preservation, or restoration, of classical values. The cinema that Godard was praising aroused a direct emotional response through a traditional, nineteenth-century novelistic and naturalistic approach to character [c.f. Godard’s esteem, noted by MacCabe, of Balzac]. For Godard, paradoxically, this classicizing approach, as exemplified in such Hollywood films as the harsh melodramas directed by Hawks or Preminger, yielded a more authentically modern art - as a result of its forthright confrontation with the existential crises of death and the human condition - than the more formalistic and overtly artful films of Welles, De Sica or Wyler, which Bazin endorsed. For Godard, the cinema would be the definitive repository of a traditional idea of humanity as represented in art. (29-30)

And there is a lot to be said for this: the focus in Godard, even at his most narratively distended, tends to be on what happens to the main character(s) and how (t)he(y) respond to what happens - in effect, the ethical core of a certain kind of existentialism. This is clear enough, certainly, in Godard’s early criticism as such, but what happens when he starts making films? (Godard would hardly be the first or last artist, modernist, postmodernist or otherwise, whose statements of aesthetic intent did not gibe with her actual artistic practice.) One could also add that the one important aspect of Sartre that Godard seemed to avoid at this point in his career was the concept of engagement - a girl and a gun do not a political statement make, at least, not necessarily. One could better say that the cinematic framing of character as such, or, even better, the relations between characters, standing as a representative of “humanity” represents the ontology of film for Godard here; hence Godard’s defence of editing and montage to “provide the experience of reality itself” (39).

So what about the films and their relation to Brody’s thesis? Brody goes through the early shots (Beton, Un Histoire d’eau, Tous les garcons s’apellent Patrick and Charlotte et son Jules) in fairly, well, short order, and Godard eventually meets Breathless’s producer Georges de Beauregard “who made films on small budgets under eccentric and risky circumstances and barely scraped by - and whose sympathies were openly rightist” (48).[1] And so, with a lot of people’s help, they start making a film about “a boy who thinks about death and…a girl who doesn’t” (58) - Breathless. Brody regards Godard’s first feature as an application of the “classical”, “novelistic” aesthetic that Godard championed in his criticism, taking the structure of the generic film noir. The results, though, were none the less revolutionary: “Breathless would be an ‘action film’ in the sense of ‘action painting:’ the art and the moment of making the film were as much a part of the work’s making as its specific content and style. As such, it would be the first existentialist film” (59). I should note that I don’t follow how the last sentence follows from the preceding; in fact, its hard not to see the aspect that Brody isolates, rightly, as being most exciting about Breathless - the spectacle of thought thinking itself - is, if anything, proto-Brechtian. But more pressingly, how does this relate to the aesthetic Brody claims that Godard espoused?

It is in this context that Brody introduces an as-yet unexplored aspect of Godard’s version of la politique des auteur - that a film by Jean-Luc Godard will primarily about Jean-Luc Godard: in Breathless, Godard composed the dialogue on the morning of the shoot. The result was that:

Godard’s spontaneous method deliberately frustrated the actors’ attempts to compose their characters in any naturalistic or psychologically motivated way. …In effect, Godard’s actors were quoting Godard. Rather than becoming their characters, they were quoting him. (63)

Of course, non-naturalistic acting is essential to Brecht’s concept of theatre, and one could even argue that Godard may have been beginning to make a version of :earning films”, as it were, although what the audience would learn whatever it was that Godard was thinking or feeling during the time of the shooting, at least at this stage of his career. Brody systematically de-emphasizes Godard’s tendency towards and appropriation of Brechtian modernism in favour of what might unfairly be called Godard’s cult of personality and commitment to classicism. When faced with the radically “amateurish” lack of crowd-control (people gawking into the camera) and jump-cuts, Brody states:

Godard removed the scrim of convention by which the cinema transmits time and space to the viewers; however, by flouting the principles on which the classical cinema is based, he in fact ended up emphasizing them. In appearing amateurish, the film calls attention to the codes of professionalism, and in the end highlights the fact that they are merely conventions: it denaturalizes them. Breathless presents standard aspects of the classic cinema, but mediated, or quoted. Paradoxically, this interpolation of Godard’s directorial authority between the viewer and the action does not render the film arch, distant or calculated, but rather produces the impression of immediacy, spontaneity and vulnerability. Godard’s presence s invoked as a sort of live-action narrator who calls the shots as they unfold, with as much potential for accident and error as any live performance. But here, the “errors” only reinforce the illusion of immediacy. (69)

This illusion of immediacy, Brody argues, encourages us to identify not with the fictional character as such, but with the director; the modernist techniques are used to create an Author (or rather a Director) - Godard - on whom the audience transfers their affect.

But where is the right-wing neo-classicism in all of this? Identifying conventions as conventions is surely, pace Shlovosky et. al., the first step towards their deconstruction. Furthermore, beyond a vague ethos of “every man (and woman) for him (her) self”, there doesn’t seem to me to be anything essentially conservative at work here in with either the form or content of the film. (You surely don’t have to be either Hobbes or Celine to notice that life is often nasty, brutish and short.) It would certainly be possible to argue that there is an author-itarian aspect to the Godard the Maker, but when this construction is largely composed of quotations from cinema, painting and literature - what Brody refers to as Godard‘s “parasitism” (71) - than we have something closer to Foucault’s author function at work more than we have a Romantic, or at least pre-Lacan/Althusser concept of heroic artistic subjectivity. In other words, Godard the author-function does not in and of itself have rightist or conservative tendencies either necessarily (at the formal level) or in practice.

[1] Godard gets tarred by association quite a lot here. Brody also doesn’t entirely acknowledge that the practical political position of the Cahiers group is not quite as open and shut as he seems to think.
More coming soon!!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Random Catchment Area

For those of you who feel the need to purge themselves of the sense of wasted time after watching the Oscars last night (is it just me or are award shows just really badly produced? That "background" music they had playing all the time was really distracting; I'm amazed at how unprofessional it all seemed.), here's this treat to darken your Monday morning.

More Godard coming later this week.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

When Toffs Strike Back

Alain de Botton responds to IT's castigation here. I should at this point out that I have enjoyed all of Botton's work up to and including How Proust Can Change Your Life, after which I find an unpleasant degree of self-regard and, well, all around smugness in The Consolations of Philosophy etc. that make him almost impossible to read without wanting to put a fist through the wall. (But then, I'm more of a Bernhard, Houellebecq type of guy, aren't I?) And the allusion to anti-Semitism is a little cheap on wee Alain's part, I think. But I do really like and recommend The Romantic Movement and On Love, and, prior to reading his Proust book, read In Search of Lost Time when I am in a state of general confusion as to the progression of my life.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Deeper into Movies 5

Friday the 13th (2009) - Why did I go see this movie?

It is a well-known fact that the whole Jason Vorhees franchise was a knock-off of John Carpenter's still outstanding Halloween, so I can hardly be expecting much going in to see this movie, can I? But even by the minimal standards of the slasher film, the new Friday is formally incoherent and, well, silly. Effectively, we get about three movies in one, a good five people are killed before the long, long opening credits, and oooooh the killing stakes. Obviously, girls who have sex (a lot of tit shots in this movie, including a gratuitous naked-in-the-lake-with-a-machete-through-her-head that can appeal only to the really discerning necrophile) get the chop/machete, antler (I kid you not) first. We then take care of the ethnic minorities (a nerdy Oriental, a competent African-American), and we are left with the unpleasant rich guy, his pseudo-girlfriend, and the brother-looking-for-his-sister (who turns out to be alive). You can guess how it ends.

The really odd thing about this movie is its humour and its horror. Its humour: firmly stuck somewhere in American Pie and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (the latter film I actually quite enjoyed) - lots of jokes about masturbation, sex dolls and pot smoking. The horror: by current standards, quite tame and uninventive. Something else we can, um, credit the Saw films with.

And yet this is still a better movie that Benjamin Button.

Meanwhile, Infinite Thought gives the insufferable prat a much-needed, and, all things considered, moderate castigation. Shall we begin a much needed Facebook group - Let's Castrate Alain De Botton??

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Good to Know

Not apparently near 24 Sussex Drive. (Courtesy of I Cite)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

And all the rest is cinema - Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard - Part 1

Richard Brody’s Everything is Cinema is a monumental (600 pages plus notes) study of a figure whom, it must be said, is richly deserving of so detailed a study. Brody patiently goes through each of Godard’s films and even-handedly seeks to understand the whys and wherefores of their creation. It is to Brody’s credit that reading his book made me a) want to read it again, and again; b) go out and see all of Godard’s movies again (even the 1980s films like Passion and First Name: Carmen which have hitherto bored and frustrated me) and c) write an extremely long response. What follows is the latter.

Its difficult to know where to begin with so vast a study, so it might be useful to begin by comparing it to a similar study – specifically Colin MacCabe’s equally fantastic Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy. In some ways, the comparison is inept; MacCabe’s work is a “portrait” and provides details about Godard’s background, including his affluent Swiss Protestant childhood, his stormy if bookish adolescence, his weird kleptomania, his utterly appalling treatment of Anna Karina. As the title of Brody’s book suggests, this pre-working life detail is not within his remit, and so, referring interested readers to MacCabe’s work, Brody begins his analysis more or less with the publication of “For a Political Cinema.”

The major difference between the two Godard biographies resides in their representation of the constellation of Culture, Cinema, Politics, History and France in Godard. As this is not meant to be a doctoral thesis, I’m not going to go into extended detail here, but the impression is that MacCabe is far more sympathetic to the Maoist phase of Godard’s career than is Brody; certainly, Brody consistently de-emphasizes the centrality of Brecht to Godard’s films, often to the point of failing to register it at all.

So MacCabe’s “Godard” is a Bazinian-turned-Brechtian whose career trajectory moves from the representation of politics in cinema to the politics of cinematic representation. (This is, admittedly, a gross over-simplification.) What are the outlines of Brody’s “Godard”? The term that Brody will use several times throughout his study is “cultural revolutionary” which is useful if perhaps one with too much potential baggage.
[1] So what uses does Brody put this term to? In his preface, he paints a broad outline whose detail he will fill in later: the central premise to Godard in particular and the New Wave in general is, as the title suggests, “Everything is Cinema.” For Godard, this was as much a credo as it was an injunction; cinema not only could incorporate everything from the personal life of its creator(s) to the political, social, cultural and philosophical contexts of a particular film’s creation, but cinema had a duty to do so. As a result:

As the pace of social change outstripped his ability to invent new [cinematic] forms to engage it, Godard became increasingly hard on himself. Indeed, his pictures became public confessions and self-flagellations, but they were executed so effervescently, so inventively, so cleverly – with such a flamboyant and youthful sense of freedom – that they were often received by critics and viewers as virtuosic displays of experimental gamesmanship. …[Godard] spent the next few years [after Weekend] seemingly underground, working a frenzied yet sterile engagement with one of the doctrines of May 1968, a nominal Maoism. After years of intellectual woodshedding and a period of artistic and physical convalescence (following a serious motorcycle accident), he returned to the French film industry in 1979. (xviii)

One should pause here and note that Brody’s understanding of the postwar French intellectual scene as such bears the unmistakable imprint of Bernard-Henry Levy’s execrable Adventures on the Freedom Road.[2] Brody’s understanding of Godard’s commitment to Maoism is as unflattering as MacCabe’s is sympathetic.

But to return to Brody’s narrative outline:
…[N]o other director has striven so relentlessly to reflect in his work the great philosophical and political debates of the era: World War II and its political aftermath in France; the uses and abuses of existentialism in the postwar years; the structuralist revolution; the demise of Stalinism and the rise of the New Left; the growth of the modern consumer society and its political fallout in May 1968; the vast sea change and social heritage of the late 1960s; the hopes and disappointments of the Mitterand era; Holocaust consciousness and the recuperation of historical memory; new fronts of battle after the end of the Cold War; and the current era of big media and what might be called the American cultural occupation of Europe. But despite Godard’s ongoing attention to the crucial questions of the day, his approach to them has in recent years become so intricately interwoven with his advanced aesthetic methods, so rarified, Olympian and oblique, that many critics and viewers have instead rejected these last efforts outright, asserting that he has somehow grown detached from political reality.

In fact, Godard’s later work is marked by his obsession with living history. But this obsession has brought with it a set of idée fixes, notably regarding Jews and the United States. In recent years, Godard’s vast aesthetic embrace of the entire Western canon, from Greek mythology to New Testament prophesies to twentieth-century modernism, has gone hand in hand with his borrowing some of the prejudicial assumptions of that cultural aristocracy. Contemplating the contemporary world in light of lost traditions, Godard has adopted traditional attitudes as well, including several shared by some of the most discredited and dangerous ideologies of his times. (xiv)

Brody intends to argue that this sense of a lost cultural aristocracy is the core of Godard’s “analysis of the media, which is an integral part of his work…centred on what he considers their [sic] noxious effect on culture, on human relations, and particularly on the cinema” (xv). In effect, Godard engages in a series of manoeuvres: he identifies cinema as such with his own person and work by filtering its history through his personal life and vice versa. This cinema is then identified as being the highest of the high arts, being able to incorporate the histories of other visual arts (painting, sculpture), literature, music, history, politics and philosophy. From this “Olympian” perspective, Godard detaches “the cinema” as such from mass media, viewed as debased in its proximity to big business and big money as much by the an-aesthetic function of its entertainment value. The clear and unbridgeable distinction between “cinema” (standing as synecdoche for high cultural aspiration) and “media” (consumer culture culminating in television) is, Brody will argue, the source and effect of Godard’s “conservativism” that runs in contrast to the manifestly revolutionary aesthetics of his films.

More coming soon!!

[1]Anyone who lived in Ontario, Canada during the Mike Harris 1990s cringes at the memory of his “Conservative Revolution” which was basically part of the first wave of Market Stalinism in Canada after Ralph Klein’s intermittently sober regime in Alberta. A curse on both of them!

[2]A book which manages to be as nauseating as its title suggests, which is quite a feat, really. And indeed, Levy was interviewed a few times for this book. To be fair, Godard seems to have liked Levy for God(ard) knows what reasons.