Monday, March 16, 2009

And all the rest is Cinema - 3

Continuing from here.

Admittedly, scampering around Paris in sunglasses is hard to locate politically, so what does Brody make of Godard’s first explicitly engaged film Le Petit Soldat. Brody describes the stakes and the possible motivations for Godard:

Although Godard claimed that Breathless was “a film on the necessity of engagement,” he also could not deny its lack of overt engagement with the politics of the day. Since he and the New Wave were so casually and widely charged with promoting political noncommittment, Godard self-consciously took on the most pressing contemporary political subject to show that the New Wave could also be openly political. Yet he would do so in a way that was so personal, and so independent of any prevailing orthodoxy, that his will to engagement would merely succeed in infuriating almost everybody and satisfying almost nobody. More than proof of an expressly political engagement, Godard’s second film… was above all a revision, and a correction, of the autobiographical constructions of Breathless. (87)

More briefly, if somewhat more obscurely, rather than Godard’s filmthought thinking, Godard’s filmthought would thinking politically, “something about torture.”
[1] Again, Brody foregrounds the existentialism that he sees in the early Godard by making the claim that Le Petit Soldat contrasts competing engagements: “political engagement itself” and “a more subjective, personal form of engagement” (84), specifically, the nature of freedom (85). Brody admits that emphasizing the abstract “message” of the film - freedom - rather than the overt content - torture in Algeria - was tactical on Godard’s part; he wanted to avid the inevitable censorship that even speaking about Algeria would incur. Of course, it didn’t work; Le Petit Soldat would not be seen until 1963, some time after it had been completed and by which time the FLN and OAS would be eclipsed by other concerns.

So what is the political thought of Le Petit Soldat? For Brody, it is a bit of a morass: we have a right-wing photographer in love with a member of a pro-FLN group. Both sides engage in torture and are therefore morally/politically compromised, if not bankrupt. (One could point out that the pro-FLN group doesn’t actually kill anyone, whereas the rightist group has at least two corpses on its conscience by the end of the film.) Brody asserts, with good reason, that Bruno Forrestier (the photographer) represents a sort of Godard self-portrait with whom the audience is meant to identify and whose compromised political status represents Godard’s own confusion - if, like others in the Cahiers group, he rejected the Left’s call to film at the service of the revolutionary (or at least Soviet) cause, this nominally placed his sympathies to the patriotic Right. However, the Algerian war of independence made this an untenable position: “by implicating France in a dirty war to which it had never admitted, Le Petit Soldat as an act of defiance that belonged naturally to the Left. It was a singular rejection of the Gaullist censorship…”(99). Does this mean that the overall film is “an aestheticization of the issue at hand,… noncommittal regarding the Algerian War” (96)? As the ontology of film for the early Godard is the relation between character and circumstance, one might characterize Le Petit Soldat as Godard’s first extended attempt to film the relations between aesthetics and politics, or, as the first line of the film would have it, reflection and action. This would certainly represent a move away from the Rightist conservatism that Brody charges Godard with, away from an apolitical aesthetic to the assertion of a relation, however to be negotiated, between reflection and action, at least at the level of content. And certainly, the lack of overtly modernist “tricks” (bar some atonal soundtrack stabs that further emphasize that the characters are aware that they really can only choose the least worst of some pretty shitty options) further foregrounds this negotiation.

Le Petit Soldat is not only about the Algerian War but also about a man and a woman, as is Godard’s next films A Woman is a Woman. This promises to be a particularly exciting chapter, as Godard full-frontally assaults the conventions of on of the most convention-bound film genres - the Hollywood musical. And here one would expect that Brody’s argument about Godard’s neo-classicalism would come to the fore. Unfortunately, Brody doesn’t seem to think much of this film, isolating its interest largely in what it shows us about the fault-lines on Godard’s relationship with Anna Karina and the bravado nature of the film’s creation (110). As per the latter, we have Godard’s first explicit phenomenalization of the device - instead of a musical film, we have a film about the attempt to film a musical. Brody indicates that the systematic deconstruction of the movie musical - a template through which Godard depicts escalating tensions between director and actress - are “so distancing, distracting and self-inhibiting as to doom the film in advance” (114). I have to confess that this does not accord with my memories of the film, which are very pleasant indeed. And anyways, modernist distancing effects Turn! Me! On! In any event, we are clearly a long way from neo-classical cinema.

But not so far away from politics. The famous ending of the film and apparently the pun around which it was based - <<Angela, tu es infame. Non, je suis une femme>> - leads us right into where Brody, for some reason, never treads: Godard’s misogyny. Brody notes Godard’s appalling and utterly reprehensible treatment of Anna Karina without offering much by way of comment.
[3] I am aware that inter-gender relations are significantly, dare I say better, in 2009 than they were in 1961 and that judging a work or a body of work from a perspective that it could not possibly have shared is, for want of a better term, a little unfair. But this must be registered as a serious flaw in Brody’s otherwise encompassing if not encyclopaedic study: the role that women play, the way in which they are framed, is largely left unremarked in this text, and that Godard’s rather fraught (diplomacy, that) relations to feminism and women artists (whether actors or directors) needs to emphasized more than Brody does. So far, we have three films in which we have a woman is called a whore at the end of the film, a woman is dead, and a striptease artist whose most pressing intellectual concern is that she become pregnant. At this point in his career, anyways, women thinking are unfilmable to Godard, and this represents a major stumbling block in my appreciation of his work. In some ways it so apparent that this should be addressed that I am at a loss to explain as to how Brody avoids mentioning it. While it is true that Godard’s cultural, rather than sexual, politics are the main focus of Brody’s study, can the trope recurrent in Godard’s films of woman-as-force-of-nature really be meaningfully divorced from his cultural politics? If there is any “conservatives” in Godard, his framing of women would be a good place to start.

Brody is much better on what might be called the commercial politics of the New Wave, which, when A Woman is a Woman was released, was in some trouble. In brief, the Cahiers gang had a series of box office bombs, which left a lot of them stuck and the space opened by 400 Blows and Breathless closing rapidly. Brody further notes that the “failure” of the New Wave, and responses to that failure, contained “coming tectonic shifts in French cinema, culture and society” (123). Brody figures this in terms of an aesthetic conflict about how films should be made with Truffault and Godard representing opposing trajectories:

For Godard, the historical and critical orientation that defined the New Wave was… marked by paradox, “by regret, nostalgia for the cinema which no longer exists. At the moment that we can do cinema, we can no longer do the cinema that gave is the desire to do it.” The New Wave, for Godard, was born of its distinctive relation to the history of cinema. Godard saw the Hitchcocko-Hawksian cinematic canon not as a series of models to imitate but as a source of inspiration, a point of departure - and a lost paradise.
For Truffault as well, the
Cahiers group was defined by its historical orientation, but in an entirely different way. He claimed that their cinematic canon provided a set of formulas to follow, and declared that the commercial prospects of its directors in his circle depended on their willingness “to continue to pretend to tell a mastered and controlled story which is meant to have the same meaning and the same interest for the filmmaker and for the spectator.” (123)

The result being:

Truffault argued that the application of the Hollywood formula, that he and his Cahiers friends had absorbed as critics was the only way for the New Wave to reach the mainstream. But for Godard, if the New Wave (as he narrowly defined it) was to fulfill its original ambitions, the general conditions by which a mainstream - of cinema and of society - was constituted would have to change. If his cinema could not become the mainstream in French society, it was France, not he, that had to change. (124)

Several points need to be made here, the first being that Godard is clearly moving away from the “classicist” model he earlier espoused towards an almost stereotypically modernist aesthetic, whose use of conventions is precisely aimed at overcoming these conventions. Truffault retains the “nineteenth-century novelistic” style, the aesthetic by which a good story is well told (as indeed the case in his films). Additionally, as MacCabe points out, there is the question of audience for the New Wave in general and Godard in particular. Godard represents what might be called, paradoxically, the traditional avant-garde - if you don’t understand than that’s your problem not mine. More fairly, there are two trajectories at work here: the first, that Cinema as such has an artistic tradition that necessitates advancement, correction, investigation - that is, Cinema is an art whose parameters are inscribed as such. This means that cinema’s aesthetic principal is paramount, its relation to the history of its own art form, rather than the utilitarianism of “mere” entertainment/commerce. This trajectory will be maintained by Godard for the rest of his career, for better or for worse.

The other trajectory might be thought of as the process by which a film engages rather than seduces an audience. That is to say, the audience that Godard seeks is an audience willing to work; the symbolical labour of his films is approportioned between the Director and the Audience. The meaning of the film is not donated to the audience (as with Truffault); it is a sort of wage. This division of labour Godard would come to regard as essentially Leftist, in a marked (but not that surprising) politicization:

…[I]n 1961, Godard saw that the cinema that “speculates in advance” on the spectator, even in the name of Hitchcock, was necessarily reactionary; that art made in the spirit of aesthetic freedom and progress was inherently inclined to the left; that the right was necessarily hostile to such art; and that a new, post-Communist left would necessarily be favourably disposed to it. (125)

While all of this is certainly laudable, possibly even true, there are certain problems that lie ahead. The first is that locating the “classic” cinema in some mythological paradise can lead to a certain cultural despair (once there was Cinema, now there are extended TV shows) that can lead to exactly the cultural conservatives and Rightist ideology that Brody isolates as the main seam in Godard’s work. Unless, of course, there is another trajectory that counteracts this movements towards the Good Old Days. Such as the work of someone who recommended building on the Bad New Days: Brecht.

However, with Brody, we are back to Sartre in what is, arguably, one of the more overtly Brechtian of Godard’s early work - Vivre sa Vie: “Since the 1950s, Godard had been arguing that Sartre’s opposition of outer existence and inner essence was fallacious because it was transcended and resolved in the cinema” (131). Thus all the Leftism is dissolved in “existential cinema: (131), despite Brody’s admission that:

Godard got the idea for dividing …[Vivre sa Vie] into discrete sequences, or theatrical tableaux, from The Threepenny Opera. He had even planned to include a character taken directly from the film of that play, “a master of ceremonies who would say, ‘Here is the sad story of Nana…. Here is what happened to her one day, etc.’” Brecht was in the air, and in particular, in the air that Godard was breathing. The December 1960 issue of Cahiers du Cinema was entirely devoted to Brecht, in open acknowledgment of the potenital cinematic application of his ideas. (132)

However, we soon learn that “[b]efore shooting started, however, Godard purged the project of its plethora of Brechtian influences” (133), in favour of filling Nana’s story being filled with “pathos.” And that’s Brecht dispensed with: he was “in the air” (cigar smoke, presumably), suggesting that Godard may have heard about Brecht indirectly and that the level of his interest extended no further than that. I find this improbable: Godard is known for the breadth of his reading (even, like any good grad student, he only read the first and last few pages of the books he claimed to have read) and, furthermore, the attention that he will draw overtly towards Brecht and Brechtian ideas from hereon into his Maoist films lead me to wonder why this program (as it seems) of de-emphasis is taking place. Brody does seem to be arguing that while there may in fact be some Brechtian aspects to Godard’s work, there aren’t that many and they aren’t that important anyways. I find this bizarre; a lot of the pleasure, for me, anyways, in watching Godard’s films of this period is generated by watching his inventive appropriations of the Brechtian aesthetic.

Further, Brody seems to regard Brechtianism as being an impediment to Godard’s film work; certainly, it is one of the main criticisms he levels agains Les Carabiniers. Brody concludes that not only is the film too overtly intellectual (in the sense that the POV is that of an “intellectual” looking down from a height - Olympian? - on the film’s venal and stupid characters), but that “…[t]oo much ‘distance,’ together with ‘denying the cinephilia,’ the Rossellinian influences, compounded by the Brechtian one, made Les Carabiniers a film of isolation; there was indeed almost nobody there, barely even Godard”(154). So not only is Brecht dispatched with, but so too Les Carabiniers, as Brody promptly moves on to Contempt, where the issue of Godardian aesthetics and Brecht’s influence on it is displaced by Brody’s discussion of the “crisis of cinema history” (179) in Godard’s big-budget Contempt.

In fact this crisis as such had to do, as Brody has it, with Godard’s disillusionment with the classic Hollywood from, precipitated by the pressure placed on him by Contempt’s producers to make a sexy film with Brigitte Bardot’s tits. The result that, having managed to finish Contempt - which is ravishingly beautiful and, frankly, doesn’t particularly deserve the short shrift that it gets in Brody’s work - Godard was left with a strong sense of what not to do, that is to say, make classic narrative cinema in the manner of Truffault, for example. The problem that Brody will locate in the next few films is that Godard may have had a negative idea (what not to do), he lacked “a positive, constructive model [of film and filmmaking] to replace the one he had just jettisoned. [As such his]…films for the next few years would be, in general, decomposed rather than recomposed, and the collage-like fragmentation fro which they were celebrated was in fact a despairing avowal of lost bearings” (180). This is the period when for many, including myself, Godard was making his most exciting work, so it is provocative for Brody to suggest that they really indicate artistic confusion. This line of argument is strategically placed, coming as it does when Brody begins his chapter on Band of Outsiders which is my least favourite of Godard’s pre-Maoist work.[4] Brody avers that the film was made by Godard as a potboiler, and like most movies made as potboilers, failed to bring in the francs to keep get the pot boiling (Dune would be another example). In effect, the failure of Band of Outsiders, both aesthetically and commercially cemented the lessons learned from Contempt - the classic Hollywood cinema was no longer viable in any sense.

[1] Just as Eloge de l’amour would be <>.
[2] I am deliberately resisting the urge to offer readings of the films here. My intention is to do later posts focussing on individual films, so to a large degree, I’m working from memory.
[3] Notably Godard slapping Karina for having the temerity to agree to dance with another man, and Karina’s appalling response of the “it showed that he loved me” variety. Here as elsewhere, I have firm reason to thank our lucky stars that there were brave women in the 1960s and 1970s and in the present day putting a stop to that sort of thing.
[4] I am entirely willing to admit that Quentin Tarantino’s endorsement of this particular film makes it impossible for me to enjoy it. One more thing evil about the Man Who Mistook His Life for his DVD Collection. A plague on his house too!

More to come!

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