Monday, June 15, 2009

And the rest is cinema - 4

Enter Structuralism. It is my firmly held conviction that Structuralism, after Freudianism and Marxism, was the last great intellectual adventure of the twentieth century, and so I sometimes get touchy when it is taken in vain. However, not having seen A Married Woman (the context of Godard’s first overt use of structuralist-inspired film work), I’m reticent about discussing Brody’s analysis. Is this, for example, true?

A Married Woman firmly established Godard as a politically and socially engaged artist. It placed him fully within his times and put the times firmly on his side. It also established the tonality of his work to come, both in its forthright assertion of the cinema as an analytical instrument and in its unique permeability to the events, moods and ideas of its day. Yet the specific view of the contemporary work that Godard offered was not favourable. Instead, he further developed the moralizing and puritanical critique of a modern life… - in other words, a critique of the world in which it was plausible for Anna Karina to leave him [as had happened at this time.] Godard’s intellectual and documentary engagement with his times would converge upon the burning point of his romantic agony, which it would reveal and salve, and to which it would offer the prospect - or dream - of a favourable resolution, literally a conservative revolution [I.e. the abandonment of adulterous passion for conjugal bliss.]

If Godard’s social outlook was conservative, his filmmaking was frenetically radical. The film’s startling fragmentation and abstraction reflect the modern philosophy [I.e. structuralism] that was on Godard’s mind - and his loss of faith in familiar Hollywood styles. Paradoxically, the frustrating uncertainty behind its conception lent The Married Woman an air of desperate urgency that seemed not merely the filmmaker’s but the era’s. (190-1)

There is a certain obfuscation at work here, or, perhaps, a core ambiguity around the term “conservative”. Cultural conservatives, as Brody understands it, implies the tradition of the old High/Low distinction in the art: that there is a Tradition of Great Works that cohere - important elision here - into a moral unity. Thus Brody can play on a received idea of aesthetic morality/moral aesthetics and contrast it to the hedonism ascribed to mass culture. There are three points that should be made here:

1. The assertion of an aesthetic-moral Tradition was, I think, as much tactical as anything else for Godard, who never ceased making the claim that the inheritor of this Tradition was Cinema as such. This legitimizes Cinema as an art form and also allows Godard to postulate it as Other to mass culture.
2. I personally find it somewhat touching, even a little charming, that these aesthetic conflicts, clearly felt very deeply by Godard, had a human-all-too-human source: “Godard could only assume that, were [Anna] Karina authentically free, liberated from the false consciousness of media propaganda, she would discover within herself her authentic nature, her true desire, her natural virtue and would come back to him”(199).
[1] I think that part of the power of the films that Godard and Karina made together does to some degree depend on the evident pleasure on Godard takes in filming her, as Rossellini did Ingrid Bergman, and Ingmar Bergman did Liv Ullmann, as Pasolini did Ninetto Davolia. Obviously, there is a less pleasant side to this: men framing their beloved-as-art-object, as well as the manner in which Godard figures pop and mass culture as the province of a deceptive femininity a la Madame Bovary. These are very serious issues (not really dealt with by Brody), but I am inclined to forgive Godard’s framing of Karina (not his abusive behaviour to her, even though the may, or indeed probably are, be related) as it seems so heartfelt that it seems churlish to condemn.
3. The postulation of a vantage point from which to engage in critique of capitalist mass culture is not solely a technique used by aesthetic/moral conservatives. Adorno’s Aesthetic Thoery argues, in fact, that such a vantage point (embodied there in Beckett, Kafka and Schoenberg and, ironically, definitely not film) is necessary for a critique of capitalism and its attendant culture industry. In order for Brody to make his point persuasive, he would need to show how Godard mobilizes this vantage point to specifically conservative effect (beyond banal sentiments like “people who are married should stay together”) either morally, aesthetically, or socially.

And, as Brody notes, there was plenty of social conservativism about, both in France and the US. The Married Woman sustained extensive “recommendations” (down to the level of the grammar of the title) from the censor board still reeling from the shock of Le Petit Soldat, while Godard moved further to the Left, and vice versa:

If Godard had found a home in the left, it was because the left had changed; it had become a matter of form and style, of tone and mood, instead of simply an ideology, and had, as such, redefined its criteria and realigned its spectrum to include him - even realigned itself to accord with him. (205)

Again, a deflationary move is taking place - from “simple ideology” to “form” (as in Marxsm and Form) and “style” (as in Revolt into Style), and then to “tone and mood (as in lifestyle accessory). Here, as elsewhere, one wonders as to the political stance of Brody’s work and how it relates to his sense of Godard’s trajectory, as in this sweeping judgment:

At the apogee of Godard’s public renown, at the moment of his triumph as a cultural hero to the young and a new classic to his elders, he was increasingly lost as a filmmaker. He continued to make brilliant, personal films, even epochal films, and he did so at a furious pace that left his acolytes breathless [ahem]. And yet he would work with an increasing despair. Precisely as Godard’s engagement with “life” - political, social, intellectual - and with the new complexities and incipient crises of the times was intensifying, he was in doubt regarding the cinematic form with which to represent it. As his films became ever more permeable with regard to the explosive tensions and wild energies of the day, they also became increasingly formless. The summit of Godard’s fame and his esteem as an artist and a cultural touchstone of the age was also the moment of his cinematic breakdown, which he displayed on-screen in real time. (209).

Sez you, one might respond. “Formlessness”, however, is a loaded term; if by “formless” one means “other than classic cinematic beginning-middle-end narration”, than Brody’s claim is mostly true. And in fact it is this attempt by Godard to find new forms AKA displaying his “cinematic breakdown” that leads us to the most exciting films of his career: Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Les Chinoise and Weekend.

[1] Note the unremarked shift from existentialist vocabulary - “authentic freedom”, “authentic nature” - to a more ur-Situ “false consciousness” “true desire” - to an eighteenth century, quasi-Rousseau “natural virtue”. Brody’s skill as a writer is in his ability to make these conceptual shifts almost subliminally.

Deeper Into Movies 6

Blue - Derek Jarman

I caught myself looking at shoes in a shop window. I thought of going in and buying a pair, but stopped myself. The shoes I am wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life.

Cezanne: “Things are looking bad. You have to hurry if you want to see anything. Everything is disappearing.”

The Mediterranean blue is fading on the 35mm film, so badly spooled that it took three tries before the chimes would ring. Scratches that appeared like boils and sores on a retina, black starlings flocking and dispersing. At times, the blue seemed washed out altogether, fading. But if there is one thing that we are sure of by the end of the movie, everything fades eventually. Sometimes in the time it takes to boil a kettle or break a heart. Or to watch a film.

I seem to recall a white screen the first time I saw it, at the beginning.

Proust: “…the memory of a certain image is only regret for a certain moment”

Jarman’s blindness was as monstrous as Baudelaire’s aphasia or the madness of philosophers. Do we lose the vital things first, leaving the juddering, wracked body to trail in its wake? Until there is only a spasm of lucidity, longing for its own annihilation?

But the origin of “monstrous” is the same as “to demonstrate.” In response to blindness, Jarman bathes our eyes in lush blues in what is in some ways his most straightforwardly narrative work. We leave the hospital and end in a reverie of blue skies, soft breezes, lapping water. Slender cool fingers reach to touch an antique smile. This is a demonstration of Jarman’s generosity, as is his installation of compassion and courage at the heart of the infinity he allows us to glimpse at 24 frames per second.

And there is righteous indignation. The virus rages fierce. I have no friends who are not dead or dying. The flashes of rage, protest (a demonstration), sorrow are mixed with the blue of bliss, the impatient youths of the sun dancing amid emerald lasers and coral amphora. A life lived with eyes open.

Blanchot: “The quick of life would be the burn of a wound - a hurt so lively, a flame so avid that it is not content to live and be present, but consumes all that is present till presence is precisely what is exempt from the present. The quick of life is the exemplarity, in the absence of any example, of un-presence, of un-life; absence in its vivacity always coming back without ever coming.”

My ghostly eye.

In Blue, Jarman creates the ultimate film, a film which exists only as film, spirit in matter (as he used to say). The point of minimal difference between not-film and Film. In this, he is a fellow traveller with Malevich, Cage and Beckett, other artists who marked the barely necessary condition for the work of art (film, painting, music, literature) to exist. An interstitial zone prior to recognition, where ghosts reside. Jarman hears their voices, and they flicker at the edge of the screen, made bold by the rising forth of Blue. The voices of dead friends: David, Terry, Graham, Howard, Paul. Of dead possibilities, stranding us in an agonized world (Sarajevo, the woman in the taxi crying before the helpless Jarman). The world is dying, but we do not know it. Filling up with spectres, ghosts.

Derrida: “The spectre, as its name indicates, is the frequency of a certain visibility. But the visibility of the invisible. And visibility, by its essence, is not seen…. The spectre is also, among other things, what one imagines, what one thinks one sees and which one projects - on an imaginary screen where there is nothing to see. Not even the screen sometimes, and a screen always has, at bottom, in the bottom or background that it is, a structure of disappearing apparition.”

The ghosts appear and disappear on the cinema screen - there is a sense in which watching this film on a dvd (however large the projection) is not to watch it. Blue is a film - the film stock bears the lesions of having been viewed, having been seen. And will eventually deteriorate, as Jarman wished. Art becomes its own death-mask. And behind the mask, the imperceptible becoming of the artist, this artist, this Derek Jarman, one with the ghosts that welcome him.

Chateaubriand: “This is how everything in my story vanishes, how I am left with only images of what happened so quickly. I will go down to the Elysian Fields with more shadows than any man ever brought along.”