Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Great Transition: Weeks 3 + 4 (with additional notes on Godard)

I’m a little behind in my efforts to chronicle Rosenbaum’s ongoing series of films at the Film Center, so in an effort to play catch, up my musings on week 3 will be a bit truncated. It’s unfortunate that this week proved to be fairly unsatisfying. Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa was present for her second (and final) week of filling in for Rosenbaum, and her suggestions on how to contextualize the film seemed, to me at least, wholly inadequate. It might seem odd to call an opinion “wrong”, but we can all agree that some are more reasonable than others. Mehrnaz suggested, in her brief opening notes before the film, that we consider what Rossen’s The Hustler is saying about Hollywood and its audience. Certainly, Robert Rossen was a victim of HUAC and the blacklist before eventually naming names and regaining his career, a horrific experience that was bound to leave some long lasting scars on all those involved. But it seems a stretch to suggest that the underground world of pool hustling has any direct correlation to Hollywood politics besides a vague and tenuous notion of people with power oppressing those without power – a broad subject that certainly predates the moving picture.

If anything, The Hustler is pure existentialism; it presents a bleak worldview of emotional codependence and juvenile hubris. Paul Newman is Fast Eddie Felson, a born loser with a talent for self destruction. His redemption comes at the hands of Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a poor little rich girl with daddy issues and a drinking problem. Her suicide (sacrifice?) forces Eddie to grow up – his final show down with Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) is essentially a rebirth, with the pool table a kind of psychological battleground. Newman would play an even darker version of a similar character two years later in Martin Ritt’s Hud; Newman is the eponymous alienated youth who, this time around, doesn’t find salvation in the end. Speaking about the film retroactively last week, Rosenbaum mentioned that part of his fascination with the film stemmed from its bold transition from stark realism in the beginning to becoming completely metaphysical by the end, with George C. Scott as the Devil. It seems feasible to equate Scott’s Faustian character with the trials and tribulations of Rossen’s HUAC misadventure, but again, only in the broadest possible way. Mehrnaz singled out a specific scene from the film – after hustling a group of thugs, Fast Eddie gets his thumbs broken. Mehrnaz read the scene as a kind of gesture towards totalitarianism, with the thugs representing an oppressive regime crushing anyone who defies their rules. But the film strongly suggests, in an extended dialogue scene between Eddie and Sarah, that the act of violence was in fact a kind of cosmic comeuppance for Eddie’s ego (he breaks his own code of rules in an effort to show them that he’s the best).

Little attention was paid to the film’s formal qualities, such as the contrast between seedy pool halls and Rossen’s stately, elegant widescreen compositions or his tendency to pan the camera slowly from left to right, imitating the trajectory of a pool ball. Rossen also creates geometrically complex tableaus with pool sticks intersecting the straight lines of the table, as well as stacking figures in depth with particular attention paid to the contrast between the foreground and extreme background (for the first half of the film, George C. Scott hovers in the background, a mute observer; his eventual emergence into the narrative retroactively infuses those early scenes with a sense of creeping dread). Unfortunately, these elements were overlooked in favor of vapid comments from an audience that seemed to be only interested in hearing themselves speak.

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But good things come to those who wait – Rosenbaum’s return gave us his best presentation so far, screening Godard’s Alphaville (1965), as well as segments from key expressionistic films that influenced Alphaville’s visual schemes, and a section of Godard’s own Histoire(s) du Cinema. It was a master class in meta-criticism, with an essayistic quality tracing ideas from the early years of silent cinema to the most recent post-modernistic video collage.

I’ve been a Godard fan for quite some time, but it would seem inappropriate to assume that I’ve got a firm grasp on his work, even after seeing 20 odd features. Increasingly elusive in meaning, and immersed as much in philosophy and literature as he is in cinema, viewing a Godard film is always a new experience, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before. Loosely speaking, Alphaville is one of his more straightforward features, and offers more traditional pleasures. Along with Breathless, Band of Outsiders, and A Woman is a Woman, Alphaville offers an ideal entry point into Godard’s oeuvre. Colin MacCabe offers a brief summary: “Alphaville is subtitled ‘A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution’ and offers itself as another in a series of B movies. But the setting this time is the future – the city of Alphaville in which people’s lives are dominated by the huge computer Alpha 60 and where all emotions and words to express them have been eliminated. It is typical of Godard’s aesthetic that the future capital of Alphaville was constructed without sets or dressing from the new suburbs that had begun to burgeon around Paris … the use of Lemmy Caution allows Godard a final homage to the genres which had seemed so crucial to the young Cahier critics. Eddie Constantine was a star of ‘polars’ (cop stories), and (Alphaville) would probably be best characterized as a ‘spy movie’, a popular genre during the cold war. But Godard also talks of Constantine in terms of Western hero, and the dominant genre is science fiction. It is as though Godard has brought together all the popular genres of the century, in a style which mixes comic strip and high modernism, Eddie Constantine and Paul Eluard, whose collection of poems entitled Capital of Pain punctuates the film”. After the film, Rosenbaum offered a few brief thoughts and some interesting trivia: Godard originally asked Roland Barthes to be interviewed in the film, but Barthes declined; with its location filming, Rosenbaum likens the film to a ‘fictionalized documentary’ or ‘science poetry’; several scenes that are supposed to take place in a mental institute were actually shot in real low income housing projects, this might be an allusion to capitalism and insanity; Rosenbaum talks briefly about the French notion of the “fantastique”, a kind of genre broader than mere sci-fi that encompasses comic books, fantasy, mysticism, James Bond and Flash Gordon; Rosenbaum mentions that he finds it hard to reconcile the film with Orwell’s 1984 – I would disagree, as the de-evolution of language towards a political end is a major motif of both 1984 and Orwell’s seminal 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’.

Godard is certainly mixing genres, but, just as the key genre here is science fiction, the key visual motif is German Expressionism. Rosenbaum screened five clips, ranging from three to six minutes, beginning with Weine’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, followed by three films by Murnau – “Nosferatu”, “The Last Laugh”, and “Faust”. He concluded with Welles’ adaptation of “The Trial”. The comparisons were useful, particularly to one unfamiliar with the films in question (it is of course a film class for undergraduates first and foremost). Along with direct quotations (Godard lifts several shots verbatim from “The Last Laugh” and “The Trial”), the clips provide a general context for various motifs – low key lighting, high contrast black and white cinematography, chiaroscuro compositions, canted camera angles, etc.

Providing a synthesis between Alphaville and the clip show was a segment from Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema on the Nouvelle vague. The Histoire(s) is a complex video work, creating a dialectic between Godard’s own films, the history of the moving picture, 20th century warfare, the Holocaust, literature and philosophy. Indeed, Rosenbaum has written eloquently about the series: “Godard’s babbling video … projects itself into the future in order to ask, ‘What was cinema?’ Indeed, the fact that it’s a video and not a film already tells you a great deal about its point of view.” He continues: “In terms of the video’s overall myth, cinema and the twentieth century – almost interchangeable in Godard’s terms – are contextualized by two key countries (France and the United States), two emblematic producers (Irving Thalberg, Howard Hughes), and two emblematic world leaders (Lenin, Hitler); two decisive falls from cinematic innocence (the end of silent film that came with talkies and the end of talkies that came with video); and two decisive falls from worldly innocence (World War 1 and World War II).” I might add here that to comprehend Histoire(s) du Cinema (in as much as that is fully possible), it is useful to understand his allegiance to Henri Langlois and his horror/fascination with the Holocaust. Intercut and/or overlapped with images of the concentration camps are shots of Giacometti’s sculpture, themselves vaguely humanoid figures that look hard, brittle, burnt. We are also treated to scenes from Alphaville overlapping with images from Fritz Lang’s “Destiny” (likely relationship: in the Lang film, a man travels to the underworld to retrieve his lover; in Alphaville, Lemmy Caution must rescue Anna Karina); more scenes follow, collapsing together moments from Lang, Bresson, Gun Crazy, Frankenstein, Anna Karina and Eisenstein’s lions from October, Truffaut’s 400 Blows, Vertigo, images of Hitler that cut to Jimmy Stewart and Rear Window (a stunning critique, in one well timed edit, of Hollywood’s complicity with real life atrocity), Jean Gabin, Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc – it goes on and on. The point here is not to explicate every possible visual or thematic scheme – I couldn’t begin to do so, even if I wanted to. More importantly, I would think, is the attempt at synthesizing history with the medium best equipped with recording it. This is, of course, immensely difficult, and one might even call Godard’s attempt a failure. Because a history of cinema calls into question ethics, morality, stars, money, and a whole litany of ideological concerns (one could make an alternate Histoire(s) du Cinema consisting entirely of things that Godard fails to mention in his own). What is immensely important here is that someone has made the attempt. The rest of us must follow in his shoes.

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It has been a great month for Godard fans. Along with this screening of Alphaville, the Film Center just recently screened a restored version of Godard’s La Chinoise (67), the Criterion Collection has released a two disc DVD of Pierre le fou (65), and Lionsgate has released, in conjunction with Studio Canal, a box set of Passion (82), First Name: Carmen (83), Detective (85), and Oh Woe Is Me (93). A box set of the complete Histoire(s) du Cinema (it clocks in around five and a half hours total) is available on For anyone interested, here are some sources for further reading on Mr. Godard; all are readily available

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70; by Colin MacCabe
Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950s; edited by Jim Hillier
Cahiers du Cinema: The 1960s; edited by Jim Hillier
Jean Luc Godard: Interviews; edited by David Sterritt
Godard on Godard; edited by Tom Milne
Cinema : The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century; by Jean Luc Godard & Youssef Ishaghpour
The Importance of Being Perverse: Godard’s King Lear; by Jonathan Rosenbaum (collected in Placing Movies)
Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Lean Luc Godard; by Jonathan Rosenbaum (collected in Placing Movies)
His Twentieth Century: Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema; by Jonathan Rosenbaum (collected in Movies as Politics)

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