Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Great Transition: Week 6 (only three behind now!)

On top of the usual distractions that keep one from watching and writing about films 24/7, I must confess to a certain amount of trepidation in writing about this weeks films – after the proper feature, Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl, we were treated to two short films, Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black and Charles Burnett’s When it Rains; the combination of which are clearly a trifecta of masterpieces. It has become more common in the last few weeks for Rosenbaum to enlarge upon the feature presentation by presenting clips that support and/or enlarge upon that feature’s meanings. He’s really gone above and beyond here - neglecting clips in favor of short films, allowing us not merely a glimpse but instead cohesive, and in these cases, definitive statements of radical humanism. All three films provide a useful corrective to last week’s nihilistic pseudo-farce Zazie dans le Metro, suggesting a deliberate programming schedule that isn’t entirely dictated by print availability or whimsy. Replacing Malle’s simplistic notion of absolute destruction, Rosenbaum presents us with politically and socially astute documents that edify as much as they confront and entertain as much as they educate.

As usual, Rosenbaum prefaced the screening with some introductory notes on the filmmakers. Semebene lived a fascinating life, coming to filmmaking relatively late and only after establishing himself as one of Africa’s premier novelists (he died last year, and along with Edward Yang, had the extreme misfortune of being overshadowed by the more high profile demises of Antonioni and Bergman). Born in 1923, Sembene served with the French Army in WWII, was a dock worker in Mairsailles, and eventually became a Union Leader and member of the French Communist Party. He wouldn’t make Black Girl, his first film, until he was 40. Black Girl is also generally considered the very first African film, a distinction that earned Sembene the title “Father of African Cinema”

Funded largely by French money, Rosenbaum posits Black Girl as a kind of international co-production that is in fact an object born of colonialism and imperialism. The French title, La Noire de…, means literally “the black girl of…”, or “the black girl belonging to…”, both of which seem more evocative and suggestive than the bluntly translated English title. The film follows Diouana, played by Mibissine Therese Diop (like almost all of his films, the actors here are non-professionals). Cutting between a bourgeois French household and flashback scenes set in Dakar, Sembene traces Diouanna’s transformation from a human being to an object. I think Rosenbaum has something larger in mind than merely suggesting that the film is about race relations, which is a given. Instead, it is the notion that the affects of colonialism have in someway filtered into the modes of production, a more insidious proposition. For instance, it is suggested several times by her white employers that Diouanna doesn’t speak French, or that she can’t understand something, suggesting that her grasp of the language in tenuous. But as a largely French production, Sembene was compelled to shoot it in French, and Diouanna’s interior monologue throughout the film is rendered in French. Needless to say, this causes some confusion; is Diouanna’s reluctance to communicate with her employers caused by a language barrier (they have no names and are credited only as “madame” and “monsieur”), or her own petulance?

The film packs in quite a bit in a short running time, less than 70 minutes. Short of a full plot synopsis, mentioning a few motifs might suffice. Diouanna gives her new employers an African mask while working with them in Dakar. When she arrives at their home in France (they have “summoned” her), it has been decoratively placed on the wall. At the end of the film, angry and embittered, Diouanna takes it back, insisting that it was bought with her money and that it is hers to give or take as she pleases. The mask seems to represent several things simultaneously – obviously, her disillusionment with whites, but also their insensitivity towards African culture. The mask is a phantasm, an exotic object that they further mystify by turning it into a simple decoration. For them, the mask is a souvenir, a reminder of the good old days in Dakar, as well as repository for their anxiety of the “other”. Diouanna is confronted daily with this symbol of colonialism and her employer’s condescension towards African culture. It seems likely that Diouanna’s reappropriation of the artifact is in fact an act of cultural reaffirmation. But lest we forget that Sembene was a prominent Communist, the mask is also a commodity, a metaphorical stand in for the French/African economic relationship. In this sense, Diouanna is asserting her rights in monetary terms – she worked for the money to purchase the gift, and by demanding it back is asserting the value of her labor (I fear I’m describing all of this far too schematically, as Sembene’s film, while certainly polemical, is never less that natural and graceful). After her death, “monsieur” returns to Dakar to find Diouanna’s mother. He wishes to return the mask to her, as well as Diouanna’s wages. It’s a complicated moment, as Sembene sees the white characters with some sympathy and clearly means us to take monsieur’s gesture sincerely. But it seems impossible (to me at least) to not view the gesture as simply more condescension. Monsieur wants to deny his culpability and assuage his guilt with money, essentially an attempt at buying them off. The film ends with a child wearing the mask, following monsieur around as he tries to make his way back to the airport. In a stunning point of view shot (one of the few subjective shots in the entire film), the audience becomes monsieur as the masked boy stares at him. It’s a bold confrontation, an entire nation looking back at us, and as Rosenbaum notes, an extraordinary way to begin African cinema.

Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black is a short film shot in an Iranian leper colony. Farrokhzad and a small crew spent two weeks there living amongst their subjects, and the film is a stunning reaffirmation of life. The film begins with a shot that rhymes with the ending of Black Girl in a startlingly evocative manner. A cloaked figure stares into a mirror, their eyes drooping, twisted and deformed by disease. The camera holds the image, lingering over it. It’s a piercing glance, and it penetrates the viewer. Like Black Girl, it is a look that confronts and demands autonomy, but also a certain amount of empathy. We proceed to see people living, laughing, loving, raising children, but also horribly scarred and deformed, receiving treatments that repulse. Despite the grotesquery on display, this is no freak show. The camera forces us, compels us to look, a look that implies both an affinity and a kind of complicity between viewer and subject. It also contains one of the most stunning gestures I’ve ever encountered in a film. The camera observes a woman sitting on the floor. She makes eye contact with the camera, (and by extension us, the viewer as well as the filmmakers), and instinctively raises her hand to cover her scarred face, only to hesitate and then put her hand back down. It strikes me that this woman is asserting herself now, in front of us, against a lifetime of fearful, disgusted looks. It is an almost disturbingly powerful moment, and speaks volumes about film’s capacity to communicate. The film has an alternating voice over commentary, periodically changing between Farrokhzad reciting poetry and quotes from the Old Testament and a male voice reciting a more straightforward political creed. If Farrokhzad’s commentary relates this plague to divine injustice, the real power comes from the male’s indictment of a society that allows it’s poor to suffer, noting that when treated, leprosy can and will disappear, that it is curable when treated properly, and that wherever there are poor, leprosy will follow. Essentially a call to arms (again raising issues of complicity, as we are all in this global society together), The House is Black gives us an image of the dispossessed, then demands that we pay attention to them.

No doubt, these are both heavy films. It was almost a breath of fresh air to view Charles Burnett’s When It Rains, a small, unassuming little film that chronicles a day in Watts. By small, I don’t mean to denigrate the film in any way. I merely wish to suggest that its relaxed, breezy mood sets an optimistic tone. A woman and her daughter are about to be evicted from their home on New Year’s Day. A good Samaritan tries to help them out by running around the neighborhood, pleading their case, collecting donations, and calling in old favors. The legacy of films like Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society have left us with a particular view of urban neighborhoods, and I would certainly think that Burnett had such representations in mind when constructing his scenario. Here is a gentle reminder that real people live in these neighborhoods and that a community can bind together when necessary. But Burnett is not na├»ve, and things don’t exactly go smoothly. The landlord refuses the Samaritans initial pleas on the women’s behave, and not everyone in the neighborhood is inclines to help out. At one point, a potential donator reminds the Samaritan that he owes him money, and the Samaritan is forced to pay up. Indeed, the situation is only resolved with an act of bartering (the landlord happily accepts a rare jazz record by John Handy in exchange for the back rent). Rosenbaum likens the film’s structure to that of a jazz song, suggesting that each of the characters “registers like a separate chorus in a 12-bar blues”. Rather than suggesting that money triumphs after all, the record exchange strikes me as a kind of reminder that certain things are worth more than money. I didn’t ask Rosenbaum to explain further, but I can’t imagine that a record, regardless of scarcity, could be worth more than a few months back rent. Rosenbaum cites the jazz artist Handy as popular amongst hippies at a time when white and black cultures still mingled and when whites might traverse the ghetto with less trepidation than today. In keeping with the other films on the program, When It Rains is yet another reminder of what we are loosing when we ignore, at our own peril, these marginal or invisible peoples.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Boarding Gate (or, Assayas Breaks the Heart)

It seems to me that Olivier Assayas is perhaps the key chronicler of contemporary images – that is, in the sense that the internet, television and dvds have brought us to a kind of “image degree zero” (to paraphrase Barthes). Not without some trepidation, Assayas seems interested in navigating these new kinds of images and how they might relate to new forms of viewing. While his movies are stunningly beautiful and in tune with the movement and solidity of the human body, Assayas’ films are, nevertheless, the only films I can imagine watching on an Ipod or PSP. To clarify – the play of light on/off of surfaces, reflections, mirrored doublings, and images moving in and out of focus are akin to a purely sensory experience (see also: the films of Claire Denis). This rupture between characters/story and pure visual artifice (“plastic” qualities as they are sometimes called) is increasingly at the heart of Assayas’ films, summarized best by the incremental elimination of story and character towards the end of Demonlover: gradually, we are left with mysterious people moving about with mysterious motivations, none of which we can explicate - but what remains is an explicit mood, a carefully constructed milieu of paranoia and confusion that reflects our potentially dangerous physical relationship to a new found visual landscape - as much psychological as physical. The film ends with a young boy watching the end of the film on a computer in his bedroom – welcome to Assayas’ modernism.

One of the more peculiar legacies of the French New Wave, that of the critic-turned-filmmaker, persists to this day, epitomized largely in the work of Assayas. An eighties generation Cahier critic, Assayas parlayed his cinephillia into an oeuvre combining a certain amount of self-reflexivity, large doses of Proustian-style recollection, post ’68 cultural malaise, and a knowing nod towards (but ultimate negation of) the mainstream (a stance of inevitable genre deconstruction). Not to dismiss his contemporaries (fellow Cahier luminaries like Techine and Carax), but Assayas has created one of the most fascinating filmographies in contemporary French Cinema. While Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette et all validated/popularized the American B, Assayas and his ilk had access to a whole new genre of disreputable viscera for the masses – the Hong Kong action flick. Unabashedly populist, filmed quickly, low-budget, and off the cuff, with little regard for the niceties of middle brow entertainment (like coherent plotting and plausible continuity), the Hong Kong film industry offered a bracing reproach to the “tradition of quality” that any self respecting young upstart is compelled rail against (again, we can thank the legacy of the New Wave for this persistent demeanor). After the pseudo-autobiographical Cold Water, a post Big Chill generational summation/contemporary chamber drama Late August Early September, the elliptical period piece Les Destinees Sentimental, and the genre hopping, globalization-gone-amok head trips that are Irma Vep and Demonlover, it comes as no surprise that Assayas has tried his hand at a relatively straightforward thriller. What is surprising is that he has failed so miserably.

The project must have seemed promising, at least on paper – a globe trotting thriller with kinky sex, drug deals gone awry, murder, double and triple crosses, gun fights. But the film comes across as tepid, warmed over trash, and strangely, contains none of the kinetic forcefulness of the Hong Kong films Assayas champions. Assayas’ view of the world can at least partially be gleaned from his casting choices – an Italian who speaks French and English, with American and Chinese lovers, who travels from Paris to Hong Kong and eventually encountering a crime boss played by an indie rock icon. Asia Argento stars as Sandra, an ex prostitute drug addict who dabbles in corporate espionage for (ex?) boyfriend/power broker Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen). It’s an unlikely (and ultimately uninteresting) pairing – an aged American actor known for Tarantino films and straight to video tough guy roles and an Italian sex-pot who has some art film cred thanks to father Dario’s reputation and her frequent collaborations with French intelligentsia approved Abel Ferrara. The first half of the film consists of the two squaring off in increasingly repetitive encounters, with a kind of will they or won’t they do it sexual tension (answer: who cares?). She winds up shooting him at the bequest of her current boss (who she is also sleeping with). The second (more interesting) half of the film then begins, chronicling her on the run in Hong Kong, not knowing where to go or who to trust. Sandra must eventually decide whether or not to extract revenge on the man who has set her up, and the end of the film finds her following him, brandishing a switch blade, then hesitating. The final shot of the film is an epically beautiful take that slowly fades into an opaque, out of focus field of pure metallic sheen as Asia retreats up an escalator. Has she redeemed herself by breaking the cycle of violence that has engulfed her? See answer above.

No Assayas film can be totally without interest – his keen visual sense infuses every scene with the kind of visual sheen we’ve come to expect (albeit without the aid of long time cinematographer Eric Gautier – the credited DP here is Yorick Le Saux), Assayas’ camera is constantly tracking – he insists on 360 degree key lighting – and the effect is important – the constantly circling camera invokes a kind of perpetual motion, as well as a neurotic quality that links the boardroom and the bedroom. The above mentioned liaison between Argento and Madsen has obvious links to Godard’s filming of a disintegrating relationship in Contempt. But replacing Godard’s stately compositions that visually fragment the couple is a camera in constant motion, tracing labyrinthine patterns around a modern home. The trajectory of the camera mirrors the tension in the sexually explicit dialogue, suggesting a tangled inter-personal history, while framing characters through layers of glass and doubling images in mirrors implies the duplicities we can assume to be inherent in this damaged coupling. But the actors are barely up to the task here, and the repetitions in Assayas’ dialogue are miles away from a Mamet or a Pinter. Here, it becomes simply banal, repeating what the camera has already shown us.

Assayas’ sense of films without boundaries is inherently tied up in his sense of globalization – while the world is getting smaller, it is also increasingly difficult to communicate via universally shared images. Or to be more precise, it is increasingly difficult to navigate between kinds of images. Bresson co-exists with manga, The Heroic Trio with Pialat, and we can view a film in a movie palace or on our laptop. It seems to me at least partly a matter of the private versus the personal, a notion that Assayas seems interested in, at least in as much as his last few films involve corporations and financial interests interfering with and manipulating human relationships. To an ex-film critic who has absorbed a multitude of national cinemas, it seems all too natural to assume that we can all get along, at least at the movies. Assayas is smart enough (and paranoid enough) to know that this isn’t the case. Lets hope that his next film gets him back on track.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Great Transition: Week 5

Another week of the Great Transition, another belated blog posting – I certainly hope to break this pattern soon, but as with most things, the banalities of everyday (read: non-film related) life sometimes take over. When I began this endeavor of chronicling Rosenbaum’s film series, I knew going in that there would be films/filmmakers that I was unfamiliar with or knew relatively little about. Louis Malle fits snuggly into this description. Perhaps appropriately, it is Rosenbaum’s seemingly indifferent stance to the filmmaker that has helped perpetuate my ignorance – a quick visit to the Reader’s online archive reveals a string of negative/mixed reviews of almost all of Malle’s films, fictional or documentary. Rosenbaum admitted his own ambivalence about the filmmaker during his introduction, citing Malle’s status as a middle brow, literary director, but insisting that Zazie dans le Metro is worthwhile and that he also likes Malle’s Atlantic City (Dave Kehr’s Reader capsule review credits that film’s success almost entirely to its writer). A recent string of Criterion and Eclipse DVDs has resurrected Malle’s reputation - he is fast on his way to being one of the best represented of any French filmmaker in the digital medium. But he’s still got some counts against him: he is only tenuously connected to the French New Wave (pace Rosenbaum’s opinion, as well as my own) and is a bit of a dilettante. His filmography leaps from noir to documentary to broad comedy to coming of age story to theatrical adaptation to sexually explicit potboiler, etc etc (Rosenbaum calls Elevator to the Gallows a poor Bresson imitation). But, as near as I can tell, he seems content to work within the parameters of any given genre, rather than explode them. As opposed to the New Wave proper, he would also seem to have no desire to synthesize - that is, relate the modern to the classical. Rosenbaum’s brief introductory comments further localize Malle as a pretender to the New Wave, highlighting his wealthy, traditional upbringing as a proper film school student, followed by a stint as an assistant director (to Bresson, go figure). Any consideration of Malle that I’ve come across usually emphasizes the “classical”, that is, his attention to trendy social themes or his way with actors. It is this very “tradition of quality” that the New Wave railed against.

These notions lead directly to my feelings on Zazie dans le Metro, a wacky, pseudo-subversive comedy that seems like a put-on, a dilettante trying his hand with an anarchic, anti-social comedy and finding that it doesn’t quite fit his sensibility (his next films were a short on the Tour de France and a Bridgette Bardot star vehicle). The titular character, played by Catherine Demongeot, arrives in Paris to spend the night with her Uncle Gabrielle, played by Phillipe Noiret. Her mother has acquired a new lover and must be rid of her daughter for an amorous weekend encounter. Zazie’s only desire is to ride the subway, but it has been shut down due to a labor strike (as one character mentions, it is the only way to get a pay raise). What follows is a chaotic series of chases, various childish shenanigans, and a disturbingly nihilistic ending that seems to suggest, confusingly, that while Fascism is everywhere in our modern world and that it is absurd, hilarious, violent, misogynistic, vulgar, and stupid, the inane vapidity of the working class has brought it upon themselves. Does that make sense? Perhaps not, and that is part of the problem. Zazie is pure id - precocious, foul mouthed, petulant, and selfish. Uncle Gabrielle doesn’t fare much better – he’s a big mouthed lout, lumbering about in stylish suites trying to hide his awkward gait. With regards to overbearing obnoxiousness, there are too many specific moments to mention (and I hate plot synopsis), but it should be noted that there are three different chase scenes: the first occurs when Zazie leaves her Uncle’s house unannounced and is tracked down by his landlord; the second occurs when Zazie meets a stranger who “likes children” – she persuades the potential molester to buy her oysters (an aphrodisiac if I’m not mistaken) and then steals a pair of blue jeans; the third chase involves her Uncle and his cab driver friend chasing her up and down the Eiffel Tower (with some truly amazing moments of high altitude tomfoolery – anyone who suffers from vertigo is likely to get quite nervous). This sense of constant motion, running and getting literally nowhere, perfectly encapsulates the film.

Malle adapted the scenario for Zazie dans le Metro from the book by Raymond Queneau, a member of the post-Dada, post-Surrealist, and short lived literature/mathematical movement known as Oulipo. Essentially a loose grouping of literary thinkers angered at the legacy of the Surrealists politics (my limited research suggests that they were pro-Soviet at a time when it was no longer popular within the Socialist party), the Oulipo (an acronym for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or “workshop of potential literature”) constructed various constricting exercises designed to increase creativity. They attempted to design new structures and patterns that could be adopted by any writer, usually involving lipograms (writing that excludes one or more letters; see Georges Perec’s “A Void”, a novel that doesn’t contain the letter “E”) and palindromes. Queneau himself compiled the “Hundred Thousand Billion Poems”, a book containing 10 sonnets, printed so that each line of each sonnet could be cut into a strip and rearranged with any other line from one of the other sonnets. Queneau claimed that it would take 200 million years to read each possible combination/variation (I myself have not tested this hypothesis). Rosenbaum discussed the fact that he himself has never finished the novel, even after several attempts. It would seem that the French language more than others is particularly susceptible to linguistic puns, and that quite a bit gets lost in translation, even if one is mildly fluent in French (by his own admission, Rosenbaum can speak it and read it, but with some difficulty). I hope you’ll forgive this digression, but I hope to illustrate that much of what is transgressive in the film seems to stem from its source material, not necessarily from Malle. Rosenbaum explicates some cinematic trickery that seems to relate directly to the ideology behind Oulipo, that is, translating a literary gimmick into a cinematic one. There are quite a few instances of people in the background of a scene who seem to be swarming about in fast forward, while Zazie and her Uncle move about normally. Malle shot these scenes at 8 to 12 frames per second, rather than the normal 24, and instructed Demongeot and Noiret to act in slow motion while the people around them moved about normally. When projected at the standardized 24 frames per second, you get the disorienting effect. There are also moments during each of the chase sequences where Zazie is clearly running in place, as well as noticeable continuity errors, obvious jump cuts, images reflecting in mirrors, and ludicrous verbal puns (repeatedly saying “damngoddit”, “bleugenes”, “hormosessual” and other assorted non-sequiters I would assume are imported verbatim from the novel).

To further diminish Malle’s auteurist status, Rosenbaum mentions William Klein’s involvement with the film. The American ex-pat photographer is credited here as an “artistic director”, and Rosenbaum credits much of the film’s wide angle and deep focus photography to him. Klein himself would go on to make politically volatile social satires, one of which, Mr. Freedom, Rosenbaum will be screening in just a few weeks. I hesitate to suggest that Klein would exert such influence over another directors’ production, but I would be remiss if I failed to note that after Zazie, Malle abandons a politically deconstructive visual schema for a more classical mise en scene (often succumbing to fashion, i.e. his lazy use of the zoom in Atlantic City), while Klein would go on to make outrageously contrarian social satires.

The end of Zazie dans le Metro involves a ludicrously long scene of Zazie, Gabrielle, and virtually every character that has appeared in the film gathering at a restaurant. They proceed, over the course of fifteen minutes or so, to destroy the entire set while beating each other senseless, culminating in a bizarre food fight and the entry of a little tyrant (played here by the same actor who has already embodied a possible pedophile, sexual deviant, and a police officer) and an army of riot police. While this little tyrant makes an absurd speech, his foot soldiers march on the restaurant in exaggerated rear-projection (their image grows increasingly larger while tiny-Hitler remains stable) and proceed to gun down a woman. The group of diners cum anarchists makes their escape only to discover that the strike has ended and that the metro is running again. A happy ending?

This confused anarchic meltdown speaks to the limitations of Malle’s scenario (and perhaps Queneau’). The dinner scene/restaurant setting has been used quite frequently by an assortment of politically conscious and/or satirical filmmakers. It makes a certain sense, as dinner represents a locust of potential symbolic/metaphoric meanings: a societal gathering, the nuclear family, mass consumption and the commerce that comes with such consumption, with commerce leading immediately to notions of capitalism and anti-capitalism. Bunuel has used the device at least three different times, to my mind most successfully in The Phantom of Liberty – in a brief sketch, a family gathers in a formal dining room and sits at an elegantly appointed dinner table. Bunuel reveals his joke, that their seats are actually toilets, and as the family and their guests carry on polite conversation, they use the bathroom. A guest excuses himself and retreats to a bathroom, where he sits on a chair and proceeds to eat a plate of food in private. The point seems clear, that our actions are social constructions that are followed only because of general consensus – a different consensus could theoretically alter our social and private habits. Tati destroys a modern restaurant in Playtime, suggesting that the possible communal harmony of a society is restricted by our impersonal, rigid architecture. Rather than nihilism, Tati celebrates the possibilities of rupturing an alienated modernism (in this sense, he is the anti-Antonioni). In her masterpiece Daisies, the great Czech New Wave director Vera Chytilova stages an elaborate scene of two women annihilating a banquet hall. In this frenzy of mass consumption, Chytilova rails against patriarchy and the hypocrisy of the Communist Party. Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie climaxes with a communal purging, an orgy of people puking, shitting, and pissing all over each other. It’s certainly disgusting, but like Bunuel, Makavejev is interested in re-writing the rules of what is socially acceptable (predictably, most of Makavejev’s films have been banned or censored). Godard’s first major work involving video, Numero Deux, equates the social and political complacency of a bourgeois family with constipation. I use these examples to illustrate (briefly) the implications other filmmakers have explored to contrast Malle’s relatively benign dabbling with political filmmaking. To the great iconoclasts, capitulating to narrative storytelling norms would be a betrayal of the revolutionary ideas they hope to espouse. But for Malle, who simply indulges in an unproductive, empty, and easy nihilism, there is no revolution, just sound and fury, signifying nothing. Destruction without meaning is easy - the real difficulty comes in suggesting what comes after.

As part of his closing comments, Rosenbaum mentions, quite bluntly, the possibility that Malle’s film is indigestible. He goes on to state that such were the aspirations of the 60’s, and that art doesn’t change without certain kinds of dangerous mixtures or blunt, aggressive gestures. If I ever get around to it, we’ll see how the films shown during Week 6 of the Great Transition reconcile these kinds of bold gestures with a firm notion of humanism, that is, a reaffirming political cinema.

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)