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Film Comment Selects 2010: Godard Rarities

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Film Comment Selects 2010: Godard Rarities

Someone recently told me that film and video artists produced 2.5 billion hours of viewing material last year. I sometimes think that Jean-Luc Godard has made that much by himself. Godard is not just one of the greatest directors, but also one of the most prolific: IMDB lists him as having directed 92 films, many of which can’t usually be seen in the States. This includes several of his best later films, after he gave up working with French stars like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Pierre Léaud. For every Breathless there’s a Número Deux, Contempt can’t compare with Nouvelle Vague, and to the proclamation title “End of Cinema” that closes 1967’s Weekend, one need only look to 1998’s exhaustive Histoire(s) du Cinéma as a response. The major works of this period are not even available on video, nor are all the works of his most famous period, the 15 feature-length cannon shots (and six shorts) made between 1959 and 1967. My Life to Live and Band of Outsiders, sure, but how many readers have seen Le Petit Soldat or Les Carabiniers? Godard’s been making films for 55 years, and we’re still in the process of discovering him (cf. Film Forum’s run of 1966’s Made in U.S.A last year, the film’s American theatrical debut). One reason Godard’s work thrills to this day is that finding it is such a treasure hunt (and the critical writing reflects this; a recent example is Richard Locke’s wonderful feature in the latest Threepenny Review). What, might we wonder, is the really rare stuff?

One answer came Saturday, as Bamcinématek programmer Jake Perlin took over Walter Reade for 90 minutes of Godardian ends. Perlin, who’s done a lot for Godard recently (hosting a BAM screening of the flawed, failed, fascinating American experiment One P.M., assembling a collection of Godard interviews for the magazine The Believer, striking a new print of Godard’s third-act reinvention Every Man for Himself that will debut later this year), screened shorts, interviews, and trailers.

It’s easy to tell when you’re watching a Godard film, though, regardless of genre. A man and a woman regard each other; the camera cuts back and forth between them quickly, though each shot is in slow-mo. We hear gunshots on the soundtrack, then classical music. A slogan flashes in red, white, and blue. A narrator (usually male) tells us what’s happening outside politically. The partners discuss the nature of love, then take turns quoting Fitzgerald, Dostoyevsky, and Proust.

From this angle, Il Nuovo Mundo was the program’s most typical Godard film. Godard made the 1963 short as part of an Italian omnibus film, Ro.Go.Pa.G. (the best-known segment of which is probably Pasolini’s La Ricotta, in which Orson Welles—natch—plays a tyrannical filmmaker). An opening title card tells us that “This absurd story described the consequences, both absurd and unpredictable, of an atomic future that had already begun.” A woman brushes her hair and glides through the streets, while her husband passes multiple TV monitors. “In spite of her sweetness, Alessandra failed to love me,” we learn in voiceover, then he opens the paper and reads, “Enormous atomic explosion 120,000 miles above Paris.” The impending threat of nuclear war ties itself to the death of the marriage. He asks her why she doesn’t love him, to which she says, “I ex-love you”; scenes like these alternate with headlines of disaster, and every time he opens the paper, we hear a wave of human screams.

The human parlor game feels taken from 1960’s L’Avventura (Antonioni’s lovers: “Tell me you love me”…“I love you”…“Tell me you don’t”…“I don’t love you”). But the paranoia and anxiety, the sense of sheer inability to prevent crumbling dissolution, is distinctly Godard’s. The hero’s problem over what to do in this new “world of freedom,” with its “death of curiosity,” is the most intriguing human piece of an aurally innovative (in addition to screams and strings, we also get radio frequency and airplane flights), narratively tedious film. The frustration also comes through in 1991’s Pour Thomas Wainggai, a three-minute film protesting an Indonesian man’s political imprisonment, and especially in 1982’s Lettre à Freddy Buache. As the film presents it, the head of the Swiss Cinémathèque approached Godard to make a film commemorating the 500th anniversary of the town of Lausanne (though he’s spent much of his life in France, Godard is Swiss by birth). Several shots of the townspeople walking ensue—confused, frightened, happy, oblivious—until Godard realizes that he can’t make a documentary: Through the very act of filming them, he’s turning the town and its residents into fiction. Rather than trying to “rediscover the beginning of fiction,” he refuses the assignment.

In a way, Godard’s having his croissant and eating it too, presenting a film about Lausanne that claims he can’t make a film about Lausanne. Espousing film’s uselessness on film is something he’s done a lot. In 1967’s Far from Vietnam (not in Perlin’s program), Godard says he can’t do anything to effect the war except continue making movies; in 1976’s Ici et Ailleurs (not on it either), a film about the Arab-Israeli conflict he made with Anne-Marie Miéville, he claims that he can’t do anything to help the conflict as a filmmaker because he is always distant from the fighters (he’s here, they’re there). His response in every instance has been to continue making movies, through whatever technology’s available (at first he called video the Cain to film’s Abel, but now video’s his stock of choice). Like Bob Dylan, another prolific artist best known for his ‘60s work, Godard’s gone through wildly different, sometimes contradictory modes—from fictional narrative features, to a radical disavowal of them in favor of agitprop, to more intense, moody self-scrutiny, to melancholy reflection. Yet the impulse to work out his problems on film has remained. His films don’t just tell their own stories, but the stories of his struggles to make them; they make Charlie Kaufman’s problems look like bubble baths.

I like Godard best when he’s most intellectually active. These are also the times when he’s most difficult to keep up with, piling allusion upon association to make a new point. Jonathan Rosenbaum once called him “a combined museum, library, film archive, record shop, and department store” (think David Foster Wallace among American artists), and even Manny Farber wrote that Godard made him feel like a stupid ass. The complex intelligence isn’t developed yet in 1955’s Operation Concrete (back to the Perlin series), Godard’s very first film, a 17-minute journey around a Swiss dam. In contrast to Lettre à Freddy Buache’s later self-implication, the then-25-year-old Godard presents the film as a relatively straight documentary voyage of rocks being crushed along a conveyor belt, then carried up “bizarre little iron carts,” all part of a system his voiceover admiringly calls “a gigantic iron heart.”

Yet by presenting facts, he’s also making myth; as he proclaims at film’s end that one day the dam will be the highest in the world, it’s difficult not to think of Jean-Paul Belmondo staring admiringly at a poster of superman Humphrey Bogart in Breathless five years later. Years after that, Godard told an interviewer that he disowned Breathless because he believed it was fascist—as Orwell wrote, “People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it.” I’d argue that Breathless is more complicated than Godard believed (Belmondo’s suicide-by-cop certainly offers more than Operation Concrete’s unalloyed worship of the dam), but regardless, it’s key that when Godard made Número Deux (not in the series), the 1975 film he called Breathless’s remake, he opened it with a scene of himself handling film equipment. The movie shows many scenes of a family watching television, the scenes always framed overtly within a video screen. By exposing the machinery of the movie he’s making, Godard’s confronting his own desire to share in his characters’ dreams of escape.

As Godard’s career progressed, you might say he shifted from worshipping individual cinematic images (he called Breathless itself, the story of a petty wannabe hood, a remake of Hawks’s Scarface) to growing awed of cinema, while also fearing it, and recognizing its capacity to disappoint. At one point in Il Nuovo Mundo we see the big block letters CINE, and then the camera pulls back to reveal the full word PISCINE—French for “pool,” suggesting a movie can drown you. He recognizes both the agony and the ecstasy of this idea in the two interviews Perlin included. In the first, Godard 1980 (recorded after Godard had abandoned his most overtly Maoist films, and was moving back into fiction features), he quotes Marguerite Duras: “I am not strong enough to do anything but make films.” He admits that film is a business, and claims that he sees no distinction between making art and making money, but also says, “I want to be in the cinema because of the magic. Who doesn’t want to be a magician?”

It might be helpful to know that the film Godard was making at the time, Sauve qui Peut (La Vie) (a.k.a. Every Man for Himself) featured an actor playing a character named Jean-Luc Godard, an emotionally distant filmmaker who’s confronted with the power his images have on people; at one point a star-struck valet begs, “Fuck me, Monsieur Godard,” and the character drives away panicked. The moment’s especially loaded in comparison to the sex studding the rest of the movie, raising the possibility that (both the real and the fake) Godard fears his work is obscene, and is ashamed of it. The real Godard spouts some more cinema-is-magic stuff in the program’s other interview, a clip from Wim Wenders’s 1982 documentary Chambre 666 (at one point he says, “Films show the Incredible,” echoing William Blake’s holy notion of the Sublime), but he also says movies can be dangerous. Godard tells a story about how he told Henri Langlois, the great curator of the Cinémathèque Francaise (Perlin’s program began with a brief 1968 trailer in which Godard and New Wave cohort François Truffaut urged theater patrons to support Langlois for allowing them to see their favorite films), to throw all his films away and move, or else he, Langlois, would die. Godard says this while a TV broadcast of a soccer match plays behind him; Godard claims to hate and fear TV because, if anything, it’s more insidious than film (“TV is like the post office,” he says). An omnipresent image has the greater power to affect a viewer, and Godard says (maybe bullshitting), “Whoever has power has right on his side, I once said in a movie.”

When a person speaks primarily in pronouncements, it’s difficult to take much of what he says at face value. Godard’s satirizing himself as a propagandist, but anti-propaganda can be propaganda too. It’s fitting that the program included five trailers, themselves mini-propaganda films, and perhaps the most effective kind—the short format allows a filmmaker to state a one-line message most clearly and powerfully, sans complication. Yet what makes Godard an extraordinary trailer-cutter (watch the trailer he made for Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar if you don’t believe me—it’s on the film’s Criterion DVD) is precisely his ability to gum up the works. The trailer Godard made for Pierrot le Fou’s 1965 French release dazzles, not only because you’re floored by the sheer size and brightness of cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s screen, but because of the kookiness Godard crams within it. We hear several times that Pierrot is an adventure story, and at least once that it’s a love story, but we also see images of and references to Faulkner, Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Marianne Renoir, Robert Browning (“a poet named after a gun”), and the fall of Constantinople. It ends with your having no idea of what the film will be about, but fascinated by the spectacle.

This muddling effect—Godard smashes your senses to the point where you reassemble them—contrasts sharply with the two subsequent trailers Perlin included that U.S. distributors made to push Godard films onto an American crowd. The American trailer for Weekend marketed the 1967 film to the hippie contingent: The most prominent clip is a verbal attack on Lyndon Johnson, and the preview ends with the tagline, “Weekend clearly justifies the passion for Jean-Luc Godard in young America.” (The distributor’s effort to standardize nonconformity reminded me of Bob Dylan’s rejection of the American counterculture movement. He said the only way that the counterculture could succeed would be if every person on Earth disappeared). Reflecting the changes in American art house audiences (older, richer, more suburban, and heaven knows calmer), 2003’s In Praise of Love trailer pitched the film with soft piano music, gently crashing waves, lots of critical blurbs in the bright yellow New Yorker Films style, and a smothering air of maudlin crap.

The day’s best film, by contrast, nearly tore the lids off my eyes. In his Chambre 666 interview, Godard calls The Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa Steps sequence the first TV ad. Une Catastrophe, a one-minute trailer Godard made for the 2008 Vienna Film Festival (and critic Nathan Lee’s favorite movie that year), opens with this sequence, then follows it with images of soldiers fighting, tanks crawling, and a woman shoving her lover’s face in. In a way he’s repeating the love-is-war theme of Il Nuovo Mundo, with the twist that these are images from other peoples’ movies, which he is then making into his own. These images intercut with the title cards “C’est la première” (it’s the first), “Strophe d’un poème” (poem stanza), and “D’amour” (love), accompanied throughout by the sounds of a tennis match, then individual fighting, then the recitation of a love poem’s first verse. A catastrophe is the first strophe of a love poem: By condensing a plethora of son et image into his one-minute cinematic verse, Godard’s warning us about all the disastrous romances we might have with movies to come. (You can read a wonderful explication of the film here.)

Some of these movies could easily be his. Perlin’s program also included the four-minute trailer for Godard’s next (perhaps last) film, Socialisme. I’ve no idea what the movie is about, though the preview leads me to believe that it has politics, gold, Egypt, Palestine, puns (“Hellas” split into “Hell As,” connoting “hélas,” the French for “alas,” and alluding to Godard’s 1993 film Hélas Pour Moi), Alain Badiou, Patti Smith, kids, animals, clips from older films, shots of people holding video cameras, and even the Odessa Steps. IMDB lists the film as being in post-production. Godard’s films throw so many ideas around that you can’t help but form your own watching them. As with all the ones I haven’t seen (and even many of the ones I have), I’ll be thrilled to see what I discover.

Godard Rarities played on February 20 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series.

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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