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Breathless (#110 of 8)

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Among the many critics who simultaneously partake in, and rise skeptical eyebrows toward, “best of” polls, the notion of the “list as snapshot” becomes a helpful negotiating metaphor. Viewing any top 10 ballot as a historically contingent event—as opposed an authoritative act of canon formation—allows critics to both enthusiastically make the case for our favorite films, while acknowledging that any act of “objectively” ranking works of art quickly bumps up against the limits of one’s own knowledge, biases, and experience.

It’s a useful image, but perhaps an incomplete one. If a photograph captures a given instant, it cannot account for all the previous moments that collectively created what was placed before the lens. Whittling down this list, for me, became as much about contending with my relationship to different periods in my life as it did with clarifying my feelings on the films themselves—as if the two could ever be wholly disentangled. Should I go with more classical Hollywood titles, whose early presence in my life profoundly shaped both my cinephilic tastes and childhood memories? Is it better to take a gamble on those movies that I’ve had less time to sit with, but whose initial seismic impact most likely ensures their permanent place in my head and heart?

Creating this fantasy Sight & Sound ballot, then, felt as much like excavation as photography, sifting through the layers of past experience, arranging the found artifacts in an attempt to convey my range of cinematic passions up to this point. It’s been an inevitably frustrating, completely rewarding task—and, if it means you add a couple of these titles to your Netflix queue as a result, all the better.

Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein

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Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein
Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein

Jean Epstein is one of the great filmmakers cinephiles discover after deciding there are no more worlds left to conquer—and the effect is blinding and humbling. Like many such revelations, his work throws the map of cinema into disarray, knocking over the mile markers and headstones set up long ago by the official canon: surrealists over here, expressionism over there, social realism way over there. He was a little bit of each—none exclusively—and more. He associated with the surrealists, but the oneiric qualities of The Fall of the House of Usher (adapted by Luis Buñuel, who also served as assistant director on the film), like much of his work, are found in some unquantifiable space between special effects and elementary moods. Work that seemed to foretell the neorealist, social-realist, or magical-realist subdivisions just as often turned into daydreams, or intricate music boxes that deflated the heaviness of their own narrative concerns. A common sight—or sensation—in an Epstein film is the vast, oscillating sea, indifferent, unimpressed, a law unto itself, governing the internal physics of a given work, as well as the hearts of men and women.

Take Two #11: Breathless (1960) & Breathless (1983)

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Take Two #11: <em>Breathless</em> (1960) & <em>Breathless</em> (1983)
Take Two #11: <em>Breathless</em> (1960) & <em>Breathless</em> (1983)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

In a word: balls. A quarter-century after its release, pretty much any controversy surrounding Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature had long passed, and it was a firmly entrenched, immovable classic of the cinema. Which is to say, it was due for the kind of irreverent treatment that Godard himself mastered in the ’60s. I reclined, popcorn in lap, as the 1983 Breathless began, and hoped that director Jim McBride—whose biggest credits include the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire! and some relatively recent work directing Six Feet Under—might pick up the original and shake it by the lapels, as Godard’s film had done for gangster and romance movies a generation earlier. For a while, the new Breathless coasts on attitude alone. Then it just coasts.

Rather than the irrepressible Jean-Paul Belmondo, we now get the thinking man’s Keanu Reeves, Richard Gere. In his early work with demanding directors like Richard Brooks, Paul Schrader, and Terrence Malick, it seemed that Gere’s status as a Brando-level talent was all but foreordained; the meaty, emotionally wrought parts just couldn’t come fast enough. As an acting opportunity, playing the lead in a remake of Breathless couldn’t be juicier, and you can almost see the gears cranking as Gere hustles, steals, grifts, flirts, and grins, playing the world’s biggest deluded asshole. This is acting—showy and sweaty and entirely superficial.

A Movie a Day, Day Four: Breathless

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A Movie a Day, Day Four: <em>Breathless</em>
A Movie a Day, Day Four: <em>Breathless</em>

While Cannes was all a-Twitter with talk of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature yesterday, I was at a press screening of his first, Breathless, soon to be re-released in a restored print for its 50th anniversary. Which was just fine by me since I always love watching Breathless and haven’t liked much of what Godard has produced in recent decades.

The film was shockingly new when it was released in 1960: It was the first feature to be shot entirely with a handheld camera and the first to make liberal use of jump cuts, which were then considered sloppy and unprofessional. But Godard needed to edit down his first cut considerably, and rather than lose whole scenes, he chose to highlight just the most dynamic parts of each scene and cut out the rest, creating the sense that characters and objects are jumping from one position to another between shots. Both of those techniques are tiresomely overused now, but the beauty of Breathless is how vital it still feels in spite of that—still crazy after all these years.

Film Comment Selects 2010: Godard Rarities

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Film Comment Selects 2010: <em>Godard Rarities</em>
Film Comment Selects 2010: <em>Godard Rarities</em>

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?

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless on Criterion

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Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless on Criterion
Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless on Criterion

We can’t really look at Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless with fresh eyes, any more than we can see Citizen Kane or Sunrise for the first time. The jump cuts are no longer startling, though they still work in a visceral, jazzy but somehow gentle way. No one since has used these snippy quick cuts with such fluid style, and all the sunny Parisian natural light makes us hungry for vanished late afternoons in the Hôtel de Suède, where Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg spend the whole center of Breathless talking.

The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—3rd Installment

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The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—3rd Installment
The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—3rd Installment

Parody and Pastiche

When one thinks of parody, one might immediately think of blitzkrieg spoofs like the Mel Brooks movie satires (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Spaceballs, etc.) or the 1980 airline-disaster-movie takedown Airplane! But those deliberately lowbrow laugh-a-minute joke-fests represent only one kind of parody.

In general, parody has a critical intent: it tries to deconstruct and then mock outdated or plain silly conventions, and it does so often by adopting those same conventions. As many might agree, only if an artist understands those conventions can he even think about demolishing them through parody effectively. Parody, though, does not necessarily have to be funny/ha-ha comedy—it could also be funny/strange (to borrow terms coined by Andrew Sarris) in the sense that it is trying to render as odd and ridiculous certain artistic sacred cows, whether that entails merely a cliché or an entire outdated genre. Blazing Saddles, for instance, took on the Western genre as its target, while Airplane! toyed mercilessly with the conventions of the disaster genre that was seemingly in vogue through a good part of the 1970s. Of course, to be able to satirize both Westerns and disaster epics with any effectiveness, the filmmakers had to understand and, at the very least, look like a standard-issue Western or disaster epic (Airplane!, for instance, took this a step further and based its entire plot on a 1957 airline disaster flick entitled Zero Hour). Robert Stam defines it in this way: