Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Loves of a Blonde

Forman’s film, Loves of a Blonde (1965), is the story of survival in a totalitarian state. The every day lives and concerns from the factory worker to the factory manager to the musician are viewed through the prism of that environment.

The film opens with a plain looking girl playing her guitar and singing a song about hooligans. At the end of the opening credits, the camera pans to reveal a dormitory and table with the guitar and a couple of cups and a half empty bottle of milk. The simple settings and medium shots evoke hard times and people working to make the best of them

One of the girls, the factory worker Andula, shows off a ring and lets her friend try it on. The close up two shot of them in the same bed also evokes a sense of sharing all they have, including stories, hopes, and rings. When asked what the color of her boyfriend’s eyes are, she responds that she does not know, indicating that their meetings were secretive, that they did not stare into each other’s eyes, and that they in fact know very little about each other. But what they do have is a commitment signified by the ring. As it turns out it’s a false commitment, which is the moral of the film.

The deathly quiet in the forest scene is accentuated by the crunch of boots in the snow. The crunch tells us it’s a cold and silent environment. The rows of homogenous trees are like factory workers going to and fro from work. The one with the tie wrapped around it, stands out because of its individuality. Its strangeness is so stark a soldier suggests it could scare a deer (nature; the natural order of a socialist society). The message is that the natural order of things is to blend in so as not to be noticed. This natural order of things in society as well is the second motif of the film.

The medium close ups of the soldier and Andula, who retrieves the tie, allows us to connect emotionally with both characters. They are lonely people in a desolate world; as lonely as the individual that individuated tree. As Andula approaches the tie, she passes the soldier who is foregrounded, establishing the hierarchy. When the soldier tells her she can’t just go ahead and tie ties around trees, he’s really telling her that one individually dressed up tree, would lead to the whole forest being dressed up, upsetting the conformity that rules in nature as well as society.

In another scene a factory worker, looking in through glass, observes factory managers and military leaders discussing the worker’s lives, which allows us to see what’s going on (only her eyes are visible); suggesting that they can also see what’s going on, but are unable to speak out regarding both the factory and their place in society. The factory worker’s only has one role in society: to meet their quota.

The scene between Andula and the piano player has an extreme close up of their hands as they grasp the handles to a door. By allowing us to see the scars on the girls wrists, we can relate to the emotionally toughness required of the typical worker to survive. Andula after all, did not let a broken blade deter her attempt. (The comment about the blade breaking is most likely also dark humor about the reliability of consumer products under socialism). This scene also allows us to see the disregard he has for her as a person, and the control he exerts over the door handles, a gateway to another life.

The young piano player we learn later makes considerably more than his father does after a lifetime of work. This allows the piano player to consider himself above the level of a factory worker and shows no inclination to be truthful with Andula as he tries to get her into bed with him. In other words, the piano player represents a class that does not formally exist within socialism: a class above, and therefore not answerable to, Andula.

The question for Andula centers on trust. Her mother has failed her (the reason for her suicide attempt), and her boyfriend hasn’t returned. The shallowness of the piano player comes out as he screws Andula, just as the socialism in the film screws the worker – the weakest member of that society. What she wants more than anything is to find someone to which she can entrust her hopes.

When she takes the piano player at his word and visits his home, his mother invites Andula in to ask her a question. She says she won’t hurt, but we come to learn differently. Their callous discussion of Andula in the parent’s bedroom is comical at times, and the strength of this scene is at the end when Andula is shown on the other side of the door weeping; her weeping a counterpoint to the dismissiveness of the trio inside the bedroom. Andula is destined to look further for hope, having had the promise of commitment betrayed once again.

Masculine Feminin

The story of Godard’s Masculine Feminin (1966) is the story of unaffected youth. It’s the story of monotony, a grind that repeats itself daily, a twenty-four seven submission to unbridled authority. It’s about the seeming pointlessness of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. And it’s the story of a group of kids finding their way in the environment that surrounds them.

The two main characters are Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Madeleine (Chantal Goya). In the opening scene Paul is depicted as a lonely, unemployed dreamer composing a work of art for his own edification at a dreary cafe. Madeleine is depicted as the opposite of Paul. When she walks into the cafĂ©, she does so with an air of confidence. She’s smartly dressed and takes notes from a magazine she’s brought along. Instead of composing, she makes use of what’s available.

The differences between these two play out throughout the movie. Paul is capable of breaking out in a speech about an obtuse point of view about current societal conditions, while Madeleine is neither informed about those conditions (Wars? I don’t know about wars.) Nor is she inclined to invest much time being concerned about matters that don’t involve her personally. Paul, the dreamer, is caught up with changing the world, while Madeleine is caught up with advancing her career. (For example, when Paul works up the courage to ask her to marry, and making Madeleine late for an appointment in the process, she tells him that they’ll talk about it later.) Madeleine recognizes Paul is not the same as her, and therefore restrains her commitment to him.

Paul’s romanticism and need to belong marries him to whatever cause is floating around (signs a petition to free imprisoned workers in Brazil.) And because of this, his life flutters in many directions, writing graffiti and haranguing a projectionist as his commitment to that cause directs. Paul’s inclination to think in terms of large, socially significant causes (to him), causes him to miss what’s going around him. For Paul, the contradiction is that the causes he’s involved with center his world, and therefore thinks they should center everyone else’s world, thus making himself (the person) the real center of the universe. The end result is a streak of self-importance that isolates him from others.

What Paul is missing is that Madeleine is not in love with him, but that her friend, Catherine, is. Madeleine is too practical for Paul, but Catherine appreciates the dreamer in Paul. The complication in the relationship occurs when Madeleine becomes pregnant by Paul. The significance of this is that Paul is not willing to confirm with Madeleine that she is pregnant, again reinforcing the idea of his shedding responsibility for addressing practical problems (a pending pregnancy) while preferring to address global ones (the ability of the sly Americans to transmit ideas by injection.)

In fact, part of this unawareness of the girls’ emotional state is brought out when Paul and his friend discuss the difference between men and woman. Their observation is that in men there is “mask” and “ass” in masculine, implying men’s ability to wear masks and make asses out of themselves. Their corresponding observation about women is that there’s nothing in feminine. In other words women are voids, which is why it’s difficult to relate to them. The men’s hesitancy to place themselves in other people’s shoes works against them when it comes to women as well.

The end of the film comes when Paul falls to his death while attempting to get a picture at his new apartment (financed by a windfall from the death of his mother). The fact that he bought an apartment in a (high rise) building under construction adds weight to his inclination to engage in the unfinished possibility rather than the finished product. The irony that the whimsical Paul bought into a complex in a wealthy neighborhood, forced the practical Madeleine and her friend, Elizabeth, to visit, resulting in his accidental death.

Paul was never able to move into his apartment, symbolizing his failure to reach his potential in life. His successes lay in his commitment for revolt against the constant social constrictions placed on man. His other success, the child Madeleine is pregnant with, is not assured the same commitment.

Pierrot Le Fou

During the opening credits of Pierrot Le Fou (1965), Godard informs us that whatever the subject matter of his film, its construction will be deconstructed by film’s end and returned to its original form: the darkness of its preexistence.

The subject matter of course is the letters that appear in alphabetical order to turn into words that in turn form phrases that in turn convey information and eventually stories. Stories contained in books. Like the books in the turnstile racks in the scene where Ferdinand ((Jean-Paul Belmondo) is introduced. The racks on either side of Ferdinand turn full circle; presaging how Ferdinand is turned around in his quest to transform his words into a “silent symphony” weaved into the fabric of permanence. This permanence is represented both by the classically (classical = permanence) centered score and the color blue reflecting the blue of the sky, sea, and river.

Ferdinand’s daughter is also introduced to us wearing a white dress with blue trim, martching the blue towel behind her. Her mother is dressed in pink, wears no slip, and is dressed in her new invisible girdle. (Godard presents the investment in the girdle as a means to obtain a (false) young look. The quest to look different implies a falsity commensurate with a misplacement of what’s important in life, both of which again emphasize an amorality of the Ferdinand’s wife.) The contrasting colors between daughter and wife are reflected as innocence and amorality.

The dominance of that amorality is demonstrated by the way Ferdinand’s wife speaks to him. For example, she tells him that he will do as he’s told. Another example is when she tells him he will not sue the T.V. station, but rather will he will be good enough to take work that someone else will find him. In the eyes of his wife, Ferdinand is incapable of finding work on his own, and treats him as an object. This association with amorality is extended to their friend Frank (and Paola) when Ferdinand mentions that the baby sitter he has lined up is probably a prostitute, implying that Ferdinand is surrounded by amorality.

Colors also prime us when Marrianne’s (Anna Karina) is introduced to us. She is dressed in white and blue, implying a connection to both the innocent youth of his daughter, and the inclination to serve as “mentor” to the younger Marrianne as he had read to his daughter earlier. This priming extends to the Marrianne’s skirt, which as the same multicolored stripe motif of Ferdinands’ robe in the previous scene. There is a connection between the two, and it’s below the belt.

The reddish (-pink) filter that accentuates the party scene highlights the garishness of the topics of conversation as seen from the point of view of the artistic Ferdinand. The shots that follow make this same point. Ferdinand’s bitterness towards his spiritually empty life (and hope in the form of the re-introduced Marrianne – remembrance of things past) results in his throwing an ostentatious cake at his wife.

The fireworks that follow represent a celebration of his action, but are muted compared to the fireworks that follow Ferdinand’s offer to take Marrianne home. The second fireworks signals the film is about to take a drastically different direction since the smoke and noise of these fireworks resemble artillery blasts. Ferdinand, the romantic, has fired the first salvo on the road to his redemption as an artist, but Godard has also hinted at how it could all blow up in his face.

As Ferdinand and Marrianne travel away towards a new future together, the windshield of their car continuously reflects lights, indicating the time and distance they are putting between Ferdinand’s past life and their new one ahead of them. Ferdinand has taken his first step towards completing his life’s ambition.

In the scenes that follow, the hard-covered, art-sized book of comics as well as the stuffed animal reinforces the blue motif of a younger more innocent time. The river crossing, which keeps Ferdinand and Marrianne in the blue water, also punctuates the journey towards a simpler live and an opportunity to meld (?) with the permanence of that simplicity. This establishing shot also focuses us on the blue-sky and open country ahead of them. The subsequent change of clothes through the woods however shows us the change in tone their quest has taken.

After establishing a life free from the constraints of the amoral civilization, Ferdinand asks if Marrianne will ever leave her. When she answers that she never will while looking into the camera, we realize Ferdinand’s idyllic life is short lived. When the following scene shows a bored Marrianne stating she doesn’t know what to do, we realize it’s an idyllic life only for the writer. Her protestations interfere with his writing – and vice-versa. The crux of the problem from Marrianne’s point of view: “you (Ferdinand) speak to me in words and I look at you with feelings.” Ferdinand counters with the fact that “she never has ideas, only feelings.” The promised deconstruction of their idyllic life has started, and the completion of Ferdinand’s silent symphony is thrown in doubt.

The extent of Ferdinand’s delusion concerning Marrianne is highlighted in the scene where Marrianne sits in a red dress in a red chair and over her right shoulder is a drawing of her cut up in a way looking out over red fields. This bit mise-en scene reveals Marrianne’s true identity: a complex woman set to leave another trail of blood behind her. It’s a woman that has been made available for Ferdinand to see both from previous experience with her as well as the dead body in her apartment. Yet Ferdinand fails to appreciate the duplicity inherent in Marrianne until she hangs him out to dry.

It is at this point that Ferdinand gets his revenge, paints his face the blue (to link himself to the permanence he sought with his uncompleted book), and straps dynamite to his head. In the end, he realizes the uselessness of words, and lights the fuse, signaling the impotence of the romantic in current society, the idea of his incompleted silent symphony - his masterpiece of a book - residing only in his head, blown forever to smithereens, the final note to his symphony being the ubiquitous blast of a bomb exploding.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bonnie and Clyde

Arthur Penn Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is about two psychopathic killers on the run. How is it then that Penn has us empathizing with Bonnie and Clyde? Penn accomplishes this by introducing Bonnie and Clyde as products of the poverty that surrounds them and stifles the land of opporunity.

To begin with the film opens with a lap dissolve from a portrait of Clyde (Warren Beatty) to an extreme close up of Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) applying ruby red lipstick. The implication of the lap dissolve is that they will be linked in the film, and that love will be involved. The sound bridge also emphasis love, as the song concludes with the words “deep in the arms of love” and further links Clyde and Bonnie. So from the start, Penn introduces the love story as central to the film, and view everything that follows from within this framework.

A subsequent pan right results in a close up of Bonnie reflected in a mirror, revealing her styled hair and made up face. The medium shot that follows shows the water marks in the ceiling and wall of her room indicating her dire financial straits. When she lies down on her bed she eyes the metal bars of the headboard. The bars both run diagonally across the screen and cast shadows across her face indicating for us the prison she feels she feels she’s in as she bangs on the bars. Based on how she saw herself in the mirror, she clearly thinks she deserves better. The following close up (when she grabs the bars) and zoom into an extreme close up of her eyes makes her desperation palpable. As the camera holds her face, we can see the resignation in her face as she turns to get dressed for work. Bonnie is caught up in a dead end life. By emphasizing this aspect of her life (as opposed to the occasional hustling of truck drivers we learn about later), Penn has us initially glimpse Bonnie in the best possible light.

This scene also justifies Bonnie’s subsequent actions in two ways. The first is that she understands exactly how Clyde must have felt in prison when they later meet, establishing an immediate rapport between them. The second is that, when Clyde tells her that he cut off two of his toes to get out of a work detail, she believes him for the man of action he portrays himself to be (“Boy, did you really do that.”). This compares favorably with her desire to rise above her own dismal circumstance and take action within her own life. It's understandable then when Bonnie rides off in the car stolen by a man who has robbed a grocery store (taken action to overcome his circumstance), and who she has only known a few minutes (but has connected with emotionally.)

This idea of a relatively respectable young woman in a dead end town working a dead end job during the Great Depression running off with a convicted felon is made even more palatable by the mise-en-scene and cinematography.

The deep focus of the opening scene allows us to see the pictures next to her mirror, doll and figurines on her chest, and the few family photographs above her chest. These details allow us to see Bonnie as an ordinary person. Likewise, Clyde is presented as a clean cut gentleman with white hat (white hat with black band, indicating his dual nature), white shirt, and tie and jacket, and a dazzlingly white smile. His jacket, a warm brown earthy brown, softens any inclinations we may have of him as a criminal after Bonnie catches him about to steal her mother’s car.

The mise-en-scene on the long tracking shot down Main Street, allows us to connect the hard times and limited opportunities (boarded up stores) that surround Bonnie and Clyde and is the counterpoint to the sweet-talking criminal in the white hat. When Bonnie rubs the tip of the bottle of coke across her lips as she watches Clyde guzzle his and smiles, we know she’s picturing herself kissing him (they are each mouthing similar bottles). Later when he shows her his gun, and she handles its barrel, we know she’s already sleeping with him. When Bonnie asks Clyde what armed robbery (vice prison) is like, we also know she has her mind on the freedom made possible by robbery vice the description of prison life. Penn focuses her mind, and ours, on the escape from the prison of poverty side of that equation.

The walk down Main Street also makes clear the affects of Clyde’s self-inflicted wound. It makes plain the fact that the flaws hidden within Clyde prevents him from ever standing on his own two feet. (This same motif is later expressed by his apparent impotence. It is only when he has met a woman who accepts and supports him for who he is that he is able to overcome his impotence, implying that Clyde has been harmed by (unknown to us) factors within his environment, curable only by the emotional support he has been previously denied.) As supportive as Bonnie is however, Clyde will always be crippled by the circumstances (brother also spent time in jail) that landed him in jail, and resulted in him cutting off his toes. Those circumstances have molded who Clyde is and will be for the rest of his life (when Clyde later brings up the subject of marriage, Bonnie asks what he would do if he had to do it all over again? When Clyde answers that he would make sure they live in a different state than the ones they rob in, he reasserts the permanence of this internal imperfection.) Penn this presents Clyde as a product of his environment, again establishing the framework for us to judge his actions.

The establishing shot of the main street in town introduces the flat, empty, barren country all around them. After Clyde robs the grocery store and they flee down the same main street, Penn introduces the us-against-the-world motif of the film. At this point, who wouldn’t want to escape their predicament given an opportunity? Their escape of course ends in tragedy, but it is a tragedy that could have hardly been avoided given the environment Bonnie and Clyde found themselves in.


Godard’s Alphaville (1965) is a movie about the horrors of a future whose genesis exists in the present; and how these horrors affect the soul of humanity. The film, shot in dark and light, opens with a flashing white light in a sea of darkness. The white light represents the beacon of hope amidst the darkness that defines Alphaville. The light flashes in patterns and therefore is sending out a message for anyone willing to bear witness to it.

That beacon is answered in the form of Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a spy from the Outlands, whose mission is to retrieve or eliminate a Dr. Von Braun from the clutches of Alpha 60, the force that runs the inhabitants of Alphaville. We later come to understand that Dr. Von Braun and Alphaville are essentially one and the same. A painting of a white dove being released behind the opening credits presages his success.

Eddie’s other mission is to shed light on the inhabitants of Alphaville, which is made evident by the particular points of light that illuminate that opening sea of darkness. Among those points of light are lit up apartments in otherwise dreary complexes, rows of streetlights lighting the way for an elevated train, and the accentuated headlights of Eddie’s white mustang as it approaches Alphaville (the mise-en-scene: a white knight riding into town on his white steed with holstered pistol and a flame thrower of a lighter).

Off screen, Alpha 60 explains to us (as Eddie rides into town) the reason for its existence: “Reality is too complex for oral communication.” The troublesome complexity turns out to be the human emotions that are anathema to any organization. Thus, we’ll see people who think for themselves are suspect and those that admit to feeling are eliminated. The names of the streets (Enrico Fermi Street, Heisenberg Boulevard, and Mathematical Park) confirms Alphaville is built upon mathematical formula and the use of the dictionary (continuously updated as words having emotional impact are eliminated) as Bible confirms Alpha 60’s relentless reorganization of society (“A natural ambition of any organization is to plan all its actions.”) The extremes by which “unknown quantities” are minimized are depicted in a pool located on the SS floor with obvious connotations.

In this strange world, the ratio of men to women who fall prey to the swimming pool is 50:1, which is counterintuitive with respect to previous emotional quotients established by Godard in his women. For example, Camille (Contempt, 1963) is depicted as an (almost out of control) emotional woman. One would think the ratio Godard would use in Alphaville would reflect this, and be presented the reverse of what it is, reflecting the higher emotional quotient needed to hang onto emotional aspects of humanity. But Godard does not, and the reason for this can also be found in Camille: her willingness to compromise her emotions when a tactical advantage can be gained. Examples of this are when she props up her husband Paul emotionally, even as she is obviously upset at him; or, when she seems willing for Paul to finish the screenplay in order to keep the flat. The connotation is that women are able to ascertain when it’s advantages to give in. This connotation is depicted by the number of women (including Natasha) literally prostituting themselves in the name of the organization. Godard’s further condensation with respect to women is that it is Eddie (a man) who rescues Natasha (a woman) from Alphaville. To Godard’s credit, he allows the responsibility of re-reeducation to remain with Natasha.

The pool scene is where we first lay eyes on Alpha 60, (Dr. Von Braun as played by Akim Tamirof) when Natasha (Anna Karina), the doctor’s daughter, connects us to him visually with a peck on the cheek. Earlier we had been introduced to Natasha as someone who had lived in the Outlands when she was younger, and at the same time someone who no longer knows (among other human emotions) about love due to the controls established by Alpha 60. The extent of Natasha’s reeducation is noted by her nodding “yes” when she means “no” and vice-versa. This same characteristic is also seen in Henry Dickson (a collaborator of Eddie) who has to use his hands to correctly orientate the movement of his head when he means to nod “yes”.” Henry eventually chokes during his use of (unauthorized) words, specifically the word “love.”

Alpha 60 equates the evolution of the man’s organizations to its destruction, and sees itself as the logical means of that destruction. On the immediate stage, Eddie has to destroy Alpha 60. On the larger stage, man has to be careful the humanity of man is not lost to man’s want to organize. And on the individual stage, Natasha’s has to relearn the meaning of the word “love.”

At film’s end, Eddie destroys Alpha 60, rescues Natasha from the organization’s henchmen, and escapes from Alphaville. Despite its references to 150 light years and galaxies, all the mise-en-scene is from the present, signaling that man should be wary of present day organizations and their particular characteristics that inhibit our ability to remain human. Against humanity, are the characteristics on an organization that are in their favor: time; and, the fact that every present is irreversible. Using this logic, Organizations win, Humanity loses.


Godard’s Contempt (1963) is the story of circumstance; one where two people at opposite ends of several spectrums fall in love with what the other represents along that spectrum, only to be driven apart when they realize their differences preempt their coexistence. This realization occurs only after Paul (Michel Piccoli) accepts an offer to rewrite the screenplay for The Odyssey.

With respect to writing, Paul is at the creative end of that spectrum. His wife, Camille (Brigette Bardot), was once (she quit her job to be with Paul) at the opposite end: a typist. The difference is one where Paul uses his intellect to put ink to paper, and Camille puts ink to paper with her fingers. Godard is clear about not using this difference between them in occupation as a comment on the relative roles of men and women in the workplace (the translator in the film, Francesca (Giorgia Moll) is beautiful, educated and intelligent – she matches quotes from obscure works with Fritz (Fritz Lang) and outtranslates him), but rather to demonstrate the differences in how each approaches life: Paul rationalizes his way through life; Camille, feels (fingers to keyboard) her way around.

Paul’s wont to rationalize leads him to pitch a different motivation for Ulysses’ leaving Penelope to Fritz at Jerry’s (Jack Palance) villa. Here, Godard has Paul use his intellect to recreate the meaning of a classic story (by this time, Camille and Paul’s story), and demonstrate Paul’s neurotic need for rationalization within that story. An earlier example is when Paul arrives late at Jerry’s place after insisting Camille go ahead with Jerry in his two-seater. After arriving, Camille wants to know what kept Paul. Paul says “nothing” (denying his lateness), then gives an accounting of an accident that took up some time. In other words, it was not him that was late, but circumstances (accident) that made him late. Paul’s dialogue confirms this rationalization. When Camille presses him with: Why what? Paul is incapable of saying, “Why I was late.” Instead he says, “Why I arrived late.”

This tendency to rationalize (as opposed to a tendency to feel; Camille’s tendency) places the couple at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum as well. An example of this is when Camille arrives on the set and she tells Fritz she likes his movie M; whereas Paul proceeds to break down a scene from the movie for Fritz. The difference is one between an appreciation for a movie (emotional attachment to the “soul” of the movie) and an accounting of a scene within the movie (emotional attachment to the mechanics of the movie.) It is not that Paul is incapable of emotion (he demonstrates love, rage, bewilderment, hurt, jealousy at different times throughout the movie), but rather that his emotional capital is invested in all that is rational. An example of this is when Camille, off by herself (pouting after the previous argument about Paul being late), is looking at a book containing suggestive works of art. When Jerry walks by, he notices the tone of the content. When Paul walks to her (realizing she’s pouting), he doesn’t notice the book at all and, instead, badgers Camille about not answering Francesca earlier. To underscore Paul’s lack of emotional understanding, Paul then caresses Camille’s leg, and when she doesn’t respond, convinces himself that it’s because his hands are dirty. Paul is not only emotionally blind, he’s a black hole of emotional understanding. He absorbs emotion, but is unable to relate to it on an emotional level, and is therefore unable to reciprocate emotionally.

His view of women in general is expressed in the apartment scene when he knocks on the hollow metal sculpture of a woman three times. He notes the sounds are not the same, indicating the technical composition of the sculpture is what’s important as opposed to what the sculpture means as a work of art.

This chasm between Camille, who wears her emotions on her sleeves, and Paul who operates on an emotionless plane is the chink in their relationship. It’s also the chink exploited by Jerry to rupture that relationship. Camille recognizes Jerry as a wolf, and initially props up Paul emotionally even when her reactions to Jerry’s advances, and Paul’s refusal to acknowledge them, upset her. Clearly she still loves him. Yet at every opportunity, Paul refuses to acknowledge Jerry’s challenges until it’s too late. By then, all that’s left for Paul from everyone present is contempt.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Vivre Sa Vie

Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) is a storybook of a movie written in twelve chapters. The long takes and minimal action gives the feeling that it is the audience that turns the page to progress from one shot to the next in this story of Nana (Anna Karina), a young woman in search of her soul.

The film opens with a close up of Nana. The profile left, gray background, low key lighting, and somber music contribute to create the tragic tone of Nana’s story. This shot is followed by a closeup of Nana's face, and then a similar profile right of Nana; each shot just as dismal as the previous one. The 90, 180, and 270 degree arc of the opening cinematography is completed in the fourth shot, which is one of the back of Nana’s head sitting at a bar. Pictorially, Nana has almost come full circle. 270 degrees is not 360 degrees, and it is left for us to wonder whether Nana comes full circle or finds some other path.

The lengthy last shot of the back of her head (and later Paul) signals the primacy of dialogue in the storytelling. At the bar, Nana, in response to a question from her husband, Paul (Andre Labarthe), tries out her answer several times searching for the one that sounds true. She is a person attempting to get in touch with her soul. Later, we find out she had had a part in a play, and still later we find her discoursing with a philosopher (Brice Parain) on why she is unable to find the proper words to describe her thoughts. This web of indecision paralysis her, and prevents from acting (Nana tells the philosopher that she knows what she wants to say, but thinks about “whether it is what I mean.”) Godard then provides us with a metaphor as the philosopher relates the story of Porthos who dies when he confuses himself with how it is that he walks (a simple everyday problem) instead of just walking away from a bomb he just planted.

The failure to detach the question of whether the right foot or left leads (everyday life) from what transcends that question - walking away from the bomb, dooms Prothos. Porthos, “tall, strong, a little stupid,” is someone who has “never thought in his life” and in the end pays the ultimate price for having to figure out thinking at a most inopportune time. Nana, full of inexperience, is caught in the same web of indecision. She, like Porthos, is someone who has not had to think much in her life. (Other people do the thinking for her. For instance, Paul tells Nana to stop parroting her words like an actor (people who read lines written for their characters), and she allows Raoul (Saddy Rebbot), later her pimp, to tear up her letter (again allowing someone else to write her lines) requesting employment. Nana’s young age also reflects that, most likely, adults have been directing her on what to do all her life up to this point.) She, like Porthos, has to learn to think on her own at the most inopportune time: underemployed and in debt. Nana’s everyday problems obscure solutions to the problems that transcend her everyday life. Thus knowing how to express what she thinks and knowing that expression is what she means is beyond her, and prevents her from acting upon that knowing she has yet to acquire.

Nana then, is a young woman clear headed enough to know that Paul is not what she’s looking for in life, but not confident enough to look beyond her immediate existence in order to choose an option than will relieve the burden of her current existence off her shoulders, before it's too late.

The scene that demonstrates Nana’s central dilemma is Scene 7; the turning point in Nana’s story. The scene opens with an extreme close up of Nana’s hands as she writes a letter requesting employment. The mise-en-scene reveals she still wears her wedding band (the last time we see it, signaling a severance with her past.) The words in the letter describe her physical characteristics, which emphasizes her lack of work experience (an indication for us as well of her lack of independence in her past). A cut to a full shot of Nana standing, reveals a matte shot of the Champs Elysees in the background. The particular effect of this shot is twofold. First, it reveals where Nana wishes to be or find herself as she writes her letter. She may not yet be able to voice it, but she can picture it, which is what Godard provides. The additional significance is that Nana is willing to work for it, despite her lack of marketable skills. Because of this, we see the Champs Elysees, at this point in time, as a bit of a stretch, and realize that Nana sees it as a bit of a dream. (Godard helps us out in this regard by using the matte as opposed to a shot of the real Champs Elysees.) The second effect has to do with the first since the matte also represents an unrealizable goal to Nana. The distance between where Nana finds herself and the Champs Elysees is great, and plays a role in her deciding to go with Raoul in the second half of the scene.

Raoul’s enters an extreme close up of Nana writing by way of his shadow; it darkens the entire frame. His fingers then cover Nana’s letter (establishing control over Nana) and Godard cuts to a long shot of him leaning over in a dark overcoat with his back to us. This shot has him both dominating the frame and obscuring Nana. The blocking (Nana seated and obscured between the (her idealized) matte of the Champ Elysees behind her and Raoul standing in front of her) places her between her apparent options (dream/reality). Because she’s seated (and obscured), and the matte dominates the background, and Raoul dominates the foreground (superior position), the significance her two choices are magnified. And finally, the color (light grays for the matte, black overcoat for Raoul) dramatizes the symbolic good and evil between the choices.

The next bit of cinematography underscores Nana's nacient gameship and ways of the world inexperience. After Raoul sits himself down, (uninvited and thus asserting his superior position; later, he does not light Nana’s cigarette, again asserting his superior position), the camera aligns itself directly behind him. This once again obscures Nana. The over the shoulder shot then tracks left, which represents Nana leading the chess-like conversation. When the shots track right, Raoul leads. The subsequent cut to a profile left of Raoul, has power shift entirely to him as he checks her. A pan to Nana shows her ventilating under Raoul’s assault and her eyes start to water. She’s been mated, and she knows it. The subsequent pan to Raoul shows him lighting a post-coital cigarette. A second pan to Nana shows her reciting the dead ends of her past. The subsequent two shot frames a defeated Nana and a victorious Raoul. The final pan left to a tearful Nana is held for us to appreciate the totality of her defeat. This profile shot resembles in tone the dismal profile shots at the start of the film. Raoul has feasted on a tender Nana.

From this point on, the film offers an increasingly bleak picture of Nana. Even the advice of the philosopher to attach a detachment to everyday life so as to be able to describe what transcends everyday life, and consequently be able to act upon that description comes too late for Nana. She has become a ball in a pinball machine. The energy sapped by having to deflect the blows from the machine’s targets and paddles, prevents her from seeing beyond the everydays. When she does attempt to break free, the weight of her current life (chains of prostitution) crushes her as Prothos' building crushed him. Like Prothos, Nana pays with her life.

It’s significant to know that only Paul and Raoul are shown playing pinball. In the opening bar sequence, Paul belittles Nana (the stop parrating words comment is one example.) Paul is either ignorant (his offer of dinner after bringing Nana the pictures to see forces me to give him the benefit of the doubt) or shallow (his comments about his lack of money as the reason why Nana wants to leave him, as opposed to that it might be something about him that might be the reason why Nana wants to leave.) Raoul is just a monster. The first, Paul, is mildly corrosive: he is incapable of understanding what Nana's going through, and thus incapable of helping her in her search for her identity. The second, Raoul, is hideously corrosive: he is only capable of emotionally entrapping the emotionally weak. In other words, Nana has failed to come full circle and rejoin Paul; or some other man, that values her for who she finds herself to be. Instead she finds herself in a spiral whose first man, Paul, could not help her; and her second man, Raoul, could only abuse her. It seems the points both men were racking up at the pinball machine were only for themselves, and not the people in their lives – at least, not Nana.

The end result: the death of a young woman before she's able to find her soul. The film ends with Nana's death at a point in her life where she's sold to even more corrisive men (they shoot her without hesitation; which Roaul repeats; the difference being there are two of them representing a male dominated corrosive organization - a morphing of the corrosive potential.)

Vivre Sa Vie, it turns out, is as much the story of how the corrosive men in Nana's life result in her demise as it is about Nana.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Les Carabiniers

The opening words of Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1961) establish his film will be presented simply, using “worn metaphors” and what’s “basically eternal.” The repetition of the piece (“Military March”, “Military March take one”) in the opening also hints the film’s subject repeats itself; each repetition anew. The title of the piece, Military March, hints at war as the subject matter, but, in reality, war is only the vehicle Godard chooses for his real subject: the powerful’s relentless manipulation of the powerless to achieve their own gains; and the powerless’ eager participation in whatever means is made available to obtain what they do not (cannot) have: material wealth.

The hint at repetition is again presented at the end of the opening credits when the title of the film is repeated, informing us that the film is to be watched with the thought that what the film presents (the dismal reality of humanity) repeats itself again and again and again long after the movie is done.

The film’s opening take is a point of view shot from within a vehicle traveling through a city via a six-lane highway. The heftiness of the highway, overpasses, and buttresses represents the collective right and might of civilization and the length of the shot represents the physical enormity of the that civilization. The blandness and coldness of the cement represents an emotional hollow as dense as the concrete itself, a distancing from the human consciousness that drives emotions. The non-diegetic Military March signifies whoever is in the vehicle is on a military mission on behalf of the emotionally absent civilization.

The subsequent shot features a jeep, gray skies, and desolate barren countryside consisting of dirt, brush and junkyard detritus. This shot contrasts the relative positions between those in power (established in the previous shot) and those destined to never acquire the power to determine their own existence. To punctuate this point further, the mis-en-scene shows high-tension lines, which the jeep initially runs parallel, then perpendicular to. These lines represent the selective distribution of power as it runs from tower to tower bypassing those below not deemed worthy to share in its distribution. The blocking within the shot shows the men (carabiniers) in the jeep have the full support and power of those in charge behind them.

The following scene shows the daughter, Venus (a powerless person), about to take a bath. She pulls a magazine out from under her sweater as if she’s pulling out her alter ego. It’s this second self she sees when she looks into the mirror. Godard could have, but chose not to show her reflection in the mirror, which, in fact, reflects the barren landscape behind her. Godard intends for us to view Venus as barren landscape, implying the most defining characteristic of the girl: her marginal existence. Godard later shows us how marginal existence is (repeatedly) seduced in order to obtain the services of those on the margins of society.

Godard’s film so far, then, is about the transitory nature of power as it flows from civilized Point A to civilized Point B, bypassing, and beyond the reach of, those not worthy or fortunate enough to share in it. But even more than that, it is about the familiarity by those along the fringes of society of the futility of their lives. It is this “it is what it is” attitude expressed by Venus’ family that allows them to emotionally accept their current situation and distance themselves from their future actions. This last point is made when Ulysses and a carabinier struggle. During the struggle, the carabinier fixes his hat while Ulysses picks up his cigar, which he has dropped. Afterwards the men agreeably resume their struggle. This is a game that’s already been played; one where all the participants know their predetermined roles.

The stated mission of the carabiniers is to “distract the population,” something advantageous for the police to do during “hard times.” At first the family rejects them (the fade to black just before Ulysses states the “war is no fun” ensures we do not miss the men are aware of the risks of war), but is eventually seduced by what the carabineers promise them on behalf of the King: wealth. (The powerlessness and accompanying poverty of the family is made clear when the wife informs the carabinier that their electricity (power) is off.) The completeness of the seduction is demonstrated when the women, initially skeptical, egg the men on to enlist so that they (the women) can obtain some trinkets, showing their willingness to sacrifice their men to achieve wealth. Generally, Godard paints the women as emotionally bankrupt, as when the wife starts to flirt with one of the carabiniers; but sacrificing their men is emotional bankruptcy of a higher order of type. Godard assigns the same lack of emotional quotient to the men as he has them recite a litany of atrocities allowed them by the nature of war to achieve wealth and misadventures for themselves.

By the end of these opening scenes Godard has succeeded in convincing us of three things: that the impoverished (as represented by the family) will debase itself for any material gains at the expense of any expedient enemy; and, that it only takes a minimum amount of distraction to convince those on the fringes of society to keep an equally emotionally-deadened powerful in power (an advantage fated to be exploited repeatedly.) And third, that man – at all levels – is single-minded in his efforts to obliterate his fellow man when possessions (wealth and/or power) are threatened. Godard paints for us a depressingly bleak picture (mise-en-scene: worn Kodak sign) of the human condition, and begs the question: Is the future of humanity irretrievably lost?

The lack of emotional fortitude in humanity is made apparent by the crude settings and primitive (maybe too strong a word; what I mean to describe is the emotional lack of maturity exhibited by cavemen that the actors actions portray, implying that we have not advance emotionally since the invention of the club) acting. The film’s settings are dank and the ground slippery (several times the actors slip physically in the mud, but the mud also represents the “slippery slope” of the quagmire of their emotional abyss); and the actions of all are unaffected by human compassion. Prior to the war, the family existed within their societal confines, not affecting those around them. For example, highway noise in the diegeses emphasizes the point that the civilized world goes to and fro unaffected by the family. This invisibility is also driven home towards the end of the film when the men have returned home and Michelangelo asks how they will know the war is over since “there’s nobody here.” The war however does up the ante. In unfamiliar territory, the foot soldiers blindly (without emotion) follow orders to the best of their abilities absent other guidance. The given existential horror here is that, according to Godard, the tragedy of war is that it repeats itself ad infinitum.

The acts of war depicted are many and horrific. Godard equates the filmed scenes to existing war documentary, and therefore links his repulsive (but true) argument, which states that humanity’s tolerance for war is based on its weakness for wealth and its ability to mechanically destroy any enemy defined as such, to past wars (and by extension, those who fought and supported those wars). An example of this mechanical cleansing is when Ulysses and Michelangelo mark a building (civilization). A lady (representative of civilization) comes out to sweep the steps in the adjoining building and is gunned down by Ulysses. The reasons? Two. The first is that Ulysses and Michelangelo could; the second is that, in their view, they were following the marching orders of their superiors. Another callous example is when the captured Leninist is shot reciting a poem detailing how slain soldiers would rise to return to their families, explaining that war and their deaths were all a joke and that there were no shells, mines, or forts. (This is in itself an distraction used by the “enemy” (meaning the Leninists) on their own foot soldiers, showing the other side “distracts” their margins of society as well.). As the Leninist lays on the ground, Michelangelo, showing no emotion, ticks off the times she moves before she’s finished off. The act of killing has turned into entertainment.

The precision of this last observation (killing as entertainment) by Godard is currently demonstrated by the Saw franchise and violent video games where killing is both replicated vicariously and franchised as entertainment. This propensity to not only distance ourselves from the emotional baggage involved with killing another human being, but to derive some positive emotional buoyancy (pleasure) from the act is the issue that strikes at the heart of Godard. The purported reason for Les Carabiniers is to show the horrors of war. The real reason for the film is to show the horrors of humanity. In other words, those horrors which are part and parcel of who we are as humans. Horrors that come about because of the nature of humanity, and therefore are bound to repeat themselves throughout our history.

When Ulysses and Michelangelo return from war, their postcards are the only “riches” realized. Like the transitory nature of power, the postcards represent the translucent nature of wealth for those without it, impossible to grasp even when visible. The elongated take of the family trying out their new found “riches” emphasizes the futility of their actions. They are no better off than before the war. The physical spoils of war are reserved for the powerful. Like all those on the fringes of society they are ordained to remain fodder for future endeavors. The film comes full circle when former comrades kill Ulysses and Michelangelo as the seat of power shifts.

It is this coming full circle that addresses the third point the film makes: man’s single-minded efforts to obliterate his fellow man. The consequence of this point is that since the cycle repeats itself, and destruction is mechanically (as in without emotional attachment) achieved without regard to individual identity (for example: the woman sweeping the steps in front of the building), there is no hope for humanity.

A reference has already been made to the earliest weapons of the caveman. In the thousands of years from that time till the Second World War, man’s ability to destroy himself had progressed to the point where hundreds (tens of thousands in the case of the atom bomb) of unidentifiable individuals died during a single indiscriminate (from the point of both the one doing the bombing and the one getting bombed) aerial bombing. Godard includes footage of aerial bombing, offshore shelling, and shelling in general. The point is that advances in killing technology are in lock step with the commensurate emotional distancing during the act of killing. Couple these advances to man’s propensity to subjugate emotional attachment to killing and the potential for a new scale of mass destruction presents itself, which is the warning of Les Carabiniers.

Examples of the above include the indiscriminate bombings and shelling with the killings of individuals as well as the lady sweeping the steps in front of her building. Another example of an unindividuated killing is when one man kills another posting a (wanted) poster on a building. The killer emotionally dispositions his act based on the act the man committed (posting a piece of paper); not with the individual himself. This justification (killing as a means – absent any emotional consequence – to an end) degenerates to one where Ulysses kills a civilian for money to buy a Maserati.

It is this emotional distancing (the means) from the act of killing that the film makes clear is a prerequisite for successful campaigns against competing factions, and is, by itself, sufficient to drive men relentlessly (a shot of Ulysses carrying a wounded Michelangelo across a stream cuts to a shot of a boat relentlessly battling high seas) to ensure their goals (ends) are achieved. The exposition that is the film is that this is a part of our nature we don’t like to acknowledge. The futility is not with war. It’s with human nature.

When the King loses the war, the Prime Minister is put to death, one of the carabniniers is pulled from his jeep and killed, and traitors and war criminals are to be hunted and killed. In short the once powerful are now powerless. The cost of war is not only born by the margins of society. There are no winners in the cycle about to repeat itself. The film ends with Ulysses and Michelangelo realizing (after they are shot to death) that paradise exists only in dreams.

The question remains: Is the future of humanity irretrievably lost? According to Godard, the answer is yes.


The opening scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) establishes his first film is going to be about an “asshole” who has to do what they have to do (“Yes, after all, I’ve got to. I’ve got to!”) What is left for us to decide is whom that person might be and what it is that they have to do.

The person we hear is Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo). This could suggest Michel is the asshole. However, what we see in the frame is a scantily dressed girl on the back page of a newspaper. Her hair and facial features resemble Max’s, revealed to us as Michel’s accomplice in the following shot. Does this make Max the asshole? Or does the girl on the back page stand for all women, making all of them assholes? Or perhaps just the women associated with papers?

It turns out the film answers all of the above, and more, affirmatively.

Michel, we come to learn, is a two-bit gangster living an invented life, both fanciful (name of newspaper he reads from: Paris Flirt) and imaginary (he mimics Bogart’s habit of having an idiosyncratic gesture (for Michel it’s his rubbing his thumb across his lips –a particularly significant gesture as we see later)). It’s a life not only not attainable (“girl” in the newspaper is an “idealized” version of a certain type of woman) but impossible to measure up to (who can measure up to Bogart?).

As the dialogue ends, Michel lowers the paper revealing himself leaning against a security gate. The glass behind the gate initially reflects the city’s skyline giving the impression that Michel is barred from the (loftier) world reflected in the glass. These bit of mise-en-scene primes us for the setting the film plays out in: the world of the two-bit gangster, contained within, but apart from, the loftier world reflected on the other side of the bars. This entrapment in a world determined by circumstance forces Michel to do what he has to do: live the life of a gangster.

This sense of confinement permeates the film and derivatively produces a sense of inevitability. These concepts of entrapment and inevitability are what Godard wishes for us to consider. The question he poses is: Is a two-bit gangster always destined to be a two-bit gangster? And, to what extent are our lives predetermined by circumstance?

Several scenes within the film focus this sense of entrapment/inevitability for us. One is Michel’s discussion with the camera during his (aborted) ride to Paris (in the stolen car) about not disparaging the options at hand (the shore, the mountains, or the city). Michel never disparages opportunities that present themselves. His immediate needs are to get to Paris, pickup his money and his girl, and escape to Italy. When the opportunity to steal a car presents itself, Michel does. When the opportunity to pass a car in a construction zone presents itself, he does. And when the opportunity to kill the policeman presents itself in order to prevent arrest, he does.

But it’s a distance from passing a car to shooting a policemanto death. Godard covers this distance is small discreet steps, each determined from the previous. Passing puts Michel at risk for a traffic violation (which is where the sequence would have stopped for all, except those driving a stolen car), resulting in a chase by policemen on (faster) motorcycles, resulting in a need to turn off the main road, resulting in a jarring ride on a dirt road, resulting in the loss of the shorting wire contact, resulting in Michel lifting the hood of the car, resulting in the trailing cop noticing and entrapping Michel, resulting in Michel - inevitably, or so it seems - shooting the policeman.

This inevitability is predicated by two events in the sequence: Michel stealing the car (impetus for having to outrun the police); and, finding the gun (consequence of stealing a military person’s car, which provides a convenient way to eliminate the threat of prison); and, is presaged when, after Michel states there is “nothing like sunshine” he points the gun at the sun in a mock shot. A (4 second) cut to the open window frames a sun partially obscured by trees. The nondiegetic sounds of a blast startle us into not missing the significance of this shot: Michel is about to darken his horizon.

Each of his decisions after returning to Paris involves getting his money and talking Patricia (Jean Seberg) into running off to Italy with him. And each is at once both an entrapment and inevitable from the point of view of a gangster. For example, Michel gets his money is in the form of a check requiring the necessarily additional step of cashing it. Michel stays already knowing the police have identified him as the killer. The entrapment here is that Michel needs the money to get to Italy. The inevitability is that the police are just a few steps behind him (Godard primes us for this inevitability at the start of the film when a police siren wails as Michel steals the car in the opening scene; and, signals time is running out for Michel when he asks Max for the time) as the iris-in shot highlights.

That the inevitable conclusion to the film is Michel’s death is also presaged several times after Michel arrives in Paris. An example is when, upon arriving, a man is killed in the street (in the next shot Michel opens up the paper to a story about the identification of the policeman’s killer - himself). Another is when Michel informs Patricia that he saw a man die (not clear if he means, the policeman or the man in the street – both could be considered “accidents”). A final example is in Patricia’s apartment when Michel tells her the story of the condemned man after Michel slips off the bed (condemned man slips on the scaffold to the gallows - Michel is that man on the scaffold). Later he tells her that he’s exhausted and is going to die. Clearly, Michel is nearing the end of his rope.

What saves (for 24 minutes) Michel from the police is his stay in Patricia’s room. It’s the perfect hideout for him/imprisonment for both (earlier Patricia had told the man from her newspaper that she didn’t know if she’s sad because she’s not free or vice-versa). In fact, Patricia is as trapped in her own life as Michel is in his. During this scene she wears a shirt with bars across it. Later, she switches shirts for one with vertical stripes, and then puts on Michel’s stripped shirt. Afterwards she appears in a stripped dress.

The most interesting scene in the film is the one that follows. It’s when Godard turns informant and notifies the police of Michel’s presence. The iris-in shot mimics the one before, and not only zeros in on the patrolmen to indicate the noose tightening around Michel, but also to focus on Godard, whose single action was one of informing. The implications are that the film is intended to inform us about Michel. Not Michel the gangster, but Michel the man stuck inside the role of a gangster. This scene not only transcends the gangster genre, but gets to the heart of Godard’s film: can anyone escape the roles assigned by circumstance? Michel’s role, as already alluded to, is that of a gangster. Patricia is assigned the role of information peddler (she hawks papers; later sells Michel’s whereabouts for freedom from police harrassment). The role of the police, the most straightforward, is to punish those that break the rules. The intent is to make clear that it's our roles in life that entrap us.

Later, Michael not only tells us the Gestapo built a wall so nobody could escape (an allusion to escaping our roles in life), but informs us that it’s the natural order of things to have a role that determines how you behave: “Informers inform, burglers burgle, murderous murder and lovers love. In other words, a person is incapable of doing anything that goes against her assigned role in life. And because it’s a fate they cannot escape, they cannot be deemed horrible. In addition to defining the motif of the film, this statement exculpates Patricia (and Godard) when she later informs on Michel to the police.

And it also explains her actions. Patricia is neither a car thief or a gangster. Michel and Patricia were never meant for each other. Their roles don't mesh. Patricia later realizes they (her and Michel) have to separate. We know she knows this is the case when the next morning she leaves for a milk and a newspaper after putting the policemen’s phone number in her pocket. Her “I’m (here’s) looking at you” farewell line to Michel seals it.

After Michel gets shot, his last words (“makes me want to puke”) are directed, not at anyone in particular, but rather the circumstance through which he was locked into leading his gangster life. Which makes all assholes in the sense of going through life locked into inescapable roles. A thoroughly disgusting existence. One that would make anyone want to puke.