Sunday, September 12, 2010

Breathless in Context

Alongside changing attitudes towards cinema, there are a number of developments in art and culture in the post-WWII period that could be interesting to consider in relation to Godard’s oeuvre, such as the philosophical school known as existentialism; the attempts by the Lettrists (and then the Situationists) to re-activate and re-purpose the strategies and goals of the avant-garde movements of the 1910s and 1920s (Futurism, DADA, Surrealism); John Cage’s incorporation of improvisation and chance into musical composition; the emergence of what came to be known as “free jazz” in the late 1950s, and so on. Peter Wollen, in his essay “JLG,” suggests another. Wollen notes that what he found particularly striking about Breathless when he saw it during its first theatrical run in the UK in 1960, besides the fact that it seemed to be continuation of Godard’s critical writings for Cahiers du cinéma, was its possible relation to developments in the English art scene that would result in the now famous 1956 exhibition This is Tomorrow. (It was this exhibition that first led to the coinage of the term Pop Art.) As Wollen notes, there was a fascination in Europe at this time with bourgeoning American consumer culture in all its beauty and superficiality. Many of the European artists involved in the This is Tomorrow exhibition – most famously, Richard Hamilton (see artworks below) – attempted to appropriate elements from American popular culture and give them a different meaning or value. Wollen suggests that Godard is attempting a similar strategy in Breathless as the filmmaker audaciously mixes quotations or citations from both “high” and “low” culture. In Breathless we find a “perverse mixture of modernism with B-movies” (Wollen 2002: 74), nowhere more evident than in the scene when Michel and Patricia attend a screening of Budd Boetticher’s 1959 b-western Westbound in which Godard substitutes for the film’s dialogue excerpts from poems by Guillaume Apollinaire and Louis Aragon (the former a favorite of the surrealists, the latter one of the original members of the surrealist group). (A variation of this will be found in a later Godard film Pierrot le Fou when the American filmmaker Samuel Fuller makes an appearance in a party scene playing himself, speaking lines that sound very Fulleresque, but at the same time claiming to be in Paris to make a film based on – of all things – Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil!) Already in Breathless, Wollen argues, we find Godard experimenting with certain techniques of collage, techniques that he will come to align increasingly with those of cinematic montage. (More on this later.)

This is Tomorrow was organized by a collective known as the Independent Group who were affiliated with the ICA in London. The idea for the exhibition was to bring together artists in diverse fields (painters, architects, designers, musicians, et al.) and have them work in teams to present works that would reflect on modern culture and its eminent transformation. There is a lot of detailed information on the web both about the Independent Group and the This is Tomorrow exhibition if one is interested. I’m simply going to reproduce here three works by its most famous participant, Richard Hamilton. The middle work (Interior II) is particularly interesting, vis-à-vis Breathless, because it combines painting and collage, including – as one of its appropriated images – a photographic reproduction of the Hollywood actress Patricia Knight as she appeared in Douglas Sirk’s film noir Shockproof (1949). This is not unlike the way Godard "appropriates" Jean Seberg (whom he had seen and admired in two Otto Preminger films) and transplants her into a new and strange terrain, one of his own devising. 


1 comment:

  1. Here I would like to add Marcel Duchamp's theory and practice of his experiments known as 'readymade' objects. More to come...