Monday, October 31, 2011

Marx and Coca-Cola

Masculin: Mozart, Marx, Bergman. Feminin: coca-cola, pop music, Elle magazine. Comparing the interests of young men to young women side by side, Godard seems to be re-enforcing social norms of the time. Boys tend towards the intellectual and the serious, while girls the shallow and trivial.

Such a reading itself proves shallow when viewed in light of the sociological techniques Godard employs in the film. As Morrey reveals, at the time of shooting Masculin Feminin Godard openly admired Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s notion that a person’s character is not “slowly revealed over time, but was rather immediately present in a person’s acts” (Morrey 89). Godard investigates this argument by featuring a number of unscripted interviews in the film. In each interview, the male characters interrogate the female characters asking questions about socialist political theory and contraception devices. While the questions might seek to expose the shallowness of the female interviewees, instead it exposes the absurdity of the male interrogators questions. The men reveal themselves essentially as escaping the reality of the world around them by seeking a “purer” or “more just” world in the music of the past or radical political ideology. The females, however, with their admiration for pop songs and consumer products, acknowledge the reality of the consumer culture they live in.  

Pop Art/Abstract Expressionist comparisons offer an interesting parallel.  When one views a Pollock painting, one is asked to look beyond the frantic drizzles of paint on the canvas and see into the painter’s soul – his distress and madness. Pop art, such as Warhol’s Campbell soup cans, confronts viewers with reality of the world they live in: one of consumer products and advertisements. One gives a sense of depth in asking the viewer to look “beyond” the image; the other offers no depth in confronting the viewer with naked advertisement. The later technique asks us to critically examine the world in front of us, the former suggests there is meaning below the surface. Like Pop Art, Godard’s sociological approach forces the audience to confront a world of consumer ideology.

– Mike O'Malley

First Assumptions are Jettisoned, a Star is Murdered

Morrey presents the Masculin Féminin as a phenomenological approach to ethnography “complicated by the gender imbalance of Godard’s treatment of these young people” (Morrey 49). Like a few others I was surprised by this reading because on my first viewing I found the film elegant in its complicated portrayal of les enfants de Marx et de Coca-Cola, neither favoring nor discounting the boys or the girls in the film. Upon a second encounter with the film I find the ambivalence Morrey describes to indeed be present and want to explore it a bit.

Morrey states “Love is rarely mentioned in this world and, when it is, it is often summarily dismissed… Paul asks [Mademoiselle 19 ans] if she often falls in love: ‘sûrement pas,’ (certainly not) she replies immediately” (49). Here Morrey explains that the emphatic “no” is in response to love, but it seems clear to me that the “no” is in emphatic opposition to the “often” for reasons of impropriety that become clear in the context of a discussion of birth control.

I believe that Miss 19 actually proves to be rather feminist and independent right in the middle of the capitalist whirlwind. Recall that Paul is the Godard stand-in: when Paul asks if she prefers being Miss 19 more than finishing her degree, she corrects his assumption by saying “I’m happy to say I have both.” When he asks her to choose between the American System and Socialism, she does not, but describes the advantage of the American System is that women have more of a role – even today the role of women in French and American cultures is a point of contention (see the Strauss Kahn affair). Asked if she would like to have children, she says she’s not ready and wants more time for herself and to be independent. Asked what she thinks it means to be reactionary she says she approves of it. This I defend with the fact that she is not particularly political and doesn’t really even know what socialism is. In this context she answers intelligently that she doesn’t like yes-men, meaning people who go along with everything and there needs to be something in place to protect culture and tradition, which if there is anything admirable about the conservative politics in all of history, it is this position. It comes naturally, not as if from a party line Gaullist.

So the question is, is Morrey bending the film to fit his reading? Or even worse, is Godard bending his ethnographic footage in the editing room to fit his reading of the world? If we accept that Godard wants us to scorn Miss 19 for her reactionary, consumer ways because she is labeled a product herself and the (almost canned) laughter in the background, which is difficult not to do, upon a closer inspection of this scene, how can we conclude anything but that Godard is guilty of misogynist oversimplification? 

Perhaps Godard is practicing his cinema thinking: if Paul is the stand-in for Godard who attempts to pigeonhole Miss 19 (and pigeonholes in general) and is unsuccessful, Paul’s death takes on another meaning. Is it that Godard murders him because he discovers that his view is too simple? If so, the film becomes a process of discovery, which causes Godard to throw out his first assumptions (i.e. Paul). In the second to the last scene Paul explains why he has given up the survey gig – by asking these questions he has inserted his own unconscious subjectivity into what should be an objective process and he must instead learn to see the world as it is. Morrey cites Haycock here to suggest that Godard’s confessed failure is in not being truly ethnographic and resorting to fiction, which may be true. It would be a better film though if his confession is for pigeonholing. But perhaps that’s too much to ask an auteur to learn in just one film.

Jerry Prokosch

Cinema, Life, and Stream of Consciousness

Early on in Douglas Morrey’s book Jean-Luc Godard, he mentions Godard’s fascination and some might say obsession with life as it pertains to cinema. This comes toward the end of Morrey’s discussion of Pierrot le Fou (1965) on page 25 of Scenes from a Domestic Life: 1960-1965. Morrey acknowledges this impasse between life and cinema as a paradox, he writes,

The paradox is, if anything, all the stranger in cinema which composes with real bodies, real objects and real light: the film image is that obscure point of convergence where fantasy becomes reality and reality fantasy, where the unconscious desire of both filmmakers and spectators achieve a fleshy incarnation just as the recorded reality recedes behind a fictional representation (25).

I think this citation, one could argue, is at the core of Godard’s efforts. Certainly this does not sum up the entire intricacies of his body of work; however, there is something about the notion of the stream of consciousness that is evident in a Godard film. In several cases, Godard mentions writer William Faulkner, who is well known for his stream of consciousness style, as well as the attention he gave to the use of language. In fact, Faulkner died in the early 60’s and because of Godard’s attention to Faulkner in his films would have been well aware and conscious of his death. Morrey briefly describes Godard’s stream of consciousness writing style that he wrote regarding Pierrot le Fou for Cahiers du Cinema (25). One cannot say exactly how Faulkner’s style influenced Godard, but the relationship is interesting. Morrey acknowledges the relationship between life, cinema, and Godard’s efforts to tackle this impasse in his work. Godard, like Faulkner, found a working methodology in the stream of consciousness. When Godard name-drops Faulkner he does so through this shared methodology. The difference is the medium in which the work is produced. Godard extends upon what Faulkner strived to do in his writing—create a text that is both life and work. Stream of consciousness is no longer language printed to paper, but in the cinema, the stream of consciousness engages with multiple sensory experiences in the form of sound, image, text, and language. Godard was inspired by Faulkner’s efforts to revolutionize the way we think of narrative structure. Cinema allows this paradox, as Morrey says, of real images, and real bodies to become both reality and fantasy.  


Friday, October 28, 2011

Prostitution in Godard films and Enjo-Kosai in Japan

In a couple of Godard's films, namely "2 ou 3 Choses que Je Sais d'Elle" and "Vivre Sa Vie", the main characters are forced into prostitution to supplement their unaffordable lives.  In "2 ou 3 Choses…" it's Juliette, a housewife who has turned to prostitution, who is at the center of the story.  Godard presents a film that can be described as a dramatized documentary that follows Juliette through her day and her life of clandestine prostitution.  He also presents some other characters, including other women that are interviewed.  Godard found inspiration for the story when he came across some articles, which told of the new high-rises built outside of Paris.  These blocks of buildings were constructed to accommodate the new working classes, but when the apartments and other commodities prove too expensive to afford, the housewives would turn to prostitution to supplement their family incomes.  Godard also uses this story as a vehicle to present and discuss (shared themes with his other films up to this point in his career) the themes of capitalism and language.  I just wanted to concentrate on capitalism and how the character of Juliette illustrates it.

Above: Nana with a customer in "Vivre Sa Vie"
Below: Juliette with another prostitute in "2 or 3 Choses..."
The descent into prostitution, for Godard, mimes our growing obsession with objects and the way in which our capitalist society works.  Kaja Silverman says in the book Speaking about Godard that “My Life to Live is concerned with prostitution as a mechanism for enforcing a particular psychic condition” (pg. 20) and that psychic condition is one where no individual has any independent desire of that desire to satisfy that of the other, just like the rule of capitalist economies that “the customer is always right”.  Nana, in Vivre Sa Vie, must accept anyone who pays which reflects our values in society today, which is that money wins over everything.  Things will be sold to the highest bidder.

In “2 ou 3 Choses…” Juliette prostitutes herself in order to buy things such as a designer dress, a car for her husband (presumably since he thought she just got it through great deal making, as he is so ignorant of her extra-domestic activities), and other such things.  Godard “seek[s] to expose the functioning of the capitalist system, for which prostitution serves as a global metaphor…[because]…prostitution is often a system of exploitation manipulated by a third party” (pg. 443, Rochefort and Godard).  The exploiter in “Vivre Sa Vie” is Nana’s pimp, and it is questioned in “2 ou 3 Choses…” but most probably her family although they are ignorant of her actions, they reap the benefits, as well as “American-style imperialism (through advertising)” (pg. 443, Rochefort and Godard).

Japanese schoolgirls

Photo from an editorial about Enjo-Kosai

“2 ou 3 Choses…” is also about how objects are the connections between people now… and this isn’t better illustrated in real life than in Japan (probably one of the most materialistic contemporary societies), where the practice of “enjo-kosai” (compensated dating) is common and accepted to a degree.  Women of all ages engage in Enjo-Kosai, but for the most part, it’s high school girls who trade their charms and company (many of them say they do not engage in sexual activity, some limit it to anything but intercourse) for designer bags, phones and sometimes cash from older men.  It is ‘different’ from prostitution in that the men and girls usually go out on a couple dates and they are compensated in objects as opposed to cash.  It is also quite accepted by society, as there are no hard laws against dating minors and sex with minors under consent in most Japanese towns and cities.  This has spread beyond Tokyo and is quite prevalent in the smaller towns.  Many of the girls involved also find nothing wrong with trading their company and charms for designer goods, since they think they are making the most of what they have.  They treat their bodies like commodities in exchange for other commodities.  The girls list themselves with telephone clubs and on certain websites that are compared to matchmaking services, but with a more menacing connotation.  I think Godard would find this situation in Japan very inspirational for a film concerning the evils of capitalism/materialism, as it’s similar to the articles he read in France more than a half a century ago, but to the exponential degree.

You can find some more information on Enjo-Kosai here: 


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Formal Renewal: Godard and Nietzsche

In an interview entitled "Nietzsche and the Image of Thought", Gilles Deleuze illustrates the way Nietzsche creates new conceptions of thought by introducing new forms to philosophy. This ‘formal renewal’ occurs when the philosopher or artist has something new to say that cannot be enunciated using old forms.  New content demands new form.  Perhaps this is what Nietzsche alluded to by naming his 1888 book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (quoted below).

Interestingly, Deleuze points to Godard as an example of an artist that creates new forms demanded by new content.  He says, “Godard transforms cinema by introducing thought into it.  He didn’t have thoughts on cinema, he doesn’t put more or less valid thought into cinema; he starts cinema thinking, and for the first time, if I’m not mistaken.  Theoretically, Godard would be capable of filming Kant’s Critique or Spinoza’s Ethics, and it wouldn’t be abstract cinema or a cinematic application.  Godard knew how to find means and a new “image”-which necessarily presupposes a revolutionary content”(141).  This “new image” or thought that Deleuze is referring to is the injection of philosophy into film. Not film as a medium for explaining a particular philosophy, but rather, film as thinking, film as philosophy.

Although he does not point to any particular work from Godard, I think this notion of ‘formal renewal’ is an interesting way to approach 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.  For the first time in Godard’s work, the audience does not have any familiar cinematic forms to use as an easy point of entry into the work.  The film serves as an example of a new kind of work that functions within the impossibility of language while thinking that very impossibility.  Godard’s approach here is directly analogous to Nietzsche’s.  The content for each cannot be enunciated with old forms so, like the latter’s need to smash philosophy, Godard must return to cinema year zero.

An Imagined Conversation between JLG and FWN.
I listen to commercials
On my transistor radio
Thanks to E, SS, O,

37. You run on ahead?- Do you do so as a herdsman? or as an exception? 
A third possibility would be as a deserter….
First question of conscience.

I set out calmly on the road to dreams
And I forget the rest.

38.  Are you genuine? or only an actor?  A representative? or that itself which is represented? – Finally you are no more than an imitation of an actor…
Second question of conscience.

I forget Hiroshima,
I forget Auschwitz,

40.  Are you one who looks on? or who sets to work? – or who looks away, turns aside… Third question of conscience.

I forget Budapest,
I forget Vietnam

41.  Do you want to accompany? or go on ahead? or go off alone?...
One must know what one wants and that one wants. –
Fourth question of conscience

I forget the minimum wage,
I forget the housing crisis
I forget the famine in India

42.  For me they were steps, I have climbed up upon them –
therefore I had to pass over them. 
But they thought I wanted to settle down on them…

I’ve forgotten
except that,
Since I am reduced to zero,
It’s from there that I shall have to set out again.

In enacting a ‘formal renewal’ in each of their fields, both artists, in their own unique way, create what John Drabinski calls a primary text (Godard Between Identity and Difference, 2008).  As opposed to secondary texts, which can only reference something previously established, Drabinski sees Godard’s film as primary text in philosophy (xii).  While the notion of 2 or 3 things I Know About Her as philosophy may seem a stretch to some, I think it is safe to reposition Drabinski’s distinction between primary and secondary texts into a discussion of film.  By injecting thought into film with 2 or 3 things, Godard formally renews and creates a primary text in cinema.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Godard and Politics

Andrew Jay Bowe

Rather than apply Debord's historical accounts of the French Situationist movement in "Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency" to a hermeneutical approach to the works of Godard, I would like to look at one way in which the development of Godard's films differs in stylistically and politically from the philosophy of the Situationist movement.

First, I would argue that the Situationist International movement was invested in attacking modern culture. Of which Debord writes, "modern culture has two chief centers in Paris and Moscow" (RCS, 34) and that these trends influence the global status of workers and culture throughout the world. It is in this sense that Debord finds it necessary to "negate the negation" of modern culture's alienation of the individual in high capitalism. This form of negation, of negating the negation, represents a hard line of critical positioning in political philosophy, and asserts that modern conditions of production must be completely revolutionized. 

The early film of Godard, a contemporary of Debord's, is too 'easily' placed within the critical-negative portrayal of modern conditions of production. Within Godard's films, montage sets up a sort of political framework to make connections between a dense consciousness of items ranging from relationships, to advertisement, and to interior design, which allow for one to map out relationships between different forms of consciousness that might be impossible or difficult to develop using any other medium (than film). This form of montage becomes visible in Godard's film  "ou 3 chose que je sais d’elle (1996), where Godard layers urban life, character, and advertisement in such a way as to develop identity as something that undercuts concrete spacial relations. I would argue that because of this form of critique and development, Godard's film operates in a way as to describe reality, rather than to negate the negation of the modern image. Godard doesn't simply look for dead metaphors, obvious examples of hijacking culture, or developing sharp opposition, he makes connections that describe the reality of modern life. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Alpha 60: The Grandfather of "Watson"?

More and more, Alphaville is proving to have been ahead of its time. The video below isn't quite Tarzan VS IBM, but it does represent the company's mission to birth a computer program that could understand language (and syntax) to make a mockery of man's ability to retain information and problem solve. Is Watson just the nucleus for an electronic supreme being? Or is it nothing more than a creation of capitalist greed? Godard may not have predicted this while filming, but the future of artificial intelligence may be less involved within a role of politics than with vaudeville entertainment. Then again, we're only in Watson's beginning stages. Whereas Alpha 60 was great as a futuristic lie detector and watch dog, Watson, remarkably similar in appearance to its "cinematic father figure", has verbal expression down pat. Of course, the human element appears to be missing in both. If anyone is wondering, Watson destroyed his mortal competitors during the week-long challenge, and the show proved to be a ratings success and a hell of an advertisement for IBM.

----Erik Luers

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Surrealism and the Secret Life of Objects

Godard's Alphaville has been described as a genre-bending blend of science fiction and film noir that also culls from pop art, surrealism and German Expressionism. Personally speaking, I perceived the film to be a treatise against the tyranny of rationality, logic and an ultimate call to poetry, and love. But while Godard has been lauded by many for taking on issues that were topical with an almost journalistic zeal, Alphaville has also come in for its fair share of criticism.

One of the sentiments echoed by critics like Pierre Samson is that Godard's vision of a dystopian society is cliched, and that his vision of technological dominance, an all-seeing computer/electronic voice and surveillance heavy city-state was enormously derivative even in the 1960s.  Samson in a scathing critique says, "Godard only chooses the most exterior details, he contents himself with naming things at the expense of knowing how to show them [...] he inhabits the level of a sort of exoticism of automation and modernism". Critics also found the film to be mainfestly reactionary. Godard's championing of humanizing values, and liberty, according to Samson reveals the "Constant temptation to fall back on petit-bourgeois individualism in the face of the fear of the unknown [...] Alphaville is one of the most demoralizing films around. It would like to show us the impossibility of any revolt, the decline of mankind in a controlled economy and the uselessness of all political systems"

However, another way to view the film would be to analyze Godard's choice of locating Alphaville in his present- in Paris in 1965. By choosing to build no elaborate sets, using light creatively and eschewing the  use of special effects, not only does Alphaville escape the fate of most 'futuristic themed films' by managing to look contemporary and relatable even to this day, it also manages to make a philosophical comment on the 'hyper-reality' of our times. In effect, by casting the reality of Paris as a fantasy city, Godard is critiquing a future that has already come to pass.

While an author like Barthes chooses to analyze facets of 'everyday' modern life, like, advertising, celebrity culture, and automobile design to expose the capacity of these structures to create mythologies/deceptions on a mass scale, Godard may also be seen as using  familiar sights of glass and steel buildings, ordinary looking corridors, foyers and architectural elements to make an ironic comment about the nature of our present. As one
of my readings online suggested, in his essay "Simulacra and Science Fiction," Jean Baudrillard says that a postmodern science fiction would put "Models of simulation in place and [...] contrive to give them the feeling of the real, of the banal, of lived experience, to reinvent the real as fiction, precisely because it has disappeared from our life (1994, p 124)." In an ultimate irony, which is likely to please Baudrillard, an essay by Chris Darke, <> finds that an actual gated community by the name of Alphaville actually exists in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where its residents watch the hired help going through security checks on "Alphaville TV" and fly in and out by helicopter to the world outside its walls.

Alphaville can therefore be seen as a hallucination of the real. Moreover, in an excerpt of Alphaville the book – again by Chris Darke – the scholar offers an interesting observation about the surrealistic element in the film; Darke quotes American scholar, James Naremore who draws a parallel between the works of surrealist poet Louis Aragon who said of American crime films that "Speak of daily life and manage to raise to a dramatic level a banknote on which our attention is riveted, a table with a revolver on it, a bottle that on occasion becomes a weapon, a handkerchief that reveals a crime..." In Darke's analysis, Alphaville also reveals the secret life of things, "By featuring a convertible that is an interplanetary craft, a volume of poetry that doubles as a codebook, a cigarette lights that is a Promethean torch, not to mention the $3 Phillips fan, lit from beneath that often represents Alpha 60 when the computer speaks." By doing so, Darke maintains that Godard rediscovers the crux of surrealism – the contamination of reality by the imaginary.

In the final analysis, if one were to go by Godard's own vision of the film, he says, "I didn’t imagine society in twenty years from now, as [H.G.] Wells did. On the contrary, I’m telling the story of a man from twenty years ago who discovers the world today and can’t believe it." And through use of sound, and the camera work by Raoul Coutard, Godard creates a feeling of alienation even as viewers walk through familiar terrains of office corridors, or find themselves in anonymous but recognizable hotel rooms. Science fiction then becomes as real as an office block, or as 'fantastical' as a drive through a deserted roadway.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Guy Debord, SI, and Punk Rock

Greil Marcus has written extensively about the history of punk rock in the UK and the US. It is a happy coincidence that he starts us of on our readings regarding the SI this week. In his book, "Lipstick Traces" he posits that the punk rock movement is a direct and natural outgrowth of the situationists. After reading more about the SI, I am beginning to connect the dots myself.

Fed up with every day life and the bourgeois cultural usurpation of everything at one time deemed radical, the situationists sought to create settings in which authenticity, new emotions and understandings would be discovered. Whole cities were planned by members of the SI, designed with the intention of it's citizens playing games and discovering things about their neighbors they never knew, they never knew. Utopian playgrounds with climate controlled gardens, as proposed by Constant, were the answer to the crisis in social relations in urban centers. All in the name of a radical break with consumptive capitalism.

In my view this is a very "pie in the sky" approach to undoing the passivity (or as some argue the consumptive activation) and questionable morals propagated by the spectacle. However, the SI stands as a fresh & radical break with everything. For all the criticism they have received over the years, one can see how their genuine reflections on a morally bankrupt society were at one time so alluring. They hated the careerist intellectuals! They hated the rule makers! They hated advertisement! They hated on everyone! "The fact is that the writing the the situationists left behind makes almost all present-day political and aesthetic thinking seem cowardly, self-protecting, careerist and satisfied. It remains a means to the recovery of ambition." -G.M. (Pg 18)

I've got television
I've got supervision
No decisions for you
Media Blitz-Media Blitz
Immediate hits we rule!


Friday, October 7, 2011

"One Should Put Everything into a Film"

Inspired by Oz’s post on Godard and the nature of translation, I wanted to mention this article by Samuel Bréan from the current issue of Senses of Cinema about Godard’s latest work Film Socialisme.  In this film Godard pushes the presence of subtitles to the fore by subverting the commonplace use for them as a translating tool.  As he distorts the exact (if there is such a thing) translation into what he terms “Navajo English”, the subtitles cease to be a perceived addition to the film existing primarily to assist viewers and transform into an essential element of the film itself.  Godard seemingly has acknowledged the fact that the film, which has dialogue in over 10 languages, will only be shown with subtitles so it only makes sense that they should be part of the film- not an add on to be supervised by a subtitler. 

Subtitles, as we have noted in class, tend to distort the language of the film due to the limiting nature of translation.  With Film Socialisme, Bréan argues “if Godard took the principle of reduction inherent to subtitling to an extreme (and added other peculiarities of his own), it is, among other things, to show how relative it is to try and assess a film without acknowledging the inevitable changes in perception caused by subtitling.”

A rather fascinating article, Bréan tracks Godard’s approach to the issue of translation from Breathless to the present and also considers the debate as to whether the DVD release of Film Socialisme should have 'full’ subtitles rather than, or in addition to, the Navajo English.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Qu'est-ce que c'est degueulasse?

In the films we have view thus far in the semester there seems to be an emphasis on the complexity of language. In our reading, Morrey asserts that another theme, death, cannot be appropriated, that it is unknowable. I feel the same way about the representation of language in the films of Godard. Language presents a mystery that our characters wrestle with and attempt to overcome. 

In the final scene of À Bout de Souffle communication is obscured by Michel’s death. The translation that the police officer offers to Patricia is clumsy and careless. Ultimately even this translation is futile as Patricia still does not fully understand. For me this highlights the inert value of words. They are merely placeholders for ideas, not complete in and of themselves. We speak and we think we are being understood, we think we are communicating, but in the films we have watched thus far, that communication is anything but certain. The elusive nature of language seems to be a recurring theme in much of Godard’s work. 

Godard explores this theme further in Vivre sa Vie. Nana speaks with the philosopher Brice Parain in a café as they discuss the essence of communication and thought. Here Nana, as a stand in for Godard, questions the need for communication, and expresses a desire to live in silence stating  “the more one talks the less words mean”. For me, Godard presents language as kind of an antagonist.  They are complex packages of meaning, threatening to misrepresent all meaning in cinema. They require a work and finesse beyond the immediacy of film. Nana questions, “Do words betray us?” Is true communication futile? 

All of the films that we have watched this semester have touched on the problem of language. Whether it be miscommunication in films like À Bout de Souffle and Le Mépris, or even subtle plays with words. This playfulness can be seen in small ways, like in Alphaville.  where Nueva York, the Spanish pronunciation is substituted for either the French or the English. This signals to me a deeper fascination with interpretation. Godard represents language in his films very much the same way he wishes to represent film itself, as something that is dynamic. This reminds me of Barthes and his firm belief that the written word should be played with, revisited and mulled over. Here too we can say the same about dialogue, it is never fixed and offers many different manifestations each contextualizing the characters and action is subtly different ways.

In other cases is feels as though Godard casts language as the outright villain. In Alphaville for example Natacha indicates that the bible, actually a constantly evolving dictionary, loses words that are perceived to elicit emotion. The words are subsequently removed and banned. Alphaville seems to bring to life the kind of world that Nana wishes  for in Vivre sa Vie, however it turns out to be a frightful dystopia.

This has been a recurring problem for myself. I tend to focus too much on what is being said literally rather than what is being said in between the lines. I scan the dialogue in hopes that they will provide clarity, but in cases like Alphaville and Le Mépris I think Godard would argue just the opposite. I think he would say that perceived concreteness of words serve to obscure meaning.

This idea reminds me of the film Waking Life by Richard Linklater. In it he delves more into the philosophy of words. The character here states that “Creativity arises from imperfection”, perhaps that is why Godard chooses his unscripted and spontaneous approach. His frustration with the status quo of filmmaking allowed him to strive for something much different, a new form of communication. The reference in Vivre sa Vie to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Oval Portrait seems to underscore this point. The price of perfection is demise. For Godard, to painstakingly craft a perfect story down to the smallest detail is precisely to take out of that story what it is that makes it alive.

This to me encapsulates the character of these early films. Language, like film is often misunderstood. People speak all the time to each other and think they know what language is, and how to communicate. But much like Godard showed audiences a cinema that they did not know existed, he also encourages him to rethink their relationship with language and by proxy their own thoughts. As Nana and Parain’s conversation emphasizes the need of language in our thought process, but if Nana is right and words do betray us, don’t our thoughts also? 

Oz Skinner

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sex and Desire on a Film Set in the Age of Auterism: Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt

Over the years there has been much said, praised, debated, misinterpreted, and altered when discussing what the French critics in Cahiers du Cinema once labeled as the "politique des auteurs". Believing that a film's director was the key voice and visionary behind a particular film, the auteur theory praised artistic distinction and power, thus creating an endless hegemonic structure over all film sets. In theory, a pantheon of greats could do as they wished. Unfortunately, if not given final cut, the director's pull decreased and was left at the mercy of the greedy, know-it-all studio execs with a hunch for what the public wanted. Too many cooks in the kitchen does not a good meal make. In his 1963 film Contempt (original French title: Le Mepris), a story very much about filmmaking, Jean-Luc Godard plays with the idea of power in the movie world in a delightfully sexy and kinetic way. A woman between two men, the lead heroine, married to a meek, humbled screenwriter, begins an affair with a ravishing, big shot American producer who orders her husband around. Has she fallen out of love with her spouse for his lack of power or for the Don Juan producer's position of strength? Godard crafts a film about desire for the new, the foreign, rather than one about respect for the old and familiar.

In the motion picture industry the role of the screenwriter is quite low on the creative totem pole. He writes (or in Contempt's case, adapts) a story for the screen and then sells his work to producers who will do with it as they wish. Throughout the course of filming, the screenwriter may be asked to do specific rewrites. If he refuses, someone else will be brought in to do them instead. The screenwriter is expendable. Paul, our screenwriter lead in Contempt, knows this all too well. Artistically castrated and at the mercy of Jerry, the arrogant American producer, Paul goes through each day yearning for his former "glory" days as a playwright and author of pulp crime novels. He hasn't adjusted well to not being in control (in his previous writing jobs, he had the creative power but less of a financial gain to show for it). Perhaps this is why, having given up and gone through each passing day as a lowly yes man, Paul has his beautiful, twenty-eight year old wife Camille take an intimate ride with Jerry early in the picture. He is giving her over to him as a sign of cowardice; Camille recognizes this moment and immediately changes her demeanor. The mystery of what occurs between her and Jerry throughout this car ride and their brief time spent together afterward haunts a large portion of the film.

It becomes obvious that Paul wants to have the control that Jerry possesses and surrenders his wife to express camaraderie. As Godard would ironically have it, Paul will lose the girl but not gain the power. When Camille eventually goes to this other man, Paul gains enough courage (and becomes more masculine?) to quit the production and go about working on the projects he truly believes in. Unfortunately, to gain this artistic freedom, Camille had to be removed from his life. The fact that he had her taken away unwillingly says much about his lack of knowing what he really wants. He either desires to be with Camille or to be Jerry's doppelganger. By the film's end, he is left with nothing.

Godard cast Brigitte Bardot, at least in part, for her international sex symbol status. His film makes this clear in her various scenes of undress — in some shots, she seems to be portrayed as an unobtainable naked angel from the heavens. Her character's inclusion gives the story a sense of lust and mystery, providing much of the necessary conflict for the film. Camille represents what both men want but neither can have. Paul constantly wants to please her and keep her happy while Jerry simply wants to bed and conquer his cheap screenwriter's wife. The politics of a film's production trickles down to the private lives of its makers. Viewers may be correct in  suspecting that Paul wants to or has had a fling with Jerry's noble translator/assistant, and this furthers the belief that Paul envies the man who signs his checks (one time quite literally on the assistant's bent over back).

The auteur theory was created to give credit where credit was due. In Contempt's film within a film, the director Fritz Lang plays himself as old, tired, and flustered. He is a director that does as Jerry tells him. One glance will pretty much tell you that his days of musical beds has long since passed. Camille's affection then becomes a prize to be wrestled over by a writer and a producer, a man out of his element versus a seasoned pro. The audience may personally feel that she is right for neither man, but one certainly deserves more empathy than the other. In Contempt, Godard presents a screenwriter as the tragic hero, the misguided lover, auteur theory be damned.

----- Erik Luers

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Emphasis of Titles, the Structures of Language, the Difficulties of Translation and the Authenticity of Choice

I find the English translation of Vivra sa vie to be misguided.  It emphasizes the misleading nature of language.  My Life to Live asserts a first-person, Nana.  The original French title is an observation of Nana in the third-person translated as To live her life/She lives her life.  The English title predetermines a sense of complete agency in her situation as opposed to an observational allowance of an individual as she enacts her limited potential choices “in a world defined by men, money, sex without love, and violence.”[1]  How could these two possessive pronouns, “my” and “her”, be interpreted through the filmmaking itself?  “My” could be more point-of-view shots and “Her” could be more observational as this film predominantly demonstrates.  As Morrey writes: “Vivre sa vie is probably the most austere of Godard’s films: there is a simplicity, a rigour, even a minimalism to the way many of its scenes are shot that resembles Bresson.”[2]  The translated title may seem a mute point, although, when we, as English speakers/translators, first approach this film it is through the title, which is presented as a lens of a first-person agency of assertion as opposed to a third-person external witnessing.  This film predominantly witnesses from the outside.  A title with a first-person possessive pronoun subverts the innate essence of the existentialist approach that Godard approached with his filmic vision and execution. Therefore, I believe the English translation to be categorically wrong in consideration of the essence of this film.

(Same as the French title)

This is my life

The history/story/narrative of Nana S.

On agency and authenticity, what is so particularly authentic about choosing a life of prostitution?  If Nana forged her path as a lone prostitute then maybe this choice would be more individuated, however, she submits into a line of work that is governed by larger social forces, including a pimp and government regulation through registration and required physical check-ups.  And further, this film is populated with other women who have made this choice- whether situated on the street, in the hotels or referenced through Nana’s cursive letters as she writes to a madam in the café scene.  Assuming the life of a prostitute may run counter to popular beliefs but it is a far cry from a revolutionary act. Indeed it is an age-old profession with a well-known, intimate social function.  If, on the other hand, she assumed the role of a dominatrix, I would definitely consider this choice as an authentic step at that time, and probably even now.  However, becoming a dominatrix would suggest a state of power within her social environment, in as such, her choice of prostitution is directly reflective of her limitations within her social setting and the limited potential choices of her sex, of her femaleness.  Although she is living her life and accruing her “essence” it is not a remarkably unique path, albeit authentic. 

Lastly, once Nana’s body is dominated by someone else (whether through her clients in sex or most importantly through her pimp), her choices are inherently out of her control.  She is physically out of control of her body and of her physical realm.  In contrast, one could argue that by becoming prostitute, she has taken total responsibility of herself and her body.  However, I find this argument weak given that there is a pre-existent, male dominated, system of power under which she falls as a prostitute worker.  And further, her lack of control is announced in advance in the tableaux that predict the actions before they happen.  Morrey writes of the Bressonian nature of the predictive 12 tableaux: “One might attribute a different motivation to Godard’s adoption of this technique, for example showing how Nana is caught up in a causal chain of events that is beyond her control…”.[3]  Because of her inherent reducibility to her body (because she is a woman) and because this body is out of her control, does she truly have choices?  Do these tableaux predictions further efface the very argument of her freedom of choice? As I wrote in a post from last Fall, Godard focuses on prostitution as a choice/non-choice within a capitalist system.[4]  And as Morrey quotes from Steve Cannon: “prostitution represents the basic condition of labour under capitalism.”[5]  I don’t view Nana as making unique choices, but choices nonetheless.  This we all do; she does; he does; they do.  And in doing so, are responsibility and acquiescence of one’s life situation dissimilar actions or blurred borders of convergence? 

I find the nuances in these posters fascinating in response to the particular translation.

[1] “Vivre Sa Vie”, Siew Hwa Beh, 185.
[2] Jean-Luc Godard, Douglas Morrey, 40.
[3] Ibid, 41.
[4] See  my blog post: “Femini masculine”, Monday, November 29, 2010.
[5] Ibid, 42.