Tag Archives: Drama

To the Wonder

To the Wonder

To the Wonder (2012)

Magnolia Pictures

Director: Terrence Malick

Main Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem


In a way, this film is perhaps the most abstract possible art house take on a typical daytime soap opera, and also the most beautifully photographed.  Terrence Malick continues to structure his films through the fragmented flashback approach of The Tree of Life.  Though here he takes up the challenge of applying his penchant for beautiful images to a setting of dingy exurban American neighborhoods, with their imposing power line towers, rivers contaminated with toxic waste, and nearby landfills.  But To the Wonder is as much pastiche and tribute as anything.  There are the metonymns of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially in the American exurban southern plains settings with their bleak declining economic prospects — some of these bits of the plot resemble the contemporaneous The Promised Land — which parallel the relationship of the protagonists.  There is also ample reference to late-period Godard — the long shots of sunsets and water, a bit like Helas pour moi, the “mature” and “boring” relationship focus of Sauve qui peut (la vie) and Goodbye to Language (which actually came out later), or even his 1971 TV commercial for aftershave.  Following Robert Bresson, the performers in the film are more like “models” than “actors”.  Neil (Affleck) barely says a word the entire film, which is fine.  In fact, aside from disembodied voice-overs (mostly in French), there is almost no dialog between on-screen characters at all.

This film, if nothing else, is about emotion and desire.  The characters struggle to control and take responsibility for their own desires.  What do they want their lives to mean?  While it is tempting to look at Marina’s (Kurylenko’s) catholic faith as an affirmation of accepting religion to guide her, Malick does problematize her religious faith somewhat.  Her prior marriage is held against her by the church.  She perhaps wants the church to guarantee meaning in her life.  She seems to give up that futile hope somewhere along the way.  The Father Quintana (Bardem) character, though pasted onto the main story a bit, is key.  The presentation is indelicate, with its parade of downtrodden figures presented near the conclusion of the film, but when Quintana goes around to help the poor and marginalized, he simply does it without any recognition or even any sorrow.  And this character (who perhaps speaks as much or more than any other in the film, aside from the voice-overs) always helps others and asks them to persevere in working with each other.  He often does these things to a congregation of just a few people, the pews mostly empty.  One of his parishioners tells him she prays for him to have joy, because he seems to have none.  But his perspective, a rather unfashionable one, seems to connect with the two main characters by the end of the film.  They at least pause to reconsider their visions of romantic relationships, and commit to work at them.

The perspective Malick seems to put forward might be explained with reference to G.K. Chesterton‘s “Introduction to the Book of Job,” about the old testament biblical character of Job.

“God will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe. To startle man God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things He has Himself made. This we may call the third point. Job puts forward a note of interrogation; God answers with a note of exclamation. Instead of proving to Job that it is an explicable world, He insists that it is a much stranger world than Job ever thought it was.  ***  Here in this Book the question is really asked whether God invariably punishes vice with terrestrial punishment and rewards virtue with terrestrial prosperity. If the Jews had answered that question wrongly they might have lost all their after influence in human history. They might have sunk even down to the level of modern well educated society. For when once people have begun to believe that prosperity is the reward of virtue their next calamity is obvious. If prosperity is regarded as the reward of virtue it will be regarded as the symptom of virtue. Men will leave off the heavy task of making good men successful. They will adopt the easier task of making out successful men good.  *** The Book of Job is chiefly remarkable . . . for the fact that it does not end in a way that is conventionally satisfactory. Job is not told that his misfortunes were due to his sins or a part of any plan for his improvement.”

The way Chesterton interprets to story of Job is to say that when Job demands an explanation from god about why he suffered so, god responds with a “that’s such a ‘first world’ problem” sort of answer!  It isn’t that god operates on a level beyond human understanding, which is the more conventional interpretation of the story.  Job’s suffering and misfortune is insignificant in a universe full of such things.  And so it is with Neil and Marina.  Yes their relationship is fraught, but of what importance is their failure to hold together a stupid, happy nuclear family in the face of a universe of (much greater) suffering?

This point is underscored, in a different way, in a scene in which Marina’s friend walks through a neighborhood with her, and suggests she make a calculated bid for her own happiness, just the way Chesterton suggests that god’s explanation of the creation of the universe is blasphemous, a kind of calculated wager in which god performs all sorts of selfish acts in preparation for his own battle of armageddon without much concern for the suffering inflicted along the way.  Marina ultimately doesn’t accept that sort of narcissism, though she toys with it briefly.

There is an amazing unfinished novella by Andrey Platonov titled Happy Moscow, in which a parachutist — a glamorous occupation in its 1920s Soviet Union setting — named Moscow Chestnova goes to work building a subway and is maimed, then goes to live with a derelict and helps him get on with his bleak life.  The story is so compelling because of its arc away from personal achievement and recognition.  Chestnova accepts the lowest possible social position and helps others as a kind of gray duty.  She finds nothing unhappy in a landscape usually considered dystopian.  This is what “happy” Moscow looks like!  The tenor of Platonov’s  story recalls a little bit the Lao Tzu saying that a good person is like water, always going to the lowest places where no one wishes to be, benefiting everyone and harming no one, without striving.  This humble, unglamorous sense of duty is lurking behind many of the scenes in the film.

The melodramatic story of To the Wonder repeats age-old wisdom, suggesting that ascending steps “to the wonder” and the rush of “new romantic love” need to give way to hard work at relationships, and on one’s own desires and subjective reactions to objective circumstance.  But the film addresses all this on the level of emotion and feeling.  It might be fair to call it “trite”, but only when looking at the premise from a cerebral and intellectual position, which is what this film challenges the viewer to reject.  I think this is most true of the semi-urban modern landscapes.  Can the viewer choose to find the beauty in those images and be awed by that beauty?  Can the viewer find a sense of wonder and awe in “trite”, common human situations?

At a deeper level, the film suggests that the main couple’s original desire was built around just the simple pleasures of their tryst and its playful, romantic games so characteristic of “new love”, and any long-term relationship was really perceived as some bonus or unexpected surplus, a kind of insatiable gap of unconscious social expectations never satisfied or bridged by the simple pleasures.  Even the couple’s other affairs that happen later suggest a conscious pursuit of simple sensual pleasures and no more, yet a fundamental void remained unfulfilled by those pleasures because they hadn’t grasped that they were bound to further social expectations.  This is what the film questions.  By the end, the main characters have started to probe and understand their desires, and they decide for themselves to build relationships (though it is ambiguous if that means staying together, or seeking other partners, given the film’s non-linear chronology), accepting simple pleasures along the way for what they are.  The broken flashback approach strengthens this conclusion, by suggesting the memories of simple pleasures remain, re-contextualized in the face of new desires that really go beyond what they were originally.  So, the ultimate choice is one different from imposed social expectations, to instead fashion lives/relationships on the couple’s own terms, but making that choice consciously and without the traumatic, insatiable emptiness of having to constantly convince themselves that they want to accede to social pressures to have a “stable nuclear family” required making the “wrong” choice first.  Like Moscow Chestnova in Happy Moscow, they ultimately opt for a kind of dingy view of relationships, stripped of the glamour of some idealized and unobtainable social conception of the perfect marriage, but with a sense of mutual duty and recognition of what are not fundamental needs, and no demand for martyr status or vindication for past suffering.  (For what it’s worth, episodes in season three of the cartoon TV show Rick and Morty dealing with the character Beth focus on similar issues).  Maybe the ambiguity of the film’s ending suggests that the main characters see relationships as only fleeting, grasped when they can be and relinquished when the cannot hold.  Thankfully, there is no didactic characterization in the film.

Unlike Malick’s early films, which tended to take aim at shibboleths of modern society in ways that had parallels in the counter-culture and high art, To the Wonder is rather more daring in its use of “lowbrow” melodrama, juxtaposed against high-concept cinematography of the type that appeals primarily to viewers who normally look down upon melodrama.  This may be one of Malick’s least regarded late-period films.  But it has things to offer, even if, no, it isn’t up to his first three features — though few films are.  Most detractors seem to focus on the characters being thin, undeveloped or uncompelling, or something like that, but those criticisms seem to miss the point in that they are meant to be shells without their own positive desires, which they try (and at least initially fail) to construct.

Jim Thorpe -All American

Jim Thorpe -All American

Jim Thorpe -All American (1951)

Warner Bros.

Director: Michael Curtiz

Main Cast: Burt Lancaster, Charles Bickford, Jim Thorpe


On the one hand, this film admirably portrays the life of a native american.  On the other hand, it is highly problematic.  There are some decent acting performances, but the score is tedious Hollywood pap.  The script is the biggest problem.  First of all, it is not very historically accurate, sacrificing facts to develop melodramatic plot points.  But the worst thing about it is that the story is designed to emphasize personal failings to diminish the nagging problem of racism.  Now, the film does address racism.  But it is brought up mainly as a “strawman” to be knocked down in favor of a formulaic personal struggle narrative arc.  It presents Thorpe’s life as one of him being too emotionally weak to succeed (in the face of racism, personal tragedies).  To draw an analogy, this is premised on the Louis Armstrong model — a great individual can overcome all institutional and social obstacles (racism) just by being personally talented enough in ways that are non-threatening to social power structures.  This is essentially a parallel of the “Talented Tenth” theory of W.E.B. Du Bois (later disavowed) and the questionable advocacy of Booker T. Washington.  In other words, without any irony, Thorpe is merely expected to have a superhuman willpower and resolve to overcome discrimination.  The real-life Jim Thorpe was subject to a level of discrimination well beyond anything depicted in the film, and the film would have been much better if it addressed that (and had a better score).  For that matter, one would hardly realize from the film that its timeline runs through the Great Depression.  Anyway, fortunately in the coming years there were other, sounder ways of looking at these sorts of questions gaining traction (see Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, etc.).

Arrival

Arrival

Arrival (2016)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Main Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker


This sci-fi film has roughly the feel of Contact (1997), with a bit of The Tree of Life (2011) thrown in for good measure. Credit goes to the many members of the crew who make this a marvel of technical skill. But the script falls apart in confusion as the film goes on. The central story line involves the arrival of extra-terrestrials to Earth, and the attempts of humans to communicate with the aliens. The protagonist is Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist brought in by the U.S. military. A central plot point involves invocation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a real-life theory that is stretched to absurd lengths in the film. This is precisely where the film fails.  Rather than the grand tradition of using sci-fi scenarios to open space to discuss wholly realistic human social concerns otherwise barred from “respectable” discourse, Arrival reverts to empty deployment of “magical” actions. Actually, from the beginning to roughly the middle of the film, it seems almost that it will be about something that was in Stanisław Lem’s classic sci-fi novel Solaris that was excised from every film version — that humans are unable to comprehend “otherness” (explicitly that of aliens, but implicitly of other humans). But that would seem to be beyond what Hollywood permits, so by the end the plot gets dumbed down to pointless time-travel drivel.

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Canal+

Director: Ken Loach

Main Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires


One of the best “straight narrative” films I’ve seen in a while — reminiscent in some ways of Mathieu Kassovitz‘s La Haine [Hate] (1995). Basically, the premise of the film comes from Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward‘s theory about social welfare programs being about politically “regulating the poor” rather than solving the problems that create poverty.  (It is a modern twist on something that people have written about for a long time). In that respect, the film is meant to convey how the politicians who intentionally — though never explicitly, that is, they never openly admit as much — seek to implement policies that are ultimately cruel to the poor and trap them in extreme poverty have “blood on their hands”. At the extreme end of that spectrum, historically, would be the imperialist British policies in India during the late Victorian era, in which British support for native Indians was at levels less than what the Nazis gave to concentration camp prisoners during WWII (!).  While the film’s narrative is pared back from all the complexities of the real world, notably racial animosities used to prevent the kinds of solidarity repeatedly shown in the film, there is nothing far-fetched in the story.  The concision is understandable for a film meant to be accessible.

The most blunt premise of the film is unabashedly political: “Does the masses’ struggle for emancipation pose a threat to civilization as such, since civilization can thrive only in a hierarchical social order? Or is it that the ruling class is a parasite threatening to drag society into self-destruction, so that the only alternative to socialism is barbarism?” Slavoj Žižek, Afterword to Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin From 1917 (p. 210). This film argues the latter. And the way it does so is to magnificently depict the so-called “banality of evil”, the way the Kafkaesque bureaucracy mostly turns a blind eye to the callousness of its action in exchange for a (semi) privileged position above those who bear the burdens.  It also bears mentioning that I, Daniel Blake makes very modest demands.  For instance, the film goes to great lengths to depict the protagonist as someone who has skills (he is a carpenter) who simply can’t work because of a health condition (he recently had a major heart attack), as opposed to defending, say, someone who has no skills but still deserves to be treated with dignity.  In other words, the film goes out of its way to make clear it is not endorsing the notion of “to each according to her needs, from each according to her abilities.”  It might well have.

A few words for non-British viewers are in order.  The plot involves the protagonist seeking social welfare benefits after his doctor says his recent heart attack means that he cannot safely work.  In England, there is a national health service (i.e., socialized medicine), meaning that the (unseen) doctor who gives that diagnosis is a government doctor.  The welfare officials who deny him benefits constitute a vying faction of the government.  What isn’t made explicit in the film is that the Tory (conservative) government of David Cameron had gone to great lengths to purposefully undermine social welfare benefits, for ideological reasons.  Those sorts of cruel efforts continued in various arenas under the Theresa May government.

Legion

Legion

Legion (2017- )

Fx

Director: various

Main Cast: Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Bill Irwin, Jeremie Harris, Amber Midthunder


Here is an example of television living up to some of its potential.  Legion, a flagship “prestige” show made by some of the largest media companies in history, mostly succeeds.

The show has the production values of cinema rather than of most things on television.  The basic sitcom-style show is presented as filmed theater.  Think of the “filmed before a live studio audience” approach.  There are edits and one or more cameras, but the camera is like a “neutral” observer of a space in which actors work through a script.  In contrast, nearly every (season one) episode of Legion has a long slow-motion sequence, a montage of close-ups of inanimate objects, etc. There are many elaborate sets and costumes, and numerous episodes have scenes filmed on location outdoors.  There is also extensive integration of music to help convey meaning/perspective rather than just set a mood — the soundtrack is most impressive.  These are common devices, but they are common to cinema rather than TV.  In fact, most of the series can fairly be called pastiche.  Everything is old, sometimes knowingly old.  But this is not a drawback (copping from They Live is a great idea, for instance).

The cast is excellent.  The characters are good too.  Jemaine Clement as the pretentious wanna-be beatnik is delicious.  Bill Stevens is excellent as the lead, though Aubrey Plaza kind of steals the show in the last half of the first season.  While some of the casting could be called multicultural pandering, it resists such labels — rather than the dubious Commander Chakotay character on Star Trek: Voyager, we have the ass-kicking mutant Kerry Loudermilk (Midthunder).

As to the story, well, it poses some fascinating questions, even if the quasi-resolution of the first season falls back on boring convention.  Much of the show is set in mental hospitals, and relies extensively on scenes involving psychological therapy sessions.  (Fredric Jameson posited such things as being a key part of an American Utopia).  A central question is whether the main character is insane/schizophrenic or a powerful mutant with magical powers.  The way this is presented across the first five episodes is to suggest that the main character’s entire personality is constructed to create a certain appearance to the outside world.  Actually, this parallels a crucial insight of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan!  Personality is an attempt to cover the void of being.  The last few episodes draw away from this, turning instead toward a pagan “endless battle between good and evil” motif.  But even in the last episodes, the show openly acknowledges that the main character being encouraged to reconsider his entire life of memories from the standpoint of being a misunderstood demi-god rather than as a mentally defective wreck might well be manipulative pandering or self-serving empowerment fantasy (or both).

The first season does grind to a halt somewhat in episode six, but picks up again in the last few episodes, only to falter as the series bends over backwards to leave the main plot unresolved to allow for later seasons (though it does this less obnoxiously than The Strain, for instance).  This would have been better conceived as a mini-series than a multi-season series, probably.  But it does deserve credit for being among the more complexly “adult” level comic/superhero/sci-fi productions of its day, even more so than franchise-related films.

The Pursuit of Happyness

Thr Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Columbia Pictures

Director: Gabriele Muccino

Main Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith


The Pursuit of Crappyness?

The Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, based on a memoir by Chris Gardner, is meant to be a heartwarming tale of overcoming adversity, and all that.  Of course, another way to view it is as a polemic of dubious realism and accuracy extolling the worldview of the wealthy (the book on which the film was based was written by someone who was a multimillionaire).  This is one long conservative trope, on film.

Will Smith plays a Navy veteran living with his wife (Thandie Newton) and son in San Francisco, trying to sell off an inventory of bone density scanners they purchased with their life savings while he pursues an unpaid internship at a securities and investment brokerage firm.  He struggles to sell his wares and to get a job interview.  His wife leaves (she is portrayed unsympathetically).  He demands that their son stay with him.  He does get the internship, after showing up to the interview in tattered closes covered in paint after being held in jail for an unpaid parking ticket.  But, as he undertakes the internship, he has little or no money.  He ends up homeless after the IRS attaches his bank account for failure to pay taxes.  He and his son live in a church-run homeless shelter.

The storyline is highly selective, implausible in places, and is mostly invested in isolated scenes of intensely emotional acting.  In other words, it is emotionally manipulative and counterfactual.  Numerous key scenes are deus ex machina — information available online suggests that the film modifies/distorts key real-life events.  Certainly, some scenes are simply implausible wholly apart from any origins in a memoir.  There is never any explanation given as to why the protagonist does not seek welfare or other public social services, or why he persists in pursuing an unpaid internship rather than another line of remunerative work (and, at least by today’s standards, the unpaid internship is illegal — the employer derives benefit form the interns cold-calling prospective clients, and the interns are judged by how many new clients they bring in).  Even the insistence that his son remain with him is not explained — could the mother provide for the son better?  But to the extent that some of this comes from a real memoir, it is worth bearing in mind here F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum from The Beautiful and Damned about how “the type of man who attains commercial success seldom knows how or why, and,…when he ascribes reasons, the reasons are generally inaccurate and absurd.”  In fact, Fitzgerald is a pretty good touchstone here, as few writers capture the banal depravity and moral shallowness of the strivers for material wealth so well.  The Beautiful and Damned, in particular, has only a slightly different story arc than The Pursuit of Happyness.  Yet they draw opposite conclusions.  In Fitzgerald’s tale the protagonists emerge scarred and damaged (“damned”).  In this film, the protagonist emerges triumphant.

Mostly, the film’s story is meant to emphasize the so-called “culture of poverty” theory/myth — that success or failure is determined primarily or exclusively by the degree an individual is committed to hard work and perseverance.  The film does not address racism in any way (despite how much that would affect the protagonist in real life).  It scrupulously avoids addressing any structural or institutional causes for the protagonist’s situation.  There is a single-minded focus on the success of the protagonist, with no concern whatsoever for the other homeless people shown in the film.  Audiences are expected to root for the protagonist to succeed, and are not supposed to analyze or question the other poverty around him, or why he is so devoted to a “winner take all” system.  When the IRS seizes the main character’s last bit of money in his bank account for failure to pay taxes (the film portrays it as a surprise to Smith’s character, which is utterly preposterous and misleading), there is a steadfast assumption that the government is unfairly taking his money — even as most of the film suggests his poverty would probably exempt him from income taxes (or is he really not as poor as the film lets on?).  Practically the entire discipline of sociology probably cringes at this film and the discredited ideology it flacks — Loïc Wacquant called this sort of thing “an old theoretical carcass periodically exhumed from the graveyard of stillborn concepts[.]”

One of the most groan-inducing moments is from the epilogue titles, in which it is conveyed that the real-life person on which the film is based later became rich.  This reveals the true heart of the film.  Everything before that was supposedly about the main character’s relationship with his son and being happy, but the ending titles suggest that it was really just about money all along.  After all, Thomas Jefferson adapted John Locke‘s crude protection of “life, liberty and estate” (Two Treatises of Government, Book II) into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for the Declaration of Independence, a slogan the main character mentions thinking about a lot.  Jefferson supposedly changed the wording to make it seem less crass, without intending to really change the meaning.  So this film actually gets that part right, in a strange way, by repeating the deception.

A film like I, Daniel Blake from a decade later is kind of the polar opposite of The Pursuit of Happyness.  The Blake film is a critique of the system, which is to say social and government institutions, whereas Happyness is sub-Horatio Alger rags-to-riches claptrap pushing a “social darwinist” myth of meritocracy.

Will Smith’s performance is actually quite good, as is that of his real-life son Jaden.  But it is ridiculous to focus on such performances when the film is as contrived as it is so as to provide disjointed individual scenes solely as vehicles for emoting by the lead actors.

Fury

Fury

Fury (2014)

Columbia Pictures

Director: David Ayer

Main Cast: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña, Shia LaBeouf


The problem with this film is that it has a beginning and an end.  Both are terrible.  In the middle there are worthy things.  But the ending is so stupefyingly, implausibly bad that viewers have to walk away embarrassed for having sat through it.  After opening titles that glorify American Exceptionalism, twisting the history of World War II to frame it as a conflict just between the noble but underdog Americans and the Nazis, the film starts by making Brad Pitt’s character out to be an inhuman monster (seemingly equally as bad as the Nazis), and those around him one-dimensional caricatures.  The film then seeks to humanize Pitt’s character, and add dimension to those around him.  The battle scenes in the middle of the film are excellently staged and are thrilling.  Of course, then there is the ending, which is so preposterously staged as to garner sympathy for the Nazis.  The Nazis (in vastly superior numbers) stand around waiting to be shot (really!).  The weapons they are shown marching with suddenly disappear and one Nazi indicates that a small box of other weapons must be rationed carefully.  The movie banks on viewers thinking that Nazi are so terrible that they should completely suspend disbelief at the staging of the final battle scene.  Ughhhh.  Terrible.

While clearly trying to follow on the style of Saving Private Ryan (an arguably even worse film), this ends up being a second (or third) rate version of The Big Red One.  Just compare the endings.  Lee Marvin‘s character in The Big Red One is, objectively, one who stands for something beyond himself.  Brad Pitt’s character stands for empty valor, no more.

Oblivion

Oblivion

Oblivion (2013)

Universal Pictures

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Main Cast: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman


The story is really just an amalgamation of plot points from other films: Moon, Total Recall, Independence Day, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Inception, The Matrix, etc.  But the special effects and technical realization of this movie really outshines all those others.  While the plot may not be ingeniously new, it blends known elements together in a way that is cohesive and effective.  Once the viewer accepts the basic conceits of the science fiction setting, every scene is staged plausibly — there are no scenes that prompt guffaws due to trivial yet implausible details.  At the risk of spoiling a plot twist, the film also takes a surprising matter-of-fact view toward cloning and the social interchangeability of clones.  Reviews of the film were poor.  No surprise, really.  This sort of film, though coming from Hollywood, chafes against what Hollywood prizes.  In other words, it is a better film than Hollywood normally permits, and the plot — derivative or not — has a kind of anti-corporate message that is always officially frowned upon even as Hollywood keeps inserting such messages into various films.  There is also some serious, if under-/unstated, questioning of how contrived and fake certain emotions and social institutions can be.  Tom Cruise is the perfect lead, able to convincingly deliver a role that requires a “useful idiot.”  The rest of roles are well cast too.

Sauve qui peut (la vie)

Sauve qui peut (la vie) [Every Man For Himself]

Sauve qui peut (la vie) [Every Man For Himself] (1980)

MK2 Diffusion

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Main Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc, Nathalie Baye


After a period of making aggressively experimental films and becoming isolated (his own word for it), Jean-Luc Godard returned to making widely shown and distributed films with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (released in the USA under the title “Every Man for Himself”).  Decades later, other works like Film Socialisme were still resembling this film.  That makes Sauve qui peut a landmark within Godard’s career.

The composer Karlkheinz Stockhausen has spoken (Musical Forming: Composing Statistically (1971)) about how “if you are able to compress an entire Beethoven symphony into half a second, then you have a new sound, and its inner microstructure has been composed by Beethoven.”  It would not sound like a symphony, but to human perception would resemble a single tone with a particular timbre.  The individual elements surpass a group, and completely different relationships begin.  Godard is concerned with the cinematic equivalent of that issue of the temporal limits of human perception — though tending toward expansion rather than the compression Stockhausen discussed (and maybe akin to key parts of Blow-Up).  A technique he had developed working with videotape for a television mini-series shortly before making Sauve qui peut had him deploying slow motion effects.  He applies a version of that to film here.  One scene has two of the main characters fighting in a kitchen, and Godard said he decided to show the incident in slow motion to reveal meaning that would not be perceptible at regular speed.  He wanted to show that as they physically fight and fall to the ground — what would happen in an instant in real time — the characters maybe still love each other, something that viewers tend to contemplate as the characters are held in contact as they fall.

Godard biographer Colin MacCabe wrote that men become film directors to meet women, and that quip at one time seemed to accurately describe Jean-Luc Godard, in his early career, but that phase was a distant memory by the the time of his “Second Debut” Sauve qui peut (la vie).  There are strong feminist themes here.  Though Godard emphasized in interviews in this era how a key preoccupation of the film was with workers and their work.  The absurdities, degradation, and obstacles bound up in working are sublimely stylized and symbolized in scene after scene — many of which ponder questions around privilege, exploitation and self-identity.  In the decades immediately following the film’s release, these aspects of work have not changed but perhaps only intensified, making Godard’s oblique insights of what might have been passing sociopolitical circumstance still seem compelling and relevant.  Godard’s films might be many things, but they are certainly not lacking for starkly original images.  This one is a bit more grounded than some of his early films, in that the romanticism and cinephilia is less pronounced, and in place a more nuanced view of the travails of “ordinary” life.

This is yet another astounding film from one of cinema’s truly great and visionary figures.  Count this as essential viewing for his admirers.

Seconds

Seconds

Seconds (1966)

Paramount Pictures

Director: John Frankenheimer

Main Cast: Rock Hudson, John Randolph, Salome Jens


Arguably John Frankenheimer’s best film, Seconds is an eerie thriller with an engaging plot, fine acting (and casting), and appropriately stark cinematography by James Wong Howe.  Frankenheimer was a political person, associated with Hollywood’s left.  Here he uses the previously blacklisted actors John Randolph and Will Geer.  Taking that sort of information as context, Seconds plays with the clash between the conservative American culture held over from the early post-war years, and the rise of the counterculture, asking some intriguing questions without succumbing to overly optimistic triumphalism or naivity, as befell some of the less lasting films of the era that tackled similar topics.  Continue reading Seconds