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Entries in Pierrot le fou (2)

Saturday
Oct012011

LESS TALK, MORE SMOKE: GODARD AT THE FILM FORUM

Godard’s ’60s, The Film Forum


 Godard was always smarter than everybody else. That was his blessing and his curse. Nobody could talk him out of a bad idea, including himself. Happily, in the ‘60s, during Godard’s incomprehensibly creative ferment, during his pre-Maoist, pre-I’m-going-to-stand-in-a-French-corner- and-hold-my-breath-until-the-revolution-comes-or-I-turn-blue phase, Godard had damn few of them. Bad ideas, I mean. And if the relentless modernity of his pictures might argue that JLG thought too much and felt not enough, his characters usually suffer the opposite dilemma.

Godard’s oxymoronic, all right: cinema’s most self-conscious intellectual and heart-wrenching romantic; its most innovative technician and compassionate charter of the heart; its most deadly political thinker and smartest gag-writer. Godard invented the second half of cinema’s first century. And for all of his technical, visual, structural and narrative innovations, a seldom-mentioned reason for his work standing up so well is an entirely different sort of wild intelligence, a wild intelligence JLG never got sufficient credit for: chic.

Godard himself was not a bad dresser,. His style was monochromatic and snappy: tight pants, tweed jacket, dark glasses, five o’clock shadow and, for a while, that tiny fedora. But the women in his films! Like the movies themselves, they never seem dated. They seem cooler, better dressed, more indifferent to their beauty and to-the-moment style than any women characters in film. Their self-distance and distance from their own iconography makes them even cooler, more chic. Godard wields their chic as character development, as eye candy, as beauty for beauty’s sake (thus using primality to confound/transcend the uber-rationality of his constantly reinvented cinematic structure) and as demonstration that there can be no cinema without the most hypnotizing of the movie star’s gifts: glamour.

The short version: if you have the time, see every film in the series. If not, here you go:

 1) Two or Three Things I Know About Her

Godard presents the soul-rotting suburbs surrounding Paris in a quiet riot of screaming Cinemascope and too-cool Eggleston-like barely moving frames. When his heroine—a housewife who turns tricks to pay for a color TV—appears, Godard asks us in a whisper: “Is her hair auburn? Does it matter?” The heartache here lies not in his characters’ fate, but in Godard finding a transcendent, wrenching beauty in the most desolate (sub)urban scapes. The fragmented moments of music mirror the disconnected, episodic lives that Godard barely depicts, but perfectly evokes.

 

 2) Contempt

Jack Palance in the performance of his career as the bluntest American blunt object of all time: a Hollywood big-studio producer who quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book. Red is everywhere: a red bike leaning on a wall, Jack’s lethal red convertible, the gleaming pink of Casa Malaparte, Capri’s deranged architectural masterpiece that Godard somehow turns into a symbol of unattainable beauty and the heartbreak that accompanies it. Bardot, too, gives the performance of her life, and shows a range no one had any reason to expect she possessed. Godard opens with an unforgettable scene—unbearably intimate, suspended in time, true—that shows even a sex goddess could yearn for love.

 

 3) Weekend

This opening scene is simply the deadpan funniest, as one of Godard’s prototypical distanced French beauties demonstrates for us the gap between action and narration. Then, we’re off to cinema’s greatest traffic jam, as forlorn and unironically funny as Godard ever got. JLG proves a master of expressed greed like Scorcese’s a master of fuming rage. He shows us rich folks with their hostility turned up a couple notches past the then-socially acceptable. Back then, they were the height of barbarity, a parody, an exaggeration. Now—with their lovely clothes and whining frustration—they seem all too current and real.

 4) Masculine Feminin

Godard’s one pop culture confection that expressed his disdain and great affection for pop. Casting a yé-yé singer (Chantal Goya, a pop confection herself) as the ever-elusive love interest for Jean-Pierre Leaud’s classically bumbling, yet stubborn suitor, JLG seems to leave humans-as-metaphors behind in favor, shockingly, of humans as human beings. The story—despite a few narrative-wrecking interruptions—is remarkably sincere. Godard proves his theory that language is the least effective weapon for laying siege to a heart, and demonstrates his surprisingly Rohmer-like view that in romance, women hold the cards, and men seldom have a clue.

5) Pierrot le Fou

Leaud plays the bumbler—he thinks and talks himself and everyone else into paralysis. With Jean-Paul Belmondo, there’s more smoke and less talk. Nobody in cinema history could wield a Galois with the cool Belmondo barely notices he possesses. He teams up with Anna Karina and they play at being Bonnie & Clyde in the blinding sunshine of the south of France. One unforgettable pop-art shot of a boat’s blue cabin and white hull against a blue sea and a bluer sky will show just how much emotion can be expressed by the incantory capturing of pure color. The story makes no sense: the characters run amok in their own movie, and we fall helplessly in love with them for it.

 6) Vivre Sa Vie

Godard was mad for Anna Karina until he wasn’t, until he came to understand he loved her more through the lens than in life. But while he adored her, he changed the rules of narrative forever. Karina plays a dispassionate shopgirl who drifts into prostitution. Godard never tells the story straight up; he hints, he shows one-tenth of a conversation that we have to finish, he lets locations take the place of dialogue. This is cinema of mood, of evocation, of achingly beautiful black and white. It’s a social tragedy without a message, and all the more moving as a result.

 7) Band of Outsiders

As Godard groped his way around a two-guys-one-girl romance that’s also a caper movie, he chose an languid narrative style, chucking the usual norms of tension so the director could amuse himself. This might make it a tougher sit-through for the uninitiated, and a great delight for those not quite so hung up on pacing. Do The Madison—JLG’s two-minute homage to the great Hollywood dance numbers condenses enough sweetness, Brechtian storytelling and pure movie-star allure to more than make up for any narrative sloth. 

8) A Woman Is A Woman

Here’s that two-guys-one-girl thing again, in Godard’s first color and Cinemascope frames. He revels in both, staging dance and bicycle sequences in studio apartments, and putting Karina in one post-Aubrey Hepburn eye-popping Pop outfit after another. In all these films, JLG demonstrates what cinema might be capable of, how expansive and embracing the shattering of (while always remaining in love with) the old norms could be.

9) Alphaville

In frigid perpetually nighttime Paris, under the blistering glare of fluorescence and the all-seeing eye of a totalitarian future, seamed-face B-movie icon Eddie Constantine arrives from the ’40s to bring amour back to France. Featuring the funniest chase sequence and chicest executions ever filmed, Godard lays his heart on his sleeve in high-contrast black and white, finding the secret engine of all noir (and little science fiction): love.

 10) Sympathy For the Devil

Chic? Try the Rolling Stones painstakingly building their song verse by verse, failed attempt by failed attempt, take by take. Or endless shots of the back of Brian Jones’ blonde head or looping mad circles around the studio or Bill Wyman’s ridiculous purple outfit. Intercut this with black radicals passing rifles back and forth in auto-graveyards while reading aloud from Soul On Ice. What does it mean? What does ‘meaning’ mean? While steadfastly having no idea, I can tell you just as steadfastly that the closing sequence, which is as free of meaning as any in Godard, will make you weep. Ominously, Anne Wiazemsky runs all around London putting up agit-prop graffiti, foreshadowing Godard’s leaving the ’60s and narrative, way behind.

 

Friday
Oct012010

THE BRUTAL FUTURISM OF GODARD'S PAST 

2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle 

Jean-luc Godard lost interest in classical narrative structure about the same time he quit caring about the problems of men. In his early films, still exploring archetypes from cinema’s past, Godard depicted men who died (physically, spiritually, morally) imitating the onscreen icons of their upbringing. Cleansed of that struggle his own self, JLG turned from the problems of men to the problem of masculinity. That did not include profession or being a warrior or a father. Instead, he asked how does a man make the woman he loves fall and stay in love with him. Like Eric Rohmer, Godard has little doubt about the answer to that question: he can’t. At least, not intentionally.

Having dealt with men, movies and masculinity in ‘65’s Alphaville and Pierrot le fou, and finished with modern romance by ’66’s Masculin,féminin, (a period of creative output to rival Bob Dylan’s, only without the amphetamines) Godard turned to women. The dissonance between their social/sexual power and their political/economic oppression became the prism through which he viewed societal ills. Capitalism was foremost, with Vietnam and the consumerism-driven loss of the soul right behind.JLG’s favorite repeating metaphor for this tension—manifest by the lead character in 1966’s 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle—is prostitution.

Based on a non-fiction article in Le Nouvelle Observateur, 2 Or 3 Things follows a young mother who turns tricks—at the urging of her mechanic husband—to pay for their apartment in the soulless, newly-built, high-rise suburbs surrounding Paris. We first meet Marina Vlady, the lead actress, facing the camera as Godard whispers in voice-over: “Is her hair dark auburn or light brown? I can’t tell. Now she turns to the right—it doesn’t matter.” Godard whispers throughout the film, reminding us that an entire world of thought, politics, culture and assumption surround the story-telling.

Though story meant increasingly less to JLG—except as a chariot for his theoretical notions—here the human moments are perfectly observed, moving and never driven by plot necessity. It’s a measure of Godard’s influence that his fragmented narrative—interrupted by long shots of consumer products, epic tableau of building construction and meandering portraits of cars in traffic—proves easy to follow. Forty years ago it might have been confusing. Since then, the larger world of cinema has not caught up to Godard, but it has cannibalized what it can digest.

2 or 3 Things stands as the end of Godard’s classical period and the beginning of his more fragmented, primarily political, Brechtian, post-modern work. It also marks the height, until recently, of Godard’s adoration of visual beauty for its own sake. 2 or 3 Things is astonishingly beautiful. Given that many of the loveliest shots feature unlovely subjects—mostly suburban sprawl—it’s hard to discern now whether Godard sought a Brutalism/Futurist appreciation for the oppressive architecture of social fascism, or if he expects us to find it ugly. He doesn’t seem to find this new world lacking in seduction.

The film moves from parody (Vlady’s husband listening to Lyndon Johnson declare his intention to bomb Moscow) to social essay: Vlady works in a brothel featuring a day-care center and customers paying with consumer goods. “All I have is cat food,” Vlady’s trick mutters. “Will that do?” He adds his can to pile.

Interspersed are exquisite panorama of construction scenes, massive freeways and blank skyscrapers, evoking the framing, composition and just plain weirdness of William Eggleston. (That is, they evoke Eggleston now. 2 or 3 Things appeared a decade prior to Eggleston’s MoMA debut.) Godard’s genius cinematographer, Raoul Coutard (Jules et JimLe MéprisWeekend), captures the oppression and machine-made sensuality of this alien universe: a robins-egg-blue dump truck jerking back and forth, the unbearable weight of a freeway hovering over the workers beneath, a slow pan across a horizon of glass and steel.

Because it stands with Le Mépris as Godard’s most beautiful, cinematographic and profound film—and because its modernity is both Pop and so of any age—this brand-new, remastered 35mm print is a revelation (new, more idiomatic subtitles have also been added). The Pop seduction of consumerism is explored via garish shots of detergent, the inside of electronic devices and construction cranes made ominous and sexual. Unlike the winter-cold irony of Alphaville or the snotty affection of Masculinfeminn3 or 2 offers an early glimpse of the exquisite heartache that so informs Godard’s more recent works, like 2001’s In éloge de l’amour and 2004’s Notre musique. Godard cuts between moments crammed with banal dialogue and ambient-sound dioramas of a new city being noisily created. He finds his poetry in the spaces between these moments/shots, and the irresistible horror/beauty of the industrial maelstrom as only Godard could perceive it. He creates an ineffable, purely cinematic poetry, where there is no accounting for the powerful emotions his juxtapositions provide. The impulse to become over-analytical is a by-product of sitting through any Godard picture. But 2 Or 3 Thingsis the rare Godard film in which the emotions hit harder and linger longer than the ideas. As always, he’s witty as hell. As one montage makes you ache, another makes you laugh aloud.

Contemporaneous critical writing insisted that Godard was determined to shatter filmic narrative convention. Forty years after 2 or 3 Things’ initial release, it’s clear that Godard simply replaced classic structure with his own—more emotionally driven—pacing, plot and emphasis. He may not longer care about what-happens-next, but he puts two images together with an awareness of their power, and, more importantly, of the resonance their montage creates. Nobody thinks like Godard, nobody cuts like him, nobody lets ideas carry emotion and emotion carry ideas as he does. With, like, ninety films made and who knows how many more to come, it’s tough to claim that one is his finest. But there is one you must not miss, one that must be seen on the big screen. This is it.

There’s No Aggression
Like Passive Aggression
Climates

Film Forum Limited Engagement

Nuri Bilge Ceylan may be the least-known of the world’s four or five greatest directors. Only his 2003 Distant (Uzak) is available on DVD. With Distant, Ceylan proved himself the first clear artistic descendant of Tarkovsky. Using Tarkovsky-like framing and pacing (that is, slooow), Ceylan explored the existential discontents of Turkey’s urban and rural cultures, through a story of an unwelcome country bumpkin coming to visit his sophisticated, emotionally paralyzed Istanbul cousin. Released in 2002, Distant had a tiny domestic theatrical showing in 2004, and was easily the best film of the year. It shares a kinship of look, feel, pacing and melancholy with another outstanding film of that year, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return.

Climates, Ceylan’s new film, focuses more on human connection than a larger cosmic or political theme. Ceylan cast himself and Ebru Ceylan (they are married) as a couple whose love has turned to grinding bitterness. Climates explores how a man who never says what he means drives love away even as he yearns for it daily. Some of the most moving scenes are practically dialogue-free, and all are shot in rich, painterly palette that is Ceylan’s trademark.

A gifted still photographer, he composes a visually nourishing frame that bears the weight of his long, unmoving takes. There are images in this film that no film before has attempted and depictions of relationship moments too familiar to bear. Without a doubt, Climate is the best film of the year.