Saturday, April 30, 2011

Movie Review: Le Petit soldat

Jean-Luc Godard's follow-up to Breathless uses the Algerian War to question the moral blankness one finds in the earlier film's protagonists in both ethical and political terms. It may first appear an atypical effort on the filmmaker's part, but the more one considers it, the more it seems like a key work in his career.

Le Petit soldat (The Little Soldier), made in 1960, was Jean-Luc Godard’s first film after his debut feature Breathless. It’s not a characteristic effort; the picture is earnestly downbeat, straightforward, and the few moments of playfulness might strike some as lapses. If one had to glibly sum it up in a sentence, one might describe it as a Godard film for people who don’t like Godard films; one could easily see John Simon, perhaps Godard’s most vehement detractor, giving it a good review.

The picture is set in Geneva during May 1958, just before the Algerian War led to the fall of the Fourth Republic in France. The protagonist, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), is a 26-year-old deserter from the French army who is living in Switzerland as a conscientious objector. However, he’s hardly free of the French government; the country’s intelligence service has tracked him down and is using his fugitive status to blackmail him into working as a secret agent. He does their dirty work for them, and he gets treated like dirt in return. He reaches his tipping point when they order him to kill an Algerian sympathizer. After he receives the assassination order, he resolves to flee to Brazil with Véronica (Anna Karina), his new girlfriend, to escape the government’s clutches.

The storyline may sound like Godard is venturing into Graham Greene territory, but Bruno lacks the moral grounding of Greene’s heroes. He’s entirely apolitical, and right and wrong for him are the same as likes and dislikes. He’s fond of the Lenin quote that “the future aesthetics are ethics,” but in terms of his own values, ethics are aesthetics. He likes Germany because he likes Beethoven, he likes the U.S. because he likes American cars, and while he doesn’t like Arabs, his main issue with them is that they live in the desert—he dislikes T.E. Lawrence for the same reason. He doesn’t have any real moral objection to committing murder; his problem is that it doesn’t suit his self-image: he’d “feel like a loser” if he went through with it. He rationalizes his attitude with the belief that there is something more important than ideals—he doesn’t believe God has them—although he can’t articulate just what.

In many ways, Godard’s portrayal of Bruno is the flipside of his treatment of the Michel and Patricia characters in Breathless. They’re all moral idiots, but in Breathless, Godard (and the audience) was so entranced with the characters’ childlike, carefree charm that concerns over their more objectionable behavior largely fell by the wayside. Bruno is shown with a much colder and darker eye, and there’s very little that’s likeable about him: he’s stolid, humorless, and abrupt with people. Likeability is left to his girlfriend Véronica; Anna Karina might be the most enchanting and fluidly expressive film actress since Louise Brooks. Godard doesn’t romanticize the Algerian sympathizers—their modus operandi includes torture, which the film graphically depicts—but it’s rather fitting when it turns out Véronica is on the Algerians’ side, especially when she explains that it’s because the Algerians are fighting for an ideal, and the French have lost theirs; she’s at least somewhat morally centered. (She calls Bruno’s windy self-rationalizations pathetic.) It’s possible to see Bruno’s attitudes as a synecdoche for the French government’s: their ethics are primarily aesthetic as well. One example is their coercing patsies like Bruno to commit assassinations for them; they want it done, but they don’t want to get their hands dirty. By framing this portrayal of narcissistic moral apathy in a politically charged context, Godard effectively turns it into a study of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil. One notes the French government was not appreciative; they banned the film until after Algeria gained its independence in 1962.

However, as much as Godard’s usual detractors might appreciate the film’s straightforward narrative and reasonably unambiguous moral tone, it’s still recognizably a Godard film. Characters quote books and other authors at length, and there are self-referential jokes as well, such as the bit where Bruno refers to a conversation he had with Raoul Coutard, the film’s cinematographer. Many of Godard’s formal proclivities are also present, such as his fondness for a comic-strip boldness in the shot compositions, as well as his use of documentary-style mise-en-scène to satirize the hyperbolic sweep of the violence in Hollywood films. (The most conspicuous instance is the car chase scene, where the staging makes it abundantly clear just how stupid and dangerous it is to try to shoot the driver in one car while operating another. The gag of having the oncoming traffic continually getting in the way of a clear line of fire is the capstone.). Godard’s partisans and detractors can both appreciate his ability to come up with effects that seem more typical of a director like Antonioni. One example is the heightening of the soundtrack in the train-ride sequence to dramatize the Bruno’s feelings of discomfort, impatience, and alienation. Another is the panning across ugly, bleakly impersonal buildings as a metaphor for societal indifference to evils like torture. It’s hard to imagine anyone looking at this film and not concluding that Godard is a master.

It isn’t all that surprising that Godard completely retreated from the moral questions of violence and political commitment in his next film, the postmodern musical-comedy tribute A Woman Is a Woman. Nor is it surprising that he increasingly embraced a radical political stance in his films as the 1960s went on. Le Petit soldat raises uncomfortable questions about having a moral viewpoint in a political context, namely what good is it when both sides are repugnant? The film may not seem like a characteristic film of Godard’s at first glance, but in a roundabout way, it does appear to be a key one in his development.

Reviews of other films directed by Jean-Luc Godard:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Movie Review: Breathless

Musings on Godard's 1960 classic.

Why Breathless (À bout de souffle)? Why take a look back at a movie that’s over fifty years old? The answer isn’t a particularly sexy one. The Hooded Utilitarian, where I do most of my published writing outside of this blog these days, has tentatively scheduled a writer roundtable on Breathless filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. (The original idea was for the contributors to write on either Alphaville or Made in U.S.A., but I think it’s now open to Godard’s entire filmography.) As such, I’ve recently been looking at the director’s films to prepare. Godard’s work is arguably the most difficult when it comes to the canonical filmmakers, and writing is thinking, so blogging about Godard’s films seems a good warm-up.

Breathless is Godard’s first feature, and it’s easily his most accessible effort. The story is simple. Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a young car thief, kills a traffic cop while en route to Paris from Marseilles. When he gets to Paris, he does what he can to raise enough money to flee to Italy before a police manhunt catches up with him. He calls in debts from his friends, tries to fence a car, and even engages in a random mugging. However, he spends most of his time pursuing one of his girlfriends in the city, a U.S. exchange student named Patricia (Jean Seberg). He wants her to skip out to Italy with him, but she’s trying to break in to journalism, and she goes back and forth over whether she wants to accompany him. She ultimately betrays him to the police, who shoot him when he tries to flee.

I don’t mind giving the story away, largely because it’s the least important aspect of the film. It functions in much the same way as a canvas does for a painting: necessary, but of next to no interest by itself. Godard is far more interested in rendering—although the more appropriate word might be capturing—the personalities, attitudes, and experiences of his two protagonists. He doesn’t build tension towards the story’s resolution. To the extent the film climaxes at all, it does so on an epiphanic note, and while rather poetic, it’s far more intellectual than emotional.

Most viewers don’t pay much attention to the ending, anyway. (This is doubly true of those who don’t speak French; the English subtitles, at least, are rather poor, and the translation of the dialogue in the final scene is particularly confusing.) Audiences are generally struck by how alive and immediate the film seems; Godard doesn’t seem to have created a story so much as he has distilled the experience of the everyday onto celluloid. The film rarely feels staged: the everyday bustle of Paris suffuses the scenes, and the characters don’t seem to be following a script so much as their own whims. The staccato editing emphasizes this impulsive quality: it dramatizes how, at least in modern life, perception doesn’t flow and encompass what’s around one; it perpetually shifts to what strikes one as important, and there is only peripheral awareness of extraneous detail. Godard’s pseudo-documentary style achieves what Alfred Hitchcock claimed for melodrama: it’s like real life, but with all the boring parts taken out.

Key to the film’s appeal is the considerable charm of Michel and Patricia. It’s ironic, because they’re both amoral, destructive people. If one is inclined to be judgmental, it’s not unfair to label them sociopaths. Michel is the sort of violent criminal that virtually everyone would be happy to see either locked up or dead, and Patricia, while nowhere as overtly dangerous, casually uses and discards people without any thought to the consequences. (After betraying Michel to the police, she tells him that she doesn’t want to be in love with him, and that she turned him in to prove to herself that she wasn’t. The prospect of his being killed or imprisoned never really occurs to her; she thinks she’s just being mean.) However, as repugnant as some of Michel and Patricia’s actions are, one can’t really hold these against them. There’s a childlike sweetness to both of them; every moment seems to them an opportunity to play, and for the most part, one smiles at their behavior the way one does at the antics of children. And as with children, one can’t really hold their harmful behavior against them; one knows that at the most basic level, there’s no malice behind it. At their best, Michel and Patricia are a delight, and at their worst, one just looks on and accepts.

Godard also gets one laughing at the adolescent flightiness of the two. They are constantly trying on roles and attitudes that they subsequently reject, although that doesn’t mean they won’t pick them up later only to reject them again. During the extended scene of the two in Patricia’s apartment, Michel gets his face slapped after making a grab for her backside, but she doesn’t mind him fondling it a moment or so later. And a moment or two after that, she’s back to slapping him when his hands get adventurous again. The idea of being a good girl appeals to her one moment, she couldn’t care less about it the next, and then she’s back to fancying herself a good girl before she accedes to his desire to have sex. Both she and Michel are like this about everything: what they like and dislike, whether they want to be with this person or that one, even their ambitions for the future. They don’t take anything seriously (or if they do, it’s because they like the idea of taking something seriously), and the audience can’t help loving them for it. Whatever else they may be, they’re probably the most relaxed (and relaxing) characters in all of film.

Godard captures the charm of Michel and Patricia’s inability to commit to a thought or attitude for more than a moment, but that doesn’t mean he’s not aware of its negative aspects. And I’m not thinking of the obvious downsides for people such as Michel’s victims; I’m thinking of the downsides for Michel and Patricia. The film’s ending presents them as tragic figures who can’t even commit to their own tragedy; they can only go through the motions of that as well. Godard highlights that with the film’s handling of a single word: dégueulasse. It’s French slang for vomit, and to say something is dégueulasse is the equivalent of saying that, in the contemporary English vernacular, it sucks. The word is heard throughout the movie. Michel’s French girlfriend calls him it when he asks her for money, Michel uses it to refer to Patricia after she goes off to meet an editor about an assignment, and an author whose press conference Patricia attends uses it to describe his opinion of Chopin. The usage is so casual and commonplace that it has no weight as a term of opprobrium. And at the end, when Michel lies in the street bleeding to death from a gunshot wound, this emptily nasty term is all that comes to mind: “C’est vraiment dégueulasse/This really sucks” are his final words. He’s so offhand about everything that he can’t even find language that treats his death with dignity.

Godard compounds the pathos of this with the sick joke of having no one understand what Michel said. Patricia stands over him as he dies with the cop who shot him, and she asks what he said, as she’s never encountered the word dégueulasse before. (She was out of earshot when Michel insulted her with it earlier in the film.) The cop misunderstood what he said, though, and instead of repeating that this (the situation) sucks, the cop tells her that Michel said she sucks. She still doesn’t understand, and the film closes with her staring blankly into the camera. The terrible flipside of these characters’ charming nonchalance is revealed: with them, nothing matters, not even one’s words in the face of death.

Breathless leaves one with a number of things to consider when looking at Godard’s subsequent films. How does he build on the marvelously immediate atmosphere he created for this picture. How does he expand on his portrayal of the mindset of young people in his time? How much further can he take his insights into the inadequacy of language and its usage? There’s also the question of whether any of his films can be seen as a culminating or epitomizing effort. Godard established himself as one of the greatest film directors with this debut, and one of the most challenging with the work that followed. By all accounts he leaves one asking what comes next.

Reviews of other films directed by Jean-Luc Godard:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Comics Review: Eric Skillman & Jhomar Soriano, Liar's Kiss

Compelling eye-candy artwork is the saving grace of this graphic novel’s rather tired rehash of detective-story clichés.

Eric Skillman and Jhomar Soriano’s Liar’s Kiss is available for sale from Powell’s Books. Click here to go to its page on the Powell’s website.

Liar’s Kiss, written by Eric Skillman and illustrated by Jhomar Soriano, is a moderately enjoyable subway read. It holds one’s attention without demanding much in the way of concentration. However, the fun of it is almost entirely due to Soriano’s artwork.

Skillman’s story—a murder mystery set in contemporary New York—feels more like an exercise than anything written out of urgency. The story elements and characters seem assembled from a checklist. The private-eye protagonist is an unkempt, hard-drinking, trenchcoat-and-fedora smartmouth in the Philip Marlowe mold. His client and love interest is the beautiful wife of the murder victim, a wealthy scumbag whom any number of people had reason to want dead. There’s also the loyal secretary, and the cops who are none-too-happy about the detective sticking his nose into their investigation, as well as the inevitable twists and turns that pull the rug out from under one’s assumptions about who is guilty. It’s all very familiar territory.

Jhomar Soriano’s jazzy noir visuals are the main point of interest. They’re elegantly composed and drawn, and the arbitrary, energetic use of black in the brushstrokes, shadows, and silhouettes is quite seductive to the eye. The art is nothing profound—it’s as if Soriano took José Muñoz’s work and wrung all the expressionistic intensity out of it—but the skill and assurance give it a sleek liveliness that carry one along.

Liar’s Kiss reminds me a good deal of the second-tier efforts in European comics from the ‘70s. It’s a glib, hackneyed piece of category fiction, with more misses than hits storywise, but the art makes a terrific case for slickness as an end in itself.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Poetry Review: Charles Simic, "Carrying on Like a Crow"

This gathering of powerfully desolate imagery overtly challenges the reader to recognize the limits of words and interpretation.

“Carrying on Like a Crow,” by Charles Simic, is featured in The Best American Poetry 2010, edited by Amy Gerstler & David Lehman. It originally appeared in the 20 November 2008 issue of the London Review of Books and is included in Simic’s own collection, Master of Disguises. Both BAP 2010 and Master of Disguises can be purchased from Powell’s Books. To go to BAP 2010’s page on the Powell’s website, click here. To go to Master of Disguises’ page, click here.

Charles Simic once described poetry as an “orphan of silence.” In a way, that’s a good description of the tropes that make up his 2009 poem “Carrying on Like a Crow.” The images are ones of desolation, abandonment, and ill portent. They include dead leaves floating on a pond, a swing set with no children to play on it, and dark clouds hanging overhead. Most of the imagery is very still, and even when there is movement, such as in the reference to laundry hanging on a clothesline and flapping in the wind, it speaks of something that has ostensibly been forsaken or otherwise left to itself by people or nature. The exception might seem to be the dark clouds, and even those are a metonymy for a place where no one would want to be. The imagery’s only eloquence is of a despairing solitude.

However, this characterization is only adequate at best; it is a description speaks of its inadequacy. That acknowledgement illustrates Simic’s more suggestive definition of his “orphan of silence” trope, which is that the “words never quite equal the experience behind them.” Truth be told, the juxtaposition of the various images creates a meaning that can only be approximated by efforts to summarize it. And Simic explicitly defies the reader to recognize that his tropes are too replete with meaning to be properly and fully unpacked. Every one is introduced with challenges such as “Are you authorized to speak,” “Are you able to explain…,” and “What do you know about…” The poem’s final sentence begins with “Ask yourself, if words are enough…”

Simic closes by likening the act of interpretation to “Flapping your wings from tree to tree/And carrying on like a crow…” (He actually implies that emulating this obnoxious bird would be preferable.) I suppose the analogy is apt. A critic does noisily scavenge a work of art for both sustenance and to create his or her own meanings. But I’m not offended; Simic effectively admits he does the same with the world around him and the writers who preceded him. The writer is always trying to describe an unsullied ideal. He or she will invariably travesty it, but perhaps they will create a new ideal in the eyes of others. A crow becomes an eagle when it steps away from the mirror.

Reviews of other poems by Charles Simic: