Thursday, September 30, 2010

Digital and French Impressionism

The audience gasped last night when this shot – in which Godard links digital photography to the work of the French Impressionist painters – appeared in Film Socialisme. This is not the first time that he has made this link (see the second half of Éloge de l'amour), and it doesn't work as well here when seen in isolation from the shots that came before it, but it's dazzling nevertheless. And the link may be a vital one for those of us working in the new medium, if only we could remember the revolutionary goals of those nineteenth century painters, dedicated to light and sensorial experience. 

Film Socialisme at the NYFF

Considering the difficulty of the film – and the common tendency of NYFF audiences to walk out of films (as though we should wear our impatience and incomprehension like a badge of honor) – I was surprised by how many members of the audience didn't leave Film Socialisme. I would say the auditorium was 85% full at the beginning and maybe 70% full at the end. A large portion of the audience also stayed for the round-table discussion with three Godard scholars Richard Brody, Annette Michelson, and Jean-Michel Frodon, with Richard Peña as interviewer. I didn't stay for the entire discussion but it started very well. They each offered an interesting perspectives on the film. I was perhaps most struck by a comment made by Frodon who noted that despite the elegiac tone of the piece (which can be understood to mark, to some degree, Godard's estrangement from the present – a present that is inundated with images but which has little need for cinema) there is also, at one and the same time, a remarkable clarity to Godard's digital images that suggests that he is perhaps not as out-of-touch as he likes to claim. Godard keeps proclaiming cinema is dead, but he keeps making films that demonstrate the reverse.

Film Socialisme Trailer

Those of you attending to see the film tomorrow at the NYFF should be forewarned: it won't be easy. It will allude your grasp and in a number of ways. Yet, it is also full of stunning digital photography from a variety of sources (from 5D to cell phone cameras). It's a good preview of "late" Godard, for those of you unfamiliar with his work of the past twenty-plus years. It is also arguably the most experimental film he has ever made, which – considering his body of work – is saying a lot. Not bad from a man who will be celebrating his 80th birthday in December! 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Darkness and Light, Circles, Lines and Signs in Alphaville


The first image in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville/The Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (1965) is a close-up of a varying-in-tempo flickering circular strobe light surrounded in darkness. The varied tempo is important because a constant one would reinforce an eternal present, which is the goal of the computer Alpha60 who despotically rules the residents of Alphaville, divorcing them from past, future, memory, and the humanity these states describe. A varied tempo implies change, unpredictability, and chance, the human attributes Alpha60 works to eradicate. Being obsessed with circles, I was drawn in by this first circle in a film of circles and lines, and followed them through Alphaville. 
Throughout, the circle is associated with Alpha60 while the causal line of past and future is associated with humanity. I concur with Harun Farocki who notes, in Speaking about Godard, the association of the circle with Alphaville is surprising given the mythic signification of the circle as opposed to the causal, scientific connotation of the line. In this film, such a reading is complicated. The circle is imprisonment, the rush forward, freedom. And yet, we see a series of neon arrows that point in a direction, but nowhere in particular, calling the literal linear sign also into question. And despite what the computer says, there is no pure logic or reason without the “ornament of myth” connoted by the circle, as Kaja Silverman notes. This realization will of course be Alpaha60’s undoing. Alpha60 says that “time is like a circle, which spins endlessly … isolated words can be understood, but the whole meaning escapes.” This is because the whole and the linear work in constant relation to each other. 
For me, the tension between circle and line in Alphaville is united in the image of the spiral: which represents simultaneous timelessness and progression – you go around and around and yet never in the same place. Recall: the repeated shots of spiral staircases ascended and descended by Lemmy Caution and Natasha. They are within the spiral of time and yet moving towards a new turn.
From the outset of the film, the image of the circle (the whole) is associated with darkness and light, which create the totality of our lived experience. Even our vision, which we conceive of as whole, is made of alternating light and darkness, fragmented by our involuntary blinking (as film editor Walter Murch points out in In the Blink of an Eye). And yet, we perceive a seamless reality, the spaces in vision filled by our perception, or, as Alphaville posits, our consciousness.
This is our experience of the world and also the experience of cinema: fragments joined by human mind, the visual jump or seemingly seamless cut united in understanding by our active participation, a creative production of imagination. Alphaville is the Text, or “open work,” of which Barthes and Eco write, not the closed circuit of the “Bible” of Alphaville, a diminishing dictionary, but a field of human possibility, represented in the film by poetry. A space for meaning leads to leaps, sparks of illumination. 

The spark is also the spark of humanity, struggling for the freedom to exist under a regime of pure logic and reason (which does not exist). Points of light in darkness are love, affect, poetry and humanity,  suggested by points of light we see throughout the film: Lemmy’s lighter creating the circle of light the first time we see him in his car as he drives into Alphaville; the lightbulb swinging in the dark stairwell above the heads of Henry Dickson and Lemmy Caution (two who can yet pronounce the word “love”); Lemmy’s same lighter which illuminates Natasha, foreshadowing her own reclamation of humanity. As Silverman notes, “there is no positive without negative … no starts without the night, no trembling of desire without the certain knowledge of death.” This is what we understand through Alphaville’s solarized images of negative film cut together with the positive: they work together. The whole and the fragment are co-present; the darkness and the light make each other. What else is cinema, but the shared yet individual experience of light in darkness?

Like the circle that radiates outward, and the unending Mobius strip of the spiral, each flickering image of this film leads to exploration of another one of its aspects or techniques: it becomes impossible to discuss one aspect without leaping to another related aspect. But here I close, only to open out at the same time. 

-- Ruchi Mital

Le Mépris and Authorship

Le Mépris is a good work to use as a test case for auteur theory (la politique des auteurs) and Astruc’s la caméra-stylo. Although it is not the only film directed by Godard with a literary source, it is the one that stays closest to its source material, a novel by Alberto Moravia (Il Disprezzo). Yet, it is hard for me to imagine anyone who has read the book, as I have, and seen the film to claim that the “author” of Le Mépris is Moravia. Il Disprezzo is a work by Moravia, and Le Mépris is a work by Godard. Here I would repeat the comment made by the ex-Surrealist poet Louis Aragon about the film at the time of its release: “I’ve seen [the] novel of today. At the cinema … It’s called Contempt, the novelist is someone named Godard” (qt. in Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema, p. 172). At the same time, what is fascinating is that while the author of the film is undoubtedly Godard, Godard himself acknowledges and explores his works relation to a whole series of other texts, including, of course, the novel upon which it is based. Is this because – as a postmodernist might say – there is no originality, everything has already been said, everything has already been done, et al.? I would say "no", and precisely because Le Mépris, for all its intertextual references, is original – and retains this originality nearly fifty years after its initial release. (The film's exploration of quotation and translation – of quotation as translation – is uniquely Godardian. This doesn't mean it can't be imitated, but the imitation remains precisely that: Godard without Godard.) Godard’s use of citation and allusion is not an acknowledgment that the expressive potential of art has been exhausted; instead, his citations and allusions affirm the enduring power of art, always waiting another chance to provoke, to excite, to disturb. As Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit observe, “Godard quotes inordinately in his films – through passages projected onto the screen, or through characters who recite bits of literary texts, or directly from books.” And this citational practice works to liberate the texts that he quotes, allowing them to remain in process or in movement. “By citationally picking at literature, he de-monumentalizes it, therefore resurrecting it from the death of finished being, and allows it to circulate – unfinished, always being made – within the open time of film” (Forms of Being, p. 65). Unfinished, always being made, open: all keys to Godard’s particular form of art. All characteristics that we can attribute to the author referred to as "Godard" – a figure who doesn't precede or transcend his art works but who emerges, comes into being, alongside them. (And, if any reminder is necessary, all characteristics described by Eco in "Poetics of the Open Work.")


Readymade Marx

In his introduction to the "Critique of Political Economy," Karl Marx writes that "a product only becomes a real product in consumption... a dress becomes really a dress only by being worn, a house which is uninhabited is indeed not really a house."

Marx's statement makes me ask 'when is a readymade not a readymade' or 'how is a readymade not a readymade?' 

The word readymade originally came from the distinction in the beginning of the 20th century to differentiate hand-made, artisanal goods from mass-produced, 'ready-made' objects. By using everyday objects and altering their original use value, Duchamp initially renders the object or product useless. By attaching a bicycle wheel atop a stool, he proposes an alternate leisure to sitting down or riding a bike, he creates an aesthetic that ruptures the perspective of everyday life. If a house is not a house unless it is inhabited, a stool or bike rendered problematic to its original use goes beyond re-appropriation, perhaps to the point of expropriation. The essence assigned to this object has been expelled and the object has not necessarily been assigned a new meaning or essence, but rather takes on an undefinable or "incomplete" nature. In relation to Duchamp's readymade objects, the viewer may begin to regard what the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre calls the "thingness" of the object, or more so its nothingness. The readymade takes on an existential character and returns the gaze of the viewer with an indifference to an object of art or of everyday life. 

In her essay "Cinema as Readymade: Anemic Vision in Duchamp," Dalia Judovitz comments that "the visual experience of a readymade is one of indifference and anesthsia since the object has been selected on purpose because of its lack of 'esthetic emotion,' as a defense against 'the look'... the decontextualization of the object's functional place draws attention to the creation of its artistic meaning by the choice of the setting and position ascribed to the object." 

In a way, this indifference brought upon by the readymade abolishes the boundary between art and the everyday, between the author/auteur and the reader/spectator, and between consumption and production. It ruptures certain pre-conceived notions of what art and the production of art means, or does not mean, and exposes the construction of everyday life as it is, as another mobile and transitory construction, incomplete if you will, giving way to possibilites of new creations and constructions. 

The construction of the readymades becomes an important factor here. Playing upon the Dadaist collage techniques, Duchamp's readymades are juxtaposed objects, collages in their own right. It is what Marx would call an accumulation of labor and tools of production, objects that have already been made, processed, and worked upon. The readymade is not just a found object or purchased object called art, it is a tool of production, or a tool of provocation, that can be used to look at things and see how they are related to question readymade notions (ideologies, political parties, religions, organizations, unions, policies, economies, infrastructures, human relations). 

Are Godard's works Marxist Readymades in the making? we shall see...
Pedro Vidal

The Practice of Reading

Surely the most unfortunate line that Roland Barthes ever wrote is the one that concludes his essay "Death of an Author": “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” Endlessly quoted, yet so poorly understood. I don’t know how many readers have read this as a slogan that what is important is not the literary work itself (and by extension the work of art) but what the intrepid reader does with the text. Thus, while the “author” is cast aside as a useless or outmoded concept, the reader affirms himself or herself as the true creative locus of textual production. (One consequence of this: a shift from “difficult” modernist texts to an emphasis on the artifacts of popular culture, to be pillaged at will. Why does this occur? Precisely because it is believed that creativity is now the art of the beholder. The text is secondary to its usage.) Let’s not forget that the “death of the author” was meant to signal, for Barthes, the death of the sovereign subject, i.e., the belief in the individual as the punctual source for a text’s meaning. It was meant to question the fallacy of the intentional subject – whether this subject is understood as an author, a critic or a reader.  

Barthes statement, it seems to me, should always be accompanied by another, this one by Maurice Blanchot: “What most threatens reading is this: the reader’s ability, his personality, his immodesty, his stubborn insistence upon remaining himself in the face of what he reads – a man who knows in general how to read” (emphasis added). What Blanchot valorizes here is not the reader but the act of reading, and what this act means for both the author and the reader, each destabilized by the same experience or event. This, I would argue, is fundamentally Barthes’ point as well, but his inability to resist a stylistic flourish led him, and several generations of students, down the wrong path. Reading is an encounter between oneself and another. What is affirmed is neither the author nor the reader, but the act that binds one to the other. Blanchot: “To read is thus not to obtain communication from the work, but to ‘make’ the work communicate itself. And if we may employ an inadequate image, to read is to be one of the two poles between which, through mutual attraction and repulsion, the illuminating violence of communication erupts – one of the two poles between which the event comes to pass and which it constitutes by its very passage.” These two poles are the author and the reader, and the event occurs in the (anonymous) passage between them.

Giorgio Agamben makes a similar point in a recent article "The Author as Gesture", which revisits Foucault's essay on authorship. At one point, Agamben considers a poem by César Vallejo. He asks, where does the thought or sentiment expressed in the poem come from? It would be a mistake, he says, to assume that the thought or sentiment first existed "in" César Vallejo, who then diligently transcribed this pre-existent idea or emotion. Rather, "this thought and this sentiment became real for him, and their details and nuances become inextricably his own, only after – or while – writing the poem." This thought or sentiment cannot therefore be said to originate within the poet, but it is equally inaccurate to suggest that it in any way belongs to, or should be attributed to, the poem's reader. The thought or sentiment emanates from neither; it comes from elsewhere. And yet it only exists because, once upon a time, there was a writer who sat down to write a poem, and then, some time later, a reader who sat down to read it. "The place of the poem – or, rather its taking place – is therefore neither in the text nor in the author (nor in the reader): it is in the gesture through which the author and reader put themselves into play in the text and, at the same time, are infinitely withdrawn from it."


Monday, September 20, 2010

Découpage in Vivre Sa Vie

More than his other films, there are several striking examples in Vivre sa vie of découpage or shot breakdown. (We might recall, in this context, Godard's defense of shot/reverse shots and point of view shots in several of his early pieces of film criticism. These articles could be productively studied in relation to this work.) His use of découpage is probably closer in the end to Bresson than to Hitchcock, which is to say it is more modern than classical, but perhaps we are splitting hairs here. In the end, it's still découpage – it's still breaking a scene down into a series of fragments – and it's still richly evocative. Below is a ten shot sequence from Vivre sa vie, with shot one broken into two parts. It is a segment of the fifth tableaux. (It lasts 2 minutes and 39 seconds. The ASL is 15.9 seconds per shot.) The last shot – when Nana attempts to keep her client from kissing her on the mouth – is emotionally devastating (it is also the shot that, at 37 seconds, is held the longest), but there is something about shot six (the folded towel and bar of soap; 3 seconds) and shot nine (the astray, the hand emerging from a pocket; 8 seconds) that are compelling and memorable in their own way (shot six is particularly interesting because these objects appear at no other moment during the scene; they have a distilled presence and communicate their force in isolation). This is equally true when looking at the still images and when watching the scene in the film. They have an intrinsic power that might otherwise be overlooked if they were not given to us as individualized and autonomous images. 
Shot 1a
Shot 1b
Shot 2
Shot 3
Shot 4
Shot 5
Shot 6
Shot 7
Shot 8
Shot 9
Shot 10

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Godard Snubs the Oscars

"Thanks, but No Thanks"

Here is a funny, recent article about how the Academy of Motion Pictures has decided to award Godard an honorary statue at the next Oscars but now fear that the director will snub them: [Thanks to Heather R. for the link to the article]

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Godard's Ad for Vivre Sa Vie



Translation, as found in the Criterion Collection booklet: "A film on prostitution about a pretty Paris shopgirl who sells her body but keeps her soul while going though a series of adventures that allow her to experience all possible deep human emotion, and that were filmed by Jean-Luc Godard and portrayed by Anna Karina. My life to live." Of course, the translation is inaccurate or misleading to the extent that it doesn't include the line breaks found in the advertisement (e.g. A / film / about / prostitution / about / a / pretty / Paris / shopgirl…), because it should be clear that what Godard is providing here is not simply a description of his film but also an attempt at modern poetry. (But let's be clear. It's not that Godard wishes to transform poetry into modern-day advertisements. No; he wishes to transform modern-day advertisements into poems. To make them more-than simple tools for commercial profit.) Godard believes in the necessity of poetry. Now and forever.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

God(ard) Bless Us

Godard has recently been in the news in France for showing his support for a man, James Climent, who is being sued 20,000 euros for having downloaded nearly 14,000 free MP3s. Godard donated a thousand euros as part of Climent's legal fund because – as he would say in a statement to the press – he is against the idea of intellectual property. Here is the quote: "I am against Hadopi [the French internet-copyright law, or its attendant agency], of course. There is no such thing as intellectual property. I'm against the inheritance [of works], for example. An artist's children could benefit from the copyright of their parents' works, say, until they reach the age of majority... But afterward, it's not clear to me why Ravel's children should get any income from Bolero." The cartoon used to accompany the article is printed above. It also credits Godard with having once said, "It's not where you take things from [that matters] - it's where you take them to." The title of this post is the one James Climent used to describe his unexpected encounter with the reclusive eighty-year old filmmaker: "God(ard) bless us." [Thanks to Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa for forwarding me an article on Climent and Godard]

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hollywood + Modernism = Godard

Godard’s critical writings of the 1950s share a number of similarities with the criticism of the other “Young Turks” at Cahiers du cinéma. These young critics – Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut – were staunch defenders of both Hollywood cinema (at least, a certain kind of Hollywood cinema) and of the idea of the auteur: the filmmaker-as-author or the filmmaker-as-artist. We see both tendencies already in the first article included in Godard on Godard: an essay from 1950 (written when Godard was twenty-years-old) on the American filmmaker Joseph Mankiewicz whom Godard compares to the contemporary Italian novelist Alberto Moravia (whose novel Contempt Godard would make into a film thirteen years later). As the young critic states, “I have no hesitation in placing [Mankiewicz] on the same level of importance as that held by Alberto Moravia in European literature” (Godard on Godard 13). In a similar vein, he evokes such literary masters as Goethe, Kleist and Dostoevsky while reviewing Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1952). (Let's not forget here that it was the "Young Turks" who first took Hitchcock seriously. It was the "Young Turks" who insisted on Hitchcock's status as an auteur. In 1957, the first monograph on the director's work was co-authored by Rohmer and Chabrol. Five years later, Truffaut began conducting a mammoth series of interviews with the filmmaker that would result in Hitchcock Truffaut, which has never been out of print since its original English publication in 1967.)

Our picture of Godard-as-critic would be incomplete though if we were only to focus on cataloging the Hollywood auteurs he most admires, such as Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and Anthony Mann, and their use of classical découpage. Alongside this group of classical filmmakers we must also consider his enthusiasm for the work of European modernists, such as Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, and Roberto Rossellini. Godard explores this dual interest in his wonderful article "Bergmanorama" (published in Cahiers in 1958). There are, he says, two kinds of filmmakers: those who are primarily concerned with form and those who are primarily concerned with life. On the one hand, he mentions Hitchcock, Lang and Visconti; on the other, Bergman, Rossellini and Welles. Godard states his preference, in the end, for the latter group. “What is difficult,” he writes, “is to advance into unknown lands, to be aware of the danger, to take risks, to be afraid” (Godard on Godard 80). Whilst Hitchcock, Lang and Visconti demonstrate a formal control over their material which Godard greatly admires, he finds that he prefers the willingness of Bergman, Renoir and Welles to give up control for the purposes of exploration; opening themselves up to life in all its messiness and with its myriad of imperfections. As Godard says, in his review of Summer with Monika, “[Ingmar] Bergman is the film-maker of the instant. His camera seeks only one thing: to seize the present moment at its most fugitive, and to delve deep into it so as to give it the quality of eternity” (Godard on Godard 85). It is not eternity, as the universal or general, that is imposed on the present, but the reverse: the singular and transitory is given the weight of eternity. (Here is Godard at his most Nietzschean.)

What is so remarkable about Breathless is the way Godard combines his love of both types of film and filmmakers. For while it is clearly a homage, at one level, to Hollywood b-movies (with their brashness and energy), it is done in a style that would, at the same time, make Bergman, Renoir, and Rossellini proud. 


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Eine Frau ist eine Frau...

Two wittily abstract movie posters for early Godard films (Une femme est une femme, Vivra sa vie) by the wonderful German graphic artist Hans Hillmann. I discovered these whilst perusing the blog of a former student of mine, Sam Smith, who has recently been getting a lot of attention himself for his striking movie posters and cover designs for a number of Criterion Collection DVD releases including this one: Visit his blog at


Bonjour Tristesse


Godard once said that he saw the Patricia character in Breathless as a continuation of the role played by Jean Seberg in Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (1958). Although the film was panned in the US (as was the first Seberg-Preminger collaboration, Saint Joan), Godard ranked it 3rd on his Ten Best List of 1958, in front of, among others, Visconti's White Nights (9th) and Welles' Touch of Evil (7th), but behind Bergman's Journey into Autumn (2nd) and Mankiewicz's The Quiet American (1st). A year or so after this, Godard would find himself directing Seberg in his first feature film. Above is the most wonderful scene from Preminger's film. (Well, there are two great scenes. The other you shall discover for yourself.) Among its various citations, Breathless includes as well an extract of dialogue from another Preminger film, the deliriously great noir thriller Whirlpool (1949), which has to be seen to be believed. It is Whirlpool that is playing when Patricia enters and exists a cinema in an attempt to shake off the police. (The contemporary installation artist Douglas Gordon "deconstructs" Preminger's film in his 1999 dual-screen video projection piece entitled Left is Right and Right is Wrong and Left is Wrong and Right is Right.)


Breathless in Context

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

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