Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reply to C.T.

Here are two replies to C.T.'s excellent post on "Word and Image in Vivre Sa Vie." These comments also allow me to nuance some of the arguments I made in class last night.

(1) Having reviewed the position of the philosopher Brice Parain (whom Nana meets in a café in Vivre sa vie), I don't think I made it clear how his views can be squared with existentialism. His arguments can be understood as existential because he both acknowledges the constraint or limitation of language as well as the necessity of making sense, of communicating, of forging relations, through or within language. We cannot simply or passively accept the norms that serve as the basis of language, but neither can we believe it possible to wholly overcome them either; rather, we have to discover a usage of language that allows us to express our limited but necessary freedom. Moreover, Parain's insistence on silence – as a respite from language – can be understood as akin to Godard's examination of the image/word conflict in his film. In this way, Godard's film can be seen as an attempt to put into practice not only these moments of solitude or silence (and the withdrawal of meaning or sense) but also a modified – personalized – use of language or grammar.

(2) Despite the placement of La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc on the side of image and on the side of silence (it being a silent film), Carl Dreyer's great 1928 work is itself a complex examination of the relation between words and images. Here, I refer specifically to the way the filmmaker places words (logos) on the side of patriarchy or Law, becoming the means whereby the tribunal comes to condemn Joan of Arc and consign her body to the pyre. Dreyer uses historical documents to accurately replicate the actual words used at Joan's trial and he juxtaposes these words, used as intertitles, with a series of revelatory close-ups (but revelatory of what, exactly?). This reminds us that Godard too doesn't simply forego words or language and in the name of a silent image. Rather, he will increasingly foreground their relation, showing us – among other things – how words, in cinema, can become images (and, in the process, lose their fixed sense). 


Monday, September 26, 2011

On Word & Image in Vivre sa vie

As we discussed in class, one of Godard’s central concerns is the relationship between the image and the word.  How can an image engender thought in a manner that is usually reserved for the structures of language?  In what way can the image exceed the potentiality of the word and communicate something entirely new?  This question is posed multiple times within his film Vivre sa vie.

First, in the scene where Nana discusses the value of the spoken word with the philosopher Brice Parian, it is clear that Godard is shifting away from the existentialist issues that dominate the dialogue of the film to ruminate on the issue.  Here Godard, via Nana, questions the ability of words to represent actual thought and wonders if words actually betray the user.  Why is it that words must be used to understand one another?  Why must one always talk?  Is it possible to live in silence yet still communicate?  Finally, can one distinguish thought from the words that express it? 

These questions foreground the longstanding premise that thought is best articulated via language into a film that largely relies on the image to convey thought.  Although Nana never explicitly asks about the image, Godard is posing this very question throughout the entire film through extensive use of close-up photography.  The close-up, as in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, becomes a communicative means to show thought through the expressiveness of the face as recorded by the image.

Further, in looking at the relation between Poe’s The Oval Portrait and the entire project of Vivre sa vie, Godard seems to be asking whether there is danger in giving over too much power to the image.  Poe’s story tells of an artist that is so obsessed with creating a perfect image of the real that he destroys the real for the sake of the image.  Vivre sa vie can be read as a retelling of The Oval Portrait in the way that Godard wants to identify himself with the artist of Poe’s story by demonstrating through a seemingly endless amount of beautiful close-ups of Nana’s face his obsession with creating a perfect image of his then wife.

I think it is of little purpose to interpret this film as merely a simple love letter to Anna Karina.  By asking these questions on the nature of the image to the word, artist to the image and art to life, Godard still finds a way to ask the imperative questions that matter to his larger project.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Astruc + Godard = Breathless

It was quite refreshing last week to read Truffaut’s treatment for Breathless and then to watch the film within the larger context of Astruc’s essay La caméra-stylo.  What became immediately apparent in comparing the treatment to the film is that everything that is interesting, fresh and original in the film originates from the camera itself.  Almost as if channeling Astruc’s ideas, Godard took what was a fairly bland treatment and, with his camera, wrote something wholly otherwise which rejected the common practice of effacing the unique qualities inherent to film in order to function merely as a visual means for representing literature.  Breathless could not be approximated by any other medium and, because of this, made apparent all the ways that film differs from every other form of art.  By writing with the camera, Godard destroys the insistence on the invisible (editing) and brings the facticity of the form to the foreground.  How do you write a treatment for a film when the main character is the camera-stylo itself? 


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Diegetic Philosophy: Dostoyevsky and Godard

When watching this week’s screening of Vivre sa Vie I was struck by the relationship between two sequences. First, we had the beautiful scene in the café when Nana has a drink with Yvette. Here Nana extols a philosophy of personal responsibility and freedom of action—“if I am raise my hand it is my responsibility, if I am sad it is my responsibility.” (I quote from memory, not being able to find an English translation online.) She articulates (at least at this moment in the film) a pleasure in her freedom of movement, her ability to interact with a complicated and fascinating world at her own discretion. What follows this speech is a joyful demonstration of this fact as Godard uses shot-counter-shot to give us Nana’s wandering gaze, over the song "Ma Môme."

This sequence perfectly brings together Nana’s declaration of independence and the pleasures of cinematic scopophilia, specifically in a cinema that does not obey the demands of a rigorous narrative. What unlimited joys there can be in viewing that which does not demand anything of you! The sequence aptly finishes with the sight of Yvette and Raoul, ending both Nana’s reverie and the audience’s respite from the story.

Alternatively, we have the montage sequence when Nana is initiated into the life of a prostitute. Here Nana asks a series of questions about her new position and is answered by the authoritative voice of Raoul. Along with Nana we learn of recent legislation, economic incentives, statistical factoids, and daily routines relating to the lives of prostitutes in France at this time. Here we have a counterpoint to Nana’s vision of personal freedom. It is interesting to note the use of montage here, as opposed to classical narrative techniques in the previously discussed sequence, where the potential for rigidity in Eisenstein’s dialectical montage becomes nightmarishly apparent. Nana is a member of a group who, like all groups, can be assembled as a set of functions rather than a collection of individual members. The freedom of bodily movement, of new and entrepreneurial interactions with the world, here seems crushed by the human’s integration into the reigning dispositif (to use Foucault’s terminology). Can our choices truly be described as free when they are so constrained by and funneled through the interests of power? How can one reconcile these positions? 


I won’t try to answer this question here. Instead I would like to address this technique of raising two opposing positions within the trajectory of a narrative. Godard is certainly not the first to deploy this technique. I would argue that what Godard does with film has its roots, at least partially, in what Dostoyevsky does with the novel.

As is clear to anyone who reads him, Dostoyevsky uses his narratives, their characters and events, to grapple with issues larger than their plot-points. In his five major novels, as well as many short stories, Dostoyevsky lays out rigorous treatises on such issues as justice, political action, spirituality, and the individual in relation to society. Each piece can be considered an essay in novel form. But, unlike the run of the mill position piece, Dostoyevsky’s narratives are flexible enough to allow for multiple conflicting perspectives to emerge. (For a greater expounding on this position listen to Hubert Dreyfus’ meticulous breakdown of The Brothers Karamazov over the span of 11 classes here). As his stories progress a complex web of arguments and counterarguments is created producing a nuance in argument rarely allowed under the demanding rubric of academic writing. By intertwining character development and philosophical reflection Dostoyevsky crafts a marvelous tone, where the positions argued are wrapped up in the lives of the personalities who argue them.

All of which brings us back to Vivre sa Vie. If we watch Nana’s final demise with horror, it certainly is related to the horror we feel when we read of the revolutionaries' spiral towards destruction in Dostoyevsky’s The Demons. It is a horror that is not only driven by our empathy for the characters involved, or the dreadful violence that these events depict, but also by what these events say about the prospects of the human race as a whole. Both Godard and Dostoyevsky’s works drive home their climaxes with the drama of a great tragedy along with the gravity of a well-argued conclusion. 

-Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa