King Lear (1987)

14 03 2015

The lost or unrealized film, as a concept, is endlessly fascinating to cinephiles. Just in the past year, Frank Pavich’s loving documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, explored the endless possibilities that we can dream up for a film that never exists. However, I can’t share Pavich’s enthusiasm for Jodorowsky as an artist, and I find him forcing the idea that the non-film in question would have been an unquestioned masterpiece. King Lear is just one of the films that Jean-Luc Godard, yet in all his resourceful, he managed to restructure the failure of the project itself into a film. As maddening and complicated as the film itself stands today, I can’t help but find that the entire project was planned ahead by the filmmaker. The messy failure that was the film’s production becomes the actual film’s powerful and beautiful meditation on art.

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The world is beginning to pick up the pieces following the Chernobyl disaster. William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth is searching for pieces of language from his ancestor’s past and in doing so bumps into Don Learo, who might actually just be a famous playwright, and his daughter, Cordelia. Don Learo is actually Norman Mailer, but Mailer and Kate, his real daughter, leave the film after two takes of the opening scene. They’re replaced by Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald, embodying the hybrid space of the artists and their actual roles. Meanwhile, Professor Pluggy/Godard is auditioning to become a recluse, chaperoned  only by goblins (one of which is played by Leos Carax) while diving into the “deep end” of his research.

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On the surface, one can easily claim that Godard’s adaptation can be only be called that with one’s tongue firmly in their cheek. In the middle of the controversy surrounding the film’s production, Godard confessed that he never read the source text. It sounds like him being coy and playful in his unique sort of way, but it wouldn’t surprise me. There are connections to be made with the Bard’s original text, but Godard’s interest is in the act of creation itself and its labor, potentially futile, when it comes to the world at large. Stuart Hall once made a remark that critical theory, in the face of suffering and oppression, seems unproductive or at least lacks the necessary urgency for true social justice. Godard is making a similar claim about art.

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King Lear does qualify as a science fiction film and it does take place in a world recovering from an apocalyptic event yet even if we take such circumstances to heart, it is still funny to think of William Shakespeare’s word as at risk or even worse, completely lost. To say nothing dismissive about Shakespeare himself, his canonization in academia is so firm that if we ever “lose” him, we can lose anybody. Despite one’s own personal opinion on his art, his work has been molded into a syllabus that has been unquestioned, perhaps to the detriment of educators and students alike. His words, even if we do connect with them on an emotional level, have little use when we’re suffering from radiation poisoning. This isn’t a dismissal, but a conversation on art’s limitations that doesn’t exactly shape the film, but become a crucial moment. I would argue that Godard has always been a political filmmaker, even when he was making something comparatively more approachable like Band of Outsiders, but here he begins asking what can the political filmmaker do? What are they to do in order to question or fight the way things are?

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Shakespeare’s King Lear is a story about territory and power, which sounds like fertile material for Godard and yet, his eye focuses towards Lear and Cordelia, the incestuous potential he finds in their relationship. It’s communicated to us even as there is no specific physical manifestation of said feelings. Burgess Meredith, as Lear(o), never really settles, his uneasiness embodies the tension. He is not a leech, but he is overly protective of his daughter. He’s always about to snap, and he frequently does so when his daughter, Molly Ringwald (who seems to be providing the blueprint for every Hal Hartley heroine ever), dictates back to him his own words which he finds unsatisfactory. Lear(o)’s guarding of his daughter makes sense in the text’s time and place, but here it manages to synthesize a relationship between power, territory (which we can read as colonialism), and gender. It is interesting to note that Kurosawa switched Lear’s daughters to sons in Ran, erasing this relationship. A minor detail for one filmmaker is the most crucial element for another.

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The theme of territory looms large over both Shakespeare and Godard. No one Godard film can be separated from the rest of his canon, and King Lear, at least to me, has an inseparable relationship with For Ever Mozart. There, the white leftists and artists find themselves as the saviors as opposed to the occupiers. They feel entitled to the territory, just the way that colonialism tells us that White men are entitled to the land of natives. The violence all occurs under words like “cultivation” and “civilization” and “enlightenment” which obscures real history and produces the one that leads us to the racist and sexist shackles that maintain and inform the public’s idea of “common sense.” Art, perhaps, can be the thing that challenges this common sense. It is an effort that feels hopeless, as though we are throwing pebbles at the bruising machinery of hegemony, but it is necessary and vital. The institutionalized study of Shakespeare, divorced from the man’s own words, has become a part of this larger common sense. If this film undermines him, then it is a political act. We can love Shakespeare, but he is the White, the Colonizer, the Oppressor. Ironically, so is Godard and so am I. Even as we do speak out against these very forces, we are protected by and benefit from them. To return to my borrowing and paraphrasing of Hall’s quote, what purpose does art serve in relation to all of this? Godard abandoned words a long time ago, they’re not enough to answer this question.

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La Chinoise (1967)

31 08 2014

Last week, in the middle of praising Godard’s Hail Mary, I made a reference to the disappointment I felt while revisiting Masculin Feminin. To make things short, I find the film, while not particularly painting a flattering portrait of any young person in it, particularly unfair to the women. La Chinoise, which comes only a year later, may offer something of an apology to this depiction. As opposed to the vapid women uninterested in politics in Masculin Feminin, here we have Veronique, an extremely committed radical. The film ends with her “taking the steps” towards a life of violent and revolutionary acts, although the film seems to leave her more confused and hurt than the aforementioned “vapid” women. It would be reductive to limit the conversation on La Chinoise to whether or not Godard is sympathetic to his group of young radicals. Despite the film’s strictly political aesthetic, it may only be interested in observing, not projecting anything itself.

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While on a summer break from her studies at Nanterre University, Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky) and her boyfriend, an actor named Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud) stay at a comfortable apartment that was lent to them from the parents of a friend. They’re joined by Yvonne, her boyfriend, Kirilov and a science student by the name of Henri. The five form something of a commune. They spend their days reading political texts, loudly delivering lectures on said texts, and comically re-enacting the acts of imperialism depicted in the news. The group dreams of revolution, and these dreams slowly develop into a reality. Theory isn’t enough, and the group formulates a plan to assassinate Mikhail Sholokhov, a Soviet novelist visiting Paris. Veronique is chosen to commit the crime.

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To the apolitical viewer, La Chinoise sounds like a headache. An ideological exercise that would oppose the very thing that made Godard’s earliest work so fresh and exciting. Suggesting this film isn’t dry isn’t the right way to unpack it, but one can’t say that Godard doesn’t give his everything in making the film be as exciting as the revolution is to Veronique and Guillaume. Almost exclusively composed in one apartment, the film seems to be driven by a bunch of contradictions. The apartment is spacious, as it is normally the residence of a bourgeois family, but the compositions are tight. Close-ups seem to be individual portraits painted by Raoul Coutard’s camera, which seems to linger until the film abruptly cuts to something else. In continuing the connection with Masculin Feminin, this is Godard’s first academy ratio full length film since it, and it seems to develop a similar aesthetic. Just like there, we have a film that is (or can be) dry but exciting, open spatially yet closed off tightly by the camera. Such contradictions are confusing and messy, which seems appropriate for the film’s ideological content, which seems to be overwhelmingly present on the surface, but Godard’s own ideas are perhaps masked by his vocal characters.

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Unlike Masculin FemininLa Chinoise is shot in color and it seems nearly impossible to think of the film without red, blue, and yellow all confronting your eyes in an appealing and uniform way. Frames seem to be balanced not by the continuity of actors and their physical preference, but instead by Godard and Coutard’s preference for the image itself. This, of course, echoes Yasujiro Ozu’s ideas about composition. The connection here is frustrating, because at the time, Ozu was relatively unknown and of little interest to the west. Yet, Godard seems to channeling him here. First in his portrait-like close-ups, but also in the decorations of the apartment. Like the protagonists of early Ozu comedies like The Lady and the Beard and I Flunked But…, Godard’s characters also hang photographs of Karl Marx (among others) on their walls. Interestingly, Ozu’s Marx-adorned rooms were decorated with American movie posters and other images of western influence. Godard synthesizes popular culture with ideology in the film’s humorous pop song, “Mao Mao” while Ozu saw both as part of the same force.

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While one can get caught up in the words of the group here, it would be a mistake to label Godard’s film as a advertisement for them, or even an endorsement of their behavior. The assassination doesn’t go quite as planned and eventually, the older couple who let Veronique borrow the apartment send their kids to check on the place. It is important that La Chinoise takes place in the summer because it’s conclusion, which does not condemn the group itself, still does leave us with a sense of “now what?” Veronique and Guillaume are bourgeois leftists, but so was Godard himself. As Richard Brody notes in his book, Everything is Cinema, during the shooting of the film, Godard gave Leaud money to eat fancier meals. He had to have his idealistic, revolutionary youth be privileged to poke holes in their ways? The result is, again, a film that does not condone or condemn the group. What purpose can the film serve then? As much as it fascinates me, I struggle to find an answer myself. Maybe it is Godard’s own inward reflection on his own social standing and what that means for his interest in the radical left. The film concludes with Guillaume allowing himself to be humiliated for profit, maybe Godard is doing the same. No, not making a terrible, impersonal film for financial success but instead, one that would make evident his shortcomings as a privileged leftist.

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The problem with all of this is that the film then leaves Veronique out to dry. We must presume she returns to her studies, yet she laments in voice over that she lacks the courage to go forth with even more acts of violence. The film gives us a sequence where her increasingly violent intentions are questioned in a level-headed way by her, of course, male professor. His reasonable reply doesn’t change Veronique’s intentions, she goes through with the plan to kill Sholokhov shortly after this conversation. While Godard allows himself (through Guillaume) to absorb criticism and vegetables, Veronique is left completely alone. Godard would make Weekend next, and perhaps give us some answers. Both the man and the woman in that film’s bourgeois couple are thrown through the ringer, but the woman adapts, though the film suggests this is spineless betrayal. He doesn’t give his women much of a choice in the three films discussed here. Veronique is a radical, but she’s “too radical.” She arguably becomes this way for her one self-preservation, just as the woman in Weekend must eat her husband to not end up dead herself. Maybe I’m reaching here, but in any case, Godard fucks over Veronique. Maybe in his self-critical approach to bourgeois intellectuals, he could have included his own misogyny. I guess one could take comfort that he would latter address this headon, but it seems to halt all of the energy in both La Chinoise and Masculin Feminin.

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Je vous salue, Marie / Hail Mary (1985)

24 08 2014

Perhaps it is the controversy that came with its release or perhaps it was Godard’s own troubled production, but for whatever reason, Hail Mary is more infamous than it is famous. Sure, little of his post-1968 work is as iconic and ingrained in popular culture, but Hail Mary in particular seems like nothing more than a curiosity. Even those who do praise it, do so with some restraint. It seems that the context of the film’s inception has become a bigger story than the film itself. Yet, here we find Godard at his most compassionate, although his constant refusal to distance himself from his own work has never been more palpable. The result is something truly frustrating and off-putting, but for the engaged viewer who gives him a chance, they may find one of cinema’s most celebrated figures at his most daring and confrontational.

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A despondent Joseph sits across from Mary Magdalen in a cafe. She’s pleading with him to marry his girlfriend, Mary. He refuses, but his mind appears to be somewhere far away from the conversation at hand. Meanwhile, the angel Gabriel arrives at the airport. He gives Joseph, who is a taxi driver, five hundred dollars and commands him to drive to the service station run by Mary’s father. There, Gabriel confronts Mary and tells her that she is pregnant, but the father is not Joseph. The implication is that it is not any other human in a corporeal. Joseph is overcome with jealously. For the two years he’s dated Mary, he has not touched or even kissed her. Refusing to believe in the immaculate conception, he accuses her of cheating.

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While anyone vaguely familiar with the birth of Christ can follow the general idea of Godard’s story, the narrative’s first sharp deviation from its source text is Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Godard’s track record with women is well, let’s just say the fact that I have to construct a sentence with the phrase “track record with women” is a problem. Many might call this a simplistic assessment, but a recent revisit of a one-time favorite, Masculin feminin depressed me greatly. What I once saw as a natural observation on young people and their romantic relationships seemed a lot more hollow. Women are sexualized for the benfit of capitalism and consumerism, in particular, sure. However, throughout the 1960s, Godard’s critique fails to see the forest for the trees, women are shamed for being not just complicit in this manipulation, but responsible for it. In other words, he creates a more rarefied way of repeating the rather banal stereotype that women are superficial and dull, but ties it to a critique of capitalism.

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Godard himself later remarked his displeasure with how he treated his characters, particularly the women of Masculin feminin. The film seeks to make them not just apolitical, but perhaps too vapid to even comprehend politics in the first place. Unlike the work that followed Masculin femininHail Mary is less straightforward about its ideological intentions. There is no quoting of Marx, no pictures of Mao, no static shots of individuals throwing their fists in the air for revolt. Yet, this might be one of his deeply political films, and the fact that its politics are interconnected with something personal may have led to a critical evaluation that seemed disinterested in probing deeper into the cinematic fabric. I hesitate to call this film feminist, but its undoubtedly concerned with a woman’s agency and control of her body.

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It might be of interest to point that Godard frequently considered pulling the plug on Hail Mary, but continued to power on because of his collaborator, Anne-Marie Mieville. Mieville’s short, The Book of Mary, was and still is shown before Hail Mary. Godard felt he may have owed her something, in this case maybe the film’s existence is only because of and for a woman. The film is about Mary and her bodily autonomy, sure, but in addition, it is about Joseph and his unflinching desire to own her, perhaps dominate her with his own affection and love. The latter rhetoric sounds complicated and unfair on Joseph’s part, yet his manipulation of Mary’s feelings makes up the bulk of the film. The reverse tends to be the norm in fiction, that women are needlessly cruel and coldhearted to men who want to do nothing but love them. The reality is that such a line of thought is possessive and abusive.

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Joseph is played by Thierry Rode, a first time actor, who was even more inexperienced than the film’s lead, Myriem Roussel. While Roussel (who had worked with Godard before in First Name Carmen) plays thing in an almost aloof and distant manner, Rode is awkwardly imposing. His movements feel strict, almost forced. Many have watched this film and never even had the slightest idea that he would be “abusive boyfriend” material and yet, the evidence is there on the film. He is not so different from Godard, he sports a similar pair of sunglasses if that means anything, nor is he that different from the typical male viewer that would watch the film. Some might feel that jealousy and anger is completely justified. He’s dated Mary for two years, he deserves something, right?

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Well, no, that’s wrong. The film, with the most extreme of circumstances, gives a male audience a pill still difficult to swallow: that romantic relationships don’t equal possession. Joseph feels like he deserves Mary’s love, which in some cases might just mean love in that indescribable way but here it most likely means sex. His desire to see Mary naked sends him to his knees, akin to some untamed animal. The most striking thing here is that all of this, which is familiar and still authentic in many heterosexual relationships, is the context of the birth of Christ. So much of Christ’s life was imposed forces that depicted all the ugly potential of man. How revolutionary, then, for Godard to suggest that the birth of Christ came in the context of something still found and often unrecognized in male ego: the desire to  possess women. Throughout the  film, Mary does not waver. She calls the shots and controls her body. If Joseph feels like Mary owes him something, he is more than welcome to leave her.

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For Ever Mozart (1996)

17 08 2014

Before one begins to unpack For Ever Mozart, it is perhaps crucial to explain the film’s origins, specifically that the film itself contains three ideas that Godard had for separate, individual productions. One about French artists and actors in Sarajevo, another about the study of filmmaking, and finally, one about music and its emotional significance. To a viewer unfamiliar with Godard’s work after 1968, the results might be alienating and frustrating, an sculpted mess of ideas. But there’s a beauty to Godard’s organized chaos, he has gracefully woven three narratives into one, and made one of his most political and yet, one of his most affecting works.

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Camille is an unemployed professor of philosophy who receives a spark of inspiration. She seeks to travel to Sarajevo to put on a production of Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance. She is able to convince her cousin, Jerome and her maid, Djamila to join her. Vicky Vitalis, her filmmaker father and an obvious stand in for Godard himself, also accepts an invitation. He eventually retreats back home while Camille, Jerome, and Djamila soldier on. They are then captured by Serb paramilitaries, and presumably left for dead. We return to Vitalis who, informed of this tragedy, tries to complete his movie.

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On the surface, the slaughter of Camille, Jerome, and Djamila seems to be a warning towards those going to spaces marked as “unsafe” – one which Camille’s mother seems to foreshadow. She declares it is crazy and a death-wish to go to Sarajevo to perform a play when there’s plenty of places where one can do it in France. Of course, Camille’s desire to put on a play in Sarajevo comes with a pointed political purpose, she is after all not a student of theater but rather a professor of philosophy. The problem begins to emerge here. She basically uses Sarajevo for her own personal political plaything. There, her intentions seem oblivious to the struggle and needs of the city, she’s just going there because she knows it’s a suffering place. This doesn’t justify the violence acted upon the bodies of Camille, Jerome, and Djamila. Their deaths and unfair and tragic, but they are done in by their own desires (specifically Camille) to help without thinking that they might be invading.

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To provide a real life example, sometime in the past five years there was a group of primarily white students from Austin, Texas who made it their personal mission to  not just visit and bring joy to Detroit, Michigan but to save it. The audacity of their intentions might be lost on someone who comes from a similar upbringing, after all they were trying to provide a positive change to a city that is so often framed in the mainstream as suffering and in need of help. However, their efforts not only resemble colonialism, they are actually a form of it. The white savior complex that is repeated throughout media and fiction influenced their ideas, made it seem possible. They wanted to help, but they were invading. Intentions are not the sole thing to measure one’s actions, especially when in this case, the “positive intentions” are something patronizing and racist.

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I see Camille’s intentions as the same as these Texan students. She speaks a similarly positive message, but with no regard for the existence of those who live in the space they are going to be occupying. Perhaps calling this “Godard’s film on gentrification” is a step too far, but the film seems to suggest some acknowledgement of the rhetoric around “nice” colonialism. Camille’s mother is the conservative foil to the white leftists, urging them not to bother themselves with “unsafe” spaces. We can recognize this as close-minded, but the white progressive voice is just as close-minded, oblivious to the existence of natives. Godard himself, as a white leftist, has to decenter his own voice, a thing he struggles with but he acknowledges it here and in the segment Camera-Eye from Far From Vietnam.  The privilege of white leftists is so often left in the margins of their discourse, ignored because it would require to confront something uncomfortable, that you are one of the oppressors.

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While Godard works through privilege and (perhaps) gentrification in his scenes focusing on Sarajevo, he looks for something else once Camille, Jerome, and Djamila are murdered. It becomes a film about dealing with grief, though in the process it doesn’t excuse Camille’s own imperialist ideas of “peace” it does accept that her death would be an impossible fight for Vitalis. He struggles to process the reality of losing his daughter. Although his grief is never depicted through his own words (he seldom speaks) it does manifest in his shooting of the film within a film. There, he relentlessly tasks an actress to repeat one line of dialogue “yes” but each time is insufficent. The cold weather eventually breaks her down. The repetition seems to underscore Vitalis’ mind dealing with his daughter’s death. It tells him “yes” this happened, but his heart and brain can do nothing but reject it every time. Fiction often suggests we have an “aha!” moment in dealing with a death, where we’re able to put it behind us and triumphantly move on. Godard suggests something that is closer to reality: that we must confront it everyday. We may come to accept it, but  it will take many takes and even then, we don’t stop thinking about the person in question.

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