Saturday, January 8, 2011

Incoherent and intolerable...

I don’t know if I’d find any filmmaker harder to write about with any degree of concision than Jean-Luc Godard. I consistently return to his films more than almost anyone else’s, but seldom feeling I’ve engaged adequately with them. They are, by any measure, “difficult” – assessed as narratives it’s often unclear what’s happening, or what it represents; the films pose a deliberate challenge to our concentration. Godard sees the complexity in everything – sexual relations, human interactions, politics, language, thought, cinema – although his focus, and the severity of his engagement, have varied over the long span of his career. His work doesn’t eschew beauty or sensual pleasure – actually he’s been responsible for some of the most gorgeous imagery I can recall – but even as he satiates our senses, he’s likely to criticize us for our unthinking capitulation. He’s one of the century’s great compilers of aphorisms, but they contradict and confuse as much as they illuminate.

Jean-Luc Godard

80 years old now, he may still be best known for his first film, A bout de souffle (Breathless), which at the time seemed to exemplify the freshness of the French New Wave. Many of his earlier films starred his gorgeous wife Anna Karina, and draw poignantly on their decaying relationship. But the Godard of the last forty years has usually been a sterner taskmaster. Numero Deux, made in 1975 – which I select from the pack only because it happens to be the last one I rewatched – has the sense of probing the very heart of how meaning is created and transmitted in a fraught economic and cultural time, portraying the nuclear family as a near-repulsive wasteland, excavating squandered historical possibilities, seeming to suggest cinema may contribute to our collective redemption, but without any false romanticism about the likelihood of its success. The film, I suppose, is depressing, but only in that apprehending what we’ve made of ourselves allows nothing else.

Godard won an honorary Oscar last year, but it’s a real shame that the occasion did very little to prompt a broader appreciation of his achievement, in particular because commentators got sidetracked by reporting his (at best) ambiguous attitude toward Judaism (which seems undeniable, but also isn’t exactly news to those paying attention, and anyway says nothing about the films except to emphasize their unreliability as objective diagnosis, which in any event was never in doubt). This is Now’s Norman Wilmer on his new work Film Socialisme: “incomprehensible, incoherent and intolerable…hollow, lacking the emotional immediacy of his greatest work.” Which, like much of what one might say about Godard, may already represent falling into a trap: what is “emotional immediacy” in cinema if not the drug that dulls our awareness, facilitating our surrender to the governing ideology?

Film socialisme

It’s divided into three broad sections – the first on an ocean liner, the second rural, the third a collage of political and filmic reference points. There’s little in the way of conventional narrative, and in any event, the film only subtitles a fraction of the conversation. It contains some pristine isolated moments, but at other times looks rough and low-grade. I don’t know if I’d say I enjoyed it exactly (and I wouldn’t like to bet the other eight people in the audience did either) but again nothing about the film suggests we’re meant to. Instead, I think, Godard intends to lead us into the desert at the far edge of understanding and identification and even tolerance, forcing us to our knees, in the hope the impact may open our eyes and allow us to take our first steps into the light.

The film closes by declaring that if the law is not just, then justice before the law; immediately undercut by a final “no comment.” Godard, I think, no longer trusts himself, no matter anyone else, to change the world by telling people things – his films used to overflow with intellectual one-liners and analyses and statistics, but Film socialisme has the sense of such agitation having reached the end of its tether, where even token coherence barely emerges from human chaos. The film still retains some hope I think for cinema and image-making, but without any youthful idealism – contrasting the famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin with scenes of the modern-day steps themselves, it seems to be positing how even our established triumphs of evocation and representation only lead us away from productive engagement. And yet the film doesn’t feel defeated – it has moments of tenderness and delight, and if the context for those remains unclear, then perhaps that’s a comment too on the bankruptcy of the social contract that generates our perceived pleasures. In other words, if we view the world as anything other than incomprehensible, incoherent and intolerable, it’s only because we’re insulated from it all, floating deadeningly along on our ideological ocean liner.

How Do You Know

It’s just out of sheer perversity, really, that I tack on some words about James L Brooks’ How Do You Know onto the end of an article about Godard (I don’t know if Godard ever saw a Brooks film, but you’d have to guess he’d be unimpressed by it). Brooks is no master of cinematic writing, and if his work is at all analytical, it’s confined to analyzing what seems most pressing from the plush vantage of a Beverly Hills mansion. His achievement, I suppose, is in persuading us to take such laborious fluff seriously, and by that measure he has an impressive batting average: three Oscars (and four for his actors, including two for Jack Nicholson) from just six movies.

The secret sauce is missing this time though, since How Do You Know is remarkably uninteresting and misjudged. It turns on a team USA softball player needing to move on with her life, living on and off with a millionaire baseball player while flirting with a fired executive accused of securities fraud. The film intends, I suppose, to reflect on the mysteries of relationships, on the minor adjustments and internal reorientations required in charting one’s optimum course in life. But to say the least, it’s a halting and trivial treatment of this theme. The actors are mostly miscast and then poorly directed to boot; of the stars, Owen Wilson as the empathy-challenged baseball player is the only one demonstrating a vaguely coherent comedic approach to the role. Reese Witherspoon, sad to say, comes across as a total pill, and Paul Rudd exudes gooey sensitivity to a degree rendering him implausible as a participant in either human or financial commerce.

I did find it intriguing how much time the Witherspoon and Rudd characters spend riding the bus (in this context a major concession toward social realism). But if not actively intolerable, How Do You Know is, in all the ways that count, incomprehensible and incoherent, and for no productive purpose.

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