Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964)

“The Americans are good at story telling.  The French are not.”  Holding such a sentiment did not prevent  Jean-Luc Godard from attempting his own takes on genre films – a favorite staple of American directors since the founding days of cinema in the United States.  In fact, the early years of Godard’s career (the late 50’s to the early 60s) revealed a director very much involved in an Americanesque phase.  One of the best films to come from this period is BAND OF OUTSIDERS (French, 1964) starring his wife at the time, Anna Karina.  But this is a Jean-Luc Godard genre film, after all, which means that the picture is virtually plotless and functions mainly as a platform for the “new wave” icon to explore some of his favorite authors, directors, actors and cultural figures. 

Meeting in an English language class, Odile (Karina), Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) plan to steal tens of thousands of francs from Odile’s rich Aunt (Louisa Colpeyn), with whom she lives in a palatial mansion.  The money actually (can’t really say “belongs”) to the mysterious Mr. Stolz, the Aunts lover, who also lives at the estate.  He came into the money  through tax evasion, and is a symbol of the corrupt capitalist, getting rich while refusing to pay his fair share.  He is a sort of McGuffin in that he is never shown, but is the reason the plot is put into motion. 

But it is Godard’s cultural and artistic obsessions that get the most attention.  The film begins with a flashing montage of the three principals’ faces accompanied by Michel Legrand’s silent movie style music and the final credit on-screen is “Directed by Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard”.  Arthur and Franz may be named in honor of “B” picture star Arthur Franz, and the two constantly enact shootouts from gangster movies.  They remark that Odile has “soft skin”,  possibly a plug for Francois Truffaut’s movie of that name, released the same year as BAND OF OUTSIDERS.  Godard’s idols from the other arts are also mentioned.  Franz is a fanatic for books and in English class the instructor (Danièle Girard) points out that it is not important to know how to say “where is the bathroom”.  It is however, essential to know how to spell “Thomas Hardy”.  Lengthy readings are given of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, as Arthur passes love notes to Odile.  After this, it is back to film commentary.  At the end of class a student asks “How do you say ‘big one million dollar film?'”, an allusion to Godard’s distaste for big budget commercial cinema.  Later, when Arthur asks Odile for a date, he playfully places his closed fist on her chin, pretending to sock her, like so many gangster and private eye movie tough guys.  Arthur wears a Humphrey Bogart style overcoat throughout the film, as does Franz.  The three are frequently seen “bogarting” cigarettes and often pass a pork pie hat between them.  Arthur constantly speaks of Odile possibly “betraying” him, as if he believes in the film noir cliché of the duplicitous femme fatale.  And – horrors – Odile remarks at one point “I hate cinema!  I hate theater!  I love nature!” as though there is something unnatural about the filmed image and performance.

Capitalism, another Godard obsession, is attacked in sharp fashion.  Early in the film, Odile is asked how she plans to explain leaving the house for so long a time to her domineering Aunt.  “I’ll  tell her I’m going shopping”, is her reply.  An innocuous sounding statement, perhaps, but knowing Godard’s hatreds (a key one being consumerism) it must be interpreted as anything but.  In a diner, Odile orders a Coca-Cola – reminding us of Godard’s famous description of the 60’s generation as “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” – fascinated by Marxism but prey to all the capitalist vices.  When discussing the planned robbery, Arthur remarks “better to be rich and happy than poor and unhappy.”  This equating of money with happiness is an attitude the filmmaker must find incomprehensible. 

The power of advertising is decried as a newspaper ad for make-up announces “It’s not just your looks, but your happiness.”  All news and advertising media are seen as a servant of capitalism, polluting us with constant stimuli (visuals and sound), all saying “buy this, think that.”  It apparently has Godard’s head swimming and late in the film Odile challenges Arthur and Franz to go without speaking for an entire minute.  As they attempt this feat, all sounds from the noisy diner – voices, music etc. –  disappear from the soundtrack.  It is an eerie touch and needless to say, one of them cracks before the minute is up.  Modern man, it seems, needs constant distractions. 

Godard plays off traditional romance films and even has Arthur and Odile take a trip to the subway – the bowels of the earth, and Arthur states bluntly that love talk is “crap”.  Something else of interest happens in the subway: The couple see a man seated on the train holding a small white box.  Arthur remarks that the blank expression on his face could be interpreted in wildly differing ways depending on what you imagine to be in the box.  If he is holding a Teddy bear, the expression could be sublime.  If he is holding a stick of dynamite the look may be sinister.  This conversation is a reworking of the Lev Kuleshov film editing experiments conducted in the early years of the Soviet Union, where the same shot of an old man is intercut with different images, as seen from his point of view.  Depending on what he is viewing, his expression will be interpreted in different ways by the audience.  Astute fellows, Godard and Kuleshov. 

The distancing techniques of playwright Bertolt Brecht are employed as Odile sings a mournful ditty while staring directly into the camera.  The song is about the common plight of all people, as she sees it – loneliness.  The use of singing and addressing the audience serve to remind us that we are watching a film.  As such Godard is saying “This is only a movie.  Do not become so involved with the plot, and instead focus on what is being said.”  And the message is an important one, as repeated by Franz at the end of the film.  Speaking to Odile he states, “Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?  Always remaining separate.”  Thus the title is fully explained: We are all outsiders, 

With Arthur killed in the robbery and no money to speak of, Franz and Odile head off to their futures together – and one last dig at “papa’s cinema”, as the narrator describes a “Technicolor, CinemaScope” film to follow of their adventures.  The narrator is Jean-Luc Godard himself, a wise choice to tell the story of one mans obsessions, hatreds and passions. 

CREDITS: Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.  Based on the novel FOOLS’ GOLD by Dolores Hitchens. Cinematography by Raoul Coutard.  Music by Michel Legrand.  With: Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, Danièle Girard, Louisa Colpeyn.                             

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April 30, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, film directors, French "new wave", French cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Touch Of Méliès

Georges Méliès was a conjuror at heart – a magician who truly had the calling to be an artist of illusion.  Starting in 1888 Méliès performed his magic act at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, an establishment he purchased with money made from selling his share of the family footwear business.  He loved to mystify, and it is fun to think of his own mystification upon first seeing the Lumière brother’s demonstration of their motion picture projector.  This seminal event in film history occurred  at the Grand Cafe in Paris in December of 1895.  Méliès was hooked.  He would soon turn the Robert-Houdin theatre into a movie house, showing the works of Edison, among others.  Before long he designed his own camera, and was not only exhibiting but making films.  He formed his own company, STAR FILM, and his early output was very much like the typical product of the time: Each film was a few seconds long – trains arriving at a station, waves crashing on a beach etc.  But the soul of a magician (and a story-teller) was nagging at him…

It was a discovery he made on a Paris street that would lead to his becoming the first master of special effects and fantasy films.  One day, as he was filming city scenes, his camera jammed.  Fixing the problem in a matter of minutes, he was ready to begin shooting again.  Upon developing the film, he was fascinated by what he saw: People magically transformed into objects; carriages disappeared and reappeared from out of nowhere.  These were in effect, the first jump cuts, as well as the first time-lapse shots.  Melies’ revelation would change the course of cinema.  As far as the visualization of a movie was concerned, anything was now possible.  The Lumière brothers captured reality on the screen, now, led by Méliès, filmmakers could capture true magic.  Of course, this did not mean that he was disinterested in cinema realism.  There were his “reconstructions”, sober recreations of topical events of the day.  Such films as DREYFUS AFFAIR (1899), his reenactment of the French military case.  Because he had to tell the whole story, it was necessary to include dozens of scenes and locations.  Thus his films were longer and more elaborate than much of the product of the time.  He was also known for films of  past historical events.  His JOAN OF ARC (1900) contained a dozen scenes and over 500 performers. 

Most historians believe Méliès to be the great innovator in creating story films, though there are those who credit female director Alice Guy-Blache (also French) with this achievement.  Her film LE FEE AUX CHOUX (1896) may have predated  Méliès’ story films by several months.  In any case, he certainly did more than any other filmmaker to advance the idea of entertaining audiences with narrative movies.  And that magicians soul…

It was the genre of fantasy and science fiction with which Méliès would be most identified.  And with good reason.  Full of mischief and a joyful spirit of adventure, these films offer a dizzying cocktail of trick effects, dancing-girls, fanciful men of science (to Méliès, the ultimate magicians), naughty sprites, playful demons and the overwhelming sense of Méliès (and his audience) having a good time.  In A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), perhaps his most famous and typical film, he combines many of these elements into a story sixty-seven years ahead of its time.  With over thirty scenes, the film is more than 15 minutes long  and begins with astronomers debating the endeavor and  dissolves to scenes of workmen building the craft that will carry the explores to the moon, depicted as a delightfully cheesy celestial body to say the least.  While there they encounter devilish (but always comical) beings, barely escaping with their lives.   Not exactly scientifically accurate (the director could not be heralded as a prophet of Aeronautics) , the film does foresee the excitement and sheer spectacle of the 1969 moon landing. 

Despite the flights of revolutionary imagination in his films, there is a single, deadly flaw that runs through all of them.  It is a cinematic flaw and it may have led to his downfall.  It seems that this master magician never understood the basic building blocks of cinema, the techniques quickly mastered by his contemporaries, men such as G.A. Smith and Robert W. Paul.  These are the techniques that are still used in modern cinema: Breaking down scenes into different shots of divergent angles.  The use of close-ups, medium shots and long shots.  He never caught on or never cared.  Virtually all of his scenes are photographed using the same master shot.  In BLUEBEARD (1901) a scene called for a detailed shot of a key, screaming for a close-up.  Yet he opted instead  for a giant foot long prop key to get his message across.  Perhaps because of this cinematic blind spot, the market for his films eventually vanished, like in one of his special effects.  In 1911 he had to borrow money from the Pathe brothers to continue production.  His next film THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE (1912) is among his most charming with a giant snow monster that is a marvel of engineering and design.  Nevertheless, he was soon out of business.  Soon after that, he was forgotten.  He destroyed the prints of most of his films (only 200 or so survive) and returned to his first love: Performing his magic act.  In 1923 he filed for bankruptcy.  In 1928 a revival of his films began and a few years after that he was awarded the “Legion Of Honor” by the french government.  He was also awarded a rent free apartment where he would spend the rest of his life. Georges Méliès died in 1938 at the age of 76.

July 23, 2012 Posted by | early cinema, film directors, French cinema, silent film | , , , , , | Leave a comment

RENÉ CLAIR’S A NOUS LA LIBERTÉ (1931)

René Clair’s occasionally funny, always sweet A NOUS LA LIBERTÉ (French, 1931), is part musical (operetta, in fact) and part socialist tract.  beginning as it does in a  prison where inmates are working on an assembly line, the worker as prisoner motif is off and running.  Also off and running are Louis (Raymond Cordy) and Emile (Henri Marchand), enterprising prison escapees.  They are separated early on, and Louis, through happy circumstance and a little hard work, becomes the boss at a small phonograph store.  Soon he is C.E.O. (more an emperor) of a giant phonograph corporation.  The company is run like a prison, and the employees march in as though they were the slave class from METROPOLIS (1926).  The cold realism of the prison and corporation (factory) scenes is aided immeasurably by the production design of Lazare Meerson, whose art direction was the first foreign achievement ever nominated for an American Academy Award.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons (aside from its rather obvious politics) Charles Chaplin was so taken by the film.  He borrowed many sequences for his 1936 classic MODERN TIMES, though Chaplin’s production design for that film (provided by Charles D. Hall and J. Russell Spencer) was often surreal and nightmarish. 

Years after the prison break, when Emile meets up with Louis, the tycoon fears he will be blackmailed by his old friend about his convict past.  Another symbolic swipe is taken at capitalism when, after the misunderstanding turns physical, Louis tries to present Emile with an impressive wad of cash.  Blood drips on the money from a cut on Emile’s hand, and director-writer Clair tells us exactly what he thinks of capitalism’s ill-gotten gains.  Like the empty picture frames that adorn the shop Louis enters early in the film, the system offers little in the way of substance.  This idea is wittily conveyed at the climax, when all manner of people chase after cash stolen from Louis, as it blows wildly in the wind-all symbolizing the endless money chase, as Clair sees it, of the capitalist system, and the “winds of change” he hopes are on the horizon.  When Louis really is blackmailed by unsavory people from his past, he does what Clair must feel is the only decent thing… 

In the end the corporation moves to total mechanization, and the men are employed only to supervise the machines.  The film’s final proclamation is a crazy one: It is only when released from labor that mankind finds true happiness.  And Louis?  He throws it all away to live the life of a transient.  With his old friend Emile, he takes to the road, liberated from the love of money.  In a moment of blissful irony, Louis finds his own utopia as he shares his few remaining coins with Emile-a reminder of the thousands he offered him out of fear earlier. 

Stylistically, A NOUS LA LIBERTÉ is as unusual as it is simple.  Aside from the scant dialogue and brief song sequences, the film is virtually silent.  Musical cues serve as the sound of marching feet and blowing wind.  This is to highlight the importance of music in the film’s plot as well as in life (as Clair sees it).  No traffic sounds, no crowd noises, everything is cut to the bare minimum.  It is a simple life René Clair longs for and the best way to present this message is with cinematic simplicity.  His politics may seem naive in this day and age, but his technique remains as sharp today as it was in 1931.

June 16, 2010 Posted by | Charles Chaplin, French cinema, Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy, RENÉ CLAIR, socialist cinema | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment