Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Offer He Couldn’t Refuse: The Godfather and Coppola’s Compromise of Capitalism in American Cinema

”He’s a businessman, I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”, are the iconic words of the Godfather, Don Vito Corleone that also illustrate the business behind the studio system which ushered in Francis Ford Coppola’s enduring masterpiece The Godfather in 1972. Struggling to compete with the television programming and a new generation’s cinematic appetite that favored risqué and gritty foreign films, the studios were desperate for a genuine blockbuster. Paramount studios turned to a young film school graduate and independent filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola to adapt the popular best seller The Godfather. Faced with debts and the future of his fledgling independent film company; American Zoetrope, Coppola was coerced into directing The Godfather (Schumacher 88). Coppola focused on imprinting a realistic picture of American capitalism through a mafia family’s collapse and rebirth. The reshaping of the Corleone clan infrastructure from Don Vito Corleone’s old world values to his younger son’s gritty and aggressive approach characterize American Cinema’s transition through the generation of New Hollywood filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola.
            A melodrama of one family’s survival to stay on top, The Godfather captures the authentic Italian-mob culture through Coppola’s own Catholic and Italian heritage. The charming, aged patriarch, New York crime boss, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) hears the petitions from the serfs of his feudal clan around the pleasantries of his daughter’s wedding celebrations. He peers out at his empire from the discretion of blinds and marks the return of his youngest and favorite son Michael (Al Pacino) a WWII hero, bringing along an outsider, his non-Sicilian, all-American girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). One member of “the family” celebrity Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) comes to Vito desperate for him to jumpstart his career. Vito sends his adopted son, the cool calculating, Tom Haggard (Robert Duvall), the family consigliere (legal counselor) to Hollywood to make the difficult producer an offer he “cannot refuse”.
            The tide turns for the Corleone family when Vito takes and old world stand against a rival crime boss’ offer to go into the drug trade. Sollozo (Al Letierri) the rival crime boss soon targets Vito and his men shoot up the Corleone Don in the street. Michael is drawn into the family business as his older brother the hotheaded Sonny (James Caan) triggers the first mob-war in ten years. Michael is nominated to mediate for ‘the family’ and uses the opportunity to assasinate Sollozzo and his corrupt police captain counterpart and then flees to Sicily. Leaving Kay behind he falls in love and marries a fragile Sicilian girl from his father’s native town. When Sonny is lured to his death at a tollbooth shoot out, and Michael’s wife is killed with a car bomb intended for him, the weak Don Vito negotiates a truce for Michael’s return compromising to engage in the drug trafficking, a vice he considered unethical before.
            Michael returns a hardened man. He marries Kay and has a son with her, but he moves swiftly with Machiavellian agency to reinstate the Corleone family’s power. Vito is able to impart to Michael his final insight on how the rival crime families will attempt to entrap him when he is gone. While playing with his grandson Vito dies in the vineyard. Now don, Michael stands in as godfather at his nephew’s christening while rivals to their ‘family’ are assassinated. The film closes with Kay’s realization that she is cut off from her husband by the family of men that encompass him and literally close the door on her.
            The narrative themes of honor, greed, and ambition in the film go beyond the mafia backdrop and paint a picture of capitalistic American values. The Corleone family is the story of “American expansion and capitalism in the twentieth century” (Dauth 2). In contrast to the “goonish stereotypical mobsters” in old gangster films Coppola’s smooth, professional, mafia in The Godfather becomes more “like a corporation in a corporate society” (Phillips 109). Even in the ritualistic depiction of the Catholic rituals the mafia’s involvement visually strikes the viewer as a well-oiled machine. At Vito’s funeral several men step out of their cars in sequence bearing aloft a single red rose. The “profit driven culture” of 1970s America is reflected in the aggressive ambition of Michael to overcome his competition (McBee 102).
Coppola’s stylistic mark reflected fresh cinematic innovation as well as subtle throwbacks to techniques from classical art. Coppola fought for the film be shot on location in New York and Italy over the Hollywood back lot, the result is an authentic gritty realism reminiscent of the style of the Italian Neo-Realist filmmakers (Phillips 92, Braudy 18). Stylistically low-key lighting gave The Godfather its recognizable texture to the film’s sinister figures and action. The godfather’s office is shrouded in shadow in contrast the sunny brightly lit wedding taking place outside. The business of the mafia is marked by darkness: “the don is the personification of evil”, explains cinematographer Gordon Willis (Phillips 99). Sound engineer Walter Murch draws attention to the diagetic sound of screeching of train brakes that trigger Michael’s murder of Sollozzo as a “metaphor for Michael’s anxiety” (Phillips 103). Within the mise en scene Coppola embeds a throwback to classical art via memento mori (a reminder of death). In many renaissance portraits the presence of fruit signifies the potential decay of death, in The Godfather the motif of oranges in the frame become Coppola’s memento mori particularly at moments leading up to violence, like the bag of oranges Vito drops right before he is shot.  
A critically celebrated film and a blockbuster at the box office, The Godfather reeled in three Oscars including ‘Best Picture’. The film’s success firmly established Coppola’s career as an auteur and gave him the freedom to actively pursue his following films and launch the careers peers like George Lucas on their next venture with American Graffiti (Schumacher 127). In hindsight of the production battles Coppola out maneuvered to make The Godfather the powerful film that it remains today, I cannot help but see an allegory between the mafia families and the Hollywood studios with Coppola as Michael foraging forward with the new generation’s alternative filmmaking in American Cinema.
Works Cited
Braudy, Leo. "The Sacraments of Genre: Coppola, DePalma, Scorsese." Film Quarterly 39.3 (1986): 17-28. Jstor. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.
Dauth, Brian. "Great Directors Francis Ford Coppola." Senses of Cinema 7.39 (2006): 1-12. Senses of Cinema. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.
McBee, Randy D. "Hollywood, The Working Class and Emotional Realism." Reviews in American History 32.1 (2004): 97-104. Jstor. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.
Nystrom, Derek. "Hard Hats and Movie Brats: Auteurism and the Class Politics of the New Hollywood." Cinema Journal 43.3 (2004): 18-41. Project Muse. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.
Phillips, Gene D. Godfather: the intimate Francis Ford Coppola. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Print.
Schumacher, Michael. Francis Ford Coppola: a filmmaker's life. New York: Crown Publishers, 1999. Print.
The Godfather (Coppola Restoration) [Blu-ray]. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall. 1972. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2010. DVD.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Femme Fetale between Jules et Jim

One of the most influential films of the New Wave is Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). The film follows the destruction of a bond between two men through the woman who comes between them. Truffaut captures the love triad between Jules, Jim and Catherine from the turn of the 20th century through a world war and into the roaring twenties. The time frame parallels the change in culture with the fluctuation of love between the characters. Through the period piece Truffaut depicts the dangers of a down to earth femme fetale, Catharine, through her transformation into the modern woman.
Jules is a foreigner in Paris, an Austrian, and a man very much naive about the vices of women. His best friend on the other hand Jim is a Parisian, a flagrant womanizer who always seems to return to his faithful mistress Gilberte. Jules and Jim are drawn to Catharine initially not for her complete self, but because of her resemblance to a statue they are fixated with. She had the same enigmatic smile as the statue. Jules marks her as the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with, going to the extent of warning Jim off in the famous line: “Not this one, Jim”. When Jules discusses the prospect of marriage, Jim sees the reality and warns: “I’m afraid she’ll never be happy on this earth. She’s a vision for all, perhaps not meant for any one man alone”. Jim suppresses his attraction to Catherine out of difference to Jules. Shortly after Jules marries Catharine, the First World War breaks out and separates the two friends for the time being.
Catharine refuses to live life by the rules. She dresses in drag wearing the clothes of a boy with a grease moustache on an outing with Jules and Jim. They race across a bridge; however, Catharine cheats to get a head start. Later when she hears Jules talking to Jim about traditional marital expectations that the woman’s fidelity is more crucial than the mans, Catharine protests by leaping into a canal fully robed. Her impulsive act is foolhardy and irrational. She never explains her actions when Jules and Jim fish her out. The reference in the dialogue about marital roles foreshadows how Jules will be forced to eat his own words later when he is cuckolded over and over again by Catharine’s whims.
Obsessed with vengeance, Catharine believe she must get “even” with every perceived injustice done to her. She does not take into consideration whether it was intentional or circumstantial injury, but seeks to punish her perceived persecutor nevertheless. Catharine later justifies herself to Jim when he visits their Chalet on the Rhine after the war that because Jules’ mother had offended her at their wedding she cheated on her wedding night with an old flame in order to be even with Jules.
Catharine’s selfishness fuels her agency. She dominates her marriage with Jules. He tolerates her every whim with patience lest he loose her completely. When Jim visits their Chalet, Jules even offers Catharine to him in marriage so that she will not be “taken away from him” by another man. The love triad is not a permanent solution, because Jim finds himself jealous of his friend when Catharine chooses to seduce Jules on whim and Catharine grows disillusioned when she cannot have Jim’s child. She becomes self-destructive spurning Jim in the fear that one day he will leave her for a younger woman now she is no longer young.
In the late 1920s, Jules and Catharine move back to France with their daughter Sabine and by that time Jim has let Catharine go deciding to marry the woman who has waited for him all along, Gilberte. Catharine cannot handle loosing Jim and soon grows restless. Jules tells Jim that she is depressed and has purchased a revolver. One day Catharine drives her car off the road around the trees outside Jim’ apartment. She lures him to her bedroom but when Jim refuses to sleep with her. Instead he points out to her the sacrifices he made for her that she was unwilling to make in return, but in the end Catharine cannot see beyond herself. She asks him “What about me?” cries and then turns on Jim pulling her revolver on him. Jim barely escapes by jumping from a window.
A few months later Catherine triumphs when Jules, Jim and her have a chance encounter at a movie theater. Afterwards Catharine lures Jim into her car on the pretext of “having something to tell him” and then coyly tells her husband to “watch them closely”. Jules watches and to his horror Catharine drives her car quite intentionally off a broken bridge taking Jim’s life along with her own. In that act Catharine defines the femme fetale – the fatal female.
As a liberated woman who does as she pleases Catharine compromises her family and the friendship between Jules and Jim. As time passes and the dresses get shorter and shorter, Catherine grows bolder and bolder. She wraps her lingerie in a package before Jules and Jim before leaving them to openly have an affair with another man. Perhaps Truffaut is attempting to illustrate the dangers of gender role reversals. In their marriage Catharine could arguably be the one who wears the pants. She drives the car and is she who has numerous infidelities. Truffaut defines a down to earth yet very volatile femme fetale in his characterization of Catherine in Jules et Jim.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Cinematic Reincarnation: Hiroshima Mon Amour

The universal themes of love, loss, and memory transcend dimension in Alain Resnais’ tour de force masterpiece Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). Thrust together by need and desire Elle a French actress and Lui a Japanese architect share a one night stand in Hiroshima and delve into a didactic on their very different, but also very similar world experiences. Resnais creates a hybrid film overlapping between the documentary, unrequited love-story, and even pushing the envelope through the metaphysical aspects of Hiroshima Mon Amour.
There are overwhelming references to rebirth and perhaps even reincarnation within Resnais’ film. The opening image that the credit runs over is a still of a plant growing out of the sand. During the opening documentary montage of Elle and Lui’s didactic on the catastrophe of the atomic bomb, Resnais returns to that same image when Elle alludes to “new vegetation rises from the sands”. This time we see beside the plant a cigarette box with the words “Peace” printed on it.
The bond that forms between Lui and Elle also alludes to something rising out of the ashes. From the moment that Elle sees Lui’s hand lying in bed the morning after their tryst, she immediately ties the connection to her first love 15 years back in WWII. Resnais conveys this with a jump cut insert as if we the spectator where in Elle’s mind pulling up the memory with her. Later when Elle concedes to give in to Lui’s desire to be with her again, she unravels little by little the significance of her first love with a Bavarian soldier during the occupation of France in a quiet little city: Nevers. She begins to project the soldier onto Lui recounting the experience by saying things like “You are dead”. Lui encourages her to tell her whole story by reinforcing the illusion and asking “Am I dead?” in order to keep his place in Elle’s non-linear recounting of events.
By the end of their revelation Elle decides it is best to part ways in their conversation she admits there is very little likelihood that they will ever see each other again unless there is “another war”. The significance of the reference to war and the catastrophic losses that brought them together is in a way another reference to the theme of rebirth. During the film’s opening montage when Lui and Elle are exchanging counterpoints while making love Elle says over and over again “you’re destroying me you’re good for me”. Her paradoxal statement epitomizes the consequences of forbidden love and sweetness of it in her own life. Her liaison with both the Bavarian and the Japanese man are liaisons with the international “other”. Japan and Germany were allies to each other during WWII and in the post-war world an inter-racial union with either would be considered risqué.
Resnais balances feelings of familiarity through contrasting symmetry. The black cat that shares Elle’s isolation in the cellar is mirrored by the white cat she pets on the set of the film. In editing Resnais parellels the significance of identity through a place origin when shots of Nevers and Hiroshima are intercut together.The link to the Bavarian soldier is established because Elle sees him in the way Lui lies in bed asleep.

Contracted to do a film on the atomic bomb, Resnais instead chose to show the catastrophic aftermath of the experience of the bomb through the individual. His non-linear narrative conveys a very tactile experience for the spectator through the inter-cutting of inserts that correspond to Elle’s description of the abrasive cellar she endured her madness in or the blurred memories of her affair with the Bavarian soldier. The multi-valent layers of narrative and human emotion keeps Hiroshima Mon Amour in the circle of one of my favorite films of all time.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Irrational Youth of Breathless

One of the defining films of the French New Wave, Jean Luc Goddard’s Breathless is a picture of the irrationality of the youth culture. The film follows the obnoxious Michel on his adventures to collect the money owed to him, evade apprehension by the police and entrap the stubborn independent American girl Patricia to run away with him to Rome.
Through Michel Goddard shows the youth’s self-consummation through the media. At the film’s opening in the car that Michel has stolen he finds a revolver in the glove compartment. Playing up the image of the gangster he hunches over the steering wheel uttering, “Bang, Bang!” as he drives along the country road. Moments later when cop pulls up behind him, Michel shoots him dead with the same revolver. The connection to cinematic influences are made apparent throughout the film through the enigmatic film score by Martial Solal that echo the intriguing nuances of the classic film noirs out of classic Hollywood. Michel himself is constantly trying to channel Humphrey Bogart. In one scene in the film he stands in the street staring at the star’s headshot, smoking and dragging this thumb across his lip in mimicry.
Patricia the object of Michel’s desire is an independent American student studying and working simultaneously in Paris. Like Michel she is a free spirit. The way Michel will leave on girl on the pier or steal money from another from under the nose in her apartment, Patricia will also use the men around her to her advantage. She takes a lunch meeting with a journalist who is promising her a story and makes out with him in his car directly after. When she attends a press conference for a famous writer she allows the writer to disregard all her questions and flirt directly with her. Patricia fluctuates between the working-woman in the pants like when she is trying to sell copies of The New York Harold Tribune on the streets of Paris or when she wants to use her feminine wiles to her advantage over men when she is in the Dior dress.
When Patricia discovers the full extent of Michel’s entanglement with the police, she appears to go on the run with him at first, even saying goodbye to the journalist that same night in a café. The morning after they have safely stayed the night in a hideout she goes out on the pretext of getting groceries and informs to the police where Michel is. When she returns to the apartment she confesses to Michel what she has done. The only explanation she can offer him is that she did what she did only in order to prove to herself that she did not love him.
Faced with betrayal Michel succumbs to the death of a tragic hero. Refusing to run off with his friend when the money is delivered. Michel stumbles down the street as the police arrive on the scene and open fire. In the end Michel refuses all rational alternatives and chooses to take on the death of a tragic hero. Patricia’s betrayal is perhaps reflexive of her need to be independent of men. In the end she stands over Michel as he dies unmoved.
The reckless youths of Michel and Patricia overlap in Breathless for a brief interlude only to part ways through an unfortunate turn of events. Perhaps Goddard is trying to show that the youth’s obsession with characters from popular media, are mere attempts to fulfill the writer’s ambition: “to become immortal and then to die”. Goddard’s subtle premise for the future of an irrational youth.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Contrasts of female Identity in Cleo From 5 to 7

Agnes Varda’s second film Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962), handles the superficiality and despair a young pop star battles around her own mortality. Varda structures her film around stark contrasts and in doing so ruptures Cleo’s extreme values as her character arcs.
The film opens in color where the camera looms above as the tarot cards are laid out. Cleo tenses and becomes hysterical when the death card is unveiled. She takes it as a sign that she has cancer and is doomed. The shots of her and the fortune teller are in black and white as is the entire rest of the film.
Cleo is placed alongside a cast of supporting female characters that emulate the modern woman – the modern woman Cleo is not comfortable with. When Cleo takes a taxi cab with her assistant, the driver is a woman in man’s clothes. The taxi driver was in the paper for standing up to a gang that refused to pay their fare one night. But to Cleo her risk is “disgusting”, and equally “disgusting” is her friend Dorothee who poses nude for sculptors without a blush. Cleo would much rather stay in her lofty luxurious flat in her ridiculously flamboyant white furred robe and lingerie as if she were a queen with a court waiting upon her.
The flat that Varda has for Cleo in itself is a conflict of values. The modern structure of the flat and its empty whiteness dominates the screen, in contrast to the classical dark furniture pieces sparsely placed about. Her grand post bed and vanity mirror make the room feel more like a stage then a living space. The hollowness of her lifestyle is made apparent even to Cleo. Her lover Jose comes to give her a kiss and completely objectifies her with dismissive pet names. Her pianist and lyricist arrive and play a prank on her to her vexation. When she sings the new song they have written for her she is moved to tears because she realizes that the singer’s dejected despair is her own. This is the turning point of the film, Cleo rejecting a false lifestyle as a femme fragile a feminine object retreats behind a black curtain. In a masterful stark cut from the black curtain, Cleo re-emerges clad in a black modern day dress. She yanks off her hair piece and storms out alone. Visually the transference of mood through color comes across and the white spacious room now seems darker because of the camera’s fixation on Cleo and her dark turn of mood.
Cleo wanders the city on her own feeling the eye of the public on her on the street and not on her enough in the café. She meets up with Dorothee but when her compact falls and cracks on the pavement Cleo again is taken in with fears of her impending death. They come across a scene where the public have gathered around the place of where a man has died. “The mirror was for him”, Dorothee reassures Cleo.
After she has dropped off Dorothee, Cleo orders her taxi to drop her off at a park, she strolls past children until she comes to a bridge beneath a waterfall where she meets an Algerian soldier. He is an intellectual trying to impress her with scientific facts and the mythic significance of their encounter. It is the longest day of summer and they are together. Cleo opens up to the soldier telling him her real name, Florence. She has decided to leave the role of her public identity for him. The soldier compares the two Florence the city of the Renassaince and Goddess of Summer versus Cleopatra a “tigress” and “temptress”. He is able to make her see the frivolity of her vain fears because of where he comes from in the warzone of the French Algiers merely by saying “In Algiers you’d be scared all the time, Dying for nothing that’s what upsets us”. He offers to go with her to hear the results of her tests if she will see him off at the station notices her ring, which catches the attention of more than one man admirer throughout the film. “A pearl with a frog”, Cleo describes it. “You and me”, the soldier concludes. Perhaps Varda is making a subtle reference to the tale of the Frog Prince, where a spoilt young princess unhappy with her life has to be humbled and taught a lesson through the help of frog, a man she perceives is much lower than herself.
Varda turns the power of superstition on its head. The motif of Cleo encounters reinforces the notion of mortality and at the same time the ridiculousness of superstition. At a shop window Cleo is fixated with a black hat. Her assistant Angela will not let her carry it home because it is not good to wear something new on a Tuesday. At the films turning point Cleo decides to spite fate and Angela’s warnings by wearing the black hat out that Tuesday only to eventually give it to her friend Dorothee. The tarot card, black hat, broken mirror, and broken glass window where a man died, Cleo recognizes each to be a momento mori a sign of death. The phrase “momento mori” comes from Latin and translates to “remember your own mortality”.
In the early portion of the film Cleo is constantly checking her appearance in mirrors another momento mori from classic art. She is afraid of loosing her looks “Ugliness is a kind of death, as long as I am beautiful I am even more alive than others” Cleo’s internal monologue is shared with the audience. When she perceived what her image means to most of the men around her from her lyricist and pianist to the men lusting after her in the street she feels objectified. She has made herself comfortable as a caged beauty, wandering into the city and having a real conversation of meaning with a stranger she begins to see that the other reflection the soldier sees in her is the person she wishes to be, Flo instead of the false Cleopatra.
In Cleo from 5 to 7 Varda captures the transformation of Cleo to live a life that is true to herself. In the final shot she shares a smile with the soldier and walks off with him at peace with the results of her tests and no longer checked by fears or stereotypes.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Adolescent Antihero of Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups

Truffaut draws a picture of social fallacy in the character of Antione Doinel in perhaps his most memorable film of the New Wave movement Les Quatre Cents Coups. A young teen in a dysfunctional family and a misfit at school, Antoine does not belong anywhere. Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical character choices lead Antione deeper into a web of trouble and establish him as a literary antihero.
Les Quatre Cents Coups opens in the classroom, where Antoine is made the scapegoat by his classmates for a forbidden pin up and humiliated when the instructor keeps him in at recess to write on the wall. Antoine’s role model Balzac the 19th century French author known for his dedication to meticulous realism is his source of inspiration. Antoine attempts to surpass his teacher’s expectations with an essay using Bazin’s philosophy and is accused of plagiarism. It is as though his mature intellectual interests are not even appreciated by the academic world.
At home Antoine fends for himself raking coal running errands and even wandering over to his mother’s vanity to play and explore. His mother, a working woman treats Antoine with the disdain reserved more for a servant than a son. Her cool attitude to both her husband and son reflect a deeply unhappy woman, trapped in a marriage of convenience. Her husband, Antoine’s adoptive father comes home full of humor and antics. As Antoine becomes more unruly he distances himself from the son he “gave his name” to and abandons him to his fate.
Antoine’s adventures in truancy with his only friend Rene leads him on a downward descent. He catches his mother kissing a man in the street. After the day’s adventure in an amusement park, Antoine has to answer to his teacher for his absence. Unable to forge an excusing letter from his parents, he tells his teacher that his mother is dead. Perhaps Truffaut attempts to suggest a Freudian projection of Antoine’s deep inner resentment against his mother’s cold upbringing on his life.
Rene attempts to look after Antoine, hiding him in a warehouse overnight and later keeping him in his own home. Like Antoine, Rene is a neglected and independent youth. But in Rene Truffaut casts a didactic contrast in social circumstances. Rene is privileged, he lives in a large spacious apartment, dresses well, and takes amusement by helping himself to his “inheritance” in his parents secret cash stash. For amusement he gets Antoine up to stealing a typewriter from his father’s work. When the heist goes wrong and Antoine is apprehended Rene abandons him to his fate.
Antoine goes through the justice system oblivious to the heavy consequences that are being set in place for the rest of his life. In a holding sell he casually smokes a cigarette in bed. His parents willingly surrender him over to a juvenile correction facility. There the rigid order of youth is a visual parallel to the school system Antoine began at the beginning of the film. There Antoine drifts from boy to boy in a naive daze. In a session with the psychiatrist off screen and remains on Antoine in a single long take as he divulges in a stream of conscious confessional. It is a scene reminiscent to spectators of the religious confessional booth. In a single long take Antoine answers directly to the unseen psychiatrist off-screen about his conflicted childhood passed from grandmother to mother and even his adolescent arousal and escapades around women.
Deserted by his friend Rene, denounced by his mother and absent from his father Antoine escapes the correction program and runs all the way to the ocean – reaching the place he had always wished to find but never been. There on the windswept beach Antoine stops and looks into the camera. Truffaut’s iconic finale to the film is a visual metaphor to the individual at the end of the line. The beach is the end of the world with a wall of water. Receding into nothingness Antoine an adolescent antihero, ostracized by the social system around him has no where else to turn but to the spectator breaking the fourth wall and closing the film in one of the stylistic emblems of the new wave movement.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Paradox of Perception and Projection in Tous les garçons s'appellent Patrick

Jean Luc Godards’ early short film in the infancy of French New Wave Cinema Tous les garçons s'appellent Patrick (1957) is an entertaining satirical approach to bourgeois relationships on the surface. At the core Godard examines personal perception and projections of popular culture and high art.
The short follows Veronique and Charlotte, two young women in college who one day both meet the same man (Patrick) on the street in Paris and consent to go on a date with him, at subsequent different days. Each girl tells the other of the date while proceeding to weave their own narrative projections of “Patrick’s” potential. The next day they tease each other endlessly about every man they cross in the Latin Quarter of Paris’ 5th district until at last they both spot Patrick getting into the car with yet another conquest and realize how they have been played by the same man. The film ends in a shrug and a laugh for Charlotte and Veronique who concede Patrick to be no big loss.
Goddard’s new wave mark is so complex within his early short. Stylistically he uses the upbeat piano forte reminiscent of the silent films in conjunction with his then contemporary narrative. Charlotte and Veronique are presented as contradictions to each other like two sides of the same coin, or two images of woman in society. Within the apartment Charlotte is the femme fragile dressed all in white exhibiting her delicate female form in a flowing ruffled skirt. Charlotte’s wardrobe contrasts her bob cut that alludes to the liberated female and the flappers from decades before. Veronique in the apartment is a picture of the modern woman apart from her classic curled hairstyle. She wears pants and a baggy stripped shirt, which interestingly enough clashes with the similarly striped wallpaper of their flat. Outside on the streets Charlotte is more garishly dressed in a frumpy jacket while Veronique seems to have much more fashion sense in her form fitting pea coat and berate.
On a larger scale, Godard’s choice of wardrobe parodies Hollywood clichés. The sunglasses the characters wear on the streets suggest the sleuthing of classic spy films. Patrick’s clear resemblance to the iconographic image of James Dean in the girls’ apartment boudoir is part of his signature as an auteur of creating visual parallels to popular celebrities as in Breathless (1960), where the lead Michel has the dress and poise of Humphrey Bogart.
Tous les garçons s'appellent Patrick, revolves around the clash between popular culture and high art on one level and personal truth and projected stereotypes on another. The girls fascination for James Dean and film stars allows them to get caught up in Patrick’s smooth talking, yet the dressing in their apartment suggests taste, culture and value in classic high art from earlier generations. At one point while Charlotte and Veronique are discussing Patrick in bed Godard cuts away to a close up of a Picasso frowning on them, as if he disapproved of their frivolous infatuation of Patrick. Later in the film the girls are on the street glancing at postcards and Veronique picks up another Picasso sketch of three nude people, perhaps alluding to what might have been them in a ménage a trois. In the dialogue Goddard presents the archetypal discourse of a relationship through projections. Patrick makes a tirade of superfluous claims about his background to one girl, his rash generalizations about women and girls, and his honorable intentions with them. Charlotte and Veronique make similar projections about Patrick to one another, as if competing with the other to have secured the better catch. In the end whatever grand illusions each girl had of the generalized man ‘Patrick” is shattered by a revealing encounter on the street and life resumes its course.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Psychoanalysis in Europa

The field of psychology came into practice around the time of the inception of film as a new art form. Basic Freudian concepts have integrated themselves into subtext of cinema over the years. Psychoanalysis can be used to explain basic cinematic themes of desire, fatalism, and even rite of manhood. Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s iconic 1991 film Europa is a direct tribute to psychoanalysis.

Europa opens with the hypnotic visual of a monotonous tracking shot running over the train tracks at night. The monotone voice of the narrator (Max von Sydow) sets the tone for the entire film as a psychotherapeutic session as he directly engages the spectator: “You will now listen to my voice, my voice will help you and guide you still deeper into Europa…I shall now count from one to ten on the count of ten you will be in Europa”. The narrator’s omnipresent dictation is consistent over much of the action in the film to guide the protagonist Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) a German-American youth returning to the ruins of post-war Germany. The narrator of Europa is the psychological response to the soliloquy from the theatrical tradition. Instead of a personal internal monologue, von Trier uses the narrator to deconstruct Leo’s sensorial experience whether it be physical like “sinking into the wet grass” or as emotionally direct as “you love her, she is so strong and yet so vulnerable”. By projecting the protagonist’s experience on the spectator, von Trier creates an empathetic link as well as conscious disconnect from the natural flow of the action.

The framing of Europa through the psychological narration allows for multivalent interpretations. Although the action of Europa takes place in post-war Germany the point of the narration is never resolved in the historical context of the dramatic narrative. Attributing a literal interpretation to a psychotherapeutic session in the context of the historical time-period is difficult to rectify. An alterative analysis can be that the events never occurred and the whole film is merely a psychotherapeutic exercise. Or perhaps Europa is an out of body experience of the deceased Leo looking back at the events that led to his demise.

Lars von Trier’s stylized visualizations throughout Europa heighten the dream-like qualities of the subconscious accenting detail and creating disconnects for the spectator to make sense of. Von Trier consistently uses the technique of keying characters over an obviously asynchronous background to create an acute disorientation and create context around the action. For example the image of Leo running will be keyed over the close up of a ticking clock, or the image of his seclusion during his honeymoon over the close-up of his sleeping wife. The sparse use of color among an almost entirely black and white film stands out during the viewing. Color seems to be linked to strong emotion. When Leo meets the alluring Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) he sees her for a single shot in color. Later in the film when her father Max Hartman commits suicide he is seen in the bath in black and white, but as he takes a razor and lacerates himself the low angle through the water reveals the blood to be bright red over the otherwise entirely black and white image. At Leo’s death in the film’s final sequence his drowned body drifts down in color over a black and white collage of the people and events he has encountered. There the conclusion of Leo’s life experience is visually resolved through the imagery.

Main psychoanalytical themes can be derived from the characters in Europa. The femme fetal Katharina Hartmann exhibits some signifiers of the Elektra complex. She is her father’s daughter but she is also a werewolf, a member of the Nazi sympathetic resistance. Katharina seduces Leo, but cannot give him the love on the level that he needs. She is scarred by the suicide of her father. Katharina is consumed with guilt for writing anonymous threat letters to her father as a werewolf. She explains herself to Leo as an arrested prisoner on her family’s train that like the mythical creature of the werewolf she too is dually one way during the day and another at night. Katharina wrote the letters at night, as if possessed by a werewolf animus then. Although she claimed she did love Leo she cannot remove the taint in his eyes from her involvement in the werewolfe movement to use him as an instrument of their saboteur work. She blames him vehemently for refusing to let the bomb go off.

Leo comes to Europa on the naive pretext of helping the people of his heritage but he finds himself as an outsider. His journey is a rite of manhood, he arrives in Zentropa and finds himself under the care of a love-less uncle tutoring him how to live up to the rigid lifestyle of a night-train officer. Leo is caught in between the complex political machinations of Katherina and her werewolf leader, Colonel Harris of the American occupation force and even the meticulous responsibilities of his duties on the train. Leo bears all their machinations with patience until the film’s final sequence where he breaks down confiscates a gun from an MP and fires madly into the air. Leo is experiencing what is known in psychology as the ‘return of the repressed’. He has repressed his frustrations and he has replaced his disappointment with Katherina with concern for her well-being so upon the realization of her betrayal he snaps. Leo stalks the train forcing people back into their compartments. In a long tracking shot von Trier depicts Leo with the rifle before him passing each of the film’s main players in compartment after compartment next to each other, his uncle, Katherine, Colonel Harrison, the werewolf leader, the people on the train are all segregated. The shot is an illusion of Leo’s psyche that has now compartmentalized his career, his love, his duty to his career, and his moral dilemmas. At the end of the shot he opens to the door to the lavatory and locks himself in with the bomb he was lured into bringing on board. Leo has isolated himself in one part of his psyche, without thinking too hardly about it he pulls the trigger and the bomb goes off. The conscious decision to activate the bomb is again a reflection in the narrative of the return of the repressed where the build up of repression leads to an implosion when those emotions surface.

Europa is a unique exploration into the direct possibilities of direct psychoanalytical film language. Lars von Trier takes themes from psychology and not only weaves them through his characters but also translates them into distinct visuals. The device of his narrator binds the spectator into the hypnotic state of being enraptured in Europa.

Works Cited

Europa - (The Criterion Collection). Dir. Lars von Trier. Perf. Jean-Marc Barr, Max Von Sydow, Barbara Sukowa. 1991. Criterion Collection, 2008. DVD.

Cinematic Poetry: Ingmar Bergman’s Picturesque Prose of the Past through The Seventh Seal

In 1957 Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman merited worldwide acclaim with his feature film The Seventh Seal that follows a returning crusader’s struggle with the character of Death in the Middle Ages. At a time when auterism was just beginning to emerge in cinema, Bergman’s masterful balance of iconic images alongside prose-like dialogue has made The Seventh Seal endure in the pantheon of world cinema. Bergman’s original screenplay explores the hierarchal barriers and prejudices of the medieval feudal structure through the different characters crusader Antonius Block meets on his journey home. The Seventh Seal personifies Death as a foe wagering a game of chess with the crusader by both literally playing with pieces on a board and manipulating the circumstances in the world. The medieval backdrop the story unfolds under served as an apocalyptic allegory to nuclear tensions at the time of the film’s release as well as a poetic reflection of classic medieval literature. The spiritual context of The Seventh Seal taken from the passage in Revelations is meant to make a statement on the value of faith and innocence against disillusion and doubt. The multi-faceted connotation Bergman builds into the historical drama genre has influenced my own artistic aspirations to contemporary cinema as picturesque prose.

In his time, Bergman took the film medium to new heights through his creative storytelling. In his 2003 interview with Marie Nyrerod for the Criterion Collection DVD release, Bergman revealed he developed The Seventh Seal to address his own misgivings about death and that his visual inspirations came from the medieval frescos by Albertus Pictus. In particular one fresco featured a ghastly figure of death playing chess side by side with a knight. This iconic image is a central motif to The Seventh Seal as the returning crusader Antonius Block (played by Max von Sydow) is engaged in complex maneuvers with Death in the hopes of finding meaning to his existence and answers about the afterlife. Transcending time and space, Death is personified in human form (portrayed by Bergt Ekerot) in a billowing black cape. Throughout the film he replaces other characters when it suits him taking the roll of the priest in the confessional, and the monk escorting a witch to the stake. Bergman’s manipulation of dimension perhaps can be derived from his background in theater. The character of Jof a traveling performance artist is also gifted with second sight into the spiritual world. He alone apart from the knight perceives Death in his human manifestation. Jof encounters another vision early on in The Seventh Seal. He awakes from his caravan perched on a grassy knoll and while he is walking around their makeshift camp he catches sight of the Madonna holding the hands of a tottering holy child. Much like the image of the knight playing chess with death, the iconographic image of Jof’s vision is another reference to the medieval frescos. At the time of the film’s release Norman Hudson summed up the effect of Bergman’s technique in his analysis of the film: “Bergman shows us, as medieval artists did, an allegorical, iconic reality” (1959:266).

To compliment his powerful imagery Bergman uses elevated dialogue both as powerful prose and philosophical conjecture. The eloquent lines Bergman gives the knight echo from folklore and oral tradition while probing for answers of the existence of God, faith, and afterlife. Antonius Block is an intellectual disillusioned and searching for meaningful answers to keep his faith. Block is withdrawn from the world unable to relate to it without his purpose. During the church scene he unknowingly has an exchange with Death taking his confession from the other side of a grated screen. Block confesses: “My indifference to my fellow men has cut me off from their company. I live now in a world of phantoms a prisoner of my own dreams”. Block is searching for tangible proof of God’s existence and is tormented because he is loosing his faith. “What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe?” he continues taking the defense of the other characters he will meet along the way. Block wants faith but cannot find the sincerity within himself. He later meets Tyan a woman scapegoated by the community and condemned to die as a witch. Her crazed body language and wailing babble suggest she is developmentally disabled and unable to believe. Later the knight crosses paths with Tyan as she is being tied to a stake and he takes the opportunity to investigate if she really is possessed by the devil. Tyan is convinced that the devil is in her eyes, but Block sees nothing more than “dumb terror” (Humbolt, 61). The knight reveals to death that he is playing chess not to win but in order to gain a “reprieve” long enough for him to contribute to one meaningful act. Block finds meaning with Mia, Jof’s wife and young mother to the infant Michel. The family of performers is Bergman’s equivalent to the holy family from the Bible; they are the innocents of the narrative. When Block speaks with Mia and Michel he is deeply moved and for the first time in the film he smiles. There he reconciles himself to a definition of belief and confides to Mia: “Faith is a heavy burden…it is like loving someone out in the darkness who never comes no matter how hard you call”. Bergman’s style of writing dialogue is justified by film critic Michael Roemer in his article The Surfaces of Reality: “Without this lengthy and explicit verbalization, one would have little insight into the feelings of Antonius Block. The situation itself does not communicate them and Bergman uses dialogue as a way of getting us to understand and feel something the film itself does not render” (1967:18). Between prose and philosophy Bergman’s dialogue in The Seventh Seal keeps to the narrative in the context of the scene while engaging the spectator on a deep intellectual level.

As an auteur Bergman handles The Seventh Seal as an apocalyptic narrative while seeding the semblance of allegory to world issues at the time of the film’s release. The first lines of the film are a voice over from the passage in Revelations and set a heavy tone of supernatural events. The apocalypse of The Seventh Seal is handled much more indirectly. The plague that is ravaging Europe is seen through the perspective of the knight and his squire. Jons stops to ask directions from a novice leaning against a rock and discovers that he is face to face with a disfigured corpse. Jons and Block later witness a religious procession in penance parading through a village. The dreary clergy lead a miserable ensemble of plague victims wailing and flagellating themselves with whips through clouds of smoke emanating from their incense chalices. Bergman heightens the tension through his sound design. At key moments shrill vocals from a chorus overpower the soundtrack. The vocals resemble the style of medieval music from the era the film is set in, while also conjuring up the emotional horror one might expect to hear in a thriller. The fear many of the characters feel is fear of infection from plague, something they have no control over that could wipe them out at any given time. The apocalypse of plague outbreak is an allegorical reflection to film’s original audience’s fear of nuclear holocaust at the onset of the Cold War.

Bergman’s original screenplay exhibits a cast of characters across the feudal system, to uphold the different worldviews of man. Block and his wife are from the noble class; they are withdrawn, disillusioned and resigned to their fate to die. Ravel, a mid-ranking clergyman is an instigator of evil. It was Ravel that Jons accuses of convincing his master Block to go on the fruitless crusade. Ravel’s hypocritical lifestyle as a holy preacher in contrast to his corrupt life-choices is Bergman’s subtle statement on the church both in the period and in the contemporary era. Ravel would have raped a mute girl, had Jons not come in at the right moment. Later Ravel targets the artist Jof for his own sadistic entertainment and again it is Jons who intervenes. Jof, Maria and Skat as a troupe of performing artists are on the lowest end of the totem pole. In the tavern, Jof discovers he has no friends and is completely at Ravel’s mercy. On stage the troupe is held in contempt if their performance does not strike up the right chord. Bergman casts the artists as naive idealists, who are unappreciated by most of the world but by their innocence they alone will survive it. Jof and Mia move Antonius Block to forfeit his game of chess with Death in order to allow them to escape Death. Jof, Mia and Michel the representation of the holy family have meaning in their lives from which the knight both admires and finds worthy of his devotion. The film closes on their family as the chosen ones who have survived the apocalypse and witness the dance of death of their companions from across the divide. The complex hierarchy of characters across the feudal system Bergman captures: "reality as signifying something beyond itself”, according to Hudson (1959:270).

Bergman recognized that every art has limitations. He concludes nothing can remain innovative forever. In his own reflection essay Each Film is My Last, Bergman conveys his own criticisms on the constrictions:

I experience art (not only film art) as insignificant in our time: art no longer has the power and the possibility to influence the development of our life. Literature, painting, music, film, and theatre beget and bring forth themselves. New mutations, new combinations arise and are annihilated; the movement seems-seen from the outside nervously vital. With magnificent zeal the artists project to them- selves and to a more and more distracted public pictures of a world that no longer cares what they like or think [1966:95].

Noted for his modesty in response to the critical acclaim, Bergman is shy to glory in his achievements.

The leaps Bergman made with The Seventh Seal impacted cinema in its time. The film endures as a classic in world cinema and a favorite in film study due to Bergman’s distinct craftsmanship as an auteur in spite of all the film that has followed after it. He balances his theatrical background, love of music, iconic imagery and distinct voice through dialogue to graft perhaps his most powerful film. Bergman’s unique ability to transcend dimension in visual and audible prose still inspires me to endeavor to produce such depth in my own form of filmmaking.

Works Cited

Bergman, Ingmar, P.E. Burke, Lennart Swahn, and Erika Munk. "Each Film is My Last." The Tulane Drama Review 11, no. 1 (1966): 94-100. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1125268 (accessed March 4, 2011).

Hudson, Norman N.. ""The Seventh Seal": The Film as Iconography." The Hudson Review 12, no. 2 (1959): 266-270. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3848112 (accessed March 4, 2011).

Humbolt, Charles. "The Art of Ingmar Bergman." The Massachussetts Review 4, no. 2 (1963): 352-377. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25079028 (accessed March 4, 2011).

Roemer, Michael. "The Surfaces of Reality." Film Quarterly 18, no. 1 (1964): 15-22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1210145 . (accessed March 4, 2011).

The Seventh Seal (The Criterion Collection). Film. Directed by Ingmar Bergman. n/a: Criterion, 2009.