dinsdag 25 september 2018

Views & Reviews Humphrey Bogart Jean-Paul Belmondo Zorro Flip Book John Baldessari Photography

John Baldessari: ZORRO (Two Gestures and One Mark), Flip Book
ISBN 10: 3896110454 / ISBN 13: 9783896110459
Published by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Germany, 1998

John Baldessari: ZORRO (Two Gestures and One Mark), Flip Book Baldessari re-animates gestures of Humphrey Bogart and Jean-Paul Belmondo from movie stills. These movements are so trademark as to be akin to Zorro’s Z. Inside this three part flip book, Belmondo rubs his lips in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless, Zorro cuts the Z, and Bogey chuckles. The cover has Belmondo from Breathless looking at Bogart’s photograph.Number 781 in an edition of 800. 4" x 6"

Breathless continues to shock and surprise 50 years on
Jean‑Luc Godard's masterpiece remains a startling example of the French new wave and marked the arrival of one of cinema's most influential directors
Philip French

Sun 6 Jun 2010 00.04 BST First published on Sun 6 Jun 2010 00.04 BST


Jean Seberg in Jean‑Luc Godard's masterpiece, Breathless. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Two trailers bookend my half-a-century of writing professionally about the cinema and bracket the career of the man who is arguably the most influential moviemaker of my lifetime. Fifty years ago this month I dropped into an Oslo cinema while waiting for a midnight train and saw an unforgettable trailer for a French picture. It cut abruptly between a handsome, broken-nosed actor I'd never come across before, giant posters of Humphrey Bogart, and the familiar features of Jean Seberg, whom I knew to be an idol of French cinéastes as the protegee of Otto Preminger. Shot in high contrast monochrome, rapidly edited, interspersed with puzzling statements in white-on-black and black-on-white lettering, it was like no other trailer I'd seen, and I was captivated. Not until my return to London did I discover that the broken-nosed actor was Jean-Paul Belmondo and the film was the debut feature of the Cahiers du Cinéma critic Jean-Luc Godard. It had opened in Paris six weeks before to considerable acclaim and had been made with the help of two fellow critics-turned-directors, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, whose first films I'd seen. When A Bout de souffle (aka Breathless) opened in London a year later, it did live up to my expectations.

Eighty years old this November, Godard has just compiled another trailer for his latest (according to him, his last) picture, Film Socialisme. As provocative and original as ever, the two-minute trailer can be viewed online. It is in fact the whole film, speeded up for an audience too impatient to concentrate for two hours. The movie, premiered at Cannes last month, has subtitles that are deliberately unintelligible to anyone who doesn't understand the various languages in which it's made. In an interview with that other onetime revolutionary firebrand of the 1960s, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Godard said simply: "Don't translate, learn languages." For nearly 40 years I've been convinced that whenever a Godard movie is shown at Cannes, everybody in the world interested in seeing it is present at the Palais du Festival, elbowing other critics aside as they struggle to get into the early-morning press show. Nowadays, I only see a new film by the aloof, hectoring, didactic Godard when wild horses turn up at my front gate to drag me to a London press screening.

How, then, to explain what Godard meant to us back in the 60s? Why did I put on the dustjacket of my first book a photograph of myself scowling in a leather jacket and dark glasses, a cigarette in the corner of my mouth, because I thought it made me look like Godard? Why was I thrilled when Truffaut, as the director in his La Nuit américaine, eagerly tears open a parcel of books on the cinema, one of which is a symposium on Godard containing my 1965 essay on Une Femme mariée? Why did we sit around discussing the ideas and innovations of Godard the way young filmgoers today talk about box-office grosses, special effects and continuity errors?

Since the mid-50s we'd been looking for the new in the arts, society and politics, and our latest hopes were being invested in our cinema's working-class realism, which came out of fiction and the theatre, and in the nouveau roman and nouvelle vague from across the Channel. The latter term was coined in L'Express in 1957 by Françoise Giroud to describe the whole postwar generation and was applied to the cinema the following year by Pierre Billard in Cinéma 58. Talk of the new wave dominated Cannes in 1959, when films as different from each other as Marcel Camus's Black Orpheus, Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour and Truffaut's Les Quatre cents coups were perceived as characteristic examples of the new movement. Of the three, only Truffaut was a critic, and along with Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma. Their polemical writings were devoted to overthrowing the cinematic old guard they called "Le cinéma du papa" (Dad's cinema) and promoting the politique des auteurs. They saw directors (or at least a select group of them) as auteurs, a term soon introduced into worldwide usage. These omniscient figures, whose ranks they sought to join, were seen as imposing their personalities, at times almost mystically, on every film they made, wielding what the moviemaker and theorist Alexandre Astruc called "le camera stylo" or cinematic pen.

Between 1958 and 1963 an astonishing 170 French filmmakers directed their first features, happily marching under the new wave banner, which was as vague as it was in vogue. But few were truly radical and innovative. The chief exception was Godard, the 30-year-old Franco-Swiss intellectual, as passionate about Hegel as he was about Hitchcock, an artist bent on transforming the nature of cinema and with it the world. "Godard is not merely an iconoclast," that prophet of modernism Susan Sontag declared in 1968, "he is a deliberate 'destroyer' of cinema."

Breathless was the real thing. It was what we'd been waiting for, and it has taken its place alongside 20th-century works that have become familiar landmarks yet not lost their ability to shock and surprise: Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Eliot's The Waste Land, Joyce's Ulysses, Dali and Buñuel's Un Chien andalou, Picasso's Guernica, Welles's Citizen Kane, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Burroughs's Naked Lunch. They are what Ezra Pound was talking about when he said that "great literature is news that remains news".

Claude Chabrol, who served as supervising producer on Breathless, famously warned that great subjects rarely make great films. And Godard, the master of the gnomic epigram and perceptive paradox, once said: "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." This was the basis of the brief scenario that Truffaut, a fellow admirer of film noir and série noire pulp fiction, provided for Breathless. Its antihero, the swaggering, misogynistic petty criminal Michel (Belmondo), steals a car in the south of France and kills a policeman on the road to Paris, where he takes up with an old girlfriend, the well-heeled American, Patricia (Seberg). They talk of life and literature (in particular Faulkner's The Wild Palms) in a seedy hotel, make love and visit the movies while he tries to get money owed him by criminal associates. The police close in, Patricia betrays him. Hardboiled B-feature stuff. But the style is everything, a calculated destruction and remaking of traditional film grammar, and Godard formulated his much-quoted idea that "a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order".

The film is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, the celebrated B-movie studio on Hollywood's Poverty Row, the camera is handheld, the editing is abrupt and inconsistent, Raoul Coutard's masterly monochrome photography is harsh, hard-edged, reliant on natural light. The much-admired director of existential gangster pictures, Jean-Pierre Melville, makes an appearance as himself, the first of such cameos in a Godard picture. The work of other directors is evoked or alluded to, among them Budd Boetticher (Westbound), Samuel Fuller (Forty Guns), Otto Preminger (Whirlpool), Robert Aldrich (Ten Seconds to Hell), and Bogart is a looming presence. We are constantly distanced in the manner of Brecht's alienation effect, told that what we are watching is a film, but also that movies, like our lives, are halls of mirrors.

Godard's methods of work on Breathless were purposefully chaotic. He admitted that he deliberately created confusion to achieve "a greater possibility of invention". Shooting in the busy streets of Paris, he avoided crowd control, and at one point a policeman leapt from a passing bus to assist an apparently dying Belmondo.

Over the next eight years Godard made a dozen feature films and contributed to several portmanteau pictures that defined and refined his art, and they've influenced several generations of cineastes from Nagisa Oshima through Wim Wenders to Quentin Tarantino. Yet the playfulness, the apparent sheer love of the movies, eventually gave way to a deep ambivalence, as his doubts about Hollywood changed to loathing and his sceptical attitude towards the States became unabashed anti-Americanism. "Do you love the cinema?" he was asked around the time of Breathless. He replied: "I have contempt for it. It is nothing. It does not exist. Thus I love it. I love it yet at the same time I have contempt for it."

Most of his 1960s films are masterpieces or near-masterpieces. Several ran into trouble with the censors. Some didn't get released in Britain until years after they were made. Godard managed to attract major stars both then and later. He was constantly at the centre of controversy, debate and even scandal, ever ready with a quote for the press or a quotable line in a film. He mocked the film business in Le Mépris, subverted the musical in Une Femme est une femme, questioned the very basis of marriage in Une Femme mariée, showed present-day Paris as a horrific, depersonalised city of the future in his bleak sci-fi film Alphaville. But none of the later films had an impact comparable with Breathless, and as the decade progressed, his characters turned from nihilistic outsiders to slogan-mouthing revolutionaries. His farewell to anything resembling the mainstream came in 1967 with Weekend, which ended with the title "Fin du cinéma". He then worked within a leftwing collective on low-budget pictures, most of them on video, before moving with his collaborator and third wife, Anne-Marie Miéville, to Switzerland, which has been his base ever since.

Yet if Godard was ever a mainstream director, then he started to paddle rapidly towards the river's parallel tributaries as early as 1963. That was when he made Le Mépris, a million-dollar production financed by American producer Joseph Levine and the Italian tycoon Carlo Ponti. They wanted a combination of art-house chic and upmarket sexploitation that would show off the naked charms of Brigitte Bardot. She was cast as the wife of a French screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) working on an Italian version of The Odyssey directed by Fritz Lang and produced by a snarling Hollywood mogul played by Jack Palance. The producers didn't like the fractured masterpiece they were given, edited their own versions, and were denounced as "King Kong Levine" and "Mussolini Ponti". Godard slapped Ponti's 69-year-old Paris representative in public and got a 500 franc fine.

This was the first of a string of confrontations and demolitions that included helping to close down the Cannes film festival in May 1968 as an act of solidarity with demonstrating students and striking workers. Six months later he punched Iain Quarrier, the British co-producer of his One Plus One (AKA Sympathy for the Devil), in the face and stomach on the stage of the National Film Theatre. Richard Roud, author of the first book in English on Godard and director of the London film festival, had brought Quarrier and Godard together for a public discussion on the film's re-editing, and the assault was preceded by Godard advising the spectators to demand their money back.

The worst conflict, however, was the split between Godard and his oldest friend and collaborator, François Truffaut, the man whose first act on gaining a certain industrial muscle by winning a prize at Cannes with Les Quatre cents coups was to help his colleague get his feet on the feature film ladder. There was jealousy and principle on Godard's side, a mixture of guilt and exasperation on Truffaut's. They traded public insults during the 1970s and their irreconcilable differences were never repaired. When Truffaut died in 1984, Godard praised his criticism but refused to make any favourable comments on his films. Truffaut had come to terms with the film industry, Godard would never consider such a compromise. Not until the publication in 1988 of Truffaut's collected letters, which contained a 1973 exchange between the two, did most of us understand the depth of the breach between them. Godard's letter pointed out what he considered the dishonesty of La Nuit américaine, calling Truffaut a liar for not mentioning his affair with its star Jacqueline Bisset. He then demanded as his right that Truffaut should invest 10m francs in his new low-budget movie, Un simple film.

Truffaut's scathing reply, which occupies six full pages of the book, lists a succession of slights, insults and betrayals, calls Godard a shit several times, and begins with the statement: "Jean-Luc. Just so you won't be obliged to read this unpleasant letter right to the end, I'm starting with the essential point: I will not co-produce your film." It has to be added, however, that Godard wrote an affectionate introduction for the Truffaut book, a characteristic mixture of eloquence and obscurity, in which he said, looking back on their youth: "The cinema had taught us how to live; but life, like Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, was to take its revenge."

Breathless opens in cinemas on 25 June and is released on DVD on 13 September

An exhibition of Raymond Cauchetier's photos, Raymond Cauchetier: La Nouvelle Vague, runs at James Hyman Gallery from 14 July to 28 August. www.jameshymangallery.com

Jean-Luc Godard, À Bout de Souffle / Breathless (1960)
Norman N. Holland

Enjoying:  The editing and camera antics—those are fun to watch.

    This is a hard film to think about, because it is so dense; so many things are going on in it. But as in any good film, the opening shot tells it all—or much of it. Even the dedication, not to a person but to Monogram pictures!, has put us into Godard-world. The media are the fact, not persons, even trashy media like the Monogram B-movies. They are, in a word Godard hallows, cinéma.

    The first thing we see is a girlie comic (themes: media as fact; sex). The paper slips down to reveal Michel Poiccard, a petty hoodlum (Jean-Paul Belmondo in the role that made him a star). “Après tout, ” he says, "je suis con.” After all, I’m an asshole. But, of course, he doesn’t mean that. Or does he? His dying words echo the sentiment.

    This is really the first of many instances where words lie or don’t mean anything. Then, “Il faut,” I must—must what? He rubs his thumb across his lips, a gesture he has copied from Humphrey Bogart and the first instance of many in which an outer action, particularly one from media, defines the inner person. As things develop, Michel steals whatever he has, cars, money, girls. He has nothing of his own except an uncashable check (cashable only with a fictional character from another film).

    What drives Michel, what makes him race from Marseilles to Paris (casually shooting a cop on the way) is his wish to bed an American girl, Patricia Franchini. Godard states the motive in his typical outside-in way: “I wanted to see if I’d be glad to see you again.” Throughout, the film raises questions about intention and identity, normally we think of intention as determining action, but in Breathless it’s the other way round. As Patricia says, “Because I am mean to you, it means that I don’t love you.” And Michel: “C’est normal. Squealers squeal, burglars burgle, lovers love.” A person’s intentions are defined by actions; a person’s nature is defined by outside in, not inside out. And the outside is what appears on the screen—cinéma.

    Patricia is played by Jean Seberg, quintessentially American, from Marshalltown, Iowa. (Critics would speak of her “corn-fed beauty.”) This was to be, sadly, her one great role. And Godard loudly labels her as American. She hawks the New York Herald-Tribune, indeed wears its name on her chest. She speaks error-ridden French with an American accent and often asks the meanings of French words. (Further instances of words as inadequate compared to cinéma.)

    Patricia is in Paris to study at the Sorbonne and pursue a career as a journalist. She plans ahead, meets her commitments, and calculates consequences. She embodies another of Godard’s themes: France vs. America. As late as 1971 Parisians would stop my wife or me on the sidewalk to thank us for what America did in World War II. But by 1960 the French Left had come to detest America in her role as superpower: greed, duplicity, wars, fanatical anti-communism, U.S. involvement in French Indo-China, and so on.

    In this film, impulsivity is good; Patricia’s planning and scheming is not. Contrast the jazzy piano theme for Michel with the Hollywood-y strings for Patricia. Or her shaky French with his fast, slurred slang. And Godard echoed that theme in his impulsive method of planning his film: he would write the dialogue in the morning and film it in the afternoon, often calling out lines or actions to the actors while shooting or dubbing. (All the dialogue had to be dubbed post-production, because the cheap Cameflex camera he was using was so noisy.)

    Michel embodies impulsivity. As the first scene goes on, he and his current girlfriend (sex again) signal each other, and—his first act in the film— he steals the big American car of an American army officer. Hah! So much for the vaunted American military might. But little does Michel know how America, in the person of Patricia, will pay him back. And, as it turns out, because she wants to study at the Sorbonne and pursue her career, she wants him just to go off to Italy and leave her alone. She enlists the police in her cause, and Michel dies. This is, of course, classic film noir stuff: the femme fatale is more dangerous than the killer.

    As Michel drives his stolen American car from Marseilles to Paris, he talks to us, and this is another of Godard’s ideas: that the crucial relationship in a movie is not between the characters (Michel’s easily dumped Marseilles girlfriend, Michel’s elusive debtors, Patricia’s betraying Michel) but between what is on the screen and us, the audience. This is the relationship stated in the last shot of the film. Patricia/America stares out at us, having betrayed her lover, having misunderstood his last words, and having taken over Michel’s Bogart gesture. Then she turns her back on us—the movie is over.

    Godard says he makes essays. “I consider myself an essayist, producing essays in the form of novels or novels in the form of essays, only instead of writing, I film them.” In that same interview he has said that his essays for the legendary film magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, were in fact film making. In other words, in his movies he is not telling a story; he is making statements.

    In Breathless, this idea translates into Godard’s camera constantly calling attention to itself, circling, irising out, showing passersby gawking at the camera, Michel’s speaking to the camera, and of course the celebrated jump cuts. These were almost accidental. Godard filmed 30 minutes too much, and to shorten the film he chose to cut into scenes instead of cutting whole scenes. These jump cuts, slicing into the normal presentation of time, made the film, his cinematographer said, “more electric.” And they put Godard on the map.

    Pictures, looks, cinéma, are what count. It is a newspaper picture that traps Michel, and it is Godard himself who shows up in the film to see it and tell the cops. He irises that shot out to make sure we see what he is doing. By contrast words become mere jabber. There is the journalist Van Doude (played by himself), trying put the make on Patricia by telling her how he forgot that some girl had said she would sleep with him. Surely a doubtful tactic. Or the sex-obsessed interview with the novelist Parvulesco (played by Jean-Pierre Melville, godfather to the nouvelle vague). These talkers demonstrate word sex instead of the 25-minute foreplay in Patricia’s room, body to body, image to image.

    Words don’t work. Indeed, Godard’s 2014 film (3-D, no less) is titled, Adieu au Langage or Goodbye to Language. Words produce paradoxes and contradictions: “I’d like to think of something nice but I can’t.” “The French always say it’s all the same when it isn’t.” “I want to become immortal—and then die.” The last words of the film are problematic. The death-dealing police inspector with the life-giving name Vital (writer Daniel Boulanger) lies to Patricia. Michel’s last words were, “I am really nauseating (dégueulasse). Patricia asks what he said, and Vital says, “He said you are nauseating.” What is not a lie is Patricia’s image on the screen and her taking over Michel’s Bogart-gesture. The tragedy Breathless portrays is that the old way of making movies, planning, scheming, the bourgeois values triumphing over amorality, in short, classical Hollywood style in the person of Patricia, wins out. But happily that didn’t happen. Godard’s radical methods won out. Otherwise we would never have had classics like Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1969), The Graduate (Nichols, 1967), Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969), Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969), and many another.

    What then was—is—so radical about Breathless? Godard is insisting that we look at the film as itself the fact, that we not look through the film to some story that it represents, some story behind the screen, as it were. “Why do I need a story?,” said Godard. “I don’t make films. I make cinema.” He does have stories, to be sure, usually about ill-fated love and death, as with the references to Romeo and Juliet in this film. But it’s not a normal narrative; it has a 25-minute dialogue in the middle discussing whether the anti-hero and anti-heroine will have sex. Story is not important, just as Michel and Patricia ignore the consequences or morality of what they do. What is important is what’s on the screen. That is the fait, the fact, and French helps us here: fait is also the past participle of faire. It is what is made, done—what Godard made, not the words, not the idea (which happened to be by Truffaut), not some fictional story. It is whatever we see on screen (including plain text like the dedication, a device Godard will use again and again in his later films).

    Not many directors have been willing to go as far on this track, film-not-story, as Godard did in his post-1968 work. The most radical directors of today still tell stories: Tim Burton, Lars von Trier, Abbas Kiarostami, Jim Jarmusch—perhaps only David Lynch and Burmese director Apichatpong Weerasethakul have followed Godard’s theories about the fait of cinéma at least part of the way. But Godard is still out there in the lead, as with his bizarre and challenging Histoire(s) du Cinéma, (1990-98), a five-hour cinéma making his ideas about twentieth-century film into images, faits, on the screen.

    Again and again, polls of critics name him as one of the three most innovative directors ever, along with Griffith and Welles. His influence has been huge. His films in their strange anti-aesthetic way still captivate audiences. He is one of the movies’ immortals, and Breathless is not only his manifesto, but a great film.

An item I’ve referred to: Godard, Jean-Luc, “Talking to Cahiers, 1962.” 36-47. In À Bout de Souffle, booklet accompanying the Criterion DVD of Breathless, #408. Trans. and ed. Tom Milne. 36-47.

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