Alphaville (1965) and Godard The Humanist?

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“That’s always how it is. You never understand anything and, in the end, it kills you.”

As a simple rule of thumb — a heuristic if you will — you can learn much about a person based on what camp they fall into when it comes to the Nouvelle Vague. For simplicity’s sake, let’s suggests we have Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and “Other” (We’ll unfairly stuff Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette, The Left Bank, and all the rest here).

Many probably wouldn’t need this scenario. All it takes is a one-word, guttural response: “Godard” or “Truffaut” For me, it’s Truffaut. It’s as if the wavelength he operates on so often connects with me. Whereas with Godard it’s always more a matter of admiration for his prolific creative powers and the intellect buried in each of his projects. I appreciate him from an analytical distance.

From the outset, Alphaville epitomizes the dichotomy of Godard: both the brilliance and what can make him utterly maddening at times. He’s the perpetual visionary iconoclast and artistic maverick like few others before or after (and he’s still at it!).

We’re met with a blinking light, like an interrogation lamp, shining down on the audience. The opening voiceover relates, “Sometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by spoken word. Legend remolds it into a form that can be spread all across the world.” This is our introduction to the computerized brain and technological chimera: Alpha 60.

Godard’s protagonist functions a bit like a world-wearied Buster Keaton in his later years. Lines covering his stone face are perfect for suggesting that he’s seen the world. This alone makes him sufficient, but expatriate Eddy Considine was also known in France for his long connection with the serialized crime detective Lemmy Caution. Here he is tasked with missions, but as should be expected with noir storytelling, each successive leg feels more befuddling than the last.

Godard took Caution to the extreme, totally untethered out in his devised limbo of clunky Parisian sci-fi. It’s the profundity of taking the labels of the future (my labels, not his) and making them feel mundane, like the contemporary moment. Still, it’s hardly a stretch to call Alphaville a forerunner to HAL,  Blade Runner, or even Altman’s Long Goodbye, a film where you have a dissonance between worlds and time frames.

There is one moment when the all-knowing voice says something to the effect that there is never the past or the future. There is only the present — where we can exist right now. So, really, there is not an issue of incongruity because everything we see is accepted as it is, functioning in this landscape as one.

Godard, working with his famed collaborator Raoul Coutard, initially doesn’t even bother with chiaroscuro, but instead an utterly binary palette. Horizontal slats of darkness above strips of light or vice versa. A cigarette and gun in Caution’s hand are both visible, while his entire face is literally pitch black.

Getting to Alphaville and a hotel in the heart of this metropolis is a trip. The lobby feels conventional enough. This is a mere extension of the Parisian landscape. And yet he gets led to his room by a lady who looks suspiciously like a lady of a night (especially when her clothes start coming off), and Godard adds another lovely non-sequitur when a thug all of the sudden materializes in the bathroom leading to a stylized struggle.

Our tough guy runs for his gun on the bed and shots ring out through the room. He makes the agitated but lucid observation moments later, “Everything weird is normal” in this town. He’s never been more correct.

We get a suggestion of what Godard is playing with — the conventions and ideas he wants to tinker around with — as both an artistic and intellectual exercise. Beatrice, the first of several femme fatales, we find out, is a level-three seductress. It’s all too apparent the misogynism has not evaporated in this alternate world.

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Anna Karina appears next as the daughter of a high-ranking official with intimate knowledge of Alpha 60. Caution christens her a “pretty sphinx,” and she is an unsuspecting product of the disconcerting sci-fi dystopia that has overtaken society. Ironically, it comes packaged a lot like Paris in the 1960s run by capitalists.

As far as gadgets go, Caution employs a portable lighter-intercom slightly less ostentatious than Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. There are government-sanctioned executions for those showing sentimentality, where the festivities are made into a bit of a water aerobics showcase. Another popular form of entertainment is theater executions — the electric chair in more diverting circumstances.

Logic is law. Tears and love are among those things outlawed. No one comprehends what “conscience” means anymore. I even made the initial assumption the books in the hotel rooms were Gideon Bibles. However, it turns out, “The Bible” is not theological but linguistic, in the form of a dictionary, as delivered by Jean-Pierre Leaud in a blink of a cameo. When words get eradicated from the cultural lexicon new editions are published and disseminated to the public.

As the tenets of society get more and more perplexing, Caution’s mission begins to spiral into chaos, toward the final destruction of the mechanical beast. Godard chops up cinematic reality with disruptive negative images that do feel otherworldly. There are car chases, murders, and corpses of those asphyxiated splayed on the floor. It seems Alphaville really is crumbling from the inside out.

The movie itself is full of these deconstructions, clever amalgams of Godard’s cultural proclivities, and his own personal wizardry. But if we are to fall back on my totally unessential litmus test, he rarely touches me to the degree Truffaut is capable of. There’s never the same laughter or warmth emanating from his characters.

Yes, in Breathless (1960) and Vivre sa Vie (1962) they come the closest and there are extended periods that speak to me, momentarily touching my heart and my soul, if I can be so transparent. But at a certain point, they end because Godard is not in the business of humanity as much as he is in the business of the mechanisms of cinema itself. He is the great artist. Truffaut the great humanist. In turn, each affinity made them into two of the most passionate filmmakers the world has ever known.

Both very avid, opinionated, obsessive cineastes. It even drove a wedge between them in later years after their catalytic collaborations in the early 60s. It’s not all that unsurprising. Arguably their most similar films conceptually, are vastly different in both vision and execution.

Consider Contempt (1963) and Day for Night (1973) or even Shoot The Piano Player (1961) and Alphaville (1965). The first pair act as two entirely singular odes to the art of filmmaking. The latter two are indebted to the glories of film noir and other cheap genre fare.

But again, it feels like Truffaut is far more capable of humanity. You never get the same sense of transparency from Godard. There is even a feeling he relishes his status as this cryptic figure — a reputation, I might add, he has maintained for most of his career.

And yet even Godard, with all his enigmatic stylings, can continually surprise me like so many others. This is his ability to morph with the times and take on new forms like a Bob Dylan — to make a flawed musical comparison. For me, it was the final line of his movie — all but forcing me to eat my words — forcing me to feel empathy.

Natascha remembers how to say “I love you” as they drive away from the hysteria of Alphaville back to the Outer Countries. For Godard, this is a heady statement, the height of sentimentality even. It’s unexpected but fitting, his constant muse throughout the 60s, Anna Karina, emblematic of his most fertile creative period, it’s her words that ultimately define Alphaville. I love you. Maybe Godard is a humanist after all. At the very least, Karina in all her affection helps to humanize him.

4/5 Stars

Note: Since writing this piece, Anna Karina passed away on December 14th, 2019. R.I.P. to a legend. 

Review: Vivre sa Vie (1962)

vivre-sa-vieThe opening credits of Vivre sa Vie commence with the opening note “dedicated to B-movies” and indeed many of Jean-Luc Godard’s best films could make the same claim. They’re smalltime stories about little people living rather pathetic lives if you wish to be brutally honest. This isn’t Hollywood.

Opening titles aside, we meet our main characters from behind, their backs to the camera in the throes of a minor spat. It acts as the subject for the first of the director’s 12 tableaux that make up the film rather like chapters in a book following the life of our heroine Nana (Anna Karina). Next, comes pinball games, Nana’s occupation as a Record Shop attendant and other mundane moments.

The passage of time caused me to forget that Nana goes to a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her own life witnessed in the eyes of Joan–a heroine that she easily empathizes with for her own amount of suffering and pain. It’s difficult to decipher who Nana feels more connected to, Joan of Arc or the actress Maria Falconetti herself. Because the truth is, Nana too was trying to make it as an actress, even being featured in a film or a play or something or other. It didn’t work out.

As the story evolves, we gradually begin to see her plight more clearly. It comes slowly at first before fully establishing itself. She goes down the rabbit whole quite by chance, taking on a very different occupation. It’s pitiful really, she looks more like a frightened rabbit than a woman of the street.

Her aspirations of catching the eye of some director are instead channeled towards Raoul, the pimp who gets her started and shows her the ropes of the trade. In some ways, it feels like he owns her, and yet Nana still strives to lead her own life. One of the moments she gives the illusion of happiness is in all places a pool hall as the jukebox grooves away and she shimmies with it. But in this moment as with so many others, it seems as if she’s constantly under the gaze of men. She’s constantly trying to earn their affection and in some sense earn her own worth. Whether or not they give it is another matter and that’s the great tragedy of Nana’s life.

In some of the film’s final interludes, she finds time to wax philosophical with an old thinker on a number of topics from personal responsibility to issues of free will. He further asserts that the more one talks, the less the words mean. Perhaps Godard took that to mean form over dialogue.

At times it’s as if Godard’s camera is constantly on a swiveling axis or even a pendulum, focusing on a figure and swinging back and forth between it’s two subjects. No cuts are necessary and it’s oddly compelling.

Look at his work hastily here and it could be misinterpreted as shoddy and that could be but more likely is the fact that Godard was always thumbing his nose at convention. He was never beholden to classical Hollywood but he did have heroes. The likes of Sam Fuller, Fritz Lang, and Nicholas Ray. Men with their own aesthetics and Godard was forging his own path. Only someone like Godard would have the audacity of having us watch the entire transcription of a letter. Why? Because he wanted to.

Vivre sa Vie did not ignite the Nouvelle Vague but in many ways, it stoked the flames and Godard perhaps unwittingly gave nod to another landmark film from his compatriot Francois Truffaut, Jules et Jim, which finds its way up on a movie marquee.

Perhaps what’s easiest to take away from Godard’s work here with longtime collaborator Raoul Coutard is that he’s constantly messing with our classical cinematic sensibilities. The way he cuts (or doesn’t), the way he interrupts sound, the way he moves between intertitles and so on. It’s still his and it still disrupts the status quo that we are used to even as seasoned viewers of visual content.

For some, it can come off as tiresome, even pretentious but it’s undoubtedly Godard and highlighting the entire narrative is the quietly yet still evocative performance of Anna Karina. Her doe eyes speak volumes by themselves.  They truly were the power couple of the French New Wave. He being the audacious artist, she his inspired muse. However, it begs the question, if there is any stock in the parallelism between film and reality. Nana/Anna being controlled by the men in her life or was it truly her life to live?

4.5/5 Stars

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

cleo-from-5-to-7It’s a joy to watch Agnes Varda dance. Or, more precisely, it’s a joy to watch her camera dance. Because that’s exactly what it does. Her film opens in color, catching our attention, vibrant and alive as the credits roll and a young woman (Corinne Marchand) gets her fortune read by an old lady. She’s worried about her fate. We can gather that much and this is her way of coping. Superstition and tarot cards but she’s trying and the results are not quite to her fancy.

And from that point on Varda’s camera continues to move dynamically but her film quickly turns to black and white as if to say something. Our main heroine, this young, attractive singer named Cleo has sunk into a sense of despondency. For the next two hours, she must wait it out to hear the news from her doctor. The news being whether or not she has been stricken with cancer. And if cancer then recovery or even….death. This is her existential crisis.

In the following moments, the camera falls back as an observer even donning her point of view from time to time and that’s the true enjoyment of this film. There are stakes laid out right from beginning and those remain in the back of our minds but it’s really about how we get there. How she gets there.

Cleo walks the streets of Paris browsing shop windows for hats, taking cab rides through the city, patronizing local establishments, resting at her flat with her assistant, and even calling on friends.

It becomes obvious that Cleo needs other people in her life whether she knows it or not. There’s an importance in solititude when she gets to examine the passing world and take in the serenity of running water in a park on a peaceful afternoon. But it’s the people that bring some color to her life. True, she does note that everyone spoils me, no one loves me, undoubtedly bemoaning the quick house call by her lover, the doting of her houskeeper, and the comical buffoonery of her pianist and lyricist duo.

But she also calls on her friend Dorothee who models by day in a sculptor’s studio taking in the bustling Parisian streets with all sorts of people but more importantly time for all sorts of conversation both superficial and sincere. They visit the local cinema and are treated to a silent comedy short (starring Nouvelle Vague power couple Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina). As the girl’s boyfriend rightly ascertains comedy is good for the soul. It can help alleviate a world of hurt.

Cleo’s final confidante comes quite by chance. A soldier on leave from Algeria as it turns out. He’s at first forward, then didactic, and finally utterly sincere. He’s perhaps just the type of person Cleo was looking for without even realizing it — someone who is perfectly obliging with conversation when she feels completely taciturn. Theirs is a quick friendship as he agrees to go with her to the hospital for the impending news and she, in turn, looks to see him off to the train station as he goes back from whence he came.

And does the film’s conclusion suffice? Not particularly. It’s abrupt and unsatisfying after all that prolonged wait but curiously Cleo seems at peace. Perhaps that is enough. What this film does impeccably is capture a moment as if it was pure and true and utterly authentic. It takes real world issues and a real world setting, synthesizing them into a fictional storyline that still functions as the every day would.

This is the world of the Cold War, war in Algeria, Edith Piaf in the hospital, Elmer Gantry, Bridget Bardot, and French pop music. It’s all melded together, bits and pieces, and moments and ideas and snapshots into a thoroughly engaging piece that becomes a sort of rumination on life and death and all those things that complicate living. If it all sounds like a jumbled mess of words it is and instead of trying to comprehend it by any amount of diction you should do yourself an immense favor and see Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 for yourself. If you are disappointed then I am truly sorry for you. Because it’s a wonderful film.

4.5/5 Stars

Weekend (1967)

weekend1One of Jean-Luc Godard’s strengths is his capability of feigning pretentiousness, while still simultaneously articulating humor. His film opens with its first of many inter-titles, “A film adrift in the cosmos,” followed by the equally poignant “A film found in a dump.”

Our protagonists Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corrinne (Mireille Darc) are hardly protagonists at all, but curmudgeon bourgeoisie couple both caught up in affairs and preparing to out into the country in order to acquire Corinne’s rightful inheritance from her dying father. But this is never a character study and the actual arrival at the home of her parents is of little consequence. It’s another occurrence in a long string of events that Godard plays at with acerbic wit.

We are constantly reminded that this is an age of sexual revolution and political unrest–the class struggle against the tyranny of the powers that. In foreshadowing the events of the 68ers or even putting a finger to the social unrest, Godard is not alone. It’s how he does it that should be of note.

Weekend quickly becomes a discordant cacophony of sound and image that immaculately illustrates the dissonance of the decade.  Rather like a Tati film, Godard uses color prolifically, but it’s hardly as innocent as the former. The colors show the pools of blood and piles of wreckage scattered across the land–In one instance inane and another horrifying.

It’s the emblematic film of the modern age of noise pollution where Godard practically tortures us with the sound of car horns. Constantly adding to the general din. Not to mention the universal, ubiquitous road rage that overtakes everyone and leads to heavy carnage. Some seen, some unseen. Meanwhile, actors or real-life historical figures–the distinction is difficult–including St. Just (Jean-Pierre Leaud) wander the wasteland spouting off inconsequential rubbish in anachronistic garb.

weekend2Conflagrations engulf cars and human bodies while above the din comes the piercing screams of a woman bemoaning the loss of her Hermes handbag. We cannot take this anyway but humorous because it once again is yet another moment of utter insanity.

The French countryside becomes the perfect locale for an apocalypse mixed with a modern coup de’tait. There’s a call to arms for guerrilla tactics–a new French Revolution. Still, Roland and Corinne frantically hurtle towards their destination of Oinville. Their actions there are far from unexpected highlighting the baseness running through the entire film.

Once again it feels of little consequence that the pair is captured by a band of cannibalistic, free-loving revolutionaries. Cracking eggs on lifeless bodies and painting on naked ones. It’s pretty strange. Godard slips in a bit of love of the cinema as their call names include Battleship Potemkin, The Searchers, and Johnny Guitar. But there’s little point to it, only another pointless attribute in this narrative of volatile absurdity. But in that respect, Godard has hit his point home, by spurning convention as always and supercharging his film with political chops. It drags a bit in the second half, but he salvages it with the utter insanity of it all.

Furthermore, Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard are absolutely fabulous at utilization tracking shots to the nth degree in several instances, namely with the initial traffic jam extending for what feels like eons and then camera cycling through the town as the music plays in the background and our two travelers wait for their next ride. Let’s not forget the final moments of Weekend either, where Corinne has been transformed into a fellow commune member feasting on a scrumptious piece of meat with a fellow hippie. Her husband was not so lucky. There’s little to no need to say what happened to him.

4/5 Stars

My Night at Maud’s (1969)

nightatmaud's1I love the forum that is created in international cinema where all things can be debated and discussed without fear of what the audience will say. Hollywood caters to the audience and that more often than not means that thrills are given greater weight than substance. Eric Rohmer worked at Cahiers du Cinema alongside French New Wave visionaries like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but he joined the game a little later than his colleagues with a different style. Rohmer took his pseudonym from director Erich von Stroheim and British novelist Sax Rohmer. He was a highly educated man and that comes out in his films.

My Night at Maud’s comes from the perspective of a man, who we have a sneaking suspicion might be a lot like Rohmer.  Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a reserved, highly religious, intelligent man. He attends mass on Sunday, bumps into an old school chum on the street, and willfully enters a discussion on all sorts of philosophical topics.

Whereas Godard interest himself in the lowly gangsters, the streetwalkers, or the lovers on the run, Rohmer’s character are in a completely different stratosphere. They are a higher slice of society, and it shows in what they spend there time philosophizing about. In fact, there’s a lot of discussion stemming from Pascal’s wager on whether or not it is beneficial to believe in God. Although he can be a bit of a clown, Vidal is also a philosophy professor and ready and willing to delve into such topics. He holds hypotheses on the meaning of life, and he’s considered where hope comes from. These are intelligent beings and deep thinkers, and by transference, they lead us to think. They drop by on Vidal’s friend Maud (Francoise Fabian), who is a divorcee, irreligious, and most certainly a free thinker. She’s also beautiful, and she likens there little late night convo to the salons of old as they gather around her bed to raise their conjectures.

nightatmaud's4I feel like I have known people like Jean-Louis, and I cannot help but like them. He’s a fairly resilient Christian, but not a perfect example mind you, and yet he feels far from a hypocrite. With his new dialogue partners, he speaks of his past love affairs and how they can exist with his religious convictions. Maud rather matter-of-factly labels him a “shame-faced Christian” and a “shame-faced Don Juan,” because he’s not fully committed or acknowledging of either. And yet she generally likes him a lot. He likes her company too and so they can continue talking in a genial manner. She pokes fun and ribs but never attacks. And she openly brings up numerous different ideas about Christianity. There are things that feel very human, but not very Christian to her. Maud asks if Christians are judged by their deeds? She assumes there is a bookkeeping aspect of Christianity where good deeds are weighted versus sin. Several times the rather obscure term of Jansenism is thrown around a bit in reference to the theology of Dutchman Cornelius Jansen. It surely is difficult to keep up we these folks at times, but it’s well worth it.

Maud has her own preconceived notions about religion, while Jean-Louis has some delusions about romance. He thinks he’ll meet a pretty blonde Catholic gal and fall in love. It sounds utterly preposterous and yet then he meets Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) after his night at Maud’s. She’s the perfect embodiment of everything he’s ever dreamed of in a romantic partner. They seem like a good pair, although she is still in school, they are intellectual equals with similar personal convictions.

nightatmaud's5Sure enough, 5 years down the line they are married with a young son. Jean-Louis has not seen Maud for many years now, but quite by chance they bump into each other on the beach. Both pick up where they left off as if no time has passed because it’s so easy for them to converse. Francoise is noticeably uncomfortable around Maud, but nothing more is said about it. Jean-Louis moves on and plays contentedly with his family on the beach. Maud heads back up the hill as cordial as ever. This is an ending that is made powerful in its subtleties above all else because Jean-Louis and the audience realize something about Francoise. Yet there is no need to voice those conclusions because all that matters to him is that he is happy.  It toes a soft line between romance and drama, instead resorting to a beautiful exchange of ideas. Noticeably, in Rohmer’s film, there is no score so the dialogue is elevated to the level of music. It fills the void using deep, introspective and personal forms of verbal expression.

4/5 Stars

Review: Breathless (1960)

breathless2Breathless is such a fresh, smooth piece of cinema that feels as cool now as it was back then. The transcontinental French vibe paired with the revolutionary production is strangely still appealing. It does so many things with such style that is always unique but never quite off-putting. Not to mention the score which is playful in an elegant sort of way. The film has an array of quick cuts, it’s discontinuous, abrupt, and it literally jumps between images. Actions, like shooting a cop or sitting in a room with a girl, become more interesting than we could ever give them credit for.

Godard is known for saying that all you need for a film is a girl and a gun and that’s basically all Breathless is. Michel (Jean-Pierre Belmondo) is a low down, no good hood who also happens to be quite funny at times. He shoots a cop for no good reason and after that, the police are after him on the streets of Paris.

breathless5He’s also broke and all his buddies are either unavailable or in some trouble of their own. He swipes money from one girl and rendezvous with his latest fling, the aspiring American journalist Patricia (Jean Seberg). They do very little except drive around the city or lounge around her room. In one memorable shot, jump cuts piece together scenes of the back of Patricia’s head as she sits in the passenger seat observing the world around her pass by.

Michel, on his part, seems only to want sex and yet he says he’s never loved a girl before. He’s continually drawn to Patricia, and he never can quite pull himself away.

She, meanwhile, has another man with an eye on her, and she hopes to propel her fledgling journalism career. Her one assignment happens to be interviewing the highly philosophical and somewhat pompous Mr. Parvulesco (Jean-Pierre Melville).

breathless10The billboards around town even foreshadow the impending doom of Michel. Patricia later learns from the police that her lover is wanted for murder, and she must decide what to do about it. In a memorable scene, Patricia is shown pacing around the room in a wide circle. In the end, she does turn in the hood to prove to herself that she doesn’t truly love him.

Michel looks utterly pitiful, like a wounded deer after he gets winged by the police and collapses in the middle of a quiet avenue. Patricia stares straight at the camera giving the queerest of looks as Michel breathes his last. If you wanted narrative clarity you’re definitely looking in the wrong place.

breathless9In some ways, Jean Seberg’s iconic look reminds me a young Audrey Hepburn another gamine glamour girl. The photography of Seberg is iconic from the reflection in her sunglasses to her donning Michel’s hat. Breathless proves film is not just entertainment, but it can also be lastingly stylish. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it still seems to work after over 50 years. Honestly, when I was starting out, Breathless helped open up all of European cinema to me and for that, I am indebted to Godard and The French New Wave.

4.5/5 Stars

Birdman (2014)

Birdman_posterIn the opening shot, a man is in his tidy-whities levitating in midair. This is one of those films that can never be figured out completely or never fully dissected in its entirety. It’s a meta film on a whole lot of levels. You could say that Michael Keaton is playing a version of himself named Riggan Thomson. He used to be a superstar in the popular superhero series Birdman. That ended back in 1992. Now he’s old and washed up attempting to revive himself in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver play. Robert Downey Jr. is the guy with the type of box office draw that he used to have.  He is constantly fighting his own inner demons that play like the voice of the Birdman in his head. The character he used to be is so closely tied to his identity that Riggan has trouble getting away from it.

The film follows the loss of one of their lead actors to an accident, and there is a rush to find someone else before their first preview showing. They want Michael Fassbender or Jeremy Renner and yet they do get lucky in Mike Shiner (Edward Shiner). However, much like Norton in real life, Shiner proves to be a handful, but also a star performer who the public love. Riggan needs him and his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) pleads with him to say with Shiner. All the previews are a disaster: Mike breaks character over some gin and he tries to have sex with actress and former lover Lesley (Naomi Watts) on stage. To add insult to injury, Riggans locks himself out of the theater and thus begins his frantic pilgrimage through Time Square in only his underwear.

birdman1Riggans wrote, directed, and acts in this play to overcompensate for all his failures. He even refinances his house to cover the cost. He’s spent. His daughter and former drug addict Sam (Emma Stone) is his assistant, and although they don’t see eye to eye, they try to be real with each other. She too is a screw-up, but she sees in him someone who confuses love for adoration. He worries about relevancy, fading away, and he is scared to death that he might not matter. In as many words, she tells him to join the club because every member of humanity has these same fears nearly every day of their existence. He is no different.

Following the final preview, critic Tabitha Dickinson says she will tear his play apart because he is one of those Hollywood celebrities masquerading as an actor. After a rough evening, the Birdman comes back to haunt him before the big opening.

Then, opening night comes and Riggan seems strangely aloof on a night with so much riding on it. He does the unthinkable when in his final scene he uses a real gun and points and fires it at himself. The crowds are as surprised as the viewer before bursting into thunderous applause. Riggan has unwittingly become a sensation on Twitter and on the theater circuit.

The story ends in the hospital with Riggan reconciling himself with his daughter Sam. It looks like it could take a fatal turn because the specter of Birdman still remains, and yet along with Sam we get to see something extraordinary, and at the same time ridiculous, happen. They don’t call him Birdman for nothing.

Birdman has received a great deal of notice for its cinematography that was spliced together to look like one continuous shot. At first, it feels a bit gimmicky watching the camera self-consciously spiral around the actors, but it slowly becomes the routine. It feels like a Goodfellas tracking shot on steroids, and it certainly hearkens back to Hitchcock’s Rope as we often find ourselves following characters from behind down hallways or going from interiors to exteriors. It’s certainly a different perspective of the world.

birdman3There are moments that it looked like Edward Norton or Emma Stone might steal the show, but by the end, it is still evident that this is Michael Keaton’s film. This is a story about his struggle. This is his version of Sunset Boulevard that he must overcome. It also has an overarching blend of magic and realism that makes it hard to parse through what the true reality is. But by the end that is far from necessary, because this is a meta experience that is layered and inverted in such a way that makes it fascinating. We think we have our feet on the ground, firmly planted, but we never do, and we are never allowed to.

At times it feels rather like we are in Manet’s painting Bar at the Folies Bergere. It becomes difficult to tell if we are in the audience are simply part of the film. We lose our self in the metaness that acts as the thin dividing line between what is real and what is fictitious. There is a cinematic magic in that just as there is a kind of supernatural energy in Riggan Thomson himself. However, he does not get wholly lost in that, because he is a messed-up human being like the rest of us. No matter how mystical he is, there still is an unmistakable resonance to his story. Thomson would be happy to know that he is relevant just like we are all relevant in some way, shape, or form. It’s all subjective. It just depends on who you ask or what critic says what. In reality, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot.

Honestly, it failed to hit me until afterward,  Birdman is a humorous film where the humor often gets forgotten behind the more philosophical and human aspects. There’s nothing quite like it. It takes its cues from Sunset Boulevard, Jean-Luc Godard, Dr. Strangelove, Batman and undoubtedly so much more, but it is distinctively the creation of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

4.5/5 Stars

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard and starring Jean Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, this film is chock full of poetic musings, literary allusions, pop culture images, and so on. Belmondo is a Frenchman who is unhappy with his life and marriage. When a young woman he is already acquainted with comes to watch his child, they eventually elope together. Ferdinand goes with Marianne to her apartment only to find a corpse and they must flee the scene from two gangsters. Now on the run, the two lovebirds are intent on living life and making their own Hollywood inspired movie that they can both star in. Their aspirations lead them to live a wild life on the move, but finally they settle down for a awhile in the French Riviera. Ferdinand is content with a quiet life of philosophizing but Marianne is discontent with this life right out of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. They finally move on and stop at a night club where they face one of their pursuers. After some mishaps Ferdinand and his girl get separated. Finally they are reunited only to have Marianne turn on “Pierrot” for her real boyfriend. The final moments are filled with gunfire, a suitcase full of money, blue paint, and dynamite. You could say that everything blew up in Ferdinand’s face, and you would be quite correct.

4/5 Stars

Band of Outsiders (1964)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, this film follows a young woman who meets two  crooks in an English language class. Through narration we learn that she told them about a cache of money she knows of and so they get her to help them swipe it. They both fight for her affection and ultimately the thug Arthur wins out. Despite Odile’s apprehension at taking the money from her aunt’s home, they continue to get the plan ready. Arthur’s uncle now wants in and then the plan changes again because the owner of the money is gone a day earlier. From this point everything begins to go wrong and after a horrible botched attempt the three culprits flee the scene with little to show for their caper. Arthur makes up an excuse to return and Odile and Franz drive off but they return when trouble seems imminent. Back at the house Arthur is confronted by his uncle and there is more bloodshed. Afterwards Odile and Franz again flee heading to South America while the narrator promises a sequel in the near future. This film unabashedly proclaims to be Nouvelle wave even going so far as having it printed on a store banner. Again, Godard combines his love of American pulp fiction and artistic experimentation to create yet another tragic tale. The film gives a nod to Hollywood crime films and also features several famous sequences. Some high points include the moment of silence, the spontaneous dance in the café, and of course the run through the Louvre. In my mind, Pulp Fiction owes at least something to Godard right here.

 

4/5 Stars

Contempt (1963)

Directed by Jean Luc Godard and starring an international cast including Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, and Fritz Lang, this film within a film is Godard’s personal examination of the cinematic world. It opens with the shooting of a scene only to have the camera turn to face on the audience. Then begins a story where a screenwriter married to a beautiful woman is called upon to write a new screenplay for an adaption of the Odyssey. The producer is a vain and loud mouthed American who quickly has his eyes on the producer’s wife. Other members in this production are the real life legendary director Fritz Lang as well as the producer’s personal female assistant. Things begin to turn for the writer after he leaves his wife with the American playboy. She begins to become distant and she finally acknowledges that she no longer loves him. One of the famous extended sequences focuses on the argument they have inside their residence. In the course of the scene their relationship begins to crumble and finally goes beyond repair. This turn of events is very obviously paralleled in the Odyssey by Odysseus and Penelope. In the end the wife leaves with the producer and screenwriter is left in Italy to help finish up the film alone. Little does he know what has happened. Fellini’s 8 ½ may be a greater film about a filmmaker and his art, but I think “Contempt” is important because Godard focuses a great deal on the conflict between the commercial films of Hollywood and the art films of Europe. His film is more about each individual person who together make a film production possible, and he brings it to the screen with one of his best casts.

4.5/5 Stars