The Outsiders 1964
A Jean-Luc Godard Film
Another good one. Here I am, in the week where I thought I would be troubled by everything Godard had to offer. Not the case, other than the first one, Breathless (1960).
Fourth day, four films, a brilliant filmmaker who seems less of an anarchist than when I started watching Breathless (1960), four night ago.
Bande A Part (1964) is a gem. A film that is more loving than the others, and more forgiving than the others. As the films go on, people dying because of one’s misdeeds is less likely to be the upshot of everything. The people that die are less likely to die as a punishment for their behaviour, thoughts or deeds, than in previous Godard films.
Bande A Part 1964
A Jean-Luc Godard Film
I don’t know if Godard is an anarchist or see himself as an anarchist. Or whether he is just a thief who steals – borrows is the kinder word – from everything around him and then puts it in the final creation which he calls his finished or completed film. Or whether he is just a lawbreaker who sees a set of rules and then goes about breaking them whenever he gets the inspiration to jettison what has been accepted as the norm in the past. In all of the first four films I’ve seen from 1960, 61, 62 and 63, he uses a lot of words written by other people, making his films, to a degree, documentaries about information. It’s a crazy thing to do, creating scenes where actors as characters read another author’s words instead of the words written by the author of the screenplay. That alone makes Godard extraordinary. His reliance on other people’s words is unprecedented in these four films from any other writer-director. And for good reason. Because he accepted life as a jumbled mess of information from everything he read or viewed without always (of even often) needing to read or see the start or the end of the work he was inhaling, be it a book or a film. [Quotations to support this can be found by Richard Brody (New Yorker) and Richard Roud (Cinema: A Critical Dictionary) – citations needed to be included HERE.]
I think it’s the second and third because if I remember correctly what anarchy means, it’s to do with tearing down what exists, reducing the (previous) regime to the past tense. Isn’t it about destroying what was there because you wanted to replace it with either yourself or your beliefs or ideals? Or is anarchy simply the situation or moment when there is no ruler or government? Or is it just about not recognising the rulers or rules that have hitherto been accepted as the guidelines of how we should live – in our, country, state, continent, tribe, village or house – now, refusing to accept those rules or commandments as defining how it is that we should live.
The reason I don’t think it is the first is because that would be about replacing what was there with something completely different. But if anarchy merely means taking out the government and living in a state without governing authorities, to do as you please, then Godard fits that category as well.
Godard so obviously loves film and the basic state of filmmaking that I don’t believe he wants to destroy it and rebuild it from his own ideals. He loves it too much to want to blow it up. And yet there are a number of assumptions which he does want to explode. The assumption that Eisenstein’s theories, of framing shots, eye-matching and editing, are the essentially indisputable commandments of film places Eisenstein as God, or if not God, then Lord, or the Son of God. When I read essays by critics like Noel Burch who tear apart filmmakers who don’t accept silent filmmaking rules, like Kurosawa and others, constantly talking about eyeline-matching, editing and frame composition and the dialectics of how Eisenstein in his writings believes montage and editing should be done. Burch criticizes those who don’t follow what he sees as the fundamental rules of filmmaking (as described by Eisenstein). Godard definitely – I
can see it in the four films I’ve watched so far – believes that there aren’t any rules, and gives great reverence to what he calls American B-films. His first feature films indicate a similar reverence for American filmmaking that directors like Truffaut also gave, but even moreso.
Not only did Godard base Breathless around a B-grade style, and expertly realise the deficiencies of those low-budget films, but his second film Vivre sa vie had an intertitle at the beginning which stated that it was a Homage to B-movies. I don’t know who wrote the text on that title card but it probably wasn’t there when the film was first released because it talks about the Venice Film Festival award – although who knows, maybe the festival was before the award was before the initial release – in the same breath as acknowledging it is a B-movie. Although I would dispute Vivre sa vie is a B-movie homage until it’s final scene (when it clearly is), with Bande A Part, Godard creates a film noir homage (like Truffaut with Shoot the Piano Player) which ends with dialogue which relegates it to being pulp fiction, with narration stating, “My story ends here, like in a pulp novel, at that superb moment when nothing weakens, nothing wears away, nothing wanes.” He’s not saying that this moment is at the end of a pulp novel, just that it is a superb moment when things are left on a high, at a strong moment in the pulp story or the pulp film. He then follows that narration with a promotional line that indicates that this couple’s further adventures will be coming to a movie theater near you soon – when it is made – like the moment when the author of a pulp novel (or movie), like those with Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Simon Templar or The Baron will use that last moment of the current story to be the equally strong moment that tells the reader that the hero is still in control, at his peak, and ready for more. It’s a cheeky nod to everything he loves about American film noir and Hitchcock and the B-films that celebrate men-slapping-women, sex, prostitution (obvious or disguised), murder, robbery, deception and amorality.
Bande A Part does this brilliantly. It does it in every single way better than Breathless and it does it with a lot more humour, with far less emphasis on the pastiche and ironic tributes to the famous Hollywood style and cliches of Breathless.
It amazes me that someone who sets out (like Truffaut with Piano Player) to attribute greatness to mostly second-rate films (which is why they are called B-films – meaning they’re the supporting feature, not the main attraction, shorter in running-time and hampered by a limited budget) by copying it over and over, then becomes known as a great director by recreating the style of second-rate films nearly as well as, or as good as, or better than, the experts in second-rate films who live in California. It such a strange thing to claim as an achievement. It would be akin to Ian Fleming setting out to replicate and better all the heroes of novelists – like Leslie Charteris, John Creasy and Carter Brown – with James Bond. But Fleming didn’t attempt that. He didn’t imitate. He actually thought he was creating a super secret-service agent, who was an original, with a license to kill, who had a double-oh number which sanctioned his good behaviour (for the government) and his bad behaviour (for himself). It’s like someone like Quentin Tarantino borrowing from a thousand films he saw and recreating his own version of them in Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill. It doesn’t make them great unless Tarantino is inherently great within himself. And Godard in Breathless doesn’t have an ounce of the greatness that Tarantino shows in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
What’s important in filmmaking in the long run is when a director takes a pulp fiction novel, tears away the pulp and makes it pure orange juice, like Spielberg did with Jaws and Coppola did with The Godfather. There are probably other examples like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, Key Largo and all the other Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart films before they hit it big. At a point in time, which is hard to pinpoint because it was a gradual growth of respect for tawdry thrillers like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Robert Mitchum, and the potboilers he was headlining, skipped the mark that separated B from A. And what blurs that mark is the fact that because big stars were under contract a studio could require that a big star act in a film that wasn’t going to be the main attraction. A good rule-of-thumb in determining (with hindsight) whether it was made to be the film before interval or the big film after interval is the movie’s running time.