Breathless (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) – Other than obligatory and ubiquitous clips, have probably only sat through Breathless twice. What can you say about it that hasn’t already been said ad nauseum? Watch it and you’ll be struck by how deliberately iconic it wants to be. It’s iconic in the secondary sense, for the most part, ceaselessly referencing icons like Bogie and Paris and cinema in general. The opening phrase is something like, “Yes, I’m an asshole.” It may as well be Godard saying it, though it’s his proxy of Jean-Paul Belmondo whose voice utters it. They swoon over Tarantino, but isn’t he just a repetition of Godard, and a less critical one at that? Say what you will about the tenets of national Socialism, Dude, (which is very close to what Godard represents) at least it’s an ethos. What Tarantino does is pastiche everything he likes into a collage of cinematic images obsessed with violent revenge with the ultimate goal of bolstering his own filmography. Not to glorify the past or anything, but these were not Godard’s goals, and they still aren’t. Breathless is effortless, weightless, but not thoughtless. It pretends to be careless, but every shot and cut are fused together with meaning. Those jump-cuts when Patricia is riding shotgun in the convertible, they rhythmically correspond to Michel’s list of her bodily members that he worships. He fractures her body into parts as Godard fractures the scene into shots and images. He does something quite similar in the opening sequence of Une Femme Mariée. He’s still an asshole, to be sure, or maybe more of a sonuvabitch, paying homage to years of cinema by disregarding it, or at least by breaking its conventions. He writes himself into the film in a way that Hitchcock never did, not so much a cameo as a loose autobiography. Michel is Godard, in the sense that his vibe and persona correspond perfectly to the one that Godard, at this phase in his career, wants us to believe about himself. In a few years (1968), Godard will come to realize that the politics of the French film industry are too much, and he’ll need to go underground to do what he wants. Until then, he coyly pretends to splice the shrapnell of the cutting room floor into a series of remarkably cohesive artworks that care as much about their quaint narratives as they do about their radical form.
L’Avventura (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) – Obviously, Antonioni is the European art-film counterpart to Godard in 1960…although Bergman may be, too. No, it’s Antonioni. And here’s why: supposedly Antonioni cried after L’Avventura got booed at Cannes. Godard has a word for guys like that. So whereas Breathless pretends to hide its deliberateness, L’Avventura foregrounds it. At the same time, the latter film breaks rules, but it does so in a way that makes you wonder whether it was intentional. The grammar here is more abstract, aligning persons with architectural structures and natural landscapes in an almost phenomenological manner. When the wealthy yacht party is wandering the island searching for Anna, the mise-en-scene is littered with jagged rocks, dead wildlife, relics from an ancient civilization, tumultuous waters crashing into rocky cliffs, volcanic islands, and storm clouds. The sound oscillates between those crashing waves and the unforgiving wind, only interrupted by the pitiful cries for Anna from individuals who, themselves, are islands scattered about on the island. All that is captured in the experience of that natural imagery and those natural sounds is embodied in the bored and all-but-dead characters who wander the island like blind, lost souls.
Touch of Evil (dir. Orson Welles, 1957) – Height, height, height. Found it hard to focus on anything else, with the camera constantly swooping up, lingering, then sometimes descending. Why would that be? Why that choice? A nagging question without an immediately clear answer, at least to the daft. We know that, even in these earliest days of the notion of the auteur, Welles had already thought himself one for a good fifteen years. He’d been stamping unique styles into his camera work, sound, narrative, and lighting since Kane, to such an extent that he was the ultimate cinematic diva of the golden age of Hollywood. Touch of Evil is emblematic of all of this, having all the marks of a distinctive authorial voice and then getting chopped to death with new scenes added, outside of Welles’ control. It’s only fair to acknowledge that the version of the film to which this blurb refers is the fairly recent restoration of the film according to Welles’ infamous 53-page diatribe, dictating exactly how it should look and sound and why. In a word, Welles, at least in the first half of his career, shot films for the pleasure of the cineaste. Watching Touch of Evil is like watching Kane, or parts of The Magnificent Ambersons (what’s left of it). It’s awesome in the truest sense, filled with those “how’d-he-do-that?” moments. Lots of other things to discuss, like the way the film uses star images to inflect characters. Not only is Welles himself the big, fat, bad guy, but Marlene Dietrich plays an important role as his old confidant. She’s passed her sell-by date, making her humanity shine all the more through her aging shell. And although Welles is the titular “evil” of the film, it’s never that cut-and-dry, as with all the great noirs. His cleverness exceeds that of any virtuous character, and the audience seems to have access to his inner psyche (by means of amplified mutterings) in a way that they don’t get with anyone else, perhaps other than Janet Leigh’s character. Leave it to Welles to cast himself as the rotten but ingenious necessary end of a corrupt system. This is the character he plays in the film, and this is the image that the man himself carried into the making of the film, and certainly away from it.
The Conformist (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970) – Godard, Antonioni, Welles, now Bertolucci. These blurbs are like bullet points of film canon. The films certainly stand out for their unique formal techniques and thematic richness, but just as much, they set themselves apart as the creations of a different genius at each one of their centers. That’s certainly up for debate, and undoubtedly as time passes, recognition will increase that cinema was making a concerted effort in its earlier days to legitimate itself as an art form. You can’t have art proper without an artist, and so even in the critical scholarship of these films, as much attention is paid to the film texts themselves as to the biographies of the directors. Bertolucci is one of the greatest examples of this, particularly since his aesthetics appears to clash with his politics. As a Leftist who has created films like The Conformist that foreground Marxist and Freudian themes, it’s funny how fascist he is when it comes to interpreting his work. A given film from Bertolucci is followed up with exponentially more hours of interviews in which the filmmaker tells us what the films mean and do not mean. Not that this isn’t interesting and even important, but it isn’t how post-Barthesian Leftists tend to approach meaning and texts. As for The Conformist, it’s also funny and ironic how, once you actually delve into the film’s own history, you discover that some of the most important choices made about it were not Bertolucci’s. The unusual narrative, focusing on a confessional/psychoanalytic voiceover session in the car with multiple and layered flashbacks before delivering us to the moment of truth and then tracing its fallout, came from the film’s editor, not from Bertolucci. Bertolucci is the first to admit this, even as he calls it “his” film and tells us what the editing means. Other observations. Lighting in The Conformist is about erotics. It’s either blue and sterile or orange and warm. Since the story itself has to do with the problem of erotics—is there something wrong with me for having confused desires?—the harsh either-or lighting in the film places the liminal protagonist in extreme spaces. He’s ever out-of-place, never in his own realm. The wonderful and famous scene that formalizes Plato’s allegory of the cave puts this dyad into stark visual terms. The film’s final image puts him into a scene very much like that platonic cave, except his turn of the head into the light reveals his awareness that he exists in an imaginary realm. Unlike the allegorical cave-dwellers, he knows about the light at the mouth of the tunnel and refuses to pull a U-turn.