Sunday, June 22, 2014

Soigne Ta Droite

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1987)

A typically Godardian mix of the beautiful and the ponderous.  I'm still learning how to watch his films; to keep up with them, to seek out whatever pattern might exist, to let them flow like water down a cataract, sitting patiently with my bewilderment. 

The film is consistently, magnificently beautiful.  I don't think I've ever been so aware of the quality of JLG's eye; his knack for color and composition, his subtle and exceptionally sensitive way with light, is tremendous.  And his cuts are as decisive as heartbeats.  There's also plenty of Godard's typical combination of the wry with the silly, made all the more prominent by the deadly (literally) serious subject matter.  It's all about Art and Death; and while certain sequences and moments do contain surprising volumes of emotion, there's much else that appears wildly, unproductively incoherent.  There is, for instance, Godard's famous penchant for philosophical voiceover.  But not merely philosophical; this is reading from a term-paper philosophical.  Godard is undoubtedly a visual poet of the first order, but his facility with words, at least as they appear in his movies, leaves much to be desired, and the discrepancy between the two induces friction.  Not good friction, either. 

It's clear that by 1987 Godard was well into his grab-bag montage phase, constructing his films with the barest semblance of a structure.  It's not a matter of story; post-Breathless, it was clear that he had no interest in story, character, at least in the classical sense.  But even a structure based on theme is too rigid for JLG.  His later films are sometimes called essayistic, but essays have every bit as much predetermined structure as fiction.  Better to call Godard diaristic.  He thinks of an image, an idea, a swatch of text, and he's off to the races.  It's as if he were building a model train set while the train cars were already running.  He just keeps adding track.  It's not purely linear - plenty of motifs are repeated, and the film does have a shape - but it's a shaggy dog story, a virtuosic improvisation, and one that still falters tonally.  This may be his great flaw as an artist; even more than his involuted philosophical tract-mongering, his constant stream of intertextual references that he fires off with compulsive, Tourettish abandon, is his desultory way with mood.  The film swings in and out of seriousness; of course, even when he's being funny, he's being serious, but there's a distance to his stance, a giddiness borne of reticence.  Overflowing with ideas and images, a film like Soigne Ta Droite nonetheless feels like it's holding something back.  It might be that Godard's just flying at an altitude beyond my mortal powers of sensation and comprehension, but there's enough that's recognizably human about his work that I wonder: how much more do I need to learn?  And how much is just, finally, private and unknowable?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Immigrant

(James Gray, France/US, 2014)

A deeply felt and gorgeously rendered film, but one that nonetheless, sadly, disappoints.  Gray is most easily categorized as a classicist, but his emphasis on raw emotion - chaotic, sincere, naked emotion - and acute psychological depth makes him much more than a craftsman in thrall to any single tradition.  But he is still a craftsman, and the fascination and frustration I derive from his work seems to obtain from the strange friction he generates by simultaneously revering classical conventions and working in his own, idiosyncratic world.

I was in and out of the story of The Immigrant.  It might be that Gray is too enamored of the elegance he sees in Golden Age masterworks; the story plods along at times, and threatens to veer into stilted sentimentality.  It's all so damn sincere.  There is a discomfiting innocence about the movie, and it grows out of the characters, and I can't tell if Gray actually shares it or he's committing the grave artistic and moral sin of regarding the past with a kind of precious naivete - the "simpler times" fallacy.  I don't mean that the characters are simple - far from it - but the world is painted in such stark terms, the stakes so immediately obvious and familiar, that it almost isn't enough that the characters are depicted with such deftness, their tortured psyches revealed painstakingly and with unmistakable love.

Perhaps it's the lack of any true villains.  Perhaps it's the fact the Eva - while utterly captivating in her quiet, almost statuesque dignity - isn't a terribly active character, and her transparent goodness, despite the occasional flashes of anger and guilt, is never really challenged.  For all of his somberness, it might just be that Gray is too optimistic about his characters.

It has to be said; there's a corniness to Gray.  Part of his appeal is in his owning of that corniness; his courageous willingness to lay open his heart and the way that it bleeds for his characters.  But for all of his commitment to emotional authenticity, he is a filmmaker who is perhaps just a bit too enamored of convention.  The world he depicts is so distant, and so loaded with potential cliche, that he appears to falter.

But the emotional commitment is unstinting, and the world he creates, one of shadows and stage-lights and worn surfaces, with the strange admixture of hope and despair, is a genuinely powerful accomplishment.  It's a film I'll be revisiting, and which I suspect will contain new insights and layers of experience.