Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Every Man for Himself

(Jean-Luc Godard, France/Austria/West Germany/Switzerland, 1980)

Godard's "second first film," and it lives up to the title.  Godard's method has shifted over the course of his career, straying further away from - or tunneling through -  diagetic "story," an internal reality that is transmitted (or, more romantically, "expressed") through the medium, and drifting towards an increasingly rigorous investigation of the medium itself.  Of course, he's had these impulses from the start; Breathless is not as different, when it comes down to the instincts and preoccupations of its director, from the later works as critics often suggest.  Godard is a process man.  His work has remained incandescently vital because it's always engaged, always moving forward, always finding new ways to grapple with creative problems that very few other cinematic artists even bothered to notice.  And he is the least theoretical of artists, whatever his statements and reputation might suggest - everything is a matter of practice, of trial and error, of an approach being worked out on the wing. The radical reflexivity of this approach - every cut, every juxtaposition a node of inquiry - counts for a great deal of what makes him so unique.  In the essay reproduced for the Criterion collection's booklet, by Amy Taubin, she claims that "he is basically a classicist with powerful adversarial instincts." This might be true; Godard's project has long seemed to me, at least in part, to transcend the apparent juncture that separates Classical and Modern.  His view of aesthetic history - history writ large, really - is capacious and eclectic, and despite the dense allusiveness and occasional bitterness, his resolutely refined treatment of images and sound - always with an indefatigable eye for beauty, beauty! - is never deserving of the "post" appellation that's been roughly applied to -modern.

No Godard film can be viewed with even a moment's passivity; his challenge to viewers to pay close attention, think for themselves, embark on a project of criticism even as one watches the film is one of the traits that makes him, to my mind, resolutely Modern.  This is also what makes much of the work, particularly the later work, so bewildering on a first viewing.  The Criterion package, with an ample helping of supplemental interviews and commentaries, goes a long way in helping the viewer wrap their mind around the work.  Godard's long sojourn in the wilderness of 16mm and video, almost all of it produced for TV, had seen a sea-change in his approach.  It was further abetted by his partnership, creative and personal, with Anne-Marie MiĆ©ville, with whom he's continued to work and live ever since.   His excitement at returning to feature films, and 35mm, is palpable from the first shot - one of Godard's glorious skyscapes, a slow pan across the cloud-dappled blue of, one imagines, his homeland of Switzerland.   This sense of exuberance never diminishes entirely, but it quickly complicated by a ruefulness and an asperity that borders on cynicism. 

Godard claimed to have identified more with the two female protagonists - a journalist/artist played by Nathalie Baye, and a prostitute played by Isabelle Huppert - than with Jacques Dutronc's Paul Godard, whose name is only one of many similarities to the actual director.  Godard the character is that particularly French kind of nihilistic crank, incapable of having an interaction that doesn't involve obscenity or actual violence, whereas the women, although both of them suffer, have purpose and direction in their lives.  The title can be seen as a commentary on both the challenge and the opportunity of late-capitalist individualism, to which Paul Godard has responded with bitterness, and the female characters with determination, even pluck. 

Throughout, Godard employs techniques - some familiar, some novel - that disrupt and refocus our attention.  His use of stop-motion is particularly effective, if initially mysterious.  It always seems to return to seeing. Godard wants desperately to see, his faith in the reproduced image, while not without anguish, is enduring.  The question is how far we're meant to look - at these "characters," or at their images, at the ideas they represent, at ourselves?  The answer is probably something like all at once.  But to keep in mind Godard's classicism is a helpful guide.  He's a humanist, finally, a child of the Enlightenment.  He wants us to see the human, and his techniques, however jarring they might appear, are not to obscure or confuse, but to clarify.  In a world of cinema, the image must be considered; to make images without reflection, without a sense of deep responsibility, is for Godard a cardinal sin. 

The tenor of the film tilts towards stoicism.  In a world depraved by capitalism, the charge to persist is all the more urgent.  Paul Godard, imprisoned by his own despair, falls back on impulses, fleeting gratifications.  Huppert's Isabelle has no such luxury, and has hardened into an unperturbed shell of remoteness.  Baye's Denise, free and in motion, is moving forward, even if the direction is unclear.  Even in the absurdist sex games Isabelle is forced to play - a mechanical and thoroughly un-erotic orchestration by a piggish businessman, she retains an inner calm, and is framed by a still-life worthy vase of flowers.  The mechanical and the organic, so often opposed, can perhaps be resolved with cinema.  That, at least, seemed to be Godard's hope, undiminished as he entered a new phase in his career. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Black Mass

(Scott Cooper, USA, 2015)

A strange agglomeration of gangster movie tropes, with a few novel ingredients but little else to recommend it.  Depp is excellent, reminding us of his range and his potential for disciplined, uncanny performances.  Here, he simmers, projecting creepy depths of evil and ambition.  His makeover - hair, skin, eyes, nose, teeth - approaches the excessive, but his skill, his sheer presence, makes it work for him, instead of the other way around.  Unfortunately, he's mostly acting in a vacuum.  The other performers can't match his magnetism or his intensity, and neither can the film itself.  Cooper seems unable to make up his mind - are we meant to empathize with Bulger, or at least to understand that some of his ruthlessness came from life reversals, like the deaths of his son and mother?  These brief interludes into what might be called the "human" side of Bulger don't do much to diminish the impact of his killings, his thuggery, his naked opportunism and apparent lack of scruple. 

It's in these scenes of violence and scheming that the movie really comes alive, so it's all the more disappointing that they often feel secondhand.  We are treated to generous helpings of warmed-over Scorsese, a dash or two of Coppola, a smidgen of Friedken.  We see people dispatched with chilly efficiency, stacks of money piling up, swaggering (if lumpish) gangsters, while a driving, period-accurate song plays on the soundtrack.  These little jolts of adrenaline easily overpower the more brooding moments, when Cooper halfheartedly examines the nexus of tribalism, criminality, and politics that make South Boston an enduring source of American mythology.

Of course, it's all based on a true story, as they say, and it's in this dimension that Black Mass reaches its most interesting state.  The fact that the Bulger brothers could have attained such prominence in their respective fields - crime and government - and that Bulger operated with virtual impunity for so long, create a kind of astonishment that is only sustained by virtue of its being true.  Tonally, the astonishment works better, jibing with the familiar thrills of the gangster picture.  But when it changes, abruptly and unevenly, into ruefulness, it quickly loses interest.  John Connolly, played with gusto by Joel Edgarton, is portrayed as a tragic figure, undone by a mixture of loyalty, ambition, and moral blindness.  But even if his story were better told, he'd still be a shortsighted schmuck.  Transfixed by the sheer unlikliness of the story's events, the filmmakers forget to tell a story.  Beyond the headlines, paradoxically, there isn't anything there.  Bulger was a clever thug, who, with some good luck, became a kingpin.  But he's a sociopath, through and through, a blank void.  Scary, but shallow.  The characters who become ensnared in his web of manipulation seem to be hapless unfortunates.  There is a tremendous amount of material that could've been explored, but Cooper didn't know where to look.  Instead, he goes through the motions of the gangster biopic with a professional but hollow studiousness.