A Context for Conceit

July 20th, 2008 § 0 comments

breathless

History deals heavily within the confines of context, and so it is that my brother shouts at myself and others when we make assumptions and judgments—as we tend to do so often—about people, places, events, that happened outside our knowledge of “the context” they happened in. It was the first film class I took in collage, however, that taught me if I wanted to understand much of anything, I had to be able to separate myself from it. This separation is necessary to see any context other than your own. I don’t tend to think of visual art in this manner, for inexplicable reasons I am moved in ways I can almost always articulate, and I am not usually helped by, or reliant on, context. Artistic histories never seem to exist in the same realm as the art itself, they are two separate ideas that rarely connect together in my head. I have great interest in art history but it never gives a context, at least not one that does not feel artificial, to art itself. With film, however, it is imperative for me to understand it as something besides what it is—context renders the unwatchable watchable. Who is the film for, how does it function, and is it worth taking the time to guess? It would be fair to say, although I am not sure it is fair to do, that I ask more questions of film than I do of visual art. The necessary connection film shares with its audience is perhaps slightly less muddled a history than that of the fine arts, or that connection has been maintained by the industry because appeal and movie-going pleasure is linked to profit. My relationship with film has always revolved around struggling for a context in which to place it, a way to make sense of that which I dislike, dismiss, or despise. Without a context too large a percent of films could be dismissed from my current perspective. My latest dive into Truffaut and Godard was disappointing to say the least, and I am gasping for a way to hold their reputation and critical acclaim against what I see as two bad films, both from the 1960’s, Shoot the Piano Player and Breathless. My determination not to dismiss them has caused quite a ramble of thought.

In the early 1960’s the filmmakers were still friends, both were interested in personalizing the role of director, and many of their later deputes came from the differing ways they went about doing this. Truffaut’s stories were personal to the point of autobiographical, while Godard used direction, editing, and visual styles to trademark his films. One of the best things I can say about Breathless was its sense of intimacy, not because of the characters, but because of how the actors were framed, edited, and filmed in their real environments. 400 Blows is an amazingly compelling story filmed in an impressive way; it was Truffaut’s first feature film, and disappointingly superior to Shoot the Piano Player. I feel a strong sense of visual liberation watching their films, the characters are untypical, there is a casual sense of experimentation that leaves you wondering if you should take the film more or less seriously, and despite the fact that they were heavily influenced by golden-age celebrities and noir, their films lack the heavy-handed calculation of Hollywood. Instead of following a set of rules they seemed to borrow what they liked, and invented the rest.

But the majority of what I take away from their films, these two latest in particular, is a picture of the men am I guessing they might have been. It does not matter if it was their real personalities or simply the era, if it was French culture coming out of the late 50’s merging into the 60’s, if it was the their youth or the public roles they played, the lasting impression is strong. “They planned to conquer Paris, and then the world, with their genius.” That quote appealed to me when I first read it, perhaps because I am young enough to think that somehow conceit is a youthful shade. Godard’s leading man in Breathless gazes at a picture of Bogart through a glass window for a long time, and as viewers we look from Bogart to his face and back again to Bogart, and it gives us time to comprehend the ridiculous things this character is going to do and has already done, from shooting a cop to sealing one car after another, and it tells us why. Cinema brought the two directors together when they should have been in high-school, and saved them from a society (and families) that would have ground them into a “productive” role. Godard’s leading man swaggers the streets of Paris in a fashionable sports jacket, hides behind glamorous aviator shades, and “chain” smokes not as a figure of speak but literally, lighting one cigarette with the dying embers of the last. He loves women, loves teasing, looking, flirting, and most of all sleeping with them. He likes money, living on the run, and most of all he loves himself, or tries, at any rate. Truffaut’s leading man is older, he knows he does not love himself, but it’s alright because woman do. In fact they love him so much they get in his way. Truffaut’s early life was more troubled than Godard’s, who came from money and wealth, and his characters reflect it. They are troubled by their past, their family, and by women. Perhaps the best line in Breathless comes from a famous writer who is asked what is your greatest ambition in life? To this he replies, “to become immortal and then to die.”

It is a vision of selfish young men that I take away, of recklessness and arrogance, and I am not sure how flattering it is. They might enjoy the idea of being immortalized as such, but I find it annoying because their films teeter on the edge of being more, their characters are never so misogynistic that you give up, but almost. There is something worth while in their films, 400 Blows if nothing else proves that, there is something crucial about the influence they had on all the “great” American directors of a time more my own, but it is hard to find. I come back to context, but am finding that the problems inherent in their films are hard to set aside. Even understanding the context does not necessary change the faults of something made 50 years ago, though I suppose my brother would say it should.

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