Dislocation and (Mis)communication in Jean-Luc Godard’s Detective (1985)

In the attempt to solve funding problems during the filming of ‘Je vous salue, Marie’ (1985) – a modern account of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception – Jean-Luc Godard agreed to produce something popular or mainstream. The subsequent film produced was Detective (Dir., Jean-Luc Godard, 1985), a dense, difficult but beautifully shot contemplation on language, dislocation and (mis)communication. The film can hardly be argued to be “mainstream” – Godard interpreted the instruction “a popular film” as one which included famous people (or as he calls them in the credits “stars”) rather than a film which is immediately accessible. Detective’s plot centres around the actions of two hotel detectives who attempt to solve an apparently unmotivated murder of a man called “The Prince”. The film also contains other narratives concerning an ageing Mafioso, a boxing promoter and a couple whose marriage is falling apart.i

One of the central explorations in Godard’s film is the issue of space in a modern, fast-paced world. One of the characters, Emile Chenal, owns a failing air-taxi business flying customers to disparate places in Europe. His wife, who is coming to the realization that their relationship is over, notes that “yesterday Frankfurt, today London”. The hotel that the film is exclusively set in could be of any place anywhere, the rooms are especially without character, and their lives are being spent travelling to different countries has eroded any sense of geographical or spatial grounding or boundary. This lack of discernible geographical location, an eroding or dislocated sense of place, is further evidenced in the film’s shot selection and mise-en-scene. In one of the first shots of the film we are given an obstructed view of the city of Paris. This obstructed view is where we would traditionally be given an exposition shot, a type of shot locating the action within the city or specific area. Instead of this we are shown a stationary camera recording people enter a hotel and a young woman’s legs in front of an iron grill with a teasing hint of location in the far right of the screen. This refusal to disclose the location at the beginning of the narrative immediately places the viewer into a state of unease and confusion paralleling the uncertainty the hotel detectives’ experience over the death of “The Prince”.

This sense of confusion concerning the location is further added to by the failure of the film is provide any clear feeling of the hotel layout and structure. We see that the hotel has corridors, stairs, a bar, a restaurant, a cellar and several bedrooms but we get no sense how they all connect or even if they are indeed all located in the same hotel. Though we assume that it is all one hotel, and the film’s ending appears to confirm this, Detective refuses to give us any hint of its location and general layout further adding to the viewer’s state of unease and confusion.

A second significant theme of Detective is (mis)communication. The film’s narrative is centred around several couples, groups and family members talking to each other and attempting to solve their problems by talking them through however, no one appears to hear what each other is saying. This feeling of communication being broken is seen in the film’s mise-en-scene. In one particular scene Françoise Chenal talks to Jim Fox Warner about her husbands failing business with the implication that she would be willing to have (or possibly re-start) an affair with Warner. Françoise and Warner’s inability to understand each other is communicated in the routine blocking of either of their faces by props and their moving just out of shot.

This inability to communicate clearly between Françoise and Warner is replicated throughout the film and a striking instance of this is when the film cuts to show Françoise and Warner talking at the table Françoise’s face is totally obscured by a post. That is, through the film’s mise-en-scene and camera positioning we are given a visual representation of Warner and Françoise being physically (and emotionally) blocked from understanding (and falling in love with)ii each other.

 

These two central motifs – of a dislocated connection to space and (mis)communication – are continued in the film techniques that Godard’s Detective refuses to use and the traditional conventions of cinema (or film-making) and story-telling that the film violates. Throughout the whole film Godard rejects traditional camera movement techniques meaning that the camera-work in Detective is completely static. Though Detective features no pans, no zooms or tilts we do not get a feeling of a stable, fixed sense of place is being represented. Rather the lack of camera movement makes the film’s action appear stilted, dislocated and awkward. The refusal to pan and follow actors when they move out of shot means that not only is communication between the characters difficult but it also means that it is difficult for the audience to track, to comprehend, what’s going on clearly. It also, naturally, makes our perception of space limited and ensures that we are unable to really grasp where exactly the action it taking place other than in the hotel.

Another convention of cinema and story-telling which Detective violates is having the actors’ faces visible to the audience. Throughout the film the actors face away from the camera. In one particular scene all three actors face away from the camera whilst continuing their conversation. As this particular technique ensures that any possible subtleties of facial movement (etc) are lost it engenders further miscommunications and misunderstandings of those characters’ motivations and intentions. Therefore, through several techniques – such as no camera movement, ensuring the actors face away from the camera routinely, awkard screen composition and no exposition shots – Godard successfully explores language, (mis)communication and feelings of dislocation from the spatial and geographical environment.

iThe plot and subplots are in truth intertwined and contain several others. Also, the film does not really follow a traditional narrative however I felt that it was best to include a general plot summary.

ii Nathalie Baye who played Françoise Chenal was well-known in France for her roles in romantic leads and in support roles. She was also something of a pin-up having featured on the front page of French Playboy several times. Similar to Nathalie Baye was Johnny Hallyday who played Jim Fox Warner. Johnny Hallyday is known as the French Elvis and was something of a heart-throb. Godard’s casting of these two well-known “sexy stars” was obviously intended to create this reading.

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Women in Film Noir VI – Containment of the Subversive Representation of the Domestic Sphere

Harvey’s position (explored here: V) regarding the subversive representation of the domestic sphere is flawed. Though Harvey is correct to note that the domestic sphere is often represented as poisoned or tense, as in Mildred Pierce when the unemployed Albert Pierce gets constantly undermined and nagged, the representation of the domestic sphere is far from subversive. In film noir the poisoned atmosphere is always qualified by some represented or implied transgressive act. In Double Indemnity the poisoned, stale domestic sphere is attributed to the evil of the destroyer Phyllis Dietrichson. The Dietrichson household is loveless primarily because they married, not for love, but money. Phyllis admits she married Mr. Dietrichson after his first wife died because she wanted a roof over her head. She also bitterly remarked that divorce was out of the question because all of his money is tied up in the business. Phyllis’s poisoning of the domestic sphere also extends to Mr. Dietrichson’s first marriage. Phyllis was a nurse for Mr. Dietrichson’s first wife who died of pneumonia. Lola Dietrichson (the daughter of Mr. Dietrichson) witnessed Phyllis attempt to murder the first wife by opening up all the windows and stealing all of the covers (thereby increasing the chance the first Mrs. Diestrichson would die from pneumonia). Therefore the domestic sphere’s poisonous atmosphere is attributed to the excessive lust and social ambition of Phyllis. Rather than communicate that it is the institution of marriage that is corrupt, Double Indemnity and film noir articulates that it is the individual who is responsible for the poisoned domestic sphere. The individualization of social problems is a recurring motif in Hollywood. As Theodore Adorno asserts:

Even a radical film director who wished to portray crucially important special developments like the merger of two industrial concerns could only do so by showing us the dominant figure in the office, at the conference table or in their mansions. Even if they were thereby revealed as monstrous characters, their monstrousness would still be sanctioned as a quality of individual human beings in a way that would tend to obscure the monstrousness of the system whose servile functionaries they are.[1]

That is, even if a director wishes to portray a social institution as corrupt that portrayal would locate the corruption in the heart of an individual. This individualization of institutional corruption or contradictions inherently obscures the system behind the corruption. Double Indemnity, like Adorno’s hypothetical film, represents the corrupt domestic sphere as being determined by the qualities of an individual human being (Phyllis) rather than the contradictions inherent in the institution of marriage.

            Harvey’s second assertion that film noir facilitates the consideration of alternative “non-repressive” social institutions is also incorrect. In Mildred Pierce an alternative to the traditional patriarchal marriage is shown but the viewers are left without doubt that it is not viable or desirable. Mildred Pierce’s marriage to Monte Beragon – motivated by a desire to climb the social ladder – is non-conventional because Mildred is the “bread winner”. This reversal of traditional gender roles is presented visually through Mildred’s structured hairstyle and masculine dress-suits. The consequence of Mildred assuming the masculine role is that Monte feels emasculated. Consequently Monte conspires to undermine Mildred and does so by bringing about the downfall of her business. Therefore the “alternative” system of marriage, in which the woman controls the relationship, is shown in Mildred Pierce as being corrupt and doomed to failure. Harvey could argue that this is not the alternative to marriage implied in her article however, even if we accept this, Mildred Pierce still presents an alternative to marriage as being worse than traditional marriage. Furthermore there seems to be no ground to assume that any further alteration or alternative to the institution of marriage is going to be argued for positively in Mildred Pierce. Mildred Pierce’s resolution reaffirms my reading that film noir supports the traditional institution of marriage over the increased independence of women in the domestic and work spheres. When Mildred leaves the police interrogation room she is met by her first husband Albert who takes her arm and leads her through a massive archway into the sunrise. The message being that, although traditional marriage has its negatives, it is by far the best system available to society for the production of well-rounded individuals. Rather than criticising the traditional institute of marriage, Mildred Pierce reaffirms its place as the most natural and beneficial framework of society. Therefore, Harvey’s assertion that film noir promotes alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life is wrong.


[1]               Theodore Adorno, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’ in Theodore Adorno, The Culture Industry, (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 61-97, p. 66.

Women in Film Noir V – Is Film Noir’s Representation of the Domestic Sphere Subversive?

In the previous four articles (can be accessed here: I, II, III, IV) I argued that Film Noir represents women as conforming to two central archetypes. These archetypes – the redeemer and the destroyer – are founded on a moral dichotomy between legitimate and illegitimate displays of desire. The redeemer exhibits legitimate desires and the destroyer displays excessive desires. I highlighted that this representation conforms to, and was informed by, the repressive structure of the Hays Code. I then noted that this representation can be located in two other Hollywood genres; the screwball comedy and melodrama. I cited Double Indemnity as an example of film noirs continuance of this tradition. As well as conforming to the structures and tradition of Hollywood (the Hays Code, screwball comedy and melodrama) I asserted that film noir’s representation of women is determined by its socio-historical context. I then concluded that the vast de- and re-territorialization of women during and after WWII can be seen as being reflected both directly and obliquely in Film Noir.

In this article, and following ones, I will further explore this claim. I will explore two counter-arguments which assert that film noir, although reflecting the dominant ideology in its narrative resolutions, is subversive. I will first explore the claim that the representation of the domestic sphere in film noir, rather than being repressive, suggests the beginnings of an attack on the institution of marriage. I will disagree and note that film noir represents the corrupt domestic sphere as being determined by the qualities of an individual human being rather than the contradictions inherent in the institution of marriage. I will therefore conclude that film noir’s representation of the domestic sphere does not constitute an attack on the institution of marriage. I will then explore the claim that the style of film noir subverts its own repressive structure. I will argue that the “powerful” moments of expression are not subversive but rather another standardized means of expressing and containing excessive ambition, lust and greed.

In contrast to my position that the narrative resolutions and characterization of Film Noir reaffirms the traditional conception of family and gender roles Sylvia Harvey argues that:

film noir offers us again and again examples of abnormal or monstrous behavior which defy the patterns established for human social interaction, and which hint at a series of radical and irresolvable contradictions buried deep within the total system of economic and social interactions that constitute the know world.[1]

Harvey agrees that Film Noir utilizes the destroyer figure as an example of illegitimate and immoral excess but asserts that this does not serve to reaffirm the status quo. Harvey asserts that the destroyer figure and the representation of the domestic sphere communicate irresolvable inconsistencies at the heart of the dominant ideology. Harvey states that ‘it is the representation of the institution of the family… in film noir [which] serves as the vehicle for the expression of frustration’.[2] To Harvey, film noir’s representation of the domestic sphere subverts the film’s repressive conclusions. Harvey goes on to assert ‘the kinds of tension characteristic of the portrayal of the family in these films suggest the beginnings of an attack on the dominant social values normally expressed through the representation of the family’.[3] Whereas I argued that film noir narrative structure and characterization reaffirmed the traditional conception of the family and domestic sphere, Harvey asserts that film noir subverts and attacks the institution of family. To Harvey this subversion and attack on the traditional institution of family is articulated through film noir’s visual style. This negative portrayal of the domestic sphere can be located in Double Indemnity. The Dietrichson home isn’t represented as flourishing or the site through which relationships thrive. When Walter Neff first walks into Phyllis Dietrichson’s living room he remarks on how stale the room smells. The music which accompanies Walter’s entrance into the living room is also dark and disharmonious. The feeling of discontent is further represented through the mise-en-scene. As Walter walks into the living room bars of light are projected across his body which appears to refer to prison uniform. The living room furniture is also stark and the darkness of the room, in contrast to the brightness of the exterior shots, further illustrates the sombre atmosphere in the Dietrichson household. Harvey further notes that the family unit is traditionally the arena in which romantic love is fostered but in Double Indemnity the domestic space only offers death.[4] To Harvey, Double Indemnity’s representation of the domestic sphere as a stale, disharmonious and ultimately deadly place constitutes a ‘violent assault on the conventional values of family life’.[5] Harvey goes on to assert that:

[The] terrible absence of family relations [in film noir] allows for the production of the seeds of counter-ideologies. [This] absence or disfigurement of the family… may be seen to encourage the consideration of alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life.[6]

Harvey believes that film noir both subverts the representation of the domestic sphere as well as facilitates the consideration of alternative non-repressive social institutions. Harvey concludes by asserting that ‘Despite the ritual punishment of acts of transgression, the vitality with which these acts are endowed produces an excess of meaning which cannot finally be contained’.[7] Harvey is therefore asserting that film noir’s repressive narrative resolutions cannot contain the subversive representation of the domestic sphere.[8]


[1]     Harvey, p. 22.

[2]     Harvey, p. 23.

[3]     Harvey, p. 23.

[4]     Harvey, p. 25.

[5]     Harvey, p. 31.

[6]     Harvey, p. 33.

[7]     Harvey, p. 33.

[8]     Harvey, p. 33.

The Debt to, and Divergences From, Hollywood Cinema in Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog

This article continues on from my earlier post: The Debt to, and Divergences from, Hollywood Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle and Juzo Itami’s Tampopo. I have decided to produce a full range of reviews and analysis’s of non-Hollywood film. As the title indicates I will start with the brilliant Stray Dog.

 

Stray Dog (1949)

 

Akira Kurosawa’s film contains both allusions to and major differences from Hollywood cinema. One major divergence is the disturbance of graphical clarity. A common aspect of the continuity editing system graphical clarity ensures that the mediating nature of film and the camera are allowed to remain hidden and unacknowledged. Kurosawa’s Stray Dog disrupts clear graphical construction in a scene by filming through a beaded doorway, therefore creating a disrupted and blocked view of the film’s two main protagonists. In the continuity editing system ‘the camera remains relatively unobtrusive, seldom drawing attention to its mediating presence.’ (1) to facilitate this unobtrusive camera style directors’ choose clear and unobstructed views of action which won’t draw attention to the fact that we are watching a film. Even if a director chooses an obstructed view we tend to be given a subjective position, one that does not bring attention to the fact that the screens’ images are mediated through a cameraman. If we are given an obstructed view we are given a reason behind the blocked view. The collection of conventions concerning graphical clarity are contradicted in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog. Because we are viewing the action through a beaded doorway we notice our disadvantaged position; we notice how hindered and disrupted our view is and we are offered no reason why we should view from this particular angle. We become conscious of the mediating force that is cinematography. Kurosawa uses this to remind us of the conventions of cinema. Kurosawa uses the technique to disturb our position of knowledge by inferring that all we can perceive is that which the camera, and director, wishes to. Our experience is defined by the mediating force in the same way the characters are defined by what they see. Kurosawa seems to be highlighting this because experience and subjective perception is important in the narrative of Det. Murakawi, both as he learns from the sage Det. Sato and in the revelation of his own similar experiences to the antagonist Shinjiro Yusa; the man with Murakawi’s gun committing the crimes that rack Murakawi with guilt.

 

Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog alludes to the Hollywood cinematic forms of Film Noir and the Gangster Film. In one scene a villain, Honda, is called to a front gate of a Baseball stadium by a tannoy system. As he walks down a flight of stairs the screen composition changes and the lighting produces a dark Noir-like affect. Honda, dressed similar to many an archetypal gangster, enters the scene in a normal naturalistic light, however the further he descends down the stairs the further Akira Kurosawa intensifies the sharp contrasting tones producing a chiaroscuro-style scene. Honda wears a white linen pin-stripe suit, as he becomes aware he may be walking into a trap the Camera reverses position and shows only a black silhouette of Honda enveloped by the darkness; his fate is sealed, his relationship with the gun-girl leads to the police locating him, just like many gangster films and film Noirs Honda’s cool command and apparent invincibility is breached through a contaminated relationship with a woman. Honda is a small homage to the doomed antagonist/protagonist of the Noir and gangster films of Hollywood.

 

The skilful use of lighting in this scene is also an allusion to German Expressionism and the stark contrast between subject and surroundings symbolised by Honda’s change from white linen suit to dark silhouette is a typical chiaroscuro technique found in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920). Paul Schrader notes that a common trait of Film Noir is the use of ‘Shadow effects [which are] unlike the famous Warner Brother’s lighting of the thirties in which the central character was accentuated by a heavy shadow; in Film Noir the central character is likely to be standing in the shadow.’ (2) Kurosawa is using this exact technique in the scene with Honda, he is defining Honda’s character and fate as one in the shadows.

 

Another allusion to Film Noir stylistics is the use of water. Film Noir is noted for an ‘attachment to water. The empty Noir streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain… and the rainfall always seems to increase in proportion to the drama.’ (3) As the film moves to a conclusion rain starts to pelt down relentlessly, The rain increases as the potential confrontation between Murakami and the desperate thief Shinjuro Yusa becomes more and more likely and it is in fact the rain, and the mud that sprays onto Yusa’s trousers as he flees after shooting Sato, that allows the confrontation and eventual capture of Yusa.

 

Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog both alludes to Hollywood cinematic genres and contains major divergences from the Continuity System. In this aspect Akira creates a film that contains both national elements of note and internationally recognizable symbols and allusions and therefore Akira has created a brilliant film.

 

1. Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, (2003), p. 312.

 

2. Paul Schrader,’Notes On Film Noir’ in Barry Keith Grant, Film Genre Reader II, Austin: University of Texas Press, (1999) pp. 213-226 p. 219.

 

3. Paul Schrader, ‘Notes On Film Noir’, p. 220.

Subjective Realism in Sandrine Veysset’s Will it Snow for Christmas?

Will it Snow for Christmas? (1996)

The opening scene of Will it Snow for Christmas? is shot like a home movie. It begins with a handheld shot, filmed at the children’s’ eye level. The scene contains jerking movements, which replicates the rushing anarchy of children playing. Though the colours are saturated, the lighting of the scene is naturalistic. After an establishing shot, filmed from the perspective of the Father’s Truck – a fact we are not yet made aware of – we see a point of view shot from the children looking back towards the red truck. It then cuts back again to the fathers P.O.V, who again situates the viewer in the surroundings of the isolated farm – this isolation, introduced by the technique of loose framing, becomes a repeated motif. The continuity of the trucks continued voyage, between cuts to the children, is called Match on Action and is a traditional rule of continuity editing, which relates to spatial and temporal issues. These combined naturalistic techniques help to create an aesthetical sense of the real. This issue of the aesthetically real is combined with a concern to present normal diction and dialogue. The work of the farm is also represented as hard and the issue of immigration is treated as matter of fact. The use of exposition is characteristic of many films, and Will it Snow for Christmas? Is no different. It is this phase of the film that motifs are established; the irregularity of this film is that its aesthetics are more akin to documentary than other forms of French Cinema, such as the Heritage films, the Cinema du Look and French New Wave. 1.

The motif of the real is also encapsulated in the representation of time. The changing seasons bring corresponding activates and problems for the Mother and her Children. And in this way the story is represented as real through an episodic narrative, which moves along with simple cause and effect logic – a convention of most documentary films. The simplicity of seasonal change affecting the narrative ensures a sense of repetition is imbued in the films structure, along with a sense of the inevitable among the characters. We believe the films representation of life due to the seemingly logical procession of the seasons, but within this we also expect narrative closure with reference to the films title. As winter closes in we expect the narrative to change from an episodic collective into a neatly tied up ending, a closure of narrative found regularly in the nostalgia films of the 1980-90’s. 2. The last scene, where the mothers P.O.V shot shows the children enthusiastically playing in the snow, could be seen at a basic level as a tying up of narrative, the question in the title of the film is answered by its snowing on Christmas. In essence this ending is a continuation of the episodic nature of the film, all we were allowed to see before were episodes of experience, and the viewer can presume that as the seasons change again, the children, though older, will go through the same cycle every year.

1. Pramaggiore, M. & Wallis, T (Ed). Film a Critical Introduction, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2007). PP 286-289

2. Lanzoni, R.F. French Cinema – From its Beginnings to the Present, (London: Continuum International Publishing 2004) PP 299-347

 

A Review of a Combat Scene in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now (1979)

 

In Apocalypse Now‘s combat scenes we are given a fragmented, disjointed view which Coppola used to communicate the true nature of the Vietnam war and every modern war. Coppola commented, in a brochure released with the first screenings, that ‘The most important thing I wanted to do in the making of Apocalypse Now was to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam war. . . . I tried to illustrate as many of its different facets as possible. And yet I wanted it to go further, to the moral issues that are behind all wars.’1 In the now famous battle scene where the Air Cavalry attack a Vietcong position while playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries Coppola achieves that which he set out to, namely the horror, madness, sensuousness and moral dilemma of Vietnam. The choice of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is interesting as it serves an important function in the film. The music is majestic, composed and a symbol of both heroism and riding into hell itself. The music also represents by an association with Wagner a hatred of Jews and a recent enemy of America’s Germany – the use of music associated with Germany the Americans are superimposed into the position of the traditional enemy in War films. The music basically represents both heroism and dubious moral justifications. The soldiers are heroic riding into hell, but they are here for a rather poorly justified reason. The horror of the war is indicated in the smashing of helicopter fire into the Vietcong town, the strafing of machine gun fire into the village. The madness is indicated in the personal motivation in attack; the search for a good surfing position. The insanity is also indicated by bounty for making a good shot; a large case of beer. While the helicopters are in the air, and the music remains, the editing ensures a decent level of spatial continuity is maintained, we are regularly allowed to see the helicopters in formation and every attack is shown with a corresponding target, conflict and resolution of that conflict. When the helicopters sit down we lose a sense of spatial continuity, the camera circles around a wounded victim intimating a panicked soldiers swirling terrified head filling with nerves at the sight of blood and guts. Another interesting feature in communicating the sensory confusion is when the American bombers drop napalm on a line of trees the sound waivers and drops out of existence relating the deafening madness that is modern warfare. In this battle scene we see Coppola’s aims communicated by his use of music, shot selection and composition. Marsha Kinder explains that Apocalypse Now

‘illuminates the madness and horror of the Americans who experienced it. No matter how good or how strong, everyone who was touched by that war had a change in consciousness. Not only the fighting men, but also those who experienced the war second-hand through accounts by veterans, through television coverage, and now through seeing Apocalypse Now.2

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness communicated a lost sense of rebirth (I will do a full side by side textual analysis of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now later on in the year) and Coppola’s film also seems to communicate this. The change, or rebirth, of those who experienced Vietnam isn’t a heroic one that is portrayed after a tour of combat in many WWII films and even Westerns, it is a loss of self, a crisis and destruction of all things held to be honourable. Even returning home is impossible as Captain Benjamin L. Willard remarks “home… I knew it just didn’t exist any more”. Coppola, in Apocalypse Now, is explaining that every aspect of American culture has been infected by the loss of faith and loss of self because it journeyed into a heart of darkness either through the medium of television or through active combat.

 

1Marsha Kinder, The Power of Adaptation in “Apocalypse Now”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Winter, 1979-1980), pp. 12-20 p. 13.

2Marsha Kinder, The Power of Adaptation in “Apocalypse Now”, p. 14.

The Debt to, and Divergences from, Hollywood Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle and Juzo Itami’s Tampopo

Hollywood cinema is a set of generic codes and conventions. These codes and conventions act as motifs which the viewer can understand and identify with. Hollywood cinema is spit into genres such as westerns, musicals and romantic comedies. These genres all adhere to conventions such as ‘clarity… unity… goal-oriented characters… and [narrative] closure’.1 The aim of these conventions is to ensure that the viewer can understand a film, its characters their aims and ambitions and the problems put before them, without difficulty which would inhibit the ability for everyone to potentially engaging with the film [Due to the sheer financial cost of making a film the need to ensure that people understand the narrative is important and this reason marks every Hollywood product].

A Bout de Souffle (1959)

Jean-Luc Godard dedicated A Bout de Souffle to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures, this statement is indicative of the French New Wave Philosophy. The French New Wave were a loosely connected group of directors (and critics) who asserted that low-budget (B-Movies) American Cinema, often thought negatively as a wholly commercial product, can be equal to the traditionally venerated European Art-house cinema.2 The French New Wave treated Hollywood cinema with the same respect as Art-house cinema because they believed that Hollywood directors were also capable of creating individualistic pieces of art. Godard includes the dedication to Monogram Pictures because he wants to verbalise the influence Hollywood has had on cinema.

The star system is another aspect of Hollywood that Jean-Luc Godard alludes to in A Bout de Souffle. The central character the iconic looking Michel Poiccard imitates the physical mannerism of film star Humphrey Bogart by rubbing his lips with this thumb. Humphrey Bogart was a classic figure of film noir and Poiccard’s imitation of his mannerisms indicates that he believes Bogart to be a model of masculinity. The Hollywood star system ensures that ‘audiences do not just appreciate a stars’ performance on-screen; they also consume the public image’ which fans also attempt to imitate ‘the attire and mannerism’.3 The audience does this because they believe the personality the star exudes is the idea. Poiccard appropriates the mannerism of Bogart in an effort to become that ideal of masculinity. Again Godard is foregrounding the debt to Hollywood. What this allusion does is introduce the idea that France’s youth are being influenced by the cultural output of Hollywood and this cultural influence adds weight to the French New Wave assertion that commercial cinema is as important as Art-house cinema.

 

 

(A lack of emotional connection. As Poiccard looks at Patricia she can only look at herself, and her own emotional performance)

 

Jean-Luc Godard pays homage to Hollywood in A Bout de Souffle, but he also upsets the central principles of Hollywood cinema. Godard’s film represents a significant divergence from the continuity editing system, The basic purpose of the continuity editing system is to establish a smooth continuous flow from shot to shot.4 The graphic, rhythmic, spatial and temporal relationship is edited so as to look smooth and uninterrupted. The movement from shot to shot is edited so that at all times an aspect of a shot, such as ‘shapes, colours, tones of light or dark, or the direction or speed of movement’ is graphically matched to its corresponding shot, thereby ensuring a sense of aesthetic continuity.5 In A Bout de Souffle Godard uses the jump shot to create a sense of anxiety and dislocation. In a scene where Michel is explaining the physical aspects of Patricia he loves the camera jumps from shot to shot. The viewer becomes dislocated, unable to grasp the scene’s location: Godard is using the jump shot to replicate the character’s sense of isolation. Both Patricia and Michel are isolated from the culture they belong to, Michel is a criminal and Patricia is in a foreign county, and they attempt to find friendship in each others company. This attempt is futile because Godard refuses to use the shot-reverse-shot technique which would signify their connection; the jump shot ensures that both Michel and Patricia remain isolated individuals even when in each others company. The form of the jump shot ensures the characters in A Bout de Souffle remain isolated individuals without any hope of deep meaningful connection. This sense of isolation is repeated in the scene where Patricia and Michel making love, yet they still struggle to connect and ultimately remain isolated. Although they both constantly talk to each other they barely look at each other. Patricia looks past Michel as he talks to her, the scene then jumps to Michel alone looking into his reflection. This signifies the failure in communication that typifies Michel and Patricia’s relationship.

 

The Mise-en-Scene is also an indicator of the barrier between them; Michel puts on a dressing gown which contains vertical stripes while Patricia wears a tip with horizontal stripes, essentially they are going in different directions. Godard is communicating a sense of distance and isolation between the sexes and the editing technique of the jump shot communicates this perfectly. Because Godard doesn’t use the continuity editing system he Is able to communicate the sense of fragmentation and isolation through the form of the film. The continuity system advocates seamlessness between shots, but seamlessness would not be adequate as a tool to illustrate the fragmented and isolated experience that Godard is trying to communicate in A Bout de Souffle.

 

Tampopo (1985)

 

The western is a heavily stylized and conventional genre which relies on the regular and recognisable to create a frame through which narrative is communicated smoothly. Narrative is transmitted principally by the use of motifs, such as the six-shooter, the saloon, the isolated homestead, the prostitute and the drifter. The western genre (and most narratives) positions good against evil, civilisation against individualism. The film theorist Leo Braudy explains that directors use genre films, such as the western, because of their ‘ability to express the warring traditions in society and the social importance of understanding convention’ in essence a genre is a prefabricated framework in-which the auteur can explore and challenge assumptions and conventions.6 Juzo Itami uses the western genre because of its highly stylized from; he does this to foreground the highly stylized nature of Japanese tradition and etiquette. The tradition and structure of the western genre is repeatedly alluded to in the start of Tampopo. The character of Goro, dressed in a cowboy hat and shirt resembling John Wayne, represents the individualistic force that helps society thrive by teaching lessons learnt while in the wilderness. The first scene of Goro and Gun’s story starts with an exposition shot which introduces the isolated nature of the noodle bar. Inside the noodle bar generic bad guys, all dressed in black leather, loiter around, installing a sense that the good are outnumbered. Goro, as the traditional western hero, fightings to defend Tampopo’s honour. He walks outside for a fight, an allusion to the traditional fistfight outside of a saloon that features in many westerns. Itami constructs a world filled with stereotypical characters, actions and plot sequence. Itami does this not only as homage to the genre and tradition of the western but also as a device to get the audience thinking about traditions, structure and etiquette. Itami uses the structure of the western genre to make the viewer aware of the standards that are automatically accepted in genre, tradition and the closely allied etiquette. This point is illustrated in a scene in which a large group of Japanese women are listening to a teacher explain the etiquette of eating spaghetti. She explains that while you are eating spaghetti you should not make any noise whatsoever. Her advice is contradicted by a European-looking man’s noisy slurping of spaghetti, the whole group then comically attempt to create as much slurping noise as possible in order to mimic the European-looking man’s way of eating. Here Itami is exposing that we only eat the way we do because we are to taught to, etiquette and tradition is just a collection of arbitrary rules imposed by the past on the present and future. Itami is engaging critically with the tradition and etiquette of Japanese food culture by exposing it. In Tampopo Itami seems to be criticising those who use tradition and etiquette to stand in the way of enjoyment and pleasure that can be taken from food. He illustrates this point in a scene containing several Japanese businessmen. Most of the businessman order the same meal so as not to highlight their own and their business partners’ ignorance concerning foreign food. The youngest businessman breaks the rules of etiquette by attempting to sit down before his elders and by ordering extravagant food. The camera cuts to below the table to show the youngest businessman being kicked repeatedly in the ankle. Tradition demands that the youngest businessman order the same food as his elders but he doesn’t. Itami illustrates that tradition and etiquette can stifle personal pleasure and enjoyment by requiring the individual to adhere to a set of rules opposed to experimentation and freedom. Genre is at times a constrictive entity that imposes an ideology on film-making, hindering personal expression; yet Itami uses generic conventions and expectations as a structure in-which to foreground assumptions and expectations. Itami places the cowboy next to the cook in Tampopo and illuminates how we accept, and create, tradition.

Both Breathless and Tampopo pay homage to certain aspects of Hollywood cinema. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless alludes to the strength of the Hollywood star system. Michel Poiccard’s attachment to and appropriation of the myth of Humphrey Bogart highlights the cultural influence America and Hollywood has upon France. Michel Poiccard appropriates Bogart’s mannerism in an attempt to create a person he believes the pinnacle of masculinity. Godard continues his homage to Hollywood as he dedicates Breathless to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures. Godard seems to be highlighting that American cultural output is a highly influential force that is shaping the younger generations of 1950’s France. This could indicate that individuals are no longer seeing themselves as citizens of a singular nationality; instead individuals see their own personality as a fragmented performance alluding to contrasting cultural influences. In Breathless Godard seems concerned about the American influence. Both Michel and Patricia attempt to have a meaningful relationship relationship but find it impossible to communicate. This is signified by the use of the jump cut which leaves both characters isolated when speaking. Breathless seems to illustrate that the increased globalization of art and culture in fact leaves the individual more isolated and more alone than before. The nature of Hollywood’s influence on France seems to be both positive and negative. Hollywood offers the youth of France new heroes and systems of thought yet at the same time ensuring their isolation and loneliness. Juzo Itami also pays homage to Hollywood in his film Tampopo. Itami alludes to the western genre both by appropriating its narrative structure and iconography. In doing this Itami can highlight the structured and highly stylized nature of Japanese culture. Itami concentrates on illustrating how food etiquette is constructed. Because Itami is able to play with the structure of the western to create something new, the rules of etiquettes also seem open to play. Itami also criticises those who use tradition to hide their own ignorance in Tampopo, yet the films central message seems to be that the fulfilling enjoyment that good food brings is central to good hearty relationships. Both Breathless and Tampopo allude to the powerful cultural influence of Hollywood. They also use aspects of Hollywood cinema to create and illustrate aspects of their own culture. The constant allusion to Hollywood cinema seems to indicate that to make cinema is to instigate a dialogue with ones own culture and surrounding cultures, and in this way we are not totally isolated but connected by art and cultural products.

 

1Full quote ‘clarity (viewers shouldn’t not be confused about space, time or events), Unity (cause and effect connections are direct and complete), goal-oriented characters (they are active and invite identification), and closure (loose ends are tied up, often through romantic union).’ [M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007) p. 312.]

2Phil Powrie & Keith Reader, French Cinema: A Student’s Guide, Oxon: Arnold Publishers, (2002), p. 21.

3M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, p. 356.

4David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, Third Edition, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990) p. 218.

5David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 210.

6Leo Braudy, ‘The World in a Frame: Genre: The conventions of Connection’ in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen, (ed) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Second Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), p. 448.