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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Basic Film Techniques: Wipe

The much maligned wipe – infamous for its inclusion in “tacky” wedding videos – has recently become a regularly implemented but rarely seen, or noticed, technique. The wipe is the technique where one shot is replaced by another by the movemnt of an edge, or line, which replaces the previous shot by “wiping” it. By revealing a new scene, environment or space the wipe offers a spatial or temporal transition to the director. The line-wipe, which just replaces shot A with shot B with a vertical line which moves across the screen, is the most basic wipe technique and is found in the earliest cinema. The line-wipe obtained a certain popularity in the 20’s and 30’s. The technique fell into disfavour due to its overt formal nature which foregrounds the construction of a film to an audience, an effect opposed to the philosophy of the continuity editing style.

One contemporary usage of the wipe technique is the reference to a by-gone era, a nostalgic replication of a previous era’s television or cinematic form. The television series The Nero Wolfe Mysteries utilizes the technique attempting to add to the verisimilitude and aura of authenticity established by the use of historical costume and dialogue. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) also uses the wipe technique, reputedly a reference to older science fiction films. In the early science fiction films and television serials, such as Flash Gordon, the wipe is intended to replicate the turning of a page or movement between boxes in a comic book. George Lucas allusion to these older serials, through the technique of the wipe, is meant to convey the personal enjoyment and impact early science fiction had on the Star War’s universe.

 

As I noted before, the wipe fell out of favour due to it foregrounding a film’s construction. The wipe however is a common technique due to the rise of the “invisible”wipe which implements the continuity editing system’s general guidelines. The invisible-wipe can be seen, however contradictory that sounds, in The Usual Suspects (1994). The invisible-wipe uses an object, or some other aspect of the screen, instead of an imposed line, to perform the wipe. In The Usual Suspects a police officer walks from right to left and as he does his back is used to signal the transition from shot A to B. The police officer’s back replaces the line in the traditional line-wipe technique. Due to the use of the the object within the digesis to facilitate the transition between shot A and shot B the invisible-wipe does not foreground the construction of the film; the invisible-wipe does not highlight the film’s editing. [In the video below this technique can be seen around 3:20 into the clip].

 

Basic Film Techniques: Match-Cut

A mach-cut is a cut between two shots which match graphically. This match establishes a sense of continuity and interconnectedness between two different spatial or temporal spheres (space and time). The matching between a shot Z and shot X tends to produce a sense of importance in the connection. The match cut is an editing technique which imbues the different spheres with a sense of metaphor or symbolic relationship. If shot Z has a violent connotation and is matched with X then the action of X will also be imbued with that violent connotation [Although a part of the continuity editing style the match cut is linked to and could be argued inspired by, the montage style and theory of parallelism].

In the beginning of the film Strangers On A Train (1951) we see two different pairs of shoes walk towards a train. The two characters’ footsteps are linked together by a match cut which indicates an inevitable meeting and connection between the two characters’ fate. Essentially the characters are walking the same “footsteps” towards a linked fate. The match cut is primarily a graphic or visual connection between two different spatial or temporal locations. The second function is metaphorical or symbolic and a tool in which to produce meaning by matching two ideas together producing a synthesis of major importance. 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968) matches the throwing of a bone to a space station. The throwing of a bone, after the use of it as a weapon, indicates a leap forward towards humanity [evolution] and a movement forward in scientific progress and the use of tools. These concepts are linked to the space station firstly as the station itself is a tool as such and an indicator of scientific progress but also in larger context of the film as the technology of the space station is a movement towards another leap in evolution: that of artificial life.

Basic Film Techniques: The Kuleshov Effect

In order to proceed with basic film techniques I felt that a short exposition on the ‘Kuleshov effect’ was required. The ‘Kuleshov effect’ refers to the Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov who saw editing and film as an art form. He established a workshop to study the effect of editing on an individuals perception of the film as a whole. Kuleshov used the same expressionless face and gave different groups alternative images that followed the expressionless face. The mans expressionless face was remarked, by different groups, to have beamed with a smile at the sight of a baby and conversely to have filled with remorse and deep sorrow at the sight of a dead women. Even though the face was the same several different group saw different emotions due to the relational shots before and after the face. Kuleshov uncovered that ‘the meaning or a shot was determined not only by the material content of the shot, but also by its association with the preceding and succeeding shot’ (1.) This understanding of editing can clearly be seen in the Soviet montage technique.

Film, and editing, is exactly like language; in fact it is a language as it is a system of signs that produce meaning. For an image to produce a comprehensible meaning it must be understood in relation to or as opposed to something else: two shots connected produce a meaning that is greater than the sum parts. A face and a dead woman produce deep sorrow whereas on their own the meaning would be only slight. This ‘effect’ is the central principle in editing regardless of the type of film you are producing. [Even film that is said to be avant-garde will use editing principles of relating colours, images and cuts against each other to produce meaning. Most avant-garde films take this principle to its most extreme point possible]

 

(1.) M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007), p. 192.

Communicating Character In Hollywood Cinema

The physical construction of an actor is a telling sign of the character they are chosen to portray. The continuity system aims to communicate clearly the narrative function and attributes a character symbolises. In Mississippi Burning (1988 ) the physical make-up of the two central characters communicates the opposing attitudes or techniques they wish to employ in the apprehension of the group of racially motivated murderers. Gene Hackman is the rougher, tougher, old-school veteran. His face represents this but so does his hair, receding it is also slightly curled and unordered. His clothing is also chosen specifically to represent his character, his suits do not shine, indicating his disdain for veneer and artificial gloss, packaging or PR.

Gene Hackman is the converse to Willem Dafoe’s character. Hackman is an old-school cop whereas Dafoe is new-school. We are informed that Dafoe has recently left “FBI School” and therefore is a representation of the new, glossy, packaged, PR friendly FBI investigator. Dafoe’s appearance is also representative of this, his hair is slicked back and always collected and neat, his glasses represent a more bookish version of a FBI agent, his suits are well presented and are slightly glossy and reflect the light well. His looks and appearance are of a clean-cut average man. The two opposing “schools” and the corresponding attitudes of the two FBI agents are represented in the agents’ appearance, therefore Mississippi Burning communicates clearly the differing attributes the characters symbolise to the audience instantly and without difficulty. Mississippi Burning adheres directly to Hollywood’s continuity system concerning the communicating of character. It is important to note that because Hollywood tends to produce character driven narratives it is best, or most efficient, that character is communicated clearly and quickly so that the plot surrounding the character can unravel.

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