[Originally published in The Weekly, March 11, 1981]
A conversation early in the new film by Jean-Luc Godard: “Is it a novel, this project you’re working on?” “No, but maybe it could be.” “Maybe it should be a new type of serial—how things really are.” “It wouldn’t work around here.”
The thing about Godard movies is, he’s always talking to us. Talking to us about himself, talking to us about us, talking to us about talking to us. We don’t think about this all the time because movies are seductive, even movies that work to be analytical and disjunctive and Brechtian, and we get drawn along by the beauty of the images and the movement of things via 24 still pictures per second. But every once in a while we snap into recognition that we’re on the other end of a cinematic conversation.
Like that moment in BandofOutsiders (1964), a wacky, funny-sad romantic comedy about three young Parisians who like gangster movies and musicals, and decide they’re going to rob an isolated mansion where one of them, the girl, works. Except of course the movie dithers around a lot while they take English lessons and do a solemn softshoe in a juke bar and break the world’s speed record for touring the Louvre — and suddenly they’re on this train. The girl starts to sing a love song that turns into a ballad of loneliness. The screen fills with luminous nocturnal images of the city, streets, windows, pedestrians, the long glowworm of the train sliding toward the suburbs. Then the girl is onscreen again and she looks right into the camera and sings the last line of the song, something like “My heart goes out to all of you,” and suddenly you feel as big as the night sky and as vulnerable as a newborn child. Part of it is that the whole movie has been building on this theme without getting explicit about it. Part of it is that the girl is beautiful and fragile and brave, and also Anna Karina, the director’s wife, who’s essentially looking at him the same time she’s looking at us. And part of it is that Karina is speaking for Godard, who could never make this declaration of love and caring in person, but makes it and means it, through her and through his glorious film.
[Originally published for the UW Continuing Education Office of Cinema Studies, January 23, 1983]
By a strange process of free association I hope eventually to justify, watching a couple of Lily Tomlin’s character sketches on Saturday Night Live this past weekend reminded me of Godard’s rectangular portrait of Anna Karina/Nana Klein in Vivresa vie. One sketch featured Edith, a wizened-wise little girl who pontificates from a huge rockingchair, dreaming up all manner of bizarre mischief and fantastic scenarios in which she must always be the star. This particular skit ended with Edith’s sudden fear of heavenly retribution for all her egocentric naughtiness. She confides that God has a television set and that he watches us on it: “When I think he’s watching me, I always try to do a commercial for myself … to show him how good I am.” In an earlier sketch, Tomlin had verified the trustworthiness of a “public service announcement” and her own spokesperson sincerity by stating: “I am not a professional actress, but a real person just like you.” Tomlin’s satirical jibes at the power of media/mediated realities to confer or deny authenticity, even the odor of sanctity, began to work for me as a comedic version of the complex collisions of art and reality in Vivresavie (1962). Godard’s fourth feature film is nothing if not a commercial for the “goodness” (a term I use in the Godardian, cinematic sense) of Anna Karina/Nana Klein—whether for the edification of a God who watches us all in the movies or the Platonic ideal of film critics, I would not venture to say. Vivresavie exemplifies the aesthetic paradoxes implicit in Godard’s critical premises about cinema, paradoxes which, more superficially, are at play in actress-comedienne Lily Tomlin’s assumption of a “real person” persona in a comic skit designed to create the illusion of pseudodocumentary.
Godard was after nothing less than Truth in the making of movies. His aesthetic politique was radicalized, if not politicized, from the beginning. As an intellectual, more given to the raptures of analysis than emotion, he could see that the genteel fraud of cinematic Art-with-a-capital-A could seduce audiences by means of artifice, creating a comfortable schism between cinema and ordinary experience. One could go into the dark and dream in a willing suspension of disbelief, but the light of day chemically redefined that suspension: dispersion of the components of the dream in liquid reality. Godard, like many of his compatriots in literature, painting, and even sculpture, consciously decided to sabotage the seductive forms and manifestations of art and artifice. The images in his movies would have the dream-stopping immediacy of newsreels or machine-gun fire in the theater aisles. He attacked the beguiling concept of plot, that aesthetic form we so cherish for its orderly shaping of experience into a beginning, middle, and end, a coherent, directed narrative itinerary which satisfies us as messy reality never—or rarely—does. His attack failed, of course, or rather turned into something else, something that allowed for the creation of his best films. For the moment Godard turned the camera on person or scene, he “framed” it, and thereby began the process of making fiction. His eye was too drawn to richly significant images and events, and too able to provocatively juxtapose them, to avoid narrative altogether. Every directorial decision he made toward the end of de-dramatizing his work metamorphosed that work into something new in the world of cinema.
[Originally published on TCM.com on November 19, 2007]
Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most important film director of the 1960s, began the decade with his feature debut Breathless, a scrappy, free-spirited, cinematically audacious take on the B-movie crime genre. By the end of the sixties, he had all but rejected commercial cinema for politically pointed commentaries and film essays like Sympathy For the Devil and Le Gai Savoir.
Smack in the middle of the genre goofing and cinematic game-playing of Godard’s earlier sixties film and the consumer satire and cultural deconstructions of his late sixties films lies Pierrot le Fou (1965). Not that there was some sudden turn in direction; Godard embraced both sides throughout and they blur in so many films of this era. But Pierrot feels like a perfect midpoint (whether or not you could even objectively measure such a thing) in the way that it bounces between the flippant play of moviemaking fun and the social commentary on the modern world.
Pierrot le Fou is a road movie, a crime fantasy, a cultural satire, a tale of consumerist alienation and bourgeois apathy, and a femme fatale noir in Technicolor and CinemaScope, shot in the bright sunlit canvas of broad daylight. Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of Breathless, plays Ferdinand, a former teacher pushed into an advertising career by a wealthy wife with high-society values: “You’ll do as your told,” she demands as they get ready for a party where she hopes he will be offered a job, and he bristles at the empty life he inhabits, escaping only through his books. Anna Karina, Godard’s one-time muse and wife (their divorce became final before the shoot was over), is Marianne Renoir, niece of Ferdinand’s brother-in-law and the family babysitter.
[Originally published for the University of Washington Continuing Education Film Series, February 15, 1983]
It used to be complained of Jean-Luc Godard that his movies were all over the map. Masculin-Féminin (1966) suggests, better than any other single movie he’s made, that such complaints had it turned around. What Godard was really up to was mapping all over.
At a glance, Masculin-Féminin seems fragmented and arbitrary beyond any hope of yielding a coherent viewing experience, let alone a conventionally passive entertainment about some youthful Parisians during the mid-Sixties. Its subtitle proposes that the film will consist of “15 precise facts” (or “acts” — already precision begins to generate ambiguity), but determining the dividing lines among the 15 is problematical. Occasionally the director vouchsafes a chapter number, à la Vivre sa vie, but just when we might begin to feel cozy about this, “fait” number 4 gives way to 4A. Shortly thereafter, a numerical 7 is followed by the single, screen-filling word MAIS, which is followed in turn by a numeral 8: fait 7, it would appear, is one large “but”. Okay, sure, why not! And if the question still persists why, surely the answer is that this is Godard’s way of proposing that chapters, categories, the notion of precise and discrete facts/acts, are unreliable epistemological baggage we should do well to jettison. But in so proposing, he also knows that none of us, least of all Jean-Luc Godard, can forswear trying to make organized sense of the teeming phenomena around us.
Masculin-Féminin teems thrillingly. No other filmmaker has ever looked at streets, passersby, traffic, graffiti, the exultantly grungy multifariousness of modern urban life, with such a sharp and hungry eye as Godard’s. Of course, all the French New Wavers played that game to some degree. A lot of the excitement and challenge of the nouvelle vague films had to do with their demonstration that anywhere could become a movie set and any life a movie. You live in these rooms, you work in that office, you go out at night to those cinemas and cafés? Then that is where your movie should happen. One of my favorite scenes in Masculin-Féminin is the one wherein Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) meets Madeleine (Chantal Goya) in a café for the purpose of proposing marriage. Godard shoots this whole desperate, can’t-get-started encounter in a single take that peregrinates up and down the length of the place, around and among tables and chairs, the camera and the couple ever seizing at new angles of approach. I’m sure Godard and cameraman Willy Kurant didn’t move a stick of furniture, but rather made the inefficient randomness of the environment part of the dynamics of the scene; the broken-field trajectories dictated by the ambient décor are as important to, and determinative of, the tenderly comic desperation of the action as the oddball characters Godard plants around the café to frustrate Paul’s design.
Early in the career of Jean-Luc Godard career, when he still the firebrand film critic aspiring to make features, Godard contemplated the “Mystery and fascination of this American cinema” and found himself bedeviled by an unshakable realization: “How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”
Forty years later, he’s still pondering the question in Histoire(s) du cinema (1989), his epic rumination on cinema as industry and art. In eight episodes and four-and-a-half hours, Godard struggles between his conflicting perspectives on cinema: on the one hand an industrialized business that cranks out products designed to sell images, consumer goods and an entire ideology, and on the other, a history of images, stories and experiences that haunt the soul and stand with the great works of art.
Histoire(s) du cinema is not, strictly speaking, a history of cinema, at least not in a traditional documentary sense. The title provides the first hint. In French, “histoire” means both “history” and “story” and the (s) suggests the multiple histories and stories involved in any understanding of cinema, not the least of which is Godard’s complicated personal connection to film history. From passionate young critic staking out his position in the fifties to maverick director who shook up the staid French industry with provocative films to political commentator and social critic exploring the frontiers of expression and representation, he has been nothing if not provocative. The personal and political are constantly in flux in this collection of eight video essays, begun in 1988 and concluded in 1998, where the Nouvelle Vague legend considers the history of the movies with a typically idiosyncratic style and non-linear train of thought.
A Married Woman (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), subtitled “Fragments of a film shot in 1964,” is Jean-Luc Godard’s modern portrait of love and sex in the media-saturated sixties with Macha Méril in a role that was clearly meant for Godard’s wife and longtime muse Anna Karina (they were separated at the time) and it channels Godard’s feelings at the time. Like Karina, Méril’s Charlotte is beautiful young woman who is married to an older man and having an affair with an actor. The film opens on a montage where Charlotte is reduced to parts—legs, arms, back, lips, midrift, isolated glimpses of the naked female suggesting those erogenous zones that could not be photographed in a mainstream feature film—caressed by her unidentified lover. It’s shot in creamy cool black-and-white by longtime cinematographer Raoul Coutard and the strikingly handsome formality is both erotic and removed, suggesting a physical intimacy and an emotional disconnection even in even the most intimate scenes of lovemaking and pillow talk.
Charlotte has no close friends (at least that we see), lives in a sleek modern apartment devoid of lived-in warmth, and shrinks from the touch of her pilot husband Pierre (Philippe Leroy). He’s an intellectual with a condescending attitude and she’s more comfortable living in the moment than grappling with history and memory, which becomes all too apparent in their uncomfortable post-dinner dialogue. In between the lovemaking and the conversations, Charlotte discovers she is pregnant. She doesn’t know which man is the father
[Originally published in The Weekly, September 15-21, 1982]
Bill Richert and Tony Perkins were standing on top of the world when somebody cut the power. From this eyrie, banked by vast computers and embraced by a luminous diorama of the solar system, John Cerruti (Perkins) could monitor every salient fact on the face of the globe, catalogue it, and consider its implications for the financial and political future of the Keegan dynasty—the Kennedyesque family and megaconglomerate whose ins and outs define the texture of modern reality in Richard Condon’s dazzling novel Winter Kills. Richert had whipped this kaleidoscopic narrative into a fluid screenplay and was halfway through the process of realizing the film itself. But in the giddy orbits of other, less reliably monitored galaxies, the source money twinkled away. Now, on the soundstage floor far below, studio representatives with no sense of irony were killing the lights, shutting his picture down. It stayed shut down for a year and a half.
It’s been like that throughout the history of this brilliant film. The $6.5-million project was announced in 1976: a major production to be shot on locations round the globe, and literally all-star at every level. Jeff Bridges and John Huston headed a cast that also included Perkins, Richard Boone, Toshiro Mifune, Sterling Hayden, Eli Wallach, Dorothy Malone, Tomas Milian, Ralph Meeker, and an unbilled Elizabeth Taylor. The production designer was Hitchcock mainstay Robert Boyle; the cameraman, Vilmos Zsigmond. Maurice Jarre would compose the score. And the story! Just as Richard Condon had anticipated the assassination era with his ManchurianCandidate, so in WinterKills had he supplied the perfect metaphor for life after Watergate—a surrealistic study of Power from an incestuous inside view, with lashings of assassination conspiracy arcana and roman à clef titillation. A more unlikely candidate for shelving would be hard to imagine.
[Originally published in Film Comment, March-April 1997]
Black screen; the sound of a truck starting. Fade in on a drab morning, the parking lot of a roadside diner, and the truck itself, a long freighter that hauls itself into, across, and out of a Super-35 frame that, for one satisfying instant, it perfectly fills. As the engine roar recedes, a trenchcoated back looms in frame right, pauses a beat, then approaches the diner, camera following at elbow level. There is a young man seated on the ground near the diner entrance, head bowed, legs drawn up to his chest, like a fetus that has learned to sit up. The man in the trenchcoat stops and speaks to him—an older man’s voice: “Want a cup of coffee? Want a cigarette?” The young man takes his time looking up, as if he’d been somewhere else, and had already accepted that in that place he would never be spoken to again. He can see the man who’s standing over him; except for a blurred reflection in the nearby door, we still haven’t.
Gaston Monescu once observed that beginnings are always difficult. With movies, just the opposite is often true. The audience is eager to be caught up in something—a story, a vision, a mood—or they wouldn’t be there. It’s child’s play to turn on the engine; riding out the trip is hard. Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature debut, has a classical beaut of a beginning. The better, rarer news is that, having confidently taken the wheel, Anderson never loses his grip or his way. Like its opening shot, Hard Eight keeps us wanting to see more, and is equally satisfying in the ways that it does and doesn’t permit that to happen.
On Saturday, February 11, Douglas Trumbull received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to the technology of the industry. Trumbull has over a dozen patents in his name, and developed or improved upon many of the filmmaking techniques that are standard in today’s industry, among them miniature compositing, high frame rate photography and motion control photography. This is his second special Oscar—though nominated for his special effects work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, his only previous Oscar a Scientific and Engineering Award from 1993, for his work developing the 65mm Showscan Camera System.
Revived and expanded from an interview I conducted with Douglas Trumbull in 2005, originally published in shorter form on Greencine in January, 2006.
Douglas Trumbull is unique among American filmmakers. At age 23, he was part of the team that pioneered the next generation of cinema special effects in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was education you couldn’t get in film school and he continued to expand his skills and techniques in such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He made his debut as a director on the ecologically minded Silent Running, where his special effects crew included John Dyksra (who went on to become the Oscar-winning special effects supervisor of Star Wars and many other films) and Richard Yuricich (who partnered with Trumbull on many subsequent projects).
Trumbull’s second feature as a director, Brainstorm, was all but orphaned by MGM and his directorial efforts since have been outside the Hollywood system, including short films in his own high-definition Showscan process (a large-frame film format that runs at 60 frames a second) and Back to the Future… The Ride,” a multi-media mix of film, sound, and simulator ride. More recently, Trumbull worked with Terrence Malick (another maverick director who commands complete control over this films) to create the birth of life sequences for The Tree of Life. Yet to this day, Trumbull’s name is still most closely linked with 2001 and his special effects work on the cult science fiction classic Blade Runner.
Trumbull continues to explore the boundaries of what he calls “immersive media”–3-D, interactive media, virtual reality–and has been partnering with Professor Tom Furness of University of Washington’s HITLab (the Human Interface Technology Lab) with some of his projects.
In November 2005, while in Seattle to meet with Furness, he made an appearance at the Science Fiction Museum for a special showing of Silent Running. In the midst of his multi-media presentation – using still and video footage launched from his lap-top to accompany his talk – he brought some of the working props form the film and donated a drone arm: his gift to the Science Fiction Museum.
At the end of the very long day (after his exhaustive presentation, Trumbull gamely spent over an hour answering questions from the audience), he agreed to sit down for an interview over a late dinner, where we talked about his work with Stanley Kubrick, his own films as a director, and why he hasn’t directed a Hollywood film in over 20 years.
Sean Axmaker:You had trained as an illustrator. How did you wind up in filmmaking and special effects?
Douglas Trumbull: The story goes something like this. I was going to school at this community college in L.A., kind of learning illustration. I started out studying architecture and this was the pre-architecture curriculum, which was drawing, painting, water colors, graphic design. In that very first year I realized that I’m not specifically interested in architecture, I’m interested in this other thing. I started painting and illustrating and I had an air brush and I was trying to learn the skills of illustration, but I was a science fiction guy so I had my little portfolio that was full of sci-fi, Analog magazine cover kind of stuff, and I went into Hollywood looking for a job because I had no money, I couldn’t afford to stay in school. I took my portfolio around to animation studios, because that was my first inclination, animation and somehow making illustrations move,. I would talk to these really nice guys and they would look at my portfolio and say “You’re not in the right place. It’s great to have you here but you should try out this place across town called Graphic Films because they’re doing space films.” So I went over there and met Con Patterson, who worked on 2001, and Ben Jackson, and they were both mentors to me. They said “Yeah, we might could use somebody like you. We’ll give you a task. Paint this satellite and come back tomorrow morning,” which I did, and I got a job immediately and worked at Graphic Films for a couple years. I did some obscure films for the Air Force about the space program and then there was this one film about the Apollo program that was kind of interesting. I was painting lunar modules and lunar surfaces and the vertical assembly building on Saturn 5 rockets and animated this space stuff. And then Graphic Films got a couple of contracts to do films for the New York World’s Fair in ’64, it was a two year fair in 1964 and 65, and one of them was this dome thing called To The Moon And Beyond, which was kind of a Powers of Ten movie. It went from the big bang to inside an atom in ten minutes.
A belated welcome to 2022 with one last look back at the best releases of 2021.
As most of us are no longer full-time critics, and many other are understandably wary about seeing movies in theaters at the moment, we haven’t had the same access to films as most film critics. For that reason, many of our regular contributors respectfully dropped out this year. For those of us who did participate, these are snapshots of what we have been able to see, and what impressed us over the last year.
Contributors listed in reverse alphabetical orders. Films listed in preferential orders (unless otherwise noted).
Moira Macdonald (Seattle Times)
Favorite movies of 2021
My Favorite Movie of the Year: The Power of the Dog The Movie That Gave Me the Most Joy: In the Heights The Movie I Most Wished I Could Have Seen on the Big Screen: Passing The Movie I’m Most Grateful to Have Seen on the Big Screen: Spider-Man: No Way Home The Movie That Was Exactly What I Thought It Would Be, and I Loved It: The French Dispatch The Movie That Wasn’t At All What I Thought It Would Be, and I Loved It: West Side Story The Movie With the Most Glorious Fashion: Cruella
Back in 2017, the most riveting screen experience I had was season one of Mindhunter (David Fincher et al.) on Netflix. In 2021 it was another Netflix limited series, Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass, each of the seven episodes casting a spell all its own, mounting toward the extraordinary finale with its utterly unexpected swarm of conflicting emotions. Midnight Mass premiered in September. Most of the films on the Ten Best list and addenda came along later. And no, I haven’t seen Drive My Car.
1. The Lost Daughter 2. The Card Counter 3. The Power of the Dog 4. The Worst Person in the World 5. Licorice Pizza 6. Bergman Island 7. Titane 8. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn 9. Annette
I’ll forgo a tenth slot if I may salute Passing, The Last Duel, Don’t Look Up, Last Night in Soho, Dune (Part One), Red Rocket, and The Night House.
1. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksander Koberidze, George/Germany) 2. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA) 3. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan) 4. Drive My Car (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan) 5. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, USA/Australia/New Zealand etc.) 6. Herr Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth, Germany) 7. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude, Romania) 8. The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes) 9. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway)
1.Drive My Car (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi) 2.Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude) 3.No Sudden Move (Steven Soderbergh) 4.The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes) 5.The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion) 6.Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson) 7.Pig (Michael Sarnoski) 8.The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier) 9.Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman) 10.The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)
10 Best Procession (Robert Greene, US) Swimming out Til the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhangke, China) The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes, U.S.) The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo, S. Korea) Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn/Uppercase Print (Radu Jade, Rumania) Days (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan) There is No Evil (Mohammad Rasoulof, Germany, Iran) Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, NZ) Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (Lili Horvat, Hungary) Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan)
Honorable Mention: Passing (Rebecca Hall, US) You Will Die at Twenty (Amjad Abu Alala, Sudan) Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)
1. The Lost Daughter (Maggie Gyllenhall, US) 2. The Green Knight (David Lowery, US) 3. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, US) 4. Spencer (Pablo Larrain, US/UK) 5. Drive My Car (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan) 6. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway) 7. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, New Zealand) 8. Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma, France) 9. Quo Vadis, Aida (Jasmila Zbanic, Bosnia & Herzegovina) 10. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)
Runners-up and honorable mentions: Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve, France/Sweden), C’mon, C’mon (Mike Mills, US), A Hero (Asghar Farhadi, Iran/France), The Last Duel (Ridley Scott, US), Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright, UK), Passing (Rebecca Hall, US), Pig (Michael Sarnoski, US), Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, US), The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg, UK), Titane (Julia Ducournau, France)
Surprises and joys: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (Josh Greenbaum) – a whimsical comedy played for utter absurdity that came along just when I needed a belly laugh. Get Back (Peter Jackson) – an utterly immersive experience and an unexpectedly joyous exploration of creation and collaboration.