Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—W is For


      There were some formidable contenders to consider for "W." We've got Sam Peckinpah's Western The Wild Bunch, but I've already honored enough classic Westerns for one alphabet (High Noon, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Unforgiven). Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an entertaining, live-action/animation, fantasy-comedy spectacle from the special effects wizard Robert Zemeckis, but he's already captured a magical spot (Back to the Future). Judy Garland's performance in Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz will forever astound me; it's a true marvel of its time and a movie I cherished during my youth. But its enchantment doesn't quite send a chilly tingle up my spine the way it did when I was a kid, so I have to pass. Finally, the supremely talented Billy Wilder gets another crack at my Alphabet with Witness for the Prosecution, and just like Some Like It Hot, he was oh-so-close. Movies based on plays can be rather hit-or-miss; however, Wilder's courtroom drama thoroughly captivated me. If I read the Short Story or seen the Play, I'd probably be more blown away. But alas, I can't attest to either circumstance, therefore, Wilder narrowly misses out. Instead, the legendary Jean-Luc Godard claims the covetous "W" letter, with a film that's not my favorite from his distinguished resume, but is significant nonetheless. 
      I couldn't construct a list of 26 great films without including one from Jean-Luc Godard, for he has inspired some of my favorite directors, chief among them, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. I chose to review his controversial film Weekend. It is a film about films that is almost as disturbing as it is powerful, yet it still boasts a raw, unadulterated, avant-garde realism. It follows a quarreling bourgeois couple who leave Paris for the French countryside in order to claim an inheritance through nefarious means. Mireille Darc plays the central character Corinne, a woman who is repeatedly radicalized during her weekend getaway. The other half of the bickering, conniving, albeit, married couple is Roland (Jean Yanne). Almost immediately, they become entangled in a disastrous, nightmarish traffic jam. A string of terrorizing events ensue, as the married motorists descend into a bourgeois apocalypse. They harangue others, inflame others, and castigate others. More startlingly, they become victims of rape, murder and cannibalism—at the hands of a band of forest-dwelling Maoists. Sound ridiculous? It's supposed to.

      As in much of Godard's late 1960's work, a plot summary only casually alludes to his film's anarchistic absurdity. Constructed in a series of digressions, Weekend debunks all cinematic conventions. It's one of the most intrepid films I've ever seen, but it is also one of the most troubling. Its political depth is, I conjecture, unmatched in cinema's history. It is an almost blitzkrieg, uncompromising attack on the bourgeois values of France and the perceived imperialism of the United States. Godard paints a French society, starkly bourgeois, that crumbles under the enormous weight of consumer fixations. His film boils with contempt, resentment, and a feverish, implacable energy. He eschews conventional visual tricks. Instead, he breaks down images, ideas, characters, and plot devices into frightening, photographic segments. His unrestrained architecture allows for a virtually limitless splash of motifs. Every scene is a text unto itself and despite some continuity irregularities; his helter-skelter structure solidifies his grand sociopolitical message. Essentially, Godard is a true autonomous auteur. He invents his own cauldron of rules as he moves along in his narrative. Consequently, Weekend may be the most authentic, existentialist film I've ever seen. Though I don't subscribe to an existentialist philosophy, I can still discern the intrinsic value of Godard's audacious, powerful mise-en-scène.
      Godard is renowned as one of the key figures of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), the influential group of French filmmakers, theorists and critics in the late 1950's and 1960's. The guiding principle behind their movement is that "Realism is the essence of cinema." New Wavers like Godard favored long shots and long takes that intimated a more organic composition (think Godard's traffic jam scene), where visual information could be communicated consistently; they did not want to dismantle the illusion of reality by frequent, unnecessary cuts. But Godard would also employ fast-cutting techniques especially jump-cuts (the opening of his film Breathless, a film that pioneered its widespread use, is a fine example). 
      An interesting aspect of Godard's philosophy was his inherent and intentional endorsement of contradiction. In short, Godard used "mass-market" aesthetics in Weekend to make a statement about capitalism and ensuing societal decline (the car conflagration scene). Weekend also featured existential themes, which, though I'm not keen on, I can still appreciate his artistic methods. He stresses the individual and dictates an acceptance of the absurdity of human existence. I also staunchly oppose Godard's political philosophies, particularly, those which portend a flagrant Marxist bend. His utter detest for American Hegemony is disconcerting, but I can still admire his inventive, naturalistic filmmaking approach without subscribing to his ideology.

      Jean-Luc Godard is regarded as the father of "guerrilla cinema:" long-takes, jump cuts, handheld shots, scenes shot in natural light, and gunshots and off-screen crashes. Each of these guerrilla tactics can be witnessed in his most guerrilla-inspired film, Weekend. His film is famed for its virtuoso cinematography including a stunning ten-minute tracking shot, but it's also powerful in its message to the world of cinema. Other than his ferocious attack on consumerism, technology and American Imperialism—accompanying some violent and grotesque imagery, specifically towards the latter stage of his film—Godard sends a chilling message to his beloved medium. Weekend is interspersed with plot fragments—betrayals, conspiracies, propaganda, sexual anecdotes—idylls, a Mozart sonata, a love song, punning flashcards, (Anal...lyse, Faux...tographie), rituals, and battles (with paint cans and tennis balls). But the interesting element of Godard's erratic arrangement is the fact that his frantic constitution leads nowhere. And that is precisely what Godard intended. Instead, Godard intended Weekend to be the apotheosis of his career. The film's last two titles: "End of Film" and "End of Cinema," appropriately marked an end to the narrative and cinematic period of his filmmaking career.
      His two main characters are annoying curmudgeons, but their outspoken consciousness—fully knowing they are participants in a film—espouses a certain Godard-ridiculousness that alludes to his genius. His characters constantly address the camera or refer to themselves as unreal. Thus, any bizarre or disturbing actions that befall them can be interpreted as impertinent. Godard does not want us to empathize with his characters. Being a film that is aware of itself, a film that exposes the manipulation of images through images (paradoxical but necessary) gives Weekend a surrealistic constitution. Godard does not look to kindly on the advancement of technology—which he feels usurped humanities genuine control of life— and he harbors no restraint in wielding this belief. He paints war, genocide, and waste as byproducts of capitalism and imperialism. Though I disagree wholeheartedly, I still respect his daring methods of communication. It is pure nihilistic satire with some outrageous humor and upsetting imagery, which is meant to agitate us—the viewer—and disrupt our "pure" cinematic experience.

      Weekend is a revolutionary film, and for that reason, many are going to dislike it. It is a film about violence, hatred, and the end of ideology. But it is also a movie about a movie about how to make a movie, in this way. Godard purposely abandons any attempt to show us real war or destruction. Instead, he shows us attitudes. His famous traffic jam shot conveys a sense of radical belief, an embittered view of society's direction. His piano scene in the center of the barnyard is also a startling shot. What's his purpose? In fact, what's the purpose of his barbarous ending, in which some animals are slaughtered and humans savagely murdered? Well, we know only one thing; it is meant to be allegorical. But the meaning of his overriding message is perhaps, inscrutable, and that analysis is fine because Godard wants to shock and shatter our expectations; encourage us to think about cinema. Or conversely, perhaps, Godard was trying to drive people out of the cinemas; in which audiences replace spectacle for the real world. Perhaps, Godard wants us to subsume cinema with life...granted, his methods are a bit aggravating and disheartening. Regardless of Godard's deep-rooted motives, his film deviates from the conventional moviegoing experience, and must be seen, for its grandiloquence, astonishing beauty (certain scenes), ambition, and drollery. Reduced to its fundamental starting point (at least so contemporaries can appreciate it), Weekend is dark comedy in its most daring form. 

*I couldn't find a suitable trailer. Instead, I embedded the famous "traffic jam" sequence. It's an iconic long-tracking shot, which clearly demonstrates Godard's genius. 

Source Godard quotes:


  1. The movie is an anarchic marvel - the perfect example of what an unfettered intellect can make film do in service of that intellect. Well worth a watch, even for those who prefer their motion pictures a little more concrete and linear. The tracking shot is a justifiable Masterpiece Moment. I wasn't expecting to find Godard in your list, Matty - no aspersions on you or your film tastes meant - I just felt like Godard is one of the great filmmakers from his period who've been consigned to the classroom or the occasional art house revival. Thanks for showing me the art of Godard is alive and well in 2011!

  2. Ah, Godard is such a master. There are hordes of other tremendous directing talents that my Alphabet will unfortunately neglect (Truffaut, Fellini, Lang, Tarkovsky, Rossellini, etc., etc.), but this was a good spot for Godard.

    I understand your contention about the "classroom" comment. His filmmaking techniques were groundbreaking and invite hours of analysis. This film is one of his finest examples of his intrepid style, so I had to draw attention to it. Plus, it was easier to assimilate into my list, which consists mostly of American directors.

    And thanks!

  3. I'm so glad I found your blog! I'm stopping by from the A to Z challenge and I look forward to visiting again soon.

  4. nice to see you so passionate about some filmmaker, Matty :)

  5. Thanks for the crash-course in Godard! Fascinating and insightful. Must see list.

  6. @ Sylvia

    Awww, thank you so much! I'll be sure to stop by your blog!

    @ Dezmond

    Ha, you know how I roll Dezz. My passion for film, esp. filmmakers, never subsides.

    @ Luana

    Ah, you're very welcome. I figured it was appropriate, as my older brother schooled me on many amazing foreign directors (namely Godard).

    And thanks!

  7. Must admit I've never seen this one; guess I'll have to check it out!

  8. You've listed some of my fave films already! Great post idea for "W." And nice to connect with you today, Matthew.

  9. @ E

    Sadly, I've never seen it. Though, I'm aware of the enormous praise reserved for Bergman's film.

    @ Milo

    Please do. Thanks for stopping by!

    @ Liz

    That's nice to hear! Same here. And no problem, I enjoyed your take on the "commoner."

  10. I'm not familiar with Godard's work but I must say I am honestly intrigued by him and this film. This film sounds like it's not afraid to take risks or push people's buttons, which I like. It keeps things interesting. I will definitely be adding this to my list of films to see, which is rather long but I think I will bump it up closer to the top. : ) Great review!

  11. Now you've gone and done it. It took you to O to reach a movie I hadn't seen, but I never suspected you'd choose a movie I'd never even heard of. (Of course, with your mention of the 10-minute tracking shot I probably have seen it on some top 10 list of the sort, but it didn't stick in my mind.) Perhaps it's time I stop being ignorant of all things Godard.

  12. I have heard and read about the Nouvelle Vague but sadly never seen any of their films except one by Truffaut.....found your post very interesting and informative but wonder if I can sit through his movies now...when younger, I watched a lot of what we call "art films" out here...looking forward to seeing some more jewels through your eyes. :)

  13. @ Nicole

    Thanks! And your take is right on the ball. Godard was daring, inventive, and ambitious. And he doesn't care what people think of him or his long as they're thinking. I hope you enjoy it! It gets pretty graphic and bizarre at times.

    @ Nate

    Aha, I strike again or as Sheen would call it "Winning." No honestly, I commend you for your consumption of truly great films (which, is to say, those in my Alphabet are great films).

    Yep. The tracking shot is arguably the most famous of its kind, so you might've come across before in some countdown.

    And Godard is one cinematic force to be aware of for those who deeply enjoy the medium.

    @ Rekha

    Ah, well I give you credit for your awareness! Truffaut is also a tremendous talent and measure of influence, so I'm glad to know you've caught one of his works.

    And thank you for your comment and for joining up. I appreciate it!

  14. I have not heard of this film, but it sounds like an absolute wild ride that I have to check out. Thanks for putting this out there.

  15. You're welcome. I believe this is the first film from my Alphabet that you haven't seen. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. I think you'll like it because I know you have an appreciation for ambitious art.