Thursday, September 25, 2008

"The obvious necessity of remembering."



"Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
Thomas Jefferson



To speak honestly and starkly about the bombing of Hiroshima (or for that matter, Nagasaki), it is first necessary to remember the scale of the destruction, and the pretenses under which the bombings were carried out. "Those 100,000 killed in Hiroshima," writes Howard Zinn in his invaluable tome, A People's History of the United States, "were almost all civilians." This fact negates Harry Truman's erroneous claim that the city of Hiroshima was chosen as a target because it was "a military base." In a flash of light "the temperature of the sun," those 100,000 lives were annihilated, and tens of thousands more were burned, maimed, and contaminated (to effect future generations indefinitely).

In Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Resnais attempts the daunting and delicate task of confronting this ignominious manifestation of hell on earth. The task is daunting because of the difficulty of depicting an act of malevolence and destruction that can--quite literally--be considered biblical in proportion. The task is delicate because the film was released just fifteen years after those infamous days of August, and the wounds--both emotional and spiritual, as well as physical--had barely had time to heal (many of which, of course, never will). So it was--and still is--important to consider that there are boundaries of what is appropriate to recreate and represent.

Resnais efficaciously and tactfully toes this line, by approaching the tragedy obliquely, using sharply contrasting juxtapositions of images, and a story line riddled by nonlinearity. The primary focus of the story is of a Japanese man and a French woman, and a twenty-four-hour tryst they are locked into. What the two of them have in common, is that they have both suffered due to being, either on, or associated with the losing side of World War II. He, because his family was killed in Hiroshima (he was off fighting, and thus, spared), and she, because her first love was a doomed German soldier who was part of the German occupation of France. 

The most direct attention the actual bombing of Hiroshima gets, is in the montage that makes up the first fifteen minutes of the film. Here, Resnais ingeniously illuminates the barbaric nature of the bombing, by juxtaposing actual images of the aftermath, with images of the two lovers embracing each other. Meanwhile--in what seems to be the non-diegetic soundtrack--she is saying that she can see and understand the destruction, and he is saying that she couldn't possibly see or understand. The stark contrast in textures, between the grainy images of hate and war, and the smooth images of love and affection intensify the vast gulf between the two.

The French woman is correct when she states that there is indeed an "obvious necessity of remembering." Perhaps, if that manifestation of hell on earth is never forgotten, it will never happen again (although, unfortunately, it is dangerous and irresponsible to underestimate the depths of hate that some humans dwell in). Nevertheless, it is essential, that in our remembrance, we are considerate and commiserative of those who have suffered. In Alain Resnais' lament, Hiroshima Mon Amour, this has been accomplished.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The lawlessness of it all...

Going from viewing the dull and predictable linearity of a film like Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur, to viewing Robert Bresson's idiosyncratic imbroglio, Pickpocket, is a jarring experience, that intensifies and illuminates Pickpocket's unsettling effect. And Pickpocket is indeed unsettling--if for no other reason than the fact that it is almost always unsettling to have to look at the world through someone else's eyes and in someone else's mind. Which is where, as viewers, Bresson keeps us throughout Pickpocket--in Michel's head.

Pickpocket is one of those rare films that is so steeped in character subjectivity, that it is downright uncomfortable to sit through at points. But in a good way, that one would never consider retreating from--kind of like that long scene in Stanley Kubrick's, 2001: A Space Odyssey, where one of the astronauts has to go out in space to repair the exterior of the ship, and for ten minutes of the film, all that can be heard is the astronaut's (diegetic) breathing in the spacesuit. Kubrick ingeniously creates a disquieting sensation of claustrophobia, by utterly submerging his viewers into the subjective perceptions of his characters. Which, once again, and depending on the particular character and situation, can be a harrowing viewing experience (in other words, it is not necessarily how the film is filmed, or a lack of music in the soundtrack, or a frustrating story line that makes us uncomfortable, but having to look at things from someone else's perspective).

In Pickpocket, Bresson has done just that, by giving us no other perspective but Michel's. As Rick J. Thompson writes, Bresson limits "viewers strictly to that which [Michel]...sees, says, thinks, [and] writes." And by enveloping his viewers to such a degree, into the subjectivity of such a loner of a character, that is almost completely isolated from other humans in any social sense, Bresson has burdened us with a glimpse into a (perhaps) troubled mind--a glimpse that can be exhausting and irritating for some people.

But not for me. Although--with regards to the sordid and often vicious nature of human society--I do not totally agree with Michel when he says that his thievery "could set it right," I do indeed agree that "It's already upside down." But Michel betrays his dedication to his craft, by attempting to paint it (to the cop) as some kind of righteous, revolutionary endeavor to balance the differences between things like the law, and justice; or between white-collar crime and blue-collar crime. Quite simply, Michel is young and bored, and in the grips of some kind of existential crisis, and the instantaneous rush of anticipation, anxiety, fear, and excitement that accompanies his lawlessness, temporarily saves him from the monotony of his existence.

It is kind of like those homeless kids in South America, who climb on top of those speeding trains, and act like they are surfing (often falling off and dying). The rush and adrenaline is the only thing that can clear the head of all of the trying, awful shit we have to deal with everyday of our lives--but unfortunately, only for a moment or two at a time.

In fact, as a skateboarder of 25 years, I sometimes feel sorry for people who have never discovered the therapeutic value of breaking laws and scaring the shit out of yourself on a regular basis. 

Or as Charles Bukowski once put it:

"Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Famous last words...

Considering that I find the whole American "Gangster" genre to be, not only irritating and monotonous, but bogged down in fatuous cliches as well, it makes perfect sense that watching a "gangster" film made by a French director whom, as Roger Ebert writes, "inhaled American gangster films," is as painful as the slow extraction of one of my teeth.

Now, I am not so myopic in my acute disdain for "gangster" films, that I can't appreciate Jean-Pierre Melville as an artist (and as the genesis of the "New Wave"), especially in the context of when, where, and how Bob Le Flambeur was made. If nothing else, the utterly predictable story line, and absurd characters are made bearable by the dreamy interludes of Parisian landscape (especially the opening scene) as shot by Henri Decae. But nevertheless, it was difficult to sit through this film, and thus, I am--for once--at a loss for thoughtful words about it. It is at moments like this, that one is forced to resort to other means of self-expression--in other words, sarcasm and slight.

Case in point...

...the most thrilling moment in the entire film is--by far--when Bob smacks Anne. Dear god is that a glorious smack! It messes her hair up and everything. In fact, it looks like it must have actually hurt when they filmed it. Mother of babbling god, and does she deserve it too, although, not as much as that pitiful dingbat Paulo does. Poor ol' Paulo and that woeful expression on his face when he deduces that Anne has had...uh...carnal knowledge of that treacherous punk, Marc, is the funniest moment in the film.

But I digress...I was discussing that glorious smack. Melville is gracefully and nonchalantly trampling all over the whole feminist movement with that one glorious smack--where is Laura Mulvey when we need her? But of course, that glorious smack is merely the shining apex of the all out, frontal assault Bob Le Flambeur wages on anything and everything feminist. From the greed and duplicity of the wife of the guy who supplies the layout of the casino, to Anne's licentious vacuousness, in a film that is rife with allusions to the honor and decency of men (even criminals), women (except for Bob's bartender friend of course) are portrayed as simple, petty, loose, and deceitful.

Which is all fine with me--it is just a movie. As I stated earlier, if anything in this genre in general, and in this film in particular aggravates me, it is the tedious predictability of the story lines. Jesus, when Paulo tells Anne about the plans to rob the casino, it is completely obvious that that "nimble little minx" is going to eventually let that proverbial cat out of the bag. And of course, when Bob has just won at the track, and his friend is trying to convince him to quit while he is ahead, Bob predictably utters those famous last words...

"I'm on a roll."


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ah youth...

Despite having been published years earlier, Francois Truffaut's manifesto, "A Certain Tendency of French Cinema," contains a subtle hint about the source of the problems young Antoine Doinel faces in The 400 Blows. "They behave toward the scenario," Truffaut writes about screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, "like someone who thinks that they are reforming a delinquent by finding him work." If nothing else, this seems to describe the adults Antoine is surrounded by (and dare I say, confined by) in The 400 Blows--all of which seem to have completely forgotten what it is to be young. 

Not to say that this film's young antihero, Antoine, is not a walking, talking imbroglio, because he undoubtedly is, but considering circumstances like the militaristic nature of his school, and the...uh...less-than-ideal nature of his home and family, his behavior becomes a lot easier to empathize with. In fact, most of his behavior seems like logical reactions to bad circumstances, rather than problems with his temperament. He is simply floating along the currents of outside forces, reacting consistently calm and "stoically" to each new obstacle he confronts. One could say, he is drifting on these currents.

Although there is little variance in Antoine's reactions to each new obstacle or dilemma, there is a gradual change in the film's settings, that alludes to some kind of progression occurring. This is the broadening of the boundaries (both figuratively and physically) that confine Antoine.

First, we see Antoine in the tiny classroom. Then we see him in the even tinier, suffocating confines of his family's apartment. The apartment is so small that doors can only be partially opened due to beds and furniture in front of them. These small sets allude to feelings of imprisonment.

Next, after Antoine has been removed from school, and has--once and for all--run away, he temporarily stays with his faithful friend, Rene. Here, Antoine is free of school and his parent's dysfunction, and we find him in Rene's giant, old house, smoking cigars and drinking, virtually free of all parental influence.

Finally, although he is, in a sense, confined in the observatory for delinquents, it is still a gigantic building, surrounded by lots of land. But of course, Antoine escapes from the observatory. It is here, through incredibly long tracking shots of Antoine running (and running, and running) Truffaut gives us a sense of Antoine distancing himself from all of the adults, and confinement, and troubles that have plagued him throughout the film. Once Antoine is on the beach (once all of these currents which he has been drifting on, have lead him to the sea), he is in the freest, most limitless place and point thus far in the film.

Or is he? Has he really just reached the greatest boundary, or wall, of them all? This is where Truffaut sheds the tendency of the popular French Cinema he condemns in his manifesto, "to contain its characters in a sealed-off world," and burdens us with the interpretation of where Antoine is once he reaches the sea. After all, once Antoine has taken a few steps in the sea, he turns around and walks back, before the camera zooms in on him.

One thing is for sure--there is none of that convenient closure that viewers, to this day, expect. If, at the sea, Antoine is any freer (or for that matter, better off) than he was in the suffocating little apartment with his parents, is up to each individual viewer to decide. Personally, when contemplating this, I can't help but to think back to a quote that was recited in Antoine's classroom, earlier in the film:

"Better to have freedom and constant threat, than slavery..."


Monday, September 8, 2008

"And shit to you too!"

For someone whom has never seen any of Claude Chabrol's other films, knows little about Paris in the mid to late 1950s, and--most importantly--always cheers for the characters that try to do "the right thing," Les Cousins leaves a bleak and acrid aftertaste.

Taken by itself, as a singular work of art, bereft of its frequent juxtaposition with Le Beau Serge (which, I hear, places it in a different context), Les Cousins conveys a lucid message about Paris's hipster society in the post-war years--there was no place for humility, honesty, or tolerance in it. 

Of course--considering their inherently fatuous, hollow, and contemptible natures in general--there is no place for the aforementioned virtues in most, if not all, hipster societies, but in the particular "scene" that Chabrol plunges Charles into the midst of in Les Cousins, humility, honesty, and tolerance, in the end, spell Charles's doom.

One of Charles's biggest problems is, that he does not take a baseball bat to Colvis's knees in the very first scene. Nah, but seriously, Colvis and Paul smack of those bored, vicious, rich kids that used to ride through the English countryside in the 1700s and 1800s, tormenting and terrorizing the peasants--just for kicks. What little novelty Paul has, wears off by the second or third scene--not to mention, the virulent "Gestapo" joke he lays on his sleeping Jewish acquaintance. In this context, and despite his annoying timidity, Charles still gets my "sympathy."

First of all, Charles is showing humility and honesty when he pours his heart out to Florence--which is admirable in my book, regardless of how pitiful it was at points. How is he supposed to know that he is relinquishing himself to a garden-variety "whore of Babylon"?

Second, when that treacherous bastard, Colvis, and Paul "seduce" Florence, Charles, regardless of his reasons, shows tolerance and humility by taking it like a man. He could have taken a baseball bat to Paul's and Colvis's knees at that point, or even worse, started acting like that pitiful dingbat, Phillipe, but he shrugs it off, and gets on with his work. That is the kind of tolerant civility that makes any society, community, or clique bearable, let alone, livable.

Yeah, Charles starts to blow it towards the end of the film, but it is necessary to keep in mind that between Colvis and Paul, there is some manipulation working against Charles. By the time Charles is standing over a sleeping Paul, with a single slug in the pistol that is pointed at Paul's head, Charles has been through the ringer, and is acting out of desperation and heartache (heartache that was the result of manipulation). Not to mention, if Charles really wanted to simply kill Paul, he would have loaded the pistol and shot him. But the whole one-slug thing, is to see if fate is on Paul's side. And...well, it is.

Despite Paul's occasional charm, and regardless of any of the "ambiguities" about who exactly is guilty and innocent, which John Conomos mentions in his critique of this film, Paul ends up being the undisputed punk of the film. Colvis is indeed a treacherous bastard that deserves that baseball bat across the knees, but Paul is family to Charles, and that makes all of his insidious treachery and duplicity, inexcusable.

Yes, Paul old sport, "and shit to you too!"

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sniffing the seat.

Yeah, this is really just to see how this blog-thing looks...but...Les Mistons was a splendid reminder of how frustrating it can be to be an adolescent boy, with a doomed infatuation with a woman...or hell...with a girl your age.

In second or third (or perhaps it was fourth or fifth) grade, I had a crush on Denise Schafer and she had a crush on me. But the best gesture I could come up with--at the time--to express my feelings to her, was to spit on her in my backyard. 

I guess in this regard I can relate to that gang of "brats."

They say that a photo is worth a thousand words. No matter how well you write, the "brat" sniffing the bike seat, after Bernadette (I think that was her name) got off of it, sums up the utter hopelessness and fatuousness of adolescent infatuations, much better than words could.