Nippon no akuryo / Evil Spirits of Japan (1970)

27 10 2014

There might be a temptation for one to identify the “evil spirits” mentioned in the title of Kazuo Kuroki’s 1970 film. Such a viewer might too easily be playing into the filmmaker’s hands. As a “experimental” riff on the yakuza genre, Kuroki’s film immediately sets up a conversation between state violence and the violence of organized crime. Suggesting cops themselves are not any different from the yakuza seems like a rather banal “revelation” one that might only seem profound to the most naive of audience members. However, he builds from this setup into something far more enriching: sure the parallel lives of the criminal and cop are engrossing, but the success of Kuroki’s film does not lie in the argument he’s positioning, but in the details of the images. In other words, there’s enough stylistic flair here to save a film that would be nothing more than platitudinous otherwise.

1

Longtime yakuza bodyguard, Murase, is visiting an old flame when he stumbles upon something bizarre. She’s spent the night with a man that looks exactly like him. The man is Ochiai, a cop with a past as a revolutionary. Murase suggests a mutually beneficial switch. Ochiai is apprehensive, but eventually accepts the offer. Being able to infiltrate the criminal underworld seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, but the information he can obtain eventually takes a backseat to the experience. He begins to take comfort in the criminal lifestyle, where as Murase focuses all his efforts on researching an old case in which he was involved.

2

Despite the literary origins, the fact that Evil Spirits of Japan was an Art Theater Guild production, would have been enough for many to register it as a film that isn’t bound to text. While this is accurate, I’m not sure such a statement is enough to prepare an audience for visual and audio trickery that Kuroki gets away with here. I use “trickery” not to sound dismissive, but instead because it feels like an exaggeration to label Kuroki’s aesthetic as an innovative one. Even in Japan, this kind of kinetic, tactile experience had already been accomplished in the work of a filmmaker of a Hiroshi Teshigahara, whose Woman of the Dunes seems to have a particular influence on Kuroki. Kuroki composes even the simplest shot/reverse shot scenes of conversation with hyper closeups, which seems to capture something that feels both sensual and tense. This is a mystery film, albeit an intentionally obtuse one, yet it visually functions in a way that would make sense for a more conventional narrative. This is not to say that Kuroki’s film looks boring. Quite the opposite, it is a complete joy to look at, but his grammar, is simple enough to follow.

3

Again, this sounds like a Kuroki, but it isn’t. The fact that his film still feels and moves like a conventional thriller, works in its favor. He hasn’t made a particularly deep one. As it is, his film stands as an entertaining narrative executed in a dazzling way. I am not particularly fond of the critical practice in which one separates the form from the content. I do intend to stress how impressive the form is here. I am not suggesting the content is both something that can be separated and not worthy of such a visually beautiful film. This is a difficult terrain to navigate, but essentially the narrative here is snappy and fun, but not the most fascinating thing to endure. Often, scenes seem to work better when they’re decontextualized. Kuroki seems to understand this himself. Maybe the film’s sex scenes were just a selling point, but they’re so tender and tactile that they don’t translate as an easy way to give an audience sex, but instead a break from the narrative that aches in a way that the rest of the film unfortunately resists.

4

The problem is less that Kuroki has made a genre film, and more that he hasn’t devoted himself to saying anything new about the yakuza film. If every genre is a discourse, then every new genre film is a new conversation, yet Kuroki seems to find no problem with simply reheating old works and refashioning them with new (visual) rhetoric. Again, he’s made a fine film, but one that doesn’t feel vital. Murase and Ochiai’s doppelganger scenario has the potential  for something about the connection between state violence and criminal violence, as I already suggested earlier in this post. However, Kuroki’s attention seems to wander to the “cool” details of his characters once he gets past his “cops are bad” statement. Allegedly, he wanted to make a film that looked and sounded like Funeral Parade of Roses but told a story that was far more familiar to a mainstream audience. If that’s truly case, he absolutely succeeded.

5





Mo hozue wa tsukanai / No More Easy Life (1979)

21 10 2014

The Art Theater Guild’s courting of a global “new wave” cinematic aesthetic often bred, for better or worse (in my opinion, the latter), films that were male-centric. Perhaps this came from the influences of global cinema, or maybe it came from the movement’s rebels rallying against the more feminine drive found in Japanese cinema of the 1950s. Whatever the case may be, the Japanese New Wave and by extension, the Art Theater Guild, will be remembered as fostering a home for men who wanted to make serious artistic and political statements about their existence as men. This is not an overall truth (and I find it particularly important to note that one of ATG’s most celebrated works, Funeral Parade of Roses, is about women, though history has challenged their status as such) but the ethos of a filmmaker like Nagisa Oshima and even Kaneto Shindo (see yesterday’s post on The Strangling) shifts the focus entirely away from women. No More Easy Life, a late seventies ATG production, goes against this current.

1

Mariko is at a transitional phrase in life. She’s nearing the end of her college education, but her focus in not on books. Instead, she’s concerned with money and she worries far more about employment. She drifts from one occupation to another, just as she seems to jump inbetween two potential romantic suitors. She already has a history with Tsuneo, one which we don’t know all the details about. We are able to deduce that although he likes, and may even love Mariko, he is unable to articulate this in a direct way. He’s too busy, too aloof, and always seems to be ignoring Mariko on purpose. Hashimoto, on the other hand, is his foil. He is not at all timid in expressing his love for Mariko, but he does so a bit too earnestly. He’s weirdly possessive, especially since he knows Mariko isn’t quite ready to settle down. Posed as a love triangle with one potential right answer, Mariko shifts the question to a yes or no. It’s not should stay with Tsuneo or Hashimoto but rather, should she bother with any man or just move on as a single woman.

2

While celebrating No More Easy Life for being a film centering a woman’s experience, I do realize that one could be on shaky ground in the case of the two potential boyfriends. If it’s about the targets of her heterosexual desire, isn’t it just the same old thing framed from a different angle? A lot of her anxiety involves men and thus, much of the discourse (both Mariko’s own words and the subtext of the film) is around these two men. Isn’t this the reality for a hetero women like Mariko, though? Even if she doesn’t want to date (which seems to be the case), she does want affection, some physical intimacy. She’s more than entitled to it, especially if someone like Tsuneo is only going to come up when it is convenient for him. Should Mariko herself not play by the same rules? At one point, she tells him directly: “I’m not the kind of a woman to wait.” There’s evidence to suggest otherwise, but director Yoichi Higashi (of later Village of Dreams fame) visualizes this as an internal conflict. Mariko doesn’t want to wait for Tsuneo, but sometimes she does.

3

Mariko’s hesitation or lack of certainty is not that she’s a weak character, but she does have the tremendous burden of the rest of her life hanging over her. That sounds dramatic, but she’s reaching the end of college, and the “real” part of her adult life is set to begin. Towards the beginning, there are multiple sequences of Mariko interacting with strangers, most of them male. In almost all of these instances, her safety, though never directly threatened, is still questioned. Her simple nice gestures get extrapolated as an invitation to catcall. The camera never suggests these interactions are unusual and that something terrible is happening to Mariko. Instead, Higashi’s eye captures something that seems painful and ordinary, troubling yet typical. After these sequences, we can’t help but notice Mariko being more careful with words. Because of her status as a woman, even the most simple interactions (just saying hello and goodbye) deserve intense deliberation. The effect is not unlike Jonathan Glazer’s recent Under the Skin, but whereas those sequences (understandably) echo the lurking terror found in a horror film, everything is played far more innocently here. That’s because to most (male) observers, these interactions seem innocent.

4

Higashi lacks stylistic touches of a Glazer or a Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Millennium Mambo is another reference point here) and maybe that’s what prevents this film from being a bonafide masterpiece. I’m not sure such abstract or poetic flourishes would work here though, as the experience itself is so deeply ingrained in the film’s straightforward aesthetic. It’s a stupid hypothetical to even present, but I do think it’s worthwhile to briefly mention the directors who followed Higashi’s route, even if they do so subconsciously. The novelty of an ATG film that actually cared about women wasn’t enough for the public. The company would fold two years later and Higashi wouldn’t get international attention for another 17 years. It’s a shame too, because he’s crafted the sort of portrait that is so dense and detailed, that it would be difficult to shake from anybody’s mind.

5





Kousatsu / The Strangling (1979)

20 10 2014

At the risk of greatly simplifying his career, Kaneto Shindo was probably a bit lost by 1979. His world renowned horror pictures like Onibaba and Kuroneko were already a decade gone. He hadn’t kept up with the output of the Japanese New Wave, but his career stayed afloat. Shindo was never claimed by the New Wave, yet he was never regarded as one of the “traditional” filmmakers they stylistically opposed. Like Kinoshita and Kobayashi, he stands in the liminal space. Here he was in 1979, the West over its “honeymoon phase” of critical engagement of Japanese film,  with a “dark” film worthy of the New Wave and one produced by its offshoot company, Art Theater Guild. Fittingly enough, The Strangling tells us a story of generational conflict. He has his perceptive moments, but I’m not sure they manage to justify a film that is so straightforward in its mean spirit.

1

Yasuzo enters the bedroom of his son, Tsutomu, and strangles him. Ryoko, the boy’s mother, cries in horror but does not seem to protest her husband’s actions. What could possess a parent to do such a thing to their own child? We jump ahead to Yasuzo’s trials. The neighborhood has teamed up in support of him, many visit Ryoko with a positive attitude and a hope that her husband will return soon. Ryoko seems unable to express any emotion, yet we see she was a bubbly individual in the past. She was defensive of Tsutomu, even as his behavior continued to become more troubling. Tsutomu himself, perhaps emotionally stunted by his parent’s own bizarre relationship, sees the world rather selfishly and he responds with a violent impulse. A classmate, Hatsuko, warms up to him. She takes his virginity, but confesses that she’ll have to kill herself afterwards, as she is on the run from the murder of her abusive uncle.

2

I find myself struggling to articulate the problems I have with The Strangling without sounding like a concerned parent. Perhaps that is fitting, considering the primary dynamic being explored here. But basically, I do find myself emotionally bruised by Shindo’s onslaught of narrative nastiness. Tsutomu is a “troubled” youth, but my sympathy for him cannot continue following his attempted rape of Hatsuko, an entitlement that eventually resurfaces when his Oedipal desire that has been brewing throughout the film finally boils to the surface. The “morally ambiguous” protagonist may have had novelty in 1979, but it doesn’t know, and Shindo’s own reconstruction of such a character type fails when he actually just produces someone who is despicable. There is no ambiguity, he’s just all bad.

3

Of course, Shindo complicates these matters by shadowing his son figure with a father that is just as difficult to like. However, much of what we come to find out about Yasuzo comes from the time we spend in Tsutomu’s own head. Perhaps then, the film is meditation on the forced performativity of adolescent rebellion, but such an idea is just as rotten, especially coming from an elder like Shindo. The film’s strongest moment come when there is less of a wallowing in this behavior, and more of a meditation on the breakdown in communication. Hatsuko is one of the few characters one can feel sympathy for here, yet the talk of her death is one that repeatedly blames her for her own victimhood. Yasuzo himself responds to the news of her suicide with an unhelpful “This is what the world’s coming to!” This way of digesting the news shows up throughout the film and I see it in the discourse of people today. As opposed to seeing Hatsuko as a tragic victim, he takes the story at its surface and identifies her act as the tragedy.

4

Hatsuko’s story is one that is shortlived, or at least experienced only fleetingly by the audience. Her death is ultimately a narrative tool to provide more “troubled backstory” for Tsutomu. Indeed, much of the film seems to be about how he responds to what the world has dealt him. Once he dies, however, the focus becomes how Ryoko processes this reality and how she grieves. Again, Shindo’s rare moment of situating a woman at the center yields something far more interesting than the brooding and bruising male egos that dominate the screen. The men grab us by our shirts and tell us how to feel on an instinctual level. Perhaps only in enduring their behavior, are we able to understand the frustration of the women around them. Yet, Shindo seems to revel in the assumed “transgressive” behavior of his protagonist, but it ends up being one of those things that’s both hateful and boring.

5





Ai yori ai e / So Goes My Love (1938)

19 10 2014

A brisk comedy that runs under an hour doesn’t seem like a film ripe for social discourse, but this effort from Yasujiro Shimazu (the “newest” of which I’ve seen from him) is loaded with conversations about the ever overused idea of “modernity.” Shimazu doesn’t restrict the iconography of the modern city into simplistic signs, but instead has them collapse under their own supposedly concrete implications. So Goes My Love is a rich text for anyone interested in Japan in the 1930s, which might be a limited crowd in the film world, but it is vital to any film scholars that even bother with just one Japanese film. This sounds like hyperbole, but so much of western film academics misread into Japanese history is alluded to and playfully mocked here.

2

Shigeo is an unemployed writer living with his girlfriend, Minako. Minako makes the money to support the both of them, as Shigeo’s aspirations for a writing careers seem less possible with each day. The couple is no serious financial peril, though. While Minako is not exactly making a comfortable amount of money as a barmaid, Shigeo’s parents are still very much in the picture. In fact, Shigeo only ran away to live with Minako after his father refused to approve of the couple’s marriage. While Shigeo struggles on the surface, his woes and frustrations all happen over the financial safety net of his parents, who are willing to welcome him back once he breaks things off with Minako. Toshiko, his sister, comes to visit and in doing so begins to build something of a bridge between Minako and the family that wants nothing to do with her.

1

Shuji Sano, who is perhaps most famous for his roles in Early Summer and Carmen Comes Home, plays the brooding Shigeo here and if one thinks he might come off as a little bratty, that’s the point. This isn’t a tendency film, and if it were, Shigeo would not be the downtrodden subject. He’s struggling and finding himself in the world, to borrow but one cliche to help us construct the idea of the serious male writer. Shimazu is teasing his performance of this role, not the actor’s but the character himself. He’s not the breadwinner in the relationship, hell he doesn’t make anything, but one should look at the scene where Toshiko (played by the great yet forgotten Mieko Takamine) shows up. In this scene, he is intentionally standoffish. While Minako invites Toshiko to sit down and have tea, he quickly and rudely tries to dismiss her. What right does Shigeo have to do this in the first place? This isn’t his apartment, yet his voice, because he is a man, ultimately wins out. At the same time, Shimazu himself frames this sequence with limited camera movement and from a distance. In the surveillance quality of the shot, we are able to understand that he is silly. It’s not that his masculine posturing is unsuccessful, it actually is successful, but that’s why it is so ridiculous.

3

While much of the narrative is centered around Shigeo, Toshiko and Minako both occupy an important part of the film’s conversation. For whatever reason, there is an increased emphasis on questions of modernity from western film scholars viewing Asian cinema. I personally believe this comes from a rather simplistic idea about how gender functions in non-western cultures. Women are oppressed there but not here. It’s an idea that has long been used to justify colonial occupation, “White men saving brown women from brown men” as Gayatri Spivak puts it. Out of this line of thought, many western academics shift their attention to how women dress. The question of modernity is a valid one for Japan, a country whose infrastructure was rapidly reshaped only 40 years before this film. The conception and development of the “modern space” is worth researching, but this conversation can’t be limited to women’s way of dress.

5

Minako dresses in a “modern” way at her job, but often returns to a more traditional way of dress when at home. One could suggest that this is to appease Shigeo, but he does the exact same thing when looking for a job. Nothing is made about a man’s way of dress, because the potential meanings for clothes is often gendered feminine. Thus, it is ignored when a man jumps between two equally masculine modes of presentation, even though it mirrors the heavily politicized way a woman jumps between two equally feminine modes of presentation. This flexibility does say something, but Shimazu refuses to let it fall into the simple binary of the modern woman vs the traditional woman. The film’s narrative functions in a remarkably similar way. This romantic comedy gets it happy ending when the “traditional” parents finally meet Minako, and find out that she’s wonderful. It seems like a cheap dramatic turn because much of the frustration in the film seems to have been easily written away, but it suggests something powerful: that all of the ideas are tied to something, sure, but not something stable and finite. In this case, it would be wise to question how we imagine the “traditional” vs the “modern.” Neither is concrete, especially when they are in conversation with each other.

6





Titash Ekti Nadir Naam / A River Called Titas (1973)

30 09 2014

Thanks to the recent restoration efforts spearheaded by Martin Scorsese, A River Called Titas has become Ritwik Ghatak’s most canonized work. This might deserve some negotiation but for the purposes of this piece, it should be acknowledged the importance of a figure like Scorsese or a company like Criterion plays when it comes to forming a film canon, as well as controlling the narrative of film history. I preface my thoughts on Ghatak’s film not because it is bad and his other films are superior, but because I find framing this work as being on its own, even if unintentional, creates a wealth of problems. Ghatak’s earlier work is more restrained, while here he seems to be swinging for the fences, throwing in narrative movements that would be categorized as melodramatic in any other context. His eyes are now capable of capturing poetry in every shot. It might help to think of A River Called Titas in the same vein as Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds. Both films are reflective of their filmmaker’s career, but both films are heightened, melodramatic epics compared to their more usual, down-to-earth efforts.

1

A young girl, Basanti watches from a distance as her crush, Kishore and his best friend, Subol, learns the basics of becoming a fisherman. We jump ahead many years, and the two boys have become men. Kishore is arranged to be married to Rajar Jhi, but their honeymoon must be restricted to the fishing boat belonging to the two men. Rajar Jhi and Kilshore have one evening together before she is kidnapped by bandits. She washes up on dry ground, still barely alive, but the incident has made Kilshore unstable. More time passes, Rajar Jhi now has a son, presumably from her one night with Kilshore. She arrives in town and grows close to Basanti, who was once married to Subol, but he died the following day. Basanti agrees to take care of both Rajar Jhi and her son, Ananta, but her abusive father is constantly criticizing her decisions.

2

The narrative shifts in the first hour alone and plentiful and abrupt. There seems to be a general consensus that A River Called Titas is a victim of the arthouse cliche “it’s hard to follow.” Ghatak’s editing here is as relentlessly elliptical as the more well celebrated Nicolas Roeg. Unlike Roeg, however, Ghatak’s cut don’t immediately call attention to themselves. While Roeg might cut a sequence that actually spans a minute in the character’s time, Ghatak’s editing is so graceful and fluid that years seem to casually drift within each shot. Again, like Roeg, this is disorienting, if not entirely maddening but it perfectly underscores a film that is very much about the heavy things. What better way to communicate the precious passing of time then to make pass time so quickly that the viewer can hardly get their bearings?

3

I will admit that tonally, the more pronounced “tragic” element of the film that takes over during the second half is a bit too much. Ghatak is at his best here when he focuses on Basanti and Rajar Jhi. The two are able to build a friendship despite the fact that Rajar Jhi seems far too intimidated to make any effort in befriending anyone. This sounds critical, but the film gives us the details that make understand why she has arrived at such a closed off demeanor. It is not an uncommon narrative trope for a woman to be mysteriously quiet, but usually, this “mystery” is never mined to reveal her own past, indeed her own human-ness. Instead, it is fodder for male fantasies about “different” and “interesting” women, who often read to a more critical viewer as just a male construction of a submissive heterosexual partner. Rajar Jhi, however, is still reeling from what life has thrown at her, she seems unsure about every inch of the ground she rests her feet on. Every movement and gesture is deeply calculated, sure perhaps Ghatak acknowledging Brecht (who was a major inspiration) but also just Rajar Rhi’s personal protocol to maneuver in a world that has done everything to mute her presence.

4

Basanti, who kind of grows into being the more central figure of the film, is equally remarkable. She’s dealing with an almost identical tragic past, yet her coping mechanism is one of anger rather than reluctant acceptance. She’s got a temper, one that she manages to keep in check save for two violent eruptions. During these two instances, Ghatak confronts the audience with something frustrating: who are we to criticize a woman such as Basanti. She lashes out at her mother, sure, but she does so in defense of Ananta. Rosy Samad as Basanti, manages to shift to different levels so quickly, not unlike Ghatak’s handling with time itself, that the results can be frustrating. Fittingly, such a word wouldn’t even begin to describe the pressures affecting her inability to be recognized and viewed as a human being.

5

While Ghatak goes all out in trying to create a transcendent, epic, poetic (and so on) cinematic masterpiece, he does not exactly fail. Yet, I find the film’s angling towards this final, transcendent moment to be not nearly as interesting as the aforementioned relationship between Basanti and Rajar Jhi. The moments where their friendship is experienced are easily the happiest in the film, and it presents something rare in all of cinema. Here we have two women and young boy subconsciously morphing into a family. This isn’t about duty, as much as it about love. Their family is one on the social outskirts, absolutely not malleable enough to be squeezed into the expectations of a heteronormative family. Unlike countless European art house films about two women creating a deep connection, Ghatak never even hints at something sexual. Basanti and Rajar Jhi still say “they need a man” but they seem to be aware of this not as an emotional need, as much as a financial one. Both are empowered by their ability to see through the faults in the society that has left them completely dry.

6





La Chinoise (1967)

31 08 2014

Last week, in the middle of praising Godard’s Hail Mary, I made a reference to the disappointment I felt while revisiting Masculin Feminin. To make things short, I find the film, while not particularly painting a flattering portrait of any young person in it, particularly unfair to the women. La Chinoise, which comes only a year later, may offer something of an apology to this depiction. As opposed to the vapid women uninterested in politics in Masculin Feminin, here we have Veronique, an extremely committed radical. The film ends with her “taking the steps” towards a life of violent and revolutionary acts, although the film seems to leave her more confused and hurt than the aforementioned “vapid” women. It would be reductive to limit the conversation on La Chinoise to whether or not Godard is sympathetic to his group of young radicals. Despite the film’s strictly political aesthetic, it may only be interested in observing, not projecting anything itself.

1

While on a summer break from her studies at Nanterre University, Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky) and her boyfriend, an actor named Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud) stay at a comfortable apartment that was lent to them from the parents of a friend. They’re joined by Yvonne, her boyfriend, Kirilov and a science student by the name of Henri. The five form something of a commune. They spend their days reading political texts, loudly delivering lectures on said texts, and comically re-enacting the acts of imperialism depicted in the news. The group dreams of revolution, and these dreams slowly develop into a reality. Theory isn’t enough, and the group formulates a plan to assassinate Mikhail Sholokhov, a Soviet novelist visiting Paris. Veronique is chosen to commit the crime.

2

To the apolitical viewer, La Chinoise sounds like a headache. An ideological exercise that would oppose the very thing that made Godard’s earliest work so fresh and exciting. Suggesting this film isn’t dry isn’t the right way to unpack it, but one can’t say that Godard doesn’t give his everything in making the film be as exciting as the revolution is to Veronique and Guillaume. Almost exclusively composed in one apartment, the film seems to be driven by a bunch of contradictions. The apartment is spacious, as it is normally the residence of a bourgeois family, but the compositions are tight. Close-ups seem to be individual portraits painted by Raoul Coutard’s camera, which seems to linger until the film abruptly cuts to something else. In continuing the connection with Masculin Feminin, this is Godard’s first academy ratio full length film since it, and it seems to develop a similar aesthetic. Just like there, we have a film that is (or can be) dry but exciting, open spatially yet closed off tightly by the camera. Such contradictions are confusing and messy, which seems appropriate for the film’s ideological content, which seems to be overwhelmingly present on the surface, but Godard’s own ideas are perhaps masked by his vocal characters.

3

 

Unlike Masculin FemininLa Chinoise is shot in color and it seems nearly impossible to think of the film without red, blue, and yellow all confronting your eyes in an appealing and uniform way. Frames seem to be balanced not by the continuity of actors and their physical preference, but instead by Godard and Coutard’s preference for the image itself. This, of course, echoes Yasujiro Ozu’s ideas about composition. The connection here is frustrating, because at the time, Ozu was relatively unknown and of little interest to the west. Yet, Godard seems to channeling him here. First in his portrait-like close-ups, but also in the decorations of the apartment. Like the protagonists of early Ozu comedies like The Lady and the Beard and I Flunked But…, Godard’s characters also hang photographs of Karl Marx (among others) on their walls. Interestingly, Ozu’s Marx-adorned rooms were decorated with American movie posters and other images of western influence. Godard synthesizes popular culture with ideology in the film’s humorous pop song, “Mao Mao” while Ozu saw both as part of the same force.

4

While one can get caught up in the words of the group here, it would be a mistake to label Godard’s film as a advertisement for them, or even an endorsement of their behavior. The assassination doesn’t go quite as planned and eventually, the older couple who let Veronique borrow the apartment send their kids to check on the place. It is important that La Chinoise takes place in the summer because it’s conclusion, which does not condemn the group itself, still does leave us with a sense of “now what?” Veronique and Guillaume are bourgeois leftists, but so was Godard himself. As Richard Brody notes in his book, Everything is Cinema, during the shooting of the film, Godard gave Leaud money to eat fancier meals. He had to have his idealistic, revolutionary youth be privileged to poke holes in their ways? The result is, again, a film that does not condone or condemn the group. What purpose can the film serve then? As much as it fascinates me, I struggle to find an answer myself. Maybe it is Godard’s own inward reflection on his own social standing and what that means for his interest in the radical left. The film concludes with Guillaume allowing himself to be humiliated for profit, maybe Godard is doing the same. No, not making a terrible, impersonal film for financial success but instead, one that would make evident his shortcomings as a privileged leftist.

5

The problem with all of this is that the film then leaves Veronique out to dry. We must presume she returns to her studies, yet she laments in voice over that she lacks the courage to go forth with even more acts of violence. The film gives us a sequence where her increasingly violent intentions are questioned in a level-headed way by her, of course, male professor. His reasonable reply doesn’t change Veronique’s intentions, she goes through with the plan to kill Sholokhov shortly after this conversation. While Godard allows himself (through Guillaume) to absorb criticism and vegetables, Veronique is left completely alone. Godard would make Weekend next, and perhaps give us some answers. Both the man and the woman in that film’s bourgeois couple are thrown through the ringer, but the woman adapts, though the film suggests this is spineless betrayal. He doesn’t give his women much of a choice in the three films discussed here. Veronique is a radical, but she’s “too radical.” She arguably becomes this way for her one self-preservation, just as the woman in Weekend must eat her husband to not end up dead herself. Maybe I’m reaching here, but in any case, Godard fucks over Veronique. Maybe in his self-critical approach to bourgeois intellectuals, he could have included his own misogyny. I guess one could take comfort that he would latter address this headon, but it seems to halt all of the energy in both La Chinoise and Masculin Feminin.

6





Je vous salue, Marie / Hail Mary (1985)

24 08 2014

Perhaps it is the controversy that came with its release or perhaps it was Godard’s own troubled production, but for whatever reason, Hail Mary is more infamous than it is famous. Sure, little of his post-1968 work is as iconic and ingrained in popular culture, but Hail Mary in particular seems like nothing more than a curiosity. Even those who do praise it, do so with some restraint. It seems that the context of the film’s inception has become a bigger story than the film itself. Yet, here we find Godard at his most compassionate, although his constant refusal to distance himself from his own work has never been more palpable. The result is something truly frustrating and off-putting, but for the engaged viewer who gives him a chance, they may find one of cinema’s most celebrated figures at his most daring and confrontational.

1

A despondent Joseph sits across from Mary Magdalen in a cafe. She’s pleading with him to marry his girlfriend, Mary. He refuses, but his mind appears to be somewhere far away from the conversation at hand. Meanwhile, the angel Gabriel arrives at the airport. He gives Joseph, who is a taxi driver, five hundred dollars and commands him to drive to the service station run by Mary’s father. There, Gabriel confronts Mary and tells her that she is pregnant, but the father is not Joseph. The implication is that it is not any other human in a corporeal. Joseph is overcome with jealously. For the two years he’s dated Mary, he has not touched or even kissed her. Refusing to believe in the immaculate conception, he accuses her of cheating.

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While anyone vaguely familiar with the birth of Christ can follow the general idea of Godard’s story, the narrative’s first sharp deviation from its source text is Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Godard’s track record with women is well, let’s just say the fact that I have to construct a sentence with the phrase “track record with women” is a problem. Many might call this a simplistic assessment, but a recent revisit of a one-time favorite, Masculin feminin depressed me greatly. What I once saw as a natural observation on young people and their romantic relationships seemed a lot more hollow. Women are sexualized for the benfit of capitalism and consumerism, in particular, sure. However, throughout the 1960s, Godard’s critique fails to see the forest for the trees, women are shamed for being not just complicit in this manipulation, but responsible for it. In other words, he creates a more rarefied way of repeating the rather banal stereotype that women are superficial and dull, but ties it to a critique of capitalism.

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Godard himself later remarked his displeasure with how he treated his characters, particularly the women of Masculin feminin. The film seeks to make them not just apolitical, but perhaps too vapid to even comprehend politics in the first place. Unlike the work that followed Masculin femininHail Mary is less straightforward about its ideological intentions. There is no quoting of Marx, no pictures of Mao, no static shots of individuals throwing their fists in the air for revolt. Yet, this might be one of his deeply political films, and the fact that its politics are interconnected with something personal may have led to a critical evaluation that seemed disinterested in probing deeper into the cinematic fabric. I hesitate to call this film feminist, but its undoubtedly concerned with a woman’s agency and control of her body.

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It might be of interest to point that Godard frequently considered pulling the plug on Hail Mary, but continued to power on because of his collaborator, Anne-Marie Mieville. Mieville’s short, The Book of Mary, was and still is shown before Hail Mary. Godard felt he may have owed her something, in this case maybe the film’s existence is only because of and for a woman. The film is about Mary and her bodily autonomy, sure, but in addition, it is about Joseph and his unflinching desire to own her, perhaps dominate her with his own affection and love. The latter rhetoric sounds complicated and unfair on Joseph’s part, yet his manipulation of Mary’s feelings makes up the bulk of the film. The reverse tends to be the norm in fiction, that women are needlessly cruel and coldhearted to men who want to do nothing but love them. The reality is that such a line of thought is possessive and abusive.

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Joseph is played by Thierry Rode, a first time actor, who was even more inexperienced than the film’s lead, Myriem Roussel. While Roussel (who had worked with Godard before in First Name Carmen) plays thing in an almost aloof and distant manner, Rode is awkwardly imposing. His movements feel strict, almost forced. Many have watched this film and never even had the slightest idea that he would be “abusive boyfriend” material and yet, the evidence is there on the film. He is not so different from Godard, he sports a similar pair of sunglasses if that means anything, nor is he that different from the typical male viewer that would watch the film. Some might feel that jealousy and anger is completely justified. He’s dated Mary for two years, he deserves something, right?

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Well, no, that’s wrong. The film, with the most extreme of circumstances, gives a male audience a pill still difficult to swallow: that romantic relationships don’t equal possession. Joseph feels like he deserves Mary’s love, which in some cases might just mean love in that indescribable way but here it most likely means sex. His desire to see Mary naked sends him to his knees, akin to some untamed animal. The most striking thing here is that all of this, which is familiar and still authentic in many heterosexual relationships, is the context of the birth of Christ. So much of Christ’s life was imposed forces that depicted all the ugly potential of man. How revolutionary, then, for Godard to suggest that the birth of Christ came in the context of something still found and often unrecognized in male ego: the desire to  possess women. Throughout the  film, Mary does not waver. She calls the shots and controls her body. If Joseph feels like Mary owes him something, he is more than welcome to leave her.

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