Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Impromptu Review of Godard's "Made in U.S.A."

Jean-Luc Godard's "Made in USA" (1966) might be the movie for the 2016 electoral season. Here is why:
Godard was something of a visionary. He was a director who came to believe that narrative-driven movies were an unnecessary limitation on the medium, and sought to break free of that limitation by creating movies that had more in common with poetry or a dense philosophical tract that a traditional story. I consider "Alphaville" to be a good example of Godard's vision at its finest (it is considered a New Wave, sci-fi classic for good reason!). "Made in USA” is another good attempt at this vision, if not as enjoyable as Alphaville. Regardless, I ultimately found it to be a very timely movie because of its political content.
Ostensibly, "Made in USA" is a movie about a noirish secret agent/tabloid journalist (I like that combo!) "Paula," played by log-time Godard actress/wife Anna Karina, who sets out to discover the cause of death of her lover, Richard P*, a political operative (I write "Richard P*" because Godard consistently blots out Richard’s last name with background noise, a trick people might recognize from a movie that borrows more than a little from “Made in USA,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”). In keeping with Godard’s desire to make a narrative free movie, this thin story is little more than a pretext for Godard to do two things: first, ruminate on his failing marriage with Anna Karina, and secondly, to explore the world of revolutionary politics, something Godard was becoming fascinated with due to his growing disenchantment with France’s political scene of the 1960s, as well as America’s growing involvement in Vietnam.
As for the former, there is not much to be said as Godard only really explores his failed marriage by having overly long takes on Karina, takes that at times seemed to border on the obsessive. However, there is one scene near the film's end where Godard opens his heart a bit more artistically. Here, Paula begins to close out the scene by quoting some verse that is quintessentially femme fatale: “If I speak of time, it’s not yet come to pass. If I speak of place, it’s vanished into space. If I speak of time, it’s gone without a trace. If I speak of a man, he’s soon to breath his last.” Paula then tearfully but determinedly shoots her friend David Goodis. The dying Goodis' last words are, “Oh, Paula, you robbed me of my youth.” Godard's sense of betrayal was on full display with this scene.
I found his political ruminations more interesting. “Made in USA” takes place in Atlantic-Cite. As with the eponymous Alphaville (which, if I recall correctly, is variously described in the film as being a location on Earth, a planet of its own, and ultimately another galaxy!), Atlantic-Cite seems to be located in its own nebulous spot on Earth, somewhere between America’s decadent “Atlantic City” (hence, the thin “Made in USA” connection) and a French Atlantic-Cite, something that I understand can best be translated as “Atlantic-Housing Projects,” i.e., a small community of low rent apartment buildings. If you are going to watch a Godard flick, you can’t get caught up in such minor details as location! Be that as it may, Atlantic Cite will be where all the political skulduggery of the movie takes place. Early into the film, Godard kicks off the politics with what is perhaps the funniest and most prescient line of the film. As she mopes around her flat, Paula asks a maid about the latest election results for Atlantic-Cite. “Weren’t the Communists beaten here last year in the local elections?” The maid replies, “Yes, they wanted to requisition bathrooms if they won.” I laughed as I was reminded of the modern American Left's intrusion into American bathrooms as well. Some things never change.
And that is precisely one of Godard’s political messages. In some ways, “Made in USA” is a fascinating exercise because you can see Godard struggling with his disgust of the modern world (as also seen in “Alphaville”), as well as his disgust with the moral compromises one must make if he seeks to use politics as a vehicle of change. Indeed, Paula sums up the deplorable state of contemporary politics when she describes politics as “Walt Disney plus blood.” It is an accurate summation, especially in light of America’s 2016 election. Politics is a cartoonish farce, but one where people can get killed. Paula, in one of her more introspective moments as a political operative, confesses to the camera, “It’s always blood, fear, politics, money. How can I not feel like puking after being mixed up in that for so long?” Good question.

It is this political ambivalence that ultimately snakes its way through the movie. I think Godard’s political confusion is well expressed in the best scene of the movie where, in typical film noir fashion, we (inexplicably) find Paula killing time in a bar with an assortment of patrons, including a cameo by Marianne Faithfull who quietly sings a few lines from her hit, “As Tears Go By.” The most interesting conversation is between the barkeep and a guest at the bar where they explore the importance of perspective. The bartender asks, “What does one do with words?” The patron replies that he tries to make sentences but doesn’t like to because “sentences are useless or empty words.” The bartender chides him that if he doesn’t speak in sentences, how can he serve him? So, the patron agrees to try, resulting in a series of non sequiturs such as “The glass is not in my wine. The bartender is in the pocket of the pencil’s jacket. The bar gives the young lady a few kicks. The floor is stubbed out on the cigarette. The tables are on the glasses. The ceiling hangs from the lamp,” and so on. Godard’s point is clear: we use words to define reality, but words, being so fluid in their meaning and usages, don’t always describe the same reality from person to person. In light of that, how can we be sure of anything expressed by words? Especially political words?
Godard struggles with this confusion about politics right up to the last moments of the film.  While Godard at times uses his film to stridently advocate for far left politics (he would eventually adopt Maoism in the 1970s!), he ultimately remains very equivocal about it, something made clear when Paula rides out of Atlantic Cite by hitching a ride with an old journalist pal. Paula expresses her concern that she will not be able to keep up the revolutionary struggles begun by her lover, Richard. Her friend tries to get her to take a more practical view of the world’s political struggles. “There is no changing her,” he replies.  “Remember Elisabeth in Les Enfants Terribles? Left and Right are the same. There is no changing them. The Right, because it’s so cruel it’s brainless. The Left, because it is sentimental.” Godard’s summation might be a reversal of reality, but it is ultimately an inconsequential one because of the journalist's next observation. “Besides, Left or Right are completely obsolete notions. We shouldn’t phrase things in those terms.” Paula asks, “How then?” He has no answer.

So ends the film on a suitably insightful point for our politically chaotic times, one that seems on the cusp of birthing some new and terrible political alignment. Indeed, "Right" and "Left" is seeming more obsolete with each passing election.
Now, at the beginning of this impromptu review I said I didn’t enjoy this movie as I did “Alphaville.” The reason why is twofold. First, I felt this was a sloppily made production. I understand Godard was making “Made in USA” at the same time he was making another movie called,”1 or 2 Things I Know About Her.” I think Godard’s divided attention is evident as this movie just seems like a fast and dirty production with little care being taken to get things just right. For example, there are at least two occasions of some dreadful overacting, something Godard should have spotted from a mile away. Likewise, I found “Made in USA’s” cinematography to be flat and uninteresting, lacking all the noir-inspired style of "Alphaville." At times, “Made in USA” almost resembles the type of movie an amateur would make with a handheld camera. Overall, this production just seems overly casual from the get-go. The second thing I didn’t care for was Godard injecting contemporary French politics into the heart of the film. He does so via voice recordings of him ranting and raving about what he perceived as the injustices of the French government of the time. While the reel to reel recordings are very reminiscent of Kurtz’s political diatribes in Francis Ford Coppola’s ”Apocalypse Now” (I doubt that is a coincidence!), Godard chose to focus on real politics rather than vague political ideology, as Coppola smartly chose to do. As a result, these recordings just date the movie instead of bringing some desperately needed character development to Richard, a ghost the movie struggles with throughout its run time. Likewise, it misses an opportunity to better flesh out the semi-fictitious setting of Atlantic Cite as the disembodied voice of Alpha 60 does for “Alphaville.” So, not as good as “Alphaville.” But having said that, “Made in USA” is a movie art house cinephiles owe it to themselves to check out for no other reason than it is another uniquely artistic experience presented by a man who truly did try to reinvent cinema. While no means his best work, it is nonetheless a timely if confused tale about the Mickey Mouse politics of our age.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Where We Started: Brief Thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Wow, I can't think of a more out of place posting for a Star Wars review than this blog I created for everything classical and NOT modern.  But, seeing how after my initial posting I allowed this blog to go fallow (sorry, I got caught up in the so-called "micro-blogging" idiocy of Facebook), I figured something is better than nothing.  So....Eh, maybe I will find a way to tie this review in a broader, anti-modernist topic.   Let's see what happens.

After putting it off for some time, I finally bit the bullet and watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Honestly, I have never been a huge SW fan.  While I did love the series as a kid, and while I do consider the first movie, A New Hope, to be an excellent bit of science fiction, and possibly cinematic "space opera" at its finest, overall I think the franchise is greatly overvalued by its fans as it is far from a perfectly executed sci-fi series, something the prequel movies amply demonstrated.  This is why some years ago I found myself nodding in agreement when a sci-fi author quipped (according to my dim memory) "Star Wars and Star Trek ruined sci-fi for the rest of us."  I agree.  Star Wars, along with the other "Star" experience, has definitely been punching above its weight.  With that in mind, I went into this movie with respect for the franchise but not high hopes for the type of breathtaking sci-fi experience that the more hardcore fans seem to get out of every episode.

Overall, I have to say that The Force Awakens was a decent entry to the franchise, but nothing more than that.  It was entertaining, if only initially.  What I mean by that is that I really enjoyed the first half of the movie.  Not knowing what to expect - I never pay attention to movie hype - I was pleasantly surprised to see that JJ Abrams eschewed any reference to the absolutely dreadful Episodes I-III and instead went back to the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, for his inspiration.  I loved this because Episode 4 was always my favorite because it was an expertly told space opera war story told in three tightly distinct acts.  Right from the opening moments of The Force Awakens, it was clear that Abrams was returning to the roots of the franchise, something made clear by all the self-referential material in the opening moments.  Abrams is on the right track here as the best way to wash the bad taste of Episodes I-III from our mouths is to ignore the mess created by Lucas and instead remind us of the glorious beginning of the franchise.  Abrams does just that by bringing in many familiar elements from Episode 4, including a new Darth Vader and starting planet suspiciously familiar to Tatooine, complete with another Luke Skywalker-esque underdog.  Indeed, I found the first half of the movie supremely enjoyable for the reason of childhood nostalgia alone.

Unfortunately, this nostalgia would also become a problem that would ruin the second half of the movie for me.  Well, maybe not ruin as much as deflate.

By the midpoint of the movie, I began to realize that Abrams wasn't making a tribute to the first and best Star Wars movie of all time as much as he was making an outright copycat of a film, down to the smallest plot detail.  Oh sure, he was sure to put his own twist on things (e.g., this time the family squabbles surrounded the Solos), but in the end The Force Awakens was less its own movie and more Star Wars: A New Hope 2.0 (Special Fan Service Edition by JJ Abrams). What Abrams ultimately did was not to create a fresh tale that nods in respect to A New Hope but just a complete remake ("reboot" in contemporary [idiotic] Hollywood speak) of that very film.  In short, what I believed began as a tribute to A New Hope soon degenerated into the very thing I hate about contemporary, Big Corporation-produced cinema:  a lazy cut and paste sequel whose only purpose is to get fans to purchase the same product more than once.  Or more precisely in the case of Star Wars, seven bloody times!  How many Death Stars are we going to blow up?  How many Darth Vaders are we going to duel?  How many "new hopes" are we going to discover?  How many times are we going to be introduced to the same characters and the same ships?  Well, if The Force Awakens is any indication, as long as we keep paying to see the same photostat over and over again.

And this is why I ultimately came to be very disappointed in the latest entry to the Star Wars franchise - a sadly reoccurring phenomenon with this series.   By the time the last act was gearing up, I found myself glancing at the clock, wishing the movie would hurry up and finish as I knew precisely how it was going to play out AS I ALREADY SAW THIS MOVIE BEFORE many years ago.  As a result, Star Wars: The Force Awakens ended not with a bang (even a super-duper, extra large Death Star bang, something indicative of another popular Hollywood cliche: bigger is always better), but with a whimper on the level of wannabe fan fiction.  The Force Awakens didn't give me what I have been desperately desiring from Star Wars over the years - a fresh start with all new characters and a new narrative - but instead just handed me reheated leftovers from the original franchise, courtesy of the fevered re-imagining of JJ Abrams.

Disappointing.  Not unexpected disappointment, mind you.  JJ Abrams pulled this same rubbish with his handling of the Star Trek franchise, specifically his ham-handed reproduction of the superlative Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, this time inelegantly titled, Star Trek: Into Darkness.  Yawn there.  Yawn here.  As with Star Wars and Star Trek, JJ Abrams is also punching above his weight.

I don't want to be too critical as the movie was entertaining, and certainly light years better than the dreadful Lucas prequels that fail as science fiction specifically, and cinema generally.  I particularly enjoyed Abrams excellent use of color and the judicious use of lens flares, two of his hallmarks.  It gave everything a fresh, almost documentarian look at times.  And I truly loved some of the wonderfully artistic shots in this film.  As Peter Jackson successfully mimicked some of the excellent Lord of the Rings artwork  by Alan Lee, Abrams managed to incorporate some wonderful artistry of his own, a grand vision that really brought the massive potential of the Star Wars universe to the fore (I loved that Star Destroyer buried in the sand!).  Sadly, that potential for massive scope has yet to be utilized outside of the original franchise.

And that is ultimately what disappoints me with Star Wars and much of contemporary science fiction:  it promises a galaxy-spanning adventure but quickly becomes claustrophobically narrowed down to a small cast of characters and a specific ship or two.  Be it Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica or Firefly, the Hollywood approach is always the same: take the galaxy and shrink it down to the size of a small town, and populate with a eight or so characters and a familiar ship that we will get to revisit over and over and over again.  What a waste.  The term "dumbing it down" comes to mind.  Sadly, true galaxy-spanning tales, such as, say, The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, will never get to see the light of day as they don't play by the contemporary rules of movie-making.  Unlike the claustrophobic mega-science fiction franchises, those are examples of science fiction that didn't artificially limit their potential, that introduced us to new characters and new experiences on a weekly basis.  Unlike contemporary sci-fi pablum,  The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits demanded that the viewer keep up with its unpredictable tales and its limitless supply of interesting characters.  Today, such an idea seems almost subversive in an era of indistinguishable copycats that dare not tread new ground.  But, frankly, why should they?   When you can profit millions by repackaging the same product over and over again with little to no effort and easily sell it to a gullible audience, why risk innovation?  As they say in the gaming world, iteration trumps innovation.  Making a sequel that duplicates the original is easier and far less financially risky than trying to be original and innovate.  When you are dealing with an audience that is increasingly illiterate, whose expectations have been so lowered that their enjoyment of a film descends to almost a Pavlovian level of simple stimulus response ("Ooh!  Han Solo is in this flick!  I love Han Solo, so I must also love this movie!"), why make science fiction tales as intellectually grandiose as the genre deserves?  Why not just phone it in, as JJ Abrams and the suits over at Disney did here?

Hence, the sorry state of increasingly unimaginative and mass produced contemporary cinematic science fiction.  Rather than being a triumph, Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives as a tombstone that marks the grave of original science fiction.  It should have been a long overdue fresh start for a beloved franchise, but instead arrives as a tired re-do of well-worn territory.

My Score: 3 out of 5 stars

A competently made and entertaining film that should have been so much more than a mere copycat.  I guess we can expect Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 2.0 next.