Thursday, May 3, 2007

Op-Ed: Critic's Notebook: What Has Film Come To?

Anna Karina.

By Zach Warsavage

Jean-Luc Godard once said, “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.” The same theory can be applied to the contemporary experience of watching films: all you need is a girl and a gun. The gun is for when the film inevitably disappoints. The girl is to blow off steam afterwards.

I went to see Grindhouse on April 20th, and found the experience rather atypical. It was a beautiful day in Manhattan. People everywhere were smiling and enjoying being outside and doing drugs for the holiday. Yet everyone was still isolated and completely disinterested in one another. At 9 p.m., when the sun had gone down, I entered a full theater. Every seat was taken, every eye was on the screen and, amazingly, almost as a single unit, for over three hours, a giant room full of New Yorkers laughed and cheered very convincingly. Granted, this was to be the expected response for a Tarantino production. But the cinematic bond in the theater was powerful. A film had taken a group of people, shut them up, elated them and then sent them off.

I realize that this is what films are supposed to do. Make your eyes glaze over, your head stiff and upright and take your brain to another world. A film is like a dream. The director dreams it, wholly in his or her own image, the audience is invited into the dream world and then the critic analyzes what the dream meant. But this is not the case today. Today, the director, the critic and the audience are isolated from each other and the film as a whole. Film today is like a gluttonous asshole. It keeps stuffing more bullshit into its mouth while charging more and more money to watch it eat. Sometimes what it eats is easy to swallow, like a comedy. Other times it’s harder, like the endless line of biopics, pretentious political thrillers and masturbatory save-the-world films laced with a crappy plot about Africa. The mark of an important American film today relies mostly on the names attached to it, or the deeper pretense it has because George Clooney helped produce it. It is almost a given that each film is a compromise of many values and that no one is actually responsible for the film, as it is collectively fucked all along the way towards its release. This leaves a film with little value, and leaves the critic with the spineless role of creating sound bites that will be chopped up with some ellipses, and then finally left at the bottom of the hundredth commercial for it…Fantastic!

Tarantino and Rodriguez’s two films within Grindhouse were different. They demonstrated a true cinephilia and love of film history, and a true authorship over their films, having written and directed them. This immediately made me think of the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) for its obsession with films and its auteur theory. The theory was first introduced in print in the article, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” in the great French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Written in 1954, by the then young critic Francois Truffaut, the article stressed the need for the director to author the work. Cahiers had many young critics who would go on to become famous directors, and they gained their influence for this autonomous style from geniuses like Hitchcock, Hawks, Renoir and Cocteau. I could not agree with this concept more. Just as no one would want to read a novel written by 15 different people, no one can fully enjoy a film that has no true author. When there is a lack of an author, the dream suffers on all levels. The vision is unclear, the audience thus cannot appreciate the film and the critic has no one to blame and little to analyze. This is why directors like Tarantino and Wes Anderson are so popular today. Both of them have their own worlds, and both of them carry out their fantasies uninhibited onto the screen. It should come as no surprise that Anderson has said one of his favorite films is Truffaut’s first film, the masterpiece The 400 Blows. Tarantino not only dedicated Reservoir Dogs to Godard, but he also named his production company A Band Apart, a reference to Godard's Bande a part.

Tarantino is a known film aficionado, with a propensity to mimic genre films, such as Kung Fu, Blacksploitation, B Films and the New Wave. The young Cahiers critics were the exact same way, except many of them were inventing new forms. The Cinematheque in Paris, which was frequented by cinephiles, and portrayed in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, was a nest of obsession. This is what we need today. People obsessed with films, who appreciate above all the role of an author in a film, and who have the creative drive to continue this tradition. Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, Charbrol and many of the other young critics/auteurs exemplified filmmaking as a 20th century modern art. These young artists wanted film to be the most important modern art and, while they did their part, their art, and art in general, changed after their main era.

These young Cahiers served many roles that do not exist today. First of all, they were able to contextualize an art that was still elusive in its role. The Cahiers wrote essays on what films are, and what they should and could be doing, and then went ahead and broke all the rules. This kind of rebellion does not happen very much today, as many of the edits and jump cuts and the overall realism of their stories can merely be copied. Godard revolutionized editing with his first film A Bout de Soufflé (translation: Breathless) by breaking norms and even allowing characters to wear different outfits within the same scene. There simply is not as much room today for innovation in camerawork, so this then leaves the innovation to be on the side of the concepts the film deals with. Films today need to be like poetry, or literature, and redefine the human condition, or redefine what it means to tell a story. In this regard, films today are embarrassing failures.

While some directors, if given the freedom, create great films, the industry does not produce enough. I cannot imagine crowds of youths squeezing into a cinematheque to get their art fix in this generation. The Cahiers loved American films, and while the tradition of filmmaking changes, Hollywood stays in a direction of smug inferiority. Films need a one of a kind touch, whether it's David Lynch or David O. Russell; movies made in this era should be more about thinking and less about politics. There are only a handful of films each year that I see at the theater, and rarely do I think I have seen something new. The Nouvelle Vague was new. When I first watched The 400 Blows, featuring Truffaut’s alter ego, Antione Doniel, I thought I was reading a novel lived by the author. Truffaut’s first film, and many thereafter, were his own tales twisted into a realist dream. His film is like a piece of first person narrative literature. Godard for Breathless, and most of his other works, used Raoul Coutard as his director of photography. Coutard filmed footage in the military, and Godard loved the idea of his films blurring the lines between fiction and documentary. To watch these New Wave films is to live in the dreams of the author, and not on the outside looking in.

What I especially love about the New Wave, Tarantino, Anderson and any auteur in general, is that for an author to make up his own characters, casting is essential. A dream can only be realized with the right players. The best example of this is Anna Karina. Unlike today’s films, where casting is about names and potential profit, Godard discovered Karina in a soap commercial. Godard knew that her face, her looks, the way she walked, talked, and simply sat still had unprecedented enigma. This is what cinema needs: people born for the screen. To watch Une Femme est une Femme (A Woman is a Woman), Bande a part, Alphaville, or Pierrot le fou, is to watch Karina, and her character, through the eyes of Godard, her creator. In this the style is seamless in its approach to authorship, and this results in great cinema where the audience and the critics role’s are valuable again. Godard married Karina, more fully blurring cinema with life.

Godard may have been right when he said all you need for a film is a girl and a gun. But today, it seems you might need that girl to be accompanied by a few other girls. And they should be unaccompanied by well fitting clothes. You might also need a bunch of guns. Probably a cannon, as well. If Nicholas Cage is available, then make sure you also have explosions and plots where people can see two minutes into the future. Godard proved he too could see into the future, when he once said, "I pity the French cinema because it has no money. I pity the American cinema because it has no ideas."

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