Saturday, October 9, 2010

How to Build a Better Filmgoer: Some Brief Thoughts on "Made in USA" and the Total Revolution of Society

When most people go to the movies, they aren't looking for something new but something familiar, like a petulant child who insists on being read the same bedtime story every single night. At the broadest level, a commercial feature is supposed to tell a story in three acts with a turning point (David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson use the more precise terminology of setups, complicating actions, developments, and climaxes), and the rules of continuity editing, which were established in the 1910s, give viewers the feeling of being an invisible observer. More locally, mainstream films are classified by genre, although the rules governing genres tend to be more flexible than those around dramatic structure and editing. One intriguing example of genre-bending that was on TV a few days ago is Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which combines two genres not usually associated with each-other: the romantic comedy and science fiction. However, as unusual as the film is by mainstream standards, it still adheres to certain conventions which make it accessible to a wide audience. On the other hand, screening Film Socialisme (2010) for a mainstream audience (including most professional reviewers) makes as much as sense as reading Gravity's Rainbow (1973) to a four year old. The question is: How you do make better audiences?

Made in USA (1966) came towards the end of Jean-Luc Godard's most commercial period, and it has both a glamourous star (Anna Karina, in her next-to-last film with Godard) and something like a conventional revenge plot, in which the heroine, Paula Nelson (Karina), has to find and kill the person who murdered her fiancé. (As with Godard's earlier Bande à part [1964], the story is loosely derived from a pulp American novel.) However, the first thing one notices about the film in relation to most commercial movies is that it's abnormally talky, and (characteristically for Godard) the dialogue only intermittently advances the plot. (In one sequence in a bar, a working man spouts nonsense sentences, such as "The window looks out of the girl's eyes," while Marianne Faithful sings "As Tears Go By" a cappella.) The constant digressions and jokey tone prevent the viewer from getting very involved in the silly plot, so even though I've seen the film twice, I couldn't tell you what happened in any detail--not that it really matters anyway. So what actually interests Godard? The narration tells us that this is a political film, and the dialogue is peppered with allusions to current events (local elections, the Mehdi Ben Barka case), but Jonathan Rosenbaum's description of Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control (2009) as "filmmaking for its own sake" seems closer to the mark.

In Made in USA, local texture is everything, and the plot is simply a means of getting from one moment to the next. At one point, Godard lavishes as much time on a sequence showing Paula/Karina walking through a women's gym as he does on the perfunctory exchange between her and a doctor that supposedly justifies it. (When the latter insists that Paula's fiancé died of natural causes, she quips that, even in Auschwitz and Treblinka, there were people who died of heart failure.) Some other memorable bits: Paula playing "hot and cold" with a gangster (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in an abandoned garage; Paula beating an old man unconscious with a high heeled shoe, scored to a sudden burst of Beethoven; Paula in a plastic surgeon's office unwrapping the bloody bandages over a skeleton with bulging eyes resembling a Matt Groening character. To be sure, this yields diminishing returns as the film goes on (at eighty minutes, it's not a moment too short). However, I liked the movie (and The Limits of Control) better on second viewing, which is almost always the case with Godard. More than any filmmaker I can think of, his work requires a certain degree of adjustment on the part of the viewer. So whereas on first viewing I was still in the same frame of mind as I would be while watching any normal film, the second time around, I had a better idea of what I was in for.

Reviewing Film Socialisme from Cannes (or more accurately, reviewing its director and his fans), Roger Ebert described Godard's defenders as his "acolytes," and speaking as a fanatical Godardian myself, the question for me is how to convert the unbelievers? Rather than attempting to radicalize cinematic consciousness one person at a time, I think the simplest thing would be total revolution. After all, since commercial cinema is a product of the capitalist system, in order to reform it, we'd have to change society as well. The first thing we'd have to change is to make it illegal to make a profit off of cinema. So instead of major studios looking to maximize their profits, programming would be the responsibility of local curators--people with some knowledge of film history whose goal would be to educate the tastes of filmgoers. To this end, they would screen both classics and fresh discoveries from around the globe. The curator would be able to get feedback from viewers on the kinds of films they'd like to see, and independent filmmakers would have easier access to a local audience, fostering atomized, heterogeneous film cultures. So instead of a top-down system, in which the same blockbuster opens on three thousand screens simultaneously preceded by a massive ad campaign, we'd have a more democratic system that people could actively participate in rather than just passively taking it up the ass.

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