Friday, 8 July 2011
GODARD AND FILM NOIR
I’ve always been amused at the thought of Jean-Luc Godard, the roaring lion of revolutionary film, playing out his string in Switzerland, strolling to the chocolaterie alongside the other petits bourgeoises. The implicit contradiction of Godard’s choice of a return to cuckoo-clock land (not so surprising, really, as he grew up a Swiss Protestant) is merely the last metaphor for a career more problematic, though not much less important, than Colin McCabe’s study would like to suggest. To McCabe, Godard is the ‘greatest figure’ from the last generation of cinema, both the greatest ‘essayist’ and ‘one of the greatest poets cinema has known’. That’s a lot of greatests. Those terms, poet and essayist, are, for McCabe, linked and not at all contradictory. He means poet not in the film reviewer’s standard sense of being visually lyrical, but in the more absolute sense, of someone working with a language in its purest, most refined state. And indeed, that was the theoretical point Godard the essayist insisted was most important, the language of film, and the one Godard the director was always pursuing, at least theoretically.
Whether Godard the filmmaker ever lived up to Godard the theoretician is a matter of debate. The paradox of film is that it always seems to transcend intentions, a paradox which, while eminently true of Godard's own work, consistently undermines, if not contradicts, his critical efforts. Embarrassingly, some of Godard’s best films work in ways his own theories would insist are invalid. On the other hand, some of his worst films are the most 'pure' cinema, yet even so they often venture into the didactic. There is a very specific reason for this, one which may explain why it’s so easy to think of Godard as a slim-line Orson Welles, indulging his rebelliousness.
There is a conflict in Godard which comes from his detachment from the world of humanity. His is a life overwhelmed by and subsumed in the cinema, and his films reflect a world where everything is expressed in cinematic terms. 'The art of the 19th century, the cinema,' he says toward the end of his Histoire (s) du cinema (1978), 'created the 20th century, which on its own existed only a little.' Well, that is one point of view. This is what makes him exciting as a film-maker, what makes him such a poet, but the world of film will take one only so far. I have friends with whom I will talk in lines from Animal House, our joke being that all human existence can be explained within that sensitive film. We are often unable to communicate to other people using such references. They haven't seen the film, they haven't remembered it, they haven't understood the context or its relation to whatever it is we were talking about. They are, after all, people. But for Godard, it was as if all existence could be expressed only through film, and unless our hearts and brains are made of celluloid he isn't really interested, and that just doesn’t work.
Beyond that concept, Godard also adored American films. All of them. Far more than the French. I don’t think he, or McBride, ever tackle the paradox that Godard’s view of America was of a country composed out of celluloid; like the patrons of the pub I first visited when I travelled to London in 1972, who heard my friend was from Chicago and spontaneously make tommy-gun noises.
For me, the crucial film in all Godard’s oeuvre is Made In USA. Here the lover of film noir takes a Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) novel ready-made for noir adaptation, and turns it into a literary analysis of why the USA is in Vietnam. It’s a lecture, a polemic, a didactic rant, and it expresses, more than Godard’s Marxism or his faith in film, the shattering revelation that the world of American cinema was a by-product of the same American system that created the moral cesspit of Vietnam (or, to put it even more tellingly for Godard's benefit, refined and perfected the quagmire the French left behind). Made In USA is a work of rage that marks the end, I believe of Godard’s most fertile creative period, one which produced half a dozen undisputed great films, and which was followed by a long uneven period of films that, with a few exceptions, repeated past experiments less successfully. And even some of the exceptions, like Sauve qui peut, are successful in a less-involving, more distancing way.
Colin MacCabe never really comes to grips with that, because it doesn’t fit into the picture of the world’s greatest filmmaker. If that sounds like a criticism, I have to say it is not a fault, because the book is so comprehensive that the reader familiar with the films will be able to make his own evaluations. It is comprehensive in other ways, too: MacCabe provides a history of Marxism which is a book in itself, and here, I think there is something of a misreading. Because Marxism, to Godard, was a stick with which to beat not only capitalism and, by extension, America, but also a device with which to approach humanity without having to deal with humans. It gave Goddard a template, beyond cinema, with which he could classify all his relations--and Godard’s Marxism was as soulless and potentially dangerous as Pol Pot’s.
Just as contradictory, in MacCabe’s portrait, is Godard the manipulator, the movie mini-mogul, as cruel to individuals as any capitalist and as vicious within the system as any Hollywood tycoon. One thinks of careerists on a local council, building up a socialist fortune for themselves in a sort of shadow-mirror of the world they claim to despise. One doesn’t expect a parallel morality from artists, but one can ask for it from polemicists.
Geoff Andrew quotes Godard: ‘If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of re-inventing it, and what is more, of wanting to’. (And full props: what a superb film-critic Godard was!) This re-issue of Andrew’s excellent 1991 study of Ray, with brief materials added to bring it up to date, is welcome, particularly as the original study was followed by an excellent biography two years later, Bernard Eisenschitz’s Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. The biography was particularly enlightening on issues of Ray’s sexuality, and also his background in radio, and hence sound. Viewed together with Andrew’s study, they provide a full grounding in a film-maker whose abilities to tell a story cinematically were exactly what endeared him to the Europeans who came to idoloise ‘ignored’ strands of American film in the 50s and 60s. Kudos to the BFI for bringing this book, by one of their own, back into print.
Ray is also an important director in the annals of film noir, an American genre named and more or less identified by the French, which grew out of a confluence of hard-boiled pulp fiction and German expressionist film. I have argued in these pages about the roots of film noir in the intersection of the liberated flapper and the German silent horror film; many of the most important of the film noir directors were refugees from Germany. I‘ve also worried about the dangers of conflating the terms hard-boiled, pulp, and film noir. They are related, but they don’t necessary mean the same thing, and one does not automatically lead to the next.
Which is why I’m a little puzzled with Early Film Noir, which also opens up by claiming film noir received its baptism in France just after World War II, when the French recognised the work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. French critics may have defined film noir, but they did it a decade later, and it didn’t take the French (or the British, as Hare further asserts) to recognise Hammett, Chandler, or, in noir terms the purest of his big three, James M Cain. They were best-sellers already: if Hammett hadn’t been a huge success both in print and through the Thin Man movies, the 1939 version of The Maltese Falcon would not have been its second remake!
There’s no real logical progression to Hare’s account of some of his favourite films, and what the British Across The Bridge, released in 1957, has to do with early film noir beats me all to hell, apart from the fact that Hare likes Ken Annakin and Annakin provided a foreword for this book. Hare’s version is very much a middle-of-the-road account of noir, no Detours allowed here, and it won’t add much to your understanding if you’ve previously considered the genre in any detail. It is, however, written with great affection, and its section on Jane Greer and Out Of The Past, which benefits from an interview with the wonderful actress, is worth the price of admission in itself.
Hare would have been better off structuring his book more like Max Decharne’s Hardboiled Hollywood. Again, there’s no systematic study of the genre, but Decharne avoids false labelling, and instead provides a series of vignettes that illuminate the origins of some great crime films. It’s not academic, but it’s a lot of fun, much like some of Woody Haut’s efforts for the same publisher. Decharne’s specific concern is linking the films to their source novels, and examining the kinds of changes the stories underwent along the way. It’s a lot of fun, and has some great book cover illustrations.
Making the point about German expressionism and horror as a major root of film noir ought to have been easy for William Hare, since the director of Out Of The Past, Jacques Tourneur, apprenticed on Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO, the same studio that made that Mitchum/Douglas/Greer classic. Lewton was the subject Joel E Siegel’s Val Lewton: The Reality Of Terror (1973), still one of the great film books and a remarkable study of the producer as auteur. The budget-conscious techniques of Lewton’s films would be reflected in dozens of classic film noirs, and Cat People, his first, and perhaps best, could be argued an important early noir in its own right.
Fearing The Dark credits Siegel’s book, but goes far beyond, offering a complete biography of Lewton, a fascinating character in his own right, whose life is reflected in his approach to film-making. Lewton was a creative producer (and writer) who was able to get the best out of his directors and out of his small budgets because he didn't need to let his ego go out of control. At RKO, that probably would not have done him much good anyway. Most of the great noirs owe a lot to the ability to be creative with low budgets: when dealing with stories of failed small-timers, it became a narrative, as well as stylistic advantage. Bansak makes much of the Orson Welles connection: Robert Wise and Mark Robson were RKO editors for Welles who became directors for Lewton; further, David O Selznick tried to get Welles to take Lewton’s job as story editor at RKO. What a team that would have been! Following Siegel, Bansak doesn’t have all that much new to offer in critiquing the films themselves, but his exhaustive detailing of Lewton’s life helps explain both how he came to create a run of small masterpieces in a short period at RKO, and why he didn’t repeat the feat on a larger scale elsewhere. And the details of his biography highlight Lewton's polyglot background; a creative life filled with a spectrum of experience. That was something many of the great Hollywood film-makers had: they learned their story-telling from many media, and they brought experience from outside the screening room and editing suite to the art of cinema. They saw the world as containing cinema, not being contained within it. It's virtually the opposite of Godard, and extremely instructive, if not corrective, it is.
Books Discussed In This Essay:
Goddard: A Portrait Of The Artist At 70 by Colin McCabe
Bloomsbury, £25, ISBN 0747563187
The Films Of Nicholas Ray by Geoff Andrew
British Film Institute, no price listed, ISBN 1844570010
Nicholas Ray: An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz
Faber 1993, £12.99 ISBN 0571178308
Early Film Noir by William Hare
McFarland £29.95, ISBN 0786416297
Hardboiled Hollywood by Max Decharne
No Exit Press, £18.99, ISBN 184243070X
Val Lewton: The Reality Of Terror by Joel E Siegel
Secker & Warburg, 1972, £1.20
Fearing The Dark: The Val Lewton Career
by Edmund G Bansak
McFarland £29.95 ISBN 0786417099