Monday, June 24, 2013

Undergraduania #2: Re: Vivre Sa Vie

This is another essay--again slightly altered--which I wrote for my film history course, this time taking a playful approach to a filmmaker who demands one. This is much closer in style to what I expect to be regularly posting here than the previous essay.

 9 Godardian Notes on Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie

          1.     description(s) of a film

1. The elliptical story of an aspirant actress driven by what appears to be economic necessity into a life of prostitution that terminates with her senseless death.
2. An ambivalent, clinical study of prostitution in France circa 1962 by a Swiss-French filmmaker with a background in anthropology.
3. A meditation on purity and martyrdom that has kinship with the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson, but unlike them continually evinces a playful self-awareness of its place in relation to film history.
4. An articulation in semi-narrative form of certain key tenets of existential thought, particularly notions of presence, individual responsibility and choice, as well as other contemporary philosophical ideas concerning the uses and efficacy of language.
 5. Jean-Luc Godard’s tribute to the beauty and vitality of his bride-of-one-year Anna Karina, but a tribute laced with an austere, doomy melancholy, so that the line between paean and preemptive eulogy is blurry at all but a handful of moments.

[Originally, I was going to describe Vivre Sa Vie (1962) three times in correspondence with the three views of Nana-Anna’s head in the opening title sequence, but the film is not just three things, and furthermore our 360° tour of her head is not completed until the next sequence, when we see her seated in the café from behind, followed by her beau from a similar angle.]


To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together. They can't be separated.”—Jean-Luc Godard

Vivre Sa Vie invites a rather theoretical treatment, because it is—aesthetically, intellectually—extremely complex.”—Susan Sontag

To live means to finesse the processes to which one is subjugated.”--Bertolt Brecht

“I move my head, I’m responsible.”—Nana-Anna

All of a sudden, in the good-natured child the woman stood revealed, a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was still smiling, but with the deadly smile of a man-eater.”—Emile Zola

“I don’t think you should feel about a film. You should feel about a woman, not a movie. You can’t kiss a movie.”—Jean-Luc Godard

“My eyes!”— László Szabó, Tableaux 6

         3.     precise facts

-The film is Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth feature.
-The film is 83 minutes, 46 seconds long.
-I have seen the film 5 or 6 times.
-The film bills itself as “A Film In Twelve Tableaux,” and each tableaux is announced by a title card.
-Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie” is arranged in numbered sections, but has 5 more than Vivre Sa Vie proper.
-Vivre Sa Vie is the French title of a 1935 Joan Crawford vehicle, whose English title is not My Life To Live but I Live My Life.
-Jean-Luc Godard was 31 when the film was made; Anna Karina was 21.
-The film was released in France two days before Anna Karina turned 22.
-Nana Kleinfrankenheim is 145 days older than Anna Karina.
-“Nana” both rhymes with and is an anagram of “Anna.”
-“Nana” is the title and central character of a novel by Emile Zola, concerning the rise and fall of a prostitute.
-The man who plays “Ma Môme” by the singer-songwriter Jean Ferrat on the jukebox in Tableaux 6 and looks immensely pleased with himself is Jean Ferrat.
-La Philosophe in Tableaux 11 is the philosopher Brice Parain, whose English Wikipedia page is one very short sentence long.

          4.     boy in courtyard

    The one in Tableaux 3 in the "concierge" scene, dancing for what I've always presumed to be his catatonically bored sister, while Nana-Anna tries and fails to enter her apartment, whose rent we assume she has failed to pay. This bit is highly typical of the Nouvelle Vague's approach to mise-en-scene, in the way it playfully incorporates ambient life into a scene, even foregrounds it. For a moment we’re smiling or laughing at little Elvis Doinel’s gyrations and not paying heed to Nana-Anna’s desperation. After Nana-Anna invades the office to steal her key, the boy stops dancing. If this were a later Godard film, like Week End (1967) or First Name: Carmen (1983), he would keep going as the action unfolds, oblivious.

        (Come to think of it, my assumption that this is the boy's sister may be off-base. First of all, she doesn't enter the office with him and his parents. Second of all, her haircut and build are androgynous enough that she may well be a boy. That the child continues standing there motionless is an oddball, proto-Lynchian touch. It's almost as though they're standing outside the diegesis.)

          5.     pinball and pool

There are two scenes in the film in which characters play pinball. The first takes place in a bistro, the second in a café “in the suburbs.”  Both scenes involve men with whom Nana-Anna is in some way entangled: in the first (Tableaux 1), she and Paul—her boyfriend/husband, with whom she shares a child--take turns at the controls; in the second (Tableaux 6), Raoul—her future pimp—does the same with one of his girls.
When in Tableaux 9 Nana-Anna first encounters the lighthaired young man she is to fall for in the film’s back half, he’s playing pool.  Perhaps that’s part of the attraction. Pool is a less constrictive game than pinball. One’s agency in the game isn’t limited to two flippers and the spring-loaded launcher; the cueball can be struck from a whole range of angles, and moves other balls with its force rather than ricocheting off everything it touches. It can even fly off the table entirely. For a young woman aspiring toward existential freedom, finding a handsome young man who plays pool instead of pinball is likely to quicken the heart.

          6.     systems followed unsystematically

One reason Godard’s films are difficult to account for in standard ways is his tendency to set up narrative, structural, aesthetic, and thematic frameworks and then undermine, disobey, or replace them when the impulse strikes him. Many of his films only belatedly have discernible narratives; others abandon them entirely. Masculin Feminin (1966) claims to consist of “15 precise facts,” but what those facts are couldn’t be more vague, and only occasionally is the move from one fact to the next heralded by a numerical title card.  How many things do we end up learning about Juliette-Marina in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)? At once far more, and far less. Histoire(S) du Cinema (1988-98) is in no way a methodical presentation of cinema history from beginning to end, or (as Godard initially suggests it to be) a recounting of a series of possible histories, but a mercurial piece of video art that proceeds by intuitive and poetic association rather than narrative logic. And Vivre Sa Vie claims to be a film in twelve tableaux, each taking a particular stylistic and thematic angle on Nana-Anna’s life. But the inclusion of multiple scenes under the same tableaux stretches the definition of the term, the narration of the quasi-documentary Tableaux 8 begins before the tableaux is announced and ends after the next tableaux begins, and the film’s seemingly austere, Bressonian aesthetic regimen is continually undermined by highly self-conscious camera moves.
Manny Farber: “[T]here is a huge gap between the purported intention of the films and their actuality. And it’s the undeveloped space between intent and end product that gives them their nutty, Dr. Kronkite character.”

Godard seems excited by systems, but he is far too iconoclastic to completely hold to one for a whole film. It is enough to have made the gesture towards a possible way of organizing a film (which is to say, one possible way of viewing the world). This is one of the reasons he gets up some people’s noses: his preference for the anticlimactic, the incomplete, the obscured, the disruptive, the half-formed, the seemingly irrelevant, the sentence that for a second seems to say everything but may not say anything, “not a just image, just an image.” What remains is a restless intelligence unfolding on the screen. In this way, Godard is one of the ultimate manifestations of the camera-stylo. All usual modes of thinking are secondary to the etchings of his cinematic pen. He draws what the philosopher and Godard supporter Gilles Deleuze calls “the borderline, there’s always a border, a line of flight or flow, only we don’t see it, because it’s the least perceptible of things. And yet it’s along this line of flight that things come to pass, becomings evolve, revolutions take shape.” Indeed things do come to pass: we ask ourselves why we’ve been telling stories in the same way for millenia, or just what a “tableaux” can be.
The only time Godard lets a single unified system guide his work is in his Dziga-Vertov period, which is also his most problematic period, the period that…

          7.     nana wonders whether she's happy

…comes closest to what dissenters of his post ’67 work think the last four decades of his career consists of.

      Back to Tableaux 9. It took me a couple viewings to work out what impels Nana-Anna to wonder if she is happy in this sequence, as the title card that introduces the sequence suggests she does. This could be attributed to my being a stupid viewer, and that's part of it, but it's also because the scene foregrounds two crowd-pleasing bits: Luigi’s little boy blowing up the balloon routine, and Nana-Anna’s ecstatic, seductive gambol around the room. Around them is silence broken by seemingly banal banter about cigarettes. I was initially inclined to take this as a patch of Godardian half-dead space, but it’s actually a crucial moment in the film, because we can subtly see the gears turning in her mind—weighing the coldness of Raoul with the seeming warmth of this new young man, who goes out of his way to fetch her cigarettes. It’s the sense of possibility she feels with regard to him that gives her the boldness to strut and preen around the room as she does.

      But, like much of Godard, the film is anti-psychological. We have no direct access to Nana-Anna’s consciousness. The measure of her life is to be taken from her actions and words, not her thoughts. I say it’s the young man, but it could very well be some evocative quality in the brand logo on the cigarette pack he fetches her that compels her to dance. Nana-Anna maintains a threshold of unknowability.

           8.     seeing seeing

           A film of eyes, and what they see. Nana-Anna gazing at men (let’s not forget in this film apparently absent of interiority that we get multiple point of view shots); men gazing at Nana-Anna (Raoul using his to force a laugh out of her). And then those sublime, uncomfortable, funny moments when she trains her eyes on us, watching her, and we realize we’ve been doing that the whole time, and furthermore that we’re not just watching her, but that we’re watching her as she’s being filmed by her husband, that she’s looking as much if not more so at him than at us, and that we’re inhabiting a mechanized version of his eyes. The lynchpin of the eye theme is Tableaux 6. The men in the café watch her, she watches them. And she takes a sustained look at us, as Godard’s camera elegantly pushes in and out, sometimes in subtle sync to “Ma Môme,” in a kind of futile investigation of her face. And then gunshots in the street, and László Szabó (not the chess player) bursts in and exclaims to the barista...

9.   hades and sons

There are two elements in Tableaux 12 that could scarcely be more on the nose. The first is the reading of Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” by Godard, whose voice plainly does not match the face of Nana-Anna’s lover; the second the sign hanging over a warehouse as Nana-Anna is driven to her death.

            The first Sontag finds to be a lapse in an otherwise perfect film. To bring the outside world (not Poe himself, but the relationship between his story and the way Godard has constructed his wife onscreen) into an aesthetic object that for her is otherwise airtight is to mock it, blemish it, taint it with reality.
Sontag seems to be longing for a film by someone with a different aesthetic M.O. If Dreyer or Bresson had made it, certainly this kind of self-reference would have been thrown out as decadent and unserious. But Godard, though certainly an admirer of those filmmakers, would rather evoke than completely inhabit their ascetic purity of purpose. Film and his own life are too intermingled for him to leave the latter out of the former.
I have nothing in particular to say about the sign. It’s cute.

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