Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Coke, Marx, and random killings

I'd been curious to revisit Masculine Feminine (A), re-released by Rialto in a new print and a new translation, because it's the movie most responsible for turning me on to Godard. When I last viewed Godard's paean to the "Children of Marx and Coca-Cola," I was 18, and like many teenagers, perhaps a little too romantic, naive, idealistic, and impressionable. It was my second Godard, after Breathless, and my fourth or fifth French movie. But I remember loving the go-for-broke exhilaration of Godard's style then, that intoxicating cocktail of romantic ardor and political theory, all told in that fractured cinematic syntax that promises, in each next moment, something you'd never seen before or even expected. They're movies that embody the youthful spirit, the newfound freedom and limitless possibilities of young lives. But as a grizzled, jaded thirtysomething, movies that make references to texts I know excite me less and "academic exercises" bother me more. Discipline, rigor, and classicism have earned my respect; bold but retarded experiments have ceased to impress. Moreover, Godard's recent movies have taken on the resigned tone of an old curmudgeon, rapid-firing cryptic aphorisms and undigested political axioms to diminishing returns. In short, over the last year, I've begun feeling some doubts about that early love for Godard, that it might've been like that obsessive high school crush on an unremarkable lass that seems completely embarrassing in retrospect. Curious whether my love for Godard was just a passing fancy, I've re-watched some of my favorite Godards on DVD in the last year -- Contempt, Vivre sa vie, Band of Outsiders -- and thankfully they've each more than held up. During these viewings, I'd be invariably reminded of why I love movies. In looking back, I'd say that Godard, at least his unsurpassed 1960-67 run, is the filmmaker most responsible for my cinephilia. But the fear that these movies are meant for college age digestion lingers: the re-release of A Woman is a Woman I found somewhat disappointing. I was still excited by Anna Karina and Godard's experiments with image and sound cutting, but the movie itself seemed a little callow, the politics arch and shallow. It seems to me the work of an ingenious bluff-artist.

I'm glad to discover that Masculine Feminine is still sensational, and more prophetic than I'd realized. On paper the movie sounds tedious: taking off from the title, the entire movie is structured as a dialectic. On the masculine side: political militancy and resistance, sexual aggression, high art. One the feminine side: political apathy, teasing sexuality, pop culture. Godard organizes the movie using 15 chapter headings, some typically pretentious and nonsensical, and has as its centerpiece three lengthy interrogations, with men questioning women in tight, cramped quarters. What makes it all work is first Jean-Pierre Leaud, who lends his self-serious dillettante Paul a playfulness that keeps things light, as with the child-like delight on Leaud's face when Paul starts recalling his dad discovering why the earth revolved around the sun or the whimsical Bach humming that ends the scene. But most of all, what makes this exhilarating instead of tiresome is Godard's sense of play. He sprinkles the movie with nonsequitur killings and suicides that seem just absurd at first but foreshadow the tumult and failures that await that generation's young French leftists, pre-'68. The radical experiments in sound that intercuts loud, disruptive street noise and random conversations with pop music (a dialectic of sound -- reality colliding with pop) that still feels innovative today, if a tad annoying. And of course, what's a Godard movie without movie references, like playful nods to Pierrot le fou, The 400 Blows, and Contempt. From Chantal Goya's pop ditties to the stylish sweater sets and tweed coats to the high contrast black & white[1] and the hilarious throwaway humor (the old men taking turns reading erotica out loud at the cafe, Paul and pal yelling out bra-slogans in the laundromat), elegies to the left have never felt so fresh and fun and cool.

And in the end, this movie is an elegy, portending the triumph of the Pepsi generation over the Adorno kids. This farsightedness saves it from the film's central flaw, the pervasive misogyny that courses through the film. It's true the women are portrayed as the more sophisticated and skilled combatants in the battle of the sexes -- whereas the men are immature boors who just want to touch some tits and get into girls' pants, the women prolong the men's agony so the women can get what they want. But Godard still associates femininity with pop vacuity. The centerpiece, a lengthy, probably improvised interrogation by Paul of a "Consumer Product" (the "Miss 19" winner), exemplifies the scathing treatment of female ignorance in an era of heightened political consciousness. Typical exchange: "Tell me in what places are there wars going on right now." "I hadn't thought about it." Women are already commodities, the film suggests. Miss 19 is a "consumer product", Madeleine the pop singer is a producer of records to be sold. The young men resist while the young women submit to pop capitalism. But however schematic and ill-advised the sexual division, the film remains quite prescient. By 1965, when this movie was made, Godard had already sensed just how deep the "American way" has burrowed into the consciousness of the young, even the young French. Serious young men like Paul, the film hints, can't survive this age of commodification and reification.

Maybe Godard couldn't either. But before he turned into a crank (turning out movies that are all dialectics and literary allusions with none of the fun), JLG was in the throes of an effusive cinephilia that makes these early films a blast. Appropriately, the film's best scene is at the movies, when Paul leaves the hilarious Bergman parody to chew out the projectionist for projecting in incorrect aspect ratio. Paul comes back and ruminates in voiceover that "the movie [he's] watching is never the movie [he] wanted to make, which is never the movie [he] wanted to live." Whenever I watch one of Godard's early masterpieces, the opposite is exactly I feel: this is the movie I would have loved to have made. And this is the movie I would've loved to have lived, if only for a year or two.

[1] Please use yellow subtitles next time when restoring a b & w Godard film from the Sixties. The white on white subtitles were a pain. Thank you.