film: Godard: Pierrot le Fou (1965)

pierrotDear Meg,

I really am trying to write. Actually, the truth is that I haven’t begun writing at all. I have all the materials I need to begin writing, but there’s this present lack of something in me that leads me to a persistent inability not only to finding my words, but also to having real thoughts. Letter writing has failed me, travel has failed me, adventures have failed me, digging up family ghosts have failed me, I’ve tried all these things in the past few weeks and I find myself unable to write like I once could. It’s terrifying. So now I’ve been watching Godard and some opera (I don’t mean just any ol’ opera, I mean un certain opéra) and hoping desperately that forcing myself to write about these things will bring me quickly back to my senses. If nothing else will, then that’s that, I simply am unable to write ever again and I will have to just be ilwriterishly for ever after.

In the meantime I’ve been reading a lot of old reviews regarding works I’ve been involved with—and it seems to me that critics are quite possibly the dullest bunch ever formed by god, and I can only hope that someday a new sort of criticism will emerge, in which the critic will begin under the assumption that the artist knows precisely what he or she

(must I include ‘or she’–or can I just go along with the old rules of grammar in which the masculine gender is attributed to an indeterminate subject? or am I supposed to switch back and forth, like in the science safety videos where all the kids always have names we’ve never heard before? honestly, Meg, sometimes I can’t even lift my pen because I don’t know what to do with my pronouns! How do you deal with this?)

has created, has made every decision with infinite deliberation. That’s how I always tried to approach creative writing classes, in which I’d assume typos to be artistic statements. That’s how critics should be approaching everything—with a reasonable touch of taste, but mostly with confidence in the artist. Full disclosure: I was a critic for a big newspaper for four years, so I can assuredly say that there are few critical sins I did not leave uncommitted. But I suppose the special hell for critics will look very much like a Ben Franklin arts and crafts supply store.

The thing about these films that so agonizes me is how they speak to such vast numbers of people. The memory of France I most wish to rid myself of is of that smiling idiot and his expensive camera and his  adorable ‘I make websites for a living and go camping on weekends’ outfit photographing Brassai’s old apartment building and the Bunuel/Henry Miller/etc etc etc etc cafe beneath it. I want them to speak only to me. When I saw Jules et Jim originally, in the ‘foreign language lab’ I’d sneaked into so I could borrow the film from the French department and watch it wearing rubber headphones on a tiny yellowed television. The brilliance I drew from it was the following: it was made to be a very long and boring film so that at the very end the audience could be shocked by the casual treatment of death and cremation. Last I saw it I found it unspeakably beautiful, it was a whole world. So with Godard, my introduction to him, all on the large screen, was quite similar, looking for his funny sound-effects, his references to other films, his odd usage of the camera for conveying dialogue, his breaking of the rules. I understood that he was making art for its own sake, not for the sake of beauty, not because he might be able to make things new. I once looked at art as something to only be dissected, to be treated like a vial of blood to be separated and analyzed, to eke out cell-counts and percentages and meaning, when the truth of the matter is that George Michael refuses to get himself checked for HIV because he’s afraid of what the results might be—and if we took some of his blood and scientists analyzed it for every possible measurement it could yield, those scientists would find nothing telling of his sweet singing voice. That’s a proper comparison, isn’t it? Because although George Michael’s HIV status won’t change what he’s accomplished as a singer and what he still accomplishes today, his knowing the status could be helpful in prolonging his life and whatever other good that might effect. So perhaps although treating a film like a picky child treats a chicken leg might be useless in terms of understanding its beauty, perhaps it comes in useful when determining its longevity. But I sure hope not.

My great fear is that with age, if I’m finding these films beautiful now, that I someday might end up like that proto-emo kid in American Beauty who videotapes plastic bags blowing in the wind. He can go to hell too, along with everyone who gathers in big groups and lets go of balloons. But besides that, once you reach the point of finding beauty in plastic bags you’ve probably lost all usefulness to humanity. One needs standards. Here’s a standard: Sri Lanka is actually an island, and its political boundaries are not at all shaped like Vietnam.

“You speak to me with words, and I look at you with emotions.”

This is spoken by the woman to the man in a conversation I feel central to one of Godard’s concerns here, which is the failure of communication between men and women.

Briefly: Belmondo runs off with his babysitter, Anna Karina, and the two of them do what everyone does in Godard films. But they do it while being criminals and committing many crimes it’s difficult to slight them for, also Belmondo gets water-boarded twice without the camera cutting away from him

(which, if you’re counting, means that the actor Belmondo was water-boarded at least as many times as was once claimed of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed)–

but what’s most important is that the two of them run away together and there’s never really any motive established except their love for one another (ultimately questionable) and an equally fierce longing for romanticism in life. Do you know what a Carioca is? A native of Rio de Janeiro. Can you imagine how different things would be if  Columbus had thought he’d landed at Rio de Janeiro, and then he’d call everyone Cariocans. It’d be such a mess. Belmondo finds himself at peace when they live by the sea, quite romantic, he reads and writes, she says “I don’t give a damn about books” and declares herself quite bored. By the time they lose each other in a brief accident involving murder, dancing, and water-boarding, I’m led to believe that she didn’t want to stick around, and when they find each other again, I don’t entirely believe in her love anymore.

The problem is that I identify with both of them. How many times a day do I not give a damn about art before rushing and clutching its limp bodies off the floor to cover them with kisses?  I think if anyone else I know identifies, you do, because I’ve seen you take both sides. Is that everyone’s eternal struggle?  I don’t quite know what it is to be a man or to be a woman. I don’t know if I speak with words or with emotions, I don’t know if I look with words or with emotions. I’m afraid I’m quite changeable. What is certain, regardless, is that both their dreams I love instantly—and even their violent ends seem terribly merciful of Godard, because it would be much worse to led them languish in a courtroom.

But to the point: how should I be taking this film? intellectually or emotionally? All the essays in the world don’t change the fact that Brecht consistently found factory workers easily comprehending his plays while intellectuals got it wrong, and got it wrong, and got it wrong. They didn’t begin writing the screenplay for this until the day before shooting began. Yet some assert that every film of Godard’s deserves a book to dissect it. Does it? Or is that too simple and insulting? Is it supposed to be experienced and sensed, or is it supposed to be turned into words? is it supposed to be felt or reduced to concepts? is it meant for everyone or is it only for wealthy undergrads? What does it show me to be attainable in life? What’s most attractive and what’s worth sacrificing? Have I learned anything about myself? I hope so.

Could I have written this better? Absolutely? Could I have? No. I’ve totally failed.

For this I also read Review: [untitled], by Michael Klein. Film Quarterly. 1966. University of California Press, which was a bunch of shit, as most everything ever written about film is apt to be.

In the next thing I write I’ll be writing about Une Femme est une Femme—and I’ll write about the people who don’t deserve to enjoy French new wave cinema and why.

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