Historical narratives can sometimes be extraordinarily cruel. Consider, for example, the narrative that is frequently attached to the life of Jean-Luc Godard: An ambitious young film critic stepped behind the camera and began producing works of cinematic art that changed the way that people thought about film. Then, after several years of sustained brilliance, he delved too deeply and all of that brilliant extroversion changed into painfully self-absorbed introversion. Having recently watched and written about a number of Godard’s early films, I have some sympathy with this narrative and would certainly flag him as an artist who became so aware of the tools of artistic expression that he seemed to start finding it increasingly difficult to express himself with both honesty and spontaneity. Pretence, pretence… all is pretence.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with Quentin Tarantino and buy into the idea that Godard had disappeared up himself by the end of the 1960s, that narrative has followed the director for most of his career. Godard is not the only artist to become stuck in a particular historical moment but he has been more unlucky than most in that every film he produces winds up being seen as a painfully introspective work of cinematic deconstruction while every Woody Allen film is inevitably viewed as a heroic return to form.
Godard’s contemporary Alain Renais suffers from a different but not unrelated problem in that people tend to approach his work in terms of a narrative linking his first two features back to his early documentaries via the theme of memory. In fact, those are exactly the terms in which I wrote about both Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. The weird thing about Resnais’ narrative is that it simply peters out after Marienbad. Godard is said to have disappeared up himself around the time of Pierrot le Fou but Resnais simply stopped being relevant.
One explanation for these narratives assuming the shape they did is that the New Wave ran its course and the critical consensus moved on. By the late 1960s, the collapse of the American studio system had allowed a generation of young filmmakers to seize the means of production and begin expressing themselves artistically and so people started writing about the American New Wave while the authors of the French New Wave were allowed to dip into semi-obscurity. While this back-of-a-fag-packet theory may or may not stand up to close scrutiny, it does raise an interesting question about why people lost interest in Godard when they did and why they seemed to lose interest in Resnais even sooner.
One explanation is that Resnais delved too far and too fast: Whereas most works of classical cinema contrive to offer their audiences a curated cultural experience in which the filmmakers introduce audiences to worlds and characters before telling them how to think and what to feel, art house directors like Resnais abandoned their curatorial role and encouraged audiences to articulate their own responses to the ideas and images placed on screen. Resnais took this deconstructive process a step further than most by stressing not only the artificiality of his characters and the pretence of plot but also the psychologically mediated nature of his settings. In effect, Resnais pushed the deconstructive process so far that he wound up offering his audiences a work of art that was just as unfathomable and unforgiving as the world itself, which can be viewed as a failure of the social contract linking audience to author.
This is an essay about Alain Resnais’ Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour but it is also an essay about the relationship between artist and consumer.
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FilmJuice have my review of Alain Resnais’ iconic art house drama Hiroshima Mon Amour. Historical distance tends to result in cultural moments losing a lot of their nuance. For example, when we look back at British punk, we often struggle to see beyond the Sex Pistols and even when we do manage to escape the event horizon of their fame, we tend to only see bands like Crass and X-Ray Spex. I have a theory that when the books are closed on post-War European cinema and its contemporary art house rump, people will agree that the cultural moment peaked with Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and L’Avventura. Sure… great films came before and after (I’ve reviewed quite a few of them) but even fifty years later, European art house film struggles to be anywhere near as beautiful, shocking, and thought-provoking as those three films. Indeed, one of my recurring moans is that many of the directors working in contemporary European art house film are little more than tribute acts grinding through gestures and ideas introduced over half a century ago.
And yet, who can blame generations of film school graduates when those gestures and ideas contain so much power?
Hiroshima Mon Amour was Resnais’ first feature-length film and the road to directing narrative features was paved with short, confrontational documentaries including Night and Fog, his damning examination of French involvement in the Holocaust. As might be expected of a feted documentarian, Resnais’ first feature begins with a series of documentary gestures in which a woman describes visiting a museum about the bombing of Hiroshima while her Japanese lover repeatedly asserts that she saw nothing at Hiroshima. The steel in his voice and the intimation of trauma it suggests set the tone for a film about memory, emotion, and the urgent need to forget:
Were someone to make Hiroshima Mon Amour today, people would say that it was a film about trauma; the trauma inflicted upon the Japanese people by the American use of nuclear weapons and the trauma of being used as a scapegoat for the years your home town lived happily under German rule. Rather than differentiating between the wartime experiences of winners and losers, soldiers and civilians, Renais links the experiences of a Japanese soldier to the experiences of a French teenager and explores the effects of trauma upon memory and, by extension, the self. Though Renais would likely not have thought of his film in terms of modern ideas about psychological trauma, he intuitively understands the ways in which trauma can distance you from people who do not share your experiences. He also understands how traumatic events can demand a form of active and self-protective forgetfulness whereby the traumatised create new stories to tell about themselves. For example, the architect is only able to function because he chooses not to talk about the destruction of his home and family. When his lover tries to start a conversation about Hiroshima, his only response is to shut her down… “You saw nothing of Hiroshima”. Conversely, the actress is only able to function because she chooses not to fall in love so deeply as to be transported back to that day when she was shaved and thrown into a basement. She recognises the need to confront these feelings and move on with her life and yet she cannot… “You destroy me. You’re so good for me”.
I’ve long suspected that my tastes are turning more and more towards the abstract. I’ve spent so long thinking about books and films that I genuinely struggle with the carefully curated experiences offered by works with strong narratives and the need to lock audiences into a single unambiguous narrative. All too often, these works feel like theme park rides only without the excitement. Like many films influenced by the experimentalism of French modernism, Hiroshima Mon Amour turns its nose up at the tricks and traps of western story-telling and encourages us to think by providing us with a stream of unanswered questions and evocative images. Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of those films that perfectly suits my current needs and tastes… it is my bag, baby.
“The secret power of novels: they look like mirrors held up to the world, but what they are is machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world and so muddy the waters of genuine understanding of the human condition”
So says Gabriel Josipovici on page 70 of his book Whatever Happened to Modernism? (2010). Josipovici tries to isolate the spirit of Modernism not in any formal development or stylistic quirk, but in a particular philosophical stance with regards not only to the world but also to the act of producing art. This stance finds its origins in what Weber and Schiller called the Disenchantment of the World, an event — associated either with the Renaissance or the French Revolution — that saw the dismantling of the certainties of the old medieval conceptual order and their replacement with a more sceptical, tentative and detached worldview born of the scientific revolution and a humanist tradition stretching back to antiquity. The word became disenchanted not because old comforting falsehoods were replaced by harsh new truths but because it suddenly became clear that the world was a place free of certainties and that absolutely everything was open to questioning. This sense of disenchantment provoked what the philosopher Kierkegaard called ‘the dizziness of freedom’, a feeling that everything could be said but because there were no longer any fixed rules or structures to press against that nothing that could be said would have any meaning. The essence of Modernism, according to Josipovici, is art that embraces this lack of certainty and manages to press forward because of it.
Abbas Kiarostami’s previous film Shirin (2008) seemed to embody this artistic self-awareness perfectly. Set in an Iranian cinema, the film is composed of nothing but a series of close-ups on the faces of Iranian women as they watch a film based upon a work of epic Persian romantic poetry. We never see the film itself, but in reading about the making of Shirin we learn anecdotes about the poem, the production process and the somewhat jarring presence of the actress Juliette Binoche amongst a sea of unrecognisable faces. Shirin is a film that invites us to think not about the images upon the screen but upon the selection of those images and the relationship between those images and the (unseen) story that is producing them. In short, Shirin is very much a work of Modernist cinema as Josipovici would understand the term… it is a film about the author’s lack of authority and the lack of authenticity inherent in any artistic text regardless of how ‘realistic’ the images on screen purport to be.
While Shirin is undeniably a beautiful and powerful film, it is also a film that smacks of cleverness more than authenticity. There is do doubting the reality of the women’s responses to the unseen film but the framing of these images is so philosophically complex and ontologically ‘clever’ that Shirin seems less like a work of art and more like a critical essay on the impossibility of creating authentic art. To borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes, it lacks the trembling of existence. It lacks that smack of the real. It does not feel like an authentic slice of reality, let alone a reliable reproduction of the world. Copie Conforme, Kiarostami’s follow-up film, can be seen as an attempt to correct the mistakes made by Shirin. It is a film that engages and struggles with the unsurmountable difficulty of achieving artistic authenticity, but it does so from within the context of a story that feels both horribly and beautifully real.
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In his excellent extended essay What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010), Gabriel Josipovici provides a spirited reading of Cevantes’ Don Quixote. Quixote, argues Josipovici, is not merely the first modern novel, it is also the first post-modern novel as within the novel’s various framing devices lies the recognition that there is something profoundly false about the form of the novel. A falseness that can never quite be expunged, regardless of how full-throated an author’s commitment to realism might be :
“Don Quixote’s madness dramatises for us the hidden madness in every realist novel, the fact that the hero of every such novel is given a name merely in order to persuade us of his reality, and that he has giants created for him to do battle with and Dulcineas for him to fall in love with simply to satisfy the demands of the narrative. And it dramatises the way we are readers collude in this game because we want, for the duration of our reading, to be part of a realised world, a world full of meaning and adventure, an enchanted world” [p. 34]
No genre has so proudly worn its commitment to realism as the police procedural. From TV series such as The Wire through to books such as Izzo’s Total Kheops (1995), McBain’s 87th Precinct series and Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. The police procedural does not merely seek to entertain by providing us with a mystery that the protagonists can gamely unravel, it also seeks to reflect the reality not only of the books’ settings but also of the job of solving crimes and being a policeman. However, as Josipovici wisely points out, there is a tension here. David Simon’s The Wire beautifully captured the political realities of contemporary America, but is it not just a little bit handy that one of the police officers should have chosen to go and get a job teaching thereby allowing the series to devote an entire series to the problems of America’s schooling? Similarly, Izzo’s Total Kheops does a wonderful job of communicating the texture and character of the town of Marseilles, but is it not convenient that the book’s protagonist listens to cutting-edge hip hop while drinking local wines and eating immaculately cooked locally-sourced produce rather than humming along to Johnny Halliday whilst enjoying a burger and a coke?
Clearly, the police procedural’s commitment to realism is in desperate need of being challenged and deconstructed. Corneliu Porumboiu’s Poliţist, Adjectiv scratches that itch. With long and delicately manicured finger nails.
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