Thursday, August 09, 2012

Seasons in the Abyss

After graduating high school I first began devouring Jean-Luc Godard's films and critical essays. I had not gained much from the films, aside from their spontaneous episodic structures and flimsy B movie plots; and, there were the pretty actors, brightly colored pop cinematography with text, novels, paintings and misplaced music cues; finally, the endless references to cinema, including his own.

À bout de souffle (1960, Godard) is Godard's first film and probably his most widely seen; and, it still holds up as a Bonny & Clyde style road film of early 60s Paris youth culture. He'd follow with similar works, but with increasing experimentation and a resulting distancing from audiences, due to his political bent, and ever-diminishing narratives.

Weekend (1967, Godard) marks the end of Godard's early phase, a style he would never return to, in favor of his form of visual essays or lyrical reflection. I'd always be primed for a sacred experience when I popped in a home video copy of Weekend, but last week was the first time I had a chance to see a newly restored 35mm print of it screened in a theatre.

To many, Weekend boasts the reputation of being something like Godard's weirdest, least accessible movie. The 8 minute tracking shot of a traffic jam is also mentioned often. And sometimes you'll hear people talking about the taboos: the lewd group sex monologue recounted by Corinne, the brutal murder of Emily Brönte at the stake, the filmed bludgeoning of a live pig, or the cannibalism. All of these elements assembled together still elude me as I look for deeper meaning.
But, I'm familiar with a phrase Godard often places in his films, "La Monnaie de l’absolu," which translates to the coin of the absolute, I think. To read this phrase as a metaphor for Weekend, it means something like the film is a currency that travels into foreign markets, but displays two sides.
First, say is the heads side. The heads side are the beautiful actresses outfitted in the latest trends in modern fashion, the shiny new autos, the bright colorful corporate advertising, the idyllic trip to the countryside to visit family.
But the tails side would then include Corinne's avarice, her deceptive debaucheries, her sociopathic obsession with materialism.
There's more. In general, I merely attempt to engage with both sides of the coin. Corinne's erotic monologue does recall the similar scene from Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) where Alma tells the tale of herself, her girlfriend, and the boy at the beach. But in Godard's hands it feels explicit and gratuitous even, in the same way Marquis de Sade wrote. So if globalism and consumerism are clearly subjects that Weekend focuses on, it can be argued that the monologue pushes audience expectations and conceptions about erotic subjects in then-modern cinema. Because, out of context, is the scene nothing more than dirty talk? Does it matter that Corinne is filmed in silhouette? Does it matter that we don't know who the other people are she's talking about?
Corinne is the central protagonist of Weekend, and her journey is still one of the most modern of cinematic quests. She's gotta get to Oinville. Oinville points to something of a twentieth century Sodom and Gomorrah, of consumerism that is. And from point A to B and every stop in between, we can be sure that some form of satire is being launched. The thematic content is as antagonistic as the onslaught of car horns are abrasive--in the theatre I truly appreciated how obnoxious they sound.
It's up to viewers to word their own ideas about Weekend, but I'm here to say I'm just starting myself, in any significant way. There are perhaps confrontations of old and new, or classical vs. modern, as evident in the Emily Brönte burning by Corinne and Roland. There's also the obviously scathing attack on too many people owning automobiles--the disaster of what a trip to the country may look like one day. But to be fair, I doubt I'll ever catch the full extent of the dozens of literary and obscure historical references. It sure is a fun challenge to attempt though.
I've personally been really crazy about dolly tracks lately and just can't get enough. I was astounded to discover how most of Weekend is filmed from dolly tracking shots that maintain a consistent speed throughout. It made the film feel like Godard was our tour guide and refuses to relinquish his dominance over what we see and when; it's like we expect him to yell, "Hey, keep all arms and legs in the ride! Look over here, not there!" Weekend is an alarm that still reverberates, even after having been set off 45 years ago.
To end with a coin analogy: Weekend identifies itself textually with two introductions. The heads side shows, "This is a film adrift in the cosmos." The tails side shows, "This is a film found on a garbage heap." It's both simultaneously.

And Weekend's Corinne saying one of the funniest most memorable lines in cinema, as she esapes the burning wreckage of a car accident, "My Hermès handbag!" still kills riotously.

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