20 January 2008

TSPDT #199: WEEK END

I am here to inform these modern times of the grammatical era's end and the beginning of flamboyance especially in cinema.
-Joseph Balsamo (Daniel Pommereulle)

Fin de conte
Fin de cinema

-Closing title card
It feels more than a little bit facile to write about Week End, which like all of Jean-Luc Godard's films is saturated in its own meta-narrative movieness. As the man himself once said, the best way to criticise a movie is to make another movie, and I've never felt that as keenly as I do right now. Unfortunately, making Weekend Review isn't an option for me at this moment.

There are two competing schools of thought: one is that Godard's nascent Marxism overwhelms and essentially ruins Week End, the other is that Godard's nascent Marxism drives the aesthetic innovation in Week End and makes it a masterpiece. I agree. That's an overdetermined and precious gag, but it's hard to say anything that isn't overdetermined and precious about Week End, a film that reads itself, tells the viewer what that reading should be, and at the same time (also, beforehand) tells the viewer that this reading is inaccurate and should be ignored, here is the real reading. Oh, and you should ignore that one as well.

At any rate, the film is Marxist, in the same way that it is in color: less as a matter of theme and more an element of its construction. Godard understood something that other filmmakers have understood, but far too few: a film that promotes revolution should be formally an act of revolution. It should not speak according to the rules governing cinema and should invent rules for itself. The director is not always successful: Week End often simply plays by the rules that he had been developing throughout his early career. If "rules" is the right word. Still, its aesthetic radicalism is hard to deny. I have seen only one of the 50+ films, fragments and shorts that Godard has made in the four decades since Week End, and I cannot say if he kept referring to this radicalism in all that time, particularly in his run of Marxist films in the '70s, but I suppose that audiences in 1967 hadn't seen any of Godard's post-1967 films either, so I won't judge myself too harshly on this point.

What happens in the film, more or less, is that a married Parisian couple (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne) who have been secretly plotting to kill each other, travel to her parents' house (they've been trying to kill the parents, too). They have a terrible fight with the neighbor, hit a traffic jam, crash their car, hitchhike across the countryside, fall in with Maoist hippies, and witness the destruction of bourgeois society in fire, tangled metal, sex and cannibalism. This is both the point and not the point at all, although how much it is the point changes from scene to scene and line to line.

I don't think Godard of all people would condemn film as a bourgeois art form (note to self: be sure to put strike-out tags on "don't"), but it's curious how his attempt to prove that capitalism is a fake husk parallels the ways that he shows how cinema is a fake art form. The most obvious is the quintessentially Godardian use of title cards, which comment on the action in the film, explain it, and above all contradict it. I'm not certain whether we're supposed to regard the film or the card as the truth in a matter like this: early in the film (minute 13.5 to minute 22.25, approximately), there is an extremely famous tracking shot down a line of cars, each representing a vignette that may or may not have resonance later in the film, honking as they're stopped in a jam. The two leads drive down the opposite lane to get through the cluster, and the camera more or less follows them, sometimes swinging forward or backward to linger on a specific vignette, or maybe just for the sake of moving the camera. It's hard to tell on one viewing. Anyway, there are a couple times when the shot is interrupted by a card: before it starts we are told it's Saturday at 11:00 AM, the next card humps to 1:30 and third jumps to 2:10. However, the action before and after the cards is unmistakably continuous. We're trained as viewers to respect the card above all things as a third-person omniscient narrator, so the choice must be made: who is telling the truth? The diegesis or the the meta-narrative? And it was sometime in the middle of all this that I remembered that there's no reason to believe that the shot was taken at 11:00 AM or on a Saturday, and it wasn't a real traffic jam.

For Godard, pointing out his film's artifice as a means of reminding us that all films are constructs was just a normal day at the office. I'm not sure if it was before or after Week End that the director famously said "Cinema is truth 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie," (which is usually only half quoted, and it's not the important half) but that sensibility is the cornerstone of his style. That being the case, Week End is still a very special case because of how aggressively it pursues that line of thought, not adapting the playful tone of Band of Outsiders or Pierrot le fou, though it is in nearly every moment a funny film, but confronting the audience like a belligerent drunk. Most famously, the moral bankrupt leading man, Roland, snarls at his wife late in the movie, "What a rotten movie: all we meet are crazy people," and make no mistake, that "rotten movie" is Week End, which he has good reason to want out of. One of the film's other famous moments occurs right at the beginning: a pornographically explicit conversation about a threesome is drowned out - almost - by the insistent violin score. I'm actually going to interrupt myself: the violin score is interesting: as acted and shot, this scene is incredibly bland. Like most of Week End, it takes place in one extended take, and Godard and Raoul Coutard (the director of photography) jazz it up by zooming in and out slowly and at irregular intervals. The only thing that makes it dramatic at all is that music, which tell us "this is emotionally intense!" against all evidence and even as it overwhelms the dialogue, is our only real cue that the dialogue is worth listening to.

Before I interrupted myself, I was going to say: the music makes the explicit anecdote almost but not quite impossible to hear, but the audience for a movie being presumably interested in all that sex and violence (Godard in Week End even more than elsewhere seems to subscribe to the aesthetic that Buñuel would perfect of giving us the stuff of trashy exploitation, but presenting it in a corrupted way that makes it neither trashy nor exploitative, and thereby undercutting what he saw as the motivation for going to see movies as entertainment), the audience will try its hardest to listen to the salacious details of the story, no matter how hard it is to do that. The effect is somewhat ruined watching the film in subtitles, which make the bawdy parts no harder nor easier to get to than the rest of the film, but my French isn't nearly good enough to have turned them off, and I would have missed out on the smut. But that's my guess: the audience has to work to hear the story, and is aware that it is hard work, and therefore that it is a construct and not actual voyeurism.

My God, am I really at 1267 words? Now 1276? Perhaps I should think about winding this up. All that meta-constructive stuff, which is again merely the bread and butter of Godard's cinema, is in service to the destruction in the most violent ways of the "normal," or the capitalistic middle class. I used to be a Marxist but I'm just a fellow traveler now, so I'm not going to judge the value of his political expulsions (I will say that Mao was a really fucking bad person, even in 1967), although I think it bears repeating that politics & aesthetic are inextricably linked in Week End. Godard's film is meant to be uncomfortable and upsetting, not necessarily because Godard wants to whip the audience into a revolutionary fervor (though I'm sure he wouldn't have minded), but at the most basic level because anger is the only sensible response to a world where at any moment, most people aren't happy.

Now I've gone and begun talking in platitudes. Or maybe I have been all along and just noticed it. The basic truth is that Week End is too visceral for me to pin down in words. Maybe I should have watched it a couple more times. If I don't see what Godard was getting at, I saw what he wanted me to think he was getting at, which is just as good. It's hard to miss the point of the film while watching it, anyway, and that makes my work here redundant.

I hope you, dear reader, haven't been too annoyed by the self-reference here. I just thought that the most honest way to review Week End was by talking about how I was reviewing Week End.

Then, by calling attention to it.

1 comment:

Hallvarður Jón Guðmundsson said...

"My God, am I really at 1267 words? Now 1276?"

But.... oh, I see what you did there.