Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Thursday, March 5, 2015
In Harmony With Our Desires
I’ve had those moments. Maybe you have too but in Los Angeles they seem all the more tactile in their unreality. Those moments, maybe late at night, maybe in the middle of the afternoon, where everything that has ever seemed absolutely correct is there right in front of you in a way that can only be described as purely, unaccountably cinematic. It doesn’t last very long—maybe nothing ever lasts very long—but it happens. For just a few moments, you were alive. But eventually all you have is the memory. Nothing more. Because no matter how much real life gets crossed with movies it’s impossible for real life not to win out. Eventually there’s another person in front of you. Until, of course, there isn’t. “The Cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires,” goes the alleged André Bazin quote that opens Jean-Luc Godard’s CONTEMPT, adding that the film is the story of that world. CONTEMPT is film crossed with life and the utter impossibility of the two co-existing.
When I think of Godard I remember a night long ago at the Nuart when I was there to see BAND OF OUTSIDERS. The place was packed for this rare chance to see it in a theater. People were literally sitting in the aisles. The film started and it was immediately apparent this was a scratchy old print, maybe even 16mm, and looked practically unwatchable. Since I’d already sat through the first film on the double bill (Melville’s LE DOULOS) and had seen a scratchy 16mm print of BAND OF OUTSIDERS before, probably at college, I bailed about twenty seconds in. No point in waiting to see if it got better. Walked to my car, then as I drove past the theater I witnessed what appeared to be a mass exodus of people also bailing on that scratchy print. I can’t help but imagine Godard himself amused at the sight of hundreds of people fleeing a screening of one of his films but at the same time viewing them as unworthy just because they didn’t like the way it looked. In other words, there’s no way to win with him. Just thinking that makes me feel like I’m back in film school again and I’d rather not have to relive that nightmare, thank you very much. I’d like to imagine someone in that crowd made it to one of the recent Aero screenings of his newest film GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE which I unfortunately missed. Sorry, it was unavoidable. But for that matter, all these years after that night I now have a pristine quality Criterion Blu of BAND OF OUTSIDERS close by and wonder why I don’t watch it more. Maybe I’m just older now.
Maybe what we really need is a film about Godard in Hollywood. Reportedly Coppola brought him over as he attempted to expand Zoetrope during the making of ONE FROM THE HEART, resulting in Godard shooting footage on the set during production. I like to imagine him stopping off at Pink’s for lunch one day while he was over here. The notion of Coppola’s utopian would be-studio achieving the sort of success that would have allowed Godard to actually make a film in Hollywood is a fascinating one but of course he had already confronted the prospect of such a thing and what that could possibly mean for him. That would of course be CONTEMPT (LE MÉPRIS), based on the novel “Il Disprezzo” by Alberto Moravia, made in 1963 but unreleased in the U.S. until the very end of 1964, the story of writer Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) hired by American film producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to do a rewrite on his filming of The Odyssey, currently being directed by the legendary Fritz Lang (Fritz Lang). Paul is married to the gorgeous Camille (Brigitte Bardot) who he loves and she loves everything about him completely…until, suddenly, she doesn’t. As Paul attempts to navigate the impossible waters of Prokosch’s personality in making this film he must face up to whatever he may have done that led to Camille feeling such utter contempt for him.
The youthful exuberance of BREATHLESS and BAND OF OUTSIDERS might be the most purely enjoyable of Godard’s films from this era, they’re the ones that people seem to return to the most but CONTEMPT, whatever sort of elaborate prank on the director’s part that it is and almost known more for that famous poster featuring artwork of its iconic star, has always had more pull for me even if it isn’t my ‘favorite’ of his. But it probably is. Described by Godard himself as “an Antonioni film shot by Hawks or Hitchcock” both the story and the filmic language is relatively straightforward—as Godard films go it’s probably his slickest as well as his closest approximation to what we imagine a ‘real’ movie to be, photographed with every ounce of spectacular lusciousness by Raoul Coutard in color and Scope. The tracking shots alone in this film haunt me in how beautiful they are. And yet it’s a film that could only be made by this director, a glorification of the goddess Bardot as well as an examination of how the world, or just Godard himself, looks at her. Plus it’s an extended meta-gag of film vs. reality as well as a brutal examination of what that means. Piccoli’s screenwriter is the obvious surrogate for the director but Godard seems to be fighting against making him anything resembling a hero, not only taking who I imagine would have been the focus in the script and shifting it through the making of the film to female lead Bardot, her love for him, her hatred, her silent pleading to him not to fuck this up.
It isn’t hard for Godard’s camera to keep that harmony with his female star not only because it’s Bardot after all but because the male lead as played by Piccoli is such a schmuck, a screenwriter more interested in looking for ideas in movies he wants to see than in the ‘reality’ in front of him, more interested in discussing the bizarre Marlene Dietrich western RANCHO NOTORIOUS (which is a pretty good movie, but not that good) with the great Fritz Lang than his masterpiece M but more importantly how he fucks up his own marriage for reasons that he can’t even see. He loves everything about Camille’s body, he “loves her totally”. She’s a body to him and she’s happy to be a body for him, she’ll do anything for him, she’ll willingly get down on her knees for him, because she knows deep down that he thinks of her more than that. Until he takes it a step too far and fucks it up, all for Prokosch who doesn’t even bother to keep his interest in Camille a secret. He loses her. He can’t get her back and there’s nothing he can do about it. If he didn’t fuck it up right then he would have eventually. There are parts throughout CONTEMPT that I know deep down I can’t quite grasp due to my eternal singledom and that’s my problem. But more than anything else, the feeling it gives off that I understand down to my bones is that you expect the disaster. Deep down, you know you’re going to fuck things up. Then you do and you’re still clueless about what you may have done. As everything falls apart for Paul, we get quick flashes to moments we’ve seen that illustrate this, as well as a few we haven’t, done in a cutting style that almost makes me queasy in how unnerving it is, in a way only personal flashes in your head of your own fuck-ups do. There’s no way to win but you were going to screw it up anyway. There was no stopping it.
Along with all this are the playful touches that lay bare just the process of the film itself so the artifice is obvious, we know that it’s never anything other than a movie—the opening shot that also displays the filming of a tracking shot as the detailed credits are read aloud. A musical performance in a theater with obvious tracking of the singer, maybe the one sequence closest to early Godard in its playfulness, never even tries to be ‘real’. Cinecitta is portrayed as an empty ghost town of ruins with posters of HATARI! and PSYCHO scattered around. Jack Palance, the ugly American producer, represents the end of cinema while Fritz Lang, a God himself making this film about Gods for a man who is nothing of the sort walks among them. He even recites his famous opinion of what CinemaScope is good for is this film shot in CinemaScope almost better than any other film shot in CinemaScope ever was. Bardot is introduced in a scene supposedly there to appease the producers upset at the lack of Bardot nudity and no matter how blatant it is feels essential. Piccoli’s screenwriter is caught outside of these struggles and a part of it as well, a man who not only lives in movies but can’t see what’s in front of him. He makes the same mistake concerning Camille twice and that second strike is clearly enough.
It’s a portrait of self-loathing for Godard, loathing for making this film, for all I know even loathing for casting Bardot as his wife instead of his own then-wife Anna Karina. He lives through the movies. Even when they’re alone that’s how they live. She puts on a wig and wants to be someone else (Anna Karina, maybe). Never removing his hat even in the bathtub, he wants to be Dean Martin in SOME CAME RUNNING but he can’t and as much as he tries to rationalize it to himself he wants the money this job could give him, communist party card or not, caught between the art of the God Lang and the checkbook/ego of false God Palance, unable to decide for himself which side he should be on or for what reasons. The middle third of the film is basically Bardot and Piccoli alone in their apartment as everything breaks down and the way that half-hour goes, of every excruciating inch of this argument between the two of them scene is shot going through every emotion imaginable, observing them from a distance and when the camera finally moves in to close-ups as their discussion becomes more intimate keeps them deliberately separated. For this half-hour the apartment is the universe, a distance between them vaster than any CinemaScope vista could ever express.
Beyond each of those arguments of film vs life, why Paul & Camille’s marriage collapses vs why Odysseus’ marriage collapses in trying to sort out the story of this film and the playfulness of how CONTEMPT is about watching Bardot, as well as Bardot’s ass, and it knows this. It’s about how she feels about that as well, how she feels about being so dismissed as just a body by her so-called intellectual husband who doesn’t deserve her (it seems like a joke in itself that the film totally ignores whoever the stars of this filming of The Odyssey are—actors can be dismissed as she proves otherwise). Placed up against the jaw-dropping images of Capri filmed in Casa Malaparte to represent Prokosch’s villa, Bardot is just as beautiful and the film seems to understand that she should be worshipped just as we worship the beauty of those majestic cliffs, yet Paul doesn’t. The hauntingly unforgettable Georges Delerue score (prominently featured in Scorsese’s CASINO) deliberately overplayed to heighten the feel watching over it all adds to the majesty just as the statues, the scenery, the gods, watching over it all this madness which in this villa feels like it’s set at the edge of the world, the end of all art, life, film, reality. Paul is a deliberate cipher in the end, as much as we or Camille would wish otherwise, without the backbone to stop what happens—the climactic delirium of the climax of Vincente Minnelli’s TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN which seems to anticipate CONTEMPT is numerous ways is here just cut off abruptly.
In the end we’re left with someone who won’t give us any clue to what his feelings really are, beyond presumably checking to see if RIO BRAVO’s still playing when he gets back to Rome. The final line of dialogue we hear in the film, “Silencio”, is of course the exact same last line heard in Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (I’m hardly the first to notice parallels between the two) also one of the best films that ever looked at the line between the fantasy of film and the harsh reality surrounding that dream. At the end of the dream that’s all there can be. Before Paul leaves, Fritz Lang tells his that he’s filming Odysseus’ gaze upon seeing his homeland but the best we can tell when the shot plays out is that they’re filming him from behind staring out at the water, no gaze ever visible. Which makes as much sense as any relationship—what we think is safe is really just a void. Or maybe that void is the meaning Godard wants to pretend we’re supposed to get out of it. It’s the meaning we seek in every hoped-for connection that eventually crumbles to pieces.
However much this is Bardot giving a performance or simply going along with what Godard wants she feels totally in synch with her director. Whether she’s a great actress or not, the film is partly about staring at her blank face anyway and her inexpressiveness can be as telling as the monolith in 2001, just as it should be, and there’s forever the hope that she might actually smile again—a joking gesture she makes to Fritz Lang at one point feels out of character but whether it was off the cuff or not doesn’t matter. It reveals more than she’ll allow to Paul at that point. This winds up placing even more distance between us and the actor presumably playing the Godard surrogate and everything is done to make Michel Piccoli not come off as the cool Belmondo-type. He never can be, much as he might want to, but the actor brings a humanity to the character nevertheless as if the character/the actor has discovered he’s not really the ‘lead’ in his own movie and has to do something about it. The intimidation of Jack Palance expressed through his secretary, well played by Georgia Moll, is appropriately confounding so his bullying and false intellectualism towards Piccoli is always nerve-racking. Fritz Lang, who in real life had already directed his final film, seems patiently willing to do whatever Godard wants of him while carrying himself as a man who knows all but the absolute unknowable and he’s content with that. “You must finish what you start,” he declares at the very end and maybe that’s all we can ever try to do.
Now I may think that Godard’s CONTEMPT is one of the best films ever made but, to steal a line from Howard Beale, what has that got to do with the price of rice? To say that I love CONTEMPT is equal to me saying that I have near zero confidence in anything I even try to write, let alone awareness of how to do anything better next time. There are infinite ideas to express about CONTEMPT but in the end there really is just what we see so it’s a film with a fascination that persists. Even if it is a film about bafflement, confusion, obsession, there’s a love in there, a yearning for what is never going to be. But it’s also hard not to look at this film and think of Truffaut’s famous 1973 letter to Godard calling him out on acting like “a shit” in response to Godard’s letter where he writes on his low opinion of DAY FOR NIGHT. Truffaut asks why he’s wasting his time seeing films he hates that will fuel his hatred: “Why? In the hope of finding something that will fuel your contempt for the rest of us, that will reinforce your new prejudices?” I suspect the use of this film’s title in that question was unintentional but it does make a point and Truffaut certainly seems like the one in the right. There’s no use in getting into Godard’s work in recent years since it’s so obscure, there’s so much I haven’t seen yet including GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (I’ve also never seen all of the English language version of CONTEMPT which removes the element of different languages being spoken from this story of people who aren’t speaking the same language. In clips it seems totally wrong, but perversely amusing). There’s also no point in dwelling on the personalities of either Godard or Bardot in recent years. Maybe it’s best to leave them back in the sixties, still waiting at Casa Malaparte. As for the meaning of CONTEMPT, well, we look for poetry in life, sometimes desperately. It doesn’t mean we find it, even if we’re with the one woman we want to be with, even if she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. You can find several of those in Los Angeles. Sometimes she just happens to be who you’re talking to during one of those moments where everything seems right. It may only be a fantasy and the feeling certainly never lasts but for those few seconds you no longer can tell where the film you’ve been obsessively watching ends and real life begins.