Friday, June 06, 2003

Gay Pride days

Gay Pride season officially begins this weekend with Capitol Pride in Washington, D.C. For the next month and a half, you can go to a different city every weekend, and you'll see yet another Gay Pride Festival -- or "Pride," for short -- designed to make Gay people feel better about ourselves. These events are meant to "celebrate the diversity" of the Gay / Lesbian / Bisexual / Transgender / Queer / Questioning / post-Gay / Womyn's / Circuit-Party community. By and large they are homogenous as diner food.

First comes a parade. Drag queens and half-naked party boys dance on floats advertising local Gay bars; buff gym bunnies tout their favorite pump-up steroid shops. Moms from PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians And Gays) march behind, apologizing profusely for the royal mindfuck they gave their Queer kids (suggested banner: "We're So Sorry"), while Lesbian Avenger college girls get jeered at from the older lesbians on the sidelines. Behind them are the usual array of social clubs, advocacy groups, AIDS organizations, and unreconstructed leftists. But ignore these people, gentle reader -- God knows we usually do.

Then comes the festival. From a distance it looks like a county fair, with lots of tents, lots of booths, lots of has-been or never-will-be performers on the "main stage," lots of skanky, overpriced food, lots of diatribes from radical activists you've never heard of about how racist / sexist / you-name-it Gay people are -- and hey, wasn't Pride supposed to make us feel better about ourselves? You'll see a Gay Fathers' Coalition under one tent; sometimes these guys even bring their kids along, and I've never met one who wasn't well-mannered to a fault. Over there is the "Heather Has Two Mommies" Club, even though the children of Lesbian couples are seldom named Heather; in fact, they turn out disproportionately to be tow-headed boys who waste their childhoods wondering why the other mommies won't let them into their music festivals. By the port-a-johns (ew, ick) stand cute brownshirted sadomasochists and hairy leather daddies (ew, ick), and of course, next to them is the local Metropolitan Community Church -- a.k.a. MCC, the rock of Gay spirituality aside from Marianne Williamson (ew, ick). Reform Jews have been represented at these festivals for a while, as have the Unitarians. The most recent additions -- at the entrance, the better to clear out when this thing is over -- are non-MCC, Gay-friendly churches, who've learned that Gays are the only people who still find meaning in liberal Christianity, and various activist contingents within Gay-unfriendly religions and denominations (i.e., nearly all of them). Meanwhile, a handful of Log Cabin Republicans catch flack from People for the American Way and the Democratic Party, who try to remind everyone what intolerant bastards those awful Republicans are. Religion, family, and conservatism seem to constitute the final frontier for Gay advocacy, and may be the only way for Gays to shock each other anymore.

My non-heterosexual friends all say that they won't be going to Gay Pride this year. It's all so tiresome, more trouble than it's worth really, a matter of "Been there, done that, read the book, seen the play, directed the musical, bought the recording, dated the cast." And then at the last minute we all change our minds and go. Sometimes I think that Gay Pride season is based on Gay Pride in the way rabbit season is based on rabbits.

Now, thanks to some unexpected car trouble, I really can't go to Capitol Pride this weekend. Even though the festivities haven't started yet, I already feel like I've missed out.

Straight people ask me all the time why Gay people go to things like Pride festivals. After all, nobody celebrates Straight Pride. Well, I tend to respond, that's because nobody really has to. Every day is sort of a "Straight Pride" day. Heterosexual families go to the park, or the mall, and everybody knows they're a family and accepts it. Politicians on the left and the right talk about how wonderful families are, and as a consequence heterosexual families get over a thousand special rights and privileges from the government. If you deny those families their God-given special perks, even for a moment, they'll squeal like pigs.

Gay people, on the other hand, get stared at wherever we go -- at least, as long as we look or sound like we're Gay. The benefits that heterosexual couples receive all the time (adoption, benefits, joint life insurance, legal marriage, social acceptance), Gay people don't get, or in the best cases, get grudgingly. In places like Virginia, Gay people can't even have sex in private without breaking the law, which means that all non-heterosexuals are just felons who haven't been caught yet. So the main reason we go to Gay Pride is that we want to create some place for ourselves where we won't get stared at and criticized.

Ultimately it doesn't work out this way at all, because when Gays get together we criticize and stare at each other. Couldn't we have kept those uncouth leatherfolk out? Aren't those circuit parties giving our community a bad name? Why do those Gay boys have to boogie down to so much loud disco music? And could someone please get rid of those half-dozen anti-Gay extremists screaming at us from three blocks away? These objections could be chalked up to mere prejudice, except that the things we most dread to see always seem to show up the next day on the six o'clock news.

Sometimes, though, we have better reasons to lament the "open-door, open-tent" policy of most Gay Pride festivals. In the late 1980s, the "North American Man-Boy Love Association," a sort of pedophiles' club, successfully gained entry into New York City's Pride parade. Despite the fact that only about half a dozen people actually marched under their banner and were roundly booed and shunned during the event, the resulting public-relations debacle still haunts Gay-rights organizations at every turn, ensuring that most Gay-friendly legislation dies on the vine. But alas, the Gay-rights organizations that sponsor said legislation are rarely if ever connected to Gay Pride Festivals, and thus have no control over what happens when we let our freak flags fly. Given the negative repercussions, it's no wonder that many Gay people wonder why we're still doing the whole Pride thing.

A moral objection I've heard to Gay Pride, from all points on the spectrum of sexuality, is that pride is at best a fault and at worst a sin. Pride ought to be overcome, not celebrated. My counterargument gets pretty complicated, but here's the quick summary. The word "pride" in this case has more than one meaning. There's one form of pride which dependably comes before a fall, and causes shame when that fall occurs. The opposite of this kind of pride is humility, the sense that we are who we are, neither too good nor too bad for ourselves. The pride Gay people celebrate in our weekend festivals is not of this first kind. Rather, we're attempting to establish a good kind of pride, based on healthy self-regard. The opposite of healthy self-regard is shame, which is the sense that we're just too good for our situation. Sometimes, of course, shame can be an appropriate reaction, especially if it's directed toward behavior that causes deliberate, concrete harm. But when shame is directed internally, as if we were somehow too good for our own selves, it's a product of the bad kind of pride. (This is what William Blake meant when he wrote that "Shame is Pride's cloak.") So inasmuch as Gay Pride is opposed to internally directed shame, it favors the healthy self-regard that leads to true humility. In other words, pride is like cholesterol: The good kind drives out the bad kind.

There's been some talk of discontinuing Pride Festivals altogether, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon. What's more, I don't think I want it to happen anytime soon. Most of my Gay friends have stories about how they went to some Pride festival and walked away much the better for the experience. As for me, my own coming out occurred shortly after I went to a Pride event in my hometown (the only one it's had to date, alas). So for most of us, these festivals are more than worth all the effort that goes into them and the trouble that comes out of them. After all, if it weren't for them, many more of us would be frustrated and alone in the hostile world.

Still, a Pride Festival will only take you so far. I'll admit I'm not always proud of Gay people (in the good way, I mean) and I'm not always proud to be Gay myself. But I like to think I'm learning, however slowly, the regard for self and others that leads to humility. I know I have a long way to go, but here's hoping ....

Thursday, June 05, 2003

"Everything today is thoroughly modern": Thoroughly Modern Millie on DVD

Yes, The Animatrix and the latest James Bond movie came out this week, but one new release towers above them all: At long last, the classic Ross Hunter / George Roy Hill / Julie Andrews musical Thoroughly Modern Millie is available in a beautiful new widescreen-edition DVD. Gay men everywhere rejoice!

Well, almost everywhere.

How this film managed to get a G rating from the MPAA, I'll never figure out, because it contains some very kinky sexual subtext. (The recently released Down with Love got a PG-13 for much, much less.) Set in the 1920s, Millie portrays flappers, scheming secretaries, high society types, Jazz-Age parties and even a white-slavery / prostitution ring. The gawky male lead undertakes a thrilling skyscraper climb straight out of Safety Last, thus emphasizing his unfortunate resemblance to Harold Lloyd. And best of all, Andrews gets to sing a Yiddish wedding song in her best Maria von Trapp voice. Mazel tov, indeed. Perhaps it's wise not to mention the plot, which is thin even by musical-theater standards, but you can't claim the film is without incident.

As is typical of mid-1960s American cinema, and especially of big studio productions, the cinematography is static, awkward and even a bit drab. The camera tends to keep a safe distance from the action, which makes this film particularly ill-suited for home viewing. (In the wild Chinatown finale, when the lighting goes berzerk and the camera finally starts to dolly and track, I began to think, At last, a real movie!) We're a long way from Bob Fosse's dynamic choreography, which basically taught directors how to stage musical numbers flexibly within a widescreen format.

If so many of the performers in Millie weren't legends of the stage, the whole business would be much less interesting. On the other hand, the film's blatant theatricality shows off some of these performers to best effect, and may even have led Broadway to transform Millie into the play it aspired to be all along. (Alas, in the process they jettisoned most of the period songs and a good deal of the camp.)

The performances are a mixed bag, but there are several bright spots. The best by far is Carol Channing's pitch-perfect characterization of showgirl-turned-widower Muzzy van Hossmere. Plenty of Gay men have impersonated women, but Channing's wink-wink promiscuity, party-hardy flamboyance, and steady stream of absurdist patter make this the only case I know in which a woman has successfully impersonated a Gay man. She even squeezes a little unexpected pathos from the role, which might explain why she received -- and deserved -- a surprise Oscar nomination in 1967 for supporting actress. (Estelle Parsons won that year for Bonnie and Clyde, signaling that a new American cinema was about to give the coup de grace to old Hollywood.)

Legendary comedienne Bea Lillie makes a terrific villainess, and her timing is spot-on for a laugh. I wish she had more to do than scowl, look sinister, and exclaim, "Oh, pook!", but I'll take what I can get. Julie Andrews is less successful as the eponymous Millie; she's at least ten years too old to play a flapper, and she never breaks out of her insufferable goody-goody mode. All the same, she manages to be a decent sport, allowing herself to appear ridiculous at every possible opportunity. As the naive, strait-laced "Miss Dorothy Brown," Mary Tyler Moore overacts to painful effect, squashing most of her character's comic potential. Though square-jawed John Gavin (who played Sam Loomis in Hitchcock's Psycho) and goofy James Fox give fair support as the love interests, they don't make much of an impression compared to the female leads.

There are quite a few problems with this film, but the main one for me is that it feels like an inside joke, one that I don't think I quite "get." I suspect that when it was first released, most audiences didn't "get" it either. It was a pretty notorious box-office flop then, one of many overblown "road-show" productions from the late 1960s and early 1970s that gradually killed musical comedy as a Hollywood genre. Millie has held up much better than other films of its ilk (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, anyone?), but perhaps that's because the film is so self-indulgently, deliberately campy that it has survived the ravages of time as a certifiable cult favorite. It seems especially beloved among older Gay men.

If you like this sort of camp, it's frequently delightful, and as I said before, I'm not sure I do. For one thing, Millie is packed with Asian stereotypes, though they're too silly and over-the-top to be taken seriously. A more substantial objection is that the film draws clumsy parallels between the flappers of the 1920s and the liberated women of the 1960s, and seems in the end to come down hard against both. With such a relentlessly deviant sexual subtext, I suppose Millie had to pretend to espouse reactionary gender politics in order to keep the censors from getting wise and clamping down. Still, the choice seems unfortunate in retrospect. I think I would have preferred the film if it made no pretensions whatsoever to contemporary relevance, though I'm aware that complete irrelevance is nearly impossible to pull off.

As you may have guessed, most of my criticisms boil down to a certain incompatibility between the film's attitudes and my own. Thoroughly Modern Millie is a treasure trove of pre-Stonewall camp, and I'm pretty much a post-Stonewall, non-campy kid of fellow. This is enough to convince me, as if I needed much convincing on the matter, that there's a major generational divide between pre- and post-liberation Gay experience, and I don't think I'll ever be able to truly cross it. So frankly, this film feels like a relic to me -- and considering how much I enjoy silent cinema, that's saying a lot.

I'll grant that seeing vintage Broadway stars like Carol Channing and Bea Lillie in their glorious prime is worth at least a rental, no matter who you are, and I'm enough of a theater queen and Jazz-Age aficionado (both holdovers from a deeply repressed adolescence) to appreciate what the film is trying to do. Even so, I can't fathom for the life of me why this odd little curio was ever made. If I were fifteen years older, I probably could.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Tax Cuts are Bad for Flowers, Children and Other Living Things

Arianna Huffington weighs in on the Bush tax cut, and liberals across America agree: Conservatives are a bunch of heartless, lying bastards (although some of them seem to have decent intentions, and must therefore be blind, deluded or just plain stupid).

Remember, big-government liberals know how to spend your money better than you do. You don't believe me? Well, ask them. Ask them anytime.

On a tangent, on a tear, / Matrix jokes are everywhere! I can't top -- or even match -- this spoof of Matrix: Reloaded. So I'll just link.

Chimes at Midnight on DVD ! (Well, sort of ...)

Orson Welles made the best film adaptations of Shakespeare, if only because he was willing to play fast and loose with the Bard. He never played faster or looser than in his final masterpiece, Chimes at Midnight. This low-budget film may be Welles's most ambitious completed (or at least nearly-completed) project; it uses bits and pieces of five different plays (Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor), arranged out of order, to chronicle the decline and fall of Shakespeare's greatest comic character, Sir John Falstaff.

Welles audaciously believed that these Shakespearean fragments could add up to a legitimate tragedy of their own, an internally cohesive tale of love betrayed, centered on those commoners who must be sacrificed to expedite Prince Hal's rise to power. The obese grotesque Falstaff -- played by Welles himself, in what some regard as his finest performance -- is a victim of politics. Despite Welles's claim that Falstaff is "the last good man," he is far from good. When he combs the dregs of society for soldiers to fight in the wars, he shows himself as ruthless as any politician; his penchant for lying also keeps Prince Hal in disgrace with his father after a major battle. Falstaff may be ignoble, even complicit in his own destruction, but he is no less a victim for that. On his personal disgrace will rest the political triumph of Prince Hal, and Welles's performance makes us feel the death-dealing sting of that final betrayal.

Meanwhile, Welles the director treats us to one bravura sequence after another. The most famous of the lot is the sweeping Battle of Shrewsbury, which condenses elements from three different battles in the Shakespearean plays. Not only is this battle the film's centerpiece -- a climactic third act in the film's five-act structure -- but it is widely regarded as one of the greatest combat scenes in the history of cinema. There has been some speculation that cut-rate horror director Jesus "Jess" Franco, a second-unit assistant on Chimes, was responsible for this sequence, but it seems as transparently false as when Falstaff claimed to kill Hotspur all by himself.

Still, it's easy to see how this rumor got started. Welles has never been known for his use of Russian-style montage; most film scholars who think about these matters associate him instead with the gliding camerawork and long takes of German Expressionism. Although this is true enough of his early films, which were made with all the resources of a major Hollywood studio, it is much less so in his hardscrabble independent productions. When confronted with tight budgetary restrictions, as was often the case late in his career, Welles responded with increasingly radical filmmaking technique. Films like Othello and The Trial showed that he could assemble a coherent movie from the odds and ends he gathered between acting gigs. Chimes proved that he could use montage every bit as effectively as the great Sergei Eisenstein (if not more so), and on a shoestring budget to boot. Montage may not have been his preferred mode, but Welles was clearly a master at it. If you've seen the vicious battles in Mel Gibson's Braveheart, the bone-crunching action of Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, or even the Agincourt scenes in Branagh's Henry V, you've seen a deliberate imitation of the Shrewsbury battle in Welles's Chimes.

Not many people have seen this movie, though few who have will ever forget it. For my part, I first saw Chimes several years ago. The black-and-white photography was washed-out and murky, several frames were clearly missing, and a very loud audio hiss rendered all dialogue unintelligible. Now Shakespeare's history plays contain plenty of convoluted language, even by the Bard's standards; I don't think they're difficult to understand, but they do require intense concentration from the audience. Yet in the VHS version I saw, Orson Welles's booming baritone was reduced to a series of muffled moans, and Sir John Gielgud's stentorian tones were buried under that omnipresent hiss. That said, it still knocked my socks off.

So when I heard some months ago that film experts were planning a digital restoration of Chimes at Midnight, I had very high hopes. A good restoration could clear up that degraded print (probably a work print) and vastly improve the garbled sound. The good news is that this restoration has finally been carried out, and it's everything Bardophiles, Welles fans and general cineastes could have hoped for. Although picture and audio are still far from perfect, they are finally good enough so that one can finally watch Chimes for what it is, rather than what it could have been if Welles had had the time and cash to finish post-production work. What's more, this late-period masterpiece is now available on DVD. It's not available on DVD in the States (oh, how we Americans neglect our artists!), but it's available somewhere. (Update on 6/8: It's available in Spain.)

I recently viewed a bootleg VHS copy of that very DVD. As bootlegs go, it was fairly inept; at the end of the tape a "main menu" flashed briefly on the television screen, tipping me off to the tape's true origins. Beyond that, I know nothing, except that a US DVD release of Chimes at Midnight is long overdue. Since the restoration work has already been done, I can't think of a single good reason why it isn't available over here. Criterion Collection, are you listening?

Monday, June 02, 2003

Tim's "Sight and Sound" Poll: A Bout de Souffle

This is Part X of an ongoing series. To read part IX, click here.

Why do we go to the movies?

As the summer movie season gets into high gear, and movie-lovers contemplate this year's dismal crop of action flicks, lame sequels, low comedies, and comic-book / video-game ripoffs, all of which will undobutedly make more money in a single weekend than most of the films I truly enjoy earn in their entire theatrical release, I find myself asking this particular question more and more. Do we see movies to discover the good, the beautiful and the true? To learn more about ourselves and others around us? To spend a few hours of a hot summer afternoon in a cool, dark place? All of the above? None?

Michel Poiccard, the protagonist of Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 film Breathless, might be Hollywood's perfect moviegoer, and director Godard fills his life with echoes of the movies. Michel passes by a theater showing Ten Seconds to Hell! with Jeff Chandler and Jack Palance. He takes his favorite girlfriend to see the Budd Boetticher / Randolph Scott western Westbound. As played by Jean-Paul Belmondo (in a performance that made him an international star overnight), he is young, twentysomething, male, single, brash, adolescent in thought and deed -- in short, the man for whom B movies and Old-West "programmers" were made. The movies have returned the favor and made him, too. His every gesture can be traced to one film or another, even down to the thumb over the lips, which he's stolen from Humphrey Bogart. The movies may have created him in a more literal sense as well, since Godard gives just the slightest hint that he may be the offspring of the two young lovers in Jean Vigo's 1934 film L'Atalante. But in any case, Michel is an ideal consumer of mass-market myth, able to package and incorporate every tough-guy image he's seen into his own lithe, lanky frame.

We're in the territory of Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr., in which the hero's self-image depends entirely on his sense of the cinema. But while Keaton's movie-mad projectionist dreams of being a detective yet never quite acts on it, Godard's Michel Poiccard dreams of being an outlaw -- and achieves it to monstrous and murderous effect. He's strictly a small-time hood, though, and a fairly tacky one at that; a gangster chides him late in the film for wearing silk with tweed, as if Michel can't decide whether to be upscale-rich or bohemian-cool. He makes his money by mugging swells and stealing cars, at least when he isn't leeching off his many girlfriends. One girlfriend clearly makes a game of this petty theft by denying him the money he wants, then turning her back or hiding her face for a moment, just to make him hustle for the cash.

Michel Poiccard isn't infatuated with the cinema in general; when a young girl asks him to buy a copy of Cahiers du Cinema -- a journal of film criticism that included Godard among its writers, and which became something of a Bible for the emerging French New Wave -- Poiccard refuses. He's infatuated specifically with low-rent American cinema, the crime thrillers and B Westerns that English-language critics dutifully ignored and French critics celebrated. Godard seems to share that enthusiasm, dedicating Breathless (perhaps ironically) to the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures, which abandoned its B-movie roots and changed its name in the mid-1950s to produce respectable "A pictures." Still, to Poiccard, the old B movies are admirable for their violence, romance, transgression, and perhaps the individualism they represent. The questionable hero's gaze is, as his last movie suggests, ever "West-bound."

It shouldn't surprise us that his main squeeze, Patricia, is also American. As played by Jean Seberg, she's radiant, intelligent, and just a bit aloof; as her attempts to understand French slang tell us, she tries just as hard to be French as he tries to be American. She's a college student abroad in France (a situation more common now than then), and she occasionally performs "stringer" duties for an American newspaper. But above all, she seems infatuated with Poiccard, not because he embodies the America of the movies, but because he embodies something essentially French. Meanwhile, of course, Poiccard is infatuated with Patricia because in her attempt to be more French she embodies something essentially American. Their foreign relations may be founded on a mutual misunderstanding, but Patricia at least seems bright enough not to take the business too seriously.

Michel, however, is in trouble. In the film's opening scenes, he steals a car, drives into the countryside and kills a police officer. The killing seems fundamentally meaningless and unmotivated; Michel seems to kill partly because the gun is right there in the glove compartment (a series of shots shows him pretending to shoot oncoming motorists, then finally the sun itself), but ultimately because killing is what a crook does to a cop as the movie starts. Godard's editing reinforces the randomness of the moment; he elides most of the confrontation between Poiccard and the officer, reducing it to a series of quick cuts. The cop rides in on his motorcycle, we hear Michel's warning ("Stop, or I'll kill you"), the camera pans down the barrel of the gun. As we hear the gunshots, we see Michel running panicked across a field. We haven't really seen anything, but we know what has happened: The crook has killed the cop and run away ... just like in the movies.

From this point on, major plot points all occur just like in the movies, whether those points are logical or not. Michel tells Patricia (and us) that "Informers inform, burglars burgle, lovers love." In the movies, everyone acts like what s/he is, and by the end of the film, everyone has settled into their generic role. Femmes fatales like Patricia "fatale"; they bring their men to disaster. Noir criminals like Michel "criminal;" they transgress the law, then obligingly die in the final scene. Police officers "police" by shooting the bad guy. And as the bad guy dies, bystanders stand by. Ultimately, neither we nor the characters have a real emotional investment in the outcome; the action has been set in advance through a million B movies, and our hero and heroine merely follow the requirements of the formula, albeit ineptly.

To give an idea of just how uninterested Godard is in these typical plot points, while Michel Poiccard is scheming to get some money he is owed so that he can get out of town (just as criminals in the movies always plan to do), Godard chages his focus to Patricia, who attends a press conference with a novelist played by proto-New Wave filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. (Godard pays additional tribute to Melville by referencing his 1955 film Bob le Flambeur in an early scene.) The elision is typical of the unique, even perverse narrative strategy in Breathless: Godard focuses almost entirely on those extraneous scenes that the B movies either de-emphasized or left out altogether.

For example, a standard policier would focus on the killer's attempt to evade the police, along with the police's attempt to catch him. But the two French inspectors who embody the narrative of this policier are conspicuously ridiculous and out of place. From the beginning they speak and act as if part of a crime thriller, and consequently we seldom see them, even as they close in on their man Poiccard. Instead, Godard focuses on the characters of Michel and Patricia, and the oddly affectless relationship between them. What would be side business in an American film noir occupies our full attention here, while the main business is shuttled off to the side.

Thus, we come to the film's centerpiece: a twenty-five minute long scene (nearly a third of the film) set entirely in Patricia's apartment, as Michel and Patricia simply "hang out" together. The scene does not advance the story in any noticeable way, and it seems odd in a film called "Breathless" that we should take such a long breather. Yet the scene is compelling. This is partly because if we ever wanted to hang out with anybody, it would be with two beautiful people like Jean-Paul Belmondo and especially Jean Seberg. But the scene also contains dramatic, carefully composed shots and natural lighting -- all managed, miraculously enough, within a claustrophobic Paris apartment. Godard would take this sort of long, apparently pointless conversation and stretch it to the point of unbearable tedium in his Cinemascope spectacle Contempt. Here, it feels natural and right, even down to the posed close-up of a Hollywood kiss.

As is true of Godard's films in general, the style of Breathless is reflexive. The infamous "jump cuts" and jagged editing serve to reinforce the idea that we are watching a filmic event. Likewise, Godard breaks spatial conventions, violating the laws of continuity. At the time, some critics complained that the film was assembled at random, but in hindsight the style feels influenced by Brechtian "epic theater." The goal is to make us, the audience, aware and critical of the spectacle we observe; the many references to films -- both direct, as the characters watch movies, and indirect, as they imitate movies they've seen -- signal that we are also watching a film. The aesthetic of Breathless is basically postmodern, not only because it is a film about the phenomenon of film, but also because it seems to contain everything we've seen before in the cinema, only very deliberately mixed up.

It should be noted that the ragged, deliberately "imperfect" movies of the French New Wave were possible largely because of new, lightweight camera equipment, which was small enough for handheld use, yet advanced enough to capture life on the fly. To stress his idea of capturing life as it happens, Godard even intercut newsreel-like documentary footage into his fictional narrative, apparently just for kicks. As a motorcade of world leaders proceeds with police escort down a Parisian boulevard, we see Patricia, a police inspector, and Michel trailing each other, obliviously following their own fictional drama. (The scene begs the question: Which event carries greater significance? Of course, in the real world it would be the kings and presidents, but in cinema the significance of an event depends entirely on how you film it.) In the same manner, Godard's scenes of Paris streets, many of them shot with a hidden camera, capture everyday people going about the business of their lives. Godard noted, somewhat ruefully, than when he tried to make fiction films, he ended up making documentaries unawares; when he tried to make documentaries, on the other hand, he inadvertently fictionalized the narrative. This observation may be a cliche now, but in the late 1950s it was revolutionary; Godard's deliberate confusion of "documentary" and "fictional" footage created many more problems with French censors than the frank sexual content or the profanity.

Breathless was Godard's first feature film, and still remains his best known work. But at the time Godard was one of the last major New Wave filmmakers to direct a feature film, and was widely considered far too avant-garde to be trusted with a producer's money. After the unexpected success of fellow Cahiers critic Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, French producers saw critics-turned-directors as a good source for low-budget, profitable "art house" cinema. So Godard, then in the vanguard of French film criticism, was offered a shoestring budget to direct a film of his own. There was one major stipulation: It had to have a narrative that people could follow. Truffaut wrote the basic framework of a story, and Godard improvised the dialogue more or less as he went along. The result was an international hit, loose and lanky like Belmondo and Seberg, and as freewheeling in its style as in its ideas and behavior. Within a few years these innovations would filter into mainstream American cinema -- and revitalize it.

In the early 1960s, American cinema was at its nadir, even as European and Asian art-house cinema was reaching its apex. Most American productions still clung desperately to a traditional Hollywood style with crowd-pleasing comic formulas or social-conscience dramas. The B movies, which served American cinema as both a laboratory for innovation and a training ground for young directors, had practically collapsed, leaving no buffer between the big studios' moribund A pictures, and the energetic but inept output of new Poverty Row producers like Roger Corman and Jack Harris. Aside from a few energetic auteurs like Stanley Kubrick and (occasionally) Billy Wilder, studio cinema was almost uniformly bland and boring.

Until, that is, American cinema began to incorporate stylistic devices from the French New Wave -- which they did most notably through this film. Screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton were inspired by Breathless to write a 1967 gangster film called Bonnie and Clyde. The freewheeling violence and sexuality featured in their film became staples of post-Production Code cinema, and American film began to adopt some of the existential attitude and jagged editing, if not the Brechtian epic-theater values, of Godard's best work. Godard himself seemed a bit chagrined by this success, and slowly retreated from his initial commercial appeal into more rarefied (and more doctrinaire-Marxist) visions of cinema. By the end of the '60s, Godard had culled his audience to a very select coterie of admirers, and his appeal has remained on the avant-garde fringe to this day. Meanwhile, American cinema attracted brand new audiences with the hip attitude and style it lifted from Godard. After the infusion of New Wave values, American cinema would spend the next decade and a half in a second "golden age."

Now that American cinema has become another smorgasbord of glorified B movies, comic books and American outlawry -- the very cultural diet that spawns a little monster like Michel Poiccard -- I can't help but wonder how many sons and daughters of Michel stand in line at the local megaplex, waiting to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster. What gestures, what characters are today's Michels and Patricias appropriating and making their own? How are today's films shaping us?

But that is -- must be -- another story. For its freewheeling attitude, its unique approach to editing, its postmodern aesthetic and Brechtian reflexivity, and most of all for its role in revitalizing American cinema, I've placed Godard's Breathless on my ten-greatest list.

Sunday, June 01, 2003

The Matrix: Reconstituted (review of The Animatrix)

The Wachowski brothers' Matrix-related marketing blitz continues with The Animatrix, a compilation of short animated films themed around the computer-generated, virtual-reality simulation known as -- you guessed it! -- The Matrix. In this mostly straight-to-video compilation, we are confronted with lots of new questions: Is there only one Matrix, or several? Why does life beyond (though not outside) this computer simulation suck so bad? Why do people keep coming back to this VR world even though they're ostensibly "awake" and engaged now? And if we keep getting blitzed with Matrix paraphernalia, will we eventually give up on the whole damn thing?

Gentle reader, by now you may be weary of my apparent fixation on the Matrix phenomenon. Lord knows I am. But I did want to take this opportunity to warn you about The Animatrix. You might expect animation to be an ideal medium for this type of storytelling; after all, the Wachowskis lifted plenty of tropes from Japanese anime for their first Matrix film. The relatively inexpensive medium of animation might give a new batch of storytellers the chance to free up their visual imaginations, and inject some of their own personalities into this universe.

Well, that was a pipe dream. If anything, most of these short films are even grimmer than Reloaded. The centerpiece of the collection is a pair of short films titled "The Second Renaissance," which begins with Vernor Vinge's looney-tunes theory of "the Singularity" and proceeds to more general mayhem, apocalypse and devastation. Then there's "Kid's Story," which uses computerized rotoscoping in the manner of Linklater's Waking Life (only without Linklater's warmth or exuberance) to advocate suicide as a "way out" of the Matrix. "Beyond," a cute little film about kids in a haunted house, is at its best a passable imitation of Hayao Miyazaki, and might be more interesting if it weren't so obviously connected to the Matrix universe. Other shorts, such as "A Detective Story" from Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe, or "Matriculated" from Aeon Flux creator Peter Chung, are dull work indeed. Now, I tend to think Chung overrated and pretentious, so I wasn't surprised to find the interminable "Matriculated" more of the same. But since I've long enjoyed the mindless, adolescent fun of Cowboy Bebop, I was surprised at how gloomy "A Detective Story" turned out. Watanabe's work-- which combines sci-fi, noir and kung fu into a tres-mod action slugfest -- is usually much more kinetic and energetic than this.

The sole bright spot to this grim package is Final Flight of the Osiris, which, despite its awkward computer animation, plays very nicely, almost as if it were the missing opening scene to Reloaded. This is the one short film that the Wachowskis actually scripted themselves, and the only one that found its way into theaters (as an attempt to boost the box-office appeal of Lawrence Kasdan's abysmal Dreamcatcher). It is also the only one with even a modicum of wit, style or verve. Osiris begins with a cutesy S&M striptease-seduction, complete with "stop-time" effects straight out of the first Matrix, then jumps into a hopeless, fast-and-furious chase scene. The highlight, though, occurs when the heroine -- like all women in the Wachowskis' "real" world, a leather-clad dominatrix type -- delivers a message to her fellow rebels. Naturally, the virtual receptacle for her message is an ordinary mailbox, making Osiris the most exciting tale about postal delivery since Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49. ("We Await Silent Tristero's Empire," indeed.)

The Wachowskis have stated that they hope The Animatrix will create a broad fan base for Japanimation in the States. Fat chance of that. If these shorts had been my first exposure to anime, I think I'd have stayed as far away from the stuff for as long as possible. Many more Americans, alas, will probably agree. To see anime's good side, catch some of the wild-and-woolly action shows on Cartoon Network's late-night "Adult Swim" block. Better yet, rent Rintaro's Metropolis, Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, Otomo's Akira (Akira is probably the greatest single stylistic influence on the Matrix series), and / or any film directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

But unless you're a die-hard fan, don't bother with The Animatrix.

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