Best of Enemies
A rich, extraordinarily fascinating account of the Buckley-Vidal debates that’s sure to have many viewers’ minds constantly shuttling between then and now.
I do not know what Jean-Luc Godard's "Film Socialisme" does because I haven't had the opportunity to see it. But the initial reviews from Cannes are, incredibly, the same ones he's been getting his entire career -- based in part on assumptions that Godard means to communicate something but is either too damned perverse or inept to do so. Instead, the guy keeps making making these crazy, confounded, chopped-up, mixed-up, indecipherable movies! Possibly just to torture us. Many approach the films themselves as though they are puzzles designed to frustrate (and to eventually be "solved"), then they blame Godard for not doing a better job of solving them himself because they're too hard. Herewith, a sampling of New York Times reviews over the years. Just about any of them could be about any of Godard's movies -- and, positive or negative, some are noticeably more perceptive than others. A key with the "answers" (who wrote what about which film) is at the bottom.
1. Mr. Godard sometimes makes his storytelling more difficult than it needs to be.
2. And neither can Mr. Godard make us understand why the wife in his drama suddenly tells him she has contempt for him and decides to leave. Has she lost faith in him? Is she bored? Or is she just fed up with watching him wear his hat all the time?
Evidently, Mr. Godard has attempted to make this film communicate a sense of the alienation of individuals in this complex modern world. And he has clearly directed to get a tempo that suggests irritation and ennui.
3.There is an almost intolerable, conscious tension in Godard's work now between word and picture: one's attention is so riveted to the work onscreen that Godard seems to think he can afford to freight it -- at one point he speaks of himself as a painter and a writer--with a verbal text that takes off at right angles and includes almost anything that he would care to say.
4. [It] may be a serious film, but it's not especially provocative or entertaining.
5. [It] it is another of those peculiarly vague and elusive Godard films of the sort that he seems to be making at the rate of about two or three a year.
It gives a pretense of being a study of the mores of Parisian youth...
But this is just the pretense of the picture. Mainly it seems to be a movie happening, in which Mr. Godard can play whimsical and sometimes comical stunts, not leading to any clear conclusion as to the stability of youth. He himself, as a motion-picture maker, seems to have little more concentration-span than his saucy, good-looking youngsters, who evidently have none at all.
6.It's an indication of just how young movies are, and of how consistently original Mr. Godard's films continue to be, that it's impossible to compare his work to that of any other film maker in the commercial cinema. Although it's not yet time to relate him to Picasso, one has to go outside films -- to painting, sculpture and music, arts with centuries of tradition -- to suggest the idiosyncratic importance of this most unpredictable of today's film makers.
With the exception of the films of Luis Bunuel, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and maybe two or three others, commercial movies, which are less old than this century, have no real modernist tradition. They remain stuck in romantic realism. All by himself, Mr. Godard has moved through his own modernism, which began with ''Breathless'' and includes the films made with his Dziga- Vertov collective, to what is now something akin to postmodernism. [...]
As has always been his fashion, Mr. Godard couldn't care less about entertaining an audience through its identification with the emotions of the film's characters. He forces us to regard them as bizarre if perfectly reasonable creatures from another planet that looks as if it were a mirror image of our own.
7. As sordid as is the French film, [title], which came to the Fine Arts yesterday -- and sordid is really a mild word for its pile-up of gross indecencies -- it is withal a fascinating communication of the savage ways and moods of some of the rootless young people of Europe (and America) today. [...]
This should be enough, right now, to warn you that this is not a movie for the kids or for that easily shockable individual who used to be known as the old lady from Dubuque. It is emphatically, unrestrainedly vicious, completely devoid of moral tone, concerned mainly with eroticism and the restless drives of a cruel young punk to get along. Although it does not appear intended deliberately to shock, the very vigor of its reportorial candor compels that it must do so.
8. Mr. Godard falls back into a pose of world-weary, Olympian disdain. He has often referred to his recent films as notebook entries, loosely bound sheafs of impression and meditation.... His visual command -- of the velvety shadows of black-and-white 35-millimeter film and the thick, supersaturated tones of digital video -- still has the power to astonish, and his debonair gloom remains seductive. But to continue with the notebook analogy, the decorous prose, graceful penmanship and impressive paper stock cannot disguise the banality of what is written. [...]
Mr. Godard's artistry -- the way his scenes are at once archly stylized and informal, the quick precision of his eye -- is unarguable. But the beautiful images and solemn words cannot disguise the slack complacency of his vision, anymore than the gorgeous piano and strings on the soundtrack can drown out the tinny self-righteousness of his voice.
9. [The characters] meet and, in various combinations, talk, argue, observe, and make love, then separate. There are no thunderous emotional confrontations, but, by the end of the film, one's perceptions have been so enriched, so sharpened, that one comes out of it invigorated. [It] leaves you with a renewed awareness of how a fine movie can clear away the detritus that collects in a mind subjected to endless invasions by clichés and platitudes and movies that fearlessly champion the safe or obvious position. It's a tonic. [...]
There's not a banal shot or a predictable moment in the film, which has an effect similar to that of poetry or good prose. It invites one to respond to familiar sights and sounds as if coming upon them for the first time. Watching the film is a process of discovery, sometimes funny, sometimes scary.
10. Where he was more or less conventional in his narrative approach in the former film--that is to say, he followed a fairly clear line in a strange erratic style--he has chosen to be completely offbeat in the method and structure of this tale...
The simplest way to describe it is as a simulated documentary film, recounting in episodic sections the decline and fall of a pretty, shallow girl.
11. Mr. Godard's passion for Cinema now seems perfunctory, as do his tracking shots, his use of pretty actresses (often seen reading books) and the chapter headings (in French, Italian, English and German) that divide the movie.
Only people who despise the great Godard films, everything from ''Breathless'' (A Bout de Souffle) (1959) through ''Every Man for Himself'' ("Sauve Qui Peut la Vie") (1979), could be anything but saddened by this one. The party's over.
12. The result, which he calls [title], is less a narrative film than an essay on the artistic process, which in this case happens to be the process by which a movie is made, with side comments on painting, music, films, labor relations, film distribution and love, plus a few jokes.
13. Of course, one must first become accustomed to Mr. Godard's extraordinary style of developing and expressing his story and conveying subjective sensations in unusual pictorial and verbal terms, before one can fully get with it and see what he's driving at.
His indication at the beginning that what you are about to see are "fragments of a film... in black and white" is a cryptically tongue-in-cheek warning. It says that his way of presenting his tale as though he were following an outline for a book or a monograph with major sections and subheads, is intended to suggest and make one feel the aggressively intellectual and unemotional nature of his heroine.
14. This is not to say that [it] is an attempt to imitate the films of the director's youth. If anything, it is far more difficult and daring than any of those movies. It's not necessarily better, but different. Mr. Godard is still experimenting with narrative form, using shortcuts and ellipses that are designed to provoke viewers into active, sometimes angry response. Now, however, he is even freer in his references to other movies and to literature.
Unlike those early films, [it] also indulges Mr. Godard's obsession with language, which, in his middle, Maoist period, he saw as a capitalist weapon that kept the brainwashed proletariat in ignorance. Today that obsession with words -- with what they mean, with how they sound and with how they look as graphic art - has been depoliticized to become a part of a film's dramatic life. [It] is packed with words -- spoken as dialogue, read aloud from novels, seen on the pages of books and, in this American version, printed as English subtitles to the French dialogue.
15. A master of ellipses, Mr. Godard coaxes meaning into the open bit by bit. Like a benevolent pedagogue, he draws dotted lines between his preoccupations, points in many directions, suggests various means of interpretation and delivers multiple references. But what he adamantly refuses to do, both in this film and elsewhere, is draw our conclusions for us, which may be the highest compliment a filmmaker can pay his audience. In a letter to a friend, Dante wrote of "The Divine Comedy": "The meaning of this work is not simple for we obtain one meaning from the letter of it and another from that which the letter signifies; and the first is called the literal, but the other allegorical or mystical." This is, I think, as good a way to approach [it] as any other.
1. Caryn James, "Helas Pour Moi," March 18, 1994 2. Bosley Crowther, "Contempt," December 19, 1964 3. Renata Adler, "Two or Three Things I Know About Her," September 26, 1968 4. Vincent Canby, "Hail Mary," October 7, 1985 5. Bosley Crowther, "Masculine Feminine," September 19, 1966 6. Vincent Canby, "Prenom: Carmen," August 3, 1984 7. Bosley Crowther, "Breathless," February 8, 1961 8. A.O. Scott, "In Praise of Love," October 13, 2001 9. Vincent Canby, "Every Man for Himself," October 8, 1980 10. Bosley Crowther, "My Life to Live" ("Vivre sa Vie"), September 24, 1963 11. Vincent Canby, "Nouvelle Vague," September 29, 1990 12. Vincent Canby, "Passion," October 4, 1983 13. Bosley Crowther, "A Married Woman," August 17, 1985 14. Vincent Canby, "Detective," August 23, 1990 15. Manohla Dargis, "Notre Musique," October 2, 2004 -- BINGO!
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