The titles alone of these works set up an air of avoidance and elegy. We can guess that whatever Bertolucci’s dreamers are doing they are not attending to present and practical matters. And although Gilbert Adair’s dreamers were called The Holy Innocents when his novel was first published in 1988, that title scarcely brings us closer to the everyday world. Afterglow, about Pauline Kael, is frankly nostalgic. Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, with its echo of a famous novel, reminds us that the artist was once a young man, and hints that the young man may be the artist who most matters to us.
The movies go on and on, but mourning for the cinema is everywhere. We find it in the work of film critics looking in vain for something to like, and in the many recent films that evoke their ancestors in the art. Godard put the words “End of story/End of cinema” on the screen at the end of his 1967 film Weekend: “Fin de conte/Fin de cinéma.” It wasn’t the end of cinema, and Godard didn’t think it was. (Susan Sontag once wrote, in a wonderful phrase, that “Godard has the courage to simplify himself.”) But the end was perhaps nearer than even he thought, and Colin MacCabe suggests, in a pair of lucid and complex sentences, that
if video had enabled Godard to see cinema anew, it had assassinated cinémathèques. And if a generation of marginals and deviants had found in cinema an authority and a tradition, the cinema that they had found was now also dead, a victim of the technological and economic advance that had brought it to light.
Not a man for half-measures, MacCabe thinks the film critic is dead too. This personage is still talking volubly, of course, but is “no longer even the tiniest cog in the economic circuits of value.” Now this whole mood may be an error, premature and provincial. But there are a lot of people standing around what looks like a corpse, and this is probably a good time to talk to the mourners.
The scene of mourning is particularly visible in Bertolucci’s recent movie, The Dreamers. It is set in Paris in February 1968, and opens with a demonstration at the Cinémathèque. Henri Langlois, the revered director of the place, has been dismissed by André Malraux, minister of culture—we can read a good account of this event and its context in MacCabe’s book. Matthew, an American student in Paris, played by Michael Pitt, meets up with Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel), sister and brother, and moves in with them while their parents are away. Various rather predictable sexual antics ensue, each triggered by a movie quiz and a forfeit. In which film does the scene occur that Isabelle is miming now? She marches past in overalls, with a mop over her shoulder, staring sideways at us. It’s the chorus line in Blonde Venus, just before Marlene Dietrich is revealed within the gorilla suit. In which film does a character die in a cross-shaped shadow on a city street? Théo falls to the floor to give us a clue. We don’t get it (or at least the people in the film don’t get it). Scarface. The Dreamers has literal quotations from Queen Christina, Freaks, Top Hat, Breathless, Bande à part, and several other movies, and there is a real pleasure to be had from the brief passage of these visions.
At least they keep your mind off all the groping and the fake intensity of the supposedly lived human relations. Is Isabelle attracted to Matthew because he could take her away from Théo, or merely as a means of intensifying her incestuous love? Is Matthew, whatever his heterosexual performance may be like, really drawn to Isabelle or to Théo or to both? Things look bad when the parents step in on a sleeping mélange à trois, and discreetly depart—those were the days—leaving a check so that the children can continue to buy provisions.
Only Isabelle wakes and notices the gift, and since she has already announced that she would kill herself if her parents found out about their exploits, we think we know what is going to happen. Isabelle fixes a long hose to a gas pipe and settles down for the big sleep, along with the two men whose sleep is going to be bigger than they thought. Then the scheme is interrupted by a brick thrown through the window by demonstrating students. Had we forgotten that this is 1968, and that February would one day turn into May? Almost.
Our three heroes dress and rush down into the street, and the film ends with a discussion and a separation among the overturned cars, improvised barricades, shouting crowds, and charging policemen. Matthew argues that nonviolence is the best method of protest, Isabelle and Théo want to throw Molotov cocktails, and Théo throws one. In a dizzying refraction of many recent debates, young Europe, it seems, is dedicated to war, and young/ old America seeks change by other means. Isabelle and Théo fling themselves into the demonstration, Matthew turns sadly away. Fin de conte, fin de cinéma. Except for the voice of Edith Piaf singing over the credits that she regrets nothing.
What’s interesting in the film is the claustrophiliac imagination of the three characters, and by implication of the writer and director. There’s no place like inside, and the parents’ Paris apartment is a perfect location and metaphor for this preference. Bertolucci exchanges the empty rooms of Last Tango in Paris for a cluttered and intricate warren, corridors crowded with books, doors all seeming to lead to secret places, windows looking across a courtyard on to other windows. It’s a great set, and the real hero of the film. But then fascinating as self-absorption is for the self-involved, it doesn’t provide much visible action or spectacle for others, and Bertolucci and his writer, Gilbert Adair, are driven to the tritest sexual and emotional clichés to fill the screen and the time.
In this context it’s telling that these cinephiles don’t go to the movies, only remember and reenact them. It’s true that the Cinémathèque is closed but there are other theaters. And after a while the very pleasure we take in seeing the clips the characters merely recall turns to sadness, a sort of mourning in spite of itself. The suggestion seems to be that we don’t even have memories of old movies unless we actually see them again.
The Dreamers has other moments of mourning, directly associated with Godard. Isabelle and Théo and Matthew repeat the scene from Godard’s Bande à part where the three characters race through the Louvre. The idea is for the real people (that is, the people in this film) to run the same distance faster than the fictional people in Godard’s old film, and they do. This is charming and funny, and we don’t at once see the melancholy. At another moment Isabelle says she was born on the sidewalk of the Champs-Élysées, and she cries out, “New York Herald Tribune.” The reference is to Jean Seberg in Breathless, and Bertolucci shows us a short sequence from the film to make sure we’re with him. When Matthew briefly parts company with Isabelle and Théo, he is murmuring a line from the song sung by Judy Garland in A Star Is Born: “I was born in a trunk in the Prince’s Theater/In Pocatello, Idaho.” Judy Garland, Jean Seberg, George Cukor, Jean-Luc Godard: it’s all the cinema. But we are supposed to be in 1968, the year of Godard’s One Plus One, and only a few months after Weekend was released. Godard might have become a Mao-ist by then but he wasn’t just a memory, and the foreshortening here, the narrowed line of sight which makes the New Wave and Old Hollywood simply instances of long-lost movie loves, belongs entirely to Bertolucci and Gilbert Adair.
Adair’s novel, The Dreamers, is a new version of his 1988 work, issued to coincide with Bertolucci’s film but not, he says in an afterword, “what is termed a novelisation.” Many, indeed most of the elements of the film are present, but not all, and the ending is starkly different. Caught up in the street battle, Matthew makes a revolutionary gesture he scarcely understands, brandishing a red flag as a way of drawing attention away from Théo and Isabelle, who are being beaten by a policeman. A police officer, who is himself startled by what he does, shoots and kills Matthew. The balance of inside and outside is different in the novel too. In the novel some sixty pages out of 189 are spent on the streets, and an important point is that the triple lovers have missed a piece of history. Théo is shocked to understand what has been happening, and the reason why they were left alone in the apartment for so long, “why they had been able to live so long in a misrule of isolation and disorder.” In the film, because of the intense scrutiny of the geography of the apartment and the articulations of human flesh, the events of May are just noise in the streets, a continuation of scandal by other means.
Godard is probably not the first name we now associate with the film criticism of Pauline Kael, but it was her writing on Godard, we learn in Afterglow, that brought her to The New Yorker in January 1968, not long before our dreamers got lost in that Paris apartment:
Yes, Godard was one of the reasons [William Shawn] hired me…. I had been writing very lovingly about Godard, and Shawn was very unhappy that The New Yorker’s critics had been panning movie after movie by him for years.
A discreet footnote tells us that this claim isn’t true: “In fact, several different New Yorker critics had reviewed Godard’s early movies enthusiastically—though perhaps not as enthusiastically as Pauline thought they deserved.” Shawn, presumably, believed his critics but thought (correctly) that he had found an even better one. Kael liked the story of the lonely champion. Of someone else’s piece on Breathless she wrote, “If you hold the Chronicle’s review…up to the light you may see H-E-L-P shining through it.” “Reviewers often complain that they can’t take him seriously,” Kael wrote of the early Godard. “When you consider what they do manage to take seriously, this is not a serious objection.”
Francis Davis’s Afterglow is a rearrangement of an interview he conducted with Pauline Kael over two days in July 2000. Kael died a year later, on Labor Day 2001. Davis says he thinks of his book as “a keepsake of [his] friendship with Pauline,” and we may think of it as a mild memorial, full of flickering intelligence and wit, but mainly appealing because we get to see the ghost of the younger critic—it is her ghost and no one else’s. A sadder note is struck by Kael’s sense that something awful has happened to the movies. They are not dying, far from it, but they have become creatures that hardly anyone can love. Kael remarks that she had Parkinson’s Disease during her last ten years at The New Yorker, and worried a lot about her “recent memory.” Davis says, “I assume that your Parkinson’s was the reason you retired from The New Yorker,” and Kael says,
That plus the fact that I suddenly couldn’t say anything about some of the movies. They were just so terrible, and I’d already written about so many terrible movies…. I wrote up a couple of movies, and I read what I’d written, and it was just incredibly depressing. I thought, I’ve got nothing to share from this.
Kael as a working critic didn’t mind sharing her scorn, and she often wrote best about the films she hated. The New Yorker was worth reading if only to catch up with her excoriations. But she hated some movies because she loved others, and there was always the larger question of the movies in general, an art form still in the making. “Loving movies,” Davis says of Kael’s critical approach, “meant asking more of them than they can routinely deliver.” “I love the fact that I wrote about movies in the seventies,” she herself says,
when there were directors coming along who really brought something new to the medium. Just think, I got to write about Godard and Truffaut, and Altman and Coppola, and movies that people don’t even talk about, like Hal Ashby’s The Landlord….
Kael’s Seventies included quite a bit of the Sixties. “Godard,” she wrote in April 1968, “is, at the moment, the most important single force keeping the art of film alive.” She always wanted to see the possibilities of film as promises of possibilities in life, and she always preferred wit and energy to elegance and settled accomplishment. She shrewdly suggested that Godard seemed to have “the gifts for masterpieces” and added, “but maybe he hasn’t; maybe he has artistry of a different kind.”
It was Godard’s quick-moving representations of young people that caught Kael’s imagination, and it is her appreciation of this style and these characters that links this early writing to her later work, indeed to her pleasure in film criticism in general. “I loved writing,” she says to Davis. “I really loved the gamble of writing, the risk-taking. I loved the speed of it, the fact that you had your say and moved on to something else.” What Kael celebrated in Godard’s characters was their tempo and their youth, their reckless indifference to the models of adult life then on offer. She says Jean Seberg’s character in Breathless is “innocent” of emotions, describes her as “the impervious, passively butch American girl,” and thinks she and Jean-Paul Belmondo represent creatures “as shallow and empty as the shiny young faces you see in sports cars and in suburban supermarkets, and in newspapers after unmotivated, pointless crimes.” Kael believed we were already living among such people, but hadn’t seen them in the movies, and hadn’t registered their scary allure. “And that’s what’s frightening about Breathless: not only are the characters familiar in an exciting, revealing way, they are terribly attractive” (Kael’s italics). They “don’t seem to have any future,” Kael wrote a little later of Godard’s characters. “They are most alive (and most appealing) just because they don’t conceive of the day after tomorrow; they have no careers, no plans, only fantasies of roles they could play….”
Jean-Luc Godard was born in Paris in 1930, and spent his early years in Switzerland. He went to school and started his directing career in Paris, but he lives in Switzerland now, and indeed has strung a whole career along this line of transit: a Swiss who makes French films, a Parisian who works at home in Rolle, a small town on Lake Geneva. There is a wonderful photograph in Colin MacCabe’s book on Godard which says all of this and more. Three men are standing in a Paris square, all wearing jackets and ties, the imposing tower of the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés behind them. The men are Godard, the actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the film producer Georges de Beauregard. Two of them have scripts under their arm. The date is 1959, and the men are working on Breathless. Godard is in the middle, apparently looking between his companions at the camera. He has a hat and dark glasses. He is standing on one leg. (See illustration on page 54.)
MacCabe’s book offers a series of very well-judged “angles on Godard’s life and work.” The first four chapters sketch different kinds of contexts for the films: “family history, intellectual history, film history, political history,” and the fifth is a memoir-essay based on MacCabe’s own work with Godard for the British Film Institute. He does not wish, he says, to “hide that [the book] is a partisan work,” but he is far from starry-eyed. He affectionately calls Godard “the old brute,” and says “the life often became tiresome” although “the work never failed to intrigue.” “Some of it is very uneven. But the worst is never less than intelligent, and the best is the best there is.”
“The best there is.” This proposition is plainly related to Kael’s claim that Godard was at one time, more than anyone, “keeping the art of film alive.” What do we make of these claims now? Any answer will need to look at two items in particular: the role played in Godard’s films by the shallow and futureless young people Kael evokes, and Godard’s unchanging belief that cinema allows us a unique form of fidelity to the real. “The cinema is the truth, twenty-four times a second,” a character says in Le Petit Soldat. Or more literally, “the cinema is twenty-four times the truth (or truth) each second”: a large multiplication rather than just a fast repetition.
We can look at these two possibilities together in Les Carabiniers, for example. This film is “hell to watch for the first hour,” as Kael says, but “exciting to think about after because its one good sequence…is so incredible and so brilliantly prolonged.” The film, based on an Italian play, and shot on the outskirts of Paris, is about a pair of hapless peasants conscripted for a pointless war. The two fellows have a fairly good time pushing civilians around and generally misbehaving, but return with none of the fabulous plunder they had been promised. They have only a set of dog-eared postcards of famous sights, which they slap onto the table one by one with an extraordinary air of triumph, as if they had discovered vast new worlds, and brought back infinite riches. (“The monuments!” the men announce. Pictures of Egyptian pyramids, the stones at Carnac, the Parthenon, the Colosseum, Angkor Wat. “The middle ages!” Pictures of Notre Dame, Cologne cathedral, the walled city of Carcassonne, the tower of Pisa—the men and women all tilt their heads as they look at the last one.)
This is the sequence Kael is thinking about, and it is wonderfully funny—and haunting, because of the strange interplay between the moving camera and the frozen, overfamiliar stillness of the scenes on the postcards. But there is another moment in the same film which may tell us even more about Godard’s sense of cinema. One of the peasants goes to the movies for the first time, and is completely captivated. He is baffled when a filmed woman leaves the frame, and he edges along his row of seats in the hope of continuing to see her; edges back along the row when she returns into view. Finally the film within the film shows the same person undressing and getting into a bath. Frustrated by the fact that the bath now hides the woman from him, our hero approaches the screen and tries to climb up the side of the bath to peer in. The screen tears and leaves a huge gap, but the film continues, unharmed, uninterrupted, on the bare wall.
The sequence as a whole looks back to Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. and forward to Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, but the joke about the torn screen and the persistent film has a flavor all Godard’s own. Film is perishable, the stock can fade, the reel can break, the projector may jam. But as long as the film is running it is impervious and immortal, as indifferent to its own content and the material world it occupies as it is to our interests and desires. This is a version of Stanley Cavell’s perception that the medium of film turns its spectators into ghosts, viewers of a world uncannily complete without them, but Godard invites us to share both the peasant’s bewilderment and the film’s eerie self-possession. The medium itself begins to look like the characters in Godard’s films as Kael describes them. It doesn’t have any feelings, and it doesn’t have a future—because it doesn’t need one, because its unrolling present will never stop.
In Godard’s early films (Breathless, 1960, Le Petit Soldat, 1960, Une Femme est une femme, 1961, Vivre sa vie, 1962, Les Carabiniers, 1963, Bande à part, 1964—leaving aside Le Mépris, 1963, in which he managed to imitate a ponderous version of his lighter self)—we seem to be going back in time and seeing the youth of the cinema, when it was an art form playing out its own favorite fantasies. This wasn’t literally true, but by 1960 the actual youth of the cinema seemed antique, a flickering prelude to Hollywood’s orderly maturity. Godard gave us back the adventure of finding a world on film, the sense of looking at familiar things as if we had never seen them. And in this adventure the characters and the photography are again paired. The characters are not just enacting the director’s fantasies, as in a sense all film characters are, even in a documentary. They are also visibly enacting their own fantasies, which are in turn, as Kael astutely says, “fantasies of roles they could play.” They are not trying to be people, they are trying to be parts, the crook, the dandy, the assassin, the torturer, the moll, the whore, the sidekick. This is why so many of them die so suddenly—not because reality catches up with them, but because their script needs an ending, and hardly anything is better for this purpose than a shootout.
But then aren’t we saying these stories take us away from the real? No, only away from realism, understood as an attempt to duplicate a world we think we know. Essentially the perception is a double one. Whatever actors on film are supposed to be doing in the fiction, the camera catches the real actors, with all their tics and gestures and wrinkles intact—“what the camera records,” MacCabe says of Godard’s (and Bresson’s) films, “is not a performance but a performer.” And actual people do regularly play roles; real life is not notable for its realism. What Godard shows us is how this happens, and keeps happening, “twenty-four times a second.”
There is no better place to see and enjoy Godard’s show than Le Petit Soldat, which is where the famous phrase occurs. The hero, an assassin for a right-wing French organization at the time of the Algerian war, played by Michel Subor, meets up with a charming and eccentric Danish girl, played by Anna Karina. He goes to her apartment to photograph her. We see Subor pointing his (still) camera and clicking, and we see him when he is not shooting, walking around the room like a person in a movie. We see Karina as she is being photographed, as she will look in the future photo print, and also as she looks now, between clicks, living moments of her life no one will ever see except the still-to-be-found snoopers in the cinema. Subor himself will scarcely have seen them, because although he is in the room, he is too busy with his camera.
The soundtrack duplicates this sense of a present which has a future only for other people: we hear the dialogue of the two characters, and also Subor’s voice-over, the narrative of a later time—when the girl, as it happens, will be dead. There is a trial run for this scene in Breathless, where Belmondo lies in bed in Jean Seberg’s apartment, and the movie camera becomes not a means of recording an action or showing a location, but an instrument of curiosity about how much can be seen in a woman’s face if you keep looking at it for no reason.
The theory behind this approach to cinema, as MacCabe says, is that of André Bazin, who argued “that the technology of the camera provided a new set of aesthetic possibilities, and that the filmic image offered a new aesthetic dispensation for the West.” The camera has a “historic mission to let us see the world.” The theory can seem a little rigid compared with the practice—do we believe, as Bazin said he did, in “the essentially objective character of photography”? But perhaps Bazin meant something more subtle than he seemed to. Both he and Godard knew that photographs, still or moving, can be staged and cropped and fixed, that framing matters, and that editing, that is to say, meaningful juxtaposition of details, can take place within the frame as well as between frames. Their claim was not that the cinema lacked artifice, only that it didn’t have to aim at illusion, and that it could, on its good days, like no other instrument, take the real and the actual by surprise. This was for a long time the reigning myth of photography—even more the myth of still photography than of film—and it was still alive in Roland Barthes’s book Camera Lucida in 1980.
Was there any truth in the myth? There was a modest amount of truth in it, I think, but it was almost always swamped by overstatement or denial, both of them fueled by the strange belief that the supposed essence of a medium determines its uses. It doesn’t follow from the fact that a camera can catch reality that it always does; nor does it follow from its frequent frauds and failures that it can’t succeed. But surely the myth of the camera catching hold of the real is itself dead now, killed off not by videotape but by digital cameras and computer graphics. Think of all those films of, say, London, where St. Paul’s is right next to the Houses of Parliament. The buildings are easy to move digitally, and the monuments are simply supposed to say “London”; a form of stenographic writing rather than a simulation of actual space. Our home photographs are now carefully constructed memories, with embarrassing aunts and uncles Photoshopped into oblivion.
It certainly seems as if the camera’s a priori claim on truthfulness has vanished, even if the makers and installers of surveillance equipment may not have noticed. But we still distinguish when we can between fake photographs and real ones, and it is likely that most viewers of slideshows or movies are less interested in technical arrangements than in what is represented on the screen. This, I think, is what MacCabe means when he writes of “a real audience resistance to digital effects which may yet prolong Bazin’s axiom.” There is a dizzying moment in Duck Soup where Margaret Dumont insists on what she has seen with her own eyes. Chico Marx, who along with his brothers has been engaged in an elaborate visual hoax, says, “Well, who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?” People want to believe their own eyes, even when they know they are only seeing pixels.
So is the cinema dead? Or just Bazin’s idea of the cinema? I’m not sure either is gone for good, especially since we can now see more great movies than ever before, as long as we don’t insist on finding a decent movie house. Consider a parallel proposition. If no poems or stories or novels were being written in our own time—or none we cared about—would we think literature was dead? We probably would, although we might wonder whether we knew enough about the alternative forms of imaginative life still on offer, and what people were writing in countries that were not ours. But assuming we could still read and had not lost all our books, there would still be a lot of literature about. Under these conditions, it would be hard to believe the art form was entirely dead, and for the optimists among us, hard to believe that even our contemporaries would stay dead forever.
November 4, 2004