BREATHLESS (1960)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on December 31st, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Friday, January 11, 2008.

In French w/ English subtitles
Written & Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, starring Jean Belmondo, Jean Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville.

Michel is a small-time car thief who becomes a big-time criminal when he murders a policeman. No master felon, Michel is an impetuous young man more focused on presenting a Bogart-style tough guy image than in actually learning the ropes of being a tough guy. His Hollywood dream wouldn’t be complete without a girl on his arm, so rather than fleeing the country after the murder, Michel sticks around to convince a young woman to fall for him and escape with him to Italy.

The French New Wave directors of the 1950’s and 60’s began as a group of critics who deconstructed Hollywood film style, helped define it as an art and a science, and coined the phrase “Film Noir.” Several New Wave luminaries helped create BREATHLESS: Godard adapted his script from a treatment by Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol is credited as “technical advisor.” Jean-Pierre Melville, playing Pavulesco in BREATHLESS, directed some of the best French noir thrillers of the 1950’s. BREATHLESS was the end of French emulation of Hollywood, and the beginning of challenging new shooting styles and story structures that would have a lasting effect on America’s Film School Generation — Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg and all their 70’s pals.

It’ll finish Thursday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT (with Spoilers!) from 12.31.2011

The moment we meet Michel, he introduces himself as “an asshole,” and then spends a significant portion of BREATHLESS proving it. Michel enjoys presenting his Bogart-style image, endlessly repeating Bogey’s pensive Sam Spade gesture of rubbing his lip with his thumb. What his Bogey impression lacks is Sam Spade’s control of a situation, Rick Blaine’s calculating foresight, or Philip Marlowe’s confidence with women. Had Michel studied THE MALTESE FALCON, he would have known when in his own story to cut his losses and get out alive. Bogey’s Rick in CASABLANCA might have taught Michel who he can really trust, who would double cross him, and how to play both.

A closer read of Bogart’s persona in THE BIG SLEEP might have encouraged Michel not to whine and plead with his former lover Patricia to escape with him to Italy. He would have been decisive rather than manipulating, which would have made him the Bogey he wants to be, as well as the Romeo she longed for. Indecisiveness is Michel’s fatal flaw. He doesn’t know what he wants or who he wants, and even if he did, he doesn’t know from one moment to the next what he is willing to do to get it. He wants to avoid being caught with a stolen car enough to kill a policeman, but when the dragnet is closing in around him, he is incapable of making the choices required by his man-of-action front.

Within the first few minutes of BREATHLESS Godard turns crime movies, and the very idea of a movie, inside out. Voiceovers are a staple of the Film Noir genre. After Michel steals a car, he drives around describing what he enjoys about France, but before long we realize this is no ordinary voiceover. He is not simply thinking out loud for the sake of exposition; he turns and addresses the audience, as if we are riding shotgun. This would be a standard breaking of the fourth wall, but BREATHLESS doesn’t stop there. Michel both addresses the camera and directs its gaze along the Pontoise road, pointing out hitchhikers, farm houses, annoying drivers, and highway police. Further, Godard allows interaction between the camera and passersby that would cause most other directors to cut and reset their shot. In scenes where Michel and Patricia walk through Paris, people stop and turn to watch the filming, some looking into the camera as well. Godard requests no suspension of disbelief; his story is fiction, but it coexists with and occasionally collides with reality.

Inasmuch as Michel is a vicious brat disguised as a dangerous man, BREATHLESS cloaks its examination and inversion of the tools of cinematic storytelling in the suits and trappings of crime drama. Michel’s desire to live like he is in a movie virtually wills into being a movie of his life and death, but he has no more control over Godard’s film than he does over his own story. Michel would love it if you had bought a ticket to see him outgun the cops and out-con the cons and drive off into the sunset with plenty of money and Tinkerbell incarnate. Godard will have none of it. He will allow you to visit with Michel just long enough to feel like you got the story of guns and glory you paid for; and he’ll allow you just enough time with Patricia to get a sense of romantic intrigue. In between teasing those expectations Godard may test your attention span with protracted conversational sequences, which do very little to further the story, but greatly reveal his characters. Moments like these were virtually unheard of in Hollywood films before the France’s La Nouvelle Vague movement; later their influence could be seen in American films by Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. When Godard is not exploring his characters, or allowing Michel to explore his personal Film Noir, he is just as likely to use BREATHLESS to wander Paris like a painter, equipped with a camera in lieu of a canvass. He photographs Paris not as a tourist showing us what we have already seen in countless other films, but as a patriot in love with his city and seeking to share its sidestreets as much as its landmarks, the way Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese would do with New York in ensuing decades.

My earliest encounter with BREATHLESS made me think it was an art film disguised as a crime drama. Now that “art film” strikes me as vague and generic a term as “action film,” I come to realize the BREATHLESS is a fully realized artistic happening disguised as a movie. It is opening night at a photography exhibit, a jazz session on a rainy afternoon, a staged actors’ reading, and a heated debate amongst coffeehouse poets all tied up in a celluloid bow.

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ROOM 666 (1982)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on July 31st, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From Wednesday January 24, 2008

Directed by Wim Winders, featuring Steven Spielberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Susan Seidelman, Monte Hellman & Michaelangelo Antonioni.

During the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, Wim Wenders rented out a hotel room and set up a camera inside. He invited a crowd of directors to go into the room one at a time and ponder the question “What is the future of cinema?” For each guest, one reel of film was in the camera, giving them about 8 minutes to answer. It was a neat idea in 1982, and it’s more fun now a generation later, to see who came closest to reality.

Wenders is as well known for documentaries (BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, LIGHTNING OVER WATER) as he is for narrative films (WINGS OF DESIRE, UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD). Not much “film making” going on here, but the idea to do this experiment almost in the manner of a Confessional booth is pretty cool.

It’ll finish Friday,
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 7.31.11

As intriguing as this film continues to be, watching the 2006 Anchor Bay DVD affords the benefit of Wenders’ own commentary, which itself has already become something of a look into past expectations of the future. The term “visionary” gets tossed around by any critic who admires a director’s pretty compositions. Wenders’ brief list of questions becomes a litmus test for artists truly worthy of “visionary” praise, versus those who have made themselves a perfectly respectable career, but who have not yet reflected on that career and their place in the film medium.

We see for ourselves why certain directors who visit Room 666 do not fall into the visionary category through their limited stumbling answers; in a few cases Wenders corroborates that assessment by expressing his own disappointment on the DVD commentary track. There are directors whom he had clearly hoped would offer greater insight, though in fairness to those less eloquent, Wenders acknowledges difficulty sitting alone in a room pondering the questions he himself posed.

Wenders comments on his calculated design for the experiment, not only in his sheet of questions, but his preparation of the room. He left the TV on in case its presence might spur conversation, and provided a chair and table, yet set the camera far enough back to allow one to pace the room should they choose. The more interesting directors react with at least one aspect of Wenders preparations.

Jean-Luc Godard opens the conversation with a philosophical bang. He almost immediately notes the television in the room, on which a tennis match is being played, and pouts that the position of his chair impedes his ability to watch the match. He does not bemoan this issue, but rather quickly launches into a matter of fact comparison of the film aesthetic versus the television aesthetic, without ever again acknowledging the TV. Wenders notes with awe and some affection that as stream of conscious as Godard’s thoughts seemed to be, he was instinctually cognizant of how much time he had to answer. Godard ties his spider web of an answer up with enough time to light a cigar, rise, and limp on an injured left leg out of the frame.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder gives a similar but far more succinct answer compared to Godard’s. On a personal note, I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the original enfant terrible of 70’s European cinema answering questions posed by a fellow German, while the goofy Filmation animated TARZAN Saturday morning cartoon plays on TV behind him. Fassbinder’s answer does not expand much beyond Godard’s, however being as this was among Fassbinder’s final interviews before his untimely death by overdose, Wenders reveals a hint of soul within this intellectual exercise by including all of Fassbinder’s comments. We continue to hear Fassbinder’s voice and read his subtitles as Wenders fades to a Lebanon cedar tree near the Paris airport and then back to room 666. That tree, which also opens and closes the film, is presented to us as a reminder of humanity’s existence long before and hopefully long after film’s relevance as an artistic medium. Wenders’ treatment of Fassbinder’s answer, including his commentary on the relentless and reckless pace under which Fassbinder worked, suggest that an artist purely giving their absolute best for as long as they are physically capable may prove a detriment to the artist and the medium if that artist burns out before his or her time.

Werner Herzog’s interview is a personal delight for me. Before responding to Wenders’ list, Herzog says that one must take their shoes off to answer these sort of questions. He not only takes off his shoes, but his socks, and also is the only director to turn off the TV. Before Herzog even begins to answer, he alters factors of the experiment to suit himself.
This is a visionary. If making himself comfortable regarding his shoes and socks are not enough evidence of his uniqueness, Herzog’s observations take two transcending steps, one of which was too far sighted to even be acknowledged by Wenders in 2006. Herzog presages the rise of the internet, which Wenders addresses by commenting to the effect that Herzog in ’82 would be impressed by how far technology had advanced by 2006. But here’s where Herzog’s vision goes a step beyond: he even suggests that we will be shopping for vegetables with our phones. Herzog foresaw 4G smartphones in 1982, which as recently as 2006 was not yet assumed to be the next phase beyond the internet. Herzog also ruminates on how film itself as a medium may soon come to pass, but he regards the tools of filmmaking as vital to whichever of these new media will drive the final nail in film’s coffin. If you know Herzog, you know this is about as close as he comes to being optimistic.

The rental on Room 666 wraps up with Michelangelo Antonioni. We hear from the tone of Wenders’ commentary that he has as great affection of Antonioni as he does Godard. It is easy to see why. Antonioni is equally as profound as Godard, but focused in an entirely different direction; where Godard’s concern is the evolution of his chosen means of expression, Antonioni considers his responsibility to an audience to be of primary concern. Antonioni was also among the few who did not feel threated by TV and video, even suggesting the rise of “high definition video,” a foresight so ahead of its time yet so casually delivered that it barely registers in 1982. Antonioni is such a warm and intelligent gent that watching him here makes me want to re-watch all of his films immediately.

ROOM 666 concludes with Wenders reading a prepared statement from Yilmaz Güney. Güney was a Turkish writer/director whose film YOL won the Cannes Film Festival that year, but who remained in hiding outside of Cannes throughout the festival, as he was wanted in Turkey as an escaped political prisoner. This vital conclusion reminds us that even as film changes to video, and then to hi-def internet, the true visionaries of the form will always find a way to get into trouble with their stories. That’s a lot to pack a 46 minute running time, huh?

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