Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme is unlike Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. in most every way, but they share with one another an interest in the power of the moving image: how it works, what it’s saying, what it may be hiding. They make an interesting contrast. Keaton saw film as a way of becoming. For Godard, looking back at over a century of cinema, he sees a lot of waste and disappointment, but also possibility – if not outright hope.
I’m not going to try to rehash what the film is about, because to a large extent I don’t know. That’s not meant to be cheeky; I find much of the movie captivating, intriguing, even moving, though I’m still sorting out how all the pieces fit together or even if they’re supposed to. Jim Emerson summed it up best when he said, regarding the film’s reception at Cannes, that:
…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.
Frankly, it’s rather clear what the movie is about: it’s about European history, how the promises of the late 20th-century have largely failed to deliver, how the legacy of war is always present, how modernity has fractured relationships and made communication difficult, and how film (or video, or digital, or whatever comes next) might still offer a useful way of organizing, thinking about, and relating to the world and people around us.
See? That wasn’t so hard. What makes the film fascinating (or infuriating, depending on your take) is how Godard refuses to present any sort of “thesis” and “statement” about these things. Some things are clear: Godard is certainly appalled by the situation in Israel/Palestine, for example. But, overall, his approach is to watch, to string together sounds and images, to act more as a collector of media than as a crafter of it.
The video and digital cinematography is, apart from everything else, quite lovely. There are some really striking passages of visual poetry in this film, particularly during the first portion on the cruise ship (my favorite section). The splotchiness of the many of the interiors is actually anachronistic, feeling more like a home movie shot on analog video in the 90s than the high-def digital available today.
Godard used a variety of cameras, so I’m sure that’s intentional, but it’s a bit odd to feel nostalgic when these aesthetic qualities appear onscreen. All of my family’s own home movies have this same visual quality, since they were indeed shot on magnetic tape on a consumer camera in less-than-ideal lighting conditions some twenty years ago. And yet we’re constantly hearing that video is the “new” technology replacing film, even though this elides the quite long history of video images in our culture.
All this is to mean that Godard is not setting up some sort of binary where video stands in for the muddy, ever-so-banal present and film for the lost, glorious past. Perhaps video is a more interrogatory medium, which would explain the reporters in the middle section or the use of video in the final essay portion, but that also means it can be more intimate. The collection and interaction of passengers aboard the cruise ship feels almost Tati-esque at times, loose and lightweight but framed so lovingly, the camera a tool for letting people act out their inner humanity toward one another (or cruelty or stupidity, as the case may be).
As for the “Navajo” subtitles, the cryptic little poems which “translate” the dialogue for us, I personally loved them. It means I saw a movie much different than the one I would have if my French was better. There are surely details and important points I missed without the full dialogue, though enough is communicated visually that the complete meaning of the words was largely beside the point.
So what does the movie have to say about socialism? Or film? I don’t know. Nothing, really. It’s more meditative than argumentative. Those concepts, whatever they are and whatever they mean, still have a place in the (more multicultural) future of Europe, but I wouldn’t look to Godard to find out what that is. He’s more content with being an enigmatic poet, or, if you’re less charitable, your crazy, nonsense-spouting uncle. It’s a film well worth your time, either way.
One final point: the opening shot of the waves breaking behind the ship? What are the chances Paul Thomas Anderson lifted this for the opening of last year’s The Master, also a film featuring boats, secretive characters with a need to communicate, and an obsession with film history? I hardly feel that it’s an accident.
It feels appropriate to start with a movie about the movies – or, rather, a movie about our own relationship to storytelling and imagination. Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. is of course one of the silent star’s masterpieces, a lean, witty film that balances and builds the comedy of Keaton’s setpieces more expertly than in any other of his films except perhaps The General. Much has been said in the nearly 90 years since the film was made about its physical and visual genius, but I wanted to kick off this blog with this film, for more than any reason, because of this shot:
This is after all a film where a projectionist dreams himself into a mystery where he attempts to set right the problems of his personal life. It works by identifying the cinema as a dreamspace, where the physical and emotional laws of reality are warped and man can reinvent himself with relative ease. How appropriate, then, that the first shot is of the movie screen looking down at a theater, empty and awaiting an audience. This shot would have played differently in 1924, when the viewer was herself in a theater (not sitting at a computer or on a couch in the living room), the first shot thus a partial reflection of the physical space of the audience. The screen, a window to the imagination (which, by the time this film was made had a quarter century of visual precedent and myth-making behind it) looks back at you, except you aren’t there. What is there is the solitary figure of a man not even watching the film. In a theater devoid of an audience, he becomes the audience, and the vehicle through which the cinematic dreamworld will be explored.
By “cinematic dreamworld” I do not mean the physical movies themselves, which are fixed on celluloid (or now, in bytes) well before you start watching them. Nor do I mean the subconscious as depicted on film, the sort of Lynchian universe where people’s actions are larger in scope and emotion while also being more difficult to parse. I’m really referring to the idea of the cinema as a place where, on the one hand, anything is literally possible while, on the other hand, you can experience a more rigorous and understandable moral universe. It is the kind of place where you can have adventures on the frontier but still ride off into the sunset, the sort of place our capitalist society likes to pretend it is, and which has done an excellent job simulating for a certain segment of the world’s population. It is this cultural fairyland which Sherlock Jr. is exploring.
There’s a whole genre of “movies about movies.” Some of these are about Hollywood (Singing in the Rain, The Player), fame or creative struggles (A Star is Born, 8 1/2), or our shared cultural mythology as shaped by cinema (Spielberg, Tarantino). However, some are more meta, more about performance and how we use culture to model and shape our own public and private selves. This last category is probably the richest, and includes everything from Citizen Kane to Breathless , Taxi Driver to A Serious Man. Sherlock Jr. is in this category, one of the earliest films to tackle the question of how a man – especially a fairly unimpressive, unaccomplished man – thinks of himself and how he’d like to be thought of by others.
Buster Keaton’s status as an “Everyman” figure is well-trod, but it’s not just because of his innocence and unyielding stonefaced expression. It’s because he’s able to tap into the audience’s own experience as viewers, that is: as people struggling to define themselves by using stories – and cinema specifically – as a means in which to do so.
Keaton is trying to be a detective, and is doing so by reading a book titled, quite bluntly, “How to Be a Detective.” In the film’s first half, we see him attempt to use the guidelines of this book to solve the “mystery” of a stolen watch. But he’s far too literal and naive, and the book doesn’t really help him at all. He ends up accused of the crime himself, and eventually forced to escape from a moving train (the only brazen showcase of this portion of the film, which otherwise is fairly low-key). The mystery is eventually solved by his girlfriend, through a fairly simple and not dangerous method of inquiry.1
Keaton aspires not to be a real detective but to be the idea of a detective – the sharp wit, the quick instincts, the romance, the constant getting into and getting out of danger – which he can only find on screen.
And not even really on screen – despite the film’s conflation of movies and dreams, it is only in the dream where Keaton’s character is able to pursue his enemies and win over the girl. The imagination of cinema, not the cinema itself, provides the space for him to play around with his own deficiencies.
“Play” is the operative word, since the action of the film’s second half is almost entirely playful. It’s just unbridled fun and enthusiasm. But it’s only possible because it’s not real. In the waking world, Keaton’s attempts to play fail. You could probably come up with a good list of why that happens: he’s naive, he’s isn’t assertive, he tries to fashion himself as something he isn’t – something with is inherently false – and fails. Even before trying his hand as a detective, he’s trying to be a romantic, but his chocolates are too cheap, the ring he buys is too small, and he acts awkwardly around the woman of his affections. He doesn’t know how to act, only how he’s supposed to act.
The last scene of the film, when Keaton awakes from his dream,2 he famously mimics the action on the screen in order to console his girlfriend, only to run into a situation on film he cannot hope, or does not want, to duplicate. Cinema gives us the tools to navigate the world, faulty as those tools may be, but even those tools have their limits. We can’t always be watching movies if we want to live.
1. It’s rather interesting that in this silent film it is through a conversation that the crime is cracked. Keaton’s detective, relying on surveillance and physical interaction, is hopeless.
2. Which ends, by the way, with Sherlock Jr. and his girl floating helplessly in a lake, not exactly a heroic conclusion.
“Death of Cinema?” Far from it. This is the best time to love the movies.
The 2010s may not be as nostalgia-fueled as the 1960s, when we all presumably sat around cafes in the Village and talked about Jules and Jim. But that’s okay, because now you can watch Jules and Jim even if you’re some kid living in the suburbs far away from Manhattan and an art house theater.* That’s because you may have Netflix, or a Hulu Plus account, or access to Amazon. And if you have those things you also have an internet connection, where you can talk to other people from around the world about Truffaut, or Godard, or Antonioni, or Wong Kar-wai, Agnes Varda, Abbas Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky, F.W. Murnau, etc. etc. etc. I still love going to the theater, but practically-speaking most of my movie viewing has, is, and will be done in my home. Would it be different if I lived in New York or LA? Maybe, maybe not, but I’d still have a Netflix account. It’s not a good or bad thing; it’s just what it is. At the very least, there has never been a time when it has been easier to be a cinephile.
Of course, if you load Netflix and start browsing, you’re more likely to end up watching Super 8 or whatever TV sitcom the algorithm spits up for you to consider. That’s because, despite the many films available on Netflix Instant, it’s a lousy interface and a horrible discovery engine. You either have to know what you’re looking for in advance or you need to browse for a long time in order to come across some really great films. There’s no curation to speak of, and it’s just an ugly site to look at most of the time. And forget it if you try browsing on your Roku or Blu-Ray player. (Instantwatcher.com does help with this problem, but it really ought to be something Netflix, not a third-party, deals with.)
That’s not even bringing up issues with the quality of the streaming files. Fortunately, these have been improving, but you’ll still come across cropped, low-res versions of old movies which look like they were lifted from VHS. It is decidedly not a theatrical viewing experience. But it is an important one. If the cinephilia of the 60s was shaped by the art house, and the cinephilia of the 90s by the video store, then the cinephilia of the 2010s will be shaped by streaming video. It won’t be the only place to watch movies, but it may very well be the most influential one.
Here’s what I’m interested in doing with this blog: separating the wheat from the chaff and writing about some of the interesting movies available on these instant streaming services. Not necessarily “great” movies, but merely those films that would be worth spending some time talking about. This is not intended to be a “highlights of Netflix” kind of place (Roger Ebert basically already does that on Facebook), and I don’t intend to focus on recent releases. No one needs more capsule reviews of Thor. The internet is chock full of that already. I’m intending to publish longer essays that will try to figure out what makes certain films tick, hopefully by also giving some cultural or historical context. I’m going to try to do one essay
a week, but if that turns out to be too onerous I may have to cut back a month. (Update 4/5/2013: That is overly ambitious. Oops. So once or twice a month is going to be more like it.)
I’d also like to write these essays with some sense of political awareness, too. One of my favorite film critics is Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has always approached the aesthetics and the politics of movies with equal fervor. In fact, these two things are not really separable, and attempting to write criticism that’s simply close readings of the mise-en-scène is going to produce nothing but squishy, flavorless insights. That doesn’t mean every week will contain a screed or manifesto; it simply means that a film’s politics are so bound up with the critical analysis as a whole that it would be silly to ignore it.
For the most part, I’m going to focus on films that appear on Netflix, because that’s the most popular of the video streaming services. I may occasionally dip into Amazon, Hulu, or something else, but Netflix has the most content. Hulu of course has the Criterion Collection, but since that’s easy to find and includes films which all have specially commissioned essays, I’m going to try to spend more time wading through Netflix’s more out-of-the-way offerings.
By “out of the way” I don’t necessarily mean “obscure,” though I do believe that there’s value in pushing beyond what we’re familiar with. Netflix is good at promoting things we already know we’ll like (hence the “suggested for you” lists), but not at pointing us toward new experiences. One of the great things about social media and the internet is listening to overlapping, simultaneous discussions about the same work, be it a film, book, or album. This naturally happens with new releases, but it also occasionally happens when something pops up on Netflix for the first time. When The West Wing became available a few weeks ago, there were a bunch of Tweets and posts of people watching or re-watching that show. That’s great and all, but why didn’t that happen when Red River became available?
I don’t think it’s because “kids these days” don’t watch older movies, but the streaming video companies simply have no incentive to encourage this kind of viewing or discussion. They get your monthly subscription fee, and give you enough content to convince you to pay up next month. If they can do that, and continue to sign up new customers, the actual available content is kind of irrelevant to them. It’s not a terribly different business model from cable, in fact, despite what pundits will tell you. But amidst all the reality shows, even cable has things like Turner Classic Movies.
You can find good films online, and find good discussions about those films, if you want, and hopefully we can have some of those discussions here.
Caveat: Things come and go from Netflix often and without much warning. I can’t promise anything will be live on the site forever, though of course you should still be able to view titles through Netflix’s DVD rentals or a similar service like GreenCine. And it should be obvious that most great (or even good) films are not on streaming services, and you should never settle for not watching something simply because it’s “not on Netflix.” As I said, at the end of the day, this site is not an attempt to catalog every good movie available on the internet, but is merely a chance to dig into some of them with a little critical depth.
*Also, you should go watch Jules and Jim if you haven’t. Just sayin’.