Monthly Archives: August 2013
Not too long ago I saw Bande à part at the Arclight, Hollywood. I’d already seen the film a couple of times and liked it, but this time I connected with it in a way I hadn’t before. The best word to describe what I felt is euphoria. I was swept up in the whirl of images and sounds, I was completely involved in the performances, I was overwhelmed by the audacity of it all. The movie was totally intoxicating.
I think Godard is one of the most gifted filmmakers ever, but I’ve often had trouble relating to his work. I know I’m not alone. Many critics have written about Godard with a mix of admiration and frustration. Audiences have never flocked to his films, though he does have a small, passionate following. His movies are amazingly inventive and imaginative. But they can also be difficult, didactic, and even dull. I think in part this is because Godard has a complicated relationship with the medium. He’s spent a good part of his career trying to figure out what role film should play, and what role he should play as a filmmaker. While he grew up watching American films, and has spoken of his respect for some Hollywood filmmakers, he’s definitely conflicted about the impact commercial cinema has had on the world. Like many of us, as a young man he fell under the spell of Hollywood’s magic, but as an adult he finds himself horrified by Hollywood’s madness.
Many of Godard’s early films were based on Hollywood genre formulas, and movies about criminals seem to have had a special hold on him. Bande à part falls into that category, but rather than just make a crime film, the director ended up making, as he often did, an essay on crime films. He doesn’t want us to just sit back and enjoy the ride, letting ourselves get pulled along by the narrative. As much as he loves Hollywood movies, he also knows you can’t trust Hollywood movies, and that makes him want to question the form, to twist it, to turn it inside-out. Anything to keep himself and us from sliding into complacency.
It’s Godard’s irreverent, anarchic approach to the material that makes the film such a thrilling, dizzying experience. As soon as the credits begin we’re assaulted by raucous music as close-ups of the three leads flash before us. Bande à part is full of abrupt transitions and sudden changes in tone. The restless energy of the three would-be thieves drives the film. The visual style is amazingly alive and vibrant. And the sound is just as important as the images, catching both the din of the city and the intimacy of quiet conversations. Rather than trying to clean up the audio, bringing down the ambient noise, looping the dialogue, Godard lets us hear the world as it is. We hear feet scuffling along the street, music bouncing off the walls, traffic droning in the background. And when we get to the house where Odile lives we’re suddenly surrounded by an unsettling calm. The silence somehow feels strangely sinister.
The film is based on the novel Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens, though apparently Godard took a lot of liberties in adapting it. The story follows Odile, Franz and Arthur, three young people in Paris who are planning to steal some money. Though the trio wants to pull a heist, they seem to have no idea how to proceed, and when it comes to committing the crime they’re hopelessly inept. Arthur takes charge, giving orders and acting tough to impress Odile, but he’s really just as clueless as his friends. Franz goes along, seemingly because he doesn’t have the nerve to challenge Arthur. And Odile is a naïve young girl who just wants to get away from her home and have fun.
One of the main differences between Bande à part and the crime films of the studio era is the way the main characters are portrayed. If we were watching a movie with Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney (later on maybe John Garfield or Robert Ryan), for the most part the star would be tough, confident, assured. As the tension built, as the pressure mounted, we’d get to a point where that confident surface would start to crack, revealing the tough guy’s vulnerable side. Often the heart of the film would lie in the moments where we saw how frail the hero was beneath his hard exterior. That conflict between the tough and the tender was one of the linchpins of Hollywood melodrama. But Godard takes a totally different approach. In Bande à part, it’s obvious from the beginning how vulnerable these three are. It’s clear that Arthur and Franz are doing their best to mask their insecurity by acting cool, and Odile is trying as hard as she can not to let them see how scared she is. These three are not crooks. They’re playing at being crooks. At times we see Arthur and Franz literally acting out scenes from movies.
Bande à part has an ending, but it doesn’t have a resolution. It couldn’t, because Godard doesn’t believe in tying things up neatly. Rather than trying to find order in chaos, Godard lets us experience the world as it is. My sense is that he’s a romantic who feels he should be a realist. His work is formed by the tension between these two perspectives. In his films he seems to be offering us an invitation to explore with him the massive contradictions that make up our lives, the sorrow and the violence, but also the joy and the beauty
How can you turn down an invitation like that?
These days the name D. W. Griffith is not widely known. For most of the people who are aware of him, he has become one of those figures whose life is defined by a single act. Birth of a Nation is notorious, and rightly so, for its horrifying racism, and that one film has come to define Griffith’s image in the public arena. Because of the director’s reputation as a racist, and because the audience for silent films has shrunk to almost nothing, there’s little awareness of his importance as a filmmaker, his stature as an artist and his place in American history.
If somebody tells me they don’t want to watch Griffith’s films because of the racist attitudes they promote, I can understand that. But if somebody who cares about film says they don’t want to watch Griffith, it’s comparable to an English lit major saying they don’t want to read Shakespeare. They both occupy a similar place in their respective realms. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Griffith’s films do contain ugly racist propaganda, and like Shakespeare’s plays, Griffith’s films also speak powerfully of compassion, forgiveness and justice. How do we reconcile these competing tendencies, whether we’re talking about Griffith or Shakespeare? The answer is we can’t. Both were great artists. Both allowed prejudice to mar their work. And both men were a product of their time, just as we are a product of ours.
If people want to cross Griffith off their list for the way he portrayed African-Americans, that’s their right. That does, however, mean ignoring one of the greatest artists ever to work in film, and a central player in twentieth century American culture. It’s probably impossible to understand the development of American cinema (and maybe world cinema) without looking at the director’s work. Also, while Griffith’s films contain many insulting portrayals of Blacks, his attitude toward other groups could be surprisingly progressive. He made a number of shorts dealing with the violence inflicted on Native Americans by Anglos. Broken Blossoms may seem dated now in its portrayal of chaste love between an Asian man and an Anglo woman, but it was extremely daring for its time. And social justice was a major theme in his films, where he often showed the rich and powerful exploiting the poor and helpless.
Corner in Wheat is a prime example of his concern for those who struggled just to put food on the table. The film is under fourteen minutes long, but Griffith manages to pack a lot into this one-reel drama. Most of the movies made in the first decade of the twentieth century feature straightforward narratives laid out with blunt simplicity, and you could pretty much count on a happy ending. Not so with Corner in Wheat. Griffith attempts a multi-layered approach to telling the story. We have the poor family living on a farm, the ruthless businessman on the commodities exchange, and the market where people come to buy bread. There is no direct connection between any of these elements. The characters in these three scenes don’t interact, they’re just different aspects of the same system. I don’t know of another film from the period that shows a cross section of society in this way.
Most filmmakers of the time used the camera to record the action and connect the scenes so that the audience could follow the story easily. But even in this early effort Griffith was moving away from a strict narrative approach, and beginning to use images as poetry. To start with, the film is bookended by scenes of a farmer and his family. We first see the farmer sticking his hand into a bag of seed, letting it run through his fingers. His wife and daughter look on with stoic faces. Then the farmer and an older man (his father?) go into the fields to sow the wheat, scattering seeds as they move back and forth across the empty plain.
Cut to the businessman who plans to corner the market in wheat. Wound tight with ambition and impatience, he gives instructions to his traders. Next we see them on the floor of the exchange, where the entire crowd is caught up in a mounting frenzy of elation and desperation. The businessman’s plan works, he corners the market and makes a fortune. At a lavish party attended by society’s elite, everyone raises their glass to toast his success. But then Griffith shows us the impact this has on the common folk. A store that sells bread must raise its prices to cover the high cost of flour. Some can pay, but some can’t. The hungry poor invade the shop demanding bread. The police are called, first using batons to force the crowd back, and then pulling their guns.
Griffith tells his story with simple but powerful contrasts like these, and his images have a potency you won’t find in other films from the time. We see the affluent society crowd enjoying their party without a care in the world. We see the farmer holding out his empty hands to let his wife know that they have no money. And we see the businessman, having fallen inside a grain elevator, struggling for life as the wheat comes pouring down on him, until only his writhing hand is visible.
And the film’s final image sums up the bitter despair brought on by the businessman’s scheme. We see the farmer again sowing seed, now by himself on the lonely plain. Going down one row he nears the camera, then he turns, walks back in the opposite direction, and the image fades from the screen.
Corner in Wheat is one of many shorts that Griffith made for Biograph between nineteen eight and nineteen fourteen. During this time the director was constantly experimenting, constantly testing the boundaries of the new medium. These one and two reel movies show him searching for new ways to use the language of film, and the techniques he developed at Biograph would form the basis for his later features. Eventually Griffith’s work would change cinema forever. Corner in Wheat is one of his first steps along that path.
Watch the film by clicking on the title below.