Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dinner and a Movie: The Giver

Memories of Things Past

By Steve Herte

On September 23rd of this year I celebrate 41 years in my present job and this past Friday I had the opportunity to go back to where it all began. I was reminded of the song "Ohio. My City Was Gone" by The Pretenders. But instead of tearing something down and putting up a shopping mall, the powers that be have renovated what was there and added a row of incredible eateries. I couldn't believe my eyes. A Benares Indian restaurant (I've been to the one in Mid-Town) has opened up right across the street from my former office. You'll see in my review what became of the office building. Instead of bringing back bad memories it had the effect of cleansing them.

This week, I'm anticipating introducing my karaoke dance partner, Betty, to her first Indian restaurant. She was totally taken with the movie The One Hundred Foot Journey and she now wants to experience it. After hiking, kayaking and unicycling, hey, why not? I admire Betty's gumption. And, with me there I can guide her toward the wonderful flavors of Indian cuisine without her accidentally self-immolating. Also, I plan to win over a person from the false Indian-Curry crowd to the enchanting Kormas, Masalas, and Mitahis that makes one want to listen to sitars and tablas.

Going back to my career roots brought back memories both good and bad and oddly enough the movie I saw deeply involved memories. Enjoy!

The Giver (The Weinstein Company, 2014) - Director: Phillip Noyce. Writers: Michael Mitnick, Robert B. Weide (s/p), Lois Lowry (book). Cast: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Renate Stuurman, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Taylor Swift, Emma Tremblay, Aklexander Jilliangs, James Jillings, Jordan Nicholas Smal, & Saige Fernandes. Color,  97 minutes.

Predictions of “future-worlds” abound in science fiction. In The Time Machine (1960), by H. G. Wells, it seems blissful and innocent until the Morlocks are revealed. In The Matrix (1999), what you see is not really what you’re getting. In Elysium (2013) the rich live in luxury on a space station while the poor scrabble about on Earth. The Giver puts a different spin on the future.

The exact year is not provided, but the initial voice-over states that it is after “The Ruin,” which is never explained. Everything is black and white (including the film), and we see a vast area of land inhabited by several “communities” of people living in perfect peace, in identical houses, and wearing identical clothing. The camera pans back to reveal that the whole mini-world is atop a mesa surrounded by clouds for miles and miles around.

No one fights with anyone, no one gets sick (they each take their daily medication via a push-button injection system before leaving their dwellings) and no one has a harsh word to say to anyone. When a child is born there is a ceremony to welcome them into the community. When he or she reaches the age of nine, they receive their first two-wheel (white, of course) bicycle at a different ceremony. At the age of 18, each young man or woman is assigned their “job” or “position” within the community according to their aptitude (decided naturally, by The Elders) and thanked for their childhood by the Chief Elder (Streep). And when people have “fulfilled” their life of usefulness, they are “released” (we can guess what that word means) to “Elsewhere” – a term meaning anywhere outside the area of the mesa.

We meet Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan), three “friends forever,” as they attain their 18th birthdays together. At the ceremony, where over 100 teens are present, Jonas is number 52. Asher is assigned to be a Drone Pilot. Jonas is skipped and Fiona receives the title “Nurturer” (one in charge of babies at the nursery). When all the others have left the stage, Jonas is alone. “You may think I have made a mistake,” intones the Chief Elder. But she explains that due to Jonas’ unique qualifications and abilities (we see one earlier in the movie – he sees the true red color of Fiona’s hair briefly) he has been chosen to be a “Receiver.”


Jonas has never been to “the edge” before, and now he must go there regularly for his training. At a house sitting precisely at the edge of the high cliff marking the end of the mesa he meets The Giver (Bridges) in his vast library (Jonas has never seen a book – shades of The Time Machine). The Giver’s job is to pass on the memories of the past, including emotions, music, religion, pain, and war. He accomplishes this in stages through a form of mind-meld, where the two grasp each other’s lower arms. Jonas learns about cold and snow and why they were eliminated. He also learns that the daily injections wipe memories of color, strong emotions, and anything that would indicate differences (or conflict and competition) between peoples. Effectively, there are no reasons for war, hence peace.

Using a drop of his blood and an apple each day (I’m seriously resisting the obvious joke here), Jonas fools the electronic injector into thinking he’s taking his daily meds, and he falls in love with Fiona and the baby Gabriel (who was assigned to his parents by the Nurturing Center). He teaches Fiona the apple trick, finds a map showing the “boundary” of the territory and decides to take Gabriel across it and thus regain the memories his entire people have lost and which have been so wrongfully erased.

Bridges gives one of his finest performances since The Big Lebowski (1998) and the remake of True Grit (2010). Streep is fantastically condescending, eerily confident (think The Devil Wears Prada from 2006), and maliciously cold in varying stages. Thwaites is perfect for his role. His outrage at what the elders have imposed upon the people is genuine and his interaction with Gabriel is amazing. The Giver is an excellent movie for all ages (except toddlers and younger). In fact, I would say that it’s squeaky clean, with only flashbacks of violence. 

I was surprised to learn at the credits that Taylor Swift played a character named Rosemary (The Giver’s daughter, the Receiver before Jonas), and I didn’t recognize her. The way that color oozed into the film (rather than “popped” as in The Wizard of Oz) was a great cinematic effect. The choices of scenes from memory during the mind-melds were wonderful slideshows of my own memories. At an hour and 37 minutes, The Giver is just right.

Rating: Four out of five Martini glasses.


Washington Market Tavern
41 Murray Street (just off Church Street)New York

Nothing sparks memories like dining in a brand new restaurant across the street from the building where one began a 41-year working career. Until seven months ago, Washington Market Tavern was Eamon’s Irish Bar, and right next to it was The Blarney Star at 43 Murray: Two establishments that could be found in the dictionary under “dives” and “joints.” I remember being in the latter one only. Across the street is the sleek Equinox fitness salon and family condos that was once 120 Church Street, original home of the Internal Revenue Service in downtown New York, and also unfortunately home to large families of four and six-legged creatures.


But that’s all changed now. In fact, the entire block has changed. If it were not for the characteristic brownish red color of my former office, I would not have known where I was. Washington Market Tavern’s fashionable charcoal grey exterior open onto a spiffy, cream white interior trimmed in chocolate brown. The bar on the right is long and is backed by an impressive shelving unit displaying their extensive collection of spirits. The semi-circular banquettes forming booths on the right are the only remnants bespeaking a former bar occupied this space. Down the middle are these clever tables that can be lowered or raised to accommodate drinkers on stools or diners in chairs over-hung with twin shaded chandeliers. The young lady at the Captain’s Station led me to the last of the latter kind of table. The bar was populated from end to end the entire time I was there. A young man took my water preference and presented me with the menu, wine list and cocktail/beer menu.

It wasn’t long before I decided on a cocktail that my server, Eptihag (don’t ask me how to pronounce it, I got it from the tab) asked me if something interested me. I chose a drink called simply “1850” – Gin, Jalapeno-infused Triple-Sec, Cilantro, Lime and Agave garnished with a slice of cucumber. It was only mildly spicy, tart and citrus-y, refreshing and different. And . . . I love cucumbers.

The food menu was a single card arranged in four categories; Raw, Garden, Ocean and Farm with four entries each. Eptihag (I think I’ll call her my server from now on) indicated that they were arranged from left to right in order of size of portion and left me to my thoughts. I opened the wine list and discovered a multitude of affordable wines that would go with any meal. I didn’t read any more than halfway, because the remainder of the list was the over-priced wines.

My server reappeared and with her help I chose three courses (to her enthusiastic approval). I told her that there were two wines I was interested in – one white, one red – and she helped me choose the red, a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley entitled “Uppercut” (yes, the very name intrigued me). Then she went to put in my order and returned with the most elegant (and tall – 10 inches high) stemmed glass I have ever seen. She stated that this particular glass is made just for cabernet (the bowl was nearly half the height) and this was the first one she’s been able to serve to a customer. I felt honored. The wine was a deep ruby color and was not too strong or heavy but fruity and light on the tannins – perfect for what was to come.


There must be some kind of fashion involving serving food on a slab of slate (or is slate cheaper than china?) but my appetizer arrived on a bed of rock. The Sea Urchin and Wagyu Beef were artfully arranged – Carpaccio style, with urchin on top – with Squid Ink Tuille (thin, crisp wafers of cheese) and paper-thin slices of radish in a ginger glaze and accompanied by a roasted scallion. My server advised me to experience all the parts of the dish together for the full effect. I did and it was astonishing. The net flavor was a mild form of wasabi with delicate beef and seafood highlights.

My second course was served resting on a steak knife on slate (again with the slate?). I didn’t need the steak knife as one of the other servers provided one before the dish was served. This dish, dubbed “Wild Mushrooms on Toast,” was definitely an understatement. The creamy, buttery mound of crimini, shiitake, and chanterelle mushrooms on a long toasted slice of baguette had me wish Julia Child was there. She would have loved it as much as I did. As an added bonus, it was sided with slices of “mushroom sausage” with a dot of thyme juice. Oh!

I almost forgot about the bread (who would dare call this just bread?). It was a homemade English muffin with a homemade spread mixing garlic, chives, sour cream and scallions that arrived hot in an iron skillet. I had to have more than one.


My main course (I had to pace myself with the mushrooms, they were very filling), billed unobtrusively as Long Island Duck, was majestically displayed on a white plate (finally!) with four juicy medallions in one row, sliced Romanesco cauliflower (the green one) in the next row, and two stuffed savoy cabbage portions (filled with duck foie gras) in the last. And all in a duck jus. Heavenly! The medallions were tender with a delightful crisp crust, the cauliflowers were crunchy (not over-done), and the stuffed savoy was pure dining eroticism. You should have seen my server bubble when I told her.

Am I ready for dessert after all this? If you’ve been following my reviews, you know it’s rare when I demur at sweets and this was not one of those occasions. The Apple Tartlette reminded me what a wonderful fruit an apple can be when prepared correctly. It was like a glazed baked apple sliced into swirls with light, thin cake baked into the swirls. Add cinnamon and it is love at first bite.

Top it all with my usual double espresso and a glass of Black Dirt Apple Jack and you have a dining experience unheard of on this particular block of Manhattan in 40 years. I have to admit that if the establishments across the street were cooking up food and drink such as this when I was working there, I might not be the weight (or shape) I am today. And . . . the Beverage Coordinator’s name is (get this) Stephen King.

Gotta love it.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Cinéma Inhabituel for September 16-30

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM


By Ed Garea

STAR OF THE MONTH: MELVIN DOUGLAS

September 17: Two decent films rarely shown: That Uncertain Feeling (1941) at midnight, and Fast Company (1938), at 1:30 am. The first is a Lubitsch-directed comedy about an unhappy married couple (Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas) who see a shrink. While at the shrink’s office, Oberon meets another of his patients - an absurd pianist named Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith). Taken with his disregard of social conventions, she invites him to the couple’s next party, and becomes infatuated with him. 


Fast Company is the first of three films starring the husband-wife detective team of Joel and Garda Sloane (Douglas and Florence Rice) and is the best of the three. Want to know how to sink a promising B-series? Simply cast different actors in the leads of all three films. The sequel was Fast and Loose (1939) with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in the leads. The third, and last, of the series was Fast and Furious (1939), with Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern as Joel and Garda. Joel and Garda were rare book dealers who sleuthed part time. The series was made in response to audience demand for more films in the vein of The Thin Man series, and if it were only handled correctly, would have been a big hit. MGM had a knack for making B’s that often played in the “A” position in suburban and rural cinemas. How they blew this one is a real crime.

September 24: Unless you want to see Hud for the umpteenth time, I suggest you look instead at 1964’s The Americanization of Emily at 3:45 am and record it. James Garner is cynical Naval officer, Charles Madison, who’d rather survive D-Day, thank you, and manages to avoid active duty by attending to the every wish of his scatterbrained superior, Admiral Jessup (Douglas). Along the way Charlie meets proper war widow Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), for whom Charlie’s cowardice is a major selling point, as she’s already lost a husband to war. But Charlie’s luck can’t hold forever, and he and roommate James Coburn are given the assignment of filming the landing on Omaha Beach to record the first casualty. With superb performances from all four leads and a decent script from Paddy Chayefsky (for once), the film, in the words of my good friend J Michael Kenyon, is “a definite must see.”

OUT OF THE ORDINARY

September 21: Check out the doubleheader of Satyajit Ray, beginning at 2:00 am with his 1958 film The Music Box, a quietly moving film about a proud aristocrat whose riches are rapidly turning into debts, and who is too proud to curb his opulent lifestyle. We see how our protagonist has come to be in his present situation in a series of flashbacks. Many critics and historians see this as Ray’s masterpiece, his greatest film.

It’s followed at 3:45 am by the film that put Ray on the map of world cinema, Pather Panchali (1955), a stark and uncompromising look at the struggles of a mother to raise her family in an impoverished Indian village. Compelling and disturbing, it boasts excellent performances all around along with music by Ravi Shankar. It’s the sort of film one sees and never forgets.

September 25: At 8:00 pm, George C. Scott stars in Patton, the 1970 Academy Award-winning Best Picture about the controversial American general. Scott won Best Actor for his performance, but turned down the statue not out of any gripping political conviction of the time, but simply because he thought actors shouldn’t be competing against each other for awards. Watch it anyway, and revel in Scott’s performance as he captured Patton’s inner demons.


September 28: Iconoclastic American director Whit Stillman is honored with two of his films. First up at 8:00 pm is Metropolitan (1990), a scathing satirical look at the haute-bourgeoisie as exemplified by a small group of privileged Manhattan socialites who make the party rounds during the holidays attending black-tie parties and intimate after-hours parties. Stillman brilliantly captures the mood of the time, displaying the empty lives of these over-privileged Yuppies and their constant need to be on the go, lest they sink into the morass of their boring existence. Think of it as St. Elmo’s Fire with depth.

Metropolitan is followed at 10:00 pm by Barcelona, Stillman’s 1994 slice-of-life look at two American cousins talking their way through romantic and political adventures in early 1980s Barcelona. Along the way they meet two wild Spanish girls (Tushka Bergen and Mira Sorvino, in an early role), who take them on a wild ride, running rings around the two cousins who, for all their patter, are really quite conventional.

BARDOT

Some stars are able cross the celluloid median and icons in the world of pop culture. Brigitte Bardot was the first French movie star to accomplish this feat, and on September 22, TCM honors her with a night of her films beginning at 8:00 pm. The fun begins with the film that put her on the star map, And God Created Woman (1956), directed by then-husband, Roger Vadim. It’s followed in order by Une Parisienne (1957), Plucking the Daisy (1956), The Night Heaven Fell (1958), and the best of the night, Contempt (1963), directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Bardot was no actress, but she didn’t have to be. Not with a face and figure like she had. The only film that attempts to challenge her acting chops is Contempt, and Godard coaxes an excellent performance out of her by surrounding her with solid co-stars such as Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, and Giorgia Moll, and, I suspect, a lot of mollycoddling by the director himself. At any rate, it’s a story about how the filming of a movie (entitled The Odyssey) causes friction is a marriage thought to be above all that. Fritz Lang appears as himself, the director of the movie. It’s definitely one worth catching.

EDDIE G. ROBINSON

On September 20, a night of films with newspapers and the media as the subject, the best film of the night appears last, at midnight. It’s 1931’s Five Star Final, from Warner Brothers, with Edward G. Robinson as an editor who will do anything to get a story and sell newspapers. It’s when he revisits a hot story of 20 years ago that he crosses the line with devastating consequences for all concerned. Robinson is amply backed with good supporting performances from Aline MacMahon as his lovesick secretary, George E. Stone, and Boris Karloff as a reporter who poses as a clergyman to get inside information.

THE PROJECTED IMAGE: THE JEWISH EXPERIENCE ON FILM

September 16: The best of the night includes the 8:00 pm showing of Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955); a film told in flashbacks about four soldiers defending a hill outside Jerusalem during the 1948 War of Independence. Following at 10:00 pm is Sallah, from 1964, a comedy starring Topol as a Yemini man with a large family who comes to Israel and begins to wonder if he made the right decision when faced with the reality of his choice. And at 12:15, it’s the 1949 drama from Universal, Sword in the Desert, starring Dana Andrews as a ship’s captain who smuggles Jewish refugees into Palestine.


September 23: Begin with The House of Rothschild (1934), starring George Arliss in this elaborate, entertaining epic of the famed banking family and its origins during the reign of Napoleon. Look for a wonderful performance from Boris Karloff as Baron Ledrantz, the villain of the piece, who is also courting Arliss’s daughter (Loretta Young).

At 2:00 am, it’s Focus, a quirky little film from 2001 about anti-Semitism in World War II Brooklyn. It stars William H. Macy, David Paymer, and Laura Dern. It’s based on Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel about a man (Macy) whose new glasses make people believe him to be Jewish, and the persecution that misidentity brings.

FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

September 19: Rarely seen Pre-Codes today include Parole Girl (6:00 am), Two Seconds (11:45 am), the ultimate flashback film with Eddie G. Robinson The Mind Reader (2:30 pm), Blonde Crazy (12:45 am) with exemplary performances from leads James Cagney and Joan Blondell, and Skyscraper Souls (3:30 am), with Warren William at his sleazy best.


September 26: Rarely seen Pre-Codes: They Call It Sin (noon), Employees Entrance (2:30 pm), Midnight Mary (4:00 pm), Other Men’s Women (5:15 pm), Three on a Match (1:00 am), and Call Her Savage, staring Clara Bow (2:15 pm).

PSYCHOTRONICA

September 21:  The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) at 6:15 pm.

September 29: From Monogram - Phantom Killer (1942, 5:45 pm), The Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943, 7:00 pm).

THE B HIVE

Only two more films left in this month’s featured “Trailblazers” series starring Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson: Blazing Guns (1943), and Death Valley Rangers (1943). Both begin at noon on September 20 and 27, respectively.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for September 15-22

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
September 15–September 22

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

SUDDENLY (September 17, 1:00 pm): Besides The Manchurian Candidate, this 1954 gritty film noir about a group of assassins who take over a house on a hill in Suddenly, California, to kill the president is my favorite Frank Sinatra film. And it's probably his finest performance. Rather than playing the nice guy, Sinatra is fantastic as a crazed psychopath who will stop at nothing to kill the president just because he wants to. There are plenty of fine performances in this film, particularly Sterling Hayden as the sheriff and James Gleason as the patriarch of the family who lives in the house. The action is fast-paced with some nice twists and a great ending - all wrapped nicely into a 75-minute bow.

SHAFT (September 18, 12:00 am): "Who's the cat who won't cop out when there's danger all about? Shaft. Right on." It's not just the great theme song and a super funky soundtrack, this is the absolute best blaxploitation film ever made. It was so popular that it's considered the film that saved the then-struggling MGM studio from going out of business in 1971. Richard Roundtree is Shaft, John Shaft, a private dick who is asked by the Mafia to rescue the daughter of the crime boss. Shaft is as cool as they come, bedding a number of women, mostly white, and always a step or two ahead of the police, the mob and the gang that kidnapped the girl. It's an incredibly enjoyable movie, filled with action and humor. 

ED’S BEST BETS:

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (September 15, 9:00 pm): Who knew when this production was filmed back in 1944 that it would grow into one of the most iconic cult classics, not only in Hollywood history, but also in the history of pop culture? GE has a slogan, “better living through chemistry,” and the motto for this film might well be “better viewing through chemistry.” No one had the chemistry that Bogart and Bacall had in this film. It was clear to see they were falling in love as the picture progressed. And it wasn’t only on celluloid, but also in real life as well, as they married shortly afterwards. Without that chemistry, To Have and Have Not is just another ordinary film, with Bogart repeating his role as The Guy Who Doesn’t Want To Get Involved, getting involved with the Resistance to fight the forces of Tyranny. Bacall is absolutely marvelous in her film debut, even though she could hardly act a lick back then. But with the help of mentors Bogart and director Howard Hawks she pulls off a credible performance and establishes herself as an actress to watch. For anyone interested in the Bogart-Bacall marriage and the myth that came to surround it, this movie is a must.

THE LITTLE GIANT (September 19, 1:00 pm): Eddie G. Robinson in a comedy? Yes, and he pulls it off magnificently. He’s totally in his element as a gangster who’s trying to crack the social register after the repeal of Prohibition put him out of business. Unfortunately, he’s under the delusion that social standing breeds class, and it’s hilarious when he discovers this isn’t the case. That’s when the fun really begins. Though Robinson may be the star, he’s provided with solid assistance from Mary Astor, Helen Vinson, and Russell Hopton. It’s a funny picture and Robinson would actually play the same type of character five years later in A Slight Case of Murder, which also repeats the laughs.

WE DISAGREE ON ... NETWORK (September 20, 9:45 pm)

ED: CI realize I’m swimming against the tide here, but the only thing I ask of the reader is for him or her is to take the blinders off and look at this film objectively. Network is supposed to be a satire of the television industry. All well and good. Unfortunately, the film’s author is Paddy Chayefsky, who believes in satire with a sledgehammer. There is nothing subtle about this film; for satire to truly be effective, it must be subtle. Network is completely over the top. Everyone seems to shout his or her lines, and the characterization is dull and shallow; shocking has taken the place of clever, and the movie is just as manipulative as those it seeks to “expose.” Also, for satire to be truly effective, it must be rooted in the reality of its time. There is nothing real about Network. Howard Beale would’ve either been taken off the air long before he got started, or a congressional inquiry would have forced the network to do just that. And what real television network would give air time to the Communist Party and the Ecumenical Liberation Army (does that one sound like the invention of some smartass writer trying to be funny) in the first place? It’s like a college sophomore’s idea of humor. The characters are poorly drawn and one-dimensional. William Holden just walks out of a successful marriage to be with a woman (Faye Dunaway) who he knows is going to screw him over? Sorry, that just doesn’t play in the real world. What the film does have a lot of is cynicism. Howard Beale (Peter Finch in a completely over-the-top performance) tells his audience that all they know they have learned from television, as only 3% of the population reads books and only 15% reads newspapers. Network’s real target is the audience watching it, for it seems the producers assume their audience is also brain dead and needs to be spoon-fed its satire. Former Eagle Don Henley, in his song “Dirty Laundry” said more in three-and-a-half minutes than Network says in two hours. And he’s a lot funnier and on target because he aims at the real, not the fictional. Want to see a good satire of television? Watch Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (made in 1956 and still on target today) or reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At least they’re rooted in reality.

DAVID: A+. This brilliant film is not only the best satire of television ever made, but it is about two decades ahead of its time showing how reality TV could and did capture the attention of the viewing audience. As the years pass, this 1976 film becomes more relevant as society's interest in the obsession of pseudo celebrities and our insatiable appetite for around-the-clock garbage news increase. At times, you can see yourself in the film watching some of the crap that litters the airwaves today. You know it's awful and/or outrageous, but you can't help but watch. Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay is exceptional and it's the best film directed by the incredibly talented Sidney Lumet. The film shows us the mental breakdown of anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and how it captures the attention of viewers whose voyeur tendencies only grow. Chayefsky won an Oscar for the screenplay. The script is so exceptional that it provides many of the film's actors moments to shine. Finch, Faye Dunaway (as an overly ambitious and sexy network executive), and Beatrice Straight (in a bit but important role as the wife of a TV executive played by William Holden) won Oscars in three of the four acting categories. Like Finch, Holden was nominated for Best Actor (two lead male actors?), but obviously didn't win. Finch's "Mad as Hell" speech is one of cinema's finest and one of its top five most iconic moments. It's drop-dead serious while also being outrageously funny. How much do I love this film? I can't count the number of times I've seen it. My favorite example is when my wife went into labor in 1997 with our second child. I borrowed a VHS copy of the movie from the library and we got through about one-third of it when it was obviously time to get her to the hospital. After the delivery and several hours of bonding between us and our daughter, it was time for me to leave the hospital, get some much-needed sleep and come back in the morning to bring them home. What did I do before going to sleep? Yeah, I watched the rest of Network. I don't regret a second of that decision. That's how great this film is so Ed, you're not just swimming against the tide here. You're swimming against a tidal wave.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Breathless

Godard’s Pop Culture Noir

By Ed Garea and Jean-Paul Garreaux

Breathless (Les Films Imperia, 1960) - Director: Jean-Luc Godard. Writer: Francois Truffaut (story). Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Claude Mansard, Richard Balducci, Jean-Pierre Melville, Francois Moreuil, Jean-Luc Godard. (Original title: A bout de soufflé) B&W, 90 minutes.

To make a film all you need is a girl and a gun.” -- Jean-Luc Godard

If only it were that simple. And yet, Godard pulled it off, for all he needed was a low budget and enough imagination to overcome it. Dedicated to Monogram Studios, whose films were often playing at the theater down the street from the offices of Cahiers du Cinema, where Godard was plying his trade as a film critic, the film resembles a Monogram product in that it was made and looks on the cheap. However, while Monogram Bs emphasized action over characterization, Breathless turns that formula on its head, emphasizing the characters. A film that might have begun as a noir has instead aged over the years to become a pop culture watershed.

Godard was eager, almost chomping at the bit to make a movie. His friends and colleagues at Cahiers, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, had already made their feature debuts. However, while Truffaut and Chabrol drew upon the autobiographical in their films, Godard chose to do a film with almost no touches of the autobiographical. Perhaps this is because Godard, unlike Truffaut and Chabrol, grew up in the pleasant climes around Geneva, Switzerland, the son of wealthy parents.

SYNOPSIS

Breathless details a simple story: Michel Poicaard (Belmondo) is a young punk who styles himself after Humphrey Bogart. He steals a car in Marseille and heads for Paris, but is stopped by two motorcycle cops. Discovering a pistol in the glove compartment, he uses it to kill one of the policemen, and takes off running. Reaching Paris, he looks up old girlfriend Patricia Franchini (Seberg), an American student and aspiring journalist, who is hawking copies of the New York Herald-Tribune (where she works) on the street. After some conversational give-and-take, she agrees to hide him while he tries to get in touch with an associate who owes him money to that he can evade the police and flee to Rome. But the police are closing in and pressure Patricia to give Michel up. She betrays him, which leads to the finale, where Michel is shot in the street while attempting to flee.


The synopsis strongly resembles a film noir of the type for which Monogram was famous. However, Godard’s approach to the material departs radically from the Hollywood template. He employed his experience as a critic, his knowledge of both high and low culture, and his philosophical meanderings, derived principally from existentialism, to transform the story. His lack of movie-making experience was not a problem, for he had the help of such as Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, and Jean-Pierre Melville whenever he became stumped. He also had the services of cinematographer Raoul Coutard, suggested to him by producer Georges de Beauregard, who had Coutard under personal contract.  Coutard cut his teeth shooting documentaries for the French Army’s Information Service in Indochina. His background suited Godard perfectly, especially considering the budget and Godard’s lack of expertise. Coutard was able to show Godard how to shoot with a handheld camera and a minimum of lighting, for which he used a specialized film, Ilford HPS, intended for still photography and not available at the time as motion picture stock. He spliced 18-meter lengths of the film into 120-meter rolls. Because the sprocket holes differed from the sprocket holes for normal motion picture film, Coutard used an Eclair Cameflex camera, the only one that would work with the film stock. However, this presented a whole new set of problems, for the camera was noisy and unable to produce synchronized sound. The only alternative was to dub the film during post-production.

Melville showed Godard the tricks of placing the cameraman in a wheelchair (as he did with Bob le flambeur) for tracking shots, giving the film a look of improvisation. Because Godard did not have the necessary permits to shoot on the street, Melville showed him an old trick he improvised during the shooting of Bob le flambeur: placing the cameraman inside a postal cart with a hole cut out for the lens along with packages on the top. (Melville also neglected to get the necessary permits to film.)

Melville schooled Godard in the art of jump cuts, which further enhances the illusion; not only of improvisation, but also of what goes hand-in-hand with it - imminence. To his credit, Godard took the craft of jump cuts to a whole new level, giving the film fluidity. Some of the cuts took place within the camera while other cuts were made in the editing room. Godard’s first cut of the film was about 2½ hours long, but producer Georges de Beauregard wanted the film at no more than 90 minutes, so rather than take out whole scenes, Godard shortened them through the use of jump cuts, cutting within scenes and even within shots. To shorten the film even more, Godard also cut between shots from disorienting angles, breaking the traditional rules of continuity. The result is a film that not only looks like a newsreel, and appears amateurish, but one that conveys the idea of imminence, for as the film progresses, the audience remains on top of the action, rather than viewing it at a distance, as is done with most other films. Godard saw the act of making a film as an important prelude to its meaning; as important as its content and style. Film for Godard is a sort of “action painting,” reflecting the conditions under which it was made. The role of the director, such as his technique, was the means to the end of making it personal, in this case the infusion of original ideas to the overall aesthetic.

The title, A bout de soufflé, loosely translates as “Breathless.” However, Godard is using another meaning: at the end of breath, at the last gasp, giving a clue as to the ending and the new beginning the viewer can infer.

THE STORY BEHIND THE LENS

To listen to Godard talk, one would believe the film sprang all ready-made from his head, and all he had to do was fill in the blanks. But this, of course, is not so. We have already seen the help Melville provided on the set with regards to the technical side. As to the story, Godard has Truffaut to thank. For years Truffaut was fascinated with a November 1952 incident concerning petty criminal Michel Portail that French tabloids France-Soir and Detective featured on their pages and which kept their readers in thrall. Portail, a young thug imprisoned for armed robbery and then expelled from the United States, returned to France and spent the summer with his American journalist girlfriend, Beverly Lumet, on the Cote d’Azur, living the high life. Learning that his mother, who lived in Le Havre, was dying, Portail stole a diplomat’s car from in front of the Greek embassy and was driving to see her when a motorcycle policeman named Grinberg pulled him over. He shot and killed the patrolman and managed to hide out for two weeks until police found him in a barge docked on the Seine, in the center of Paris. What especially interested Truffaut about the story was the American girlfriend who helped him hide out from the police. Portail hoped to take her with him on his escape. Instead she turned him over to the police.

Truffaut worked with both Chabrol and Godard in developing the story for film, but failed to find an interested producer, in part because Michangelo Antonini’s 1953 film, I vinti (The Vanquished), had an episode based on a sensational 1948 case where a 16-year old boy shot a classmate to death, ostensibly over the affection of a girl. The girl’s father sued in French court, asserting that the identity of his daughter was not protected. The French government agreed and censored the film on the grounds that it implicated people still living. As Michel Portail was in prison at the time, producers understandably backed off.  In 1959, Godard, now itching to make a movie, asked if he might revive the project. Truffaut, fresh off the overwhelming reception of Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) at Cannes, not only gave his blessing, but also hooked Godard up with producer Georges de Beauregard. Both Truffaut and Chabrol agreed to work on the film if de Beauregard agreed to produce it. Their offer secured the necessary financing, and so Truffaut was credited as the writer and Chabrol as technical adviser, although neither really had much to do with the film itself.


Given a budget of roughly $90,000 (one-third of the average cost for a French film at the time) to realize his dream, Godard began casting. For the role of Patricia he wanted Jean Seberg, a young actress given the star push by Otto Preminger in his Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse, and about whom he had written admiringly in Cahiers du Cinema. She was readily available, as her star had plummeted after critics savaged both films. As he was acquainted with Seberg’s then-husband, Francois Moreuil, an attorney with aspirations of being a director, Godard was able to secure an interview with Seberg. She was less than impressed during their meeting, finding him to be “an incredibly introverted, messy-looking young man who didn’t even look her in the eye as she talked.” Moreuil, however, convinced her to take the role, and she signed with producer de Beauregard for $15,000. Convincing Columbia Studios to loan her out was not as easy, but Moreuil managed to get the studio to accept a small fee for her participation. To express his appreciation, Godard gave Moreuil a small part as a journalist interviewing the author Parvulesco at Orly Airport.

Some of the minor roles went to Godard’s friends. He asked Melville to play the celebrated novelist, Parvulesco. Two of the other journalists in the crowd interviewing him were producer Andre S. Labarthe and director Jean Douchet. Director Jacques Rivette had a cameo as a man Michel sees run over in the street. And, finally, Godard himself makes an appearance (a la Hitchcock) as a man who recognizes Michel outside the Herald-Tribune office and informs to the police.

For the male lead of Michel, Godard wanted Jean-Paul Belmondo. Belmondo had appeared in a few films prior, but he was virtually unknown outside France. However, the problem with securing Belmondo’s participation came from his agent, who told the actor that he would be making the biggest mistake of his life if he were to accept the lead. Belmondo, who knew Godard personally, was beholden to him for some good write-ups in Cahiers and agreed to be in the film.

Now that Godard had his leads, the next thing on his list was to work the story into a screenplay. His original plan was to film the story, adding only dialogue. But soon he realized he needed to rewrite the entire story. In the original outline, Truffaut’s antagonist, having missed the last train from Paris to Le Havre, steals a car near the Saint-Lazare station and later kills the patrolman who pulled him over. He then goes to meet his girlfriend, Betty, a young American journalist, and the chase shifts from one cinema to the next in the streets of Paris. The police arrest Betty and she gives Michel up. The police find him hiding on a barge. He gives himself up but tells them he has swallowed a fatal dose of aspirin. No one believes him, but once at the station he keels over and dies.

Godard and Truffaut worked on a treatment (officially attributed to Truffaut) that is closer to a continuity script, though without the dialogue. This version matches the locations and most of the narrative developments in the finished film. Truffaut’s vision of the anguished young man who turns to crime out of despair now becomes, in Godard’s vision, an existential hood indifferent to common morality and the law. Also, the girl, renamed Patricia, now enters the film near the beginning with their love story dominating the middle portion of the film. She has become a neophyte journalist, reduced to selling the Herald-Tribune on the street in addition to other assignments. Godard moved the opening sequence from Paris to Marseilles, where Michel pretends to read Paris Flirt while observing the pedestrian and auto traffic in front of the Vieux Port.

Filming began on August 17, 1959. Godard began by shooting the lengthy bedroom scene at the Hôtel de Suède, shooting for two hours with only a minimal crew and no lighting before running out of ideas. This proved to be the hardest location for Godard to secure, but as he was smitten with the hotel, having lived there in the early 1950s, producer de Beauregard managed to obtain permission from the hotel’s management (with a little grease, no doubt). The rest of the film was filmed chronologically, with the exception of the first scene in Marseilles, which was shot toward the end of filming.

According to Coutard, Godard discarded the screenplay he had written early on in the shoot and instead improvised by writing the dialogue day by day as production went along. He would then give the lines to the actors, have a few brief rehearsals on the day’s scenes, and then filming began. The actors found this a strange way of working causing them to sometimes forget their lines. However, since the soundtrack was to be post-synchronized later, Godard would simply solve this problem by calling out their lines to them from behind the camera.   

Richard Balducci, who played Tolmatchoff, stated that the shooting days ranged anywhere from 15 minutes to 12 hours, depending on how many ideas Godard had that day. When he ran short of ideas he would cancel the day’s filming. This erratic shooting schedule angered de Beauregard to the point he wrote a letter to the entire crew complaining about it. According to Coutard, on a day that Godard had called in sick, de Beauregard bumped into the director at a café, and what began as an argument quickly escalated into a full-blown fistfight. 

Despite the erratic schedule, though, filming lasted for 23 days, ending on September 12, 1959 with the final scene (where Michel is shot in the street) filmed on the rue Campagne-Premiere in Paris.

THE INFLUENCE OF SARTRE

When it comes to a deeper examination of the motivations of the central characters, Breathless is heavily influenced by the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. His concepts of the priority of the individual versus society, the absurdity of life, Michel’s view of death as an everyday event, the impossibility of love, and the idea of “bad faith” are all found in the film. Michel is defined through his actions, not his thoughts. In fact, he barely thinks of anything outside his own immediate existence. He lives for the moment. Patricia, on the other hand, lives according to her dreams and thoughts. She lives an inner life, expressed by her attachment to art, music, and romantic versions of love. For instance, during the scene in her hotel room she poses next to a Renoir poster of a young girl and asks Michel if he thinks she’s prettier than the girl. Michel, for his part, tellingly sits beneath a Picasso poster of a man holding a mask. She thinks of tomorrow while he thinks only of today. When Patricia reads him William Faulkner’s conclusion to The Wild Palms, “between grief and nothingness, I choose grief,” Michel’s rebuttal is “Grief is a compromise. I’d choose nothingness. You’ve got to have all or nothing.”


But Michel himself is a flawed “hero,” for he lives in bad faith. For Sartre, bad faith (mauvaise foi) is a condition where an individual, under pressure from society, adopts false values and rejects his or her innate freedom to act authentically. Michel’s bad faith is expressed by his desire to be Humphrey Bogart. He’s not just a punk; he sees himself as an uber-criminal, a man totally outside the law and society, as Bogart’s characters were. When he walks by a cinema showing Bogart in The Harder They Fall, Michel takes a moment to admire Bogart’s face on the poster. Tellingly he swipes his thumb across his lip, uttering only one word, “Bogie.” He had earlier stopped to admire a poster for Robert Aldrich’s film, Ten Seconds to Hell, featuring the tag line, “Live dangerously till the end,” which brings a knowing smile to his face.  He wants to be as tough as Bogart in the films he loves. He practices facial expressions in the mirror, wears a fedora, aviator-style sunglasses, runs his thumb across his lips in a constant gesture, and is never -- ever -- seen without a cigarette, removing one only to insert another. But as Godard shows, the fedora, and even the cigarette seem too big for Michel’s face. Underneath his persona, he is frightened. Even his killing of the policeman was driven by the panic of the moment, not a cool, controlled action. Michel uses this persona to hide his desperation. Note his increasing panic at finding the associates who owe him money. When he takes his newly stolen car to a shady dealer, only to discover the dealer ripping him off, he slaps the dealer around a little, grabbing enough money for a taxi, but leaving the car.

And what of Patricia? She is Michel’s opposite, but she is also wallowing in bad faith. We can read Michel right away, for he wears his persona on his sleeve, but Patricia is hollow and inscrutable, an enigma. And she is Michel’s Achilles heel. When we see him first encounter her as she sells copies of the Herald-Tribune on the streets, he tells her, “It’s crazy, but I love you.”  She walks with an arched back, rebuffing Michel’s attempts to move in. Michel may be attempting to emulate the thuggish persona of Bogart, but it is Patricia who has the upper hand in their relationship. When he teasingly asks why she doesn’t wear a bra, she coldly retorts, “That’s no way to talk.” His only response is to issue a meek apology.

The manner in which Patricia detaches herself from the immediate world is also telling. She briefly ponders whether she might be pregnant by Michel, but then thinks no more about it. The more he reveals himself to her, the more her detachment grows. She learns some shocking facts: that he’s a cop killer, that he is married (though he says it ended long ago), and that he uses more than one name (aka Laszlo Kovacs). But her gamin face betrays not the slightest notion of what she is thinking. In his attempt to establish control in their relationship Michel tells her about a story he’d read in a newspaper: a bus conductor had stolen five million francs to seduce a girl. After going through the money in three days the conductor reveals to the woman that it’s stolen money; he may be a hood, but he likes her. The real point of the story is that she stuck by him, standing lookout as they were caught trying to rob fancy villas. Later, as he drives her to an interview in another car she asks what happened to the Ford. “It’s in the garage,” he answers. She never stops to question his answer, but rides along quietly. At the same time she benefits from their relationship by riding around in the expensive cars Michel swipes and dining at fine restaurants, which confirms her image as an up and coming journalist. That image, however, is confined to her inner life.

As she ascends the escalator to her meeting with a journalist who was doing favors for her in return for sex, she tells him that she doesn’t know if she’s unhappy because she’s not free, or if she’s not free because she’s unhappy. As they leave, he puts his arm around her and she yields to him. Michel spies the two of them kissing in his sports car. He has done what Michel has not been able to do - get her to submit to him.

Sartre’s theme of the impossibility of real love comes to the fore during their romp in Patricia’s bedroom. For Sartre, loving relationships are doomed to failure because they are stuck in a subject-object scheme: I cannot love the other without losing my freedom or denying the freedom of my loved one. Godard’s dialogue in the bedroom scene emphasizes the deception and stratagems both employ to enslave the other in the battle for domination. “I’ll stare at you until you stop staring at me,” Patricia says. “Me, too,” he replies. When Patricia takes a rolled up poster and frames Michel’s face, he looks totally smitten by love, totally betraying his tough guy persona, thus reversing the roles. When Michel drops his façade and admits to her in all sincerity that he wants her to stay with him, he exposes his vulnerability, enabling her to gain the upper hand. He now becomes the naïve one and she becomes the schemer. In the long bedroom scene, the two of them talk, joke, argue and fool with each other, but totally fail to understand each other. There is no coming together of lovers as one.

Patricia’s hollowness, though, is never more clearly shown than during the press conference she attends at Orly Airport. Holding the conference is the writer, Mr. Parvulesco (Melville), who speaks in terse banalities. Asked about the difference between French and American women, he answers, “French women are totally unlike American women. The American woman dominates the man. The French woman doesn’t dominate him yet.” Patricia now realizes that no matter how thuggish Michel desires to appear, he falls within Parvulesco’s framing of men.

Patricia then asks if women have a role to play in modern society, to which Parvulesco responds, “Yes, if they’re charming and wear striped dresses and dark glasses,” a reference to her appearance, which draws a slight smile. Another journalist asks him how many men can a woman love in a lifetime. “Physically, I mean.” Parvulesco begins counting on his fingers, adding large numbers. More than that,” he continues “two things matter in life.  For men, it’s women, and for women, money.” Patricia’s only response is to smile broadly. When she asks Parvulesco about his greatest ambition, he answers, “To become immortal, and then die.” She pulls the sunglasses from her face, places the arm into her mouth, and in a gesture of contemplation, she gazes into the viewer’s eyes. Parvulesco has just exposed her real intentions. And thus lies the absolute distance between Michel and Patricia: Michel thinks a lot about death, while Patricia thinks of life. Michel’s significance in life might be women, but Patricia’s is not just money, but immortality, life, and that immortality does not include being subject to Michel’s scheme.  

Their gulf grows during a cab ride with Michel. His anxiety about getting his money is emphasized by Godard’s frequent jump cuts. He blames Patricia for the fact he hasn’t yet received his money; he makes belligerent remarks to the driver, and becomes frustrated with Patricia’s desire to be a writer. Patricia’s response to his inquiry about her being a writer is that her intention is “to have money and not rely on men.”


When detectives track Patricia down at the offices of the New York Herald-Tribune, one shows her the cover of the newspaper with Michel’s face in full display. She initially denies knowing him, but when the detective persists and threatens her with passport trouble if she didn’t cooperate, she admits she knows him, using an excuse that the picture was old. The detective gives her his number to call when she sees him again. As she leaves the office she tips off Michel, who is waiting across the street. A detective is tailing her but she loses him by ducking into a cinema.

When they meet up shortly afterward, her doubts about the innocence of their relationship begin to surface. “And killing a policeman?” “I was scared,” Michel replies. She asks, “How did they know I knew you?” “Someone must’ve seen us together and informed on us,” “That’s horrible, informing on people,” she replies. Her face, though, betrays her thoughts; we can see her weighing the advantages and disadvantages of calling the police.

It is when they find Antonio, who owes Michel money that their relationship begins to seriously unravel. He sends them to stay at a photography studio. Patricia’s doubts about Michel begin to become manifest itself early that evening, as she tells Michel that she dumped the journalist because she had to make sure she didn’t love him first. She then asks Michel if he wants to go to bed. “Sleeping’s so sad. We have to separ…” Michel fills in the last syllable, and she reiterates the word “separate,” continuing, “You say ‘sleep together,’ but you don’t.” When Patricia looks into the camera again, her mind is made up. Michel is doomed.

The next morning he sends her to buy the France-soir newspaper for the latest details about the search. She stops into a café and reaches into her purse, pulling out the detective’s number. She ponders for a few seconds, then calls Inspector Vital and reveals Michel’s location. Returning from the café, she tells Michel she can’t go to Italy with him. She also tells him that she has informed the police as to his whereabouts: “Michel, I called the police. I said you were here. I don’t want to be in love with you.” Michel replies that, “You’re like the girl who sleeps with everyone except the one man who loves her, saying it’s because she sleeps with everyone.” With that exchange the roles have become fully reversed. It is Michel who now is unsure; Patricia has taken cool façade from him, disposing of Michel after concluding that he no longer fits within her objectives. How could she achieve her dreams of immortality by maintaining a low profile or escaping to Italy? It no longer suits her -- she has chosen money and potential immortality over Michel’s proclamations of love.

Leaving the photography studio, Michel is like a zombie. All the air has been removed from his sails. Antonio pulls up in a car and hands Michel his money. “I’m tired,” says Michel. “I want to sleep. I shouldn’t be thinking of her but I can’t help it.” Another car also stops. It’s the police, who exit the car brandishing pistols. Antonio offers Michel a pistol, but Michel refuses it. Antonio drives off, throwing the pistol at Michel’s feet. The police open fire and hit Michel in the back. He stumbles trying to escape before collapsing. The men approach, along with Patricia. Michel’s mouth opens high, expands wide, and he purses his lips looking at Patricia. As they stand over him, and life escapes from his body, he looks at Patricia and mutters softly, “C’est vraiment dégueulasse” (It’s disgusting). As he dies, Patricia turns to the policeman, asking what he said. The answer: “Il a dit: ‘Vous êtes vraiment une dégueulasse’” (He said: “You are a disgusting person”). She now stares directly into the camera and traces her lips with her thumb in the way Michel has done in imitation of Bogart. The final words of the film are now uttered by Patricia: “Qu’est que c’est: dégueulasse?” (What does that mean, dégueulasse?That she fails to even understand his dying words sums up the flawed nature of their relationship. It doesn’t matter, though, for by her final gesture she reveals that she has become Michel.  

GODARD AND SARTRE

Besides the influence of Sartre in the film’s plot, Godard also reflects Sartre’s theory of aesthetics. In fact, it might be said that he is a child of Sartre inasmuch as when Godard was reaching intellectual maturity, it as Sartre who dominated the French literary and artistic scene. For Sartre, authentic art comes from artists who extend the sacred tradition only when they forget that tradition and forge a new art for the present age with contemporary tools of expression. Each and every true thought must be reinvented; if not, it will wither and die on the library shelf.

Godard applies Sartre’s views by stating that cinema is the medium where “reticence, as it were, is unable to hide its secrets; the most religious of arts, it values man above the essence of things and reveals the soul within the body.” (Godard on Godard, p. 80)

For Sartre, it was not the realism of film, or its social and political importance, that was central; it was the energy and the illusions film creates. Like many French filmmakers of his time, Sartre was influenced by surrealism, the everyday, and the accidental transformed into the magical. Film’s rhythm, harmony, integration of motifs, and its ability to produce different themes simultaneously made for a unique attraction, especially as it affects our consciousness. Sartre’s contemporary and companion, Simone de Beauvoir, in her volume of memoirs, The Prime of Life, credited cinema with shaping much of Sartre’s mature philosophy, especially for his view of the absurdity inherent in the world’s condition.

Like the New Wave, Sartre embraced American films because of their difference from the French films. This difference sprang from an entirely new set of assumptions and perceptions of what the cinema could be, perceptions that went beyond the cinema to the way life might be led. As with the surrealists, it was a celebration of the improper, the asocial, the despised, and the disrespectful; it was unconventional, not in accordance with what art is or “should” be. Sartre’s contemporary, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, valued film because in the cinema, we are constantly immersed in a world. This is what Godard means when he states that cinema reveals the soul within the body. There are no secrets in cinema; everything is on display.


Godard takes these dictums and pushes them to the limit. Of all the directors in the New Wave, he is the most “American.” It might be said that his early films are the cousins to American pop culture, and of the New Wave directors, he had the most immediate impact on American pop culture. We see one American pop reference right at the beginning, when Godard dedicates the film to Monogram Pictures. Truffaut had wanted to use a quotation from Stendhal (“We are going to speak of dreadful things”) as the opening citation. Breathless is perhaps the most self-conscious film in terms of its display of American consumer items, especially automobiles, and iconography, seen on the scene where Michel admires the poster of Bogart, and the jazz score. 

BETWEEN THE LINES

Breathless is also filled with references to art, literature, and cinema in general. Painters Renoir, Picasso and Klee are referenced, as well as writers Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Louis Aragon, and Dashiell Hammett. (The scene where a character criticizes Michel for wearing silk socks with a tweed jacket is lifted from Hammett’s novel, The Glass Key.) And there are references to American director and their movies: When Patricia rolls up the Renoir poster and looks at Michel through it is a homage to Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns, which uses a shot through a barrel of a gun that cuts to a couple kissing. Later, when Patrica is trying to shake the police tail, she ducks into a cinema playing the film, Whirlpool, directed by Otto Preminger. There’s also a reference to Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, as well as Richard Quine’s Pushover. Joseph H. Lewis, who directed the 1949 Gun Crazy, is referenced in the scene where Michel tells Patricia the anecdote about the bus conductor and the scene is the taxi. And at the end, Patricia’s “What does that mean, dégueulasse?” echoes Ida Lupino’s blank stare at Bogart’s dead body and asking what it means “to crash out” in Raoul Walsh’s 1940 classic, High SierraThe references to so many film noirs is interesting in light of what Godard is trying to do: make a film noir that breaks down the form of a film noir. This is an explicit homage to Sartre’s theory that the artist must forge new ideas from traditional ones.

Despite the fact that Godard was trying to make a film noir, what he actually came up with was more of a noir comedy. Unlike other noirs, Breathess feels unreal -- it is self-conscious, which will dictate the movie’s style. This self-consciousness is best seen in the films many inside jokes. For instance, when Michel (who, besides the real life Michel Portail, is based on womanizing screenwriter Paul Gegauff) goes to see the gangster Tolmatchoff (Balducci) at his travel agency for the money he is owed, they discuss Bob Montagne (the lead character of Melville’s 1955 noir, Bob le flambeuror Bob the Gambler), and it’s mentioned that Bob is now in jail. When Tolmatchoff gives Michel a check he won’t cash, Michel notes, “Bob the gambler would have cashed my check.” The police later visit Tolmatchoff to hustle him for information. Other noirs would stage this scene in a dive bar, or at a place like the docks, but for Godard, it’s the cue for another inside joke. He stages it at Tolmatchoff’s travel agency, where the gangster is leaning lazily against a counter, playing with a model airplane. There he gets the spiel to turn in Michel. The cops tell him it shouldn’t be difficult to rat Michel out; after all, he had done the same thing earlier to Bob Montagne.

Another reference occurs when Patricia learns Michel also uses the alias of Laszlo Kovacs. Some have mistakenly concluded that Godard was referring to the renowned Hungarian-American cinematographer, but the truth of the matter was that Godard had not met Kovacs. The name, “Laszlo Kovacs,” was the name of Belmondo’s character in Chabrol’s 1959 film, A Double Tour. And even Godard’s former place of employment was not exempt: while Patricia is selling copies of the Herald-Tribune, a young woman appears, selling copies of Cahiers du Cinema.

This feeling of the absurd, the unreal, was the result of the process of production. Godard wrote the script form his accumulated notes as he went along, and though the locations were planned ahead, what occurred within them was not. The very process he used to shoot the movie, filming it verite in the style of a documentary with light equipment and almost no crew, is the very thing that gives it such an absurd and surreal feeling. Noirs by such directors as Hawks and Lang (both of whom Godard admired greatly) took a tightly scripted and processed story, to which they added the human element. Godard begins with the human element: the spontaneity, rhythm, and everydayness, which he stylized through the use of jump cuts and other editing tricks. To this he then adds the plot, such as it is. Thus, the gangster story we come to expect is turned into a film about two lovers in contemporary Paris. The middle section of the film, where Michel and Patricia fool around, talk, and do things that any ordinary pair of lovers might do, with the only accompaniment being a recording and the cacophonous street noise of everyday Paris, is striking in its very lack of action.


Given its beginning, with Michel stealing a car and later killing a motorcycle cop, we form the expectation of a grimy noir, set in the seedier parts of Paris, as Melville gave us in Bob le flambeur, or Jules Dassin in Rififi. What we get instead is a commonplace Paris, a Paris of wide boulevards, cafes, offices, and nice hotels. Yet, it’s the conflict between the characters and the setting that sharpens the film and sets it apart from its predecessors, whether in France or Hollywood. Even Michel’s death and the events leading up to it is shot in a low-key manner. We can’t imagine Hawks, Huston, Walsh, Dassin, or Lang being so laid back in the scene where Patricia tells Michel that she has just dimed him out. In fact, the gangster plot at times seems like an unnecessary intrusion into Godard’s panorama of the contemporary Paris of his day, for what sticks with us long after the move ends are the images of the flow of everyday Paris life; not the gangster doings, which often seem like an afterthought. In subsequent films such as A Woman is a WomanVivre Sa VieBand of Outsiders, and Two or Three Things I Know About Her . . ., the city of Paris itself is as much as character as the actors in the plot.

Breathless was an immediate hit, both with the public (it returned a profit of more than 50 times its cost) and the critics. Even before its release it won the annual Jean Vigo Prize (January 1960), given to films made with an independent spirit. The film was remade in 1983 with Richard Gere, who showed that he had none of the star power of Belmondo.

Over the years both the film and its director’s style have influenced a generation of young filmmakers. Directors such as Richard Lester, Seijun Suzuki, John Woo, and Ringo Lam were influenced both by the movie and the director. In the U.S. today, Godard’s most ardent disciple is Quentin Tarantino, who even named his production company, A Band Apart, after the title of a Godard film. In fact, we may well say that, if not for Godard, Tarantino might not exist, at least not in his present form.

Godard himself, who reportedly was never happy with his finished product, claimed that his 1975 film, Numero deux, was a remake of Breathless. However, be that as it may, more than 50 years later, Breathless still has the power to mesmerize and influence a new generation of filmgoers.