Monday, September 15, 2008

Night and Fog
Alain Resnais
B&W and color, 31 minutes, 1955

A great shadow-line falls across the 20th century that effects as well as implicates all human activities and strategies that came before it. Activities include Art, both high art and low, including the relatively young arts of photography and cinema. The shadow is the Second World War and the Holocaust.

We are more aware of a social and political uneasiness in a work of art such as Shakespeare’s ‘A Merchant of Venice’ and its elements of anti-Semitism than previous eras of human history. Anyone who engages with Art (or Science, Politics, and other fields) feels, even if the intellect manages to avoid, the difficulty of that play.

The brilliance of Shakespeare’s language as well as some important lines spoken by Shylock about his treatment and condition as a Jew in an anti-Semitic environment cannot contrast, compare, or overcome the horrific issues brought to light by the Holocaust. With the emergence of Modernism as an aesthetic school, all texts (as all artwork like music and painting can be viewed as ‘texts’ in extreme definitions of postmodernism and other aesthetic schools) are subjected to analysis using every other cultural elements in our history. Shakespeare’s play is not less problematic for having been written before the Holocaust.

The short film “Night and Fog,” directed by Alain Resnais, uses the Art of cinema as a means of indicting the Nazis and all of those who cooperated with the corporatocracy that is a distinguishing feature of the Holocaust.

Resnais’s film is a documentary that mixes both color and black and white, still photographs and moving pictures, images and words. The narrator is Jean Cayrol, who was deported to Mauthausen and wrote a book called “Poems de la Nuit et du brouillard”—Poems of Night and Fog, from which Resnais takes the title of his documentary. He brings a gravitas, authority, and a difficult beauty to the narrative of the film.

The film is unafraid to mix the beautiful (landscapes and luminescent black and white scenic photography) with the brutal (images of the concentration camps’ prisoners and their abandoned belongings). Color is not used simplistically as a scheme to simplify whether an image is “bad,” “good” or even “neutral.” The mixture of color film and black and white, the ‘old’ versus a potentially comfortingly—because distant—modern and removed sense of the ‘new.’
There are no simplistic approaches to this short film and Resnais is firmly in control of his medium to keep our focus on his film’s subject. Interestingly, Chris Marker, the creator of La Jetee, the next film I will review, was part of Resnais’ team, utilizing his strengths in handling still images—providing movement into and between stills that mimics motion so well that the viewer is taken into the film as a motion picture.

Resnais makes his material move, focusing deeply into a still photograph of women prisoners’ hair cut away by the Nazis, resizing and reframing images, cutting from the past to the present, all of it guided by the voice of Cayrol.

The French New Wave emerged after the Second World War and, as I have noted in Truffaut’s short “Les Mistons,” there is something problematic that needs to be addressed in all art after the Holocaust.

The French New Wave impetus is partly due to the horrors of mid-century history, but also the continuing innovations, inventions (such as, color film, faster film stock) and the gradual return of prosperity. Having passed through the fires of war and horror, it would have been tempting to create a more sumptuous and beautiful art; but Resnais’ “Night and Fog” makes it explicit that the New Wave directors weren’t interested in any such easy returns to an idyllic sensibility, or to try and forget the lessons—emblemized by Cayrol’s dirge-like narration—that war and horror and the so-called blessings of modernity.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

First Film in Series

Les Mistons
Francois Truffaut
B&W, 17 minutes, 1957

Light and dark, memory and experience, movement and stillness; all of these dualities exist within the framework of Francois Truffaut’s “Les Mistons” (trans., The Brats). From the opening scene Truffaut uses his across, his camera, and the natural setting where he is filming to create a delightful picture of a young woman bicycling through towns and countrysides of post-World War II France. But as delightful as the visuals may be there is a more complex relationship between the elements of Truffaut’s film that is hidden, as the saying goes, in plain sight.

Light and dark mingle in a luminous cinematographic dance. The narrator says, “Bernadette led us to discover many of our darkly hidden dreams.” Later, he also tells us that, “She awoke in us the springs of luminous sensuality.” Light and dark appear in the shadows of the film’s setting but also in the dark foregrounding—where the watching brats are often shown, staring at Bernadette—and in the language of emotions that the narrator provides to us, complicated Truffaut’s otherwise simple coming-of-age-type story and the apparently simple, luscious way he films everything on which he focuses his camera.

The basic components of this short film are an older man providing off-screen narration on the specific events that we see, providing a story, a comprehensible narrative with beginnings and middles and ends. The characters in the film are few: Bernadette Jouve, sister of one of the brats, who is the center of the film; Gerard is a young man who dates, goes steady, and proposes marriage in the short vignettes he shares with Bernadette; finally there are the five brats, young boys who are on the cusp of puberty and who find their fascination with Bernadette both pleasant and bewilderingly intolerable.

Truffaut is a director who loves people. His films throughout his career—even those where he acts and plays no part in direction (for example, Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”)—are humanistic, warm and full of understanding and compassion for even the most transgressive of behaviors. In “Les Mistons” Truffaut confronts the sometimes charming, sometimes mean behavior of the brats as they relate to Bernadette.

The brats follow Bernadette one summer; an unspecified year but clearly after World War II that only enters this short film in the playing soldiers scene of the brats, who pretend to shoot and capture each other using their hands and fingers and voices as ferocious pistols and machine guns. I think Truffaut’s method of handling an event so cataclysmic is very fine and gentle, calming the original audience that could be overwhelmed with the anxieties of war, occupation, mass murder, and especially French collaboration. Death loses its harshness as the boys fall under a hail of imaginary bullets but by Truffaut’s film alone—using a blatant camera trick—one of the brats is raised from the dead by reversing the normal film motion.

Although war is acknowledged but contained within Truffaut’s direction, the central problem of this movie is Bernadette. The camera lens, like the brats and, from a distance in time, the voice of the narrator, all watch Bernadette. The act of watching this beautiful young woman may not have been any more problematic to Truffaut’s time than the theme he develops in the film between the brats, the boyfriend, and the narrator—all of whom are more or less in love with this youthful Bernadette—seen from a time when modern feminism has entered cultural criticism, Bernadette is viewed as an object within “Les Mistons.”

Bernadette’s treatment in the film is through multiple layers of male voyeurism: the older, off-screen, unidentified male narrator—one of the brats as an adult presumably; the brats; Bernadette’s boyfriend, Gerard; and, of course, the audience, the viewer of “Les Mistons.” The following are just a few examples within the film where Bernadette’s humanity, her feminist identity if you will, is contravened by the way Truffaut presents the story.
  • Bernadette is the center of stillness in the opening scenes where she travels from the city to a place where she can swim. She remains still, almost unmoving, as the background races past her. She is like a living postcard of a beautiful French day, alone in the sunshine, a beautiful French girl upon whom we are privileged to stare.
  • When Bernadette parks her bicycle and goes off-camera to swim, the brats do not follow her down to the water where they might get a view of Bernadette’s naked flesh—it remains ambiguous whether Bernadette is skinny-dipping or wearing some bathing suit that is small enough to satisfy the French film censors but also curious male eyes. The central shot is of a boy who lowers his face to smell and kiss the bicycle seat where Bernadette’s flesh made contact with her machine. The other brats don’t seem to know what to do with the bicycle and are shown, just before Bernadette’s return, doing incomprehensible acts of evaluation and investigation. Bernadette is clearly an object, not a complete person, in this scene and throughout the rest of the movie. She could even be a fetish—something far removed from actuality that magically represents and satisfies the fetishist’s desire for the original—when the brat kisses the bicycle seat instead of Bernadette herself. “Virginal heartbeat has its own juvenile logic,” the narrator explains, using his pre-feminist thinking.
  • Bernadette is an altogether fantasy figure in the tennis court scene where one of the brats, even though the narrator claims they came to harass her and Gerard, treats Bernadette like a fantasy queen when he retrieves her errant tennis balls. Even Bernadette’s body posture betrays her own stiffness and discomfort at the awkwardness of this moment.

The rest of this short film continues developing these main themes and techniques.

Gerard is ‘authorized’ to speak and express his feelings and he both chastises the brats and woos Bernadette, telling her in a melody of the wedding theme that he wishes to marry Bernadette when he returns from a mountaineering trip.

The brats write a “scurrilous” postcard that mocks the “virginal heartbeat” of their infatuation by writing expressly sexual messages that they mail to Bernadette. And they are ‘punished’ for this transgression by learning the news that Gerard has died in a mountain climbing accident. Typical of this Truffaut short, the brats and the audience learn of Gerard’s death through cuts to still pictures of newspaper coverage of the accident—all of us are spared a direct experience of true worldly tragedy via Truffaut’s technique of editing and montage, the distance of the off-camera narrator (who represents not only a maturity in this important episode in the brats’ lives but acts as the distancing of Time, the Past).

As the film comes to its conclusion, Truffaut’s camera still moves through the French city and landscape but the motion is much slower, more dark tones than light; even the season has changed from a sensual hot summer to the cool of autumnal October.

Our last view of the characters is that of the film’s central character, Bernadette. She is walking slowly as the camera moves back to maintain the relationship of her quiet, authoritative, either goddess-like or fetishistic presence in the film with the light/dark/energy/dying of her surroundings. The world moves but is transformed into something of instinctual, sexual, sensual importance because of Bernadette’s presence.

The film ends in an unspoken commentary on the fashion sense, perhaps the youth and immaturity that is in Bernadette but remains unspoken by the film and its various active players. Bernadette’s white, light, loose, flying open-bellied shirts and skirts, and also her almost trademark white knit cap is transformed into the dark tones, close-fitting and sober skirt and top. Whether consciously or not, Bernadette still clings to one aspect of her sensual uniform as the film’s center: her trademark white knit cap has turned shades darker but still remains jauntily covering her hair.

Truffaut, I think, loves his characters (and people, in general) so much that he protects us from real harm throughout “Les Mistons” and could be tamping down Bernadette’s grief over Gerard’s death, the death of her love if not her lover, by clinging to her ‘uniform’ even as the camera pans up over her head and the word “Fin”—The End—takes us away, back to our own world, our own childhoods, our own Bernadettes or Gerards, our own “virginal heartbeat” and its inevitable clash with knowledge and the World.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Welcome to the SeeinCinema blog where the French New Wave in cinema is our topic. Posts coming soon.