Saturday, September 6, 2008

Film Ignorance #16: Masculin/Feminin


Film: Masculin/Feminin
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Stars: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Chantal Goya, various French people I've never heard of, and Brigitte Bardot for about two seconds
Year: 1966
Reason for Ignorance: Thought it was Truffaut

Ignorance Rating: 28 (7 votes)

Jean-Luc Godard viewed himself as more than a filmmaker; he believed he embodied the figure of the poet, the novelist, the painter, and perhaps above all the existential-political philosopher in the tradition of Sartre. You can instantly tell all of these things from his endless references to philosophy, to poetry, to painting. You can also tell, in Masculin/Feminin, when one of the title cards proclaims that the filmmaker and the philosopher have the same role.

Masculin/Feminin is more or less plotless. We see aimless Paul and his rising pop-singer girlfriend Madeline (played by 60s French pop star Chantal Goya) listlessly go through the motions of a relationship, surrounded by a few of Paul's friends and a seemingly endless series of incredibly pretty ex-coworkers of Madeline's. We watch these stylishly dressed hipsters go to bars, go to cafes, go to the cinema, ride the train, and do other, everyday stuff - and it's all, frankly, enrapturing. Because in addition to the pure and simple pleasure we get from watching these beautiful people in a beautiful city, we get to hear them talk.

Paul, Madeline, and their friends talk about everything. The "Masculin" side of the equation seems to be most interested in politics - Paul and his revolutionary friend bemoan de Gaulle, the Vietnamese War, the sad lack of interest in revolutionary politics. The "Feminins" make it quite clear that they don't care about politics, are squeamish about birth control, and prefer fashion and beauty above all things. This doesn't make them look particularly bad; Paul, after all, confronts the projectionist of a theater, passionately ordering him to stop showing a movie in 1.85 aspect ratio because it was decided that anything above 1.75 is excessive, and Godard points out several times that you can't spell "Masculin" without "Cul," which means "ass."

Speaking of: In his typically abrasive style, Godard points many things out to us in title-card asides and pronouncements. The most important one: this movie is about the children of Marx and Coca-Cola. It's about an exciting and turbulent time that was about to give birth to mass protests in both American and France; more to the point, it's about the collision of political values and cultural style, playing across the lives of a bunch of uncertain young people. Along the way, Godard makes his political and philosophical points - a man stabs himself for no reason, another sets himself on fire in a Vietnam protest - but if the film certainly is didactic, it never feels didactic. It feels, instead, like exactly what it is: overwhelmingly natural and free-form, flowing from scene to scene and conversation to conversation with no goal except the capturing of this fragmented moment in the city of Paris.

In the trailer for Masculin/Feminin, Godard tells us: "Minors under the age of 18 not admitted...because it is about them." It seems to me that, to this day, it's about us. If you haven't seen Masculin/Feminin, but you've ever watched a Wes Anderson movie, or read some Sartre or Camus, or tried to look European while smoking a cigarette, or worn a fashionable trenchcoat, I recommend you see it. It's a film about the hipsters of 40 years ago - and they look and talk exactly like the hipsters of 2008. Except, you know, in French.

7 comments:

MovieMan0283 said...

Graham,

This might be my favorite movie of all time. I'd take slight issue with, "It seems to me that, to this day, it's about us."

There's a vital difference between Godard and Anderson in this regard - Masculin/Feminin is immediate, enraptured by a complex relationship between the heightened imaginary realm inhabited by its protagonists and the real world they bump up against so frequently. Today, hipsters and hipster products are all about isolating yourself in your bubble - they're children of Coca-Cola all right, but certainly not Marx, whatever their ostensible politics.

Current hip culture completely misses that potent friction with reality; in cinema, this is not just in terms of subject matter but even more so in terms of style. That was really Godard (through an earpiece Leaud was wearing) interviewing those people in the movie - their responses were not scripted. And his lightning montage, philosophical discourse, and spontaneity of reference and approach is impossible to imagine today. The juxtaposition of documentary/fiction, interrogation of reality/self-conscious pastiche, didacticism/improvisation, art/life, Marx/Coca-Cola, masculine/feminine provides one of the lifebloods of great art: a tension and friction which sets off the sparks which make the movie great.

Today pop culture is too overpowering, intellectual culture too remote, and hip culture too limpid to reflect the world of Masculin Feminin. The fragile balance is off, but it's there in Godard's work which makes him as much a classicist as a postmodernist. He, to me, represents the height of modernist cinema, free-form but with a purpose, a centre, a focus. That's what's missing today, and why we've lapsed into an artistically underwhelming period.

darkcitydame4e said...

Hi! Graham,
A very detailed and very interesting review of the film "Masculin/Feminin" by you...Therefore, I will probably seek the film out!...in order to add it to my "ever-so-slowly" growing French film(s) collection...Btw, I voted "no" in your poll, because I have never watch or even heard of this film before.
But if it's out there on the "market" I will probably throw it in my cart!...
Thanks,

Graham said...

Movieman,

As always, you prove that you're a gifted writer, a deep thinker, and smoeone pretty far away from me in terms of philosophy. I kept meaning to respond to this post, but I never quite wrapped my head around a response. So now I'm winging it. Maybe you'll never read this...

First, let me clarify: when I noted that it was about "us," I didn't mean that we were really occupying the same political and cultural space as these characters. I more meant that the hipster culture that Godard is representing here has become the defining hipster culture for 21st century Americans. It's about us because, in a massive variety of ways, we're really copying them. This, you might say, is postmodern.

I agree with you about the "bubble" aspect of today's culture, but not the Coca-Cola part. I don't think today's hipsters are children of Marx or Coca-Cola. Both of those things are all-encompassing systems; Marx has a vulgar reading of history, and Coca-Cola has a vulgar attempt to sell the same product to everyone. Today's hipsters are much more diverse and diffuse, but I think they're equally in the grips of both capitalism and counter-cultural politics. But both of those entities have fractured in the intervening decades.

Finally, as I always do, I must take exception to your statement that we live in an artistically underwhelming period. I've studied every decade of cinema, and though I enjoy some over others (30s, 50s, 70s) I've never found an underwhelming one. And that goes for the 21st century.

Sure, we don't have the French New Wave. But neither did the 60s have the Coen brothers. And please, don't ask me to choose between Godard and the Coens. I couldn't.

MovieMan0283 said...

Graham, thanks for the response - don't worry about taking time, I always get the e-mail updates...

Firstly I have to show respect for the fact that you speak without scorn of today's "hipster culture." "Hipster" has become such an epithet these days, but given that the people who must rant about hipsters look a lot like hipsters themselves, I have trouble taking it too seriously. (When Adbusters runs a cover knocking hipsters which is itself soaked in hipster irony and grandiose overstatement, the joke may have circled in on itself). Besides - weren't Bob Dylan and Lou Reed and the Beats and even Miles Davis hipsters? I mean, the term had a long history before it came to refer exclusively to long-haired, ripped-jean, Palestinian scarf-wearing, indie rock-listening, PBR-drinking...well you get the idea. But I digress.

I definitely agree that today's hip culture emulates the sensibility of Godard and France circa '68. But I really, really don't see the political engagement there. Not that they should be holding signs, scrawling slogans, or trying to "recreate '68" (in the words of a recent, woeful demonstration). But, really, hipsters seem far more interested in pop culture than politics...an interest which is pretty reflective of the culture as a whole, of course. At least this is what I've seen.

As for the Coens vs. Godard, we of course should never have to choose between any great artists! (For my money, though, their masterpiece came a decade ago...I speak of Lebowski, not Fargo...) I think there are great films in today's cinema, of course, though I have to be honest in saying that most of them just don't strike me the way older works do. Mulholland Drive and Lost in Translation are the only 2 American films this decade which I'm comfortable placing with the masterpieces of the past (but there's a lot I still haven't seen).

I do really think that there are less pinnacles - in American cinema at least - than in any decade since the 80s. But film culture as a whole seems to have grown stronger in the past 10 years, what with DVD (especially the Criterion Collection) and the Internet (bringing us Netflix and a new film discourse with the blogosphere). So, glass half full, I guess.

As for Coca-Cola you may be right, but I was just using it as shorthand for the consumer culture. Said culture has transformed over time, to be sure, and become more diffuse - but it's still with us, perhaps more than ever.

Graham said...

In regards to hipsters, thanks for understanding what I mean. Obviously, the hipster caricature is all too easy to bash, but it's obvious that the word applies perfectly to all the radiohead listening, wes anderson loving, craft beer drinking 20 something not wearing ripped jeans and drinking PBR. And it sounds like we agree that hipster culture lifted a great deal from the culture Godard was documenting here. In many ways, those French inspirational figures were inspired by the American beats and hepcats of a generation before, many of whom you mentioned.

I do think our current hipsters are surprisingly politically engaged. The young people of the 60s, both French and American, represented a level of engagement never before seen. So we don't match their standard. But I know lots of hipsters who try to organize teach-ins, protests, etc. The difference I see is, in the 60s the main body of students were with them. Now they're alone.

As to the lack of superior films, well, that's just something we can disagree on. But I'm a firm believer that you can find a more or less infinite number of masterpieces in any decade, as long as you're willing to look everywhere. And by infinite, I mean more than you can see in your lifetime (every week that goes bye some film that I've never heard of and haven't had a chance to see is anointed as a masterpiece by Andrew O'Heir, etc).

I do want to push the Coca-Cola point, because that's where I think I've really got something. I understand that you and Godard are both using Coca-Cola as short hand for American capitalism. And I'm not arguing that today's capitalism is better than that of the 60s (although I actually believe it is, in a lot of ways). But in the 60s, it seemed to both the hipsters and Godard that there was a unified front of global American capitalism, and a unified political response to it, and that interaction created the tension in this film. But in a world in which every hipster values their local beer and their local coffee shop, and has their own pet political problem and solution, I think we've left Marx and Coca-cola behind, but I'm fascinated by that.

Many people would argue that capitalism just became more sophisticated by ditching a one size fits all philosophy and replacing Coca-Cola with local breweries, and that revolution has been rendered impossible by the balkanizing of the issues. I'm usually convinced by the latter, but I believe the cultural options available to us really matter; there's TV on that I like to watch, which only happened because HBO was willing to go looking for a hipster audience. I'm all for that.

Hmm. I don't think that made much sense. Do with it what you will.

MovieMan0283 said...

No, actually this conversation gets more compelling by the moment! I think you raise some good points. I personally find the balkanization you speak of somewhat disconcerting. Well, I should clarify. I love the fact that options have increased, that there's more room for people to move about to their own tune. But I guess I don't want to see the long tail phenom. totally outstrip the high end. In other words, along with all the little, personalized options I would love to see more unified, broader-based things that tie everyone together.

Getting a little vague, I guess, and moving away from the subject, but we've opened up some interesting cans of worms here. I suppose one area we could say we differ is that you see postmodernism (if that's the right term for all the diffusion and self-definition) as pretty much an entirely good thing, whereas I'm more ambivalent. I see the good parts but also the potential for everyone to get lost in their bubble which is pretty much what has happened.

One good thing about Obama, whatever your politics, is that he has offered up something cross-cultural, a phenomenon that everybody feels tied into, for good or ill. Again, putting aside politics, just from a cultural angle, it will be interesting to see where the next decade goes if he is elected. Part of the problem with hip culture today is that it is so alienated from the political process and social issues (I don't mean abortion/gay rights, etc. but "issues of society" or really just "society itself" more generally).

Thanks to Godard for keeping us talking 40 years later!

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