Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Feminine Cool! Vivre Sa Vie

Vivre Sa Vie ( released in 1962) was French Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard's third film and a deceptively simple one.  The title (translated as My Life To Live) is both an affirmation of life and a question. Is it possible to be a true individual? The story is of a female, Nana (played by Godard's wife Anna Karina), and follows her in twelve short chapters.  As were all of Godard's females, Nana is blase and somewhat detached from society, the men in her life are not important because they show her nothing worth paying attention to. 

Godard observes Nana's daily routines using a documentary feel that beautifully captures the subtle nuances that make up Nana as a person.  She doesn't always make good choices and her life is not a conventional one, but no one can seem to give her any useful help or advice. 

 Worth noting and paying attention to are Vivre Sa Vie's  unique and fresh dialogue scenes.The five minute opening scene between Nana and her estranged lover Paul is shot from the back of their heads as they sit at a counter having coffee. The activity of the cafe reflects in a mirror. So what we have are three different visuals; the backs of the heads, the action behind the counter, and the action in the mirror. During another conversation the camera simply strolls over to the right and displays the busy world of Paris through a cafe window. Roger Ebert had this to say about Godard's camera style: "His camera rotates 360 degrees, twice, and then stops and moves back in the other direction - just a little to show it knows what it's doing!"

Adding to the clever dialogue scenes, music drops in from nowhere at odd times, as if it were a Greek Chorus making Nana's journey to self both mythic and tragic . One of Vivre Sa Vie's iconic sequences is an extended dance scene capturing Nana with a handheld camera as she struts around a pool room defying three irritated men in her outburst of life. And it isn't just these three men she is defying, she is daring the audience to judge her.

Anna Karina and Godard's camera operator Raoul Coutard capture pure beauty in the following clip of Nana's dance scene:


Vivre Sa Vie opens with a quote: “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” - from the essays of Montaigne, Book 3, Chapter 10. This quote works in the same fashion as the title. In reference to the film, Godard is both making a statement and posing a question; is this possible?
There is a childish joy inside Nana but Godard and his camera always remind us of the world outside waiting to steal it.

Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival

This is my fourth installment of The French New Wave movement. To read more about this check out my blogs on Elevator To The Gallows, Breathless, and The 400 Blows.

Inspired further reading:

Roger Ebert's review from his list of Great Movies 

Vivre Sa Vie: The Lost Girl by Michael Atkinson 

An Audacious Experiment: The Vivre Sa Vie Soundtrack by Jean Collet 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Fritz Lang and The Three M's


Germany in the 1920's . The Weimar Republic was a hub of artistic expression and the population eager for change in the aftermath of WWI. Filmmakers were creating a new cinematic language referred to as the German Expressionist Movement. Films applied askew camera angles, outlandish set pieces, eccentric characters, and stories that dealt with the landscape of the mind. Control, murder, paranoia, fear, madness, and betrayal were all reoccurring themes and no one expressed these ideas better than director Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang on the set of M.

I have chosen three films that demonstrate Lang's themes and talent as a visual filmmaker. The Three M's, as I call them, are; Metropolis, M, and Ministry Of Fear. Lang is thought of by many film scholars as a prophet with spiritual and political insight. It is easy to see his vision of a world on the verge of collapse in these three films.

Sketch for the set design of M.

Lang's groundbreaking Metropolis (1927) showed audiences a society where the rich live carefree and gluttonous above ground while underneath, slaves toil endlessly to keep the machines of the great metropolis operable. Metropolis creates a stark contrast between the beautiful architecture of the elite society and the dark machine world of the slaves.

The underground slaves arriving for work in their smoke stack machine.

A robot made in the form of a human and surrounded by "circles" of power in Metropolis

  Geometry was central to Lang's style ; angles and shapes express feelings. Most prevalent are the repetition of circles that work against the sharp pointed lines of the buildings and interior set pieces. The characters are often surrounded by extreme inanimate objects or crowds of people, buildings or smoke filled machines, creating claustrophobia and the feeling that both the rich and the poor are trapped in these shapes and doomed to repeat their history. 

Cityscape for Metropolis which no doubt influenced the cityscape in Riddley Scott's Blade Runner (pictured below)

1931 brought the electrifying and horrific M, the story of a child murderer (Peter Lorre) and the hysteria created in a small town while authorities and criminals try to apprehend him. This was Lang's first film with sound and one in which sound becomes a character. Noises such as continuous whistling, screams, car horns and motors, off-putting crowd chatter jar our ears and disrupt the action. To shake our footing even further some of the main sequences are shown in complete silence.

The first shot of the killer in M, a shadow on his Wanted poster.

Camera angles are high and ominous or low and subjective, showing reactions of the peasant crowds and criminals when they encounter the police, who continuously try to reestablish their authority in a town gone mad with panic.

Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, serial child murderer in M.
In 1933 Hitler seized control of the Weimar Republic. Lang and other German filmmakers then emigrated to Hollywood where they formed partnerships with studios and changed the face of 1930's and 40's Hollywood. 1944's Ministry of Fear was indeed Fritz Lang's anti-Nazi statement and also a warning not to trust anyone in a position of power.   

Ray Milland as the helplessly trapped Stephen Neale in Ministry Of Fear.

The film follows Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) as he is released from a mental asylum in London and unwittingly wanders into a world of spies and Nazis. Clocks and other circles are used to alliterate the concept of time, as time becomes increasingly important throughout the story while Stephen Neale scrambles to clear himself of the mess he is in. 

A clairvoyant (Hillary Brooke) seems to seal Stephen Neale's fate at a seance.
Ministry Of Fear is unique as a mystery in that it is not a complex puzzle where all of the pieces fit together but rather a surreal nightmare where almost nothing makes sense. The hero is a victim and his contacts are duplicitous. Shadows creep onto white walls and characters emerge from dark backgrounds. No one and nowhere is safe.

Fritz Lang's influence on modern film:

M is used today in film schools as a blueprint for thrillers and a how-to for the pacing of suspense and tension. Metropolis can be seen in numerous works; Ridley Scott's Blade Runner(1982), The Wachowski's The Matrix (1999), Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968). Fritz Lang's Hollywood career, along with fellow German exiles Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder, contributed to the core elements of what would become known as Film Noir.  Metropolis is now streaming on Netflix. M and Ministry of Fear can be purchased in stunning reissues by The Criterion Collection. 

Fritz Lang
For Further Reading:

These articles appear on The Criterion Website.

Paranoid Style 

The Mark of M 

On Fritz Lang in the 1940s