Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Grand Opening: Motion Picture, It's Called

"[after viewing film shot by Fritz Lang]
Jerry Prokosch: You've cheated me, Fritz. That's not what is in that script.
Fritz Lang: It is! (He pulls the script away from Jerry, who is attempting to grab it out of his hand.) Oh, no!
Jerry Prokosch: Get the script, Francesca. (He reads the script and then changes his tone... )Yes, it's in the script. But it's not what you have on that screen.
Fritz Lang: Naturally, because in the script it is written, and on the screen it's pictures. Motion picture, it's called."

The first order of business is to welcome you to my blog "Motion Picture, It's Called". In this blog, we'll be mostly dealing in questions and not in very many answers. The first question you probably have is: why did you name the blog the ungrammatical "Motion Picture, It's Called"?

The above dialogue is from a critical scene in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963). While I don't believe Jean-Luc Godard is the greatest director of all time, he is the most intense explorer of film of all time. Though every Godard film is a cutting exploration of what cinema means, Contempt is particularly more so.

The scene above is above all fascinating because the entire history of film is being examined in one short sequence. A group of charcters is reviewing daily rushes on a film. Godard, the ground from which post-1959 film grows, is filming the collision(s) between:
1. classic art cinema as symbolized by Fritz Lang (a fictional director being played by the real director Fritz Lang himself)
2. the American studio system in the figure of the producer Prokosch (played by Jack Palance, himself a veteran actor and symbol of the Hollywood studio system)
3. the new cinema, both in the form of Godard (both directing this movie and playing a small role as an assistant director to Lang on the movie within this movie) and in Michel Piccoli, both in his on-screen character as a novelist highly ambivalent about movies and in the reality of Piccoli's own career as a central actor in the new cinema of Bunuel, Chabrol, Melville, Varda and Godard (among many others).
4. the recently (then in 1963) decline of Italian cinema - the scene is set in a screening room in an near-abandoned section of Cinecitta, the studio that had been the center of the Italian film-renaissance of the 1950s.
5. classical Greek art (Lang's film footage is from an in-process film about Homer's Odyssey, and we mostly see shots of classical ancient Greek statuary in Lang's rushes).

As you can see, every character and the very set has a meaning both in Contempt's fictional world and a reflection in reality. Thus, every word and action in the scene has (at least) three meanings: a meaning within it's fictional world, a meaning within our reality and a meaning on the level of film theory (or even philosophy, if we dare to call it that).

The scene is also about the inter-relations of money, power, art and eros. Prokosch has the money and power, as an American producer. He flaunts his power brutally, and Godard also highlights that Prokosch is personally brutal and coarse (comparing him repeatedly to the coarsest of Nazi figures) . Yet, Prokosch is also a highly attractive figure within the movie - women fall for his money and attendant power. Palance is the only conventionally handsome man in the cast. He is also decisive and active, whereas both Europeans Lang and Paul Javal (Piccoli) are hesitant, ambivalent and weak. Godard admits his fascination and attraction to America (Prokosch is the only character who drives a car in the movie, and cars symbolize America, money, beauty and freedom to Godard).

Prokosch intentionally treats Lang as an inferior. Lang accepts this treatment on one level - Lang does not have the money or power to make films on his own (a parallel situation Godard faced in the making of Contempt itself). The film-maker is subordinate to the people with the money. And this is the fundamental fact of film-making. However, Lang has more subtle weapons - his comments often subtly insult Prokosch (though Prokosch usually does not have the knowledge to be aware of Lang's insults). Lang leverages his knowledge, his taste, ultimately his wisdom to undermine Prokosch and guide events his way (though he hardly wins every battle).

The scene is filled with sex as well. Lang's Ulysses is filled with shots of gorgeous nude statues from ancient Greece, and also has a nude woman bathing. Notably, Prokosch is bored by the Greek statuary, but is cartoonishly aroused by the nude woman (a commentary on Prokosch's immature eros). Of course, Homer's Ulysses is ultimately an erotic story as well. In addition, both Lang and Javal are trying to impress the female Italian translator (Prokosch makes it clear in the most coarse way that he has already had her). Beyond that, soon Prokosch and Javal will be engaged in battle for the love of Javal's wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot). The room is filled with the sexual tensions between the characters, between the characters and Lang's film of Ulysses and within the film of Ulysses itself.

So, why name my blog "Motion Picture, It's Called"? Beyond referencing and honoring Godard's great film, I want to highlight the future obsessions of this blog: film, politics, money, power, eros, wisdom. (Errr, you could ask what that would leave out, and that's a valid question........)

So, where to next?

1. We're hardly done with Contempt itself. Down the road, I'll play around with the multiple layers between text(s), image, and moving picture that Contempt explores. We haven't even touched on Godard's analysis of the relations between pre-modern art, classic motion picture and Contempt itself. Then too, I think analyzing the figure of Fritz Lang himself will be productive.

2. Here's some films I think I'll be talking about in the future (no guarantees, my friends):
Hou Hsiao-Hsien's City of Sadness, 1989
Jean-Francois Richet's Assault on Precinct 13, 2005
Thom Anderson's Los Angeles Plays Itself, 2003
Jerry Lewis' The Nutty Professor, 1963
Alain Resnais' Stavisky..., 1974
Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Chorus, 1931
Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, 1972

3. I'm working with several film groups -particularly the University of Chicago Hillel on their film clubs. I need any suggestions on Jewish-related films that you particularly like.

4. Anything else that randomly enters my mind.


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