Monday, 6 February 2012

On The Unrequited Love

In her absence - or in the absence of her - Joseph clings to the only corporal sign of life; the television set. Its light, blue, like Klein, or as reminder of the troubled skies and crashing waves that Godard intercuts in an effort to create visual commentary on the subject at hand - emotions suggested as ever through figurative associations - illuminates the darkness of the room; burning bright enough to cast the shadow of this man in mourning, creating the presence of two when only one is seen. The illusion of light creating life, as Joseph, in his solitude, cradles the early-morning static of this 'box', bereft of images and thus without reason, just as he is without reason without Carmen there to cling to.

As much as the image might imply a kind of vague generational critique, with Godard as the eternal curmudgeon; the mad old uncle casting a narrowed eye toward the youth and their relationship with the TeeVee, enamoured by its spectacle - like James Stewart in Rear Window (1954), the eye becoming a telephoto lens, each channel offering a window into a possible world, to be watched, from a distance, and without feeling - there's still something almost brazenly romantic about its presentation. The character, warmed by a cold blue frost of static noise that runs like sparks through the stubble, finds something in this embrace that is absent from his subsequent interaction with the titular character.

There, moments of love and tenderness are found between moments of great cruelty. A kiss very quickly betrayed by a vicious word or a cold clinch of despair or desperation. Here the embrace of this object, inanimate and without soul, is characteristic of Godard's ability to suggest layers of commentary through an image that at once seems rather straightforward - a symbol that when taken literally could seem like a farce, consistent with the broad slapstick of much of the director's middle-period approach - but when viewed as a representation, or as an almost abstract expression, is full of emotion and meaning, open to interpretation. It's that poet's sorrow for the complexities of the human condition at its most simple or profound.

Prénom Carmen directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1983:

However, the significance of the scene speaks to more than just Joseph's yearning for this beautiful nuisance. Instead, it's a kind of creative shorthand for the one-way love affair that exists between the audience and the work. The television - at this point still referred to, both dismissively and endearingly, as the 'small screen' - is, in some little way, a substitute for the cinema. With such a comparison in place, it makes perfect sense that in this moment of great loneliness Joseph would cling to this substitute as a surrogate for Carmen. In love with the image, its void represented by light, blue, like the words to the song that plays on the soundtrack - "everything is turning blue now" - or like his own heart in anguish - "there'll be someone else to hold you" - but unable to receive the same kind of love in return.

Of course the television is, like cinema, a dead object, brought to life by an audience willing enough to engage it's ideas or emotions through a genuine act of faith. What we get out of it depends on what we put in. A projection - personal and subjective - of our own experiences, wants, needs and desires onto these scenes, characters, words and images; the screen before us becoming a mirror, reflecting the great fantasy, not of how things are, but of how we want things to be. The greater the reflection, the greater our appreciation of the work. If cinema really is this magic mirror onto which we project our own individual dreams and desires, then television is the box we bury them in. Such is life. As much as we like to gesture and pontificate, citing the greatness of a work as we see it, or declaring from the rooftops in a voice as certain as the day that what we've just witnessed is a work of true beauty, it is an experience that exists only for us; like the greatest of all loves.

Joseph, like the audience, thinks he is in love; but Carmen is not a human being capable of receiving such love, let alone giving it in return. She is a character, created for a drama, and appropriated here for the purposes of creative commentary. She is, like the image, an empty space. Again, like the audience when gazing in wonder at the figures on screen, Joseph is in love with what he wants Carmen to be, how he interprets her through his own personal and subjective experiences. He cannot possible love her for what she is, which is an object, less tangible and less real than the television that he caresses in her absence. His attempt, in this scene, to find fulfilment through the embrace of this non-image illustrates the void that exists between the audience and the work as a figurative or poetic expression of the unrequited love.

Thursday, 2 February 2012


A film nervous with the anticipation of something?

Though the something never arrives, at least not the something one might expect from the grating, almost metronome-like soundtrack, or the framing of shots, which imply The Third Man (1949) via shades of early Godard, or some similar tale of espionage suggested by these street level observations and the European locale. The amplification of the 'dubbed' sounds, at least initially, seem to play against a natural expectation for a certain kind of drama, or 'pay-off', in the dramatic sense. The ticking sound, like a ticking clock, counting the minutes, or a time bomb, like with Hitchcock, from Sabotage (1936) to Saboteur (1942). However, the dramatic reveal that we're anticipating turns out to be something else, unrelated, but no less remarkable! An explosion, not in the sense of a terrorist attack, but as an actual emotional revelation felt within the experimentation of the form.

The creative associations that are forced upon the work by this juxtaposition of sound and image create a sense of drama that would otherwise be nonexistent, and this, effectively, is the point.

Like Greenaway's later film, The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), this is a film about the relationship between the viewer and the work itself. While the later film would employ a dramatic device made famous by Antonioni in his masterpiece Blow-Up (1966) - in which an artist creates a work that reveals, on closer inspection, the clues to a terrible crime - the approach to this particular film is less narrative, more subjective. Here the audience adopts the role of the Draughtsman, or the unnamed photographer of Antonioni's film. However, unlike the two characters there, we (the individual spectator) haven't created this work, but are being invited by the filmmaker to look at it, to study these shots, these recurring moments in time, with the same restlessness, the same obsessive curiosity. At first it all seems fairly mundane; geriatrics and hesitant children shuffling through near-vacant streets. Without the soundtrack in place, these images would seem uneventful, perhaps even routine.

Intervals directed by Peter Greenaway, 1968-1973:

In the act of closely examining these shots, the audience begins to project their own ideas and interpretations onto them, drawing consciously or unconsciously on a familiarity with the machinations of a genre (or the general conventional presentation of cinema) to invent their own scenarios, to justify Greenaway's experiment in an attempt to anchor it to some kind of recognisable context or theme. This, as an experiment, is directly related to the specific way that we, as audiences, experience films; an experiment in the art of looking and seeing, but also in allowing the film (and the filmmaker) to manipulate the way we receive information through the combination of sound and image.

In the majority of films this is hidden; part of the great magic act that filmmakers use to dazzle their audience, creating moments of comedy and drama, terror and suspense from a seemingly simple cutting between scenes, characters and situations. With Intervals, Greenaway wants to expose the lie, expose the tricks that these storytellers use to manipulate the emotions of an audience. Here these cyclical street-scenes (presented as the 'Intervals' of the title) that repeat several times, each time with subtle variations on the soundtrack, are intended to push the viewer into analysing their own subjective interpretation of the images, and what these images might suggest.

While the earlier experiments with sound create an atmosphere of tension or suspense - something slightly ominous or threatening, again, like a ticking clock, counting down the seconds to some actual devastation - the wave of orchestration that breaks and pulls the images back from the brink of catastrophe (and back towards something more conventionally cinematic, in the Hollywood sense), creates a feeling in the viewer of our senses or perceptions being altered, subtly or not so subtly, by the experimentation with the form. Here we have the same images, the same streets and people appearing again and again, and yet our interpretation of these events is transformed, significantly, by the specific choice of soundtrack. This, in a very Greenaway stroke, is the essence of cinema at its most creative and unashamedly deceptive.