When talking about the work of Jean-Luc Godard it is ill advised and well nigh impossible to consider his films without reference to his critical writings. Indeed, Godard himself has often asserted that his filmmaking is as much an exercise in criticism as his writing. The two are inextricably linked and, as Chris Darke notes, Goddard’s writing can be seen as preparation for his directorial debut in A bout de soufflé (France, 1960).1.
Before becoming a director, Jean-Luc Godard was a critic for the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema.
In the 1950s, Godard — along with Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut and other Cahiers writers — promoted auteur theory which argues that cinema should be approached with the notion that the director is the author – that is the prime creative force – behind a film. The notion was not new and had been around since the 1920s2but Cahiers gave it fresh impetus.
The main tool of auteur theorists became known as mise-en-scene criticism. The term mise-en-scene was borrowed from the theatre and refers to the way things are arranged within a scene.
The Cahiers group claimed that certain directors could lay claim to being artists. This notion and the arguments used to support it became known as ‘les politiques des auteurs’.
Auteur theory would probably have stirred little controversy but for the fact that the Cahiers group bestowed auteur theory on certain Hollywood directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawkes, John Ford and Samuel Fuller. They argued that even though these directors worked within the studio system, they nonetheless had a consistent, discernable style that marked each of their films as their own.
Of course not every director was so elevated in the eyes of the critics. Any director who lacked a personal vision (the main criterion for being deemed an auteur) was airily dismissed as a metteur-en-scene.
As Francois Truffaut put it in his seminal article Une Certaine Tendence du Cinema Francais which appeared in Cahiers no. 31 in January, 1954 : ‘when they (the screenwriters) hand in their scenario, the film is done: the metteur-en-scene, in their eyes, is the gentleman who adds pictures to it’.
Jean-Luc Godard was even more blunt when he addressed 21 major directors. ‘Your camera movements,’ he said, ‘are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is.’
In 1960, Godard put his money where his mouth was and directed A bout de soufflé which was as much a homage to the Hollywood films he loved as a reaction against the conservatism of contemporary French cinema. It was also his chance to put into practice that which he had been preaching as an auteur theorist. If ever a film was covered in the indelible fingerprints of its director, A bout de soufflé is it.
With this film, Godard tore up and then rewrote the rule book, but that is not to say that he re-invented the game completely.
In many respects, Breathless (to give it its English title) – a story about a hoodlum on the run from the police — is Hollywood film noir given a post-modernist slant. Stylistically, it owes more than a passing nod to Italian neo-realism as well as those American directors Godard regarded as auteurs.
Right from the start, Breathless is determined to misbehave itself. It opens with the protagonist, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) preparing to steal a car. In voice-over he announces that he’s an arsehole — or possibly a tough guy depending on the translation. Either way the film has immediately broken with cinematic tradition.
As he rushes through the countryside in his stolen car, he talks aloud to himself. Then he suddenly turns to the audience and says, ‘If you don’t like the sea, and you don`t like the mountains, and you don`t like the big city, then go hang yourself.’ This is very subversive. The fourth wall is broken and we have been made active accomplices in Michel’s activities. From here on in, it is impossible to view the film in the manner to which we have become accustomed.
Godard used a number of techniques that were unconventional and which by rights should have spoiled the film as a piece of convincing cinema. These included shooting with black and white film, the use of hand-held camera, long takes and – most iconoclastic of all – jump cuts. According to the perceived wisdom of the time, A bout de soufflé should not have worked and yet it is one of the most cinematic of all films.
Until Breathless came along, it was pretty much agreed that the editing of a film should be seamless — that is the audience’s attention should not be drawn to its construction and should be left to lose themselves in the plot. Godard, however, goes out of his way to remind us that we are watching a film. Scenes that other directors would linger over, making sure we catch every significant detail, are put together in a seemingly haphazard manner and it’s often a case of ‘blink and you miss it’. For instance, when Michel shoots the policeman, we are offered a series of shots that give us no chance to anticipate what is about to happen and it is some seconds after the sequence that we realise what has just happened.
This frenetic editing is taken to extremes with the use of jump cuts. Even today this technique is frowned upon as the mark of an amateur but Godard clearly knew what he was doing and there is no doubt he could have avoided the jumps if he wanted to. Clearly he is thumbing his nose at the cinematic old guard.
The editing in Breathless, its use of natural lighting, actual locations and black and white film stock, all give the film a less than polished look. This is no accident. Godard has put a lot of effort into making Breathless the rough diamond it is. This is the critic in him coming through. He wants us to question the way films are made and to be aware of the conventions of cinema.
Of course there is more to Breathless than its form and technique. It has a story line which could have been lifted from any number of Hollywood B-movies but which is handled in a highly idiosyncratic and non-formulaic way. The plot has all the ingredients of a fast-paced thriller but Godard goes out of his way to confound our expectations. As David Borwell3 notes, ‘Brief scenes – some largely unconnected to [Michel's] goals – alternate with long stretches of seemingly irrelevant dialogue’. Add to this the art house contrivance of almost one third of the film consisting of a conversation that is mostly small talk between Michel and Patricia (Jean Seberg), the girl he thinks he may love, and we are a long way from familiar B-movie territory.
None of the elements that make Breathless extraordinary originated with Godard. Other film-makers had used them before him but never so self-consciously. A bout de soufflé draws attention to the way it is put together in a manner that most other films go to great pains to avoid.
It should be borne in mind that Breathless was not alone in its aesthetic. Other Cahiers writers had also made, or were about to make, films with the same mind set. These films have been lumped together under the heading of Nouveau Vague (New Wave). Each was radical in its own way, but none as radical — and subversive — as Breathless.
Nelmes, Jill (ed.), An Introduction to Film Studies – 3rd Edition, London, New York, Routledge, 2003
Hayward, Susan, Cinema studies – 2nd Edition, London, New York, Routledge, 2000
Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin. Film Art. An Introduction. New York, McGraw-Hill, 2001
1 Nelmes; p.443
2 Hayward; p.20
3 Bordwell and Thompson; p.367
Reflections on Death of a Princess.
In the autumn of 1977, British filmmaker Antony Thomas was at a dinner party in London. One of the topics of conversation was the execution in public on July 15th of that year of a 19-year-old Saudi Arabian Princess and her 20-year-old lover. The Princess in question was Princess Misha’al Fahd bin Mohammed, a granddaughter of Prince Mohammed bin Abdul Aziz, King Khalid’s elder brother. Her lover, Khalid Mahallal, was the son of a senior Saudi general.
It was bin Abdul Aziz who had ordered the executions, the charge being adultery with a commoner. The Princess was shot; her lover was beheaded in a public square.
Although the story was suppressed in Arab countries, it had circulated by word of mouth and become folk-lore.
In Britain, the incident had hit the headlines because a British construction worker had photographed the Princess’ execution with a Kodak Instamatic camera.
Thomas decided to make a documentary about the Princess and got the backing of ATV (a British commercial television channel) and WGBH (a PBS affiliate) in Boston, Massachusetts. Additional money was raised from television companies in Australia, Holland, Japan, New Zealand and the US.
Over the next few months, Thomas interviewed dozens of Saudis who claimed to have either witnessed or known about the execution. Based on their testimonies, he and David Fanning of WGBH put together a script. With Thomas as director, the documentary – entitled Death of a Princess (UK,1980) – took about 18 months to complete.
Thomas’s original intention was to make a straight documentary, but it soon became clear to him that the nature of the material he was gathering could only be told as a docudrama:
Where I travelled through the Arab world, the story was celebrated. Everyone had their own version of that story, all very, very different. … Whoever I spoke to [...] attached themselves to this princess. She’d become a myth. [...] Somehow this princess was sort of like a catalyst. And after thinking about it seriously, I thought, my gosh, this is perhaps an even more interesting story to tell.
I had a problem, because everyone I spoke to was interviewed in complete confidence, and how do I tell this story? [...] You couldn’t make a documentary. It was impossible. You’d have a whole array of people with their voices distorted and bags on their heads, and that wouldn’t make a very good film.i
The controversy and diplomatic fall-out for which Death of a Princess is now famed began before it was even aired.
Saudi officials were invited to a preview of the film and left deeply offended. The British government received word from the Saudis that King Khalid was outraged by the film’s contents. Saudi Arabia threatened to break off diplomatic relations with the UK and to suspend oil exports.
The docudrama was broadcast in Britain on the 9th of April, 1980 despite the best efforts of Saudi Arabia to have it withdrawn.
In an effort to divert some of the flak it knew was headed its way, ATV preceded the program with a statement that said: ‘The program you are about to see is a dramatised reconstruction of certain events which took place in the Arab world between 1976 and 1978. We have been asked to point out that equality for all before the law is regarded as paramount in the Moslem world.’
The broadcast that followed was to have serious repercussions throughout the world.
In 1979, Great Britain exported £2 billion in goods to Saudi Arabia which was its 11th largest market in the world. Add to this Saudi Arabia’s appetite for British weapons systems – especially Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft – and the fact that Britain bought 16% of its oil from the kingdom and it is no surprise that, the day after Death was broadcast, the Foreign Office cravenly issued a statement part of which read: ‘We profoundly regret any offence which the program may have caused in Saudi Arabia. We have, of course, no power to interfere with the editorial content of programs, still less to ban them.’
Two days later, the Saudi Embassy in London called Death of a Princess ‘… an unprincipled attack on the religion of Islam and its 600 million people and on the way of life of Saudi Arabia, which is at the heart of the world of Islam.’
King Khalid cancelled a trip to London and – on the 23rd of April – expelled the British ambassador. Unusually, the British government did not respond with its own tit-for-tat expulsions or any other sanctions.
More ominously, the Saudis issued a statement saying it had carefully examined its economic relations with Britain and the activity of British companies in the Kingdom. This had serious implications for the U.K.’s balance of trade at a time when Saudi Arabia was Britain’s largest export market in the Middle East.
According to the Financial Times: ‘In the 13 months to June last year construction contracts worth £288m were awarded to U.K. Companies. Britain has several large continuing contracts in Saudi Arabia, including the British Aerospace Corporation’s Saudi Air force, worth between £500m and £850m over the period 1977-1981, and a contract worth £148m for cable and wireless to modernize the communications system of the National Guard. [...] Britain is one of two competitors for a large Arabsat satellite communications contract, to be awarded by a multi-state Arab organisation based in Riyadh.’ii
Straight after the broadcast, the Saudis set about making life awkward for British businesses in Saudi Arabia. New restrictions were placed on visas issued to Britons. A large American construction firm was instructed not to subcontract to the British. And permission was withdrawn from British Airways for supersonic flights over the Kingdom, thus rendering Concorde’s London-Singapore route unprofitable.
Death of a Princess appears to have offended the Saudis on several levels. According to Thomas White and Gladys Ganley: ‘The film was perceived by Saudis as a violation of privacy since it represented a first look behind a closely drawn curtain into Islamic law as applied in Saudi Arabia, into Saudi culture, and, perhaps most devastating, into the behaviour of members of the ruling regime.’iii
The Financial Times opined that the Saudis took umbrage because the film: “… suggested that Prince Mohammed, the oldest surviving son of the Kingdom’s founder, had done his granddaughter to death on charges of adultery which were not exposed to the rigours of am Islamic court, and it was a matter of rough family justice…. Thus, the prince’s action would have been the highest treason and must, at all costs, be kept secret…’
Under Islamic law, adultery can only be proven if both parties admit to the crime or four independent witnesses can be found. As neither of these criteria were reached in this case, the execution of the Princess and her lover was unlawful. To put it bluntly, it was murder.
David Fanning, the film’s co-writer and executive producer alleges: ‘The difference between the official version, which was the girl was killed because she was found guilty of adultery, and the truth of it, which turns out that she was, in fact, executed by the king’s elder brother in an act of tribal vengeance in a parking lot in Jeddah, was, in fact, the heart of the controversy because that was the part that, of course, the royal family could not countenance. And that was the great outrage.’iv
Initially, the British press and public sided with Thomas but not for long. As he himself tells it: ‘… whole front pages were devoted to this thing. It went in two waves. The first wave was very supportive of the film and taking quite a racist attitude: “Who are these people to tell us about democracy and justice?
“And then the Saudi[s] sneezed and expelled the [British] ambassador and so forth, and then the whole tone changed. Now it was all about documentary truth and insult to another culture. It was actually shocking, the way the press had taken one position to [the] extreme with ghastly racist cartoons – I remember some of them – and they they just got a little knock like that, and they shot the other way.’v
One of the main charges laid against Death of a Princess is one that could be laid against any docudrama – namely that by employing a mix of fact and fiction it blurred the distinctions between the two.
Lord Carrington, the then Foreign Secretary, commented: ‘The new formula of mixing fact with fiction, dramatisation masquerading as documentary, can be dangerous and misleading.’vi
Sir Ian Gilmour, the chief Government spokesman in the House of Commons for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs went further: ‘… the whole genre is something the IBA and BBC should give considerable attention to…. I think the so-called dramatisation or fictionalising of alleged facts or history is extremely dangerous and misleading.’vii
One sequence in the film above all others provided ammunition to Thomas’s critics. It shows Saudi princesses cruising the highways of Rijadh in quest of men. It is hard to explain Thomas’s decision to include this scene as other than an extreme failure of judgement. The Economist said: ‘One of the film’s most gripping sequences was almost certainly unfair; scenes of the bored princesses at home listening and dancing to pop music were followed by their predatory drive into the desert to pick, behind their veils, a temporary mate. The evidence for the vacuity of the princesses’ lives is more substantial that for the promiscuity of those desert raids.’
This portion of Death is – by Thomas’s own admission – based upon the testimony of a single, unnamed source.
Thomas provides not one scrap of solid evidence for his contention that Saudi princesses so blatantly disregarded tradition, honour and the dictates of Islam. Nor does he explain how even one of them could get away with such behaviour in a country that keeps such a tight rein on its women.
Death of a Princess in America
On the 12th of May, 1980, PBS aired Death in the USA. The Saudis made the expected protests both before and after the broadcast.
In 2003, the president and chairmen of PBS in 1980 – while discussing the controversy surrounding the showing of a more recent docudrama – had this to say about the incident: ‘The government of Saudi Arabia and Mobil Oil, PBS’s major underwriter, urged us very publicly not to to broadcast the program [...]. The secretary of state wrote us a letter, released simultaneously to the press, urging us to reevaluate PBS’s decision to broadcast the program [...]. Members of Congress from both parties decried “Death of a Princess,” fearing the Saudis would shut off the nation’s oil supply and case a severe economic downturn.’viii
Grossman later on revealed: ‘The Saudi royal family did everything possible to prevent PBS from broadcasting the film [...]. The Saudis, the biggest oil supplier to the United States, let it be known that they were prepared to shut off the supply or raise oil prices precipitately.’ix
Interestingly enough, whereas in Britain the public were initially supportive of Death before turning against it, the opposite happened in America.
However negative public opinion may have been before the broadcast, after “Death of a Princess” aired, the public turned supportive. What started out as the most unpopular program in PBS’s history ended up as its highest-rated broadcast. Critics commented after seeing “The Reagans” on cable that it was hard to figure out what all the fuss was about. Viewers of “Death of a Princess” had the same reaction. PBS received applause and awards for standing up to the pressures and preserving its independence against threats from the U.S. government, the Saudis, its own underwriters, and even its own audience.x
iWGBH Educational Foundation (author unknown) (2005). Interview. Antony Thomas, viewed 13th January 2007,
ii‘UK Companies Fear Saudi Discrimination’, Financial Times (15th April, 1983), p.3
iiiWhite, Thomas & Ganley, Gladys (1983). The “Death of a Princess” Controversy, viewed 13th January 2007, <http://www.pirp.harvard.edu/pubs/pdf-blurb.asp?id=129>. p.8
ivWikipedia. Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud, viewed 14th January, 2007, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misha%27al_of_Saudi_Arabia>
vInterview. Antony Thomas.
viGoodwin, Andrew & Whannel, Gary (1990). Understanding Television, London and New York: Routledge. p.75
viiGoodwin & Whannel. p.75
viiiGrossman, Lawrence K. & Minow, Newton N. (2003). “The Reagans”: What CBS Should have Done, viewed 12th January 2007, <http://www.cjr.org/issues/2003/6/reagans-grossman.asp>
ixLedbetter, James (1998). Made Possible By…: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, London and New York: Verso. pp. 150-151
xGrossman & Minow, viewed 12th January 2007.
Although the movies Badlands and Kids appear at first glance to be birds of a different feather, at their heart they have a common theme which – paradoxically — can be summed up as ‘nothing’. Each film explores youth alienation and what happens when segments of society do not buy into the social consensus. In other words, what value do people place on society when society places no value on them?
The most striking difference between the two movies is aesthetic. Whereas Badlands finds a languid beauty in the nihilism of its characters, Kids presents an ugly mess that has few if any redeeming features. The first is somewhat reminiscent of Ragnarok – a creeping, inexorable entropy. Kids, on the other hand, resembles a minor apocalypse.
Stylistically, the two films could not be further apart. The look and feel of Badlands puts one in mind of any number of westerns as well as films such as Bonny andClyde (USA, 1967) and Thelma & Louise (USA, 1991). It is essentially a road movie without the usual upbeat – and possibly misplaced – optimism we associate with the genre. It’s as if someone has taken Easy Rider (USA, 1969) and stripped it of its guts, reduced it to a well-nigh meaningless sequence of events.
The story is told from the point of view of Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15 year old girl, whose main characteristic is passivity. She and her boyfriend, Kit (Martin Sheen), embark on a killing spree – or rather Kit does. Holly just seems to be along for the ride. Kit’s explanations for his murderous acts are weak and half-hearted. He probably doesn’t even believe them himself, nor does he need to. Witness, for instance, his rationale for shooting some bounty hunters in the back as recounted by Holly :
… he’d overheard them whispering about how they were only interested in the reward money. With lawmen it would’ve been different. They were out there to get a job done and they deserved a fair chance. But not a bounty hunter.
And later when he guns down his best friend Cato (Ramon Bieri) in cold blood :
Kit never let on why he’d shot Cato. He said that just talking about it could bring us bad luck and that right now we need all the luck we could get.
Clearly Kit is no great shakes as a moral philosopher.
In the end we are left unable to sympathise with either Holly or Kit. The director, it must be supposed, is happy with this state of affairs. At the heart of his movie lies a great, empty expanse that reflects both the Badlands of the title and the lives of his protagonists.
As we journey through the wilderness with Kit and Holly, we stumble upon few insights. The only lesson to be learnt is that people sometimes do bad things because they’ve got nothing else to do. Or – to put it succinctly – shit happens.
This same ethos lies at the core of Kids. In this film, almost nobody looks to the future except in the most superficial way. The only character to give much thought to what lies ahead is Jennie (Chloe Sevigny). The irony here being that she may literally have no future because – after her one and only sexual experience – she has tested HIV positive. Unlike the other protagonists in both films, her destiny truly is beyond her control.
The story of Badlands (based loosely on real events) centres around two young people who have nothing in their lives. The desert they travel through in an effort to evade capture is the desert they were born into. Whichever way they look, the landscape is dull and unchanging. They occasionally glimpse something more – the lights of a city, the mountains of Montana – but these things are alien to them and they know in their hearts they will never escape the Badlands.
Similarly, the youngsters in Kids seem resigned to their lot. The difference being that they don’t seem to know what their lot is. It’s as if they are in their own Badlands but are so dwarfed by their environment they have no sense of where or who they are. Whereas Holly and Kit embrace their catastrophe, the kids are engulfed by theirs.
Towards the end of Kids, Jenny is in a taxi looking for the boy that infected her. She quietly promises herself, ‘I’m not gonna die’. It is the one life-affirming line in the entire film.
So here we have two films that share little in common but their theme — kids with no future. It is the manner in which they handle their subject matter that makes Badlands and Kids as diametrically opposed as any two films can be.
In 1924, the French writer Andre Breton drafted the first Surrealist manifesto (Le Manifeste du Surréalism) which was published in 1925. In the manifesto, he defines Surrealism (‘once and for all’, as he puts it) as: ‘Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.’i
Much of the document concerns itself with the nature of dreams and dreaming. It is heavily influenced by Freud whose Interpretation of Dreams (first published in 1911) was still causing shockwaves:
Freud very rightly brought his critical faculties to bear upon the dream. It is, in fact, inadmissible that this considerable portion of psychic activity [...] has still today been so grossly neglected. (Breton)
Freud begins The Interpretation of Dreams by saying, ‘[...] there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that on the application of this technique, every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state. ‘ii
In common with Freud, the Surrealists placed the subconscious on a pedestal and examined it from a scientific perspective. They believed the apparent irrationality of our inner minds could tell us much about the human psyche and unveil a reality which our conscious minds filter out.
Like Dada, its immediate predecessor, Surrealism was not to be confined to the art gallery. In fact it had started out as a literary movement before being siezed upon by such artists as Max Ernst and Man Ray.
Of all the media available to be used in exploring the subconscious, the relatively new medium of the cinema offered most potential, untarnished as it was by centuries of tradition. Even before the Surrealists began to experiment with film, film-makers were using it to create representations of the fantastic. Obvious examples are any number of films by George Melies (most famously A Trip To the Moon (France, 1902)), Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (UK, 1903) and Larry Semon’s Wizard of Oz (USA,1925).
The interaction between Surrealism and the cinema has been rich and varied. It involved, initially, a small group of films produced within the framework of the French Surrealist movement of the 1920s, among which Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) stands as the brief, comic, terrifying landmark.iii
What makes film uniquely suited to representing the work of the dreams and the unconscious is its editability. Time and space can be manipulated in the edit suite through any number of techniques. By splicing two unrelated shots together, the film-maker is able to create an association, a dream-like implication of cause and effect that could not exist in the real world. Time can be reversed, slowed down, manipulated. Two or more incarnations of one person can be in the same room at the same time; they can even converse. The impossible becomes possible and the Laws of Physics need not apply.
Even if there had been no Surrealist manifesto, such is the nature of film that Surrealist – or at least surrealistic – films were bound to arise. Hollywood comedians such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, for instance, were apt to exploit the malleability of reality on celluloid for comic effect. In fact, it can be argued that Surrealism brought little if anything new to the world of cinema, at least in terms of technique.
The debt owed by Surrealism to earlier cinema was acknowledged in the 1950s when scholars began looking seriously at the history of film. According to Rudolf Kuenzli, these historians ‘also began to formulate a canon of the Surrealist and the surrealistic film at the centre of which were Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or. These two films were viewed as the crowning achievement of a pure Surrealism that could now be seen to stretch back through the more grotesque moments of Von Stroheim, the more dreamlike passages of Keaton, Chaplin and Feuillade, and finally, back to the original Surrealist essence of cinema in Melies. At the periphery of this canon were the many films with occassional moments of accidental or involuntary Surrealism.’iv
Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or are both the work of Luis Bunuel and his fellow Spaniard Salvador Dali. At that time they decided to collaborate, Bunuel was a minor (and self-published) poet, an Assistant Director to Jean Epstein and a recent recruit to the Paris Surrealist Group. Dali had yet to make any impact on the world of art.
Their first film, Un Chien Andalou is a 16 minute smorgasbord of bizarre scenarios that collectively tell a story that – on the surface at least – makes no sense. It is a negation of rationality. The title, for instance, has little if anything to do with the film. It is in fact the title of a collection of Bunuel’s poetry.
Although both Bunuel and Dali have over the years been less-than-consistent in their accounts of how the film came about, they both agreed that while staying with Dali at his house, Bunuel told him about a dream he had in which a cloud sliced the moon in half ‘like a razor blade slicing through an eye’. Dali then recounted a disturbing dream of his own (there appears to be no record of its exact nature) and the pair then agreed to create a low- budget film constructed from irrational images dredged from their subconscious minds.
How much each of the collaborators contributed to the film will remain a matter of debate for years to come. According to the notes that accompany the BFI’s box set edition of Un Chien Andalou: ‘Dali’s claim that he presented Bunuel with a complete alternative scenario, scribbled in a quarter of an hour on a shoe-box, does not match Bunuel’s memory of the scenario’s construction morning-by-morning at Figueras from shared memories of dream-residues and spontaneously invoked gags and objects, a concoction resolutely shorn of ‘conscious’ meanings and associations.v’
The film opens with a sequence based on Bunuel’s dream snippet. A man – played by Bunuel himself – is seen sharpening a cut-throat razor. He walks onto a balcony and observes a sliver of cloud racing across the sky towards the moon. We immediately cut to a close-up of a woman’s face. The woman is passive as a hand holds one of her eyes open and the razor is brought towards it. The cloud slices the moon; the razor slices the eye. (Closer examination shows that the eye being sliced is that of an animal, presumably one of the dead donkeys seen later in the film.) Straightaway, an intertitle comes up. It reads, ‘Huit ans apres’ (‘Eight years later’). There follows a scene of a man dressed as a nun on a bicycle. This dissolves to a shot of a woman in an apartment reading a book. It is the woman we saw being mutilated. As if by some miracle, her eye is intact. The events of the opening scene are never referred to, never explained.
According to Bunuel: ‘The plot is the result of a CONSCIOUS psychic aoutomatism, and, to that extent, it does not attempt to recount a dream, although it profits by a mechanism analogous to that of dreams.’ He goes on to say that he and Dali ‘both took their point of view from a dream image, which, in its turn, probed others by the same process until the whole took form as a continuity.vi’
Although the influence of Un Chien Andalou on Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (USA, 1943) is undeniable, the two films are worlds apart in tone.
The difference between the films is instructive. Un Chien Andalou is filled with metaphors – the eye and the moon, a drink shaker as a door-bell, the sea urchin and underarm hair – but Meshes has none. Objects in the earlier film recur, especially the box of the clown figure, but without the symbolic dimensions of the knife, key, and flower in Meshes, which accumulate their deadly charge through repeated use in slightly different circumstances.vii
Unlike Un Chien Andalou, the plot of Meshes is fairly straightforward and comprehensible. Ken Dancyger sums it up in one paragraph. He says it ‘explores the story of a young woman. She is being followed to an apartment where she is to meet a man. The key to the apartment, a knife inside the apartment, and the bed are the important artefacts. The woman, the woman who is following her, and the man are the only characters. The woman who follows her is hooded and has a mirror over her face. Whether she is a reflection or the woman’s conscience, is subject to interpretation. By the end of the story the woman is dead in the apartment. Was it a crime of passion, a suicide, or the emotional, inevitable consequence of her own passion?’viii
The main factor that distinguishes the two films is the intent of the makers. Un Chien Andalou strives to be shocking and provocative – ‘a call to murder’ as Bunuel famously put it. Dali and Bunuel do their best to obscure its meaning. In fact they go out of their way to eradicate any meaning it might have. Meshes, on the other hand, is a search for meaning, a psycho-quest wherein its protagonist reaches some kind of self-understanding. Which is not to say that Meshes is not disturbing; its just that its madness is that of the paranoid introvert rather than the raving lunatic tormented by sexual guilt and visions of corporeal corruption.
It has been hailed in retrospect as the first ‘trance’ film, a sub-genre first identified by the American film historian P. Adams Sitney and defined as a type of expressionistic film in which a character, frequently the filmmaker, experiences a personal revelation by playing out a psychological drama in dream-like surroundings.
According to James Peterson: ‘The trance film was concerned with the psyche of its protagonist, but its first- person aspects – shots from the protagonist’s point of view – were qualified and mediated by the entrance of the protagonist as a character in the film.’ix
Deren uses a number of camera tricks to illustrate the state of mind of her protagonist (played by Deren and no doubt meant to represent Deren):
Meshes in the Afternoon is rife with images that suggest identity diffusion around issues of sexuality and gender. Her inability to accept herself, her womanhood, her sexuality, leads to her destruction at her own hand or through projection, his hand.
In order to suggest the degree of diffusion, Maya Deren uses unsettling camera angles and motion. The camera turns not horizontally but on a U-axis in order to simulate the woman’s feelings of diffusion. The extreme close-ups of the woman removing the key from her mouth suggest the clandestine implications of the key, as well as the key’s sexual subtext. Daren also highlights the violent and sexual character of the knife in the same visually powerful manner. Her use of jump cuts convey the heightened emotional state of the woman. Although the images of flowers and the seashore imply a romantic dimension of the tryst, the overwhelming number of close-ups of the woman [...] heighten the sexual-violent atmosphere in the apartment and the man-woman interface. The tragic ending confirms the primacy of identity diffusion.x
Most of the above effects can be achieved in other media but only as discreet entities. It is possible, for instance, to reconstruct Meshes as a series of still photographs but that would lack the fluidity of the moving image. Dreams are not made up of frozen instances. They are profoundly cinematic. If we could capture dreams and play them back, they would resemble Un Chien Andalou or Meshes of the Afternoon rather more than any number of Man Ray photographs or Salvador Dali painted dreamscapes.
Meshes is designed to be analysed and penetrated. It offers us an insight into the mind of Maya Deren as she acts out her inner concerns and anxieties
Un Chien Andalou, by contrast, is out to shock and unsettle. It is an assemblage of vaguely related scenes with which we are invited to construct a meaningful narrative. Bunuel and Dali’s next film L’Age D’Or is closer to Meshes – and mainstream cinema -in that it sets out to tell a story, albeit one that plays fast and loose with reality.
But regardless of the question of influence, it is true that the mechanics of Un Chien Andalou and of Meshes result from a theoretical application of the principles of cinema to the experience of the dream.xi
Bunuel’s straightforward style serves to heighten haunting images that disturb received notions of religion and sexuality.xii
Bunuel’s modernism emerges as well in his experiments with narrative construction. The films are full of repetitions, digressions, and movements between reality and fantasy. (Don’t worry if the movie’s too short,” he once told a producer. “I’ll just put in a dream.”xiii
Most modernists attack narrative in order to turn the viewer’s attention to other matters, but Bunuel treats narrative frustration as itself the basis of pleasure.xiv
… Bunuel contextualizes Un Chien Andalou by means of concepts such as ‘automaticity’, ‘the unconscious’, ‘the poetic’, ‘the spectator’, and the ‘avant-garde’.xv
The ‘automaticity’ of the film’s creation, for Bunuel, cancels ‘rational’, ‘aesthetic’ and ‘ethical’ considerations, together with those of ‘customary morality’, and points to the fact that Un Chien Andalou does not recount a dream but itself ‘profits by a mechanism analogous to dreams’. The nature of this mechanism is unclear, but the aesthetic consequence is that the film is able to draw upon putatively ‘liberated’ psychic impulses, formally deployed as ‘poetic’ constructs, rather than as ‘intended’ symbols.xvi
In spite of its commitment to the work of the unconscious, the film in fact has quite deliberate intentions. With familiar Surrealist idealism, Bunuel confers upon the film a strongly conscious sense of purpose when he argues that it makes ‘systematic use of the poetic image as an arm to overthrow accepted notions’. And although its makers reject ‘intended’ symbols, the scenario itself explicitly demands the clear and symbolic placement of objects on the school-desk in the scene with the male protagonist’s double (a demand which the film itself does not fulfil with any clarity). We need a more measured commentary than the maker of the film was able to provide, and a less allusive final flourish in the direction of psychoanalysis, to account for the poetics of Un Chien Andalou.xvii
What Dali and Bunuel achieved through this method of compiling a scenario was the liberation of their material from the demands of narrative continuity. Far from being puzzling, the film achieves the clarity of a dream. The extremity of the violence and the calculated abruptness of changes of time, place, and mood intensify the viewing experience without satisfying the conventional narrative demands of cause and effect.xviii
The strength of the identification in the context of the abrupt dislocations and discontinuities provides us with a vivid metaphor for the dream experience. Had Dali and Bunuel set about to study their own dreams and clinically re-create a dream on film, they could not have surpassed Un Chien Andalou.
“This film is concerned,” Maya Deren wrote, with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the sub-conscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and causal incident into a critical emotional experience.xix
In Meshes of the Afternoon, the heroine undertakes an interior quest. She encounters objects and sights as if they were capable of revealing the erotic mystery of the self. The surrealistic cinema, on the other hand, depends upon the power of film to evoke a mad voyeurism and to imitate the very discontinuity, the horror, and the irrationality of the unconscious.xx
Meshes explicitly simulates the dream experience, first in the transition from waking to sleeping (the shadow covers the eye and the window at the end of the first cycle) and later in an ambiguous scene of waking. The film-makers have observed with accuracy the way in which the events and objects of the day become potent, then transfigured, in dream as well as the way in which a dreamer may realise that he dreams and may dream that he wakes. They have telescoped the experience of an obsessive, recurrent series of dreams into a single one by substituting variations on the original dream for what would conventionally be complete transitions of subject within a single dream.xxi
Bunuel and Dali did not set out to create a film dream; the dreamlike quality of their work derives from the strength of their sources, from the ferocity with which they dispelled the rational while keeping the structural components of narrative. They show us neither sleep nor waking, but simply a disjunctive, athematic chain of situations with the same characters. The startling changes of place, the violence, the eroticism, the tactility, and above all the consistent use of surrealistic imagery, suggest the dream experience.xxii
Many film-makers seem to have been unable to project the highly personal psychological drama that these films reveal into their characters’ minds. They were realising the themes of their films through making and acting them. These were true psycho-dramas.
As psycho-drama, Meshes of the Afternoon is the inward exploration of both Deren and Hammid.xxiii
Maya Deren’s beliefs about the proper relations between the photographic and film media oppose those of the advocates of phenomological cinema. Like most of those who flourished in the period of early American modernism, Deren believed that each medium has its own unique properties which artists must exploit. Deren claimed that the properties of film derived from the camera and that the impartiality and clarity of the lense – its precise fidelity to the aspect and texture of physical matter – is the first contribution of the camera.xxiv
Despite his general reference to dream “symbols,” Bunuel does not seem to limit the potential range of dream “mechanisms” to the one Freud calls “the symbolic”. In fact, he and Dali surely used several different mechanisms as models. It seems certain in any case that the two Spaniards were fascinated by the mechanism Freud himself called “the most psychologically interesting achievement of the dream-work,” namely the translation of a latent verbal thought into manifest visual images.
According to Freud, the dream work must reformulate scandalous or morally-repugnant thoughts in order to allow them to be represented in the dream. This reformulation can proceed in several ways. For example, words can be found whose concreteness or, alternatively, ambiguity, enable them to slip past the censorship and serve as the basis for both the odd and innocuous dream images. This is the primary mechanism used by “verbal disguise” dreams. The important point to note here is that the form of (if not the motive for) this kind of operation on language readily lends itself for conscious use in the making of a film.
If Dali and Bunuel were intrigued by the possibilities opened up by such an adaptation – and that is my claim – then one might expect to find instances in Un Chien Andalou in which gestures, images, or indeed entire sequences were created by finding visual forms for verbal expressions.xxv
ii Freud, Sigmund The Interpretation of Dreams. Whitefish, Montana.. Kessinger Publishing. 2004. p.4
iii Drummond, Phillip. Un Chien Andalou Box Set, Connoisseur Films/BFI p.v
iv Kuenzli, Rudolf E. Dada and Surrealist Film. p. 200
v Drummond. p.ix
vi Sitney, P. Adams. VISIONARY FILM. The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978. p4
vii Sitney. p.15
viii Dancyger, Ken. The Technique of Film and Video Editing: History, Theory and Practice. p.220
ix Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order: Understanding the American Avant-garde Cinema By James Peterson p.74
x Dancyger. p.74
xi Sitney. p.15
xii Bordwell & Thompson. p.2
xiii Bordwell & Thompson. p.3
xiv Bordwell & Thompson. p.4
xv Drummond. p.ix
xvi Drummond. p.x
xvii Drummond. p.xi
xxi Sitney. p.13
xxii Sitney. pp.13-14
xxiii Sitney. p.18
xxiv Elder, R. Bruce. Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture. pp.341-342
xxv Kuenzli, Rudolf E. Dada and Surrealist Film. pp.144-145
It is an indisputable fact that sometime in the future mankind will stumble upon the secret of time travel. We can be certain of this because time travelers from the future have been captured on film as a quick perusal of the Internet will show:
Sceptics will of course point out that there is little or no scientific evidence to show that time travel by humans is even possible let alone an actuality, but such people are – ironically – living in the past. Experience has shown time and again that science is fallible. The Internet, however, isn’t.
But seriously folks…
As much as I love Dr. Who and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, I am forced to conclude that time travel does not and will not happen. I’m not saying that it’s a scientific impossibility but possible does not equal inevitable or actual.
Every now and then, some publicity hungry scientist will trot out some far-fetched scheme for traveling through time by taking advantage of the quirks inherent in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or the weirder extremities of quantum mechanics. This leads to somewhat lurid articles in the popular press about how one day our grand kids will be spending their vacations hunting dinosaurs or attempting to assassinate Hitler before he comes to power. There is, however, always a huge gap between what the physicists say and what the newspapers would have us think the physicists say.
What the physicists really do say invariably comes down to not an awful lot. It’s usually some head-up-their-arse guff along the lines of using vastly more energy than we could ever get our hands on to warp space-time and zap the odd atomic particle a few milliseconds into the past. Great big fat hairy deal. The basis for a temporal tourist industry it isn’t nor ever will be.
But let’s suppose for the sake of open-mindedness that a time machine isn’t beyond the wit of man. Our understanding of the workings of the universe is far from complete so maybe, just maybe…
Well, if we go down that route, we ought to ask ourselves one question: where are the time travelers?
The future is a long, long time. Whether time machines come into existence ten yours from now or ten thousand, makes very little difference. There are potentially millions of years of human history ahead of us. If only a few people from every one of those years decided (or will decide depending on your point of view) to pop back to see what homo sap got up to in this day and age, that would amount to an awful lot of people. In fact, its not entirely silly to posit that if time travel lies in our future, then most people on Earth today don’t belong here and haven’t actually been born yet.
Which brings me back to my question. If time travel is possible, where are the time travelers?
If there’s one of the buggers, there must be millions. And if there are millions, I for one would have spotted them. And I haven’t. Ergo, they ain’t here.
So let me, in the spirit of philosophical inquiry, put forward a hypothesis that explains this apparent paradox. Let us suppose that the laws of physics and human ingenuity could – and will – one day combine to build a time machine.
As we all know, if you travel into the past, you change the future. So Mr. Proto-Time-Traveler, by messing with causality, creates a future in which he is never born and therefore does not build a time machine.
No matter. We now have a new time stream in which someone else builds a time machine. Back they come to our time and yet again the future ain’t what it used to be.
And so on.
So we have ourselves a seemingly infinite set of futures, each one superseding the other and wiping out all previous futures.
With infinite futures, we end up with infinite possibilities, so somewhere down the line there has to be a future where time travel is never invented. Once that future comes into existence, it stays in existence because no time traveler ever pops back into the past to destroy it.
In other words, if time travel is possible, it will inevitably lead to time travel never happening (or have happened).
Think about it.
In recent weeks, this blog has experienced a significant (i.e. double digit) influx of followers. Which is nice except that I now feel obligated to update it on a more frequent basis than I’ve managed in the past. Oh the perils of being Mr. Popular!
Never mind. The solution is obvious. I’m just going to have to be less discerning about what I pontificate upon and assume that, if it matters to me, it must matter to someone else. Otherwise I’m just not going to have enough material to make it look like I actually give a tinker’s cuss about this here blog.
So, in that spirit, here’s something of a brain dump regarding Pete Townshend, the Who’s legendary guitarist.
I’ve recently finished reading his rather excellent autobiography ‘Who I Am’, a book that falls into the ‘hard to put down’ category. The main thing I took away from it was that Pete is in his own way every bit as eccentric as Keith Moon was. Which is not to say that he’s barking mad or anything. Just that he plays by his own rules.
Anyway, the book inevitably put me in mind of one night in Hounslow when I bumped into Mr. Townshend. It was in a pub called the Red Lion, which I believe (perhaps erroneously) has now been demolished in favour of a car park.
At the time, I wasn’t a big Who fan and didn’t know anyone who was. Punk rock was at its height and the Who hadn’t released anything for a couple of years. I was at that age when two years seems like a very long time and I’d assumed the Who were a spent force. Perhaps, like Herman’s Hermits and Freddy and the Dereamers, they did they odd gig at holiday camps for the sake of nostalgic mums and dads trying to regain their youth, but otherwise they seemed to have disappeared from sight.
A few months later, the Who released their film ‘The Kids are Alright’, a documentary about the life and times of the Who. And then along came ‘Quadrophenia’ and it finally got through to me that the band weren’t washed up at all. They could still kick arse, fill stadiums and sell records. So that told me, didn’t it?
But the point is, when I met Pete, I wasn’t exactly overawed. After all, this was just weeks after I’d bumped into the wonderful Polly Styrene (of X-Ray Spex fame) in the Marquee Club and bought her a drink (rum and black if memory serves).
Pete had just started the Eel Pie Rock Club (which disappointingly gets no mention his autobiography) and was using the Red Lion as its base. My brother and I, keen rock fans, went along every week for the few weeks it was at the Red Lion.
One night, the Simon Townshend Band were playing (Simon being Pete’s brother). I recall the musicianship was of a high standard but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. Too progressive for my punkish tastes.
As part of the show, the band set off a couple of smoke bombs. Now that’s a great idea if you’re playing the Hammersmith Odeon or Shea Stadium. Not so great, however, in a badly-ventilated room the size of a church hall. The room was suddenly full of chalk dust, which called for a quick exit to the bar next door where Pete Townshend was sitting on a bar stool nursing a drink.
He was chatting to someone who I seem to recall was the bass guitarist from Supertramp (a band even further from my radar than the Who).
Pete asked how we were finding the show. We enthused about there being a decent rock venue on our doorstep and expressed our hope that long may it remain so. (It didn’t, but that’s life.)
Pete and I chatted about the rock scene, which at the time was dominated by the punk and new wave bands. I was pleasantly surprised by Pete’s knowledge of what was going down with us kids and by his lack of resentment towards those who had seemingly usurped his crown and dumped him in the dustbin of history. Other rockers of his era were quite vitriolic in their condemnation of what they saw as ‘not real music’ but Pete seemed to see it as a good thing. (In his autobiography, he mentions that bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols made him realise that the Who needed to up their game.)
Frankly, my short encounter with Pete Townshend made little impression on me at the time. I don’t think I even mentioned it at work the next day. To me, Pete was just some old geezer (nearly 30 for goodness’ sakes!) I’d bumped into at the bar. He was down to Earth and pleasant but not someone I could at that time get excited about meeting.
When I mentioned the matter to my brother the other day, he ha no recollection of it whatsoever. So he’d clearly been even more under-whelmed than I’d been (although incipient senility might also be a factor).
Seeing ‘The Kids are Alright’ at its premiere in Twickenham started me on the path of becoming a Who fan. At first my enthuiasm was luke warm – more a grudging respect really - but over the years its gotten warmer and warmer and is now hot enough to boil an egg.
They say you should never meet your heroes. I say you should – but not before you’re ready to. That way you might at least think of asking for an autograph.
It’s been a busy few days for me. I’ve been persuaded to return to the film-making fray with a short film based on my short story, 9:03, which was originally published in Spinetingler, one of my all-time favest magazines (http://www.spinetinglermag.com/library/s09/903.html).
The film proved to be something of a family affair with my brother Phil, my sister-in-law Kathy and my niece Becky all making invaluable contribution as producer, catering manager and 1st AD respectively. I, of course, directed. The rest of the crew consisted of Becky’s boyfriend, Ollie, who proved himself a top-class gaffer and a dab hand with the clapperboard.
Apart from a policewoman played very ably by a girl called Banana, the entire cast consisted of members of the Wigan Ukelele Club (honestly)! Although none of them are professional actors, they all acquitted themselves very nicely.
A somewhat surreal and pleasant touch to the day was added by the cast and Phil (also a member of the Wigan Ukele Club) serenading us at lunchtime with such timeless classics as Dedicated Follower of Fashion and Dirty Purple Curtains.
The film was shot on HD (by my good self) and I’m very pleased with the rushes. What I’m not pleased about is the sound. Not that the sound is in any way bad – far from it. The problem is that we recorded it onto a netbook which has had a nervous breakdown and refuses to boot up. Quite what to do about that, I have yet to decide. In the meantime, I’m using the sound from the video tape for editing purposes.
So, yeah, things went wrong. They always do on shoots. But I see no reason why it won’t come together in the end. And when it does, I think we’ll have ourselves an accomplished film to show at festivals and (hopefully) use as a calling card to get together some funding for a feature film.
Watch this space.