Monthly Archives: October 2013
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.