“Punishment Park” (1971)
Acts of provocation are certainly the prerogative of the artist- it is one of the essential nutrients fueling that elusive but ever evolving abstractive absolute known as Art -and most certainly are convenient tools for the socially conscious filmmaker. Even run-of-the-mill commercial directors make use of the provocative manipulation of hearts (emotion) and minds (psychology); it’s their stock in trade. However, in the instance of deliberate political provocation, the filmmaker might be expected to responsibly employ a reasonable level of informed clarity if their film is intended to result in a stimulative experience beyond that of base propaganda.
Such is a great part of the controversy clouding an objective assessment of Peter Watkins’ “Punishment Park”, a film that takes great pains to present a particularly negative view of America as a government controlled state succumbed to fascism. The fact that Watkins is a British filmmaker, has also been the source of intense consternation in what has been labelled an unwelcome (and, by that same measure, unknowing) criticism from across the pond. Skeptics of his method and message cry “foul”, which might be a sympathetic (if not arguable) stance were films made by foreigners speaking in glowing terms of the Fifty States met with an equal sense of an illegitimate violation of sovereign tranquility, and with an equally vehement energy. This, of course, is not the case.
In the matter of “Punishment Park”, an incendiary work to be sure, to preserve the integrity of the critical eye one must muster the capacity for a rational discussion as to its form, technique and substance in separate but equal measure from the more rash, emotionally volatile implications of the film’s theme (which, in themselves can be dissected, but not in a vacuum of nationalist self-pity) just like any other film. It is, after all, just a movie.
There has been an overabundance of cautionary and speculative dramas produced over the years in which dystopian elements are presented as a matter of casual course, without a trace of explanation as to how such disintegrative vicissitudes of the present have taken place (generally, the cause seems to be as simple as a few decades passing, with time, evidently, being an irretrievable vicious bastard), with any context provided usually unexplained except as a part of a grander design involving humdrum variations of Orwellian totalitarianism ensconced in gaudy overtime efforts by studio art departments, but with no substantive correlation to the present. When are the logically evolving behavioral patterns organic to existing cultures ever reflected in these myopic visions? Being that Hollywood has developed an extremely unhealthy obsession with the post-nuclear (Aren’t mutations far more interesting than dealing with human beings?), one can only wonder what stimulus the movie industry would have alternately suckled dry were it not for the Manhattan Project? Hollywood’s tireless engagement with fabulist visions of alternate history, which are invariably pessimistic in conception, if not downright nightmarish, almost without exception conjure extremes of civil decay which not only become prematurely antiquated with the rather rapid approach of the predicted social collapse (an average gap of two to three decades doesn’t leave much wiggle room for a film to have lasting legacy) but, more importantly, lead to a coarsening of a cultural world view; a mercenary nihilism that has become the apparent touchstone for the century’s most important art form to offer as its most valued populist attraction. For the most part, these films are either pure escapism (think peplum gladiatorial epics housed in retro futurism) or allegorical fabrications designed to be inhabited solely by the most hopelessly depressed of cultural views. (If every road leads to an unexplained apocalypse, what price amusement?)
In the case of “Punishment Park”, the allegorical assertions are still alive and well, but are calculatedly cloaked in a deceptively recognizable verisimilitude. Director Peter Watkins allows for no mistaken pretense that he doesn’t mean business; that his film is to be taken at full alarmist value, that his intentions as a cinematic artist (a cinematist?) are in deadly earnest. Fair enough. One of the primal excitements of the cinema is being jolted out of our complacent seats, to be presented with (nay, even assaulted by) that which will elicit a primal response, be it laughter, sadness or even heated contemplation (Even boredom is an active reaction.); all in the service of honing the process of critical thinking. (Being entertained is not a guarantee, but it is a lovely side pocket bonus.) With “Punishment Park”, Watkins throws an acidic litmus test at the audience, designed to cast a castigating klieg light (there is no subtlety afoot here) on what he sees as the rank betrayal of the democratic abstract. It is a merciless rebuke, executed with an ironic take no prisoners ferocity that ultimately blinds the director to the film’s eventual reckless headlong run into a cul-de-sac of thematic diminution.
The film’s opening expository narration announces that the chief executive of the American government (Richard Nixon is enthusiastically and unhesitatingly credited with the fictional abuses in the film) has enacted Title II of the McCarran Act, which allows for the detention of those who, during a declared internal security emergency, are suspected of sabotage or espionage against the state. The premise of the film is to exploit the social dissention rending the political landscape at the time by the vivid documentation of the responsive totalitarian extremes by which the government will move to crush any form of social or political polarization. Since this is just the kind of state sponsored action that the Act was supposedly conceived to combat, is Watkins suggesting that it is the very nature of any governing body is to, by the process of ensuring its own survival, inevitably mirror the very concept of totalitarian rule it claims to fear and in the act of self-preservation, forcibly suppress its own citizenry? Or, is this merely an example of a calculated archival excavation of an antiquated and ill-considered piece of legislation (the McCarran Act, known officially as The Internal Security Act of 1950, was passed by a hasty Congress, overriding a veto by President Harry Truman earlier in the day) retooled to be used as a shady contextual excuse to advance a more specific and personal editorial agenda? Is this a polemic of universal applicability or a dagger directed more specifically at the heart of one particular administration? The answer must invariably color how the film is viewed.
The film’s scenario is one of prosecutorial extremity, which doesn’t hold up particularly well under the close scrutiny of enforceable jurisprudence, though within the confines of an allegorical cautionary tale, such falsifications of fact can be reasonably accepted with a grain of salt, as long as the intention of the narrative is presented without the pretense of documentary reality. However, it is Watkins’ operating aesthetic which blurs the line between the real and the fabricated; an aesthetic which relies upon the tools and methods of fact gathering journalism in creating a fictional mise-en-scene deliberately indistinguishable from “genuine” reality. His method brings a savage immediacy to his films, one in which intensified visceral responses tend to overwhelm immediate analytical dissection, but only momentarily. As a catalyst for post-screening discussion, the resultant stimulation is embracing, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into an intellectually convincing film experience when retrospectively appraised.
The film proposes that with the enactment of the provisions in Title II of the McCarran Act, the government would round up dissenters of all stripes and after the official pronouncement of a prison sentence following a Detention Review Board interview, each offender would be given the choice to either immediately serve their sentence or, alternatively, to take part in an exercise known as Punishment Park, in which they have three days to travel across a desert landscape, all the while avoiding capture by training National Guardsmen. If, in a three day period any of the prisoners freely arrives at the appointed destination (rather ham-fistedly symbolized by an American flag), the detainee will receive a commutation of sentence. Despite the best efforts to elevate the proceedings using his signatory docudrama style, Watkins’ conception is merely a politically trashy version of “The Most Dangerous Game”. Furthermore, for a film resulting from such audacious creative abilities, it is shocking to discover that it ultimately has absolutely nothing to say.
Watkins’ ability to fabricate reality using the tools of cinema verite is accomplished, and his technique emotionally draws in the viewer, but once his sets his fatalistic gambit in motion, he simply runs out of material. It isn’t long into the desert trek before his film begins to drag, the creative inspiration evaporating faster than perspiration on the prisoner’s clothing. Where he fails, and it is a colossal failure that was entirely unnecessary, was to expand upon his habit of partial improvisation by allowing every line of dialogue in the film to bubble forth spontaneously. Absent a written script , Watkins relies upon his performers to put the flesh on his conceptual skeleton, a decision which yields negligible results. His actors engage in a great deal of abusive shouting and empty posturing, yet nothing of value is expressed (the impression is of mad dogs barking at each other for ninety minutes). Whatever talent Watkins possesses as a filmmaker (and that is considerable), he falls short as a sociologist. As delineated in “Punishment Park”, the stubbornly defended ideologies of both sides seeming to find common ground only with their rhetorical skills founded in temper tantrums rather than in illuminating counterpoint. Both side seem particularly brainless, with a suggestion that the repressed detainees would use methods equally harsh if the means were on the other side. For all of the abrasively handwringing declaring a need for free expression, the problem with “Punishment Park” is that, as represented in the film, none of these people have anything to say.
The premise of the film presumes that the very worst will happen by the very worst to counter the threats of the very worst; the latter two assessments, aimed at those of equally reactionary but antithetical political viewpoints, though both limited by a similar pathology of suspicion and self-righteousness. It’s an unmistakable case study in paranoia vs. paranoia that could easily be the foundation of a scathing black comedy, and was in “Dr. Strangelove”. However, in “Punishment Park” there isn’t a single moment leavened by humor (even of the ironical variety) in the entire film, nor any human instinct on display (by either side) save pathological distrust, hatred, fear and the clarion call for the destruction of the other side’s viewpoint; one anarchic the other fascistic, but ideologically arriving at the same destructive meeting point on the film’s allegorical horizon. It’s a craven, sordid portrait of society in complete collapse, with the authorities reduced to spouting ridiculous regulatory doublespeak which doesn’t even address the issues in the room (there’s a great deal of defensive rhetoric about respect as if the government were taking the role of a scolding parent, which would be funny if the consequences weren’t so dire). What the film does unwittingly capture is the fundamental weakness of the zealot, who is certain, to an absolute degree, of the rightness of their position, yet panics at the first indication of an opposing thought; leading to the conclusion that zealotry, in any form, is merely a bully pulpit façade masking ideological insecurity.
“Punishment Park” is the work of an astonishingly talented director, but talent doesn’t always negotiate its way through fuzzy thinking unscathed. Watkins’ film is an important work, but ultimately (and this may be a first) one without substantive value.
Something remarkable happens when famed cinematographers turn their attention to directing; its as if their exquisitely subtle sense of judgment in manipulating light has left them completely in the dark in terms of distinguishing between the illuminating and the vacant in their choices of material. (This is a general rule with rare but glorious exceptions as in Raoul Coutard’s poetic 1970 Vietnamese drama “Hoa Binh”.) The great cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who at one point in his career took an admirable stab at directorial legitimacy in entertainingly simplifying D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers”, proves with the appalling “The Girl on a Motorcycle” that such opportunities for lightning to strike twice come with a caveat that the material must be prudently chosen and accessible to the demands of intelligent motion picture adaptation. “La motocyclette”, an unrelievedly self-consciously arty novella by André Pieyre de Mandiargues is a negative case in point, a work whose sole purpose seemed to be to impress impressionable literary juries and win awards; it is a slight work (both physically and artistically) filled with pretensions but no truths and strictly undramatic; a spartan work for an artist never mind a still journeyman director, so perhaps the end result is of no real surprise.
Cardiff’s movie follows the rather dull Rebecca (Marianne Faithfull), a wannabe libertine, who finds herself repressed with her new husband and spends the bulk of the film riding her motorcycle (an obvious symbol of psychic liberation- yes, its that kind of film) to her lover, all the while fantasizing in a randomly disconnected fashion vaguely representing stream of consciousness but more commonly recognizable as disorganized thinking. The fantasies are pedestrian when not conceding to outright banality, often enhanced with such mundane late 1960’s visual novelties as solarization and optically silhouetted flocks of superimposed birds (or are they stock bats from Hammer outtakes?) which reveal the heretofore unknown fact that apparently a woman’s fantasy sex life is indistinguishable from a Maurice Binder title sequence. Were Rebecca’s fantasies, recollections or anticipations the least bit revealing, it might have excused the film as a misconceived adaptation of a misconceived literary exercise, instead of an intolerably weary excuse for a series of admittedly well photographed picturesque locations (though a postcard would have been cheaper and would have taken less time) which merely changes into (slowly…painfully slowly) an extended commercial for Harley-Davidson. Absent of meaning or insight into the mind of its female character- or any imaginable woman, for that matter -there remains only the mystery as to what Cardiff was thinking of in tackling this tiresome dirge; while visually, as expected, the film is sometimes quite beautiful, except for the surprisingly underlit interiors and the shamelessly fake process shots that clearly expose the fact that Faithfull is sitting on a stationary bike through most of the film. The editing structure appears complex, with flashbacks within fantasies within flash forwards within flashbacks, but it’s ultimately a great deal of uselessly energetic effort attempting to replicate the European Art Film aesthetic while only achieving the emptiness of worst of the European Art Film By Way Of The Meaningless aesthetic. For all of the structural contortions, the film plays like a jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing.
However, the film’s problems do not end with the material; there is equal peril in the “appearance” of his lead (truth in advertising prevents it being called a performance), the inappropriately named Faithfull, in her who fails for a single frame to make you believe character: childishly voicing over the script’s insanely anti-profound existential vacuousness, or dressing her mug with ill-conceived facial responses to her inner monologues which more often not resemble Ron Lacey’s village idiot in “The Fearless Vampire Killers”. The character of Rebecca makes little sense anyway: a contradictory symbol of repressed female sexuality, whose volume of erotic encounters in flashback would put Emmanuelle to shame (much of the solarization was inserted to disguise the heavy nudity), Faithfull performs with an acting range from A to A, and is not well matched with that master of Euro-stolidity Alain Delon, whose monolithic passivity, as Rebecca’s lover Daniel, serves him well in a properly existential context (“Le samourai”. “Mr. Klein”) but in this film, his signature vacancy is one more element emphasizing Faithfull’s lack of emotional resonance; more than a minor problem for a film which is meant to systematically peel away the psychic layers of her character and a woman’s conflicted heart concerning, love, lust, sex and fidelity. In fact the only peeling of layers takes place in a brief moment of playfulness when Rebecca- in full leather garb -invites Daniel to “Skin me”; an amusing line, but hardly a substitute for an entire film’s failure of psychological insight. In fact, Faithfull’s only distinction is physically fitting well in that vacuum sealed leather outfit, but painting sexy attire onto a garbage can doesn’t masquerade the fact that it’s still a garbage can.
The film was grotesquely retitled “Naked Under Leather” for U.S. distribution by the wizards at Warner Bros., who probably felt compelled to salvage what they could by conning drive-in cycle film enthusiasts and prurient peek-a-boo breast enthusiasts to join forces before the release of the next Russ Meyer masturbatory sex-violence carnival, and buy tickets before realizing they’d walked into the kind of faux art exercise that makes you share the sentiments of Dr. Xavier in the final scene of “X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes”: If thine movie offends thee, thank God for film deterioration.
“Elvira Madigan” (1967)
Bo Widerberg’s “Elvira Madigan” is often recalled as the “most beautiful” film ever made. If one is limiting the observation to its visual elements alone, there is much merit to such ethereal claims, as the cinematography of Jörgen Persson has a diffuse elegance, seducing the eye with burnished browns, yellows and greens which blend into often breathtakingly pastoral images. “Elvira Madigan” is also recalled as being a beautiful film that is painstakingly superficial in its depiction of romantic fixation and the doomed path taken by its shallow protagonists. Much of this criticism was leveled due to the extraordinary level of attractiveness of the film seen as a substitution for narrative substance; a visual ravishment that more often than not seemed at odds with the physical degeneration of the characters. In a nutshell, it was too good looking to be taken seriously.
Curiously, there is evidence that favors both sides of the critical. argument, thus making it an easy film to appreciate though perhaps more difficult to admire.
Traditionally, if characters are depicted as to be deteriorating with hunger and hopelessness, it was assumed that every detail of their waning existence would be recorded in the most harrowing of heightened details (usually cueing the suffocating alarums of hyperactive orchestral string sections at their most manic) and that any failure to telegraph every tear squeezed from the eye was a failure in commercial storytelling. This was especially true during the years where shadowy black and white photography was able to effortlessly transmute the ingredients of Gothic romanticism (whether the subject film were of that oeuvre or not, the intention was the same) into mechanisms of emotional prodding of Pavlovian dimensions. This is a calculated approach to “art” relative to the most fundamental story telling traditions of the popular romantic melodrama in the cinema, especially those films issuing from the so-called “Golden Age” of major studio Hollywood. However, if we might assume that Widerberg were interested in more than merely catering to the treacly caprices of teary eyed viewers, then greater attention must be paid to the rather innovative design of his film. Rather than a standard chronicle of the disintegration of the purity of romantic illusion, Widerberg uses the full resources of his control over the aesthetic artifice of his mise-en-scene to reemphasize the intensity of contextual emotion within the character’s psyches by administering a suspension of one fixed point within the physical manifestation reflecting the lovers’ romantic euphoria that will remain hauntingly mocking throughout the length of the film. The details of physical debilitation are less important than the stubborn concession to the inevitability of fate that will consume the pair: they are bound for tragedy simply because that is their destiny.
Widerberg’s doomed lovers retain a pastel glow throughout the entire film, with the onset of physical decline indicated by the most imperceptible nuance of performance; often a mere shift in the gaze of a character, where the physical body seems resistant to fading whereas the light is literally blunted from the eyes. This external visualization of the romantic heart as the spiritual nexus in which both the tightrope dancer Elvira Madigan (Pia Degermark) and her deserter soldier lover Lieutenant Sixten Sparre (Thommy Berggren) succumb is demonstrative of the director’s method and addresses the generally unconsidered depths of the film’s bold rejection of the corporeal in sublimation to the purely ethereal: while the disintegration of the survival instinct is clearly evident, the romantic ideal remains impervious to corruption.
Based on the true story of Hedvig Jensen, a circus tightrope dancer popularly known under her performance alias Elvira Madigan, who had a passionate affair with the married Sixten Sparre, a Lieutenant in the Swedish army who went AWOL, enjoyed several weeks of until their money and means of sustenance were depleted. They were later discovered in the woods, having enjoyed one last picnic, both fatally shot with the Lieutenant apparently having administered both mortal wounds as an assumed act of desperation directly resulting from their dire circumstances.
For those unfamiliar with the true story on which the film is based, the director makes no pretense of granting allusions to anything but a bleak outcome, opening with a blunt expository title card which reveals the identity of the protagonists and alerts the viewer to the film’s inevitable denouement. Nor does the director (who also authored the screenplay) make any great attempt at enriching our understanding of the characters beyond the most basic circumstances of their adulterous affair or their deliberately chosen fugitive status. Yet we are expected empathize with this romantic attraction without question- not even depicted as obsession, but rather a perfunctory single-mindedness -which does create a palpable frisson with the pastoral mise-en-scene; which finds its surface representation in the striking cinematography and is ably reinforced by a deliberate editing rhythms emphasizing rustic simplicity as well as the acclaimed use of music, most pronouncedly the lovely Adante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, heretofore known as the “Elvira Madigan” Concerto. One waits for practicality to introduce itself to the lovers, but they merely continue on a withering self-destructive course that eventually bristles against reason. The increasing sense of disquiet underlying the painterly scenes masquerades the desperation that is inexorably closing in on the young romantics..
In that Widerberg is experimenting with the divisions between the aesthetically idealized romantic image and the audience’s natural (and, importantly, movie fed) instinctive emotional responses to such stimuli, (this is not dissimilar to how Jacques Demy was toying with the audience’s responses to certain precepts in the musical form with “Les parapluies de Cherbourg”) the sympathy with the lover’s (if indeed, there is any) can only exist for so long without abandoning common sense. Which may account for the violently divisive reaction to the film; with one side citing the film as a glorious monument to romanticism while the opposing camp dismissing the film as gaudily sentimentalized hogwash. Both extremes, however, may be missing the point in Widerberg’s method. After all, With the understanding of the inevitability of the lovers’ fates, the characters might achieve the same helpless sacrifice to the Fates as do the characters of Gaspar Noe’s later, more explicitly brutal “Irreversible”; except in Widerberg’s film, the characters are not pawns of historic inevitability (a misapplied assumption based on the fact that we know what is to happen) but shapers of their own pathetic destinies; both Sixten and Elvira are forewarned to their destiny and make no move to change it.
If there is any observant criticism of the lovers by Widerberg it may be in the form of a regressive childishness. Widerberg’s method, in creating a harsh juxtaposition between the despairing reality of the character’s fate within an aesthetic State of Grace suggests a view of the lovers as helpless innocents; childlike in the naivete with which they live in disregarding the debilitating forces of public disgrace and rapidly depleting finances on which to sustain themselves. That Widerberg is suggesting that innocent state of mind (the film is bookmarked by a children’s chorus performing Den blomstertid nu kommer, a traditional Swedish hymn sung by schoolchildren welcoming the summer months) is confirmed by the recurring motif of children in which it become possible to make a comparative assessment between between the natural innocent and the naive-by-way-of-narcissism; Sixten, especially, seem to suffer more from mental infantilism than anything approaching spiritual purity. Children represent innocence in a world of adults, but to attempt a transference of that innocence to Elvira and Sixten to explain their singularly destructive self-absorbed behavior is a contradiction of their behavior in interaction with others.
The pair are visited by a fellow Army officer, Kristoffer, a friend who implores Sixten to return to his wife and children and whose disdain for Elvira is barely concealed as he sees her as exploiting the weaknesses of his friend to the mutual disadvantage of all. It is during this crucial sequence, significantly, one where the important interaction is not between Elvira and Sixten, where the most revealing glimpses of character are made manifest. Kristoffer speaks in friendship toward his Army colleague, but is a pragmatist, taking into account the damages the actions of Sixten (precipitated by Elvira) have taken on others, as well as the self-damage Sixten (who dismisses such considerations throughout the film) has brought to himself. Elvira’s direct responses to Kristoffer are clearly well considered (as if she’d been internally dealing with all of these issues already) but puzzlingly obtuse, as if a direct answer to a direct accusation might shatter the delicate design of her romantic illusions. Still, there are hints of prescient resignation in how Elvira’s answers Kristoffer’s pointed accusations that she is must accept responsibility for her actions, with the young man insisting “there will be others.” Elvira’s sullen response borders on the cryptic: “No. He will be the last.” Now, what are we to make of this? Has Degermark jumped ahead and peeked at the end of the script? Within the contextual vacuum Widerberg has deliberately engineered (another reminder that he is the actual author of the film) there is no reason to assume such a talent for predestination, unless there is an unstated understanding between the lovers that theirs is a suicide pact. Herein lies the fundamental problem with Widerberg’s approach to the story: an almost total reliance on aesthetic formalism and virtually none with contextual exposition. Later in this section, Kristoffer confronts Sixten, engaging his friend with nonsensical remembrances until he reveals to him the attempted suicide of Sixton’s wife Henrietta. Rather than being racked with guilt over causing such a tragic action- Sixten accuses his friend of fabricating this last event, which may be the case -he lashes out at Kristoffer for possibly upsetting Elvira. This scene marks the last vestige of the possibility of external influence on the pair and so for the remainder of the film the audience is left to subsist on a paltry diet of incessant romantic longueur with a pair of self-absorbed underdeveloped dullards until they walk to their untimely destinies.
If one might regard both Sixten and Elvira as universal representations of all star-crossed lovers found in literature and history- comparisons to the Mayerling affair are inevitable -the absence of verisimilitude is problematic and there is no motivation given for their refusal to act in a more directly sensible fashion to attempt to survive, earn money or escape to a different, safe location. To paraphrase Shakespeare: “the fault lies not in the stars, but in themselves.” However, the director does frame the film in an elliptical visual structure which satisfies both his depiction of the lover’s as childlike innocents and as representatives of the timeless nature of love. The first scene in the film shows Cleo’s daughter playing in a meadow until she stumbles upon the bodies of Elvira and Sixten, in a tableau we assume is the discovery of their dead bodies, however, it is only a feint. The last scene in the film similarly shows Elvira in a meadow acting as did the young child until she is shot (offscreen) dead by Sixten. The film ends on a frozen frame of Elvira happily handling a butterfly; a significantly suspended moment as Sexton hesitated to fire his weapon at Elvira while she seemed clouded with depression, but upon a sudden rejuvenation of an innocent spirit takes her life. Widerberg’s entire visual design of the film, meant to enhance and enrich a subject of eternal expressions of love, would seem to be completely undone by this notion of murder-suicide as a means to destroy emotional purity as a cathartic therapy.
Despite the director’s artistic intentions, this does not make for illuminating- only a confused -drama. Notwithstanding the characters being enveloped in the trappings of classically rendered compositions; the visual scheme is not unlike the French Impressionist style, especially Renoir, the central figures are rather dull and ordinary in their behavior. It is left for Nature to supply the profundity they themselves are too inarticulate to personify. Clearly Widerberg is on to something interesting, but the visual design of the film cannot exist within a contextual vacuum and this is where the film’s harshest critics have found far too much fertile soil for their knife sharpening. Ultimately, there is something particularly galling about this Paean to celebrate the self-absorbed. In Widerberg’s pretty but empty film, there is a willful abandonment of responsibility and empathy in both Sixten and Elvira that make each unworthy of the complexities of spiritually ascendant love that would translate into acceptance with the great romantic figures of history and myth that find their passions preserved and celebrated in Art.
ALPHAVILLE, UNE ÉTRANGE AVENTURE DE LEMMY CAUTION (1965)
One of the interesting characteristics of many of the young men associated with La Nouvelle Vague was their affinity toward what in higher literary circles would be regarded as trashy pulp fiction. Francois Truffaut, for example, was drawn to this type of material as witness his productions of “La marièe était en noir” and “La sirène du Mississipi” both the product of novels by Cornell Woolrich, (“The Bride Wore Black” and “Waltz Into Darkness”, respectively) as well as his 1960 “Tirez sur le pianiste” which was an adaptation of the 1956 novel “Down There” by David Goodis.
Jean-Luc Godard, of course, began his feature film career in 1960 with “À bout de souffle”, a nod to the noirish influences on both literature and film (not insignificantly, the screen story is by Truffaut) and in 1965 wrote and directed “Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution”, a continuation of a popular series of French detective thrillers based on the very pulp/noir influenced adventures of Lemmy Caution, a character invented by British writer Peter Cheyney, and the subject of ten different novels before Cheyney’s untimely death in 1951 at the age of 55. Caution was originally conceived as an agent of the F.B.I. (though British, Cheyney wrote Caution in the American noir idiom) until later becoming a private investigator. Caution was depicted as hard and no nonsense man of immediate and violent action, in the tradition of other American hard-boiled detective characters like Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne (that literary characterization heavily watered down in the still enjoyable series of films starring both Lloyd Nolan at Fox and Hugh Beaumont at PRC) and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, though his writing style in the Caution books contained strained imitations of the characteristic lyric similes in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. Caution became the basis of a popular series of French detective noirs starring expatriate American Eddie Constantine, who at the time was finding popularity as a European recording artist, and was a protege of the legendary Edith Piaf; his dour, pock-marked countenance finding a perfect home in the hard-boiled world of detective fictions where these same characteristics found relatively closed doors in finding any momentum pursuing a career in Hollywood studios.
“Alphaville, une ètrange aventure de Lemmy Caution” was the eighth Caution film to hit the screens, each starring Constantine. The character made his screen debut in 1953 with Bernard Boderie’s “La môme vert de gris” (“Poison Ivy”) and followed in rapid succession in 1953 again with Jean Sacha’s “Cet homme est dangereux” (“This Man is Dangerous”), in 1954 with Boderie’s “Les femmes s’en balancent” (“Dames Get Along”), in 1955 with Pierre Chevalier’s “Vous pigez?” (“Diamond Machine”) and three successive films directed by Boderie, 1960’s “Comment, qu’elle est!” (“Women Are Like That”), 1962’s “Lemmy pour les dames” (“Ladie’s Man”) and 1963’s “À toi de faire…mignonne” (“Your Turn, Darling”). All were typically straightforward tough guy detective stories with varying degrees of humor thrown in.
Enter La Nouvelle Vague enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard whose vision of the no nonsense tough guy Lemmy Caution was not straightforward, nor even conventionally hard-boiled, but a philosophic wanderer in trenchcoat and hat, waxing poetic while blasting his revolver and stuck in a science fiction universe of no discernible location. To say this idiosyncratic mixture was puzzling and off-putting to many is an understatement, yet there is an interesting method to this mad melange that has outward pretensions of venturing beyond merely random pastiche; an increasingly favorite convention of later filmmakers whose life experience seemed formulated and defined completely by film schools. (Joe Dante is an example of such a “director” who consistently throughout his films feels compelled to feature references to his favorite films- as if recalling trivial movie details bestows brownie points for excellence on his own paltry efforts- and pointlessly anachronistic cameos of the players who fed his childhood imagination.)
The film finds Caution as a Secret Agent (designated 003, which should indicate the ingenuity of pop culture satire in the film) entering Alphaville from the Outlands at 12:17 Oceanic time, greeted by a sign which reads: ALPHAVILLE- SILENCE LOGIC SAFETY PRUDENCE. Clearly any allusions to “1984” are blatant and intentional, as are later references to Naziism and the Cold War. Despite the film assumedly taking place in a futuristic world, the constant attributions to 20th Century experiences places the events in a possible “alternate” world. Nor are references to other galaxies reliable as Godard seems to be having a fine time developing his own vernacular, a cinematic version of the Orwellian doublespeak.
The “1984” connection is central to the film and the essential formative influence. The previously mentioned reference to Oceania, the sign notating the four precepts of Alphaville mirroring the four ministries overseeing Oceania, the allusions to doublespeak as Natacha says one thing but physically gestures the opposite intention, the omnipresent electronically engineered voice of Alpha 60, as smothering a presence as the Big Brother is Watching You posters, the dictionaries misleadingly called “bibles” with the explanation that vocabulary is continuously replaced or entirely deleted, plus the invention of compound words such as Caution’s statement he is “driving through intersidereal space” have vivid resemblance to the concept of Newspeak and most central, the words “I Love You” which in the novel Julia passes to Winston Smith in a secret message, whereas in the film they are the final words from Anna Karina’s Natacha to Caution, her moment of independent break from the influences of Alpha 60 and the triumphant return of her own individualistic impulses.
While pastiche is used for more than cosmetic effect, it is an overplayed conceit that pulls the viewer out of the immersive filmgoing experience to continually remind of the artificiality of the film’s universe, no doubt a ruse by the director to explore more forcefully his desire to deconstruct film into its purest form of “truth”, which is an entirely legitimate idea except that the tired content of the film does nothing to advance such an approach. At the same time, why attempt such an exercise partially using a cinema genre in which realism is, more often than not, jettisoned in the adherence to the examples of Expressionistic artifice then deconstruct that layer of artifice, but without a cogently developed reason for doing so? Many of Godard’s central reference points, especially those with a profound literary basis- Borges, Cocteau, French surrealist Éluard– would initially appear to find a relevant inclusion in this patchwork tale of dystopian society, while the more pronounced culture references are almost insultingly surrounded in quotation marks as if Godard doesn’t believe his audience is smart enough to pick up on his trail of pop art bread crumbs. The scientist von Braun is an obvious reference to the German scientist instrumental in both Nazi and NASA programs, and the later reference that he may have been previously known as Nosferatu; the Stoker/Murnau reference applied to a Romanian word (which in actuality does not exist) presumed to mean “undead” – an tenuous allusion of Orwell’s “unman”? Obvious, and rather infantile references are also made to, amongst others: Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy and Terrytoon magpies Heckle and Jeckle, belaying what presumably is meant to be a further extension of the SF/noir genre osmosis into a more appealing melange of hipster pop-art. The inclusions of such reference points are not only thematically irrelevant, they come of as alarmingly smart-alecky, as if Godard is consciously sneering at the audience for their attention.
The ultimate failure of the film lies in the fact that pastiche is not merely used as a form of narrative grouting, but as the structural design of the entire film, the reason that its distinct parts fail to coalesce, exposing the empty head of the film. In the end, there is very little originality at work here. The halfhearted noir element becomes is only a gimmick on which to present the narrative, but then it seems the integration of any genre might have equally sufficed: western, musical, circus film. And if there is no meaningful contributory reason to have the genre elements introduced, how are we to view the director’s decision except as a bit of self-indulgent affectation? And what of the inclusion of the science fiction element? With the exception of the very idea of the supreme controlling entity being a machine, a concept brought to the screen with far greater finesse in Joseph Sargent’s neglected “Colossus: The Forbin Project”, there isn’t much there. (A few fleeting references to galaxies do hardly a formidable SF concept make.)
Filmed on the cheap, with no budget for the grandiosity of production design and effects that usually distract from the paucity of ideas expressed in modern film SF, “Alphaville” was filmed entirely within the achitecturally sterile modernity of various Parisian environs, It is a landscape both familiar and foreboding, utilitarian and functionally labyrinthine; a world in which the cold hand of the Alpha 60 impressed logic deprives human perception of the concept of warmth, comfort and expression. On the other hand, as representing the ideological alternative we are presented with the granite-like countenance of Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution, and there is little hint that this agent of the “Outlands” comes equipped with a stirring agenda with which to incite a revolt against either von Braun or his dictatorial creation. Caution’s method of destroying Alpha 60, by presenting the logic obsessed machine with an imponderable thought- poetry- is rather a bit of inexcusably lazy and illogical screenwriting when you consider this same computer opens the film with a far more arcane contemplation from Jorge Luis Borges.
Consider that the conventions of the film noir genre are atypical of other cinematic forms, due to the depiction of the hero battling in a completely anarchistic environment whose very immoral components were anathema to the censorial leash of the Production Code, and thus required an elemental shift from what was normally put under a rigorous moral scrutiny, to an alteration of tone and substance which would masquerade offensive issues of morality under a polarizing cloak of shadowy surfaces and disproportionate levels of fatalistic retribution. Whatever its aesthetic flourishes, film noir was about the creative depiction of the “bad” under the baleful glare of the “champions” of the “good”. Science fiction, on the other hand, was under no such restrictive considerations. Morality with regards to science is a philosophical construct, not necessarily consistent with the violent and sexual undertones of Godard’s approach to the material which, as stated, is admittedly unconventional right from the start. The film begins with many of the expected characteristics of the noir genre: voiceover narration, menacing nocturnal backdrops, a cigarette smoking tough guy in a trenchcoat, dramatically overwrought musical punctuations- yet, there is something disarming at the same time. There is an inordinate amount of time (for a man who supposedly revolutionized the concept of the jump cut) spent setting up scenes. Arrivals at hotels and rooms are composed only seemingly endless tracking shots in corridors (Raoul Coutard’s photography is ingeniously creative throughout the film, and scholars might note the quality of Godard’s films took a distinctive nose dive when they ended their long association.) as if the talk of “the outer cities” and “the galaxy” indicates that long distance space travel is taking place; a hybrid mixture of scientific reference with the noir vernacular. (This predates Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” by seven years, in which he also symbolized space travel through an extended auto travel sequence.) In that Godard has removed the character of Caution from his normal stylistically artificial environment of the noir thriller and placed him in an equally “unreal” alternate SF landscape, one might have expected there to be a knowing commentary about how the artificiality of genre conventions subvert “truthful” explorations of any meaningful emotional or intellectual depth, but the truth is, the only reason Godard conveys for the odd hybrid nature of his film is there is no reason at all.
When Godard depicts the women of Alphaville as either numbered, tranquilized pleasure drones, or as participants in an aquatic circus that ceremoniously retrieves or finishes off execution victims in a gymnasium pool, what is his point? Is this a satiric take on women in SF? In noir? Or is it the hint of a deeper, more personal misogyny? After all, if the society were controlled by the logical brain of the Alpha 60, it would seem that gender specificity would hardly be an issue in the assignment of social roles. This is hardly the logic of the machine but of the director and his complete confusion of just what it is he is attempting to express. Ultimately Godard doesn’t seem particularly interested in his chosen genre conventions except to use them as hooks to hang costumes on borrowed ideas that have fractionalized meaning outside of their original context, and remain annoyingly inert in the vacuum he substitutes for his own lack of substantive thematic contributions. What he attempts to do using both the foundational elements of both SF and noir is to present legitimate ideological impressions on an ill-conceived novelty skeleton but in doing so actually deconstructs “literary” truth into “cinematic” triviality.
Godard has been publicly possessed by his arcane concept of “truth” in Cinema but the sadder truth, evident on the screen, is that with this misconceived and often shamelessly cannibalized fusion of disparate genre elements masquerading as profundity, the director has proven he is wearing no clothes.
“Africa, Addio!” is a follow up offering by the “documentarians” Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco E. Prospere who produced the popular “Mondo Cane”. The film is filled with gorgeous imagery; the kind of cinematography that normally enraptures the senses and nourishes the optic nerve. However, in this instance, it is the content of these images that presents serious and disturbing issues that, unlike the intention of the serious documentary, lends its attention back to the filmmakers rather than their subject; issues such as the balance of aesthetic concerns against the moral responsibility of the director(s).
Ostensibly the subject of the film is the end of Colonial rule in Africa yet the true focus is in cataloging, in hideously graphic detail, the slaughter of African wildlife and humans alike, accompanied by a mock-somber narration that purports to explain the historical and cultural anomalies that not only allow these activities, but perpetuate them.. The lengthy sequences illustrating the wholesale slaughter of elephants and other wild game are extremely shocking in their brutality, then numbing and then outright nauseating, as the visual grisliness goes on and on, uninterrupted, ad infinitum. Now, one may consider whether there is legitimacy in a approaching an important subject with its basis in the repulsive and the answer may well be in the affirmative. But only up to a point. Common sense dictates that there is a wide margin between the usefully illustrative and the gratuitous, and in their zeal to contextualize their subject without any legitimate sense of proportion, Jacopetti and Prospere’s images submerge into the realm of Grand Guignol., as the moral foundation of their approach begins to reveal itself as anything but obscure. What we are seeing is not the genocide of a species (or several) but the celebration of carnage. Even the faux socially conscious narrative hesitates at this point, for what is there really to say? The images begin to evolve into a sense of the hyper-real where the documentary context no longer applies and where raw and base sensation take over. One gets the queasy feeling that the filmmakers are truly enjoying their visual trophy. After all, if the point was to raise awareness of the barbaric behavior being visited upon the Animal Kingdom, would not even a small fraction of the footage have sufficed?
Later portions of the film deal, in the midst of increasingly perplexing contextual obscurity, with rebel uprisings and the repelling of said insurrections by military means, including the use of mercenaries. The historical background of the events depicted are vague at best, disturbingly so, as the grislier scenes seem to merely to exist to up the ante from wildlife slaughter to human, ultimately featuring the inclusion of an on-camera execution of a political prisoner; the subject of tremendous controversy at the time of the film’s release, with accusations of the filmmaker’s rather blatantly prodding the soldiers into committing the execution for their cameras. What then is the excuse for the filmmaker’s “journalistic” methodology except to produce the world’s first true “snuff” film?