"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Notable Marquees in Movies

In Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), we spot a marquee for Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954). Very subtle, Jean-Luc!

Can you think of any other notable movie marquees in films? I’m especially interested in marquees that seem to fade into the background or appear as part of the mise-en-scène for no particular reason.

Martha Rosler Goes to the Movies

A photo I took of Martha Rosler giving a lecture in Shanghai. Fun fact: That back of the head belongs to Anton Vidokle.

Note: This past summer, Martha Rosler was kind enough to sit down with me for a profile in Joan’s Digest, a new feminist film journal. You can read the full piece and see what she’s been up to here. Anyway, we also gabbed about the movies, a topic I can’t resist. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

When Martha Rosler was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, she was the teaching assistant to none other than Manny Farber. He was a profound influence on her thinking (“He taught me everything”) and brought a host of filmmakers to lecture to her cohorts, including Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin.

Anna Karina in Alphaville (Godard, 1965)

Favorite movies of all time: Alphaville and Kiss Me Deadly

On Luis Buñuel: “In one of the classes I TA’ed for Manny, we watched the entire filmmography of Buñuel. I loved many of his films; I despised Belle du Jour but loved Los Olvidados — it’s like Dragnet, but Surrealist.”

On Tree of Life: “I did like Terrence Malick until I saw Tree of Life, which I thought was hilarious…It was engrossing but weirdly grandiose and self-indulgent. My assistant told me that Malick is a Heideggerian…I thought he was simply a pantheist. Badlands is an incredible film, and so is The Thin Red Line but as his budgets get bigger, he gets worse.”

On Imitation of Life: “I love to what Sirk did with the myth of the natural woman…and the image of Hollywood as a completely vacuous and dangerous machine. He shows the raw edges of race and class privilege and pretension, but he understood that no matter how cynical and revelatory he meant his films to be, they were always taken as straightforward, as just what the characters are enacting. The Left reviles that film, but I’m always saying to them, ‘Watch the movie!’”

Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959)

Contempt (Moravia first, then Godard)

On a friend’s recommendation, I just finished reading Alberto Moravia’s Contempt, which was adapted by Godard for his eponymous film. Moravia’s novels have served as fertile source material for several iconic European auteurs, including Bertolucci (The Conformist), and Vittorio de Sica (Two Women). A new edition of Contempt was published by the NYRB Classics imprint in 2004, along with Moravia’s Boredom. English translations of these novels had been out of print for close to 50 years, so their re-introduction heralded something of a mini-Moravia renaissance.

Known for his rendering of modern psychological states, Moravia’s novels are rife with cultural references, such as German opera and Greek tragedy. However, while Godard shares this proclivity towards reference, he abandons Moravia’s first-person narrative in favor of numerous meta-narratives, alienation over traditional identification with characters, and an all-over Brechtian estrangement of the audience. Godard keeps the basic framework of the plot intact, yet manages to produce a film that feels wholly alien to Moravia’s sensibility. For more on the distance between the two “Contempts,” there’s a lovely essay by Anne Carson that looks at both texts though the eyes of a classicist. But for me, the formal rigor of Godard’s film far surpasses the artfulness of Moravia’s writing—a judgement I concede is completely unfair since I read Moravia in translation. But to each her own.

Godard’s comments on the novel are less than charitable — perhaps he resented remaking a bestseller, regarding the text as yet another ugly manifestation of the highly commercial production. Regardless, his notes on the adaptation are uncharacteristically direct, revealing his intentions like an overhead light illuminating the corners of the room.

Godard on Le Mépris

Moravia’s novel, Contempt, is a nice, vulgar one for a train journey, full of classical old-fashioned sentiment in spite of the modernity of the situations. But it is with this kind of novel the one can often make the best films. I have stuck to the main theme, simply altering a few details on the principle that something filmed is automatically different from something written, and therefore original. There was no need to try to make it different, to adapt it to the screen All I had to do was film it as it is: just film what was written, apart from a few details, for if the cinema were not first foremost film, it wouldn’t exist. Mélies is the greatest, but without Lumière he would have languished in obscurity.

Apart from a few details. For instance, the transformation of the hero who in passing from book to screen, moves from false adventure to real, from Antonioni inertia to Laramiesque dignity. For instance also the nationality of the characters: Brigitte Bardot is not longer called Emilia but Camille, and as you will see she trifles none the less with Musset. Each of the characters, moreover, speaks his own language which, as in The Quiet American, contributes to the feeling of people lost in a strange country. Here, though, two days only: an afternoon in Rome, a morning in Capri. Rome is the modern world, the West; Capri, the ancient world, nature before civilization and its neuroses. Le Mépris, in other words, might have been called In Search of Homer, but it means lost time trying to discover the language of Proust beneath that of Moravia, and anyway that isn’t the point.

“The point of Le Mépris is that these are people who look at each other and judge each other, and then are in turn looked at and judged by the cinema–represented by Fritz Lang, who plays himself, or in effect the conscience of the film, its honesty. (I filmed the scenes of The Odyssey which he was supposed to be directing in Le Mépris, but as I play the role of his assistant, Lang will say that these are scenes made by his second unit.)

“When I think about it, Le Mépris seems to me, beyond its psychological study of a woman who despise her husband, the story of castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity who, like the heroes of Verne and Stevenson, one day read a mysterious deserted island, whose mystery is the inexorable lack of mystery, of truth that is to say. Whereas the Odyssey of Ulysses was a physical phenomenon, I filmed a spiritual odyssey; the eye of the camera watching these characters in search of Homer replaces that of the gods watching over Ulysses and his companions.

A simple film without mystery, an Aristotelian film, stripped of appearances, Le Mépris proves in 149 shots that in the cinema as in life there is no secret, nothing to elucidate, merely the need to live—and to make films.

P.S. Another advantage that the film has over the book is the score—which I unconditionally love. You can download the iconic theme music here: 16 Le Mépris-Theme De Camille.

Some belated documents surrounding an Illegal screening of Film Socialisme

A friend just pointed me to this fascinating exchange of emails published in the December issue of Harper’s surrounding an underground screening of Film Socialisme that never took place. Here’s the gist of it: the collective Red Channels organized the screening; the Film Society found out and they (along with Wild Bunch, the film’s distributor) threatened to sue if they went through with it. Not surprisingly, the screening was canceled. I remember being invited to the screening on facebook, so I included that text too, because I think it’s pretty telling.

Here’s a PDF of the email exchange here (quick read, I promise).

And here is the original invite promoting the “ non-screening”

Godard’s Final Struggle: Socialism(e) from Below
We are not hosting, organizing, or sponsoring a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme. Our event is not the World, North American, United States, festival, or theatrical premiere of Film Socialisme. Our event is in no way a violation of agreements between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Wild Bunch, Wild Bunch and Vega Film, Vega Film and Jean-Luc Godard. Our event is not in opposition to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s premiere of Film Socialisme. We wish no one any alarm. Our event is a group reflection and response to the future and legacy of Jean-Luc Godard, filmmaker, in anticipation of his newest feature film, Film Socialisme, screening officially at the New York Film Festival. We welcome discussion on the future of socialism, internationally, with filmmakers and socialists, artists and revolutionaries. It’s a party. Please join us at this private social night.

Some Comments on Godard


Godard’s new film Socialisme premiered at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday, and is also being streamed online (though sadly only available to those in France). Though I wasn’t able to view the film (mon dieu did i try) the few reviews I’ve scrounged up are all tentative attempts to make sense of the subject matter, and avoid passing judgment on its aesthetic merits. The film is undoubtedly layered and opaque, and part of the confusion seems to stem from the deliberately obfuscatory subtitles — perhaps Godard’s resistance to translating the film into coherent English is an attempt to undermine its commodification. There is also a lot of controversy over Godard’s no-show at the press conference and the statement he faxed (faxed!) over to Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s director:

Suite à des problèmes de type Grec, je ne pourrai être votre obligé à Cannes.Avec le festival, j’irai jusqu’à la mort, mais je ne ferai pas un pas de plus. Amicalement, Jean-Luc Godard [“Due to problems of Greek type, I can not be obliged to you in Cannes. I would go unto death for the festival, but I will not be able to take a step further. Regards. Jean-Luc Godard”]
This note was accompanied by a portrait of Ozu.

In our flurry to understand the most enigmatic of directors we cannot resist trying to decode this statement. Do “problems of the Greek type” allude to the present-day riots, or is it a more oblique Classical reference? Does Ozu have any special significance? And does the potent phrase “jusqu’à la mort” suggest health problems?

The film also ends with the title card displaying the words “NO COMMENT” (There are no credits). This strikes me as an extraordinarily pessimistic coda, and the lack of subject position/opinion betrayed by this statement is in and of itself a commentary on the possibility of political action. “No comment” is a deflecting phrase, used to fend off ornery inquiries and to eradicate conversation. I can’t really determine anything beyond that without having seen the film, but here is the elliptical trailer (with English subtitles):

Whatever one may think of Godard’s talent as a director, it is difficult to deny the breadth of his intelligence — evidenced by his copious references. When faced with the daunting prospect of having to produce copy on a Godard film after a single viewing, it is only natural that most reviews will fall into one of the two established camps: anti-intellectual hostility or cinephilic adulation. While I personally think Godard is a great director who has produced a few stinkers (e.g. King Lear), I just wish that critics would abandon their usual criteria for evaluating his films, because for Godard, the rules don’t apply (and they never did). Take a deep breath. Soak in the composition and the movement. Use the film as a skein and weave your thoughts around it — the words, the music, the images.

My favorite essay on Godard is actually quite critical of his films — but evinces a strong fascination with his aesthetic philosophy and a desire to determine if the films are good, bad or something in between. The writer is none other than Raymond Durgnat and it is entitled “Asides on Godard” (from The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Ian Cameron). Here are some excerpts that seem especially relevant in light of Socialisme:

I. God, Godard, Godot

Godard is of Swiss Calvinist stock. His art is basically a Protestant one. Grey, ascetic images reduce the world to a concept of itself. He photographs Karina like Dreyer photographs Falconetti, but reduces her to just a face, mysterious, melancholy, ethereal even gaiety, where Dreyer’s images are sculptural, anguished. There’s flesh in Dreyer, despite the resonances, resemblances between flesh and stone, which asceticism apart, carry the implication that people are real and strong like stone, like rocks of ages. Bu in Godard everything is a grey, jerky flow. Godard’s is an art of the plastic age, of fluent, pliable, putty characters.

Godard’s words-on-images suggest an agnostic, nay nihilistic Bresson, and indeed the Catholic critic Henri Agel accused Bresson of Jansenism, which is a heresy with many Calvinistic connections. Godard’s is a Calvinistic mind astray in a Godless, soulless world, a world of accidents which because they lack essence lack even a felt existence…

Godard’s films which seem to me ludicrously bad fascinate several people whose opinions I respect, and I explain their infatuation as follows (which infuriates them). His evocations of an emotionally and morally lost world would appeal to my acquaintances’ disillusionment, their pain as nice, idealistic, upper-middle class liberals, finding themselves in today’s cool, fluid, cynical world. His despair catches their own melancholy. His best films are those where feelings of pain and loss are most plausible: À Bout de Souffle, Let Petit Soldat, and one or two passages in Pierrot Le Fou, notably the beautiful ending. The feelings are plausible because the characters have positive, focused desires, the frustration of which we observe.

There are of course other reasons for responding to Godard’s duller films. One may be a connoisseur of remarkable idioms and styles. One may be skeptical to the point of nihilism, suffering from a moral and emotional impotence behind which lies just the breath of remorse that appears in Godard’s films…Or one may admire Godard’s bad films because of their sense of the world as unreal — a schizophrenic art for a schizophrenic epoch.

Film Socialisme may very well be the latter.

Hunger [Steve McQueen, 2009]

Steve McQueen’s Hunger comes out on DVD today from Criterion, and I can’t think of an art-house title from the past year that is more deserving of the “Criterion” treatment (including what must surely be a harrowing Blu-ray release). A video artist turned feature filmmaker, McQueen refuses to talk about his work in convenient, journalist-friendly soundbytes, or define what it’s about for the viewer. In an interview, he cites a conversation between Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard as a source of inspiration for Hunger:

“I found this interview that Godard did with Pauline Kael two days after Bobby Sands died, where Godard essentially said, “The reason why Bobby Sands is important is because he’s childish.” I got this image in my head of this child sitting at the table with some food, and the parents saying, ‘You’re not leaving this table until you finish eating it.’ The kid says no, wrongly or rightly. What time a child goes to bed, or the clothes a child wears, those things are dictated to by experience, and it’s a common situation that the only power a kid has is to refrain from eating. It’s a situation all of us know.”

I love how that one word “childish” spurs an image that allows McQueen to take a specific historical moment — the hunger strike of Bobby Sands — and translate it into a common experience. Here’s what Godard said in the actual interview (Pauline Kael is asking him about film being used a a political weapon):

JLG: …I think a good example is La Chinoise…It was made in 1967 before the 1968 events in France, before the Weatherman here, before the Baader-Meinof in Germany, or the Red Brigade in Italy. At the time it was hated by the left, who said, “These people are ridiculous.” And today, after seeing it fifteen years later, we discover that all of those people, even Bobby Sands a few days ago, are childish, and it’s because they are childish that they are important people.

“Childish” here isn’t used as pejorative — Godard seems to be using it as an adjective to encapsulate a strength of conviction, an uncompromising will, and a sense of stubborn refusal. In La Chinoise, there is a pivotal scene in which the university student Veronique has a conversation with Francis Jeanson, a leftist professor. He repeatedly questions her morals, her anger, and what he considers to be her childish revolutionary actions.


It is evident that the second part of Hunger, in which Bobby Sands confronts a priest who tries to dissuade him from becoming a martyr, is directly inspired by this train conversation. Like La Chinoise, they argue in a very long take, almost in silhouette, forcing the viewer to focus on the dialogue.

Other McQueen news: I recently dropped by his show at Marian Goodman, and despite having missed Yoko Ono by mere moments, I was a bit underwhelmed by Giardini (his film from the Venice Biennale). There is a lovely piece called Static in which McQueen circles the the Statue of Liberty from a helicopter, that transforms the tourist trap back into an object of awe and wonder. It’s a must-see for video art enthusiasts and McQueen completists.

His next project? A biopic about the Nigerian singer Fela Kuti, which will hopefully sidestep the clichés of the genre and will undoubtedly be visually and sonically arresting.

Dennis Lim’s review of Hunger in The New York Times

A nice breakdown of important moments in McQueen’s career from New York Magazine

Medicine for Melancholy [Barry Jenkins, 2008]

Barry Jenkin’s Medicine for Melancholy is many wonderful things.

1. It is not a mumblecore film.

2. It is an understated homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle [Breathless, 1960]. The film’s cinematography emulates Breathless in its look and feel, and there are several direct (but not derivative) references to iconic scenes:

The most obvious allusion is to Michel making faces at Patricia in the bathroom.

Wyatt Cenac as Micah, mimicking Belmondo’s trio of expressions in his bathroom mirror.

And then there’s the t-shirt that Patricia wears as she hawks newspapers up and down the Champs-Élysées.

Tracey Heggins as Jo, with her short, short hair, and yellow Loden t-shirt  (as in Barbara Loden, director of Wanda).

And finally, a scene in which Michel and Patricia lounge around endlessly in bed, having an intimate and often meaningless conversation — as only lovers can.


It is a something of a cliché in film school to cite Godard as one of your favorite filmmakers. But Barry Jenkins has managed to evoke his love of Godard — and these quintessential, beloved moments from a film that cinephiles hold so dear — and make them his own. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Read an interview with Barry Jenkins from