One of the many characters in Wes Anderson’s latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a bakery girl named Agatha. Agatha has an Irish brogue and a birthmark in the shape of Mexico and is played by Saoirse Ronan. She spends her days at Mendl’s Bakery piping pastel-colored icing onto confections and dainties, which are then put into cream-pink boxes tied up with ribbon. Within the world of the film, Mendl’s pastries are understood to be beyond compare. And yet, like Wes Anderson’s films themselves, they’re almost so pretty they’re terrifying, and you get the feeling that they don’t taste nearly as good as they look. The Grand Budapest Hotel is fitted out with all of Anderson’s trademark charms: a cast of lovable eccentrics, effortlessly witty throwaway lines, madcap chases, art direction so lush and detailed you want to live inside it. But if it’s Anderson’s most fully realized film, it’s also one of his most leaden. As Anderson’s films become more “mature” they threaten to become more constrained and less lyrical. They’re killed into style.
Histoire(s) du Cinema. Cinema's histor(ies), but also histor(ies) independent of, overlapping with, intersecting with, diverging from the cinema. Cinema as history; history on film. The history of the twentieth century as a history on film, as borne out of the invention of photography. The train. The machine gun. The bomb. The movie camera. The cinema as a moving record of the traumas of the century. Walter Benjamin: "There is no document of civilization that is not also at the same time a document of barbarism." Godard as historian--not only of cinema history but of history through cinema, of the histor(ies) that lie behind cinema, and of those films written by history. Of an American cinema that, in the 1940s, functioned as an "advertisement" for the U.S. involvement in World War II. Of a German cinema that withdrew, vanishing from the screen as if to screen its own crimes, its own guilt. Of an Italian cinema that took its national tragedies and made them into the stuff of art--the cinema of Rossellini, of de Sica, of Fellini. It is on this assertion that Part Five of Godard's history lesson fades to black.
In “Une histoire seule,” the second segment of Jean-Luc Godard’s lesson(s) in film history, Godard draws us back repeatedly to cinema’s origins as a technology of the nineteenth-century. Cinema and photography, he tells us, emerged at the fin de siècle as technologies for preserving modern memory. Is it accidental that the train—the emblem of modernity, of its speed, its mechanical power, its violence—has been one of the great subjects of the cinema? The Lumiere Brothers’ train arrives at the station, bearing cinema’s history. Film’s love affair with trains is the story of one modern technology gazing with fascination at another. From the Lumieres we proceed to the churning, chugging wheels of Abel Gance’s La Roue; to von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, Hawks’ Twentieth Century; to Hitchcock’s strangers meeting on trains, ladies vanishing on them, wrongly accused men hiding in them, and, in Shadow of a Doubt, murderers being pushed out in front of them; and perhaps finally to the trains heading straight down the line to the Nazi death camps—modernity’s graveyards—in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. The camera, itself a machine that moves along tracks, follows its movements with unflinching eye, a fellow traveler, bearing witness to the thrilling and terrible histories made in its wake.
Last night I began to undertake Jean-Luc Godard’s epic Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1998; eight parts; 266 minutes), which has recently enjoyed some renewed attention after breaking onto Sight and Sound’s poll of the best films ever made (placing at #48) and getting a snazzy DVD release from Olive Films. Coming as it does out of Godard’s difficult and uneven late period, it’s a film that I approached with some hesitance. But I found Part I to be nothing short of revelatory. It’s an essay-film, to be sure, but one that’s so intoxicatingly constructed that it never feels pedantic. Godard suggests ideas through washes of film images, spoken and written text, dialogue, and music, all of which are layered to dazzling effect. A single shot may contain one or two overlaid film images, stamped with a word or phrase, overdubbed by audio footage from another film altogether, and often underscored by an unrelated piece of music. Film clips in Part I come from A Place in the Sun and The Rules of the Game; Germany Year Zero and Gilda; Battleship Potemkin and An American in Paris; Red Hot Riding Hood and Day of Wrath (and several dozen others). Musical selections range from Stravinsky to Leonard Cohen, Carmen McRae to Beethoven. The density of Godard’s palimpsest frequently overwhelms the viewer; I found myself wanting to stop, to linger on a particular image, to pause to identify a shot that looked familiar but on which I couldn’t put my finger. But since this seemed to me to be all part of the intended effect, I let Godard’s dream-history of the cinema continue to unfurl.
I’ll be checking in here over the next two weeks or so with a few thoughts on each of the film’s eight parts—though, in keeping with the film’s fragmented, chaotic structure, my thoughts will likely be halting, tentative ones. In Part I, “Toutes les histoires,” Godard begins by interrogating the very notion of cinema history by arguing instead for a plurality of cinema histories, and by proceeding to play with the meaning of such a term: “histoire(s) du cinema.” Cinema has histories; it is also of history, marked by the history of the twentieth century. It bears history’s traumas. Films become historical records, artifacts, archival objects. The archive of film history from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s contains footage of Hitler, of the death camps, but also of Rita Hayworth and Bogart. How to understand this relation of cinema to history? German cinema is particularly bound up in a history that Godard knows to be poisonous, shameful. French viewers, having been subject to a German history violently imposed upon them, experience German cinema in a way that is colored by that history. A French audience watching a German film from 1935 not only encounters a document from the annals of cinema’s history but also comes up against the presence of other histories as they have been preserved and recorded on film. Godard doesn’t make any sort of simplistic argument about “giving up” German cinema, which would constitute a traumatic loss of its own. What he does argue for is an acknowledgment, a registering, of the histories that play out in front of and on the sidelines of the film camera—of what the images reveal and what they obscure.
The vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s lovely, witty new film Only Lovers Left Alive are played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, and I can’t imagine better casting; they’re lanky, pale, drawn, heroin-chic sexy. As they’re realized within the film, their vampirism is almost incidental. They could be one of any number of burned-out ex-hippie or post-punk couples, waxing nostalgic for the days when music really rocked and “the good stuff”—whether blood or drugs—was easier to come by. Driving through a haunted, decaying Detroit, they lament what the “zombies” (their word for bourgeois mortals) have done to the city, the world, and the arts. Adam (Hiddleston), a moody, reclusive rock musician with the sensibility of a Romantic poet, flirts with suicide until Eve (Swinton) convinces him to take a night flight with her to Tangiers, where she shows him that there are still things to live for—new music to discover, new art to create, fresh blood to feed upon. Only Lovers Left Alive is a movie for people who, like Jarmusch’s vampires, fetishize old and beautiful things.