Apparently I’m zero for two on my quest to become movie literate. Tonight’s entry: Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard, which leaves a viewer in 2006 feeling as jaded and disillusioned as its main characters.
Cinema studies professors and students like to write about Breathless almost as much as French people like to be smug. For me to try to come up with anything new to say about the movie would be like a high school English student trying to find some untapped vein in The Scarlet Letter. I imagine there’s even a template for writing cinema studies term papers about Breathless: mention the birth of French New Wave, jump cuts, breaking the Hollywood establishment while paying homage to it, the combination of high art and pop art, artifice vs sincerity, emphasis on disillusioned youth culture, post-film noir, etc. As you’re waiting the hour and a half for the movie to end, the points just fly up at you. Hand it in, get a B+.
That’s not to say that all that isn’t there, or that it wasn’t important at the time. It’s just that watching this movie in 2006 is a little like going to see the Mona Lisa in person; you’re seeing it because it’s an Important Work of Art, not because of what made it an important work of art.
At this point, though, I can’t even conceive of a world in which Breathless would be shocking or groundbreaking. Whether it’s because it was so influential that every movie I’ve seen has picked everything innovative out of its carcass, or because its influence has been overstated by years of film reviewers, I can’t say. Either way, the end result is the same: you feel as if you’ve seen it all before, and done much better.
Back when I was being forced to watch Important Films, the example of French New Wave we were shown was Le Week-end by Jean-Luc Godard. At the time, it really was mind-altering. It was completely unlike anything I’d ever seen before, it showed new things possible in movies that I may never have considered before, and it was entertaining. If you read up on that movie, you see tons of criticism that it was insufferably pretentious and overly political, and that it exists at this point only as a historical document.
The lesson to be learned, as far as I can make out, is this: making a set of Important Films that everyone must see to be culturally (or at least cinematically) literate, is as misguided as, well, making high school students read The Scarlet Letter. Self-obsessed thugs in 60s Paris are as irrelevant to me as dockworkers and communists in the 50s (On the Waterfront), or William Randolph Hearst and the politics of the 30s (Citizen Kane), or social conventions in pre-WWII France (The Rules of the Game). And the filmmaking techniques that each of those movies revolutionized have been adapted and modified into hundreds of movies with more relevance, even if not as much innovation.
I’ve got no doubt that there’s some group who’s coined a simple term to describe everything I’ve written in this post — it’s probably something like “anti-post-structuralist modernism” or some such. It could all be really discouraging, convincing you that you’ve seen everything there is to see. But instead, it’s a sign that movies are evolving. There are still some truly timeless movies — His Girl Friday stands out for me as one that still seems even more contemporary than 99% of the movies Nora Ephron makes, and definitely more relevant than any of its remakes. But more often than not, going back to the well of Important Films means seeing something whose subject matter is lost without the right context, and whose style, the truly relevant part, has already been appropriated 100 times over.
I should point out that as I was writing this, the movie Raptor was playing on TV, and green berets and Corbin Bernsen were being killed by a rubber dinosaur puppet. That made me rethink my theory on the evolution of movies, but not abandon it.