Thursday, January 17, 2008

Soft and Hard/Man of the West

Soft and Hard is an essay film by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, and it's available online now through YouTube, as pointed out to me by the generosity of Filmbo. As expected, the image quality leaves a great deal to be desired (to put it mildly), but the intelligence and insight of this duo's thinking about cinema, images, and language shines through the murky VHS rip nevertheless. Godard worked on this film while he was preparing to shoot King Lear, and those who are familiar with his 80s work will find much of this film familiar ground in terms of the themes raised and the approach to the material. The first several minutes consist of an entirely black screen, punctuated only by quickly flashed titles that feature permutations on the film's title, and its alternate construction, "A Soft Conversation on Hard Subjects Between Two Friends." After this, Godard and Miéville take turns providing a voiceover, while the images alternate between domestic scenes (Miéville ironing, like Myriem Roussel in the scenario for Hail Mary, and Godard doing his slapstick schtick by playing tennis indoors), the ubiquitous poetic shots of clouds that Godard loved to insert into all his films around this time, and superimpositions of footage from other films, still photos, and other imagery. The overall visual aesthetic seems to be similar to that of Godard's rough "scenario" videos, which he made in preparation for many of his 80s features. These videos often served as exploratory testing grounds, visualized scripts, and marketing aides to help secure funding, but here Godard turns the essayistic structure of those short works to a sustained examination of his and Miéville's varying thoughts on cinema.

After the opening 15-20 minutes or so, the film settles down into a lengthy conversation between the two directors and partners, shot mostly from a static angle behind Godard, looking at Miéville sitting across from him on another couch. Their conversation ranges far and wide, covering the effects of television on how people view images, the necessity of presenting images in ways that go beyond surface appearances, and the role of narrative form in all these issues. Miéville advances an insightful feminist critique of many of Godard's 80s films, especially Détective, for the way that he continues to present romantic relationships in an entirely conventional, traditional manner, while deconstructing and questioning many other aspects of society and cinematic representation. It's a perceptive critique, and quite possibly a valid one, as Godard himself acknowledges — and why does he always have women at the ironing board in these videos anyway?

Elsewhere, the duo's conversation about television delves into perhaps predictable questions of superficiality, commercialism, and the failure to engage with reality in deeper ways. Godard, ever the absolutist, compares his relationship to TV to the French Resistance's reaction to the German occupation, a dubious comparison but certainly an attention-getting one. And probably an earnest one for Godard, too, despite the flamboyant rhetoric. For Godard, the image is man's way of substituting his own subjective perceptions for reality, in the process commenting on it and possibly enhancing it. In this context, the tyranny over the image held by television, which therefore substitutes for reality its own impoverished facsimile of reality, must be intolerable, tantamount to a material tyranny over reality itself. Godard has always spoken, and thought, in such absolute terms, the rigor of his language providing for no middle ground or indecisiveness. In this regard, Miéville may be his opposite half, emphasizing the mutability of absolutes, and even of language itself. In one sequence early on in the film, she tells the story of a son's letter to his father, which read one way offends the father to the point of rage, while the same words read differently move him to pity and sympathy.

This dialogue between friends, as is typical of Godard's essay-films, never resolves anything or settles conclusively on one easily summarized idea. Their interactions bring up a number of points, questions, and dialectics, which are discussed and interrogated and then diverted from as a new topic of interest arises from the conversation. Despite the differences between them, the relationship between Godard and Miéville is clearly a powerful intellectual connection that allows them to fluidly converse, critique one another, and offer support. One of the film's most surprisingly touching scenes is an exchange in which Godard, in response to Miéville's own doubts about her filmmaking, unequivocally encourages her — the notorious contrarian in a cooperative, empathetic mood. This is a fascinating film, even in the badly compromised form which is currently the only way it can be seen, a stimulating dialogue on the ideas involved in expressing oneself through images.

Anthony Mann is well known as an important auteur of the American Western, particularly on the strength of his string of hard-edged oaters starring James Stewart. But after his association with Stewart ended due to disagreements, he still had one more potent Western in him, quite possibly even his best one, Man of the West, with Gary Cooper filling in the role that otherwise would've gone to Stewart. Cooper is, of course, quite a different actor from Stewart, and as a result his Link Jones is a much different hero from other Mann heroes, even if he's thrown into essentially similar situations. In his films with Mann, Stewart often radiated uncertainty and inner turmoil, and his characters were often conflicted to the point of being literally unable to act, their tortured emotions crippling them into stasis. The rock-solid Cooper is obviously not built for this kind of role, and he distinctly underplays the tensions in Link's character. Link is a man raised as a murderer and robber by his vicious uncle, the outlaw Dock Tobin (Lee Cobb), but he rejected this life and ran away, creating a more ordinary life for himself in a small town where he settles down. When he's thrust back in with Dock and the old gang after their botched robbery of a train that Link was on board, he sees the solid, respectable foundation he's built for himself in society threatened. With Stewart playing the part, one could imagine Link as a raw ball of nerves, constantly threatening to explode. Cooper betrays only the slightest trace of a quiver, maybe a bit more aggression and barely controlled anger than normal, but otherwise he remains upright and self-assured.

Obviously, Cooper's casting automatically makes Man of the West a different film from the Mann/Stewart collaborations, but not necessarily a less interesting one. Cooper is an archetypal Western man, and his presence in Mann's distinctive Western vision — which is, after all, dedicated to challenging such conventional notions of American masculinity and toughness — creates an unresolvable tension with the material. Most of Mann's Westerns center around men who are not seeking out violence, who are in fact actively trying to avoid it in any way possible, but who are nevertheless forced to fight in order to defend or gain the domestic security and peace that they desire. Furthermore, his heroes are often almost unbearably sluggish in making this turnaround from inaction to action. Cooper, playing a similarly cornered good man in High Noon, makes his decision to act quickly and then sticks to it — his hard-nosed do-gooder could never be capable of the kind of self-serving, slimy, even cowardly backing down that Stewart poured into his role in The Far Country. In Man of the West, Cooper steps into this more morally ambiguous universe, and his character's stoic, square-jawed certainty rubs uncomfortably against the rougher edges of Mann's vision.

This tension is perhaps most obvious in a pair of mirrored scenes that bring out unexpectedly strong sexual undercurrents in the material. When Link first falls back in with Dock's gang, he has with him two other train passengers, the saloon singer Billie (Julie London) and the shifty, cowardly Beasley (Arthur O'Connell). Of course, the lovely Billie quickly becomes the object of attention for the gang, and one of Dock's men, Coaley (Jack Lord), forces her to strip, holding a knife to Link's throat in order to make her go through with it. It's a taut and nerve-wracking scene, with Mann perfectly contrasting the pressure of the knife against Cooper's throat, slowly drawing blood as it inches through his skin, against the singer's sexual humiliation as she coolly strips down to her petticoats. This scene's activation of sexual tension comes to fruition in its counterpart, in which Link fights against Coaley, in a typically brutal and physically intense Mann wrestling match. Mann's fights always have a real force behind them, so that you can practically feel the impact of the punches or the fingers sinking into skin as Cooper rakes his hands across his opponent's face. The resolution of this battle, though, is unparalleled even in Mann's oeuvre, as Link enacts a sexual humiliation on Coaley to match the one the outlaw forced on Billie. Once Coaley has been defeated, knocked flat and collapsed, Link begins systematically stripping him, starting with his boots and socks, then ripping his shirt off, and finally his pants as well, so that the defeated outlaw is lying in the mud in just his long underwear. It's a genuinely shocking and powerful scene, reversing the earlier one with Coaley's emasculation taking the place of Billie's humiliation.

It's scenes like this, seething with raw power and a bold disregard for genre conventions, that makes Man of the West the pinnacle of Mann's Western achievements. Mann's dark vision of the Old West is both enthralling and stomach-churning. This vision is inscribed in every widescreen frame, his compositions capturing a feeling of loneliness and gloom in these wide-open spaces and ghost towns. The climactic shootout, in particular, is a masterpiece of inventive composition and staging, as Link engages in a showdown with two of the outlaws in the center of an abandoned mining town. Link is on the porch of a building, with the two men approaching him and trying to outflank them, and Mann spreads the three men across the screen almost geometrically, shooting from low angles and placing the three figures at the points of a triangle, as one man sneaks across the roof above Link and the other distracts him from the front. The sense of space and the way it's used to create and maintain the tension in this showdown is nothing short of masterful. Mann's uncompromising approach to his Westerns created one of the most powerful bodies of work in the genre, and this film is the capstone of that great run.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Godard wrote most eloquently about Man of the West when it was first released in France. His review can be read in "Godard on Godard."

Ed Howard said...

Yea, Godard's review of this film is one of the better essays in "Godard On Godard," some very good insights on the film. I particularly liked:

"With each shot we pass with fantastic speed from the image of Julie London undressing to the idea of the bandit imagining he will soon see her naked. So Mann need only show the girl in her underwear to give us the perception that we are seeing her naked."

That scene is certainly an interesting perspective on voyeurism, as Godard clearly perceives. It places the audience in the unusual position of the bandit, forcing the viewer to confront the scene with conflicted feelings -- we enjoy the voyeuristic perspective of watching the girl undress, even as we're discomforted by the knife on the throat and the nastiness of the bandit, through whose eyes we're really watching this scene play out. Godard, as usual, cuts right to the core of Mann's art and really captures what makes this film so great. I also like that he's so appreciative of The Tin Star, a very underrated non-Stewart Western from Mann.

Anonymous said...

ed howard

Thanks for your comments on my blog posts concerning Inland Empire and Godard's Vivre Se Vie. some

NB: I posted a link to your blog on my own blog, hopefully you'll get more hits.

I have quoted 'the syntax has changed' many times in conversation and totally agree with what you said about Ebert.

Hope to talk more soon, look forward to more blog posts.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Lewis. I've added you to the blogroll as well and will be continuing to check out your writings.

Marc Raymond said...

Thanks for the link to the Godard film, always interested in seeing more of his later essays.