Saturday, May 16, 2009

King Lear

To be or not to be? No. No thing. Nothing. That is not the question. The question is: to see or to hear? To show or to tell? Reality or image? Sound or silence? Or both? For Jean-Luc Godard, if Hamlet is the theater, King Lear is the cinema, so he abandons that "to be or not to be" stuff and focuses instead on the story of an old man and his daughter. The old man is sound, hearing. Lear, ear. The daughter is the image, what is seen. The father insists on words: he has specific things he wants to hear. But the daughter will say only "nothing." She can give, will give, only herself, her presence, her body: image, reality, but not sound. Leave it to Godard to find in this old play the elements of the cinema, to reconstitute the story of King Lear and Cordelia as the eternal conflict between sound and image, those interlocked but opposing forces that have tangled and wrestled their way through Godard's entire oeuvre, from the 60s onward.

Godard's version of Lear is a dense and allusive (not to say elusive) reworking of Shakespeare's play — a patchwork assembly reflected in the struggles of the historical researcher William Shaksper Junior the Fifth (theater director Peter Sellars) to reconstitute the lost works of his famous ancestor after a nuclear disaster destroys all of the world's culture. Godard, obsessed as always with resetting things to zero, imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which people and places are pretty much the same but culture and art have vanished. It's up to intrepid researchers like Shaksper — and Godard's own alter-ego Professor Pluggy — to set things right, to rediscover the combinations of elements by which stories can be told. Professor Pluggy might be an absurd concoction — a cinematic prophet with hair made of audio-visual cables, a cigar perpetually in his mouth, and a mumbled, slurred diction that makes him sound like he's narrating the film while eating breakfast — but he's the one who introduces Shakespeare's descendant to the idea of the image. It's Pluggy who allows the recreation of King Lear to progress beyond the stage of the word, beyond just writing.

Indeed, Godard's distrust of the written word is apparent from the opening section, his savage mockery of Norman Mailer, who wrote the original script for this film, re-envisioning Lear as a gangster picture, with Mailer to play Don Learo and his real daughter Kate to play Cordelia. Godard sarcastically calls Mailer "the Great Writer" and, while he replays the several repetitive takes the writer actually completed before storming off the film, Godard/Pluggy's voiceover deconstructs Mailer's contribution and the writer's failure to engage with the cinematic process, continuing to think in terms of words even after filming begins. But of course Godard saves his best takedown of Mailer for his sendoff, saying that the Great Writer leaves by airplane, Mailer and Kate flying first class, Kate's boyfriend flying economy.

With Mailer and his daughter gone, Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald play Lear and Cordelia for the remainder of the film, which amounts to film actors replacing people who were basically playing themselves: image replacing reality. This is one of the film's dominant themes, the interactions between the various layers and elements that go into creating a work of art. In one scene, Shaksper finds the wanderer Edgar (Leos Carax) in the woods, while his voiceover says that he finds Edgar and his girlfriend Virginia, but that the girl isn't there. And indeed, she isn't; only Edgar is onscreen, and Virginia (Julie Delpy) won't appear until later. This scene seems to be a throwaway, one of the many humorous non sequiturs scattered throughout the film, but it's also tied in with Godard's interest in dealing with words and images as opposing forces. The image shows, unequivocally, Shaksper meeting Edgar, but the voiceover suggests something stranger, something surreal and impossible to visualize: Shaksper meeting Edgar and a girl who isn't there. It's a simple scene, a joke even, but it's also a rumination on the differences between images and words. Words can lie, can be abstract or complex or have ambiguous meanings, but an image tells the truth, an image represents a thing in a straightforward way. Which is still not quite the same as documentary reality, as Godard proves by running the film backwards at one point, creating a strikingly beautiful image of a hand carefully placing petals back onto a stripped-bare flower.

This is one of Godard's many films in which he attempts to reconfigure the cinema from a razed ground zero. To that end, banks of video monitors toy with images, reminders of Godard's late 70s experiment Numéro deux, already over a decade old by the time he made his Lear. The soundtrack is even more unstable, constantly being disrupted, looped, turned back on itself: the sound slows down into a distorted warble, or breaks down, becomes repetitive. It frequently sounds as though a tape is being treated so badly that it's tearing apart, being warped and crinkled. The manipulations of sound are extreme. Indeed, everything is extreme here, from the bizarre cast — Woody Allen even makes a cameo at the end as an editor who stitches film together with a needle and thread — to the fragmentary quotations of the Shakespeare play to the near-slapstick gags scattered throughout the film. This masterful but underseen film is Godard's dense, typically playful attempt to break cinema down into its constituent elements, to treat this hybrid medium like a warring family, and to attempt to reconcile father and daughter, fiction and reality, image and sound.


Chuck Williamson said...

Oh, man. Great write-up. I've always wanted to see this film, but have never been able to track down a copy. Your review totally reignited my interest--it just sounds too good to ignore.

Ed Howard said...

It's an amazing (if rather bonkers) film. I'd seen it before from a lousy VHS rip I downloaded, but last night it was playing (in a decent print) at BAM in Brooklyn. Definitely worth tracking down in any form you can find it.

I was hoping that the print BAM showed would've been preceded by some company logos indicating possible DVD news, but no such luck. Oh well.

Bob Clapes said...

Hey, I like your blog. It is high quality stuff, and good reviews. I just started mine on film too. check it out, maybe we can add each other to the blog roll.

agcrockett said...

The first time I've felt I have something to add to what is always a great write up. (And especially when on Godard) The description of the flower scene reminds me of an extended sequence in Cocteau's 'La villa Santo-Sospir'.

0:29:20 -

Great hands.

James Hansen said...

Wonderful post, Ed. I'm sorry I missed the screening at BAM (had previously planned engagements). I wonder how "late" it is for Godard since he's continued making movies 20 years past King Lear, but I'm happy it was included. Its really a wonderful film, and this post really serves well to help people know what they're getting into, which is often essential for gelling with such density. Great insights for people who have or haven't seen it yet.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all. James, I agree that this stretches the definition of "late," but I suspect that BAM simply wanted to screen one of Godard's least seen films and saw this as a good opportunity -- the truly late stuff like Notre musique and In Praise of Love is comparatively accessible, on DVD anyway. I'm really happy it was included: seeing it on the big screen rather than a lousy VHS rip was a revelatory experience.

Sam Juliano said...

Yeah, I also mourn that missed BAM screening, especially since I was at the place on Thursday to attend their avante garde staging of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at their Harvey Theatre facility. Fascinating review.

Lev said...

Great review. I was just doing some looking around and it's amazing how negative the reaction to this film was when it came out.

I have a VHS rip of the movie so until I saw it at BAM I thought it was shot on video. Which leads me to my question:

Does anyone know of an extended account of the making of King Lear? All stories indicate that this movie is somehow Godard salvaging a project gone horribly wrong.

But then it's SO focused and deliberate. And looks so good...

I dunno. It's hard to imagine it was ever Godard's intent to make like a star-studded adaptation of a Norman Mailer script, instead of this much weirder, more interesting movie.

Greg said...

Ed, are you feeling okay? This review's been the lead post for three days. Shouldn't there have been another ten or so movies reviewed since then? Well anyway, at least I get to comment and hope it will be seen before the post goes away.

I thoroughly disliked this when I saw it in 1985. But as in our previous conversation, I admit things change in 24 years. I have to see many Godard movies again because my memory of him in the eighties was that of a formerly highly regarded director fallen to the depths of his craft. Your review makes it sound good so once again, I'll have to see it a second time with wiser eyes.

Ed Howard said...

Lev: I don't have my copy of Colin MacCabe's bio on hand right now, but I remember him going over the production of King Lear a bit. From what I understand, this really was a troubled production, and the stuff at the beginning with Norman Mailer really does reflect the fact that Mailer stormed off the project very early on. Godard had intended to make the film with Mailer as Lear, working (presumably loosely) from Mailer's gangster script. But Mailer was pissed off by Godard's working methods, and especially pissed off that Godard wanted to explore incestuous subtexts between Lear and Cordelia -- with Mailer and his real daughter playing the parts!

Greg: Hah! I know, I'm slacking. It's been a busy few days. But never fear, a post on Dancer in the Dark will be up soon, I held it back until TOERIFC day was over.

As you know, I consider Godard in the 80s to be at the peak of his craft, but I perfectly understand why many disagree: these films are dense and difficult and quite different from his 60s work, with less and less interest in things like narrative and character. Hopefully you'll get a chance to see this one again (though I'm not sure where, exactly), and I'd also recommend a look at First Name: Carmen, my other favorite of his 80s period.