Saturday, May 16, 2009
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.