There is no intimacy like the private satisfaction that arises from keeping a promise that you made to yourself. Wednesday night, only two days back in the city, sick as a dog. I went into the Nantucket Film Festival offices for my first day back, and after a relatively smooth day, hopped on the 9 train to Houston Street (with my dear friend Elizabeth in tow) in order to complete Personal Mission Number One: Return To The Film Forum. The occasion? Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculine Feminine.
There is much to be said about the film itself, but my first reaction, after Chantal Goya’s final “I don’t know…” echoed through the crowded theater, was ‘What has become of the cinema of ideas?’ There are few examples of critical analysis in filmmaking today. The closest example that pops to mind is David O. Russell’s I ♥ Huckabees, a fun-loving exploration of the psychology of an existential crises put into dramatic action. Of course, aside from a few defenders, that film was met with almost universal befuddlement and was roundly ignored by the film community. Where are the ideas in current cinema?
Much like the public’s move to reality television programs, seemingly all critical thinking about social, political, and economic ideas has been shoved into the realm of non-fiction filmmaking. The explosion of artless political documentaries, multi-culti ethnographic examinations of the difficulties of a global ‘otherness’, and ego-driven exposés that lambaste the current national leadership all feel like blows to the head with a dull, blunt object when compared to the joyous histrionics of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Paul in Masculine Feminine. The film hums with a deeply felt romanticism about an individual’s relationship to his time and place, and the reason that it feels so relevant to modern audiences could be the complete lack of whimsy and romance in the political ideas and activism of our age. I know I am not alone in waking up on most days believing that what is going on in our world– from the murderous dejá-vu of the imperial and civil wars currently being waged around the globe to the stuffy, self-serious return of “traditional values” to the forefront of the cultural debate, feels like a ludicrous nightmare. The only thing more awful than the often hilarious hand-wringing surrounding art, culture, and ideas in our country is the way in which those opinions have been made manifest. The culture of complaint and the perceived entitlements of victimization have suddenly become the playground of the most enfranchised groups in the country, staking claim to their own status as The Exploited. If, indeed, it is a legitimate response to the Wal-Marting of American ideas to zip oneself into a black plastic bag and act out our deepest fantasies of nihilism ala Albert Markovsky in Huckabees, then maybe a mass exodus into the era of Godard’s young revolutionaries is just the type of kick in the ass we need right now.
Of course, Masculine Feminine is a document of another era, a time that, in the popular retelling of history, stands as a golden example of the power of the young to force change upon the world. But what really changes? The film’s best moments speak directly to Paul’s internal relationship to the external world. In Paul’s inner-world, the city of Paris is a minefield of murder, mayhem, and sexual rejection that threatens the idealism of the politically-committed innocent. This threat, a manifestation of Paul’s alienation from the reality of his own community (and a localization of the global violence against which Paul is powerless), is brought to life in the film’s most provocative scenes; Paul’s observation on the subway of a inter-racial group of friends as a public re-staging of LeRoi Jones’ The Dutchman, the murderous and suicidal impulses of strangers in cafés and arcades that threaten the illusion of civility and order that Paul has imposed on his world (“Shut the door!” he shouts at a murderess). The film is swimming with representations of Paul’s deluded self-regard, ranging in scope from a letter writing campaign to free an imprisoned intellectual to the vandalizing of a U.S. consulate’s car in a flaccid protest of the war in Viet Nam, and always centering around the pursuit of sex and beautiful girls, primarily the vainglorious singer Madeleine (a truly vacant Goya).
Of course, Godard’s film is as much a multivalent critique of individual inaction as it is a recognition that, while consciousness trumps ignorance (as in Paul’s interview with “Miss 1966”, a beauty queen reluctant to engage in a political conversation), both are trumped by action. In addition, it is Godard’s unique relationship to French culture that allows him to level his critique at both European idealism and U.S. imperialism. Already a prominent fixture in the French film community by the time the film was made (six years after his breakout Breathless), Masculine Feminine feels like swift rap on the knuckles. Yes, it is all beautiful and fun, he seems to be saying. Narcissistic, vapid girls vs. Idealistic, impotent boys. Of course, in Godard’s moral universe, both are deserving of a reckoning.
And yet the film is beautiful and fun, a laugh-filled amour-fou that shows the humane side of Godard’s art: his compassion for the real feelings of these silly characters. Without the impact of their feelings, their awkward advances toward one another, their dismissive stance toward the unknown, the film would be an empty exercise in aloof criticism. Godard recognizes that all of this wonderful, frantic activity is, if rather useless, truly sincere. It is the stuff of real life; Anxiety, desire, self-criticism. Godard is compassionate and tender towards his characters, giving their fantasies and feelings primacy in the flow of the narrative. It is during Paul’s awkward attempt to pick up Madeleine that the couple witness a wife murdering her husband. Not only is the point about relationships made, but the literal manifestation of anxiety becomes a physical feature of the story itself, one that turns up again and again.
It is hard to imagine how an American filmmaker working today could possibly match the humanism of Godard’s social critique. Our filmmakers continue to use independent film as a gateway to studio work and careerism within the confines of a profits-only film business. There are too few voices working today that would have the courage to create a film like Masculine Feminine. Instead, present-day American filmmakers tread in the too-shallow waters of personal memoir or genre convention. I can’t remember the last time I saw an American film that felt as alive as Masculine Feminine, as humanely engaged with characters as it is with the world of critique and ideas. (Actually, I take that back. It was last month when I watched the Criterion DVD of Faces, but I’m not sure that counts). Instead, detatched irony and pop-culture tie-ins have become a calling card for directors to nudge their way into the next comic book franchise sequel.
A military recruiter’s car pulls into a public housing project and, as one young man charmingly engages the driver with mocking questions about the current war in Iraq, his friend spray paints the side of the vehicle with “No Blood For Oil.”
In this day and age, a scene like that not only feels impossible, but truly inauthentic. I can’t remember the last time I saw a small, personal political act. We have a long way to go, even if only to match the idealism of Godard’s eloquent dreamers. Oh well. If you’ve gotta start somewhere, why not in Paris? Why not in 1965, when everything felt possible?