Godard and All That Self-Importance

If Joseph Conrad, Jean-Luc Godard, and Ozzy Osbourne all had your birthday, you’d be excused for thinking you’re a writer with something very important to say. Or at least, who’s entitled to a little more self-importance than the average goateed guy with a MacBook.

Well, they are all three born on the same day, December 3rd, and it is my birthday, and I see these guys, my fellow children of 1-2-3, as cautionary examples. Sagittarians in general like to think of ourselves as “the deep ones” wherever we go, but we’re prone to over-thinking things, and philosophy and religion for their own sake. And none of these three ever suffered from any, shall we say, deficit in their estimation of the importance of their own work.

Inside cover of Paranoid.

Inside cover of Paranoid.

It’s years since I’ve tried reading Conrad, but I’ve listened to more Black Sabbath since I turned 40 than in all my previous life combined, and by a lot! Their first two albums Black Sabbath and Paranoid are rock itself at its best. But then they embraced their devil music label, played to their own devoted fan base, whose taste was getting worse, and made a lot of mediocre music.

Sounds like Godard! It’s never enough for an Ozzy Osbourne to sing love songs (or lust songs) like Robert Plant. He has to go for the Satan versus God thing. And it’s not enough for Godard to make some smart but catchy films like his first few. He has to make definitive statements about cinema itself, and dare you to say “I don’t get this.” Ingmar Bergman has some juicy quotes about St. Jean-Luc’s excessive intellectualism:

“In this profession, I always admire people who are going on, who have a sort of idea and, however crazy it is, are putting it through; they are putting people and things together, and they make something. I always admire this. But I can’t see his pictures. I sit for perhaps twenty-five or thirty or fifty minutes and then I have to leave, because his pictures make me so nervous. I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have the feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me.”

Godard was at his best when he was breezy.

Godard was at his best when he was breezy.

To a different interviewer, he was less kind: “I’ve never gotten anything out of [Godard’s] movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. Godard is a fucking bore. He’s made his films for the critics.”

“He’s made his films for the critics”!

If we’re going to get catty, though, we should point out that Bergman’s early films – the simple stories and comedies he shot with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer – are aging better than his “great period.” I wish I could go back in time and take every copy of The Passion of Anna from every DVD shelf where it’s been the only Bergman selection for the past fifteen years, which is not uncommon, and replace it with Summer Interlude or To Joy. Things started going off the rails when Bergman became the keeper of the flame of important cinema, unsparing in his honesty and daring and precise in his use of camera. In other words, the deeper he got with longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose birthday happened to be – guess when – December 3rd.

(It’s also Julianne Moore’s birthday, and she seems to have it all figured out, so there is hope.)

The Organizer

Italian director Mario Monicelli is getting a full retrospect at Film Forum right now, and I for one have signed up for a crash course. Last night was The Organizer (I Compagni, 1963). Written by Monicelli with the screenwriting team of Age & Scarpelli, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – a real head-scratcher, but I digress.

"Marcello! Marcello!" La dolce vita, this ain't.

“Marcello! Marcello!” La dolce vita, this ain’t.

Such an easy-to-like film, and yet it kept getting deeper the more I thought about it afterward. Italian viewers around this time had already seen strike films and were familiar with the hagiography of the socialist movement, so setting a bittersweet comedy inside a textile strike in Turin in the 1890s was presumably a little subversive, tweaking the Marxist orthodoxy, and yet you sympathize with the strikers the entire time.

Working 14 hour days, the workers decide to walk off an hour early one day, but botch the signal, and afterwards a finger-pointing match ends in a snowball fight into which a professor-labor organizer on the run from the law arrives. The fact that the nerdy martyr-for-the-movement Professor Sinigaglia is played by none other than Marcello Mastroianni, otherwise the embodiment of mid-century cool, is just the first delicious thing about this film.

Going back to the Neorealists, the Italians were always scrupulous about giving their working-class characters serious flaws. Even when they were sentimentalizing them, you never get the message that there is anything inherently superior about proletarians, and a part of your heart sinks with sympathy whenever a character opts to collaborate with the reactionaries. The Organizer continues that tradition but goes a step further: Professor Sinigaglia, with a face like Trotsky and Lenin, is touchingly unable to say for sure that he’s doing any good, or at least he has gone native in the working class enough that he knows he has no common vocabulary to express it. “Why do I do it? Because I have a head full of foolish ideas,” he says, while sharing a bed with a worker in true 19th Century style. He even steals from his hosts.

I’m a quick study for screenplay structure – who’s the protagonist, and what his or her arc is – but I’m still chewing on this one. Is it the strikers as a group? That elusive, socialist notion of a mass protagonist? I haven’t seen Matewan in fifteen years, but I’d much rather go see The Organizer again tomorrow than try it over again.