Godard, 3D, Noir City and Goodbye to Stan Freberg
Every time I step into a warehouse discount store I can see about 11 different reasons to not get excited about the prospect of buying a 3D big-screen TV. Display monitor after display monitor blasts out images from the latest superhero franchise or frenetic animated epic to have made its bow on Blu-ray, each of them calibrated for maximum annoyance with the motion smoothing turned up to 11. The overload on eye candy inevitably makes my brain hurt, so I scurry away toward the section where they sell giant blocks of cheddar cheese, five gallon cans of spaghetti sauce or anything else that might be more aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
But this coming Tuesday a movie that challenges the accepted form of the modern 3D movie, in its uses and effects as well as its application as a storytelling tool, will bow on Blu-ray, the first movie to make me consider, even for a second, buying one of those fancy 3D televisions. It’s Jean-Luc Godard’s magnificent, mystifying, purposefully perverse and often delightful Goodbye to Language. Chances are it will not be used to sell Vizio TVs at CostCo any time soon.
Though there are situations Godard returns to throughout Goodbye to Language—a man and a woman meet, make love, have arguments; a dog (Roxy, Godard’s own) makes her way through neighborhoods and into the country– narrative in the strictest sense has been jettisoned, which will be no surprise to anyone who has followed the director, particularly during his late-period work. (Those who are surprised will find its “plot” incomprehensible.) The movie takes the form of one of Godard’s video essays, in which casually linked visual metaphors, jokes, philosophical references and musical allusions are all shattered and rearranged within the director’s usual strangely intuitive editing scheme to form a sort of thesis—a modernist confrontation between elements of civilization (linked with the movie’s most verbally oriented forms, such as film, conversation, technology, commerce) and nature, in which nonverbal communication is the central means of expression, and standard forms (like speech, or film narrative) are either recognized as unnecessary or rejected outright.
The movie is, of course, fundamentally experimental, and you can sense the sort of driving curiosity, and the irreverence with which Godard approaches dismantling the idea of 3D and reassembling it to his own purposes—it’s an approach which almost seems to be still being worked out in the finished film. I can’t think of another 3D movie that has been so consistently surprising in its use of the technology, or one in which the experience of seeing it in 3D actually lends meaning to that experience. (This will be a much different movie seen flat.) Godard and his cinematographer, Fabrice Arago, find three-dimensional ways to make shots of a man holding a cell phone, or a woman in repose watching TV, dynamic and unexpected, or using multiple planes to redirect the involuntary directive of the eye and find new elements of beauty in prismatic shots of fields aglow in unearthly colors, or flowers floating on water that could otherwise be prosaic, nondescript.
Godard’s greatest visual coup, however, comes during a couple of different segments in which he pulls off a major trick with the medium that forces some viewers to put down their 3D glasses and look away altogether. A conversation between a man and a woman begins in a seemingly routine fashion. But as that conversation escalates and becomes more animated, Godard splits the two cameras used to render the 3D image, one retaining the shot we’ve become accustomed to in which the man remains, the other following the woman as she moves to a different part of the room, each playing out on separate visual planes until eventually the cameras merge back together. In citing this moment, and the several others in which Godard uses the same technique, as the year’s best cinematic moment during this year’s Muriel Awards countdown, writer Andreas Stoehr describes the experience of the scene and its multiple purposes far more eloquently than I could– more eloquently than anyone I’ve read on the film, in fact. He conveys the sense of Godard actually justifying that criminally overused adjective “groundbreaking” here, how the “trick” expands the movie’s thematic structure and visual connections, as well as the physiological and sensory experience that the eye and brain are actually moving through while watching it.
Most critics settled for another adjective—head-splitting—and left it at that while they swallowed another Advil to battle the inevitable headache induced by trying to reconcile the warring optic signals the movie is sending to the brain. But while I was watching it, I took that brain-rattling sensation as an invitation on Godard’s part to make the movie an even more interactive experience. By alternating the opening/closing of the left and right eyes, it was possible to “create” a more conventionally “edited” sequence from the way in which Godard has divided the imagery, which served not only as a respite from the headache but also as a commentary on how far from the middle of the road the movie has taken us in terms of the way we are conditioned to process the progression of what otherwise would be a fairly conventional scene.
Even though I don’t yet (and may never have) a 3D TV, I’m going to find the temptation to buy Goodbye to Language on Blu-ray an almost irresistible proposition, if only to experience for myself the difference seeing it in 2D makes. (If you ever get the chance to see it in a theater, do not hesitate.) But seeing this movie put me in mind of some others that have either taken the use of 3D in unexpected directions or, perhaps even more gloriously, taken it back to its exploitation roots and reinfused the technology with the sort of manic energy and sense of awe that has gone missing from 3D in its most blockbustery applications. Here then are 10 other movies from the modern 3D era, listed in alphabetical order, which make the very best use of the possibilities within this technological trickster’s format.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams Director Werner Herzog explores the Chauvet Cave of southern France and makes the painted images discovered on its walls ripple and undulate with unexpected life.
The Great Gatsby A presumptive joke when first announced, Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling take on Fitzgerald immerses the viewer in both the energized jazz-age decadence and the moral decay just underneath the glittering surfaces with unexpected visual sensitivity.
The Hole Barely released in theaters in 2008, Joe Dante’s thriller of childhood fear harkens back to Hitchcock in its effective use of 3D as a way of heightening fright and audience empathy. See my full review here.
Katy Perry: Part of Me The pop star’s 2012 documentary of her first world tour is a spectacular showcase for the way Perry herself seems to pop like a lush View-Master image from even the most outlandish surroundings.
Life of Pi A wondrous summation, both of Ang Lee’s filmmaking strengths and of the possibilities yet to be tapped within the realm of realistic and hyper-realistic special effects. (I talk about the movie more here in my article “Seeing and Believing” at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.)
Monster House An early (2006) contender for best 3D effects in a CGI-animated movie—hell, nine years later it’s still a contender for best CGI-animated movie yet made.
Pina Wim Wenders brilliantly visualizes the choreography of contemporary dance artist Pina Bausch. No matter how you feel about the dance itself, it’s hard not to be moved by the sense of tactile discovery Wenders instills with the 3D in this film.
Piranha 3D Director Alexandre Aja’s giddy, over-the-top remake of Joe Dante’s drive-in-era classic gets the exploitation spirit exactly right. It’s great fun to see what pieces of the unfortunate actors get gobbled and then spit back out at the audience. Get to my full review here.
U2 3D A great 2008 concert film that integrates the band’s liberal, one-world politics and their familiar anthems of political oppression and personal transcendence within the very technological fabric of the film. See my full review here.
A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas Like the Piranha redux, this hilarious holiday gross-out embraces the nasty, anything-goes spirit of chucking things at the audience in the name of 3D glory. And, oh, the things that get chucked at the audience…
This weekend the 17th annual Noir City Hollywood festival of film noir continues at the Egyptian Theater by way of the American Cinematheque, and if you missed last weekend’s opening salvo (as I did), take heart—there’s still plenty of great stuff in store. You’ll not only get a chance to see some great titles, some familiar, some less so, and all rarely screened outside of a festival like this one—but you’ll also get a chance to contribute to the efforts of the Film Noir Foundation to continue their vital efforts to preserve and restore these classic representations of a uniquely American style of filmmaking.
The non-profit foundation, dedicated as an educational resource for mining the cultural, historical and artistic significance of film noir, recognizes that even in an age where more and more great films of this era are being made available digitally, the risk continues to grow that 35mm prints of some films will end up falling into disuse, disrepair and eventually disintegration, especially some of the lesser-known titles. (Ask anybody who loves film noir—this is not an uncommon occurrence.) The Film Noir Foundation works as a liaison between film companies and repertory cinemas to screen these films in 35mm, and the money theaters make from the screenings tends to make studios sit up, take notice and strike new prints for their archives.
And when you become a member of the Film Noir Foundation, you are taking steps to encourage the preservation of more and more at-risk titles. Since 2005, the Film Noir Foundation has funded restorations of The Prowler (1951), Cry Danger (1951), High Tide (1947), Try and Get Me! (1951), Repeat Performance (1947), Too Late for Tears (1949, screened this year at the TCM Classic Film Festival), Woman on the Run (1950) and The Guilty (1947).
And according to Ariel Schudson, Nancy Mysel Legacy project recipient and film preservationist for the FNF, the interactive relationship between FNF members/supporters the restorations is the foundation’s real plus. “Films like Woman on the Run and The Guilty, the new restorations debuting this year, could not have been completed without our dedicated members and their donations,” Schudson says. “The funds people donate go right into preserving more film, one of the most fantastic parts of the Film Noir Foundation.”
That’s not all they’ve done, but that oughta be enough for you to consider making a donation, or at least to get your carcass to the Egyptian over the next two weeks and see what else they have in store.
Tonight (Thursday, April 9), you can see a great double bill of Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect (1944) starring Charles Laughton, followed by Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester supporting Ida Lupino in Charles Vidor’s Ladies in Retirement (1941).
Friday night, a real treat—a very rare opportunity to see Jacques Tourneur’s brilliantly creepy The Leopard Man (1943), more insinuating and effective than any other Val Lewton-produced horror movie, paired with The Chase (1946), a hallucinatory adaptation of Cornel Woolrich’s The Black Path of Fear starring Robert Cummings, Michelle Morgan and Peter Lorre. The FNF itself says this is “as close to Lynch-ian as movies got in the 1940s.”
Saturday night’s all right for director Cy Endfield’s The Underworld Story (1950) starring Dan Duryea, Herbert Marshall and Gale Storm, followed by Gale Storm again, this time with Dennis O’Keefe, Raymond Burr and Mike Mazurki in Abandoned (1949), directed by Joseph M. Newman.
And if a double dose of Barbara Stanwyck can’t get you out to the theater, well, I don’t know what to say. Sunday evening Noir City 2015 has the terrific Witness to Murder (1954), a sort of warm-up for Rear Window, coupled with John Sturges’ Jeopardy (1953), a great suspense thriller which pits Stanwyck against Ralph Meeker at his nastiest.
The schedule continues through Sunday, April 19. You can check out all the offerings, with showtimes and tickets, at the American Cinematheque site.
Finally, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without saying goodbye to Stan Freberg, the great satirist who turned a brilliant career in radio into an even more sterling legacy of recorded comedy, eventually infiltrating the world of advertising and turning Madison Avenue upside-down with the opposite of the hard sell– hilarious, irreverent ads designed to indirectly push the product by way of the consumer’s funny bone. His classic ad for Banquet Frozen Dinners, featuring an ersatz Blanche DuBois even more demented than the original, and Sunsweet Prunes, in which Ray Bradbury, by way of a futuristic wall-sized television (prescience, anyone?) tries to claim that his writing had absolutely nothing to do with the pungent fruit, are among the funniest things to ever air on TV, whether a commercial or a regular program. (There’s a whole strain of movie comedy that probably wouldn’t exist without his influence too, as these commercials certainly attest.)
But probably nearest and dearest to my heart, Freberg and his merry band of madmen, including superb voice artists Daws Butler, Jesse White, Paul Frees and June Foray, gave us Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America Volume 1 (1961), one of the greatest comedy albums ever recorded. It spawned a sequel in 1996, but the shadow cast by the original, in all its anachronistic, self-referential glory, was a pretty long one and it never grabbed hold of the sensibilities of the Freberg faithful like the original did
No matter. His influence remains unimpeachable, and the sense of loss upon his death is real. As a satirist, he fought the dragon of consumer mania from within (just like his St. George did with his patented dragon-net), and his iconoclastic style reverberated down through generations, helping to change the landscape of comedy. What would we have done without him? Laughed a whole lot less, that’s for sure. A peaceful rest to you, Mr. Freberg.