‘Every Man for Himself’

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Jean-Luc Godard’s 1980 feature, Sauve qui peut (la vie), or Every Man for Himself, was something of a return to form for the director (if one can really say Godard ever had a typical form to return to). It was, as he declared, and as is often quoted, his “second first film.” As far as his most recent releases were concerned, there was certainly a break from those heavily divisive, politicized, and formally experimental works of the 1970s. This film, comparatively speaking, is indeed more mainstream than that. In its general reliance on narrative, it goes back to Godard’s pre-’67 work, with a beginning, middle, and end (even if not always in that order, as he once commented). But it’s not quite accurate to say that Every Man for Himself is necessarily picking up where a film like Made in U.S.A. or Masculin Féminin left off.

That’s where the “second first film” is interesting. Every Man for Himself isn’t so much like Godard’s 1960s output any more than it’s like his work from the 1970s. At the same time though, it’s not as if he was really starting over, or starting from scratch. Every Man for Himself, and the reason why it’s such a pivotal film in Godard’s cannon, is a continuation of certain themes and styles, and a sign of new things to come. It’s a film that has both similarities and divergences from what went before it, but it’s also one that simultaneously marks the beginning of yet another path for this ever-evolving filmmaker. Nevertheless, when we see “Cain and Able” written correspondingly on a chalkboard with “Cinema and Video,” the analogy plainly indicates that Godard was indeed seeking to make a break from at least his latest output.

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To start with story, which is something not usually associated with Godard’s immediately preceding work, Every Man for Himself follows three main characters, all of whom are at a sort of crossroads in their lives (perhaps autobiographical on Godard’s part?). Jacques Dutronc is the cigar-chomping Paul Godard (yes, probably autobiographical), a television director who is in the midst of a tumultuous relationship with a colleague, Denise Rimbaud (Nathalie Baye), who is herself struggling to find a suitable career. Paul is also frequently at odds with his ex-wife, usually shown with their young daughter in tow. The third primary protagonist is Isabelle Rivière (Isabelle Huppert), a prostitute Paul picks up one evening and who the film likewise then follows. With these basic narrative elements notwithstanding, and aside from its more conventional form, the most obvious sign of Godard’s variance with Every Man for Himself is that politics are kept to a minimum, at least as far as global affairs are concerned. He is now back in the territory of a more intimate, individual drama. We come into the lives of these individuals as they seek, or seek to maintain, a lifestyle change. This can be a change in profession, or a change in scenery; work less demanding and demeaning, a setting more naturally appealing. The chaos and unpleasantness of their current state—their distressing jobs and the vicious city—frequently placed against the opposite—jobs people seem to care about and an idyllic countryside.

As in some of his more current features, Godard gives Every Man for Himself narrative chapters—The Imaginary, Fear, Commerce, Music—but as usual, these titles serve only a general, debatable, and indistinct purpose, with themes and imagery associated with one permeating through to others. One theme, prostitution, an oft-analyzed Godard (pre)occupation, is here depicted in all its cruelty, banality, and absurdity. But it is, as the Godard argument goes, a job like any other, one which individuals are nonetheless slave to in order to make ends meet.

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While this is all grounds for a rather straightforward story of crisis, and by the end of the film, the various narrative threads are connected somewhat, there is, no question, typically Godardian randomness, notably in this case involving his newfound fascination with slow motion (in fact, a previously issued British DVD strangely calls the film Slow Motion). In interviews, Godard notes his intent with the slow motion—to allow for audiences to look at something longer and subsequently see something they perhaps couldn’t or didn’t otherwise—but the sequences he chooses to slow down are in many cases inconsistent and not exactly brimming with substance. Still, some, like Paul’s assault on Denise, a frequently shown example, are quite dynamic. But it’s a choppy slow motion, which Godard even acknowledges. It doesn’t always flow smoothly, as in a sports replay for instance; it’s almost like stop motion, single frame punctuations.

Similarly arbitrary is the peripheral drama shown with little to no apparent correlation to the main characters or the story at hand. If there’s an exceptional degree of randomness, one could perhaps assign some attribution to Bunuel’s master coconspirator, screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who, along with Godard faithful Anne-Marie Miéville, receives scenario credit on Every Man for Himself. Some of this formal craziness, however, begins to make sense if you give it time. For example, at the end of one sequence, the camera pans left, leaving the main characters, and starts to follow a stranger. Why? It’s not immediately clear. But soon we see Denise enter the frame and depart. In other words, the camera’s/Godard’s apparent wandering was actually an anticipation of action to come. Entire sequences are like this. Some of the randomness also extends to the unabashed sexuality of the characters, in their words and deeds. Sometimes, this can be amusing, sometimes it can be shocking, sometimes it’s both: the role-playing that goes along with Isabelle’s job ranges from incest to intricate sexual coordination. One of the film’s funniest sequences comes as she is in a hallway waiting on a customer to call her into his room. A former classmate greets her and offers her a job. They exchange pleasantries for a while. Then she’s back into character as the john’s daughter pretending to strip for him and his imaginary wife.

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Godard always devotes as much thought and cinematic representation to the aural as the visual, and Every Man for Himself boasts extensive audio exploration. With this in mind, and it’s a wonder it doesn’t appear more often in Godard’s work, the credit of “a film composed by” Jean-Luc Godard stands to reason. There is, on the one hand, the visual compositions for which Godard was and remains extraordinarily inventive and stimulating: views are obstructed, nature is beautifully presented, individual shots are abstractly divided, and sunlit backgrounds are blown out, keeping the foreground in silhouette. But then there is the audible potpourri, the way Godard mixes disparate sound elements. There is overlapping dialogue and abrupt musical cues, neither atypical of Godard (the dated synthesizer, however, is). Not content to simply have the music play through though, Godard has the varying sounds go in and out indiscriminately. Some characters seem to hear the non-diegetic music, and near the end, we see characters walk by the orchestra producing the score. Taken together, the full-length arrangement is an elaborately crafted opus itself.

Godard’s 1980 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show is included as part of the newly released Criterion Blu-ray of the film. First of all, this is rather funny, since you don’t really think of Godard making the talk show circuit these days. Nevertheless, he first sets the record straight about his supposed comeback: “I never went away.” He prefers, rightly, to think of Every Man for Himself as a continuation. Through the rest of the two-part broadcast (shot at the same time but aired separately), Godard discusses assorted subject matter. Some highlights include his suggestion to “listen to the image” and “look at the sound” and his surprisingly personal—and curiously cryptic—admission that he is less anguished than he has been and that Every Man for Himself is the “first movie which is coming out of [him].” Less surprisingly, he also makes provocative statements about the linking between art and economy and argues that Coppola’s Apocalypse Now needed more money behind it; that is, if it was to equal the American cost of the Vietnam War. Cavett also has some fun at the expense of Godard’s unorthodox screenwriting methods. Godard pulls out two small notebooks—the scripts for his next films—which Cavett looks at, then laughs when he sees there are sometimes only three words on a page.

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Perhaps the key part of the Cavett discussion is when Godard states his now famous declaration about cinema—or at least his cinema—being the train not the station. This statement remains crucial to understanding and appreciating his work. So many times, one looks at Godard with the unambiguous view applied to any other director. While there is nothing wrong with such an association for the sake of comparison, it is often inadequate and unproductive to cast judgment on a Godard film on this basis. Godard is interested in doing something different with his cinema, something less concrete. The notion of an easily achieved and clearly indicated beginning or end, in terms of the film’s actual plotline or in terms of a film’s effortlessly progressing flow, is not going to mesh with Godard. His films aren’t going to go for a simple start and finish; his are more concerned with what’s in between: what’s in between the characters, what’s in between the start and finish of a film, what’s in between each shot, scene, or sound.

In the accompanying Scénario de “Sauve qui peut (la vie),” a video piece Godard made to secure financing for the feature, he attempts to illuminate, in a classically Godardian way, his intentions for Every Man for Himself . Of course, some of it makes more sense viewed after having actually seen the finished product, but it’s still fascinating to hear Godard speak of ideograms, of “the system that will give birth to the forms,” of potential characters and scenes, motivations, and even the suggestion that Werner Herzog may somehow be involved or at least alluded to. (This last prospect is all the more amusing given Herzog’s statement that Godard is “intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung-fu film.”) Either way, the companion piece, or preceding piece, as it were, is an interesting Godard work in itself, displaying his continued video experimentation and his own unique way of spontaneously thinking through a film. “I don’t feel like having ideas anymore,” says Paul’s ex-wife at one point in Every Man for Himself. When it comes to Godard, that much at least is clearly not autobiographical.


‘A Hole in the Head’

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As the opening credits soar across the sky, shown as flapping aerial announcements pulled along by the Goodyear blimp, the talent behind A Hole in the Head is clear. The major players in this Frank Capra film include Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson, Eleanor Parker, Carolyn Jones, Thelma Ritter, and Keenan Wynn. Behind the scenes, shown in a more typical credit scrawl, there is renowned cinematographer William H. Daniels and the equally legendary costumer designer Edith Head. To say A Hole in the Head has much in its favor is quite the understatement. Yet while it may not live up to the expectations one associates with such individuals, the picture is nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable, even if it feels something like an effortless throwaway from these key contributors.

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Written by Arnold Schulman, based on his own play, the film tracks a few days in the topsy-turvy life of Tony Manetta (Sinatra), whose second-rate Miami Beach hotel and rather erratic love life are both going bust, the former ironically named Garden of Eden, the latter involving the kind of girl who, in his own words, “would have made the serpent eat the apple.” Adding to Tony’s trouble, and to the film’s charm, is his son, Ally (Eddie Hodges, a little Ronny Howard lookalike). This poor kid puts up with a lot from his dad—like Gin games at four in the morning—but he loves him dearly. When Tony is served an eviction notice, he struggles to find a way to receive (not necessarily earn) the requisite funds. Enter his wealthy brother, Mario (Robinson). Fearing the worst when it comes to Ally’s well-being, Mario and wife Sophie (Ritter) head to Florida. Made aware of Tony’s financial straits, they cut him a deal: get a nice girl, get married, and get a more reliable job, then they’ll get him some money. Though Tony has been cavorting with Shirl (Jones), the footloose and fancy-free temptress alluded to earlier, his in-laws have a more respectable suitor in mind. Eloise Rogers (Parker) is the straight-laced widow they deem to be just what the errant Tony needs. Now, all Tony has to do is decide what’s best, for him, his son, his aspirations, his brother, and the two women in his life. Piece of cake.

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In his quest for the illusive Easy Street, Tony is irresponsible though charismatically optimistic, far from his “square” brother and his life of bourgeois complacency. Unlike Tony, Mario is also frankly earnest and at times heartlessly practical. The notion that if Tony is married he will automatically earn propriety and stability, and presumably the same goes for Eloise, is not the most romantic or realistic set up there is. Tony sees the value in the proposal, sure, and their initial courtship, even if based on artifice, is amusing; she’s as awkward as he is cool. But since he is a decent man at heart, Tony to his credit is up front with her about the arrangement. The thing is, she might not care.

Sinatra, the definition of the word “entertainer,” doesn’t seem to get the credit he deserves as an Oscar-winning actor, and he still gets a good deal of credit. This may not be his finest performance (certainly not compared to the extraordinary Some Came Running from the previous year), but he has a range and screen presence that is quite something, especially when you think about acting as his “other” job. However, his overly stressed “wassa matta wit choo” Brooklynese grows a little tired here. Robinson and Ritter as man and wife—brilliantly inspired casting that is—manage to steal the scene every time one or both appear. Parker as the beauty who seemingly stuns young Ally and Tony is regrettably forgettable, while Jones, on the other hand, even with her excruciating squeal of delight, leaves a more lasting impression.

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A Hole in the Head is the lone movie released as a SinCap Production, the brief venture, as the name suggests, between Sinatra and Capra. More Capra than Sinatra though, the film bears much of what one associates with the director. Recurring comedic touches give the film a pleasantly delicate humor, from the habitual boxing quizzes (to Tony and Ally’s delight, Eloise knows an answer), to the “crazy chair” that seems to only function properly for Tony, to the disreputable state of the hotel and its equally disreputable tenants. This is Frank Capra doing what he does best. The sentimental sequences ring true, with several genuinely emotional moments, and the film is even relatively light on the (in)famous “Capri-corn” of the director’s earlier features.

Perhaps the clearest signal of this being a Capra movie comes in the closing exchange between Mario and Sophie as they watch Tony, Ally and Eloise joyfully sing the film’s Oscar-winning original song, “High Hopes.” “The poor things,” remarks Sophie. “They’re so happy and so poor.” “Broke, yes,” contends Mario, “but they’re not poor. We’re poor.” A perfect summation of so many Capra classics in this, his penultimate feature film.


‘My Winnipeg’

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Since its release in 2007, a good deal of the conversation surrounding Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg has been how exactly to define the film. Is it, as Maddin himself has dubbed the picture, a “docu-fantasia,” or is that not even accurate? During an interview between Maddin and critic Robert Enright, as part of the newly released Criterion Blu-ray, the two evoke a number of references in hopes of situating the film: Werner Herzog, melodrama, Chris Marker, city symphonies of the silent era, Fellini’s I Vitelloni. Yes, it is like these, but also not quite. An essay by Wayne Koestenbaum, also included with the disc, likewise alludes to everything from Hitchcock and James Joyce to Andy Warhol’s Blow Job and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. So what does it say about a film that can draw such parallels, however obscure, to this wide array of preexisting works? It says that My Winnipeg, even with these correlations, is something wholly unique.

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At the beginning of the movie, The Swinging Strings sing, “It’s no Eden that you would seek, but it’s home sweet home to me.” More than words to the song “Wonderful Winnipeg,” it is home sweet home to Maddin, who has lived there his entire life. Yet in the film, he, or at least the actor playing him (Darcy Fehr), is trying desperately to escape. Maddin, who “conceived” the film as well as having directed it, attempts to sift through his memories, recorded history, and what can only be considered dubious stories of days gone by, all in order to arrive at what distinguishes this city, and why it possesses such an indomitable hold on him. Through a series of staged reenactments from his life and from the city’s past, juxtaposed with anecdotes and trivia of varying degrees of believability, Maddin creates a hilarious, haunting, and kaleidoscopic survey of roughly 100 years of Winnipeg, and how he relates to it all.

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In the course of a far too brief 80 minutes, Maddin discusses the geographical anomalies of Winnipeg, as well as the unusual, yet integral, moments that have shaped his city: worker strikes and elderly ladies locking arms to save a tree; horses frozen in a river, their heads jutting through the ice like twisted animal pillars; alleyways, waterways, and railways; hockey, of course hockey; and perverse “Golden Boy” contests. More intimately, and with the help of actors standing in for his family (Ann Savage, of Detour fame, playing his mother), Maddin also recalls familial drama and childhood anxieties. Everything is told as an exaggerated reminiscence, like in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, to draw another cinematic comparison. And everything is shown in a jittery, dizzying montage that characterizes Maddin’s filmmaking style: rapid editing, fast/slow motion, blurred focus, superimposition, a fluid camera, stock footage, you name it. Through the relentlessly convulsive incorporation of spasmodic imagery and text, Maddin ties together any number of the film’s various segments to create a mythological medley of connectivity and causation.

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The memories and these accounts, however, should not be taken at face value. What Maddin covers in the film—the tales of Winnipeg and his life—is just bizarre enough to be fabricated and just ridiculous enough to be true. “Everything that happens in this city is a euphemism,” he states in his narration, and everything about the film is as if in a deceiving dream-state, which is fitting, given the emphasis on sleep. Maddin notes that the city apparently has 10 times the sleepwalking rate of any other city, that trains are “sleep chugging,” that Winnipeg is, he says, “always sleepy.” The tone of the film, and its accompanying surreal manner, conveys this sensation, like a drowsy David Lynch, on acid.

In a self-conscious declaration of intent, Maddin notes that with My Winnipeg, he hoped to develop a “whole new genre of film.” Originally commissioned by the Discovery Channel in Winnipeg, and thankfully given little instruction, Maddin does just that. If he was supposed to do a straightforward documentary, the result is anything but, at least by any conventional definition. But if the goal was to give a personal, eccentric, and inspired account of the city of his birth and residence, to that aim, he more than succeeds.


‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’

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“Fassbinder is Petra von Kant.” So says frequent star and muse Hanna Schygulla as she discusses Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s working methods and his identification with his characters, both male and female. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a notable case in point. Based on Fassbinder’s own complicated relationship with Günther Kaufmann, the genders are reversed for what became this tale of passion and despair between a successful fashion designer and the younger beauty who enters and upends her personal and professional life. Originally written for the stage, specifically for Margit Carstensen, who would take on the title role in the play and film, Bitter Tears is a fascinating examination of sexual intensity and infatuation gradually undercut by acrimony and deceit.

Though Fassbinder’s play was generally unsuccessful, he nevertheless moved full speed ahead with the film adaptation, and the exceptionally fast production (a 10-day shoot—100 hours according to cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) was surprising and challenging to even those already accustomed to the director’s breakneck speed. One would never suspect such a hurried pace by looking at the film itself though. Unfolding over slightly more than two hours, this meticulous and malicious battle of wills between a few individuals in a singular location resembles a Polanski-esque power play. There is likewise a breakdown of pretense, as falsities of behavior and speech give way to oppression and jealous resentment. In a film so reliant on dialogue, words take on particular significance, not only in their obvious meanings, but also in their insinuations and interpretations. Sidonie von Grasenabbsays (Katrin Schaake), the first individual who visits Petra, calls the designer “hardened,” but Petra contends she’s just using her brain. But couldn’t that be the same thing?

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As Karin Thimm (Schygulla) enters the picture, literally, she does so cast in flattering light (see Sidonie’s entrance for a contrast). Immediately, the dynamic of the film changes. Petra is instantly taken by the beautiful newcomer, so she invites Karin to meet her the next evening. When she does, both are elaborately costumed (Petra in what Carstensen describes as a “monstrous” dress), and the whole act of seduction feels like an affected performance. In this sequence, what develops into an unsteady conquest and eventual affair becomes, in the second act, a relationship already plagued by condescension and animosity. The bitterness between Petra and Karin, which quickly causes the relationship to sever, is a duel between dependency and autonomy, and the loathing that grows between a breadwinner with financial control and one in a more reliant position.

Each of Bitter Tears’ five acts function as confessional, sermon, and testament all at the same time, with Petra especially professing her feeling and imparting her beliefs. But Karin mocks Petra’s maternal “pearls of wisdom” and accuses her of thriving on suffering. (Curiously, in an interview on the new Criterion Blu-ray, professor Jane Shattuc likewise notes Fassbinder’s fondness for looking “at beautiful women suffering.”) Petra denies this, but there’s probably something to the claim. At least as far as we can gather, she is indeed what in modern parlance could be dubbed a “drama queen.” In particular, she plays the scorned lover remarkably well. We know she has just recently divorced (shockingly to Sidonie, Petra is the one who instigated it). Perhaps that breakup was a rehearsal for this latest one? Or perhaps this is just one of several such scenes in her life?

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In any case, by the end of the film, Petra is a cliché of despair: alone by the phone, drunk on the floor, talking to herself … all on her birthday no less. Her frame of mind is made explicit by her placement of two unclothed female mannequins embracing each other in bed, while another stands looking over them. The breakup with Karin leads to an inevitable outburst, and it happens in full view of Sidonie as well as Petra’s mother, Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey), and daughter, Gabriele (Eva Mattes). When we first saw Petra at the beginning of the film, she was just waking up, with no makeup, no costume, no wig; she was void of the façade that defines her as the film progresses, at least until this emotionally raw final breakdown. In her defense though, it’s safe to say Petra is not surrounded by the strongest support system. Her mother, for instance, is totally oblivious to her daughter’s bisexuality, so she’s not going to be of much help.

In the shadows through it all, frequently and powerfully singled out by Fassbinder’s camera, has been the silent servant Marlene (Irm Hermann), bearing witness to the humiliation and cruelty as she herself is the neglected constant. “Don’t take any notice of Marlene,” says Petra, who is at once referring to her servant’s already existing knowledge of the household dramatics while also suggesting her irrelevance. Marlene herself is brought to tears at one point, but her misery goes unnoticed by all but the audience. Though her devotion and love toward Petra is evident, one expects her to snap at any time, especially as the verbal abuse becomes increasingly harsh.

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Due to Fassbinder’s restriction on the spatial possibilities, the audience is stuck in a single confining room as this disturbing series of events plays out. We are left with nowhere to go, no respite from the emotional carnage—it’s little wonder Mattes speaks of the film’s inherent imprisonment. With this setting constraint in mind, Kurt Raab’s extraordinary production design becomes something of a character itself, subtly changing as the scenes shift, time passes, and characters develop; a fluctuating treatment of the backdrop proves essential. The room of Bitter Tears is bursting with ornamentation and decorative clutter; there seems to be something everywhere. Though Ballhaus acknowledged the difficulty of shooting in such an enclosed space, which he describes as long but with little depth, he and Fassbinder incorporate smooth and often understated camera movements, along with creative camera angles, using the multitude of fore and background elements to break up the space and keep the compositions unique and interesting. Actor positioning works the same way, as the women assume both self-consciously posed stances and more naturalistic poises of relaxation.

Like pieces on a chessboard, Schygulla says Fassbinder took she and the other actresses and had them “stylized and arranged for a desired effect.” She also comments on Fassbinder’s frequent “combination of seriousness and kitsch,” and one certainly gets this duality with Bitter Tears. From The Platters to Verdi, Sirk to Brecht, the film spans the so called high and low cultures that so fascinated Fassbinder. The image vs. content clash, which is another key aspect of Fassbinder’s work, and which is further remarked upon by Shattuc, similarly juxtaposes gorgeously shot imagery that nonetheless depicts the brutal realities of life.

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Much is often made of Fassbinder as a great director of women, and rightfully so. As with filmmakers as wide-ranging as D.W. Griffith, Ingmar Bergman, George Cukor, and Lars von Trier, Fassbinder had a knack for eliciting strong female performances. As the supplemental materials for the Criterion disc illustrate, his cinema would not have been the same were it not for these collaborators. From Carstensen and Schygulla to Hermann, Schaake, and Mattes, Fassbinder’s notable stock of female players often turned in their finest performances under his direction. Those performances, however, were as much the result of the actress’ own individual skills as they were Fassbinder’s. And The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, as much as any other Fassbinder film, is a minimalist showcase for the talents of all involved.