"Contempt", Godard and the decline of a relationship

You gotta love Jean-Luc Godard. He doesn't make it easy for a viewer to fully feel comfortable while watching any of his movies. He means to bring a sense of uneasiness and -sometimes- pure unadulterated frustration. His film Contempt is no exception. It explores many ideas that have been obsessed by Godard over the course of his illustrious career. In 1963,  Godard was permitted a big budget financed by an international production, the use of a CinemaScope camera, Technicolor, a pair of icons (Brigitte Bardot and Fritz Lang as himself) to star in the film, and almost total creative autonomy. It was known as his first -and last- foray into "mainstream" filmmaking, even though I wouldn't qualify it as a full on mainstream picture. However its intentions were unlike any popular movies in that Godard didn't play it safe at all and kept hitting his audience with more questions than answers.

What has fascinated me most over the years is how Contempt -Le Mepris in French- dealt with the end of a relationship. Brigitte Bardot's magnificent performance as Camille Javal -she was so good that her character's name was later believed to be her real name!- wife of the aspiring screenwriter Paul (nicely played by a young Michel Piccoli) merely confirmed the fact that Contempt was a personal film for Godard. The director hadn't had the greatest success with the women in his life and decided to portray the crumbling of a relationship on screen. To great effect might I add. The centerpiece here is the near-infamous twenty-minute long sequence that takes place between the writer and his girlfriend in their vast, open-plan apartment, in which jealousies, bitterness and petty arguments blow up and cool off amidst a series of seemingly mundane, everyday-like activities. There is clearly something wrong with Camille yet whenever Paul tries to ask why she shrugs it off and says "nothing" but we the audience know that Camille's love for him has faded and that she is only clinging at this point. Albeit by the way her answers to Paul are structured or by the way her mood changes - there is something very wrong here.

Not much happens in that scene, yet everything happens. It is then that we realize exactly what Contempt is about. Godard wants us to feel the pain that Camille feels, she is stuck in a relationship she no longer is excited for. Paul isn't into it either, his gestures and sentences show a kind of by the numbers feeling for his partner. Yet you feel for him when Camille finally blurts out that she no longer loves him. The daring ambition Godard gives out is palpable. He disses the film industry as well. Fritz Lang -playing himself of course- directs an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, staying true to the spirit of the original. Producer Jeremy Prokosch -a hoot and a half- unhappy with the results, hires Javal to rewrite the script. Javal compromises the original's world of ideals with modern-day sensibilities. In essence, he parallels his own life to Ulysses'. Ulysses fights in the Trojan war because he is estranged from his wife Penelope, he delays coming back because of that. Penelope (estranged from him because of his behavior) is being unfaithful.

This is all part of the absurd joke that Godard plays on his audience and Contempt has been known as just that for many years - but I see much more in it than just a one joke pony. I see a Godard that was pained by unsatisfying relationships in his life and delved into their significances through his own art. His film captivates the viewer at unexpected times. It seems -from the outside- like a pompous piece of work with a thinly layered plot but it is much more than that. Contempt is fresh air. Contempt is about characters -whether it's the film director, the pompous American producer or the shot down couple- stuck in a world where there is communication breakdown. And there's no easy way out of it.

"Breaking Bad" and "Homeland" breaks barriers on the idiot tube

Truthfully. Is there anything out there right now in theaters as gripping as Walter White's absurd chemistry teacher gone bad story in Breaking Bad? Or Clair Danes' paranoid/bipolar CIA agent gone psycho in Homeland? I didn't think so. Homeland and Breaking Bad are doing at the moment what The Sopranos started 10 years ago; bringing the quality between the big screen and the small screen closer and closer together. There is no longer as big a gap as there used to be. It's not stretch to say that the two show mentioned are better than 90% of the stuff I see on a yearly basis in theaters. Is it the state of film that's crumbling? Or is it just that we are just  in the midst of the golden age of Television? I think it's both. Name me one great Hollywood movie you saw this year? (and NO foreign films don't count) .. Yea .. I didn't think so. Unless you -of course- consider The Hunger Games a masterful piece of cinema or better yet the cash grabbing violence in the Avengers as grippingly real as Walter and Gus' epic duel of wits.

In Breaking Bad Walter White's transition from loser/ high school chemistry teacher to Scarface-level insanity is almost too preposterous to believe. Here's a man that had nothing really exciting going for him in life and then came a medical diagnosis that put him in the ultimate of all mid life crisis's. A panic so severe that takes him on a meth-cooking journey to hell. Walt grows before our eyes in the series' 5 thrilling seasons and it is a testament to Bryan Cranston's acting chops that we believe his journey every step of the way. If you notice the quality and tension of the show only grows as each season goes along.  It's no wonder that Cranston - a veteran actor of more than 3 decades- won 3 straight Emmy's for his legendary portrayal of a monsterish anti-hero. Creator Vince Gilligan has consistently said that Walter's story is that of "Mr.Chips turning into Scarface" - he's not at all exaggerating. Walter White's story is one of those "you gotta see it to believe it" TV phenomenons that don't come on the tube that often. The direction is also better than anything I've seen in American movies, in fact Gilligan has persuaded quite a few film directors to make the jump to the small screen and direct his show. The list includes film noir expert John Dahl (The Last Seduction) and Rian Johnson (Looper).  Kudos must also go to Aaron Paul as Jesse, Walt's cooking partner and confident. Their friendship is that of highs and lows, fights and hugs and -ultimately- hidden betrayals. In fact, the entire cast is top notch from Dean Norris' Hank to Johnathan Banks' Mike the hitman. There's not telling what will happen in the series' final 8 episodes -which are set to air next summer- but one thing's for sure; the surprises have surely only started.

On the other hand Homeland is the rookie on the block. A show that only started its run in 2011 yet left such a lasting impression that it just won Emmys for Best Drama Series Best Actor and Best Actress, beating such stalwarts like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. In fact the show's surprising win left many "baddies" with a feeling of anger that their beloved show didn't get top prize. Know what? I bet they haven't seen a single episode of  the gripping Homeland, because if they did they'd realize just how good the show really is. With its mix of family issues and terrorist plots the series is a tightly knit puzzle that has irresistible tension. Claire Danes' Carrie - a bipolar CIA operative with enough obsessive thoughts to drive a therapist mad- is the heart and soul of the show. She reveals with each ongoing episode the hidden truths that hide in her deeply scarred soul. Carrie is keeping a close eye on Sergeant Brody -played by Damian Lewis- an AWOL prisoner of war that is finally found in Iraq and has Carrie second guessing his legitimacy and whether he might be a possible terrorist threat. It's a juicy plot that doesn't take the easy way out, everything you think is coming isn't. Twists are abound in Homeland but more importantly it's the way those twists are revealed -with such professional realism- that makes this show a keeper. Danes and Lewis -both respective Emmy winners- raise Homeland to the level of art with performances so good they make you forget these actors are just playing a game called "acting". If you've seen that happen in a Hollywood movie of late please mention that movie because my list is pretty empty.

Barton Fink's brilliance

Full confession; I’m nuts for the Coen Brothers. I mean, who isn’t right? Their kooky and dark style is the stuff of legend in American cinema of the last three decades. Joel and Ethan Coen are –pure and simply- American treasures. Then why did their rivetingly original work in “Barton Fink” not get nominated for Best Picture of 1991? Don’t get me wrong, the nominees were top notch; Jonathan Demme’s masterful “The Silence Of The Lambs”, Oliver Stone’s fictitious but gripping “JFK”, the landmark in animation that was “Beauty And The Beast” and Barry Levinson’s “Bugsy”. Did we forget the fifth nominee? .. Oh right ! This was also the year that Barbara Streisand’s middling “The Prince Of Tides” –starring a never worse Nick Nolte as a man that falls in love with his psychiatrist- got a questionable Best Picture nomination. Yikes, talk about missing the boat.

Oscar could have gone for riskier more memorable fare. I can name at least ten movies that were a hundred times more deserving than Streisand’s sap fest; John Singleton’s “Boyz N The Hood”, Martha Coolidge’s “Rambling Rose”, James Cameron’s “Terminator 2”, Ridley Scott’s “Thelma And Louise”, Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King”, Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita” or, hell, even “What About Bob” starring a hilarious Bill Murray. King of them all, Joel Coen’s “Barton Fink” which resonates as deeply as any movie from 1991.

Coming off a surprising Palme D’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival, Joel Coen’s movie satirized the 1940’s film business. Playing the titular character John Turturro was magnificent as Barton Fink, a writer with values of not selling out his art - yet he gets offered a big time Hollywood contract to write a “wrestling picture” and can’t decline the money. He is an artist out of touch with reality, trapped in a city out of touch with reality. Ouch, no wonder Hollywood didn’t nominate this incendiary masterpiece. “Barton Fink” bites the hand that feeds it and then some. Turturro’s Fink cannot connect with wrestling whatsoever and gets a bad case of writer’s block in the process. We follow Fink wherever he goes and wherever he takes us; is it all happening in his subconscious?

This is a film that admirably –and confusingly- mixes reality and fiction into one solid blend. However the film is a hard sell; For all the things that do happen in this movie, nothing really happens: John Turtutto's Fink is thrust into one bizarre situation after another, confusing us in the process. To call this movie a mindfuck would truly be an understatement and I do however mean that as a big, fat compliment. It’s like the surrealism of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” mixed with the trippy writer’s block of Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation”, two movies that were clearly inspired by “Barton Fink”.

This is a sly, nifty little film; taking something as drab and unspectacular as a run down hotel room and turning it into a cave full of tiny, distracting wonders. The hotel Fink stays in to write his “wrestling picture” is an important part of the Coen puzzle. Whether it’s the well chosen items on the wall, the maddeningly metaphorical paintings, the buzzingly annoying flies, the slurpy noise of peeling wallpaper or John Goodman’s insane next door neighbor, the Coens choose every small little detail for a reason – which is why multiple viewings of “Barton Fink” are a must and can in fact enhance your appreciation of the maddeningly intricate script.

The story was inspired by Joel and Ethan’s own bout of writer’s block. While trying to pen their gangster film “Miller’s Crossing”, the brothers suffered such severe writer's block that they took a break from writing. During the break they wrote “Barton Fink”. “Barton Fink” one upped their gangster classic by being the gutsiest, most artistically realized movie of their career. Later would come such classics as “Fargo” and “No Country For Old Men” but the Coen brothers have not made anything as narratively complicated or risky as “Barton Fink”. Oscar be damned, the film speaks for itself.