Band of Outsiders
dir.: Jean-Luc Godard
NR, 95 min.
Playing Jan. 25-27 at Sarratt Cinema
“The cinema is truth 24 frames a second,” goes the famous dictum expressed by the deserter hero of Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 political tract Le petit soldat. Yet in Godard's Band of Outsiders, made four years later, there's a famous instance of a “minute of silence” that takes up only 35 actual seconds of screen time. So what gives? If truth involves the accurate representation of space and time, where are those missing 600 frames?
The truth is that in the alchemy of cinemain the persistence of vision that draws an imitation of life from 24 separate snapshots flipping past a projector beam in sequence35 seconds add up to a minute. Movies aren't a photographic record of unassailable veracity; their truth lies in their engagement of the world as it is perceived and experienced. Thus when a bored kid in a Parisian café sighs, “A real minute of silence takes forever”and the entire soundtrack of background chatter and ambient noise goes dead, leaving nothing but a sullen voidthe equation of seconds to minutes to forever couldn't seem truer.
Or maybe it's just that 35 of Godard's seconds are worth 60 of most filmmakers'. Band of Outsiders, his 1964 gangster fantasiawhich shows this weekend at Sarratt Cinema in Rialto Pictures' new 35mm printis a breathless jumble of film allusions, literary shout-outs and exuberant pop-culture riffing. Dense with the director's personal checkpoints, from Fritz Lang films and American cartoons to his own mother's maiden name, this is the precursor of what film critic Rob Nelson calls the “deejay movie,” a young man's cinematic mix-tape of the cool things in life. Small wonder Quentin Tarantino named his production company A Band Apart, in homage to the film's French title. It could stand for the band of misfits and dreamers who make up the obsessive militant front of film culture, for whom this restored print is practically a grail.
Watching Band of Outsiders today, though, you're struck by the melancholy that underlines and offsets every burst of fancy, every mad dash of beauty. Godard shot it when he was 33, in the midst of a creative damburst scarcely equaled in movie history. At the time, he was married to his leading lady, Anna Karina, as bewitching a subject of scrutiny as a camera could seek. And yet in 1964, after its revolutionary initial films, the Nouvelle Vague of which he was a part was already approaching ebb tide. In just a few years France would explode in war protest and student revolt. The raw dynamism of American pop culture, once championed by French cineastes, would be seen as another form of hegemony as the U.S. stepped up its presence in Vietnam. Even Godard's marriage would not last another two years.
Fittingly, there is a constant tension in Band of Outsiders between the immediacy of the moment and the threat of what is to come. It's established in the break between the jazzy title sequence and the location shooting that follows on gray Parisian streets. Godard took the basic plot of an American pulp novel, Dolores Hitchens' Fools' Gold, about two crooks who hook up with a girl so they can rob her aunt's house. The novel's crooks were professionals, but Godard's popgun outlaws, Arthur Rimbaud (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), seem more like play-actorsthey delight in pretend shoot-outs, like kids playing cowboy.
The pop-stoked heroes wander through a postmodern Paris where the civilizing traditions of high art and literature are fading. In an English class, the two buddies meet Odile (Karina)who, under the gaze of Godard and Nouvelle Vague mainstay Raoul Coutard, manages to look like a different, equally fascinating woman in every shot. The class lesson is Romeo and Juliet, and while the teacher swoons over the love poetry, Arthur propositions Odile with crude Shakespearean puns. (Classics in Godard don't translate well into modern lovecheck out the treatment that the Odyssey gets in Contempt.) The teacher wants the class to learn literary English; the class wants only phrases that mattere.g., “a big $1 million film.”
Later, in a gag, the three companions sprint through the Louvre, ignoring the masterworks and beating “the record set by Jimmy Johnson of San Francisco.” Rimbaud classique, invoked in Godard's murmured narration, sang of crystal skies and impassive rivers. Brasseur's Rimbaud moderne dreams of Ferraris.
Even when nothing is happening, the director sustains the illusion of forward momentum: in the pans that follow the characters' leapfrogging positions within the frame, in the use of moving vehicles as settings. And yet Godard the narrator distances us from the characters even as he's ostensibly bringing them closeras in the movie's centerpiece, the wondrous sequence in which the three principals do a swivel-hipped “Madison” line dance. (It looks improvised on the spot; it actually took weeks of rehearsal.) As the finger-popping leads jive around a makeshift dance floor, the jukebox suddenly cuts out, leaving only Godard's voice and the tramp-tramp-clap! of the dancers' feet. The effect is of being awakened from a reverieof the poignant instant that perception ushers the present into the past. “Franz thinks of everything and nothing,” Godard narrates. “He wonders if the world is becoming a dream or a dream is becoming the world.”
The dream is ruptured when the dormant crime plot reemerges. Arthur hits Odile with real violence, and it seems to shake even him. As Pauline Kael noted, the movie's earlier playfulness doesn't prepare us for this jolt; the characters seem to lack any psychological context beyond their immediate surroundings. During a train ride, Arthur and Odile watch a scowling passenger, and Arthur says his expression could mean anything, depending on the story he concocts around it. It's the Kuleshov editing principle extended to life, and it may also be Godard's comment on the blatant narrative manipulation that's a staple of the gangster thrillers he's imitating. Like the extras in our lives who pass us on the street, Godard's characters have facets and motivations we will never understand from the short time we're watching them. Our movie-fed fantasies are fragile things. When these abstractions collide with a concrete world, sometimes they shatter.
That scarcely makes them less pleasurable. If anything, Godard's lyrical fondness for the fleeting youth and beauty of his band of outsiders is even more touching because it seems so delicate, so threatenedso pop. The Madison sequence wouldn't be nearly as affecting without the bittersweet intimations of transience that precede itlike his beloved Karina catching a glimpse of a newspaper headline that reads, “Keep Your Youthful Eyes,” or composer Michel Legrand quoting his own end-of-summer score from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. After a jubilantly absurd happy ending, Godard finally concludes his movie “like in a pulp novel, at that superb moment when nothing weakens, nothing wears away, nothing wanes.” His new film is titled Eloge de l'amour, but after almost four decades, the gorgeous and undimmed Band of Outsiders may be his true elegy for love.
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