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British Free Cinema & New Hollywood: Karel Reisz’s The Gambler

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The Gambler

This post is the second in a series of essays for The Cineastes group. The Gambler was curated by Josh Wiebe at Octopus Cinema. You can find links to the other articles in the series from here.

Because this is a new wave film blog, I admit that with each of these Cineastes entries I do attempt to find some connection to the new wave, however small. Although this film has very little to do with the French New Wave, it does, however, have everything to do with the American New Wave – New Hollywood. Karel Reisz himself was also a graduate of British Free Cinema, a movement some refer to as the British New Wave for its similarities to the Nouvelle Vague.  Whether or not New Hollywood and British Free Cinema are seen as parallel to, descendents of, or antithetical to the nouvelle vague is a discussion perhaps for another time.  What they all had indisputably in common, however, were a sense of naturalism, a predilection for bittersweet endings, and a tendency to wax poetic about The Outsider, the anti-hero — all qualities, if you’ll pardon the pun, which The Gambler holds in spades.

This is not a 21-like story of a romantic card jockey who beats the system with his unorthodox tactics and cocky, Joe Cool attitude. This film is a modern interpretation of Doestoevsky’s The Gambler (1867), and it is, like the novel before it, a study of human weakness and compulsion and, essentially, an existential tragedy — not just because of the failure of the protagonist, but also for the societal mechanisms that drive him to his own private madness.

Not Even Anti-Hero

James Caan plays Axel Freed (Axel a near anagram of Alexei, the main character in Doestoevsky’s novel), a literature professor with a macho gambling addiction. The movie opens at a card table where Axel loses an astounding $44,000 over the course of a single evening.

What follows is not a typical story arc. We are not taken through various trials, to be lead at the end to Axel’s salvation.  Axel, in fact, does not learn any lessons; he is not even an anti-hero, because there is very little that is heroic about his behaviour.  Over the course of the movie we watch our protagonist gamble compulsively; look on gormlessly as a loan shark breaks the knuckles of a penniless client (as the man’s wife looks on in horror); finagle his hard-working mother out of her life savings, then blow it all almost immediately in Vegas; nearly rape his long-suffering girlfriend; convince a student to fix a basketball game to worm his way out of debt with the loan sharks, only to blow off his only friend to visit a whorehouse where he deliberately provokes the pimp into a bloody fight.  The movie ends with the hooker slashing his face with a knife.  He stumbles out of the room, blood pouring down his face, looks into the hallway mirror, and smiles.

What are we to make out of a movie like this?  Are we supposed to enjoy it?  Maybe not, but perhaps in the same way we are not meant to “enjoy” La Nausée or L’Etranger. What we have instead might be a feeling of wakening, the small and perhaps painful light that illuminates something truthful about this character, and in turn something in him that we see also in ourselves. This is not a story about human strength, it is not even primarily a story about human weakness.  The Gambler is a treatise on freedom.

Freedom & Manhood

In Hemingway’s story “Soldier’s Home”, the protagonist, Krebs, returns home after years serving in the Great War, only to realise that he has become completely alienated from his family and friends.  No one understands his war experiences, or wants to hear his stories about what it really felt like on the battlefields. They see him as a hero perhaps, but they no longer share his reality, one which has become fractured and reconstituted through the turbulence of war. He begins to feel restless and apathetic, and he fills his days with trivial activities, idling and playing pool.  He can’t get a handle on normal, everyday life, because after the heightened reality of the war, everyday life feels unreal. During the war, there were times where he’d felt “cool and clear” inside, heroic, free to make the choice to do the “the one thing, the only thing for a man to do easily and naturally”.  This natural expression of heroicism was crystallised only through danger and the risk that it could all go wrong. He felt he was a man because he met those risks head on, faced them, and conquered them with courage and clarity of purpose.  Back at home, he cannot help but become a slave to a set of social and societal customs which, without risk, are meaningless. He realises he can no longer express his true self, and thus is not free.

This suspicion that modern life, for all of its safeties and conveniences, might be meaningless or a trap, is not isolated in fiction to war veterans or ex-fighters.  It is a common theme in existential literature (the aforementioned La Nausée and L’Etranger, Kafka, Doestoevsky and others).  What is interesting is how this restlessness manifests itself. There is a reason, for instance, why Axel’s character is a college professor. He is, for all of his open-shirted machismo, an intellectual; and while some men express the need to master risk by getting involved with a sport, by skydiving, by becoming boxers or firemen or policemen, Axel needs to take it further, to pit his mind against the universe, to dominate at the most basic physical level of reality.  He wants to bend fate to his will, and to become the master of chance, he can only be a gambler.

Reisz isn’t romanticising; by spending two hours with Axel we begin to understand that the tragedy of his character is only that he does not know how to live his life without courting death or ruin. He needs danger and risk, and the feeling of domination that comes through conquering those risks through gambling, more than he needs love, or career, or family.  And it isn’t until his fear for his own life drives him to cheat, to dishonour himself by asking one of his students to fix a game, that his emotionless composure crumbles. The look on his face, when his debt is cleared, is not one of relief: but of failure.  He hasn’t won.  For Axel, even though his decision has saved his life, and even though he didn’t actually cause his student to lose the game, he knows his choice was the wrong choice. His Fate found him and he bended to its will – and instead of doing “the one thing, the only thing for a man to do”, he took the coward’s way out.  He is ashamed. For Axel, it was never about the money; it was always about his potency as a man, and his misdeed has, for a time, gelded him.

To make up for his cowardice, Axel spurns his friend’s suggestion of celebration and immediately drives to a brothel/bar where he first picks a fight with a hooker, then her pimp.  “What is wrong with that guy?” we think as the pimp pulls out a switchblade. “How could he possibly be such an idiot? He just cleared all of his debt – shouldn’t he be grateful for this second chance and just start living his life?”  But what does a man like Axel have to live for now that he has seen the shape of his own cowardice? No, he has to prove to himself that he would be willing to give up his life.  He needs some event to stand in for the decision he should have made when the loan sharks began to pressure him to choose between money and his honour. So when the pimp pulls out his knife, Axel only is doing what comes naturally.

New Hollywood

[tbc]

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La tête contre les murs, directed by Georges Franju

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La tête contre les murs (Head Against The Wall), dir. by Georges Franju

La tête contre les murs (Head Against The Wall), dir. by Georges Franju

I think Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face was the first “new wave” (if you, like Jean Douchet, would call it new wave) film I ever saw. I was 18 and living in New York City’s East Village by myself. I had a rumpled copy of The Village Vioice and, being a country girl from Ohio and having never heard of a “repertory cinema” before, I thought I’d strike out with the sort of adventurous spirit a smalltown person gets when staying in the city for the first time, and camp out for a few nights at The Angelika (or The Village East Cinema I think it’s properly called). I’m sure I saw six or seven movies then, but I only remember two. Eyes Without A Face, and a fantastic documentary about Nina Hagen (“Nina Hagen = Punk + Glory”), presented by Peter Sempel.

I barely remember the plot of Eyes Without A Face, but I do, with perfect clarity, remember the imagery. The bandaged heads. The car along the riverbank at night. The ghostly house with the masked girl floating across the hallway, the dogs barking. Franju has a way of using nighttime mis-en-scene and Twilight Zone-ish pacing to create these hauntingly memorable moments that imprint, daguerreotype-like, in one’s brain.

No different is Franju’s first feature film La tête contre les murs (Head Against the Wall), which I had the pleasure of seeing a few weeks ago at the NFT in London — a real treat as the film is out of print and not available on DVD (update: apparently they are releasing it in September 09! hooray!).  Unlike Eyes Without A Face, Head Against the Wall is not a horror story — at least not of the blood and gore and mad scientist variety. It is, however, undoubtedly the stuff of nightmares.

The story opens with our hero riding his motorcycle through the shadowy countryside night.  François (Jean-Pierre Mocky, who also wrote the adaptation of Herve Bazin’s original novel) is a French rebel-without-a-cause. He rides around in a leather jacket, smoking and going to beatnik clubs and talking to girls. He also spurns his wealthy lawyer father, who one night catches François stealing his cash and gleefully burning his rather important-looking documents.

After a bitter argument, Francois’s father uses his medical contacts to put his son in a mental institution, ostensibly to cure him of his “anti-social” behaviour. What follows is a series of Francois’s escape attempts (one successful before he is caught), through Franju’s unique double lens of filmic style and substance. For one, Franju keeps one eye on the surreal beauty of the asylum itself: the train that chugs through the forest, the Rappaccini-like greenhouse, the walled cemetery, the dream-like gambling den whose inhabitants seem just as stony and absent, if not more so, than the statue-like patients at the hospital who suddenly animate and come to life when they join hands and march in a circle. At the same time, Franju does not want us to forget the theme, that the politics of an asylum are such that, once imprisoned, whether or not you are sane or insane is completely immaterial. All that matters, as in a fascist state, is that you obey and behave. In order to gain his freedom, Francois knows he must first become an obedient subject of his doctors, to agree that he is ill, and thus – in a way – to escape the asylum he must first give up his sanity.

This isn’t exactly an original idea, but I find it interesting that La tête contre les murs was released in 1959. Foucault published the french version of Madness & Civilisation in 1961. Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1959, but didn’t publish it until 1962. The Rosenhan experiments were in 1972. So, while Herve Bazin’s novel and Franju’s movie were probably addressing something already at the crest of people’s consciousness, they were among the first to articulate it. I do wonder what effect, if any, La tête contre les murs had on any of these later works…

I’m leaving a lot out (this is by no means meant to be a proper review – just my impressions really), but I wanted to make a final note about the visuals. I was looking on Google for an image of the one frame from the film which most stuck in my mind – that of the archway-like copse of trees through which Francois rides his motorbike at the beginning of the film. In my search for the perfect image, I was surprised to find that I was not alone in liking this image. I found this thread on Criterion that draws some interesting parallels:

La tête contre les murs (Head Against The Wall), dir. Georges Franju

Franju’s La tête contre les murs

Gremillon’s Maldone

Gremillon’s Maldone

Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of Brie

Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of Brie

I haven’t seen Maldone so can’t draw any narrative parrallels (I hope one of you will, though!).There’s something about this image with the trees, though, which for me acts as a kind of multi-layered metaphor for the atmosphere for the whole film: the trees alone and divided from their landscape, a tunnel into darkness which can’t be contextualised sensically into its environment, and finally the idea that beauty exists only in the non-conformation of an individual thing to its environment. A riot of red roses to an eye used to fields of green. Fields of green to an eye used to pavements. The crooked tree. The supermodel. The ruined church. We pick out things as beautiful because they are remarkable. Because they are memorable and perhaps even strange, even if only in the context of our own hierarchy of perception. But in any case, they do not conform to their surroundings. They are not subjugate. They are insane.

Back to Cartier-Bresson… Rather than comment on his photo specifically, I was thinking about his ouevre and the sorts of things he captures and also something he said: “A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace.”

A vestige, a trace. If the nouvelle vague is about capturing small moments in time, enlarging and examining them, the image and the detail being on higher ground than the grand narrative (Cartier-Bresson also said, “smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.” He was clearly sympathetic to that idea!), then Franju’s films are dark memories: “a vestige of a face, a face in transit.” Even in a film like this one, which is more about human failing than death, there is everywhere the whiff of death, the atmosphere of the corpse. The epileptic’s gruesome suicide, the cemetery scene, the odd zombie-like manner of the players in the gambling den, the feeling — as Francois was being pulled by the asylum attendents down the stairs of his lover’s apartment — of being buried alive. If Godard wants to peel away the surface of everyday meaning, and Truffaut wants to expose our desires, our human frailty, then Franju wants to remind us that we are mortal, and to remember that there is always something lurking just beyond our field of view.

….

ps. You can see the trailer here.

pps. The “Frank Sinatra of France”, Charles Aznavour, as Francois’s epileptic nautically-infatuated friend, is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful in La tête contre les murs. It’s one of his earliest performances in film and perhaps also one of his most deeply moving and best.

Nouvelle Vague: 50 Years On Conference. Part 2: “Jean-Luc Godard: Continuity & Critique”

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Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard

For many people, especially those recently introduced to the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc Godard is the personification of French New Wave. That look, those sunglasses, even the way he grips his cigarette, like a toothpick from a martini glass. All of these things say “rebellious”, “french” and “cool”.

Godard is both icon and iconoclast and, like Brigitte Bardot, his style is as equally recognisable as his films. Perhaps, then, it is only fitting that the conference moved directly from a discussion of Brigitte to a discussion of Jean-Luc. Except this time we were the recipients of two distinct points of view.

The second lecture of the conference was in fact a double feature: a lecture by writer and film critic Chris Darke, followed by one from film studies professor Yosefa Loshitzky. Afterwards, the audience would be able to directly address questions to both and the speakers could then discuss those questions and respond to both the audience and one another. Not precisely a panel, but close enough.

Chris Darke’s talk was entitled “Following Godard: some thoughts on JLG-watching” and, thankfully, presented exactly the sort of thoughts I had intended to fill my notebooks with – highly analytical, well imagined: theory. Before I begin discussing it, however, it’s probably worth mentioning that Chris Darke has written a book, a monograph on Godard’s Alphaville, which is going straight onto my Amazon wishlist. There’s an excerpt from it here.

But back to the lecture. Darke opened his presentation with this corker: “Jean-Luc Godard had more ideas in a single one of his films than most filmmakers come up with in several lifetimes.”  Provocative, but I happen to think he is right.  Yes, some of Godard’s later films, especially, are more obtuse (and okay, some of them are downright awful), but after watching a clip from Two or Three Things I Know About Her at the end of Darke’s talk, all of us in the audience knew what he meant. Godard is the Thomas Edison of filmmaking. Even in that single film, the sheer quantity of original ideas, in both in content in style, boggles the mind. Not all of his films are masterworks, but piece by piece there is no denying his genius.

“Godard in Space” (& Time)

The bulk of Chris’s talk was focused on Godard’s cinematic relationship to the concepts of space and time. Classical cinema, said Darke, answered the questions of space and time in narrative by simply ignoring them. If a man walks across a room, he is shown walking across a room – but only for as long or in such a way that his action relates in context to a pre-existing plot. Or else, his walking across the room is considered unimportant, and is not shown within the context of the narrative at all. The narrative is just what is relevant to the plot, in sequence, and nothing more. The fact that memory does not usually happen in sequence, or that it is usually emotionally connected to images, rather than logical sequences, does not matter to classical cinema. Neither does the fact that reality, the obverse of memory, is not selective on the basis of relevance. Real human lives are not plotted. Real human lives unravel through time, are always unravelling, and yet they still have meaning. If film is a medium of images rather than just words or text, and thus has the ability to represent experience and thought in a way that words and language and literature never can, why do we treat time and space in films in the same way that we treat it in books? The Nouvelle Vague, and through Godard all modern cinema, reposes these fundamental questions.

There were a few other points that Darke made that I found interesting. Because I am very aware that I still need to fit in a discussion of Yosefa Loshitzsky’s lecture, I’ll just briefly bullet point them below.

  • A recurring feature of recent discourse with Godard is him saying that the New Wave was not the start of something but the end of something – that is the decline of the film studio and the coming  of television. The Nouvelle Vague were lucky enough to ride out the last breakers of the wave, but the age of cinema is perhaps over forever.
  • What follows cinema? “Video thinks what cinema creates.”  I don’t remember that Darke expanded on this phrase, but I took it to mean that video is a more personal, reflexive medium than cinema.  It takes what cinema has created and “mulls it over”, recogitates it at the command of the Play button, can be fast forwarded or rewinded like memory, and is designed to be enjoyed alone, or in conversation with a small group. Any other thoughts as to what this might mean?
  • There was a small section on Godard’s use of sound in his movies, and how a disjoint between what is happening on the soundtrack and what is happening on the screen can also be used as a stylistic device to add or subtract emotion or meaning.  Darke: “This is where things happen – on the boundaries between picture and sound.”
  • Finally, I think there was a question from the audience about Hitchcock, who Godard and most of the New Wave very much admired.  The point was that, when it comes to directed plotlines and straight-forward classical narratives, there’s nobody more eager to push the audience from scene to scene than Hitchcock. So why was he so admired by the New Wave when they rejected this conception of time? Darke’s answer was that: as far as the Nouvelle Vague were concerned, “What we remember from Hitchcock is not plot but images.”  In other words, the New Wave was more fascinated by Hitchcock’s impactful use of images than his way with narrative.

Just Who Had Contempt For Whom?

Yosefa Loshitzsky was up next and started her lecture with the famous opening scene from Le Mepris, of Bardot’s nude body and her assessment of it, through the eyes of her lover.  Firstly, I’d like to say that while I didn’t wholly agree with Loshitzsky about Godard’s misogyny, I did learn quite a bit from her and she had some interesting points.

Getting back to Bardot’s nudity…. 🙂  Loshitzsky’s lecture revolved around Le Mepris/Contempt, and the many meanings the title of the film held for Godard and his relationship with the studios, with Bardot, with women, and with cinema in general. One of the main ideas, however, if not the main idea, was that the contempt in Le Mepris was really Godard’s contempt for Brigitte Bardot (as an actress, not Camille’s character in the film).  I don’t really agree with this, but as I think that maybe the topic of Godard’s alleged misogyny deserves a whole post of it’s own, I’ll skip over it for now.  I’ll skip over it so that I can focus on the things I did like about Loshitzsky’s talk.

Here’s that opening scene if you haven’t seen it in a while. You’ll need to skip to around 1:57 –

I liked watching the opening of Le Mepris on the big screen, and with fresh eyes.  Even before the lecture began, I noticed two things for the first time: 1) the camera seems to deliberately move away from the body part that the naked Camille is asking her husband to praise, and 2) this somehow makes Camille’s definition of her body as “all of her” take on a shade of irony. Or was I imagining it?

Apparently, I was not.  Loshitzsky also pointed these things out to us, and then went on to tell about the production of Le Mepris – how the producers had complained to Godard that there was not enough of Bardot’s naked body on screen and how Godard had included this initial scene as a kind of “up yours” – well, it all kind of made more sense.  Loshitzsky was trying to make it into a case of transference: Godard’s hatred for commercial moviemaking displaced onto Bardot.  But I don’t think that had anything to do with this. This is not Godard saying that woman are just the sum of their parts.  Otherwise the camera would have lingered on each pornographic angle as it was being described. This is Godard saying this film is more than just the sum of its parts. “Hey!” he seems to be saying as he switches on the technicolour on Bardot’s behind (while she is talking about her shoulders, unseen). “Is this what you studio men wanted, eh? Some cheap shot by shot softcore pornography? Well, fine. There you go. I hope you enjoyed making me your whore too.” Misogynist or no, I think it is a testament to Godard’s integrity that he does not treat Camille like this in the rest of the film.

I also enjoyed some of the backstory Loshitzsky provided about Godard’s own life and the autobiographical flavour of Le Mepris. She told a story about how Bardot wrote once that she hated making Le Mepris because Godard asked her to walk “more like Anna Karina”. Anna Karina was still Godard’s wife at the time, but their home life was deteriorating, and art was imitating life.

I wish I could say that the end of the “panel” was a rousing argument between Chris Darke and Yosefa Loshitzsky about whether it would be better to typify Godard as a boundary-busting intellectual or as a raging woman hater, but sadly the two speakers interacted hardly at all, instead just responding to the off question from the audience. Most of these questions were very boring. Oh well. Missed opportunity for what could have been a fantastic smackdown.

Next up: Antoine de Baeque! I can’t wait!