Intro: ‘Does it Hold Up?’
So I was talking with a friend about doing a discussion series where we would look at classic books and movies and talk about whether they still help up. More specifically, the idea was to figure out whether people should still bother seeking them out.
And no, it didn’t have a lot to do with the somewhat recent trend of looking at media from the past and pinpointing ideas or images that would be considered problematic by modern-day political sensibilities.
Instead, the goal would be to look at each piece and see if it still worked as art.
But as I started listing off potential candidates, most of them books and movies I love and have loved for a long time, I found myself saying yes to just about all of them. I think most of them still hold up pretty well.
And on the one hand, this seemed like a good sign: that the stuff we label as ‘classics’ is indeed timeless, that we, as a species, have done a good job of narrowing down which pieces of art will retain value indefinitely.
But then …
I watched a movie pretty much universally deemed to be a classic, and it challenged my theory that classics will remain classics forever.
So I’d like to talk about that movie and how even the classics have expiration dates.
Godard is a Hack and ‘Contempt’ is Very Bad
Godard sucks, and I’ve had enough of people trying to defend his work.
So I watched my first Godard movie, Breathless, when I was still brand new to the arthouse scene, and I got so little out of it that I worried the real problem was that I just didn’t enjoy the French New Wave or French movies in general.
But then I found Bresson, and Tati, and Varda, and Kieszlowski, and Demy. It really was just Godard that I hated, and that hatred has been burning strong for many years, despite my trying time and again to work through his filmography.
The only Godard movie that has given me fleeting moments of joy is A Woman is a Woman, but outside of that, it’s been a wasteland.
But watching Contempt for the first time gave me a chance to really focus on what I don’t like about his movies.
The biggest problem is that they make me feel nothing. They don’t even make me angry. I can respect a movie that just makes me seethe with anger (see: Michael Haneke), but with Godard it’s just … ehhhhh.
Imagine you’re completely broke and it’s the night before payday. You’d like to sleep off the hunger but you just can’t fall asleep. Fortunately, you find a bone-white mint buried in the couch cushions, long-drained of its artificial coloring. You suck on it for a few seconds before a coughing fit knocks it out of your mouth.
That’s what I felt like watching Contempt. I didn’t even get the faintest whisper of artistic satisfaction or entertainment from it.
As we all know, a bland movie is far worse than a bad one, and this was bland incarnate.
I guess this is the part where I should mention specifics, sooooo…
The movie’s about a screenwriter who gets tapped to do an adaptation of The Odyssey, which will be directed by Fritz Lang, who’s actually in the movie.
Lang was supposedly included to signal Godard’s reverence for his work and the influence Lang’s movies had on Godard in his formative years. But to me, it also feels like Lang’s in the movie so that Godard can be like, “Seeee? I’m buddies with one of the most famous directors of all time, and that validates my work.”
There’s this American producer who’s played really over-the-top and comical, who tells the writer guy to do the script better.
The story catalyst is when the sleazy producer invites writer and his wife, Brigitte Bardot, to his house, because Weinstein, and he’s like, pretty lady, get in my car, your husband can take a cab.
This is the turning point of the movie. Pretty exciting, huh?
So here’s what you need to know about Brigitte Bardot’s character in this movie: she’s attractive.
No, seriously, she’s very very pretty, and… that’s about it. If there’s a master of the female character whose only purpose in the movie is to look good and be objectified by the male characters and also the audience, it’s Godard.
I’m not gonna say that Bardot is bad in the movie. She’s not. Like a lot of aspects of Godard’s movies, she’s just there. She’s fine.
Another career-long Godard theme that bored me in Contempt is his very open… admiration for butts.
We see this a lot in Pierrot le Fou, where the two lead characters are stand-ins for himself and Anna Karina, who he married when she was 21. Godard was about 31 at the time. Not necessarily sleazy, but given the butt-related dialogue in a lot of his movies, you get the sense that maybe it was really just a … physical attraction.
I’ve even gone through Contempt to pull some of the most on-the-nose dialogue about butts, because let’s not forget that this movie is a classic and has a lot to say about marriage, or modern ennui, or something.
And don’t you worry, I also have footage of that movie about Godard and Karina made by the guy who made the Artist, because remember that movie? Let’s take a look.
[clip from Redoubtable]
Another incredibly disappointing aspect of Contempt is its shell story, which is about the process of a movie being made, which itself sits inside of the real movie that we’re watching.
Back in the 60s and 70s, this was an arthouse standard, thanks in large part to the fact that meta-narrative elements were still new. Breaking the fourth wall has long since been disseminated into shared culture, and now you can find it just about everywhere.
But back when it was still edgy, it was very popular.
We see it in Fellini’s 8 ½ releases in ‘63. Then Contempt used the premise in ‘64. Then the Audrey Hepburn comedy, Paris When it Sizzles, used it as well, which was also released in ‘64.
Then Truffaut did it again in ‘73 with the painfully dry Day for Night.
And of course we’ve seen it many times since, notably in Seven Psychopaths and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, with a script from Charlie Kaufman.
Making movies is really hard, so it’s not surprising that filmmakers enjoy the idea of portraying that difficulty, especially when it comes to expensive projects that end up going absolutely nowhere, as was the case with 8 ½ and Adaptation.
Thing is, 8 ½, which came first, did it really really well, and it also happens to be one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
Both 8 ½ and Contempt buck narrative trends by ending with a whimper. The audience is expecting the story to go somewhere and then it doesn’t.
This approach, on its own, is neither good nor bad. But it’s extremely risky. There’s a huge risk that the audience will just be disappointed and go home confused.
But if you wow audiences with other elements like great visuals, fun characters, and cool music, they might forgive you.
8 ½ finds other ways to be entertaining. Contempt doesn’t even bother trying.
And ok, fine, maybe it’s meant to be a metaphor for romantic relationships. A marriage can end almost on a whim. You’re not guaranteed to have a big fight like the second half of Before Midnight.
The feelings could just die and that’s the end of it. But if that’s all Contempt had to say, well, who cares?
You could have gotten that across with a short film. Or you could have just bored your glitterati friends with this brilliant philosophization at parties until they wandered off to get another drink.
The only thing Contempt gives me is some decent visuals. It’s shot in Cinemascope, which is fine. We get some neat cinematography, but it all gets weighed down by the empty writing and all the times the Godard stand-in character hits his wife who’s just done with him.
I do believe critics when they say Contempt was once revolutionary, and that it had a positive impact on cinema as a whole, but I don’t think that kind of influence lasts forever.
I wish I had more to complain about when discussing Contempt, but really it just isn’t worth it. None of it is interesting and even if I tried to convince the arthouse community that they’re wrong to regard it so highly, no one would be converted.
The big point here is that I don’t think Contempt holds up at all, either as art or entertainment, and I think that’s the fate of almost all art, even the art that has stayed vital for decades.
When Classics Stop Being Classics
So whether or not you agree that Contempt has ceased to be a classic, it’s time to talk about the limits of the label and what it means for the future of media criticism and filmmaking.
For critics, the term classic is a special tool that only gets broken out on rare occasions. It’s some of the highest praise anyone can give a movie, and so it has come to define movies that we value collectively, as a society.
So while there hasn’t been a conspiracy to only elevate certain types of movies, there has been a passive effect where movies that can be qualified as classics tend to share a lot of traits.
A lot of them tend to be dramas, and a lot tend to touch on very heavy themes, especially romantic relationships.
Now, in most cases, I can look at a big list of what are generally called classic movies and agree with a lot of them. I understand why movies like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Do the Right Thing, La Dolce Vita, Seven Samurai, and Cleo from 5 to 7 continue to get critical praise.
But at the very least, those movies offer a lot to love and they will reward you for sitting down and watching.
The reason I’ve been talking about Contempt so much is because, when it gave absolutely nothing to me, it served as a case study for what we can or should do when decades of universal praise don’t seem to make a lot of sense.
Do we just shrug it off and rack it up to differing tastes, or is there something a bit deeper we can pull from the situation?
As it stands right now with regards to the arthouse movie space, there are plenty of people who feel that everyone else should watch, enjoy, and appreciate classic movies.
But as far as I’m concerned, you really don’t have to do all of these things, and I think for the most part I’ll be speaking to anyone out there who is dipping some toes into the arthouse space for the first time or young filmmakers trying to learn more about the art form.
What do we, as a people, owe to the influential and groundbreaking art of the past?
I refuse to believe that all classic movies will continue to have influence and impact indefinitely.
As human beings, we want them to. We want specific works of art to be immortal because that means the artists will live on and that what they had to say with their work was truly worthy of attention.
I don’t doubt that select few movies and filmmakers will continue to speak to future audiences, in the same way that we still care a whole lot about Shakespeare, but the majority of the classics are going to fade in terms of relevance.
So… if you’re a young artist and you’re trying to catch up on the great movies of the past 100 years, do you need to love all those classic movies? And if you watch one and don’t enjoy it in the least, does it mean you’re somehow less than?
Well, this answer won’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with my work, but no, I don’t think you need to fall in love with the great movies to be a real artist, or even to be a ‘real’ cinephile,’ whatever that word really means.
I do still think there’s value in at least watching classic movies, or basically any movie you can get your hands on.
There’s a very good reason that historical context is a big part of any kind of artistic study. Understanding the progression of artistic movements helps us better understand what came before and after.
But if we take another look at the idea that classic movies should be watched, enjoyed, and appreciated, I think we can cross ‘enjoyed’ off the list.
To me, it makes perfect sense that Godard’s Contempt falls completely flat. Sure, it probably had an influence on some other movies that I love, (in particular the wide-angle tracking shots remind me a lot of Wes Adnerson’s stuff) and I respect the attempt to do something new, but it ultimately amounts to a museum piece sitting behind a piece of glass.
It used to mean a whole lot, and it was important in its own time, but once I’ve finished reading the little information plaque, I get to keep walking, finding my way to a piece that actually makes me feel something.
This wasn’t really a review of Contempt, but I’d still like to provide some movies that I think work as alternatives to Contempt that use a lot of the same themes.
If you want movies from around the same time that tackle a disintegrating marriage, check out A Woman Under the Influence, Scenes from a Marriage, or Juliet of the Spirits.
If you want movies that offer kind of fantastical behind the scenes looks at filmmaking, well I already mentioned these, but look for 8 ½, Day for Night, and Adaptation.
If you want some great French New Wave stuff, stick with Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy, and Jacques Rivette.
I don’t think I’ll be talking about Godard anymore, but I’d love to talk about movie criticism in general, so let me know if you like that stuff as well.
Thanks for stoppin’ by!