Cinema Mundi: Godard as Dante
It took an 8 minute long tracking shot of endless traffic, a career of anti- bourgeois films revered by mostly the bourgeois, and what can be easily mistaken as sloppy even amateur audio editing for Jean-Luc Godard to state the obvious: The world has been ending since we began. It’s 1967 and we have arrived at his film Weekend. A young rich couple drive down the French country side in order to retrieve their inheritance despite the fact the holders of the will are not dead yet. What could have been a typical road film at the hands of any other filmmaker instead turned to a vision of a modern apocalyptic dystopian civilization. With only a simple plot to worry about, Godard creates a string that connects the beginning of the plot and the resolution together. Within this string lies the home of random acts of anarchy and rants and raves that can only be from the mouth of a true French man. The always reliable Roger Ebert has called the film, “a tour through the horrors of the consumer civilization.” Michael Atkins of The Village Voice colorfully added to the description, “…capitalist Armageddon”. Containing shots of technical brilliance and moments that make about as much sense as life, Godard directs a Dadaist picture of self indulgent the way a good auteur ought to. His pictures have inspired filmmakers of all cultures who only truly understand that language which runs at 24 frames a second. Weekend stands as an achievement for Godard, an achievement for the sixties, and apparently marks the end of cinema all together.
This film does not play around. From the very beginning, we see two animals fight over a minor fender bender created while one reversed from a parking space. The car that was hit slams its brakes and attempts to run over the driver of the other car as he gets out. They whimsically chase each other around, until finally one catches up and smashes his face in revealing the severity in the manner. It’s harsh, it’s brutal, it’s raw, and it’s something that has happened many times before. We are then introduced to our main characters who watch from their balcony apathetically. The scene, which is presented for no reason at all, only adds to the over all apocalyptic flavor of the film. In every scene we are presented with events that are common to every day life, but when snipped apart from our day and placed next to each other we find a pattern: the downward spiral to our destruction and how normal it all seems. The very next scene places our protagonist in an office setting, but with extremely low key lighting and atmospheric music, a sense of menace emerges from their dialogue. The wife speaks about an explicit and crude act of infidelity which may or may not have happened. The camera looms on her, the score plays during inappropriate moments, and as I watched this I remembering feeling as though nothing was right at all, here or anywhere.
The one moment this film is best known for is an almost 8 minute long tracking shot of a traffic jam by the country side. The protagonist drives up realizing the cars are not going to move and so decides to switch to the opposite lane in order to pass everyone. Through out the shot, we see the passengers of the cars hanging outside on the road. Some are talking to each other, some are playing games, some enjoying the sun, many are yelling at each other. The only sound we hear is the chant of all the car horns melting together into one loud wave of noise. And though we never see anyone actually pressing a car horn (many people are not even in their cars), what should be sound effects to accompany the picture suddenly becomes a piece of avant-garde music shouting no doubt to wake the audience. The greatest part of that shot is how the two lane road runs through a large expansive field. It’s humans who have created their own limitations. It’s these humans who have confined themselves and clogged the arteries of Paris as nature flows in the background completely open and free.
Several bloody car accidents later, the characters abandon their vehicles as they cross the country side on foot. They meet and set fire to characters from literature, speak about the film they are currently in, and pass by historical figures shouting in a field for no reason. Later, they hitch a ride from two men who spout out political ranting so long and boring that the main characters look of boredom mirror the audiences. One could possibly take that as Godard’s attack on style versus substance, and it can even be a commentary on the apathy towards current political issues. Or it can be both as Roger Ebert eloquently said about some of the elements of the film, “Why? Why not?” Could not have put it better myself.
The premiere of the film came at a time when Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate came out. All the astronauts aboard Apollo 1 are burned to death during a launch pad test. Boxer Muhammad Ali refuses to fight the Vietnam War. The Beatles release Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Two members of the band Moby Grape are arrested for contributing to the delinquency of minors. Race riots occurred in Tampa, Florida, Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan. The People's Republic of China tests its first hydrogen bomb. The town of Winneconne, Wisconsin, announces secession from the United States because it is not included in the official maps and declares war. Guerrilla leader Che Guevara and his men are captured in Bolivia. The next day Guevara is executed for attempting to incite a revolution. Weekend had it right. These films about depression era gangsters that belong on Vanity Fair photo shoots and a disconnected existential college student who may potentially be a rape victim, though amazing achievements in cinema itself, speak nothing of the state of the world.
The apocalyptic vision promoted by Godard extended to film itself. One of intertitles in the beginning tells us we’re about to watch “a film found in a dump.” The music plays at inappropriate moments with no intention of backing up what we’re watching. Most of the time the music drowns out what the characters are saying, forcing us to miss half the conversation. Title cards pop up in the middle of a sequence for no reason, telling us random facts like how fast their car is traveling. Characters are constantly aware they are in a film. Transitions to the next scene happen before the point of the previous scene is over. At one point, the film appears to literally jump out of its sprockets as though it’s due to faulty projection. Eric Henderson of Slant Magazine describes these techniques as, “…a luridly colorful compendium of aesthetic juxtapositions and audio-visual schisms that evoke the frustrated tenor of the era.” Weekend also splits Godard’s career in two, leaving his New-Wave roots behind by alienating all of Hollywood. Indeed, Godard is an angry man.
“Weekend is a film of loathing and self-disgust. Loathing of the bourgeoisie. Loathing of the state of French society. Loathing of the state of the wider world. Loathing of the failure of mainstream politics. And a loathing of what “cinema” represents. The film is misanthropic, often determinedly ugly, and suffused with Godard’s disgust with the world and with cinema, and, because cinema had up to then been at the centre of his world, disgust with himself.” (Johnston)
If one moment was chosen…
The theme of Weekend can be best summed up in this one instance: After the main characters crash their car, hitting another car and possibly killing several people, the woman crawls out of the burning wreckage and shouts, "My Hermés handbag!" I sense the same kind of agitation in Godard as one would feel in any situation where one feels as though their cause is gone. Godard embarked to change cinema. His films were received very well, and he garnered the attention of the film industry for a while. By the time he made Weekend though, his passions had shifted due to his distrust and complete dissatisfaction with the film industry.
His film career began with new wave icons running through the streets of Paris, wide eyed and waiting for the world to come. By the time Godard’s Weekend came, people were tearing each other apart, car accidents colored the frame, and Godard himself declared at the end of the film, “Fin de Cinema”.