Saturday, August 14, 2010

If You're Going to Have an Opinion, Please Don't Be Stupid

I'm all for critics having a differing opinion from my own; in fact, I relish it. Our differences are what makes the world go 'round, etc. But when you have an opinion and either can't defend it or your defense makes no bloody sense, that's when we have a problem. I recently read this article at the Guardian about the French New Wave that got my blood boiling. Look, I'm a self-admitted New Wave fanboy who has seen more of Godard and Truffaut's filmographies than any sane person double my age should, but I realize that the films aren't for everyone. However, when I'm reading a dissenting opinion, especially on a site as well known as the Guardian, I'd expect the author to offer a more substantial defense of their opinion instead of a hacky piece you would expect from a fifth-rate, attention-seeking blogger. Let's take a look at some passages from the article and dissect them, shall we?

"There are few images more enduringly cool than that of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg strolling nonchalantly down the Champs-Élysées in Jean-Luc Godard's À Bout de Souffle. Never mind that the scene did not actually appear in the film itself..."

...Except that it does. When the author was allegedly watching Breathless, were they actually paying attention or were they so distracted by how "awful" the whole experience was they had momentary amnesia?

"But here's the thing: I don't actually like the New Wave. There, I've said it. All that indecision and self-reflection – a sort of Twilight for grown-ups, only with paler stars and better fashion sense."

Now this is the point of no return for me. It's one thing to not like something, but it's another to compare the French New Wave movement with a vampire series aimed at teenagers for the dual purpose of appearing to be hip culturally speaking and gaining notoriety for making outlandish statements. If she could possibly defend this statement, I wouldn't have a problem with it. But the fact that the author says it, in the middle of a single paragraph for emphasis, without adding any support makes her lose credibility. If the indecision she is referring to is the Jean Seberg character's inability to decide whether or not to turn in her hoodlum boyfriend in Breathless, there is no logical way you can compare that to Bella trying to decide between Jacob and Edward in Twilight. Seberg's indecisiveness lasts 10 minutes, if that, of a 90 minute movie; Bella's is stretched out over two 2+ hour films. Yeah, real comparable. As for self-reflection, I won't deny that Truffaut and Godard, in particular, had an affinity towards characters who liked to talk a lot and mostly about themselves. I can see how this would be dull to non-fans, but these moments of reflection are rarely on the level of stupidity that Bella and Edward's endless prattling about their love for each other and their vampire problems are.

"I don't deny that Cahiers du Cinéma directors were geniuses of a sort, film critics who saw an overblown and worn-out Hollywood machine and decided to do something about it. When it came out in 1960, À Bout de Souffle stuck two fingers up to the studios still trying to pump money into soulless epics such as Cleopatra."

Wrong again. Unlike a lot of critics, the Cahiers critics were huge supporters of the American film industry and of certain directors like Hitchcock, Hawks and Ray that many important American critics completely ignored. No doubt they would have had problems with something as bloated as Cleopatra, but they saw mainstream French cinema as the big problem that needed fixing.

"The problem is the characters: Michel, with his obsession with Humphrey Bogart, Patricia with her pseudo-intellectualism. They always felt fatally underdeveloped, pastiches of their predecessors and less exciting than successors such as Bonnie and Clyde."

To complain that the characters of the New Wave films were underdeveloped is to completely miss the point of the movement. In Breathless, Godard wasn't particularly interested in exploring these characters; they were mere figures to not only hang his ideas about love, life and the movies on but also as a way to experiment with the stylization that eventually changed filmmaking. If the characters had been "developed," there would have been no room for Godard's manic jump cuts or to explore his obsession with the movies. He would have spent the entire time trying to get to the bottom of these characters. Also, did it ever occur to the author that maybe what we see in Breathless is the extent of the depth of these characters? Both Michel and Patricia are soulless creatures, children of Marx and Coca-Cola who have no depth beyond their silly lives. I'm not sure what the author was expecting, but I doubt Godard would have cared to show it in his movie. The author then goes on to cite the schoolteacher in The 400 Blows as another example of "underdeveloped" characters in New Wave movies. Wow, way to pick on a tertiary character and use it as a main point in your thesis. How about picking on one of the main characters in that film? Oops, wait, you can't, because, between Truffaut and the actors themselves, Antonie, his mother and father are all well-rounded and fully shaped characters.

"Both Godard and Truffaut were at one point on board to direct Bonnie and Clyde, a film that undeniably owes their influence a great deal. But had they done so, would Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have spent time debating their lovelife instead of shooting up Middle America? Arthur Penn...understood that American audiences could only take so much soul-searching. They were ready for action!"

Has the author seen Bonnie and Clyde recently? I actually watched it again for the first time in years the other day and I was actually surprised at how little of the film revolves around guns and bank robberies. Sure, the shootouts are probably the most famous sections of the film, but a good portion of the film is devoted to exploring Bonnie and Clyde as romantic folk heroes. They do spend a lot of time "debating their lovelife," whether it's in the form of Clyde's impotence or Bonnie's unhappiness being surrounded by Buck, Blanche and C.W. 24/7. It may not be as hardcore as in any French New Wave film, but it exists and I resent the fact that the author suggests that Bonnie and Clyde is nothing more than a shoot 'em up action film. Those last two lines in particular, ripe with irony and smugness, really annoy me.

"Truffaut is the master of self-indulgent film-making. In Les 400 Coups, Antoine, the neglected child, is undeniably cute. But how can his audience ever forget that this is Truffaut they are watching, that it is Truffaut again in Jules et Jim, that it is always Truffaut. Like Tim Burton today, Truffaut needed a good editor to tell him when his labour of love had become dull for everyone else."

Again, this is another matter of personal preference. Where one person sees "self-indulgent filmmaking," another (such as moi) sees Truffaut as a filmmaker with the self-awareness to find a little bit of himself in every single project and the ability to make these projects an extension of himself as a human. There's no doubt that Truffaut had an overriding theme that pervades nearly every single film of his. I call this thesis "Love at all costs," but he never explored this the same way twice. The Antoine Doinel films,
The Story of Adèle H., Mississippi Mermaid, The Bride Wore Black and Day for Night all revolve around this theme yet you'd be hard-pressed to find another commonality between them. And that last dig, comparing Truffaut to Tim Burton, was unnecessary and another example of the author making comparisons just to be controversial. Even Jules et Jim, which I'm admittedly not a big fan of, has a lot more merit as art than Burton's silly but empty versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd.

I could probably go on and on ranting about this dumbass article, but I suppose I've made my point clear enough. Like I said in the beginning, I'm all for people have differing opinions from my own and I truly believe that not every film "classic" is for everyone. But when you're trying to write a thought piece on an entire film movement, it's best to use more than a couple examples to prove your point. Based on this article, my guess is the author has only seen Breathless, The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim and decided that that was enough to make an all-encompassing opinion about the movement. This would be the same as me writing something, positive or negative, about the German New Wave of the 70's having only seen a couple Fassbinder movies. Not everyone has to be in love with the French New Wave, but your negative opinions at least need be, I don't know, intelligent and supported.


Glenn Dunks said...

I'm not much of a fan of the French new wave that I've seen, unfortunately, but I really hate people using really simplistic comparisons. Anything with a vampire that's not aimed at 14-year-old girls is "Twilight for adults" and so on.

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