Tuesday, November 8, 2011

VIVRE SA VIE (1962) Review

Vivre Sa Vie (1962)
Dir. Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard is cinema's greatest punk, surpassing his partner in crime, Francois Truffaut with more irreverent affronts to the establishment and a greater reverence to cinema than Trufaut, who loved cinema but worshiped literature (Godard worshiped both with a greater emphasis on cinema). Both Godard and Truffaut's debuts (Breathless and The 400 Blows, respectively) immediately situated them as punks and announced, in a Sermon on the Mount fashion, that the cinema would never be the same. Vivre Sa Vie (translated as My Life to Live) was Godard's fourth film, and after dabbling in the crime, political and musical genres, turned his attention to the "message" movie popularized by Stanley Kramer. These films all have Godard's specific touch and, especially in the earlier pictures of his 60s era, show him refining his punk tendancies at the purpose of pushing cinema's boundaries.

Vivre Sa Vie is not however, business as usual, since its one of Godard's least political films and more specifically, his most Dickensian film. Godard uses his muse (and then wife) Anna Karina as a way to express his ideas, but Godard cares for Nana Kleinfrankenheim (Karina) more than most of his other characters and makes his arguments against prostitution in Paris through primarily emotional means over intellectual means. When Nana cries while watching Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, the scene is devoid of irony and instead registers as entirely genuine. In every Godard film, politics are essentially present in the lifestyles of the characters. Godard's characters frequent cafes and often purchase drinks, meals, cigarettes and pay for music to dance,  causing Capitalism to always be present in his work. This is certainly true in Vivre Sa Vie but besides this element, the film is free of Godard's direct statements and  allusions to politics which characterize his later work. From the close-ups of Anna Karina in the title sequence on, Vivre Sa Vie is primarily about Nana and her plight over any message.

Godard's treatment of prostitution in this film is not especially outrageous since he is suggesting that the line of work is dehumanizing and laced with shame. The nudity of the prostitutes is downplayed in a documentary-style, draining the eroticism of the women. Though the film's attitude to the situation at hand is fairly conventional, Godard's punk tendencies permeate the picture. In one of the film's most famous moments, the opening sequence shows Nana and her boyfriend having a discussion while the audience only sees the back of their heads. This sequence is exceptionally punk because Godard shoots this sequence this way to be knowingly irritating. But this sequence also illustrates Godard's genius by suggesting that these characters do not have much of a past but simply must exist in the ever-changing present. This idea is showcased in Nana's languid process of becoming a prostitute following her haphazard meeting with her first client. Godard's punk tendencies are further intentionally irritating with an overly long dance sequence (to get the audience to fall further in love with Karina) and Nana's quick, somewhat-trite death. These two sequences have their points and meanings, but at both times one feels Godard gleefully pissing off his audience.

Godard fits in more hip flourashes, like his shots of Karina smoking before a graffiti laced wall, but Vivre Sa Vie is one of his tightest films in that, his maddeningly pretentious moments serve directly to support his attitude about prostitution. Godard is probably the most pretentious filmmaker per dollar of film and yet, in this film, this ratio is reduced and the human element is pushed to the forefront. That is not to say that this film is not an intellectual film that resembles an essay (which many of Godard's films do, though this does not approximate his films), but the main focus of this film is to tell a story about a character that the director loves.

As usual, this film proved highly influential, especially upon filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. Viewers will recognize Uma Thurman's bob in Pulp Fiction with Nana's haircut, but the influence of this film on Tarantino goes deeper. For one, Tarantino adopted the 12 named chapter structure in his segmenting of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. For another, the way that Godard playfully moves the camera in this film (the 180 degree rotating of the sequence in the cafe with Raoul (Sady Rabbot) is readily evident in the opening sequence of Reservoir Dogs and the diner sequence in Death Proof.

This film registers with me as Godard's best black and white picture because of its strong humanist bent. Though I haven't seen all of his ouevre, this film is easily the most humanist of the pictures I've seen by him (which include: Breathless, Bande a Part, Le Mepris, Alphaville, Pierrot Le Fou, Masculin Feminin). I highly recommend it.

Note: This film is available to stream for those who have a Hulu Plus account and available to purchase through the Criterion Collection.


Best Hip Hop Song of ALL TIME

First off, I have to apologize for being slow in my posts. Life has been pretty busy (in a good way) so I will try to post more frequently. Got a this piece on Erik B. and Rakim since I haven't done anything by music yet and I'll have reviews of Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre Sa Vie and Orson Welles' F for Fake within the week.

2011 has been a strange year for Hip-Hop and music in general. I've felt that a lot that has come out has disappointed or has merely been mediocre. I've really dug St. Vincent's Strange Mercy, Girls' Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Thundercat's The Golden Age of Apocalypse, Andrew Jackson Jihad's Knife Man  and a couple others, but I've generally been disappointed, especially with Hip-Hop. Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T. have released solid work this year, but I thought those works were generally a bit overrated. Watch The Throne was extremely mediocre with only a few tracks standing out to me ("New Day", "Otis"-sort of, "Niggas in Paris"-sort of") and Tha Carter IV was embarrassing for a guy who once crowned himself the "Best Rapper Alive."

Maybe I'm becoming sentimental in my own age and preferring to listen to an era of Hip-Hop that suits me better than the modern era, The Golden Age and its aftermath. When I think of Hip-Hop I think of A Tribe Called Quest, The Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Ice Cube, etc. Really the time between 1988 and 1996. I tend to dismiss the notions that Hip-Hop is dead. Like most media output, many people are nostalgic to the point that they disregard most modern art and say things like "they don't make ______ like they used to." Movies, Music, Literature, you name it. This is really a topic for another, much larger post, but I wanted to insist that I do not hold reservations on newer media outputs. I once was a nostalgist, but now I am not.

That said, I wanted to go back and do something that will from this point on, be an anomoly for me. I want to crown a best Hip-Hop Song of All Time. These lists are generally worthless since time has not ended and thus, a best of all-time in anything can simply not be evaluated. I am putting this song with the title of "Best of All Time" to reiterate its massive, hiroshima-esqe influence on the genre, and provide some discussion to a song (and a rapper) that simply does not get enough attention anymore.

The song I am selecting for the "Best Hip-Hop Song of ALL TIME" is Eric B. and Rakim's "I Ain't No Joke" because it is perfect. In 3:52, Hip-Hop changed. There is Hip-Hop before Rakim and Hip-Hop after, with the effect being a kicking down of doors akin to Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" which like "I Ain't No Joke" is not necessarily Dylan's best song but is certainly his most important. "I Ain't No Joke" introduced Internal Rhyme to Hip-Hop allowing for an unmatched quality and opening the floodgates for all rappers everywhere. Following the album Paid in Full the bar was raised and the genre progressed with the effect being something like the Sermon on the Mount: this is how it was before, this is what it will be from now on.

More than its influence however, this is the ultimate Hip-Hop song because it outlines everything that MCing entails. After several albums, most people don't know who Rakim truly is. He still remains shrouded in mystery and myth. That is because Rakim raps about his ability and his status as an MC and does not bring his own personal history into his songs. For a regional art form, Rakim does not once state or mention where he is from (!). On "I Ain't No Joke" he doesn't once rap about his family, his girl(s), his worldview, etc, instead rapping about his supremacy as an MC over all other MCs. Nas advanced beyond this template by rapping with Rakim's ability and coloring in the lines with his personality, his family, his upbringing, his neighborhood, his community. Indeed, Nas' whole life up to the age of 20 is on Illmatic. For Rakim in 1988 (and rarely if ever, after), all that matters is his technique and ability to Rhyme. With "I Ain't No Joke" the boasting of a rapper's ability was forever cemented as an essential component of rap. One could argue that boasting had been a part of Hip-Hop before Rakim, which I would not disagree with. But Rakim explained to a whole generation of MCs both younger and older that as a rapper, you are only as good as your ability. Many who argue that Hip-Hop is dead argue that it has died because rappers often care more about their material worth than their abilities (which has been growing since the 1990s but officially exploded with the superstardom of 50 Cent). While I tend to disagree with this view, I do agree that the Hip-Hop of Rakim is generally dead in this respect.

"I Ain't No Joke" also further cemented the practice of proving respect in Hip Hop. After "I Ain't No Joke," the listener takes Rakim seriously, especially after hard-hitting rhymes like "I hold the microphone like a grudge." Modern rappers accumulate phantom dead bodies with all the violence and murder in many of their catalogs, yet this line by Rakim devastates all of that because it is authentic even while being hyperbolic. The rest of the song details questions as serious as cancer, nobody smiling, waking up to a stern enemy, the unknown but presumably grisly end of unnamed seven MCs, rough rhymes, and guides out of triple stage darkness. Rarely are rappers this capable of adding so much surrealism to their verses and retaining a realistic, authentic feeling.

Finally, I suggest that this is the best rap song of all time because it is airtight with not a second wasted. In a genre known for its excesses (in lyrics and beats), this song does not have an ounce of fat. Every word and line feels pre-ordained and inevitable. The listener plays the song and it ends before he/she realizes what has happened. Hearing this song is a revelation, even for a listener who has jaded attitudes toward 1980s Hip-Hop. The song itself is almost beyond dissertation however, because it is really all about pure effect. "I Ain't No Joke" is Hip-Hop in condensed arrested motion that moves anew whenever played. Other rappers have used Rakim's template and improved upon it, but no other rapper is as strong a pioneer as Rakim.