Mucking with Movies: ‘Contempt’
Mucking with Movies
If you’ve seen even a single Jean-Luc Godard flick, then you muck with movies even harder than I do.
A degree in film from NYU would make you think I must have come across at least one in my education, but no. Instead, it was three, in-class viewings of “Citizen Kane,” “Some Like It Hot” twice, a cigarette dependency, and a superiority complex.
So, on the 60th anniversary of the release of Godard’s “Contempt,” Aspen Film did me an incidental solid by putting it on as part of their weekly Wednesday classic film screening series. After seeing “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” last week, it was like mainlining adrenaline and then going to watch the sunrise in a garden.
“Contempt” is one of the more famous additions to the death of the cinema genre, a strain that has been around since cinema’s birth. It begins with square-jawed American movie producer Jeremy (Jack Palance) standing in front of a closed-down theater yelling, “Only yesterday, there were kings here!” It cascaded from there, soaking everything in this bitter nostalgia. Although Jeremy is the most interesting character, really a caricature with his red convertible that he uses to drive the staggering fifty-step distance around the corner as the Europeans walk, it is Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Brigitte Bardot) who are the main protagonist/antagonists, respectively.
The performances weren’t profound; they were true and genuine but lacked an emotional nuance. But, it was enough, so that the bitter nostalgia they have for one another seeps into every pore of the film. It reminded me of my own tumultuous, almost-relationships — those that have been bogged down by rapidly-shifting emotions, misplaced adorations, and conversations that go around in circles until the edges are frayed and rusted and capable of wounding infectiously deep.
A love going cold is a slow burn, and Godard refuses to rush it, instead electing for the tension to simmer through excruciatingly long takes. The camera just sits; not cutting, not moving, hardly even pushing in and out. It creates a lived-in feeling that pairs perfectly with the low-stakes slice-of-life film.
Never have I enjoyed a piece of art less while having more respect for its technical achievements. Every frame is so assured, without a piece of production design out of place. I’m a sucker for films with strong art direction, where the same amount of thought goes into what is inside the frame as how it is going to reflect in the light. The merit is undeniable, but its entertainment … not so much.
It’s only my unquenchable desire to understand the full breadth of moviemaking that put me in my seat and kept me there. I must understand the legacy of what I love, and no era of film has been more important to modern-day Hollywood than the French New Wave that Godard represents. Not German Expressionism, not Italian Neorealism, not even the precious so-called “Golden Age” of Hollywood with its plainness can be felt today as much as this era. It’s fascinating to discover the sources of these techniques that have stood the test of time and changing technologies. This is why here, at the end, I thank Aspen Film for hosting these screenings the past few weeks.
Last week, I got to see “Once Upon A Time in the West,” one of the first movies that enthralled me, on the big screen for the first time. My roommate Alex, who doesn’t care as much for movies as I do — which, thank goodness, as one of us needs to be cool — walked out of that Sergio Leone film more excited about art than I’ve ever seen him.
It reminded me how important these screenings are for everyone. It opens up a space for everybody to experience something new. We were never throwing that flick on at home, and I was never gonna make the time to watch a Godard.
We all need a push outside our artistic bubble sometimes.
Jack Simon is a mogul coach and writer/director who enjoys eating food he can’t afford, traveling to places out of his budget, and creating art about skiing, eating, and traveling while broke. Check out his website jacksimonmakes.com to see his Jack’s Jitney travelogue series. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries of any type.