CinemaScope Rebel

After All These Years, Godard's "Contempt" Is Still Fun To Watch.

By Stacey Richter

JEAN-LUC GODARD'S Contempt (Le Mépris) has been considered both one of the best films ever made and an extremely interesting failure. Godard directed it in 1963 after several early successes, including his first feature, the 1960 Breathless, a buoyant tribute to trashy American gangster movies. Godard had an exuberant, revolutionary style; he used snappy jump cuts and a hand-held camera that gave his work an on-the-fly, documentary feel that overturned previously accepted techniques for cinematography. Breathless was shot on a tiny budget, but its influence was enormous. Imagine how surprising it would be if a filmmaker like Robert Rodriguez came out of nowhere with a low-budget movie like El Mariachi (only better) and it changed the way people looked at film. That's what Breathless did.

Contempt was Godard's stab at making a commercially slick feature, though the idea of entering the mainstream didn't sit well with him. His producers, Joseph E. Levine and Carlo Ponti, insisted that he shoot in the widescreen format CinemaScope, and that he include additional nude scenes of Brigitte Bardot. Godard responded with the typical rebelliousness of teenagers and avant garde artists: He took every opportunity to thumb his nose at Levine and Ponti.

Cinema He gave himself the perfect forum by making a film about filmmaking. Contempt is the story of an ill-fated production of Homer's Odyssey. This Odyssey is being produced by Jeremy Prokosch, a crass, egocentric American (played with evil glee by Jack Palance), a philistine who keeps calling for more naked "mermaids" and seems to think that Homer's classic was set in ancient Rome. (Levine, who himself made a bunch of adventure movies with sparsely clad actors in togas, couldn't have missed the dig).

Prokosch is a guy who throws roaring tantrums while his pretty assistant calmly translates them into French. His film is being directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself), who, with quiet dignity, mouths some of Godard's most cutting dialogue: "CinemaScope is fine for snakes and coffins, but not for people," he advises. (Contrary to this opinion, Godard uses the wide screen with magnificent creativity--letting the camera bounce around like it's following a tennis match at times, holding it static and letting the characters wander in and out at others, and creating a series of strange, beautiful compositions cut in two at the middle).

Despite Godard's deep interest in insulting his producers, he also had artistic motivations for making a film about filmmaking. Godard's work often exhibits a Brechtian interest in the relationship between art and reality (he even quotes Brecht in the dialogue), and the film-in-film format gave him a way to explore this. In fact, the first shot of Contempt is of the production of the first shot of Contempt--we see a camera on a track, shooting the young translator as she walks through a studio lot. (In the final version, this shot shows up a little later, because his producers insisted he insert an earlier nude scene of Bardot.) It's as though Godard wants to remind us that art and life are deeply embedded in one another, and that the jury is still out on which is more genuine or meaningful. He furthers this theme by having a love story within the film (or maybe it is an anti-love story) mirror aspects of The Odyssey as well. Prokosch hires Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), an idealistic writer, to doctor the script. Paul has a beautiful, insecure wife, Camille (Bardot) who abruptly stops loving him--the "contempt" of the title.

Much of the movie is given over to the decaying romance between Paul and Camille. At first, Camille is tender with her husband, but after he encourages her to ride in a car with the predatory Prokosch, she throws a snit that lasts the rest of the movie. Their domestic quarrels are agonizing to watch--Camille is a brat, and their interactions are maddening. It's difficult to figure out what Camille is so upset about, though Godard does manage to keep Bardot unclothed most of the time, which helps fend off the frustration a little.

It is far more interesting to listen to Paul and Fritz Lang discuss the troubles between Odysseus and his wife Penelope, and to see how it echoes the relationship of Camille and Paul. Even when the two are alone in their apartment, Godard often shoots them through arches and windowpanes and doorways--there are always frames within frames, all of it enclosed within the larger frame of the screen. Godard is brilliant at taking a theme (here, of stories within stories) and representing it visually.

It's this sharp, intelligent visual sense that's made Godard a god to so many filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, who was instrumental in Contempt's re-release. (You can see Godard's influence on Scorsese in the quick, sinister jump cuts that pop up now and then in Taxi Driver, which was also just re-released.) But despite the considerable intellectual and visual sharpness of Contempt, it seems not to have aged particularly well. The relationship between Paul and Camille seems melodramatic, and Godard's rebellious attacks on consumerism and capitalism don't have the same charm now they probably had in the 1960s. Still, it's a treat to see such a visually interesting, intellectually ambitious movie on the big screen. They really don't make them like this anymore.


Men's Bodies Reign In A Weekend Discussion.

MEN, BODIES AND Film, a symposium exploring images of masculinity in the media arts, pools the talents of a handful of intellectual and creative types who see cinema not as mere entertainment, but as a window into our assumptions about cultural and sexual identity. Consumers aren't flocking to buy the literature, but they turn out in droves for movies like Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues and Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, each of which screened last week on the UA campus as part of the program. The third screening in the series, Anthony Mann's 1947 film noir cult-classic T-Men, brought back U.S. Treasury agents undercover at the dawn of the Cold War.

If you weren't on the ball, you missed the on-screen action. But the lecture segment of the symposium gets started at 7 p.m. Thursday, January 22, with "Female to Male: Redefining Gender," a follow-up to last Wednesday's independent videos about female-to-male transsexualism. Chris Straayer, associate professor of cinema studies at New York University and author of Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientation in Film and Video, will lead the discussion.

Krin Gabbard, a professor of comparative literature at SUNY Stony Brook and author of Jammin' at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema, puts Mo' Better Blues into a new context with a talk entitled "Signifyin' the Phallus: Representations of the Jazz Trumpet," also from 7 to 9 p.m.

And from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, January 24, Peter Lehman, UA professor of media arts and the event's host, discusses The Crying Game in "Crying Over the Melodramatic Penis: Male Nudity in Films of the '90s." Lehman is the author of Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body.

All lectures are free, and meet in the UA Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Building, on the northeast corner of Speedway and Mountain Avenue.

But the real event this weekend, and the inspiration for the symposium, is the Tucson premiere of Shirts and Skins, by acclaimed gay performance artist and author Tim Miller. The one-man show, a companion piece to his recent book, is described as "a witty, daring and erotically charged memoir about growing up gay in America."

Miller gives three performances: at 8 p.m. Saturday, January 24, and on January 30 and 31, in UA Centennial Hall. The performance, the first in the UApresents' 1997-'98 Millennium Project, includes sexually explicit content, nudity and provocative language. Tickets are $15 general, half-price for students with ID, available at the Centennial Hall box office. Call 621-3341 for reservations and information. TW

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