When Jean-Luc Godard made Contempt in 1963, the art of cinema was, at least in his view, at a crossroads. As a leading figure in the generation of French cinephiles and critics that venerated Hollywood, he was dismayed at the decline of the studio system and the degrading influence of television. Today, as the film industry faces another array of existential crises, it’s instructive to revisit Contempt (which opens this week in a new 4K edition) and judge whether Godard’s pessimism about the fate of the movies, which persisted for the rest of his life, was justified.
Based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, Contempt centers on a French writer (Michel Piccoli) who’s hired by a crass American movie producer (Jack Palance) to work on the screenplay for a fabled American director’s (Fritz Lang) adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Its most iconic imagery, though, centers on the figure, in multiple senses, of Brigitte Bardot as Piccoli’s stunning wife, who accompanies him to the shoot on the (almost) equally stunning isle of Capri. The geometry is fairly obvious, as art and commerce collide while Bardot becomes a pawn in the power struggle between the men.
Contempt is as much a valentine to Hollywood as an indictment of its decline. The iconic Lang, director of everything from silent epics such as Metropolis to indelible films noir such as The Big Heat, represents all those studio auteurs discarded by the industry and relegated to European-filmed widescreen spectacles. (Other names on that list include Godard icons Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray.) The irony of the man who made the handheld, black-and-white Breathless working with his biggest budget, in Cinemascope (technically Franscope) and vivid color, and directing the world’s biggest movie star, may be harder to appreciate today than it was then. But it serves as an acerbic subtext throughout.
So, was Godard’s warning that cinema was going to hell (or at least downtown Burbank) in a handbasket warranted? Or was he just a cigar-puffing old man yelling at clouds before his time? Of course, the answer is somewhere in between. Sixty years on, global filmmaking is arguably as vital as ever, and definitely more diverse. From New Hollywood in the 1970s to the emergence of national cinemas in Iran, Hong Kong, Brazil, and Senegal to the freedom (explored by Godard) offered by digital cameras, there’s a cornucopia of original moviemaking out there if you know where to look. And streaming, for all its other faults, makes more of it available to more people than ever before.
It’s that having to know where to look that’s the problem. A shrinking, nearly invisible slice of international films get an American release, at least theatrically. As Godard feared, personally, politically, and aesthetically adventurous movies are, by and large, drowned out by the din of prefabricated spectacles. Whatever the pleasures of Technicolor historical costumers or shared-universe superhero fantasies, their deviously engineered appeal has conditioned mass audiences to think of the movies as an alternative to thinking itself. And financial instability—whether due to the demise of studio contracts for stars, labor unrest, or (as ever) the increasing competition from at-home viewing options—has plunged the companies paying for what they call “content” into what seems like a risk-averse death spiral.
But it has always been thus. Longing for a golden age where commercial imperatives and modes of production were bedfellows to creativity and artistic adventure (and the studio system of the 1930s-1950s was close to that) can easily take the place of searching for ways to pursue that alignment in the future. Godard gave up fairly early on trying to preach to anyone but the choir, and it’s hard to blame him. But as we move into another prestige movie award season, with new films coming (hopefully to Portland) from Sofia Coppola, David Fincher, Michael Mann, Ava DuVernay, Yorgos Lanthimos, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and others, I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness. For the first time in 20 years, I read, none of the top three films at the American box office for the year will be a sequel. Even if one of them is based on a doll and another on a video game, that’s reason to hope. Right?
A good example of the increasingly global nature of filmmaking is Fremont, which was shot by an Iranian-born, British-based filmmaker in an abandoned fortune cookie factory in Oakland. Oh, and the central character, Donya (Anaita Wali Zad), is an Afghan refugee who worked as a translator for the US Army and left home after the Taliban retook power. The deadpan pace and black-and-white cinematography recall early Jim Jarmusch as Donya spends her days assembling, and later writing, fortune cookies, and her evenings among a community of Afghans in Fremont. She sees a therapist (Gregg Turkington in a relatively normal, for him, performance) and engages in the half-hearted use of dating apps. Jeremy Allen White, star of The Bear, shows up in a smallish role late in the film. It’s a small, quiet, but effective look at the alienation, and the possibility, of being a stranger in the world. (Opens Friday, Sept. 8, at the Living Room Theaters, and at the Tin Pan Theatre in Bend on Sept. 22)
Mr. Jimmy: Documentary about a Japanese man who has spent 30 years perfecting his musical impression of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. He gets to meet his idol and moves to California to pursue a career. (Friday-Monday, Kiggins Theatre, Darkside Cinema in Corvallis, all week)
ALSO THIS WEEK:
FRIDAY: Al Pacino robs a bank in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon (Cinemagic, also Saturday & Tuesday); the life and impact of iconic singer Sinn Sisamouth is explored in the American premiere of the documentary Elvis of Cambodia; “Sextember” continues with 1987’s (frankly not very sexy) Fatal Attraction (Hollywood, all week); top-shelf anime Ghost in the Shell (5th Avenue Cinemas); Violet Hex presents Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Clinton); Wes Anderson season continues with The Royal Tenenbaums (Eugene Art House); heads explode in David Cronenberg’s Scanners (Academy, all week); Kirsten Dunst is pined for in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (Academy, all week); Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in 1989’s When Harry Met Sally (Cinemagic, also Saturday & Thursday)
SATURDAY: Jack Nicholson pokes his nose in where it doesn’t belong in 1974’s Chinatown (Cinemagic, also Sunday & Wednesday); Tom Cruise turns Japanese in The Last Samurai (Living Room, FREE); Patrick Swayze kicks butt in Road House, preceded by a concert from Jenny Don’t and the Spurs (Hollywood); Audrey Hepburn in the original Sabrina (Cinema 21); Weird Al Yankovic has his big-screen moment in UHF, screening as a benefit for Kickstand Comedy (Hollywood)
SUNDAY: Paul Newman and Robert Redford jump off a cliff in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Cinemagic, also Monday); John Carpenter adapts Stephen King in 1984’s Christine (Eugene Art House, also Wednesday); tribute is paid to the late William Friedkin with a pair of screenings of Sorcerer (Hollywood)
MONDAY: More “Sextember” sizzle (this time for real) in 1981’s Body Heat (Hollywood, through Thursday); Norman Bates returns in Psycho II (Hollywood); independent thriller shot in Port Townsend, Washington She the Creator (Clinton)
TUESDAY: Kung Fu Theater presents 1980’s Kung Fu Super Power (Hollywood); the mother of a Turkish prisoner at Guantanamo Bay battles for his release in Rabiye Kurnaz vs George W Bush (Clinton)
WEDNESDAY: William Freidkin gets more well-deserved love for The French Connection (Hollywood); the latest documentary about the iconic New York hotel, Ghosts of the Chelsea, explores its haunted past (Hollywood); Church of Film presents a pair of silent-era diva fantasies, 1917’s Rapsodia Satanica and The Faun (Clinton)
THURSDAY: If his appearance in The Flash whetted your appetite for Michael Keaton in a cowl, satisfy that urge with 1989’s Batman (Hollywood)