Monday, December 6, 2010

Weekend Cinema: Mondo Cane (1962) and Vivre Sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux (1962)

Somehow, I ended up watching two interesting, yet slightly off putting movies from 1962: Mondo Cane (A Dog's Life), an Italian movie that apparently spawned the 'shockumentary' genre and Vivre Sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux (My Life to Live: A Film in 12 Tableau), a Godard flick starring Anna Karina as a woman who turns to whoring.

Mondo Cane

Mondo Cane is shot in documentary style, preemptively warning us that the images we are about to see are disturbing yet all the more so because they are all true. That latter statement, however, is certainly debatable. There is no doubt in my mind that at least some of the scenes were altered or manipulated to convey a particular idea or story. The narration, too, tends to use language that is clearly biased and thus allows us to question the veracity of his words whenever he veers from discussing what's immediately happening onscreen. He talks disparagingly and uses a paternalistic tone when discussing non-Western cultures, at times moving towards racist implications.

If we can cast aside questions of the accuracy of the scenes, we are left with a film that gives us a dreary, troublesome overview of human cultures world wide and their most outrageous idiosyncrasies and practices. And in that, the film doesn't spare Western culture, which has its fair of unsettling practices, from a form of self-flagellation in Italy, where participants cut their legs with broken glass and strew it around the streets, to a pet cemetery in California, or to the Hawaiian islands, where the narrator describes with great irony and sarcasm the tour group of American senior citizens about to spend their savings on an 'authentic' Hawaiian experience - where, the narrator informs us, the only thing left authentic is the Hula dance that they do.

Other cultures worldwide have their fair share of disturbing practices. My favorite sequence of the film is when it meanders through eating practices of different cultures. We start in New Guinea, in a segment that exploits 'the natives' shamelessly and depicts the slaughter of pigs for a massive porcine feast that, apparently, only happens once every three years. As the narrator describes how the disparity between the way that 'the natives' treat dogs and the way they brutally bash the pigs' skulls in, the film segues seamlessly to the dog cemetery in California. Letting alone that people are at their most vulnerable when mourning, we get a good showing of the way Americans obsess over their pets. And where do we go from here? Why, to China, where we are of course shown a restaurant, more like an open air hut, that serves dogs. The patrons get to pick the dog they will eat first, and the dogs are, of course, of a breed that humans value highly for their intelligence and cuteness (By now, you can probably hear the disparagement that oozes out of the narrators mouth. But it's not really unique to just this scene. He sounds like this throughout the film. And it's in Italian too, so it's just classic). We then move from a meat that is repellent to Western audience to one that is valued as a delicacy (Ah! The film is an equal opportunity indicter of habits): foie gras. We're shown how exactly the grain is shoved down their throats (a little funnel-type device) and how pleasant or unpleasant it is (it doesn't exactly look pleasant. But it's certainly not horrible. My guess is that it is as unpleasant as a slightly prolonged strep test, where they shove that wooden swab down your throat). We're also informed that geese used to be nailed down, which is an argument used against foie gras today - but remember that this movie was made in 1962, so it leads me to doubt that anyone does that anymore - or has done it for at least 50 years. And lastly, we go to Japan, to watch presumably Kobe beef cattle get massaged and then force fed beer - in a process that looks less pleasant than that undergone by the foie gras geese.

Is the movie biased and exploitative? Yes. But it is interesting, and does encourage us to take a fresh perspective on ourselves and our practices. After all, perhaps we are as misguided and wrong in our perceptions of reality as the tribesmen that participate in cargo cults, forever waiting for our futile measures to pay off and deliver us prosperity in riches, when in fact we've gone and mixed up causes and effects.

Vivre Sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux

 Vivre Sa Vie stars Anna Karina as Nana, a young Parisian who tries to pursue an acting career but goes broke and turns to prostitution to support herself. The movie is ostensibly about Nana's life, as she goes from record store employee to willing prostitute for the pimp Raoul. However, Godard uses the movie, one of his earlier feature films, to experiment and develop his style as a budding auteur. Stylistically, it is more refined than Un Femme est un Femme (and of course thematically, it is much darker and more serious than Un Femme, which was a musical comedy).

Godard tells Nana's story in 12 tableaux, introducing the scenes with title cards that introduce the scene as well as give a hint of what will occur in the scene; for example, here's the first one: "A bistro - Nana wants to leave Paul - Pinball" (see the full list of tableaux title cards). These help ground the scenes, and allow them to be slightly disconnected. Also, they allow room for Godard's method of storytelling, which is unlike most filmmakers in that he doesn't go out of his way to tell the viewer exactly what is occurring at any time in any one scene. The title cards allow him to plop us into a scene where we watch two people have a conversation while remaining constantly behind them, not seeing the fronts of their faces once.

But this is Godard's style. He wants to challenge the viewer, to make the viewer have to struggle to understand what's going on. This leads to a more satisfying viewing experience, if you can get into it, because we begin to view the story in a deeper manner. We understand the characters better, we understand why Nana needs to act the way she does, we see the underlying tenderness behind her character, and the resentment and exasperation at her situation. This makes the film's ending all the more tragic, as Godard has fully exposed Nana's humanity. The metaphor, of course, is that he has stripped her down naked for us, just as she must do for her new vocation.

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