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Space Sound Color: Giving Life To An Art Film

December 29, 2011 | By

Since its nascent beginnings, the so-called art film has maintained this basic manifesto while dovetailing into its various faces, representing and dealing with the temper of the time in which they were made.

 “I’ve found an idea for a novel. Not to write the life of man, but only life, life itself. What lies between people: Space, sound, color.”

Ferdinand in Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot Le Fou

Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou

Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou

Art Cinema’s dialogue with the realities of its contemporary period results in the creative mobilization of the cinematic medium, through which cinema is not just an entertainment forum feeding and perpetuating a dominant populist ideology, but an art form in itself-a seventh art which breaks the waves and challenges the established filmmaking practices of its time. This is realized by creating a parallel universe reflecting the “reality” of the time through what is considered most basic to cinema-space, sound, color.

A current of Art Cinema had prevailed since the 1900s with the rise of European movements such as French Impressionism and German Expressionism. The key motif was the role of film to represent the subjective (emotional or psychological) through the plastic and rhythmic potentialities of filmic expression. Since its nascent beginnings, the so-called art film has maintained this basic manifesto while dovetailing into its various faces, representing and dealing with the temper of the time in which they were made.

The concern of this essay is looking at one of these faces-the period of the 1960s, which saw all places becoming cynical of Old World Marxism. They were critical of the U.S. handling during the Vietnam War and Stalinism in Eastern Europe.

Society was considered a society of spectacle and the medium that profoundly came under fire was cinema. It was being considered as a social medium of ideas, which required fixing. Film critics considered cinema as a site of signifiers and signified that had a powerful potential to construct new meanings that went beyond the dominant ideology.

Persona (1967) Cast: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann Director: Ingmar Bergman

Persona (1967)
Cast: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann
Director: Ingmar Bergman

It was during this period that many directors carried out vital experiments with the film form, including French director Jean-Luc Godard. The aforementioned quote from his 1965 film Pierrot le Fou seems to carve out my argument.

In other words, retaining the “what lies between people” part of the statement is in this sense is as important as the space/sound/color part, as it will enable one to focus on how these elements work in art films of the period to establish and develop character relations.” The only things that lie between people”-instead of being about people’s lives, it would be about life itself; life as a thing in itself-“what lies between people, space, sound, colors.” “I’ve got an idea for a novel.” he says.” Not to write about people’s lives anymore but only about life-life itself…what lies between people, space, sound, and color.”

The “modern soul” as described by Carl Jung, of which the ‘abstract individual’ is the narrative materialization becomes the interest of modern art films during this period. Post World War II; there was an air of pessimism and a sense of alienation experienced by people all over Europe.

This led to explorations of the fragmented self through Philosophy (Existentialism) and Psychology (Psychoanalysis), as well as modernist experimentation of form. The three films I am looking at-Persona (1966), Masculin, Féminin (1966) and IL Deserto Rosso (1964), while striking a dialogue with the form and its essential elements (space, sound, color respectively) focus on the ” human condition” defined by life itself.

Masculin, féminin Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Chantal Goya Director: Jean-Luc Godard  (Pic: Amazon)

Masculin, féminin
Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Chantal Goya
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
(Pic: Amazon)

What these films do is to showcase that life itself is abstract and it constructs the category of the “abstract individual”, who wanders around in this void along abstract time. The abstraction is epitomized through the usage of all these three formal characteristics, which actually construe a sense of “realism” that is always attached to an art film.

Ingmar Bergman‘s films have dealt with psychological dramas, giving them stylistic and narrative features of modernism-self reflexivity and ambiguity. Persona is a story about two women. One is a famous actress, named Elizabeth Vogler, who seems to be experiencing a mental condition. The other is a young nurse named Alma, who has been given the responsibility of taking care of Elizabeth.

The way I perceived it, more importantly experienced it was that it is a film that staged the lives of two abstract entities – two parts of the same person. The two split parts are just two alternative ways of dealing with a form of detachment, trying to overcome it – either by being mute and soaking in everything around you or by talking copiously so as to make sure that words drown everything else.

This ‘doubling’ is explained through a specific element of the film form, viz., space. Space is used ingeniously in the film to capture many forms of doubling and transference in the journey of finding oneself while playing with the narrative structure as well as the emotional tenor. Space discloses three ways of exploring the sense of self-through internalization, transference and externalization.

Towards the beginning of the film, as the director introduces the two characters, one sees the bare and clinical spaces in which both the women are staged. Elizabeth is in the hospital room, which seems to have only a bed and a door. Similarly, when Alma is shown on her bed, the wall behind her is empty conceding a sense of emptiness to creep into the film frame.

Bergman captures the abstract emptiness of his characters with the extraordinary use of the close-up, enforcing a coalescence of human face with the void-the shot of the composite face of the two women at the beach villa. The close-up seizes the in-built subjectivity of the face and the personal void felt by the two women.

Masculin, Féminin

Masculin, an allegory for Marxism, embodied by Paul, and Féminin, an allegory for Coca-Cola or Popular Culture as embodied by Madeleine.
(Pic: Amazon)

This tight frame overflows with only the face such that the viewer is forced to look at it and contemplate the details provided by it. It defines the confinement and the claustrophobia both women feel in their own ways, as they seem to be searching for some sort of release.

They begin this search by looking within themselves tending towards the main bridge of the film and the site of transference-the space of the beach villa. The beach villa as a space becomes crucial to the film. It does raise questions about the many ‘doublings’ of the film-dream and reality, mask and person, speech and silence.

The space also marks the beginning of a new phase of the dualities of identity in a desperate attempt to establish self-identity. There is a transposition between alma (soul) and persona (mask). The composite face leads to the realization that both women wear masks in order to adapt to their dwindling and at the same time ambiguous situation.

So do they find a solution by confrontation? No. The sickness of Elizabeth percolates down to Alma as she falls into some sort of trap. This leads us to the moment of externalization where the two capacious faces gaze out of the screen, transcending the filmic space to ‘my’ space. This shot implicates the viewer providing them with no closure and retains the obscurity.

Thus, the most significant doubling becomes whether the women know or don’t know themselves. There is definitely a sense of loss of reality, which is colored by space.

…We accept space as real only when it contains sounds as well, for these give it the dimension of depth…Sound takes the coloring of space in which it is presented and not the space it is supposed to reproduce. Every sound has a space-bound character of its own. [1]

Balazs purports the usage of sound and how it expatiates the physical atmosphere of a particular space captured by the film. Godard was asked the following question in an interview: “Would you say Masculin Féminin is a film about youth?” to which he answered,

“No, it’s more a film on the idea of youth. A philosophical idea, but not a practical one-a way of reacting to things. It’s not a dissertation on youth or even an analysis. Let’s say it speaks of youth, but it’s a piece of music, “a concerto youth”[2]

This idea of youth lends to the ambiguity of this loose and impulsive 15-vignette film. Godard’s “Children of Marx and Coca-Cola” is the pedestal at which the confusion, wonders, inspirations, energies and ambiguity of the 1960s moment resulted in the ruptured event of May 1968. Masculin, an allegory for Marxism, embodied by Paul, and Féminin, an allegory for Coca-Cola or Popular Culture as embodied by Madeleine.

Red Desert

Red Desert
Cast: Monica Vitti, Richard Harris
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Pic: Amazon

The confusions felt by the protagonists are because of the duality of parallel existing ideologies-one the dominant ideology and the other opposing it.

In the scene where the group of young people including Paul and Madeleine go to watch a film, you hear the voice-over of Paul as the camera pans over the faces of each individual. The voice-over exclaims, “This wasn’t the film we imagined, the perfect film each of us carried within us. The film we would have liked to have made, or perhaps even to have lived.” Not only does this dialogue capture the moment of incertitude felt by each protagonist but also gives an explanation for the over-all obscurity of the film. In order to grapple with this ambiguity; everything in the film is transient-just like music is.

As explained above, Madeleine who is the embodiment of Féminin is temporarily feminine; she is taken by the materiality of the time she is in, working with a fashion magazine, and she wants to record a Pop album.

Paul himself is a transient character who is not able to come to terms with the fleeting moment of 1965, carrying around the weight of his communist manifesto.

Red Desert

Red Desert can be placed in a rare juncture in the modernist conceptions of nature and landscape – the landscape and the color of the landscape becoming a site of the social as well as personal representation of life.
(Pic: Amazon)

There are incidents in the film that characterize the banality of the moment lacking any explanations and existing within themselves as ephemeral episodes. These experiences are constructed and expanded through the music. The music becomes a representation of the cultural and social context, making references to Bob Dylan, Coca-Cola, current Pop hits and Françoise Hardy. The song references, just like the various visual signifiers of the period seen in the film, become an aural construction of the social-a physical presence within that present. A present suspended between two forms of ideology, a present that is the idea of the youth, embodied by the youth-a “concerto youth”.

Journeying from the aural construction of the social we come to the color construction of the social. Red Desert can be placed in a rare juncture in the modernist conceptions of nature and landscape-the landscape and the color of the landscape becoming a site of the social as well as personal representation of life.

It is a story about a woman Giuliana who is confronted by a spiritually bereft world of shallow relationships; beautiful landscapes which have no meaning in themselves, but become a projection and visual manipulation of the existential angst and the sense of ennui felt by the woman protagonist as well as the other characters of the film-the ‘desert’ representing a symbolic space and the color palate becoming metaphorical. Each character then becomes a part of the mis-en-scene of a film, which is the modern world, with the color providing it a living quality.

Antonioni completely paints the film from scene to scene and what we experience is “painted anxiety”. Like Mark Rothko, Antonioni deeply understands the subtle yet immensely powerful effects of color as pure emotion.

With austere and geometric compositions, long takes and complicated and long camera movements, Antonioni uses color to define the cultural and social conditions in which the people of Ravenna live. Antonioni enhances this effect with the telephoto lens that flattens the image, creating a dense out of focus foreground, which is symbolic of the chaos and claustrophobia that consumes Giuliana.

In the opening sequence she and her son walk past a factory. The day is grey and overcast, and the tall factory chimney coughs up bursts of fragile yellow flame. A grey palate has been used for the watered down factory surroundings. Everyone around is dressed in somber ochers and dreary colors. There is a scene in the film in which Corrado asks her-“What are you scared of?” Giuliana overwhelmingly replies-“…of the factories, of the streets, of colors, of people, of everything.” Color becomes one of the instruments of fear, representing all the rest of her fears.

The grey scenes of the world she resides in are contrasted to Giuliana’s dream sequence when she narrates the story of her youth to her son. Her story is splattered with natural blue of the sea and the pink sands. The scene is like paradise with vast expanses of the sea signifying freedom-freedom to just lie and listen to the sound of breaking waves. The beach is isolated but free and bright unlike the real present.

Thus, Red Desert becomes a story of an individual separated from reality because reality has separated from nature, and of the psychological breakdown resulting from an inability to adapt to reality that seems more artificial than the nature in one’s dreams. This split of reality and dream is signified by the use of color, which mobilizes other forms of binaries-grey v/s blue; present v/s past and captivity v/s liberation.

Art Cinema has always been celebrated for its realism. However, what these three films do in a way is to test the boundaries of such realism. Bazin had said that photography (read film) is a representation of the world. With the advent of the Age of Reason in the 18th century, human beings believed they could control nature through reason-“understanding of nature will result in control of nature”.

These films invert this theorization and present how life or nature defines human associations and human adaptability. They are conscious of not making the film form a representation of reality but re-presenting reality all over again. Giuliana in Red Desert says, “There’s something terrible about reality, but I don’t know what it is. No one will tell me.” Knowing and unknowing yourself becomes life in itself. It hinges on the duality of life, people, space, sound and color, which carves out the modern individual, giving him a level of abstraction. The abstraction of life performed by space, sound and color.

REFERENCES

[1]Balazs, Bela. Film Sound:Theory and Practice. Edited by Weis and Belton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

[2]Godard, Jean-Luc, interview by Pierre Daix. Godard on Masculine Feminin Les Lettres Françaises ( 1966  June).

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Arushi Singh is currently a second year M.A student at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in Jawahar Lal Nehru University. She is a contributing writer with Helter Skelter, a new online magazine with a focus on independent culture in India. Her research interests lies in investigating the inherent voyeurism in the cinematic medium, how memory of past historical events is comprehensible through cultural texts like cinema and how a culture creates and informs its memory with a mass mediated version of history, and African –American post-modern choreographer Bill T. Jones’ works. She is also a professional Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher at Ganesa Natyalaya, New Delhi.
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