"The cinema is truth 24 frames a second," goes the famous dictum expressed by the deserter hero of Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 political tract Le petit soldat. Yet in Godard's Band of Outsiders, made four years later, there's a famous instance of a "minute of silence" that takes up only 35 actual seconds of screen time. So what gives? If truth involves the accurate representation of space and time--asks the pedant, convinced that he has pinned the elusive Godard on another of his squirrelly aphorisms--then where are those missing 600 frames of truth?
The truth is that in the alchemy of cinema--in the persistence of vision that draws an imitation of life from 24 separate snapshots flipping past a projector beam in sequence--35 seconds add up to a minute. Movies aren't a photographic record of unassailable veracity; their truth lies in their engagement of the world as it is perceived and experienced. Thus, when a bored kid in a Parisian café sighs, "A real minute of silence takes forever"--and the entire soundtrack of background chatter and ambient noise goes dead, leaving nothing but a sullen void--the equation of seconds to minutes to forever couldn't seem more true.
Or maybe it's just that 35 of Godard's seconds are worth 60 of most filmmakers'. Band of Outsiders, his 1964 gangster fantasia--which screens for a week at Oak Street in Rialto Pictures' brand-new 35mm print (starting October 19)--is a breathless jumble of film allusions, literary shout-outs, and exuberant pop-culture riffing. Dense with the director's personal checkpoints, from Fritz Lang films and American cartoons to his own mother's maiden name, this is the precursor of what Rob Nelson called the "DJ movie": a young man's cinematic mix-tape of the cool things in life. Small wonder Quentin Tarantino named his production company A Band Apart, in hommage to the film's French title. It could stand for the band of misfits and dreamers who make up the obsessive militant front of film culture, for whom this restored print is practically a grail.
Watching Band of Outsiders today, though, you're struck by the melancholy that underlines and offsets every burst of fancy, every mad dash of beauty. Godard shot it when he was 33, in the midst of a creative damburst scarcely equaled in movie history. At the time, he was married to his leading lady, Anna Karina--as bewitching a subject of scrutiny as a camera could possibly seek. And yet in 1964, after its revolutionary initial period, the Nouvelle Vague was already approaching ebb tide. In just a few years, France would explode in war protest and student revolt. The raw dynamism of American pop culture, once championed by French cineastes, would be seen as another form of hegemony as the U.S. stepped up its presence in Vietnam. Even Godard's marriage wouldn't last another couple of years.
Fittingly, there's a constant tension in Band of Outsiders between the immediacy of the moment and the threat of what's to come: It's established in the break between the jazzy title sequence (staccato close-ups flash-cut to a rinky-dink rag) and the location shooting that follows on gray Parisian streets. Godard took the basic plot of an American pulp novel: Dolores Hitchens's Fools' Gold, about two crooks who hook up with a girl so they can rob her aunt's house. The novel's crooks were professionals, but Godard's popgun outlaws, Arthur Rimbaud (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), seem more like play-actors: They delight in pretend shootouts, like kids playing cowboys. They might have dreamed up their caper after thumbing through Hitchens's book at the Série Noire.
Even when nothing is happening, the director sustains the illusion of forward momentum: in the pans that follow the characters' leapfrogging positions within the frame, in the use of moving vehicles as settings. And yet Godard the narrator distances us from the characters even as he's ostensibly bringing them closer--as in the movie's centerpiece, the wondrous sequence in which the two pop-stoked buddies, along with Odile (Karina), whom they met in an English class, do a swivel-hipped "Madison" line dance. (It looks improvised on the spot; it actually took weeks of rehearsal.) As the finger-popping leads jive around a makeshift dance floor, the jukebox suddenly cuts out, leaving only Godard's voice and the tramp-tramp-clap of the dancers' feet. The effect is akin to being awakened from a reverie, to the poignant instant in which perception ushers the present into the past. "Franz thinks of everything and nothing," narrates Godard. "He wonders if the world is becoming a dream or a dream is becoming the world."
The dream is ruptured when the dormant crime plot reemerges: Arthur hits Odile with real violence, and it seems to shake even him. As Pauline Kael noted, the movie's earlier playfulness doesn't prepare us for this jolt: The characters seem to lack any psychological context beyond their immediate surroundings. During a train ride, Arthur and Odile watch a scowling passenger, and Arthur says his expression could mean anything, depending on the story he concocts around it. It's the Kuleshov editing principle extended to life; it may be Godard's comment on the blatant narrative manipulation that's a staple of the gangster thrillers he's imitating. Godard's characters--like the guy on the train, like the extras in our lives who pass us on the street--have facets and motivations we will never understand in the short time we're watching them. Our movie-fed fantasies are fragile things. When these abstractions collide with a concrete world, sometimes they shatter.
But that scarcely makes them less pleasurable. If anything, Godard's lyrical fondness for the fleeting youth and beauty of his band of outsiders is even more touching because it seems so delicate, so threatened--so pop. The Madison sequence wouldn't be nearly as affecting without the bittersweet intimations of transience that precede it--like his beloved Karina catching a glimpse of a newspaper headline that reads, "Keep Your Youthful Eyes," or composer Michel Legrand quoting his own end-of-summer score from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. After a jubilantly absurd happy ending, Godard finally concludes his movie "like in a pulp novel, at that superb moment when nothing weakens, nothing wears away, nothing wanes." Godard's latest film is called Éloge de l'amour, but after almost four decades, the gorgeous and undimmed Band of Outsiders may be his true elegy for love.
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