This is part of an occasional series I'll be doing about little connections between films – scenes that echo each other in some way, even if it's a couple of fleeting shots that may have been conceived as a tribute (and even if it's all only in my head!). Apologies if this sounds film-schoolish – that isn't the intention. Just being self-indulgent really, and sharing an aspect of movie-watching that I personally find rewarding.
There’s a playful scene in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, which reminded me of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt. (As mentioned in this post, Scorsese admits to being a big fan of Godard's movie.) The Contempt sequence, quite a famous one, has a nude Brigitte Bardot lying on her stomach – she plays Camille, the wife of the film's protagonist Paul, and they are in bed together. As they talk, she asks him to look at various parts of her body and assess them. “Do you like my ankles? My knees?” “What do you think of my behind?”
The back-story is that Godard was instructed by his producer to include a few nude shots of Bardot (what's the point of having Bardot in your film if she's covered up?) – something he was reluctant to do because it was such an obvious sop for the mass audience. Eventually, he retained some of his integrity by coming up with a scene where the sex symbol deconstructs herself (or her screen image) by explicitly drawing the viewer’s attention to parts of her body. The idea was to de-eroticise Bardot, though I'm not really sure that happened: I think the scene is still quite sexy in its own way, partly because of how it suggests the relaxed intimacy between a married couple who are very familiar with each other's bodies – it just isn't sexy in the way that more typical Brigitte Bardot films tended to be.
Now for a scene in Mean Streets, made a decade later. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is in a post-coital moment with Teresa (Amy Robinson). They banter, he gets defensive about something, she gets annoyed, jumps out of bed and stands at the window naked. They fool around some more, and Scorsese fools around too; when Charlie forms a gun with his hands, points it at Teresa and pulls the “trigger”, we hear a real gunshot on the soundtrack.
Then she starts to get dressed and tells him not to look. Charlie obeys, but after putting his fingers over his eyes he splays them so he can see her. He moves the hand covering his right eye from a vertical to a horizontal position and spreads his fingers out again – it's like a film’s clapboard opening and closing. Effectively, he's changing the angles, like a camera shifting perspective. (It reminds me of Godard's use of colour filters while photographing Bardot in that scene in Contempt.)
Finally there comes a moment where Charlie, still looking through his fingers, contemplates Teresa's bare bottom (partly covered by her shirt) from an unusual side-angle – there's nothing erotic about this image, in fact it's faintly ridiculous, and Charlie can't stop himself from giggling at the sight.
But the undercurrent to this lighthearted scene is that Charlie knows he’ll never be able to marry Teresa (his family has warned him not to get involved with her, and he’s an obedient, partly repressed Catholic boy). Being aware of the barrier between them, he keeps trying to distance himself from this girl. In this scene, I think the detachment takes the form of his “fragmenting” Teresa, so that he can view her as a set of dissociated parts rather than as a whole woman, a person with feelings. And it’s typical of Scorsese that he pays homage to a favourite film in such a way that he enriches his own movie in the process. There’s nothing gimmicky or derivative about this scene – it’s an echo, but it works perfectly well on its own terms.
this post is simply superb.
Now, this brings me to a different layer of thoughts: do we, albeit unconsciously, deconstruct the person we love, i mean the physicality of him/her? or, do we not even care to do that? are we trained to take him/her as on "object" as a whole?
don't have the answers, obviously.
A number of your posts focus on bringing out aspects of movies that I as a lay albeit avid moviegoer would have missed.
The question I have is how confident you are about your interpretation or "deconstruction" of a particular scene or a series of them. It just might be that post-fact might seem to be the point you are making, whereas the director might have not be fully aware of the multi layered construct that you infer.
Does this also mean that I miss out on a number of such fragments that directors embed in their movies, hoping that a more conscious and knowledgeable audience such as yourself would find delight in discovering such hidden gems. Does diminish the pleasure of viewing a well constructed scene/sequence without having to analyze the constituents in such level of detail?
The question I have is how confident you are about your interpretation or "deconstruction" of a particular scene or a series of them.ReplyDelete
Anonymous: in this particular case, I'm reasonably confident (given Scorsese's famous knack for tribute-paying and his stated love for Contempt). But coming to the larger point you make...
It just might be that post-fact might seem to be the point you are making, whereas the director might have not be fully aware of the multi layered construct that you infer.
See, this is something that analytical critics often have to hear. But as D H Lawrence said, "Never trust the teller, trust the tale" - in other words, the critic/reviewer doesn't have to concern himself with what the director consciously intended. (In that case, one might as well let filmmakers or novelists or painters write a precis of their own work and do away with all external criticism!) The creative process is often a very complex one, drawing on a multitude of experiences and influences that the artist himself might not be fully aware of. If a work of art says something to you, and you can articulate your feelings about it in a reasoned, well-thought-out way, well, you've done your job as an honest, thinking reviewer.
Does diminish the pleasure of viewing a well constructed scene/sequence without having to analyze the constituents in such level of detail?
No, I don't think your pleasure should be diminished just because you didn't pick up on certain undercurrents/references in a scene. Different people have entirely different levels of engagement with a film (and those of us who engage with them at an obsessively cerebral level tend to become frustrated writers who feel driven to produce 1500-word essays after every viewing!). For instance, it would be perfectly possible for someone to watch and love Mean Streets without ever having heard of Contempt.
Ami: that's an intriguing question, to be sure (and I think Contempt does address it on some level) - unfortunately, I can't claim to have the answers either!ReplyDelete
Brilliant write up Jai. The "fragmentation" part of Mean Stteets is especially, er, revealing. Graet stuff as usual.ReplyDelete
As I read the Mean Streets part, I was continually reminded of Breathless though...
Thematically, however, the Kietel-Robinson scenes remind me of passages from A Place in the Sun, Some Came Running and even Notorious. All these movies feature leading men who struggle to distance themselves from the socially disadvantaged women they love.
Shrikanth: good point - totally get that about A Place in the Sun and Notorious (don't remember Some Came Running). Obviously there can be more than one influence at work when it comes to their general relationship, but I was talking mainly about this single scene.ReplyDelete
As I read the Mean Streets part, I was continually reminded of Breathless though...
JAFB: I love the jump cuts in the opening scene, as Keitel's head hits the pillow and the percussion of "Be My Baby" begins. And yes, that gunshot reminded me of Breathless too (as well as Godard's other experiments with sound, such as turning off the soundtrack altogether in the cafe scene in Band of Outsiders).
Hey dude, great post as usual! Also, like your new-look template.ReplyDelete
Digressing a bit.ReplyDelete
But I just discovered that Godard was at one point thinking of casting Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra as the leads in Contempt!!
Imagination boggles at the possibilities! The film would most certainly have been in English had that happened. It would've been a very different film - much closer in spirit to a Nick Ray /Minelli melodrama perhaps.