Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Keep Your Right Up (Jean-Luc Godard, 1987)

Mostly shot before King Lear but not completed and released until after that film’s Cannes premiere, Soigne ta droite, a.k.a. Keep Your Right Up, represents something of a bridge between Detective’s larkish return to Godard’s early days of cinephilic moviemaking and the denser treatise on creation and artistic martyrdom captured in his Lear. Pop Art colors explode in a throwback to the director’s first color work, while a convoluted array of image and sound editing continues to parlay Godard’s innovative video techniques back into film, as ever focused on the material elements of filmmaking as said elements also fold into the director’s preoccupations with artistic creation.

As much as King Lear, with its literal apocalyptic backdrop, Keep Your Right Up depicts the act of creation as an act of self-annihilation, externalizing an interior conflict through a dizzying, confounding use of form. If so much of Godard’s “return” to cinema parallels the films of his original run, then this so often recalls Weekend, tipping its cap toward specific plot elements, especially an ancillary plot of Jane Birkin and her boyfriend shooting off toward Paris in a Mercedes especially recalls the earlier film’s narrative. More generally, this film touches upon its loose ancestor’s destructive impulses of creation while also updating that film’s nihilistic, politicized conclusion for an older, more reflective filmmaker.

As in Weekend, the references are often highlighted for ease of access, though in layering a specifically cited work with so many others, the bone Godard tosses the audience soon becomes woefully insufficient for keeping track of everything. From the start, the director combines a riff on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot—in which a protagonist returns from Swiss exile to shake things up, a fitting contrast for Godard’s own Swiss residency and creative re-emergence—with an affinity for the comedy of Keaton, Tati and especially Jerry Lewis, whose The Family Jewels and Cracking Up directly inform part of the film. Lewis’ films, colorful and vast and active, are ones of conflict between the id liberation that art represents to the artist and the control the artist seeks to exert over that unleashed baseness, exposing a superego-id dialectic that Godard easily adapts to his own, more intellectual pursuits. For as much as Godard’s films from this period strive for a philosophical consideration of cinema, so too do they offer images that exist as much for their own beauty as for the director’s complex aesthetic debates.

And if the film accomplishes nothing else, it offers some of Godard’s most sumptuous and evocative images. An artist known as the Individual (French comic Jacques Villeret) gets distracted in his cramped cabin by a vision of a woman coming to dance with him, and a series of cuts shows her in a dress, then a négligée, then fully nude before finally disappearing altogether as the man continues to dance. A French synthpop duo, Les Rita Mitsouko, filmed recording new music throughout the film, is seen in the reflection of a mirrored café ceiling late in the film, the spinning ceiling fan that obscures them adding a visual tension soon actualized by a film producer hostilely demanding they attend the premiere of the Idiot’s movie.

Often, the shots and sounds directly comment on artistic frustration, both personal turmoil and external repression. One sequence, interspersed throughout the film’s interwoven combination of subplots, features the Individual prostrate before a tape recorder on a table as it plays recitations of Samuel Beckett, Villeret’s doubled-over agony a silent acknowledgement of his own inability to match such literary accomplishments. As he attempts to create, a balcony door swings open, filling the soundtrack with an apocalyptic roar of waves, but also the tempting sound of people laughing and playing, a world from which the artist has cut himself off from in order to capture that world. In addition to his own personal stagnation, the Individual faces censorship from private funders (Françcois Périer appears early on as a biting, producer-esque figure known as “The Man”) and official entities, as in a scene wherein the Individual, now playing a Belgian deportee, is seen handcuffed to the curtain rod of a train compartment, his hand in soft focus in the foreground as the area outside the window rushes past clearly.

It’s a hauntingly beautiful image, but not as much as a shot of various people lying dead and dying among the bleachers of a soccer stadium. In his book Everything is Cinema, Richard Brody relates the scene to both a 1985 stadium collapse and, with included images of barbed wire and a spoken reference to a documentary on Klaus Barbie, the Holocaust. If elsewhere the film hones in on the difficulties of the artistic process when it comes to finding inspiration and getting one’s art past economic and systemic barriers, this scene suggests an equally frustrating element of creation is to address inexplicable elements of reality. For Godard, art is still the only means of commenting on social reality, yet its routine failure to do so reveals how blinkered and dishonest that view can be.

Despite such harrowing subject matter, Keep Your Right Up honors its aforementioned comedy heroes by offering up some of the funniest gags of any Godard film. Godard’s on-screen Idiot first appears in a Shell station done up in throwback Pop Art tones, Shell’s trademark yellow flanked by blues and reds as he performs a pantomime of Wimbledon’s evolution from refined, sophisticated pastime to bullish display of macho athleticism before he makes a surprisingly spry dive through a car window. Later, he boards a plane that clearly derives from a loopy scene from Cracking Up, featuring such jokes as a pilot reading a suicide manual and an American passenger loudly demanding a bigger slice of pie as others sip liquid from a pot in Jonestown-esque fashion.

Even some of Godard’s broader, pained thoughts on art are shot through with humor. His footage of Les Rita Mitsouko contrasts with his earlier document of the Rolling Stones pulling together music in the studio. Where Godard originally came to the Stones thinking of them as a genuine revolutionary act, he clearly finds the synthpop duo to be the product of an aggressively materialist milieu; as they piece together songs in their apartment studio, we do not see changes in composition and writing so much as production techniques that cut up and reconfigure beats and backing tracks cut in and out as the two record vocals. It clarifies music as a product, just as the Idiot’s film is primarily seen in its can, whereupon people marvel “Ooh, how shiny,” a puckish comment on the state of the public’s view of art to supplement the artist-focused critiques.

Nevertheless, Godard does not give in to despair, even if his own arc ends with him dying on a tarmac and selling the rights to his film for a noisemaker. When it comes time to view his work at the end, two people take their seats in a park and look out upon the world, a succinct summary of the director’s most fervent desire for his film and the cinema he drags forward with him: a true document of reality, but not a mere documentary. Form is the means by which Godard can capture a world that does not obey it, and a dialectical approach pushes toward the obfuscation, not revelation, of meaning. Not as far-reaching a treatise on these ideas as King Lear, Soigne ta droite still stands as another highlight of Godard’s exciting “comeback” period, a recapitulation of a belatedly accepted past that continues to search for new formal breakthroughs and new possibilities for an artform that would be unfathomably poorer without him.

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