One of the element that created modernism is the introspection accomplished by artistic disciplines for what they really are, followed by the expression of such look on itself.
This introspection has been set in motion much before the XXth century, notably in painting (and very likely in literature too). My weak knowledge would place Rembrandt and Velasquez as precursors, respectively with the Artist in his Studio (1628) and Las Meninas (1656) which both include a canvas and the painter within the painting. However I would claim -and I may be wrong- that such examples were more introspection by the artists on their own person rather than a real questioning of their discipline and the act of representing in general. Marcel Duchamp is probably one of the face of this modern revolution in art but since this article tends to consider very straight forward example, I would name Rene Magritte and his “Ceci n’est pas une Pipe” (This is not a Pipe) as a pure formulation of the problem of representation. In fact, the pipe on the painting is not a pipe but the representation of a pipe.
Here I would like to tackle the same issue by a very short analysis of five (six) films that are all (almost) entirely based around the idea of making films. The five of them have very different visions/manifestos of cinema to the point that Jean-Luc Godard will finish to break up his friendship with Francois Truffaut after the latter released La Nuit Américaine (Day For Night).
Le Mépris (Contempt) in 1963 by Jean-Luc Godard, is one of the first movies of the Nouvelle Vague. It is therefore part of this movement that consists in the acceptance for being a representational mean whose techniques can be hijacked, subverted and corrupted.
The film starts with the camera looking a the screen and a quote from André Bazin: “Le cinema substitue a notre regard un monde qui s’accorde a nos desirs.” (Cinema substitutes to the way we see, a world in agreement with our desires) and add “Le Mepris est l’histoire de ce monde” (Contempt is the story of this world). In fact, the whole film plays on the ambiguity of assumed dramatization and crude reality (the presence of Fritz Lang playing his own role for example), reinforced by the scenes of film shooting that expose the guts of cinema.
I don’t want to elaborate too much as the Funambulist will soon release an essay about Contempt and la Casa Malaparte…
8 1/2 in 1963 and Fellini’s Roma (see previous article), in 1972, by Frederico Fellini describe cinema in a sort of delirium, sometimes close from the grotesque that consist in the composition of objects, characters, times and spaces. To be honest, it is the cinema that I understand the less in this series but I am working on it.
In order to have a more complex and deep interpretation of 8 1/2, you can watch Ed Keller’s lecture that I already published here.
La Nuit Américaine (Day For Night) in 1973 by Francois Truffaut is completely centered on the shooting of a movie. I wrote above that this film ended to dig the gap between Godard and Truffaut formerly friends and admiring each other’s work. In fact, and although I love every other movies done by F.Truffaut, La Nuit Americaine tends to be very self-indulgent and egocentric for the film crew and the director in particular. The role of the director is actually played by Truffaut himself who happen to enunciate a curious manifesto during the film: Les films sont plus harmonieux que la vie. Il n’y a pas d’embouteillages dans les films, pas de temps mort. Les films avancent comme des trains dans la nuit.” (Films are more harmonious than life. They are no traffic jams in films, no time-out. Films move forward like trains in the night). Apparently Truffaut did not consider Fellini’s movies when he affirmed that (8 1/2 starts with a traffic jam and Fellini’s Roma‘s epic scene occurs within a traffic jam). I actually don’t want to believe that this problematic sentence comes from the director of 100 Blows or Jules and Jim and believe that La Nuit Americaine belongs more to a modest self-parody than a pure testimony.
Irma Vep in 1996 by Olivier Assayas is a pure gem in this matter. Once again the ambiguity between representation and reality is reinforced by the actors themselves as Maggie Cheung is playing her own role in this movie. The homage to the Nouvelle Vague (both to Godard and Truffaut) is clearly enunciated by the presence of an old Jean-Pierre Leaud as the director character. No self-indulgence here, no lyrical manifesto. Only human relationships and a magnificent scene in a hotel, occuring when the cameras are not looking, that maintains an infinite dialogue between life and its representation.
Le Père de mes Enfants (Father of my Children) in 2009 by Mia Hansen-Løve is probably the less relevant film of this series for this article but here as well, humanity and passion are intermingled with life’s representation. Cinema did not need to be the discipline in the center of this film here, but the young director M. Hansen-Løve draw emotion from the milieu she knows of and this way talks about the subtle Faustian pact that links a man and his passion.