Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Harder They Fall

Movies are so familiar to us that they are widely considered nothing more than “entertainment.” Naïvely, we assume that movies are easier to understand than literature--literature being regarded as "serious," and therefore "art." The fact is, movies are entertaining . . . and they are also complex. As a result, they are culturally ambiguous, because they blur simplistic distinctions between art, entertainment, and mass communication.

Strangely, though, movies starring Elvis Presley are the exception to this culturally ambiguous status of the movies: they are not considered ambiguous at all, but rather as artless, and therefore mass (as in “mind-numbing”) entertainment. In its most negative formulation, they are used as an example of Elvis’s (or the Colonel’s) tastelessness, made because of his (or the Colonel’s) desire for the “fast buck.” Because they are considered tasteless, they are, therefore, as a consequence, benign, an exception to much of the writing about Hollywood that focuses on Hollywood’s (bad) influence on American life and values. Elvis's films are nostalgic, innocuous (formulaic), and therefore harmless (non-controversial).

As a topic, therefore, nothing could appear less promising than the movie career of Elvis Presley. But, as Robert Ray writes, the

situation probably has less to do with Elvis’s own contributions to his movies that with the films themselves, most of them specious, formulaic representations of what the pre-rock generation of producers, writers, and directors who made them thought was “youth culture.” (“The Riddle of Elvis-the-Actor,” p. 102)

Of course, the general criticism of Elvis’s movies is largely directed at the films he made in the 1960s, after his stint in the U. S. Army: G.I. Blues (1960) through A Change of Habit (1969). So, for the sake of convenience, let’s consider the four films Elvis made in the 1950s: Love Me Tender (1956), Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and King Creole (1958). The year 1956, of course, marks the year Elvis emerged as a powerful cultural force—in America and elsewhere (think of John Lennon’s remark, “Before Elvis there was nothing”).

Jean-Luc Godard’s one explicit film about the influence of American culture on the rest of world is Masculine-Feminine (1966), the famous film exploring the lives of "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola." But long before Masculine-Feminine, there was, of course, Breathless (1960). Regarding Breathless, I’ve always wondered why, given Michel Poiccard’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo’s) apparent age (Belmondo was 26 at the time the film was made, although he looks younger), he idolized Bogart, when the more obvious figure, it seems to me, should have been Elvis. (Belmondo was born in 1933, Elvis in 1935.)

For many critics, the key scene in Breathless that is structured to reveal how Michel Poiccard imitates the character (“image”) of Humphrey Bogart is the moment when he encounters Bogart’s face on a movie poster. Here, Poiccard approaches the large poster:

The poster in which Bogart’s image appears is the French poster of The Harder They Fall (1956), Bogey’s last film (he was to die in January 1957), set in the boxing world. After studying the poster, Poiccard moves to his left, to study a display of 8x10 movie stills:

In particular, he studies an image of Bogart . . .

. . . captivated by it, the cigarette hanging from his lips just as the cigarette does from Bogey's in the large movie poster. Meanwhile, he continues to study Bogey's image:

. . . as Bogey returns his gaze . . .

The cigarette, of course, is a signifier closely associated with American culture, particularly the American G.I. during WWII (and Bogey in Casablanca). The scene concludes with Poiccard's imitation of Bogey's characteristic gesture, the thumb raking across the upper lip, indicating contemplation, and, occasionally, indecisiveness:

The standard interpretation of this scene is that we are to understand Michel Poiccard consciously models his life on the figure of movie star Humphrey Bogart—he wishes to live a life like his (or at least, his life in American films noir). For some critics, Michel Poiccard’s criminal behavior serves as a sort of Godardian self-inscription, given that Godard, apparently, was a delinquent as a youth. But what happens to this sequence if we substitute the more obvious (at the time) figure of American cultural influence, movie star Elvis Presley in this sequence? Poiccard approaches the marquee . . .

. . . but instead of the poster of The Harder They Fall, it's the poster of Jailhouse Rock:

There's no cigarette of course, and there isn't the large image of Bogart's older, chiseled face, but there is the image of Elvis as both jailbird and as seductive sex symbol. In this revised sequence, Poiccard moves to his left, just as in the original . . .

. . . but instead of Bogey's image, it is Elvis's image from Jailhouse Rock:
He studies the image as before . . .

. . . while Elvis returns his gaze . . .

Without the cigarette, Poiccard's (Belmondo's) facial expression seems remarkably closer to Elvis's than it does Bogart's:

Of course, this imaginary sequence would conclude without the expressive gesture of the thumb across the lip to suggest the implicit identification Poiccard has with Bogey, and hence the loss of all the meanings compressed into the image of Bogart.The question is how and in what way the sequence is altered by the substitution of one American icon with another.

The gesture of the thumb across the lip recurs at different times in Breathless, but what if, instead of the lip gesture, Poiccard/Belmondo imitates, say, Elvis's gesture (sans hat) of flipping the head backwards to clear the hair from his eyes? He can't, because Poiccard is an anti-hero inspired by the characters of an older Hollywood than the Hollywood in which Elvis arrived for his first film in 1956. The fact is, Michel Poiccard is a doomed Hollywood anti-hero, but a charmingly nostalgic one. Elvis wasn't appropriate for Breathless because, ironically, he was too contemporary (a fear realized by the ambiguous figure of Patricia Franchini/Jean Seberg, the hip, promiscuous American girl who is also the film's femme fatale). The charm of Michel Poiccard is that he remains a comfortably familiar figure, even for French audiences. The irony is that in 1959, when Breathless was being made, Elvis, on leave from the U. S. Army, visited Paris. I like to imagine that in those cinéma-vérité scenes shot on the Champs-Élysées, Elvis was one of those figures standing in the background. Robert Ray argues that Elvis's style of acting would have been appropriate for Godardian cinema, imagining him, for instance, in a sequel to Masculine-Feminine. The idea is not as silly as it sounds: imagine the possibilities of Elvis starring in a Godard film. It would have been something to see.

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