First, a pre-review: An inherent bias precedes the Pop! feature here, a bias toward American film. There are a variety of reasons for this. The first, honestly, is that part and parcel with the feature is the idea that American pop was a curious beast during this particular decade, and that the evolutions in pop filmmaking are perhaps the only meaningful ones found in that decade of American film. Drama was a wasteland, and the Europeans and the Japanese were doing wonders with experimental cinema during the decade. As for the Americans, absurdism and non-narrative surrealism, and the larger experimentation with film form and storytelling that permeated from those world trends, were diluted into popular genre cinema for playful mass entertainment (mass entertainment being what America does best, after all).
The other major reason for the focus on American cinema: artistically speaking, the nation really needs the pick-me-up. World cinema was at its arguable all-time height in the 1960s, breaking the rules with seemingly every feature and re-drawing them as they saw fit. There was little that other nations were not doing with cinema at the time, in fact. Emphasizing the brilliance of what say Godard was doing during this decade becomes an embarrassing parade of riches a mile long, and, if one is being honest, they go quite a bit to move beyond the realms of pop-cinema. For Godard and so many other directors at the time, even when they went to the well with their more genre-specific works like Band of Outsiders, they were hard at work with something that considerably blew down the borders of pop cinema and utilized it for decidedly more scholarly, artistic means; they were not, per-se, making films that the average person on the street had an interest in seeing, and Pop! is a deliberate attempt to explore the admittedly more conventional but no less notable artistic skills inherent in what would conventionally be considered more off-hand works designed for the supposed masses, works designed primarily to entertain and entertain with craft and skill, rather than works designed to explore the medium, works for which broad appeal was a secondary goal if any.
But we also liking breaking the rules here, interpreting features as guidelines more than iron-clad harbingers of destruction-upon-breaking. This is especially true when the subject is the more fluid region of pop cinema, not so much invested in the rigid scriptural dogma of film and more drawn to doing whatever it takes to have fun, even if it entails bending a few guidelines (although naturally, to keep things from going too far over the rails into danger like the Europeans, out and out deconstructing film and breaking those rules wholesale was a no go for the Americans).
To keep with this spirit, I’ve selected only one notable mainland European work to explore for this feature, bending the rules just enough for me to have my taste of the nectar of freedom without actually giving in to aimless exploration of any and all-comers. Oh, and in case you were wondering, dissecting the nationality of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an article all its own, but the film is told in enough languages to start a war and features money from Italy, the US, Spain, and West Germany. Plus, you know, it is a card-carrying member of the most American genre of all time. That is, honestly, not what we mean when we say “here is our European art film, but boy does it pop!”.
Thankfully, actually picking this film was as easy as pie, and with that, our feature presentation:
Nobody took the deconstructive hard-lines of the Godard aesthetic and married it to pop cinema better than Jean-Pierre Melville, the original king of cinematic cool. Nobody did it better. Not then, and not ever, and Melville never did it better than Le Samourai. The story of Hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon) living a non-life as he hurtles and looks over his shoulder from kill to kill, using his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) as a frequent alibi, Le Samourai is a spartan work of clockwork and mechanics of such composed, rigid purity you cannot but come out the other end with a kink in your back and a chill down your back. After a particularly rambunctious hit, the police get wind of his scent, and an inspector played by Francois Perier absolutely cuts into Costello’s life and pushes on his wounds again and again.
Of all the films that define pop-cool in the 1960s, no film distills it with more gun-stroke seriousness and primal fortitude than Le Samourai, a work that emphasizes the “dark side of the pop lifestyle” undercurrent swimming fiercely but quieting underneath the entire stew of the 1960s, especially where Europe was concerned. Like seemingly every European film in the 1960s that you or I know about, Le Samourai is a remarkable work of pure nihilist craft and composition, lighting spaces with an eye for mystique and pain and subsuming everything in a subfuscous emptiness that holds the character’s lives at bay and keeps us from ever truly knowing them. Which, as it turns out, tells us more than we could ever expect about who they are, for they can’t truly know themselves in their detached, unwelcoming lifestyles. That they do not develop as people shows us how stunted and rigid they are in their identities, how they have been reduced to icons and physical spaces more then living, breathing sacks of flesh, and how, if we are being honest, all people do not “develop” during the course of the few day action within a film.
Elsewhere, the film teeters on a ruthless balance of perpetual motion and unmoving stagnancy. The motion of characters always walking somewhere, knowing that someone lies behind them with a gun rushing to their head, the motion of the camera staggeringly following and chasing the characters in hopes of catching them in a moment of disconnect or failure. The stagnancy of human emotion unable to cope with itself, the stagnancy of the minimalist dirge of the set design and the frosty color palette ready to stab the characters or suck them dry. Melville is a master storyteller precisely because he not only intuits how visuals inform characters, but how the world we live in dictates our lives, something he does by balancing us right on the edge of that perpetually tense world and suffusing even the breathing moments with worry and woe.
Throughout, there’s always a sense of the chase, always a sense of systematic, orderly action and reaction culpably driving everything vocally and handily. The tension mounts not because of violence or event, but because everything is denied us, everything is held back, and everything stews and rises until it threatens to burst. Even if you strip the characters out of the film and explore the work as an exclusive piece of kinesthetic movement and physical space, the chess pieces moving around in perfect geometry, Melville has concocted what may be the most perfect pure chase film ever released. As genre cinema, many films are great, but few approach perfect in their construction like Le Samourai.
At one level, this is all the film is, but Melville’s genius is how character and action are one and the same. The analytic discipline of the material strangles the characters as an external manifestation of their internal world; this is a location for Costello, a location that bred him and a location that he breeds. The action is brutally exciting, but it is never mirthful; instead, it is intentionally subverted, exposed, and challenged at the level of bare construction and intention, exposed as a playground for men and women who desperately want humanity and have been stripped of it by a world that couldn’t care less. They are reduced to their raw mechanics, their spatial identities on the screen, afforded no emotion and given over to a life of continual chase and unending momentum that ultimately is its own form of stagnancy. Certainly, Le Samourai pops, but seldom has pop been this cognitive in its dissonance.
But that is Le Samourai for you. While it is important to remind that the Americans could do lightweight entertainment with craft and skill in the 1960s, we should not forget that the Europeans pretty much had film in the bag during that decade. So much so that they had to let it out of the bag and chase it down just to entertain themselves, discovering new regions of film land in the process and then taking over those regions as well. One of those regions, whether it was accidental or the result of the necessary pulses of artistic expression, was pop cinema, and just once or twice, that cinema managed to free itself just enough to work as pop without actually sacrificing that special concoction of icy, detached cool and frosty, formalist chill so central to the European works, and the European social conception of “cool”, at the time.
And that, of course, is the Europeans for you. Although the Americans had tools and tricks of their own, just about everything they did in the pop ’60s and the experimental, gritty ’70s wouldn’t have been possible without Europe at the helm. There was a lot of id in American cinema in the ’60s and ’70s, and Europe knew how to funnel it, channel it, contain it, and meld it to the superego of deliberate framing and editing, to create something that felt like a cat let loose in a room just large enough to let the cat cause a ruckus, but just small enough to focus the maelstrom and keep it from spilling over. America was stealing from the best of them, but Melville, this guy was the real deal. He was around just to remind you that, at the end of the day, us pesky Americans had nothing on him.
Ultimately, Le Samourai is a study in aesthetic self-alienation, even self-annihilation, a work that immanently suggests the notion of the modern social fugitive derives a decisive quotient of its meaning, even its ability to be read at all, from the neoliberal quality of the atomizing self. Melville’s film is self-reflexively aware of the character’s complicity in the system he rebukes; the police tail him and box him in with an almost absurdist perfect placement, ready at every turn to swallow the protagonist in their puzzle of set-design-imposed-order. (Melville’s film might be the negative mirror image of Tati’s Playtime from the same year). The samurai marshals all of his energies of adaptation to escape their clutches, but he hopelessly, unthinkingly already enacts their will for him: he has no freedom because he lives an existence alienated from himself, defining every motion and action as a quotient of cool, and he cannot express – cannot truly embody the flubs and foibles and messiness of humanity – because he has fashioned himself to be a perfect type, an ideal that dismantles the messy, humanizingly imperfect chaos of his species and replaces it with a mannequin of the state, a mannequin that believes it is pulling itself. They don’t “have” him at the outset of the film, but he has already defined himself as their enemy, which means they control him ideologically. Acting against society in hopes of being the ur-individual, his fantasy of perpetual drifting and lone-wolf wandering, rather than placing him at the fringes of society, traps him right at its ideological center. Biopolitically, the state manages him – controls his every movement – not only through setting up blockades and investigators but through the much more immanent tactic of making the protagonist codify himself, to become an agent of his own calcification. The protagonist of the film, insofar as he can be called that, is an icon read past himself, “Le Samourai” because he is a two-dimensional embodiment of an American filmic idiom rather than a three-dimensional human.