Icons and Zombies

Icons and Zombies

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead.


Times Square was just lighting up when I stepped out of the screening of Breathless. Under a black-and-white movie sky—a mottled screen of rain clouds, backlit by the last dim afternoon sun—billboards and video displays had sparked up their colors for the night, cars’ headlights were starting to flare down the avenue, and the window glow of delis and storefronts had splashed onto the sidewalks. People were wading and kicking through the light on this still-damp evening as they jockeyed past one another at the intersections, with me among them hurrying on my way past one, two, three newsstands and down into the Fiftieth Street subway station, where a trumpeter on the platform was playing "Nature Boy." He switched to the theme from The Godfather as the train came in, and this made perfect sense. The screening of Breathless had ended—a preview of the restored print, with improved subtitles, that has been prepared to commemorate the film’s fiftieth anniversary—but I felt I was still in a movie, even while chasing around outside.

To me, and I suspect to most cinephiles, this is the rush that makes moviegoing addictive: the sensation that the film’s world was so full that it has spilled into the sights and sounds beyond the theater’s doors. You may judge the power of the drug by the fact that it cannot be copped very often. From Breathless, as everyone surely knows by now, you get a shot of the pure stuff, especially now that the image has been cleaned up and is available again on a real screen.

Once more you can look down on the Champs-Elysées from the vantage point of a rooftop or upper-story window and see the moment when the streetlamps blink on; and this sudden but soft change in the view’s infinitely nuanced grays (which seem so peaceful at this remove) will quiet your heart a little and give you a sensation of being in the midst of something elegant, even if your next twilight experience takes place on Seventh Avenue. The cinematographer for Breathless, Raoul Coutard, contributed to this effect by serving as a consultant for the restoration, which in itself might not guarantee a perfect match between this print and the original (think of the notorious differences between Ansel Adams’s early and late prints) but does ensure that an unmistakable classicism shines through the radicalism of these pictures. When Jean Seberg appears in close-up, you see the freckles on her nose. When there’s a shot of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s hand holding the two coins that are his only constant assets, you see the dirt worked into the fingers. Such evidence of the randomness and grubbiness of ordinary life was still routinely scrubbed out of movies in the era when Breathless came out; but here, it’s present throughout, and in the coolest, chicest form it will ever take.

Which is to say that Breathless (as everyone also knows by now) not only lets you live vicariously through the movies but also winks at you knowingly for wanting to. "Bogie!" exclaims an awed Belmondo when he spots some photographs of the actor displayed outside a movie theater, then pauses to venerate his idol by aping him. Perhaps Breathless hints at a slight condescension toward this commonplace mode of fantasy, which helps speed Belmondo’s character (a self-described "jerk" in the current subtitles) toward his unfortunate end. The cinematic sophisticates from whose circle Breathless emerged wanted an audience that would go beyond identifying with movie stars—an audience that would learn to see itself in relation to genres, production studios, national cinemas and ultimately the worldviews of certain geniuses behind the camera.

This project proved to be open to some degree of self-criticism. Breathless, which bears a Parisian in-joke dedication to the Hollywood B-movie factory Monogram Pictures, is literally about the risks a Frenchman faces when he misappropriates American vehicles (that is, the various Detroit cars that Belmondo steals). And when this particular Frenchman enters into an excitingly troubled relationship with Seberg, an American star cast to represent American innocence abroad? He calls their lovemaking "Franco-American rapprochement"—this, in a film that takes time out to document, and mock, a state visit from Eisenhower to de Gaulle.

I confess I had forgotten some details of the film’s ambivalence toward America as a world power, an ambivalence that lends depth and substance to the movie’s more parochial fascination with the cruder strains of American filmmaking. No doubt these aspects of Breathless are crucial to its meanings; but they’re also the aspects of the movie that tether it to 1960. What interested me most during my latest viewing was the film’s utter contemporaneity. I have grown middle-aged watching Breathless; Seberg and Belmondo, who looked so alluringly mature to me when I first saw the film, now reveal themselves, touchingly, to have been mere kids. We’ve all wrinkled up or passed on, the stars included; and yet Breathless itself hasn’t aged by one second. How is it possible that on its fiftieth anniversary this film remains as fresh as on the day it came out of the lab?

Maybe the answer lies with Seberg: in the way she can’t ignore the camera but is always posing for it, with a self-consciousness that seems perfect for the uncertain, half-formed character she’s playing. It would be difficult to ascribe Breathless to a feminist sensibility—impossible, in fact. And yet the heart of the film is its entirely realistic portrait of a young woman who lives on the cheap overseas, working at odd jobs, nursing vague ambitions and not quite speaking the language; a young woman stuck in the credible dilemma of being pregnant by an amusing scoundrel she hardly knows, couldn’t possibly marry but doesn’t want to give up. He’s never self-conscious (even when Belmondo speaks straight to the camera) because he’s a stand-in not only for the movie-besotted common man but also for the director: Mr. Jump-Cut himself, generator of physical excitement and outlaw aestheticism. But however huge his personality, Belmondo has a character to play who seems small compared with Seberg’s. The only substance this man has, his only redeeming quality, is his romantic devotion to her—a trait that cuts against all allegorical tendencies, to fix the incomparably playful cinematic vision of Breathless on an unaging human subject.

The fiftieth-anniversary restoration of Breathless is being released in the United States by Rialto Pictures. Because this new print, like the original, has no credits, I will note that the story was made up by François Truffaut. The technical adviser was Claude Chabrol. The musical score—which bears the same relationship to jazz as Breathless does to Hollywood noir—was composed by Martial Solal. Producer Georges de Beauregard put up the money. The writer-director was Jean-Luc Godard. I predict we will hear more of him.

Let us now praise famous zombies. In the beginning, there weren’t any, since the ravenous corpses in George A. Romero’s epoch-making Night of the Living Dead (or, if you prefer, Night When the Dead Brought the War Back Home to a Racially Torn America) were an undifferentiated lot, utterly lacking in emotion, social organization or habits, let alone individuality. But this situation began to change with the sequel, Shopping Mall of the Dead, in which the zombies turned out to retain a primitive set of consumerist reflexes. By the time Romero got to Luxury Mixed-Use Development of the Dead, one of the zombies (played by Eugene Clark) had developed enough foresight and leadership ability that he could be identified by name: Big Daddy. And now, in Feuding Stage-Irish Folkways of the Dead (official title: Survival of the Dead), Romero has given us his first zombie romantic lead in the lovely O’Flynn lass (Kathleen Munroe), who remains a dashing equestrienne even after her eyes turn a uniform milky blue.

In short, Romero’s zombies have gradually become more and more like the living; and some of the living in Survival of the Dead are now almost indistinguishable from zombies in their mindlessness.

Ostensibly set on a lush, wooded island off the coast of Delaware but really located in Romero’s memories of old westerns, Survival of the Dead concerns the unreasoning conflict between two clan leaders: crusty, white-maned Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), with his talent for deceptive blarney; and implacable, boulder-headed Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), who dresses in the traditional black hat and duster. A mere infestation of the walking dead cannot distract these two men from their mutual hatred—although it does provide them with yet another occasion for enmity, since Muldoon, a godly man, believes in keeping the departed close at hand (even if they might eat him), whereas O’Flynn wants to dispatch them all without delay (no matter how many of the living he might kill as collateral damage). Of course, Romero’s fans know that O’Flynn is right. All zombies must be destroyed, and the nonchalance with which you may shoot, burn, fry or blow them up is a cause for amusement, not regret. But the bias toward O’Flynn with which Survival of the Dead is structured persists only for so long. By the end of the movie, perhaps as grim a conclusion as Romero has yet imagined, it’s clear that both of the patriarchs will keep shuffling forever into conflict, driven not by principle or reason but by mere autonomic impulse, as if they too were zombies—or political bloggers from opposite camps.

If this reading is correct, and Survival of the Dead is indeed a movie about the fruitless bitterness between conservatives and liberals, then I object that the two sides in fact are not at all equal. I declare my allegiance to the O’Flynns. That said, I also note the film’s pleasures. It may not be first-rate Romero, but Survival of the Dead is the least claustrophobic and most picturesque of his zombie movies. There’s infectious humor in its deployment of purposely absurd movie conventions; there’s pathos and intensity (perhaps more than at any time since the first film in the series) when living characters have to do in their dead friends, wives or children; and there’s old-fashioned directorial mastery in at least two of the big set pieces.

All in all, a welcome return to form for Romero, after the previous and much-regretted Social Media of the Dead.

* * *

There came a moment during Robin Hood—many moments, in fact—when Russell Crowe or someone like him bellowed his way across the screen in stop-and-start motion, amid blurs of unidentifiable objects and streaks of pure color, and I wondered if Ridley Scott had saved money by patching in footage from Gladiator. How could you tell? If Crowe’s armor were ancient rather than medieval in design, then I suppose the trick would be exposed. But good luck trying to make out details of costume, given the way the camera was apparently kicked across the set, and the resulting images then spliced together by a factory of hiccuping monkeys.

A purely commercial cinema may practice such economies. Maybe Crowe and Cate Blanchett even had clauses in their contracts—unexercised in the event—that said they would be paid extra if Scott ever required them to act.

It’s foolish of me, I know, to complain that Scott now gives the public no more than it asks for. The audience that turns out on the weekend for a blockbuster (any blockbuster will do) is apparently satisfied to receive signs of excitement in place of excitement itself, a performance of stardom in lieu of a star performance. And from the director of Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise? What seems like fifteen minutes of footage, surrounded by two hours of second-unit work.

The ticket buyers might be content with this stuff; but I can’t be content for them when I see the new-model Robin Hood going into his climactic fight armed not with a sword and not with a longbow but with a battle-ax. It’s what mainstream cinema has become: a heavy object made to crash onto your head.

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