Flash Review, 2-3: Poseur
Poe's flat homage to Godard flatlines
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak
I once attempted to translate a bunch of sketches by Boris Vian, the ambidextrous French man of letters and Jazz, into English. The problem with translating Vian into English is that in these sketches -- all take-offs of the American B movie genre -- as in his most famous novels, such as "I'll spit on your grave," Vian is already sifting classic '50s Americana through a French sensibility. At this point his hyper-dramatizations are hysterical, but when I then attempted to in effect translate them back into English, they lost all their humor and became dull. It was the very medium of the French language, perspective, and interpretation that made the plays entertaining -- in effect, Vian was playing with the language two times, parodying the American and coming up with interesting, inventive amalgamations of French usage that made for dazzling dialogue even when the situations were trite.
Jean-Luc Godard, co-founder of the French Nouvelle Vague, essentially picked up where Vian left off in his aborted creative life, having passed away in 1959 at the age of 39. Godard's 1960 "A bout de souffle" is a take-off of American gangster films leavened with a moderate dose of French post-war Existentialism and a dash of Jacques Tati, as is the 1964 "Bande a part" and, to a degree, the 1964 "Week-End."
Amos Poe's 1976 "Unmade Beds," screening at New York's Anthology Film Archives tonight and Saturday as part of a mini-Poe festival, pretends to riff on "A bout de souffle," with Poe claiming it's a "re-invention of the Nouvelle Vague in the context of New York. I wanted to start where Godard started, to go back to basics: innocence, romanticism, Bohemianism, all the things that made up NYC for me at that time. It is the story of an artist: a medium, an ego, and a changed society. He thinks his camera is a gun, he thinks he is ("Bout de souffle" co-star Jean-Paul) Belmondo, and he thinks NY is Paris. His fate is therefore doomed..."
So are we. If all this sounds pretentious, the result bears that out -- it is! Poe has tried to graft Godard's Paris onto his New York, losing the master's sensibility in the passage over the Atlantic and without adding any imprint of his own, unless you count a series of faux-Philosophical pronouncements and epigrams that try to act like a script. He's not helped by some very bad acting; everyone sounds like they're reading, without much investment, so laconic are they. If this is intentional on Poe's part, he totally misses the other element that made the Godard films magic, the total investment of his actors, who believed in what they were doing 100 percent and acted with brio and without any restraint, producing a sort of Carnaval.
The sole redeeming factor offered by "Unmade Beds" is the brief appearance of Deborah Harry, and the chance to see and hear her sing a cappella, on the verge of becoming the lead singer in "Blondie." But it's not enough to compensate the viewer for sitting through the ensuing parade of pre-"hipster" hipsters (now we know where all those pie-hatted poseurs in Brooklyn came from) badly acting an homage that reads like a poor third-generation imitation.