A Shortness of Breath

I was introduced to Godard in one of my first film classes. We watched Breathless, and it appeared most of my fellow students hated it.

For me, it was like the final piece of a puzzle. I got narrative, I got atmosphere, I was at least aware of the more technical aspects of cinema, but Breathless operated like an immediate lesson on editing. Of course all films have editing – well, almost all – but it tends to be a subtle form. The less you notice the better seems to be the common wisdom. Breathless tosses that aside, taking a Brechtian approach. If every cut is noticed, we are reminded again and again this is only a movie.

Where Eraserhead was like a chance encounter with a babbling Ancient One, Breathless is that jerk who explains every magic trick before it’s finished. Godard wants us to be aware how easily manipulated we are, to be aware how violent a simple cut can be.

It’s that moment at the beginning, where Michel shoots a cop and flees – but we never see the shooting, only a quick series of shots that suggest a shooting. Everything – well, almost everything – in fictional cinema is a construction, several stray shots connected to form a bigger whole.

I don’t believe Godard is a cynic to make such a film – quite the opposite, in fact. I can’t imagine anyone having more fun while actually making a movie. His love of cinema seems apparent in how he works in the medium. He doesn’t want to eradicate the illusion as much as he wants an informed audience – a more knowledgeable audience allows an artist to do more with their work.

There are certain people who seem to expect critics to be able to just turn off their judgment and take a movie in – as if everything we’ve learned through the thousands of movies we have watched can just be put aside for a few hours. People seem to think critics don’t have fun while watching movies – but the truth is that our idea of fun has changed with experience. So many traditionally ‘fun’ films rely on simple imagery, things that start to lose meaning once you’ve seen several films do the exact same thing. We don’t watch art films simply because they’re more ‘valuable’ or what-not; for someone who has viewed that many movies, it’s the more technical aspects that become fun. A truly great director offers a certain style that can’t be found elsewhere.

And because I think this needs emphasis – art films are fun. Critics wouldn’t be so enamored if they were bored. The opposite is also true – these big Hollywood productions become boring when you sit through enough of them. It’s not that we can’t have fun, as much as certain studios tend to cut corners and offer nothing new beyond some shiny visual effects. What’s enjoyable about an old experience with purely surface-level modifications?

We’re not some alien creatures, judging films with inexplicable criteria. In all honesty, I think there’s a certain point where the simple act of watching a movie should become a fun process. The idea of being ‘bored’ by a movie seems a foreign concept these days. And when you reach the point where the simple act of watching a film is fun, you have to develop criteria that looks beyond enjoyment – otherwise, every movie carries the same value.

To create art is a skill – what is often overlooked is that the act of consuming art likewise requires skill. No one is born with an understanding of cinema, or books, or music. Everything we see in this world was at some point learned. Never accept the easy answer – it might make things simple, but in the world of art, you’re missing so much because of it.

Like everything else in life, the effort you put into understanding film determines how much you can get out of it.