Two at fifty

Being in Paris made me think of Godard’s game-changing early masterpiece “Breathless”, which turned fifty years old this year. 1960 was also the year of another game-changer: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.

In retrospect it’s a bit astonishing that these two films came out the same year, on different continents. In its way, each was completely disruptive — ushering in an era of post-modern commercial filmmaking that has never left us.

Before these two films, the audience for commercial films was generally asked to forget about itself. Even in those cases where a character directly addressed the audience (which Bob Hope and Groucho Marx did with fair regularity), the audience being addressed was merely an aspect of the film. You were the normal person sitting comfortably in the theatre, the way you always did, laughing as the comedian on-screen made a show of noticing you.

But Godard and Hitchcock had something else in mind. They were out to disturb, to provoke, to make the audience uncomfortable with itself. “Breathless” forces you to realize, in scene after scene, that the very act of watching a movie, of accepting its romantic conventions, is an act of artificiality. The characters in the film are simultaneously sincere and winking — all at the same time. They know that they are play-acting at being the characters you see on-screen.

In a strange loop, that post-modern knowingness is in fact integral to the characters they play — characters the audience nonetheless ends up caring about deeply. This contradiction forces the audience to be both inside and outside the fantasy of the movie, all at the same time. When we watch “Breathless”, we are forced to recognize our own complicity in creating the “magic circle” of the film reality.

“Psycho” is up to something equally insidious. Hitchcock breaks rules right and left: The person we thought was the main character is killed off relatively early in the film. The one person we find endearing and vulnerable, the only person truly presented as appealing, turns out to be the embodiment of terror itself — a monster beyond anything we could have expected. And the movie seems to switch genres unexpectedly as it goes on, taking frequent zigzag turns of tone and viewpoint.

In short, Hitchcock manages to scare the daylights out of his audience, while simultaneously forcing that audience to recognize the utter artificiality of its own feelings toward, and experience of, the movie.

There were many films in the wake of these two that did essentially the same thing. It is now almost expected that a certain kind of film will force the audience to see the film itself as an artifact, outside of the ostensible arrangement of plot and characters.

Think of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde”, Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” or just about any film directed by Wes Anderson or written by Charlie Kaufman. These are commercial films which, each in their own way, are emotionally resonant and affecting while also being about their own artificiality. From the point of view of, say, the 1950’s, this is a completely radical change — practically a revolution.

A revolution that is now half a century old.

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