Thursday, January 14, 2010

Double Dutch Double Feature

by Marilyn Alexis Braxton

 “We now might open a parenthesis on Odile’s, Franz’s and Arthur’s feelings... but it’s all pretty clear.  So we close our parenthesis and let the images speak.” -Jean-Luc Godard, Bande à part

One of the great things about an institute like the National Museum of African Art, is that one of the menial, ignoble duties you’re tasked with as a typical lowly intern is to attend a free double feature event with Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard as the headliners.  Awful, right?

Of course not!  It seems like this event was not only greatly anticipated by me but by the general public also, even though we weren’t quite sure how many people would forfeit their Saturday afternoon to attend our show— especially since the slated time was a full five hours.  But the event turned out to be so much more than an escape from the bone-chilling weather outside.  As a part of the Yinka Shonibare MBE programs at the museum, the event offered two movies as well as a contextual analysis of French New Wave cinema by Godard specialist Dr. Daniel Morgan (Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies, University of Pittsburgh).  Dr. Morgan was able to both offer a sound introduction to the two films and facilitate a discussion that that was able to link the projects of both filmmakers to Shonibare’s work.

The first film shown was Godard’s Bande à part (Band of Outsiders), whose work exemplifies modern film making’s obsessions with changing the nature of the form (Dr. Morgan pointed out Godard’s own thoughts on the narrative form: “Every film has a beginning, a middle, and an end ... but not necessarily in that order”).  For many in the audience, some of whom had never encountered Godard, the filmmaker was quickly liked for his penchant for quirkiness— like a record-breaking run through the Louvre or a (attempted) minute of silence.  Particularly, a sequence where the three protagonists (Odile, Franz, and Arthur) dance repetitively in a proto-line dance set to a fun jazz piece— while throughout, Godard stops the music and inserts what each character is thinking as their shoes shuffle along clubroom floor— completely won over the crowd.  

Following, in Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, we’re given an elaborate setting in a dark and mysterious story about a man and a woman in an ornate, capacious hotel.  The man insists that he has had an affair with the lady last year in Marienbad (or perhaps somewhere else); the woman denies it and just wants the man to leave her alone.  Perhaps the man did meet her, perhaps he didn't.  We’re neither given a complete, coherent narrative nor an answer.  Instead, Resnais presents fractured pieces of the story and lets us take what we can from it.

The great thing about the double feature and discussion was that as a group, those who attended were able to either reinterpret what they had already observed in Shonibare’s work or have a first encounter with more context.  In either case, it was interesting to see the direct influence the French New Wave movement had on Shonibare, and how the British Nigerian artist choose not to memorialize  the filmmakers, but instead, continue a conversation started by them: one that  questions storytelling, the story told, and the interpretation of the gestures these stories make.

I’d suggest (and have suggested, to countless friends, coworkers, and classmates) to stop by the museum library and see one or both films and then visit the exhibit.  I’m sure you’ll find tons of similarities between the three artists that will enlighten your interpretation of Shonibare’s project.

But don’t let me tell you.  Let the images speak for themselves.


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