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Anna Karina

Monday 12/16/19

Anna Karina died over the weekend. She was a crucial player in quite a few Godard films from his early 1960s period--which is to say, when he--and she--were galvanizing the French New Wave. 1964's Band of Outsiders, in which she stars, is perhaps the most universal of Godard pictures. It's a crime film, but also unlike any other crime film, because that's how Godard often operated--he explored different forms, preferred not to repeat himself. Martin Scorsese is a sexist who has no ability for making movies, who only repeats himself, because he is too limited to do anything else. His films are crime films, but in his entire body of work, over all of those decades, there is nothing remotely as exciting, brilliant, shot through with talent, as this dance sequence, in which Karina plays a crucial part, from Band of Outsiders. Let's break it down.

Once they rise from the table, the entire sequence unfurls in a single camera shot. When the brusque man comes in, rudely pushing Karina out of the way, note what happens with composition. Her dancing partner is out of the frame, she's at the left edge, partially in, partially out. Our eye is on the brusque man, because of the space he occupies in the composition. And his size, his demonstrative manner. Plus, he's just done something rude, and we want to know why he was in such haste, or we want to see someone deal with him, punch him in the nose. Both.

From her position, Karina starts to move her shoulders. She's feeling out the dance, she's barely started it, but she is commanding out attention, she's pulling our perspective away from the brusque man. The centerpiece of the frame is thus becoming its edge. She is winning our attention. The camera pans left, we see the second dancer we presumed was there, with the third coming in on the right, where the brusque man had been. It's like when you're dancing and you are unsure at first, then you get the hang of it, you balance yourself out, just as the shot has now balanced out itself. Placing the hat on her makes her taller, and as she's the centerpiece of the combination of dancers, that also bestows balance. Visual rhythm.

Watch her eyes as the scene unfolds. See how she is looking at her feet? Then when one of her partners turn, she looks up, but quickly, then back at her feet? She's trying to get the dance right, also making sure not to be aloof and to be connected. Which is the large part of a dance. When the dancers approach the front of the frame, the camera is not going to pull back--it's as if a patron on their chair at the counter has turned around to watch. What the camera is going to do is pan, but the movements are slight, and you hardly notice them--if you notice them at all--because our visual focus, movement-wise, is on the dance, which is gaining in rhythm as the dancers gain in confidence, especially Karina. The music drops out--we have every reason to believe the sound has been diegetic. That is, coming naturally from some source at the restaurant. Here is the kind of brave magic Godard was good at, his particular form of whimsicality that can also feel serious in that it's a consequence of his cinematic natural order.

With the rhythm and blues music dropping out, the voice-over counters with new rhythm, and that's bolstered by the finger-snapping--which provides syncopation to the voice, a kind of popping off-beat--and when the music cuts back in, the rhythmic drive has the feeling of an additional wave behind it. Now, for the first time, the camera dips, it shows the feet of the dancers, perhaps the most important aspect of any dance. The music drops again, the voice-over enters, and now we're getting a call-and-response element between the various sound forms that are intersecting with the dance.

We like the music, but we also like when it drops, because the dancers carry both the auditory rhythm and the visual rhythm. Scorsese could never do something like this. He just plays some old song from the 1950s that he likes and that's it. Completely artless. The mix tape approach to soundtracking. The longer the dance goes on, the more you think Karina is the most beautiful, playful creature you have ever seen. She's so feminine, but her presence alongside the men, and her height, and the hat, also serve to de-gender, to endue with universality.

When the dancer at the right of the composition breaks the line, steps out of the dance, he comes between her and the camera--that's Godard's kind of naturalism. Another director would cut, so that we don't have the obscuring effect. Think of what Godard does as diegetic movement. Naturally occurring movement. It's natural for something to block our field of vision. Just as our response of "Hey! Get out of the way!" is natural when we can't see Karina for a second. We're pulled to her, which means that we, too, watching, are pulled into the dance--we are dancing partners.

All of these techniques go into fostering that feeling, the experience of pure cinema, with no wall between characters and viewers.


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