Papers are due on July 11th and should consist of 4 double-spaced pages with one-inch margins. That should give you about 6,000 characters in substance, not including titles pages, page numbers, bibliography or other accreditation.
Using the following prompt, or one of your own, please explore the fulfilling ideas, interpretations and contexts of your own subjective cinematic and socio-cultural experience.
Discuss the role of intentionality in Godard's Pierrot le Fou. What are each character's goals? What are the goals of the society they live in? What are the goals of the filmmakers? How would you articulate what it means to express agency in a fictional world? To what extent is the film true or imaginary and how do we know? What is the point of the work, as you understand it?
Free Will and Environmentalism in Pierrot le Fou
Godard, born 1930 in Paris, is famous for his contributions to the 1960s French New Wave film movement. Prior to the French New Wave, cinematic quality was determined by craft and pedigree, with no regard for innovation or abstraction. French New Wave films deploy striking visual editing, non-conventional camera movement, and make the political conditions of the film implicit in every shot. For the first time, individuality, personal style, and decision making of the filmmakers was valued over convention and expectations.
Pierrot le Fou (1965) is Godard's 10th major work, and based on the 1962 novel Obsession by Lionel White. "Le Fou" means "the madman," and the name Pierrot is an archetypal character of a clown, based in late seventeenth-century Italian comedy. Traditionally, Pierrot pines for the love of Columbine, who inevitably rejects him. The constant butt of pranks, and seen as a fool, Pierrot is nonetheless trusting, sincere and steadfast.
In Godard's film, Pierrot is a high-tech assassin on Mars who dresses as a clown and lives in his own mental world with rigid internal logic. Years ago, the government used advanced psychological conditioning to make Pierrot into the perfect killing machine. His human mind could only bend so far until he suffered a severe mental break. After escaping the mental hospital where he was to be confined indefinitely, Pierrot began to work as an assassin for hire in the underworld. When the central narrative of the film begins, Pierrot dispatches a group of men in black suits, then is contacted to assassinate the bounty hunter Spike Spiegel. During an extended showdown with Spike, Pierrot encounters a cat who triggers a profound psychological flashback to his pre-assassin life. In this moment of vulnerability, moments before achieving psychic redemption, Spike murders Pierrot.
Pierrot is invulnerable to outside interference, despite the best efforts of doctors and family to influence him. But Pierrot's mental world is not of his own making; he is the victim of a powerful system designed to propagate itself. His government assassin training completely reprogramed him. As such, Pierrot is able to freely kill and move through the conventional mainstream world without guilt, empathy or second thoughts. Only through interaction with an even more powerful system beyond his control is Pierrot able to escape the confines of his conditioning.
In the opening scene, Pierrot easily kills the men in black suits. Blood splashes on the concrete walls of the alley, a reference to the visual language of horror movies. The viewer is thrilled at the ease and apparent joy Pierrot feels, until we remember to be repulsed by the massacre itself. Abruptly the scene jump cuts to Spike, onboard his spaceship smoking a cigarette, bored or contemplative. Godard uses this abrupt juxtaposition to comment on the political state of modern isolation. While we are bored at home smoking a cigarette, elsewhere on the planet people are being murdered and their blood is splashing on a concrete wall to drip down, slowly. Eventually the underpaid building maintenance staff will have to clean it up, in addition to their regular workload for the day. We are still at home, feeling weary, unoccupied, and smoking another cigarette indistinguishable from the first. Le Fou's invulnerability is due to his insanity. He is protected by his madness. Godard starts with the suggestion that our inability to understand the world around us protects us from it.
The scene jump cuts back to Pierrot. A victim manages to aim a gun at Pierrot and fire an entire magazine of bullets directly at him. Pierrot laughs maniacally, and the bullets harmlessly reflect off an invisible force field. He finishes the murders and floats away using a hidden antigravity device. The man dressed as a clown is insane, to the surprise of no viewer.
Pierrot's insanity is a direct product of contemporary society as represented by his high tech gadgets. Godard uses the symbol of a force field—rendering Le Fou completely impervious to bullets, flames or any other attack—to represent the shielding that society's self-reinforcing logic provides against outside threats and radicalism. Pierrot will never regain the ability to feel empathy. When impacted, the force field ripples and distorts light, like the surface of a pool of water, so smooth you don't know it's there until disturbed. Like water, the surface of Pierrot's mind can be blurred or distorted but the matter and energy itself is always conserved and cannot be destroyed by any force.
In part, this is Godard's tribute to a long legacy of science fiction special effects, here Godard plays with the alternate interpretation that the force field itself is a fantasy, impossible technology that may never be achieved. However, the entire movie is fiction. Just like the arbitrary rules we live by in our day-to-day existence, solid and immutable, the force field is completely immune to Spike's bullets. As a viewer, telling Spike the force field is not real will not save his life. The internal logic of the film's world can only be revealed as false from an outside dimension.
Godard's dog-that-did-not-bark-in-the-night is the conspicuous absence of women in the world of Pierrot le Fou. Godard uses this radical storytelling technique to prompt the viewer to wonder, what happened to the women of this world? Did women die off, perhaps from some subsidized pharmaceutical disaster, and this is the depraved world of men in mourning before the species flickers into extinction? Did women develop advanced technology, and all leave the solar system together to explore the galaxy? Godard has never discussed this extremely experimental decision in known interviews. He is still alive, someone should ask.
Le Fou's undoing is through his fear of nature, as embodied by the feral cat. The sight of the seemingly docile, seemingly domesticated animal, is completely terrifying to Le Fou, shattering his mind even further and leading to his destruction. Just like the viewer, Le Fou knows the triumphant return of feral nature will be the unraveling destruction of civilization despite our force fields.
Listen, this is a great essay. Really creative analysis. I realize there was a miscommunication. And that's my fault—in the syllabus I never said, "Watch Godard's Pierrot le Fou, NOT Shinichiro Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop episode of the same name." And you wrote a great essay. That's what matters. You demonstrate a deep understanding of cinematic technique, historical context (kind of), and most importantly of the capitalist social determinism we live in and how the only way to escape it is self destruction.
So, you probably already looked at the bottom of the page: I'm giving you an A.
My favorite thing you do is that, by mapping the context of Godard's Pierrot le Fou onto Watanabe's, you still find deep meaning and room for interpretation. We live in a world where uniqueness is increasingly scarce. New email addresses, usernames, URLs, band names and startup names have to be longer and longer, and include numbers, misspellings or other signifiers in order to be unlike any others and actually show up in a web search. It's a result of this condition, basically population growth, that when I assigned an essay on Pierrot le Fou you watched the Cowboy Bebop episode when I was ambiguously referring to the Godard film. Ultimately, your essay proves the artwork itself is meaningless. The creative depth of analysis and interpretation stems completely from the viewer. Your essay itself is radical, experimental, and breaks expectations and traditions, embodying the exact ideals of the French New Wave.
After reading your essay, I looked up Cowboy Bebop and watched it for the first time. Thank you, really great show. I'll make sure to include this episode in next semester's syllabus.