Give Me a Smile

Give Me a Smile by Caroline Rumley/Media Poesie

 

[Please watch the video before reading the below texts.]

 

 
Postscript (on the revised version of the video)
The re-edited version of this initially puzzling and off-putting film was made more accessible by the lead-in from Vivre sa vie. This is still an artful piece, but it now seems more finessed than vandalistic.
 

Creator's Statement

[Please watch the video before reading the below text.]

 

Michel Chion, in writing about the voice in cinema, tells us that it is much more than the vehicle of language and expression; such aural elements are also “analyzed and distributed in the spectator’s perceptual apparatus according to the relation each bears to what the spectator sees at the time” (3). In this short film, entitled “Give Me a Smile,” I tinker with this perception as I put Nana’s voice (from Godard’s Vivre sa vie) into Jeanne’ s mouth (from Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc), melding the two films into one. I am drawing on the cafe scene in which Nana is interviewed by a prospective pimp and on the scene from Jeanne D’Arc that Godard screens for Nana in his own film, spliced to better fit the sounds into the various mouths. In particular, there are close-ups of Jeanne “talking” about making more money as a prostitute and about her trials in making it on the screen, all the while waiting for her death at the stake. This could be enough of a commentary, a reinforcement of what Godard is probably getting at by having Nana watch this particular film in the first place. That is, we know in both films that the women are doomed; Nana resorts to prostitution to make ends meet, only to be shot, and Jeanne will be burned to death! Doomed, indeed! Considering this aural-visual mash-up through the lens of Laura Mulvey’s work on visual pleasure, though, can give us more of an insight as to why this might be, and a small editing choice at the end of the piece can at least start to turn over the gender-biased tables.

Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory to propose that the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form (58), where woman is “tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” (59). As a being, woman has “not the slightest importance" to use Boetticher’s words. Rather, what the heroine provokes or represents is what counts (63). To bring this to form, the dominant order has structured cinematic ways of seeing and taking pleasure in looking (61). Mulvey points to Freud’s associating this scopophilia with taking other people as an object (60). What, if not that exactly, is happening with Nana in the cafe scene? She would like to become a more prosperous prostitute and Raoul restructures her decision-making, taking her as an object to mold and use and eventually sell.

Raoul’s male gaze also projects its fantasy onto the female figure. Nana and Raoul openly discuss this being looked-at-ness. Simply because she is “a pretty girl,” he concludes that she can be a successful actress. Nana understands this- that in this traditional exhibitionist role women are “simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact” (62). She has, indeed, used her looks in trying to become an actress. But in this mash-up, we only hear Nana’s voice. The person speaking is Jeanne, shorn like a sheep and dressed “like a man.” The erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as an object might well be torn asunder. But is this really the case? We know that the story of Jeanne D’Arc is in part a religious one, that Jeanne must be tried and punished for her religious views. A case could be made for intersectionality when looking at both films as one, that there is both gender and religious bias. But the way Dreyer’s film is structured shows more of a patriarchal stance than a religious one. The men loom large over Jeanne, looking down at her physically as well as politically. The gender-domination aspect of the film is so strong that it almost dwarfs the storyline. It is doubtful whether it would even exist if Jeanne had been a male. With Nana’s voice coming from Jeanne’s mouth, then, suddenly her captor (played by Theater of Cruelty author Antonin Artaud, which adds another layer to the mix) appears to be both leaning into her and leering at her with intent, while she seems to be on some sort of tranquilizer to get her through what lies ahead, which is not unheard of in circles of prostitution. The erotic basis for pleasure for the male who is looking seems to be alive and well, indeed. Because this confrontation is taking place in a jail cell, we can also read that this erotic pleasure is also coinciding with a voyeuristic one, in which the pleasure lies in “ascertaining guilt, asserting control, and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness” (65), which is exactly what is happening with Jeanne.

Mulvey makes a case for the dominant male gaze being a key proponent in Hollywood films, and hopes that the artisanal film can be different since it is freed from Capitalistic mores (60), but that just isn’t happening here. Nana might have shaken off the power of one man, her husband, but she literally becomes Raoul’s property in this French New Wave film just as she might in any classical Hollywood film. She is his Sternbergian “perfect product” (65) who must “give him a smile” to complete the transaction. And we know what is coming up for Jeanne. In Jeanne D’Arc, also not a classic Hollywood production, the men are controlling all aspects of the “film fantasy” (63). Mulvey says woman is the spectacle (63), and Jeanne is nothing if not the headlining act in the carnival forming outside her cell. She is the image that must bear the look all the way to the stake. Unlike Nana, who acquiesces, at least Jeanne refuses to give the de- manded smile.

Works Cited:
Chion, Michel. The Voice in Cinema. Translated by Claudia Gorbman, Columbia University Press, 1999.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, edited by Sue Thornham, New York University Press, 1999. pp. 58-69.

 

The Author

Caroline Rumley holds an M.F.A. in Theatrical Design from UT Austin and is currently studying Film in the graduate program at Georgia State University. A multimodal storyteller, she is interested in the visual narrative in its many forms, especially in what Malcolm Gladwell calls a “thin-sliced” instance, that brief flash that tells you all you need to know. Her creative work includes both moving and still images and can next be viewed at the upcoming Puppy Love show at the Hathaway Contemporary in Atlanta.

I was instantly gripped and fascinated by Give Me a Smile. Caroline Rumley makes it clear in various of her statements as artist and researcher that she is interested in the potentiality of short form or ‘thin-sliced’ audiovisual pieces – works of short duration that do something quickly, that pack a punch, that allow a sudden experience of illumination. This video is perhaps too elaborate to be compared to haiku poetry, but that is the comparison which first came to my mind. And I also thought of the gag form – which I do not mean as any criticism, since gags/jokes are also surely among the greatest of all thin-sliced forms in life and culture.

And Give Me a Smile is, in this elevated sense, a very good gag. It gives a type of instant shock to the spectator: to experience the modern, 1960s dialogue from one film (Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie, 1962), between a pimp and a (soon to be) prostitute, atop the intense, costume drama exchange between inquisitor and martyr in Carl Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Rumley is perhaps unaware that Atom Egoyan also reworked, in his own, very different fashion, the postmodern relation between these two films (which Godard first brought together) in his short piece Artaud Double Bill (2007), an episode of the anthology film To Each His Own Cinema. A Theatre/Cinema of Cruelty, indeed!

What is the illumination that Give Me a Smile affords? The clear but impactful juxtaposition between the sublime drama of Joan and the sordid exchange of Nana and her prospective pimp suddenly makes us view Joan/Falconetti as another kind of ‘showgirl’ within the whole history of cinematic representations; and her inquisitor suddenly appears a bit sleazy. Conversely (and as Godard himself surely intended back in 1962), something of a sublime aura shines, by association, on the tawdry story-world of Nana’s decline-and-fall in Vivre sa vie. The moment one pushes this comparative, thematic analysis too far, it begins to crumble; but the immediate effect of Rumley’s sound-on-image experiment works.

If I were, myself, to make the case for this audiovisual piece, it would be more along the lines of the famous Situationist practice of dubbing a pre-existing film as a provocative socio-cultural act of détournement, ‘diverting’ or repurposing a film: except that, where René Vienet (or indeed, Woody Allen) dubbed an entire film with their own, new soundtrack, this work performs the not-simple trick of matching a passage of dialogue from one film with the images (and even certain lip movements) of the other – thanks to intricate work with the speed of the image, repetition of the digital frames, isolation of small gestures, and so on. I admired the skill and wit of this, and found that the point expressed itself well and clearly, without the need for heavy citations and justifications. However, such is the onerous exegetical pressure that the academy too often lays upon the shoulders of creators today.

Multiple layers demand multiple viewings of this convoluted but rewarding piece. The first viewing, prior to reading the supporting text, is disorienting. The visuals are so familiar but the soundtrack is unusual, albeit synchronized due to editing sleight of hand. The mash-up of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc certainly grates on first viewing; it seems disrespectful and vandalistic. The associative link with Vivre sa vie conjured up in any cinephile’s febrile mind makes one suspect that the French dialogue has that film as its provenance; but where is the anchoring gaze of Anna Karina to make sense of all this?  Give Me A Smile is aggravating and confusing – and thus demands several viewings.

 

On a second viewing the imagery acquires a new stability as the reconstituted dialogue separates itself from the silent Jeanne d’Arc and flips the common hierarchy of the visual over the aural. Now the voices direct the flow of the images; yet still we lack confirmation of direction that might be provided by Nana’s gaze. The supporting text clarifies the meaning, intent and affect of the work in a way that would be impossible from simply viewing it, never mind how many times. We find confirmation - the dialogue is indeed from Vivre sa vie. And a confession - La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc has indeed been vandalized, ‘recut to … better fit the sounds into the various mouths’. The films are thus dissected before being fused, but not without a struggle involving dissonance and incongruity. Unsurprisingly, the author looks to Mulvey to make sense of this mix and match and elaborates a subtle interaction of projections between characters in each film and between characters from both. The newly formed matrix of meaning begins to cohere in another viewing as both films are cut up, blended and displayed anew.

 

The exchange of meanings in Give Me A Smile operates between layers and extends beyond the frame, resonating in our understanding of the male gaze, Hollywood films, Godard, Karina, Dreyer, Jeanne d’Arc and Nana. But does this forced fusion of Jeanne and Nana offer anything further than what Godard intended in the long take of Karina watching Jeanne, which is so notable by its absence here? On final viewing, its vandalism seems righteous and defensive. Whereas Godard conjoined these suffering twins, Jeanne and Nana are herein ultimately ripped apart, divided by their respective resistance and passivity, as this mutual repulsion prompts us back to the start in order to rewatch the film and rejoin them.

 

This is a very frustrating film and is all the better for it. Initially puzzling and offputting, it upends any complacency and demands multiple viewings. Peeling away its layers is a delicate task but rips and tears are all part of the challenge and thus the brusque re-editing of the audio-visual text and texture is ultimately redeemed by the creator’s intent.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking, it offers new ways of seeing Vivre sa vie, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and, indeed, itself over multiple viewings.