Godard's Band of Outsiders Is No Longer Pop, but NSYNC Sure Are
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Although Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 Band of Outsiders is back, it is no longer pop. It's being shown at Film Forum starting Friday as a classic, reviving an era worth remembering, a cultural philosophy worth knowing. NSYNC, however, are pop. And their new music video, simply and epically titled Pop, directed by Wayne Isham, speaks to audiences the way Godard did back in '64. These are not necessarily works of equivalent artistic value but their coincidental appearance in the marketplace illustrates how much things have changed since the term "pop" entered the lexicon describing the world's serious acquiescence to popular culture. That was the new theme Godard braved in the 60s, and pop is now an accurate measure of the way the cultural world works?from how youth audiences perceive that world to how politics presents itself.
Godard aimed Band of Outsiders' imaginative retelling of American crime fiction at an audience he idealized as educated and curious?yet one critic noted that when Band of Outsiders eventually appeared in the U.S., it "opened and closed in New York in a single week in 1966." Isham targets the legions of NSYNC's mostly young and impressionable fans?they purchased nearly two million copies of the group's newest album, Celebrity, during its first week of sales. You could say that 60s youth were too busy living pop to engage Godard's intellectualizing about it, while today's youth have become connoisseurs of the notion. Both works are signposts?decidedly of their times?marking how the phenomenon of popular culture is understood relatively. Godard shows three Parisian student-types, Arthur (Claude Brasseur), Franz (Sami Frey) and Odile (Anna Karina), attempting to enact the romanticism of American B-movies, while Isham uses NSYNC (walking-talking logos) to visualize media sophistication, the subconscious life of teens who grew up watching television?especially commercials?and feel that it expresses something they recognize or something they fantasize attaining (the residual effect of advertising). No longer outsiders, today's in-the-loop youth are pop-savvy.
In Godard's English-class scene his trio convenes to translate Shakespeare?an inspired routine combining Western hegemony with proverbial student caprice (passing notes, daydreaming, flirting). It's less well known than the scene where they dance the Madison in a bar?an icon critics always preferred for the performers' cool, synchronized steps and Karina's poignant reverie. But Godard wasn't merely being charming; Band of Outsiders also mused on alienation, expressed through his trio's intense?almost private?response to culture. Though set apart from the world in this youth-cult way, real life?newly photographed by Raoul Coutard?and their own conflicting emotions caught up with them. (Franz reads a shocking, now 37-year-old news report on "Unimaginable massacres in East Africa. Hutus have sawn off the legs of giant Tutsi, their former masters, to bring them down to size. Rwanda's rivers are choked with the bodies of 20,000 victims.")
Pop similarly conveys the excitement of the pop mindstate. Starting with the most difficult, appealing thing?pop music?it describes contemporary youth culture's commercialized daydream. The approach is so brazen?so clear-sighted?that Isham approximates Godard's radicalism. I never subscribed to the familiar axiom claiming "rock 'n' roll" was about rebellion. That all-purpose, vague label described a pseudo-rebellious, thoroughly co-opted attitude that has only proved to sanction smugness. I prefer to think of great pop music as always being something that confounds the know-it-alls, and so we have Isham and NSYNC's very telling Pop (even Band of Outsiders' timely insight, it should be noted, was only appreciated later). Pop may not be "Be My Baby," but it does something unusual by communicating to a media-indoctrinated audience that can cheer?and hopefully contemplate?the song's celebration of fads, energy and newness.
That generation's been flooded with media?from tv, fashion, dance styles, comics, digital-video games and of course music video. It's no longer a new language, it's the dominant language. Perhaps it cannot be subverted (Band of Outsiders trenchantly proves Godard knew that; he more than shares his trio's pop-intoxication) but Isham's style?hyperbolic movement, irresistible color, overwhelming music?at least makes us pay attention. One's only defense against media domination is to analyze the images and ideas?the fun?it offers. This was unlikely with an inveigling fiction like McG's Charlie's Angels, where you're not meant to ascertain the mercenary degradation happening before your eyes. Pop takes pop recognition back near to Godard's era. Isham's blown-up, facile imagery recalls Roy Lichtenstein's unsuspecting attempt to please his children by emulating their favorite comics and pop imagery in his own work, an effort that brought pop into the realm of serious artistic appreciation. Pop's large-scale, kid-friendly imagery is already deconstructed; as with a Lichtenstein cartoon panel or a Godard film, you only need to watch it to realize the state of the art.
The opening exterior is lit like The Truman Show, but there's something truer and more moving about Isham zooming in on suburban artifice?it more exactly resembles the neighborhood approach at the beginning of Michael Jackson's Black or White video. (Jackson's musical style is also the song's template.) Next, a young girl watches a tv ad, NSYNC's Justin Timberlake cannily hawking Celebrity's sale date, as she projects imagination?her desire?into the box. She (and we) enter its signal and Isham whips the viewer through the various commercial fetishes. NSYNC are seen performing on what looks like a tv set?a cyc dominated by huge 3-D letters spelling POP and crisscrossed with ramps. It updates a rock 'n' roll dance show like the old American Bandstand or Soul Train. Throngs of jumping young folks are all dressed fresh. They're alluring in ways that are familiar yet almost ineffable. It has that ad quality of taking the bloom of youth and making it unnaturally enviable?that is, enviable even by those who are in the bloom of youth.
NSYNC's song both serenades and justifies the shopaholic generation. (A key montage shows them relentlessly changing outfits while dancing.) The group itself?five average boys plucked out of obscurity and thrust into the limelight of million-dollar makeovers?sport new hair styles, new walks, that prove pop's wonderment. The transformation they sing about ("What's the deal with this pop life and when is it gonna fade out?") is not far from the dilemma that Band of Outsiders' characters romantically circle around, trying to understand their times. Almost a dialectic, Pop asks and answers youth's possible malaise: "Do you ever wonder why/This music gets you high/It takes you on a ride/Feel it when your body starts to rock/?This must be/Pop!" It's the conventional ruse of capitalist entertainment: raising the question of unhappiness then suggesting that the solution to unhappiness is entertainment. Godard knew that more people believed in this commercial formula than could ever admit it?that's what made Band of Outsiders seem so strange and groundbreaking. Since then that circuitous yellow brick road has been repaved with gold. (It's been estimated that today's youth market has an annual disposable income of $60 billion.)
I have a new alliteration to follow Marshall McLuhan's "The Medium is the Message." Let's try "The Commercial is the Content." Pop is a commercial good enough to respect its audience's intelligence, showing some of Godard's intellectual faith. The self-conscious lyrics ("All that matters is that you recognize that it's just about respect... And the music is all you've got/This must be Pop!") combine cliches of hiphop defensiveness and 60s self-righteousness. Even the "dirty pop" line queers the most squeaky, digitally clean video ever made. It's edited hyperfast like Isham's Bye Bye Bye video (and Band of Outsiders' rapid-fire opening portraits). It's got to be too fast in order to work as sleight-of-hand, fooling the young by eliding nuance, obliterating deductive reasoning. But that's only if you look at Pop literally or snobbishly dismiss it. Then, it's like Charlie's Angels?nothing more than a glorification of technology and the costly institutions it serves. When Timberlake says "I'm tired of singing" and unearths old school hiphop's human beatbox tradition, the assertion of human effort suggests a masterwork?if that's the right word for what Isham does. This final triumphant sequence mixes Timberlake's human beatbox performance with pixeled forms of the group members floating in the background?a head-spinning, digital update of Lichtenstein's comic-book style. It's deliberately self-conscious in ways that are hard to deny, hard not to admire. This must be pop.
Only Made in U.S.A. is a more obscure 60s Godard movie than Band of Outsiders. I've taken this comparative approach because Godard's film?experimental even for its time?might be even riskier today though moviegoers ought to be predisposed toward its conceit. (Frankly, I don't know what Apocalypse Now Redux offers this era but Band of Outsiders rewards your attention if you understand its issues.) Quentin Tarantino, who named his production company A Band Apart after the film's French title (Band a part), may well have gotten the idea of Pulp Fiction from Pauline Kael's essay on Band of Outsiders, completely misunderstanding her fascination with Godard's tale as a harbinger of a new age in cultural appreciation. And at the other end of the spectrum, even Hal Hartley has misinterpreted?and flattened?Godard's poetic exegesis of the pop life. NSYNC and Isham come closer to the mark, they at least know how to express the heart-quickening wonder of pop experience, of youth's confidence that the world, in its central economic designs, is addressing just them.
Further connection between Pop and Band of Outsiders is suggested when Odile contemplates stealing money. Godard intercuts her face with the faces on several denominations of francs. This witty transfer of desire into money epitomizes Godard's sense of his non-innocent trio facing death, their whims converted into commodities. Pop shows youth facing a new kind of death?its own incessant, corruptible, marketable vitality.
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