The New-Wave classic ‘Band of Outsiders’ turns 50 By Pauline Kael
In September of 1966, Pauline Kael penned her first film review for The New Republic. Just one year and eighteen reviews later, she left. “The readers there were offended because they were used to Stanley Kauffmann. They thought of me as an impertinent little snip and wrote hostile letters to the magazine, many of which were printed,” Kael grumbled to Francis Davis in Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael. She then decamped to The New Yorker, where she would establish herself as one of the foremost film critics of all time, and one of the first to include the personal voice in her reviews. From New York, she led a memorable career, taking aim at Hollywood directors, sparring with Joan Didion, and mentoring a coterie of young critics—David Denby among them—called the “Paulettes.” In her first piece for The New Republic, Kael reviewed Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders, which was first released in France on August 5, 1964—50 years to this day. (The film would hit American theaters in 1966). Kael describes the significance of the French New Wave to this particular historical moment: “To say it flatly, Godard is the Scott Fitzgerald of the movie world, and movies are for the sixties a synthesis of what the arts were for the post-World-War-I generation—rebellion, romance, a new style of life.”
This piece was originally published on September 10, 1966.
Jean-Luc Godard intended to give the public what it wanted. His next film was going to be about a girl and a gun—”A sure-fire story which will sell a lot of tickets.” And so, like Henry James’ hero in The Next Time he proceeded to make a work of art that sold fewer tickets than ever. What was to be a simple commercial movie about a robbery became Band of Outsiders.
The two heroes of Band of Outsiders begin by play-acting crime and violence movies, then really act them out in their lives. Their girl, wanting to be accepted, tells them there is money in the villa where she lives. And we watch, apprehensive and puzzled, as the three of them act out the robbery they’re committing as if it were something going on in a movie—or a fairy tale. The crime does not fit the daydreamers nor their milieu: We half expect to be told it’s all a joke, that they can’t really be committing an armed robbery. Band of Outsiders is like a reverie of a gangster movie as students in an expresso (sic) bar might remember it or plan it—a mixture of the gangster film virtues (loyalty, daring) with innocence, amorality, lack of equilibrium.
It’s as if a French poet took an ordinary banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines; that is to say, Godard gives it his imagination, recreating the gangsters and the moll with his world of associations—seeing them as people in a Paris cafe, mixing them with Rimbaud, Kafka, Alice in Wonderland. Silly? But we know how alien to our lives were those movies that fed our imaginations and have now become part of us. And don’t we—as children and perhaps even later—romanticize cheap movie stereotypes, endowing them with the attributes of those figures in the other arts who touch us imaginatively? Don’t all our experiences in the arts and popular arts that have more intensity than our ordinary lives, tend to merge in another imaginative world? And movies, because they are such an encompassing, eclectic art, are an ideal medium for combining our experiences and fantasies from life, from all the arts, and from our jumbled memories of both. The men who made the stereotypes drew them from their own scrambled experience of history and art—as Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht drew Scarface from the Capone family “as if they were the Borgias set down in Chicago.”
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