Arts & Culture

Cinematic reverberations

5 min read

The shot that was fired throughout the history of film

The writing of culture watcher and critic Louis Menand — Harvard’s Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English — has cast a wide net over the years.

His literary journalism includes probing looks at text messaging, Larry Flynt, William James, the Village Voice, and — very recently, in the New Yorker magazine — Donald Barthelme.

Among Menand’s books is a 1987 intellectual history of T.S. Eliot that is now regarded as a classic exploration of modernism. His 2001 “The Metaphysical Club: The Story of Ideas in America” won the Pulitzer Prize for history.

Trained in literature, but drawn to history, Menand is a student of context. So it’s not surprising that film is part of what he says is worth studying. (In his Harvard English course “The Road to Postmodernism” Menand included a screening of “Star Wars.”)

It’s not surprising either that Menand chose film to light up a few corridors of 20th century history in a recent (April 2) master class sponsored by the Humanities Center at Harvard.

In “A Man Is Shot: The Content of a Cinematic Technique,” Menand used just a few moments in famous films as illuminating metaphors for years of 20th century film history. Menand employed snippets of “Breathless” (1960), “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), and other films to explore how American movies were transformed in the 1960s, and what French film had to do with the transformation.

Master classes are lecturelike talks in which experts perform close readings of a text, an artwork, or some other cultural artifact.

Past master classes have interpreted a poem, “Vacillation,” by William Butler Yeats; a novel, Thomas Bernhard’s “The Loser”; and a painting, Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.”

Meaning can’t be divined just from intense examination, said Menand. It is also governed by knowledge of many things beyond the work itself.

The first “text” of his master class (which drew more than 100 listeners) “was the very shortest I could think of,” he said.

It was a few seconds of film from Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” which for its first 20 minutes is a kind of slapstick gangster romp. Then Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) shoots a bank teller in the eye through one lens of his glasses.

This “shot of a man being shot” not only instantly changes the tenor of the film, said Menand, it calls up “an allusion to one of the most famous images in movie history.”

He showed that clip too: a woman being shot in the face, in the eye, through glasses, in the Odessa Steps sequence in “The Battleship Potemkin.” The incident takes place in the 1925 silent propaganda film, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, in a scene of a civilian massacre by Tsarist troops.

In both films, the shot of being shot are full “of shock and horror, of suddenness,” said Menand. But both images call up a truth of close readings, he said — that “representations are shaped by large numbers of unrelated and overlapping conditions.”

To unpack or interpret those conditions is like a game of pick-up sticks, said Menand. In the case of the cinematic image filmed in 1925 and echoed in 1967, picking up one stick or another — choosing a historical thread — can begin anywhere, he said.

After all, “the past is just a massively interconnected and dialectically configured whole,” said Menand. “More than one story is possible.”

For context, he told a story: 2,212 Hollywood movies were made between 1939 and 1944. (In the same period, said Menand, 220 French films were made.)

These American films built up like a cultural tidal wave and, after the war, washed over France. Jean-Luc Godard and other directors were deeply influenced, and over time responded with layers of homage.

In Godard’s “Breathless,” a thug played by Jean-Paul Belmondo indulges in his own comic allusions to American tough guys like the chain-smoking Humphrey Bogart.

He appears toward the end in a pair of sunglasses with one lens missing. Spin forward to Clyde Barrow, who is doing the same before getting (with his partner Bonnie) so famously and thoroughly shot. And spin back to the woman in Eisenstein’s silent.

Belmondo’s character also gets shot in the film’s last scene — a drawn out, back-clutching lope down a Paris street, followed by a jittery camera.

Menand added another layer here — a clip from “Man of the West,” a 1958 Gary Cooper Western that Godard reviewed, and loved. A man is shot — and staggers off down a road, followed by a camera. It’s a scene echoed two years later in “Breathless.”

Godard’s film referenced “dozens of other movies and novels,” said Menand, and was a repository for images from the “French love affair with American culture.”

“Breathless” also tapped the American notion of “the crime couple.” Belmondo’s thug was matched with an American girlfriend, played by Jean Seberg.

Menand’s master class — of course — included the last scene from “Bonnie and Clyde,” in which the crime couple is shot down in a hail of bullets. This drawn-out, dancelike scene — filmed by four different cameras, and with real-time sound — “remains the formula for movie violence today,” said Menand.

It was explicit violence, and the camera lingered on the bodies. The scene was in contravention of what until then were American film standards in place for decades.

Menand quoted Penn, who said after the film’s release, “The code is dead.”