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Coy Power: Anna Karina's Odile suckers them in.

A Crime Foretold

With 'Band of Outsiders' and 'Bandits,' what's old is still old

By Richard von Busack

EVER SINCE EDWIN Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), the easiest way to make a film is to put together a girl, a gun and a bag of money. These three symbols reflect the filmmaker's quest: a camera for gun, a star for the girl, loot for box office receipts.

The release of Barry Levinson's Bandits, a decayed Hollywood exercise, is simultaneous with the rerelease of Band of Outsiders, a bare-boned 1964 piece by Jean-Luc Godard; both share this same primordial movie subject. Maybe the plainness of the plot explains the coincidences. And the coincidences are startling: in both the robbers are on their way to one big score, in a pair of tales that are sometimes comic, sometimes serious.

Both movies are two men/one girl love triangles; both are full of old-movie homages: for Bandits, It Happened One Night and The Birds, for Band of Outsiders countless film noirs. Both finish with a climactic shootout with a deliberately silly amount of bullets. They're both loose films diverted with what Godard calls "parentheses"--little discursions and jokes that oppose the engraved-in-stone screenwriter's rule that every word in the film ought to shape the story.

Band of Outsiders is a movie more heard-of than seen. Quentin Tarantino's "Band Apart" production company puns on its title (in French, Bande á part). It's common knowledge that the scene in Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman takes a twirl around a pool table is a salute to the strange little anti-dance Band of Outsider's heroes do in the middle of the film.

Despite reputation and influence, Band of Outsiders has never been a popular film. Pauline Kael noted in her book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, "Jean-Luc Godard intended to give the public what it wanted . . . 'A sure-fire story that 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."

Band of Outsiders opened and closed in one week in New York in 1966, two years after it was made. It's such a frisky film that it loses track of its central burglary--a scheme improvised by a pair of amateurs, and inspired by the girl, Odile (Anna Karina), who they keep teasing and "playing" (in pimp parlance). Arthur (short, ferrety Claude Brasseur) is the more dangerous of the two; Franz (Sami Frey), the dude with a slightly literary turn of mind. He's already imagined the adventure in terms of a book, seeing Odile as a romantic heroine instead of a slightly tatty, slightly dumb maid. Karina, like Nicolas Cage, is so sad-eyed she's funny.

Band of Outsiders was shot on the cheap in the ratty, ordinary parts of Paris, during some raw winter month--of course it all looks as stylish and ancient as Cartier-Bresson photos today. Between the night cafes and the street scenes, the chill and the romance, this film is as cool as cool can get before cool gets annoying.

In the film, Odile recites a quote from T.S. Eliot: "All that is new is by that fact automatically traditional." Band of Outsiders helped to create the by-now traditional funny-criminal movie. The new film Bandits is trying for similar looseness. Compared to the fast-cut, flashy work of younger directors, its lassitude almost seems like style; and if you adored Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton wholeheartedly, the film almost might be watchable. The bank robbers (Thornton and Willis) are called "The Sleepover Bandits" for their habit of invading homes of bank managers and spending the night. They're national celebs and media darlings; everybody loves to see them. This very disposable film has the advantage of the beautiful Cate Blanchett. The studies of Blanchett's face, along with the views of the Pacific Coast and Oregon, are tributes to photographer Dante Spinotti's craft. Blanchett has to drift on her looks and her poise, since her character--a housewife on the run--is sometimes murderously coy.

Satiety and self-satisfaction rule Bandits; there's never anything at stake. By contrast, Band of Outsiders always lets us know about hunger and compassion. The heart of Godard's film is a night scene, in which Franz and Odile ride the Metro ("they descended into the center of the earth," says the narrator). Odile, wondering over the sadness of the people on subways at night, turns it into a poem, a song about her feeling of communion with them ("We're fingers on the same burned hand"). Bandits, an insider's film, divides the world into slickers and suckers, cool criminals and dumb victims. People are always exactly what they appear to be on first sight. The ferment bubbling away in Band of Outsiders has, by today, settled into Hollywood sludge. The elder film helped break things open. The newer really tries to shut things down.


Band of Outsiders (Unrated; 95 min.), directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard and starring Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.
Bandits (PG-13; 123 min.), directed by Barry Levinson, written by Harley Peyton and starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett, is now playing at selected theaters.

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From the October 18-24, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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