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Review: Band of Outsiders (1964)

Whim and caprice dominated the ‘60s. It was a period of slow convalescence from the aftermath of the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the Great Depression; a period of unrest and revolt, resulted from a protracted hopelessness the people had felt towards the grim prospect of the immediate future, and a just indignation of their unrelieved squalor. It was also a period that saw a light to the problem of an identity crisis that seized the lost and the dispossessed, as the collective repugnance for tyranny and enforced servility necessitated a call for self-liberation. The naiveté of going against the conventional, as this self-liberation invariably took form, culminated in a radical iconoclasm that favoured a constitution of individuality that obstinately resisted any outward influence. The Theatre of the Absurd was, in a sense, a riposte to this pervasive “counterculture” that sought to disentangle from the past through an arbitrary myth-making. Often in a mock-parodic manner the movement took aim at the absurdity of the cultural phenomenon by acting out this absurdity, attempting to extract meaning from the meaningless, aestheticising the trite and the mundane.

This trend of reinventing selves was, at bottom, merely a reaffirmation of the nature of human identity. According to Heidegger, a being is thrown into existence by the external force with which it comes into contact. This understanding negates the view that a person’s identity is essentially an organic actuality that thrusts its presence consistently on its surrounding. Modern theatre tends more to Heidegger’s conception of a mobile identity, whose manifestation consists of a series of states of being that are variable and precarious. In a strict sense no character can achieve full authenticity as the identity, whose embodiment hinges on the narrative in which it plays a part, is never tied down to one defining aspect. Imitation is a key element whose means those characters, their lack of a fixed personality renders them almost characterless, resort to in adapting themselves to the world. 

This acknowledgement of selfhood as fundamentally subservient to the dictates of nature is a reverse take on Jean Luc-Godard’s films, whose emphases on the primacy of self-autonomy makes a strong claim for humanity as unfettered by the shackles of social protocols. The characters often behave oddly, unbosom their thoughts and feelings freely to the point where their speech makes little sense. With caprice as their only guidance their stories rarely resolved without a tragedy or two; they epitomise a hedonism that has no other end or purpose other than exhausting happiness to the point of death. On the surface these films seem to be celebrating the ‘60s’ teen spirits at its most melodramatic and audacious – on occasions, they even serve as a moral parable, a cautionary tale for the coming generations, or would-be emulators. As in Band of Outsiders, the philosophy is a reckless exchange of the prosaic for the criminal, in its perverse way of redeeming a life largely frustrated with its general futility and aimlessness.

The story concerns two errant vagrants, Franz and Arthur (presumably named after Kafka and Rimbaud, both of whom died during their prime), and a girl, Odile, whom they befriend in an English class. They hatch a plan of robbing Odile’s wealthy uncle, a decision that seems to be made on a whim and attached with no importance or purpose until, however, it is forced into operation, much to the astonishment and reluctance of the wide-eyed Odile. 

Shot in an idiosyncratic style that made Godard the founding figure of French New Wave, the film, as judged in its entirety, is as much about the youth culture of the ‘60s, all its absurdity and waywardness, as it is an exploration, and indeed testament, of the refractory nature of our fluid identity. The tendency to behave impulsively and unreasonably, as what induces many of the characters’ outrageous mischiefs, indicates a destitution for social awareness. What characterises this peculiar spirit of ‘60s counterculture is ultimately what makes us humans – in the particular respect where our resources fail us, where our claim for superiority inevitably succumbs to the immense nebulousness of a changing reality, where our dread of the future compels us to an impasse, miserable and dejected.

But the film ends on a positive note. Though death eventually puts an end to the youngsters’ roguery, the two survivors, now at large, look on with joy their new chapter in a foreign country (Brazil) and realise that, amidst the turmoil of life as outsiders, love is the only thing that tides them over the hardship. The message calls for a “looking ahead,” rather than a “looking back” or “relishing the present.” This recalls a particular couplet from Arthur Rimbaud’s “Youth”: “As for the world, when you emerge, what will it have become? / In any case, nothing of what it seems at present.” 


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