Godard In Perspective
by Jim Steinman '69
Jean Luc-Godard has an incredibly devoted cult going for him, and I think that may be a dangerous thing … watching some of his films during last week's Godard festival, I felt that he often plays up to the self-consciously "cool" responses he knows his audience will have to his often smotheringly self-consciously "cool" films, often devoid of anything really affecting in terms of ideas, poetry, feeling, or involvement. They do have a rhythm, but too often lack the music.
For me, there is no value in a work of art that burns with neither the poetry of human passion or intellectual commitment. Last week, Godard's films for much of the time failed completely to even reach body temperature. It is frustrating since he is obviously capable every now and then of fascinating images as well as the slightly more prevalent artificial poses.
The first film, "Tin Petit Soldat" was a fairly effective early work that revealed Godard's unique style in the process of developing. Its main character, a French secret agent suspected of being a double agent and ordered to kill someone to prove his loyalty and courage, was a sort of satirical Mastroianni-Mersault figure. He had the alienation of the archetype French rebel, but lacked the depth or conviction and thus became a figure of comedy, an anti-anti-hero, unable to act, but constantly spouting pompous, flowery truths about the nature of existence. Finally, at the end, he merely continues — love without emotion, politics without commitment or heretics, life without breath, death without darkness or tragedy. Grey days are here again captured, sometimes striking in Godard's nervous black humor. The film had a nice clear edge to it, a horror as modern, impersonal and sanitary as a plastic Playtex glove. But, in the end, this was a shrug-of-the-shoulder film. So what? An evocative mood that offers promises of more …
Godard collaborated with many others on "Far From Vietnam," an ingenious, passionate outcry against the war that was ingenious and sincere, but since it is impossible to know how much important Godard contributed to it, I won't speak about it much here, suffice to say that it was the best propaganda film I've seen recently, which isn't saying much, and it needed the cinematic equivalent of a Brecht or Mailer to really pull it off.
And, speaking of Brecht, the next Godard, "Les Carabiniers," was a cinematic work analogous to a Brecht play, a direct, sparse, tightly constructed, unsentimental, yet extremely compassionate anti-war burlesque comedy.
It was a little tale of "Everyman" destroyed by the deceptively tempting seduction of war. It was a simple and involving metaphorical "lesson." If it lacked by a great deal the extra dimension of deep tragedy and blazing corrosive wit that Brecht brings to his tales, it did have a nice, sadly lilting visual rhythm and even "borrowed" some of Brecht's vaudeville methods, if half-heartedly. "Carabiniers" was a good, solid movie, but nothing to warrant any sort of cult-adulation.
Finally to Friday's "La Chinoise," which drew the largest audience, was Godard's most recent work shown, and hailed by many as his best. I found it a dismal film, trite, empty, supercilious, dishonest, and self-indulgent, a self-important bit of bloated fatuousness and flippancy. And those were its good points. The rest was disastrously boring.
Most of the film took place in a Communist students' cell in France. It consisted mostly of monologues, interviews by an off-camera voice, conferences, and dialogues among the students, mostly on the nature of their amount of recitations from various "important" books of political theory.
I think it is easiest to deal with the film on three major levels, and for me it failed totally in all of these. First, as to its content: it set up a fairly one-dimensional simplistic, and naive "ironic-sardonic" tension between those somewhat pathetic, fragile, drifting students and the endless streams of hard-line, rock-heavy political doctrine which they constantly sprout and argue over; in effect, the suffocating ritual rhythms of "heroic" dogma that obscure their whitewashed, gradually flaking, diluted lives.
Now there is certainly a valid counterpoint here that has been used for effective satire before … the political life of words and theories clashing with the personal life of feeling and the need or lack of it. However, here it was handled with little depth, visual poetry, genuine wit, or any trace of real sympathy or strong feeling of any kind for these kids. (I felt that one of the lines in the Beatles' "Revolution" captured almost all of the essence of this film and much more pungently: "And if you've been carrying signs of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow…")
And Godard, who professes and seems to have genuine concern over the atrocity of Vietnam, promised a while ago to include a "Vietnam" section in every film of his. In "La Chinoise" he includes some mildly amusing sequences, but in what tone are they offered? The audience is not supposed to take the other political concerns of the students very seriously, so why take this one as so? Somehow, Godard cheapens his own passion about Vietnam by including it as another "cool" bit … Also, La "Chinoise" makes the audience feel smugly superior to the film's characters, comfortably lets the viewer condescend to the "poor confused" political-puppets. But Godard has manipulated this response by refusing to give the kids any life of their own. He has refused to confront their real essence, their real "mystery-meat" preferring to dwell on their signs, symbols, gestures, slogans, and glances.
On the level of form, the film repeated many old Godard tricks, which seemed mainly gratuitous and clumsy here. And all the supposed visual invention of "Chinoise" has been common in commercials for years. Here it served even less purpose : it sold nothing.
Finally the last level: the fascinating, mysterious region between camera and reality. In effect, what is real? Cinematic lives confronting private lives… The dialogue seems improvised. Are these actors or real students? Or are they perhaps real actors, who, while the camera stares at them, gradually become for those moments — real students, simply because they look and talk-like real students? But, anyway, who cares? The master of this technique is Andy Warhol. In his complex, desperately moral, and poetically passionate films, grotesque perverse lonely tortured people wander the screen driven wild and mad by the relentless fulfillment of their own fantasies …but we have to wonder: are these people real, are their perversions real? It certainly seems so, in which case we are confronting an amazing dark terrifying world close up with nothing to hide behind … But, on the other hand, could these people have created themselves for the camera, or perhaps — could the camera (Warhol) have created them for itself — himself? The relentless stare of the lens seem to force Warhol's characters into a panicked corner where their darkest dreams and most bizarre "roles" congeal into diseased, seemingly permanent reality. By recording and exposing, the camera seems to transform monentary fantasy into eternal horror. And yet there is something noble, poetic, defiant about Warhol's characters' "striptease" before the lens … something amazingly dignified and human. In contrast, no real life style is exposed with any conviction in "La Chinoise." Unlike Warhol's freaks, any actor or reasonably intelligent kid could "be" or "act" one of "Chinoise's" students, and so the fascinating multi-dimensional mingling of real and non-real loses effect. Where Warhol's boredom turns subtly to poetry, Godard's sticks stupidly to boredom. We don't care if it's a fictional film or documentary, if they're actors or students, the effect is still the same: hollow. And finally, I'm beginning to wonder why I still care about Godard; unfortunately, he does so little to care about.
Source: Amherst Student archives