Monday, June 23, 2008
Le gai savoir
Le gai savoir falls at an absolutely critical position in the oeuvre of Jean-Luc Godard, as the final film he made before embarking on his radical experiment in communal, revolutionary filmmaking with the Dziga Vertov Group. The film is Godard's attempt to "return to zero" at the end of the 60s, an attempt to both erase and rethink the 17 features he'd made during the previous decade. Godard said at several points in his career that he felt like he was making his "first film" over again, and it's clear that after the radical deconstruction of cinema down to its constituent elements in Le gai savoir, whatever he made after this would have to be a "first," starting from scratch after this minimalist manifesto clears the ground. The film consists entirely of a series of dialogues and conversations between Emile (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Patricia (Juliet Berto), two young revolutionaries who meet on an empty soundstage every night in order to discuss the nature of sound, images, words, and the multiple relationships possible between them.
Godard's basic tactic in approaching these broad, weighty, and yet entirely basic questions is to experiment as freely as possible with as many different techniques and ideas as he can splatter across the screen. This is his messiest and most confounding pre-70s feature, deliberately grating and challenging in its overlapping sounds, with narrative and character stripped completely away in favor of a freewheeling investigation of the component parts of cinematic representation. Godard had, of course, been working steadily towards this investigation of sound/image relationships throughout the 60s, and not one of his films, even from his very first, had failed to undermine in one way or another the supposed "fundamentals" of cinematic language. But nowhere prior to this had the director so rigorously and intently broken down film, or approached it from so many angles. In one scene, the images cut rapidly between opposing closeup profiles of Emile and Patricia, suggesting the editing rhythms of a dialogue, two people facing each other and speaking to one another. Indeed, the soundtrack also contains a dialogue between the pair, but the images of the actors onscreen are not actually speaking or even moving, and moreover the images don't correspond at all to who's speaking at any particular moment. In subtle ways like this, Godard suggests the ways in which, even when image and sound appear to be working in concert towards representing the same thing, they may in fact be detached or distanced from one another.
In other places, image and sound are truly independent. There are images, the two radicals explain, for which no sound exists, and sounds for which there are no images. In both cases, government censorship and repression are usually responsible for the missing pieces, and the film represents these examples of incomplete reality by presenting silent still photos or black screens accompanied by tape recordings of protest rallies. In another memorable sequence, Godard turns the idea of the onscreen interview on its head with a set of bizarre games. In the first, Emile and Patricia provide words for a child to free associate off of, though it's by no means clear from the presentation whether the child is actually hearing them speak, being prompted by someone else, or simply speaking randomly. There's a profound disconnect in the cinematic spaces inhabited by the two sets of people, who are supposedly conversing with each other. The child sits in a brightly lit room against a colorful background, while the two interviewers are in the shadowy blackness of the empty studio, which provides an entirely featureless backdrop for most of the film. This disconnection in images calls into question the soundtrack, creating a scene that can be read multiple ways depending on how the individual viewer decides to interpret the communication or lack of communication flowing between these two entirely separate cinematic spaces. This effect becomes even more pronounced in a sequence where the duo interviews a grizzled old man. This time, not only do Emile and Patricia ask him questions and give him words to free associate on, but Godard himself joins in on the act, speaking in his whispery growl from a tape recorder which also plays a distracting soundtrack of synthesizer beeps and mechanical grinding. Godard's voice, never associated with any onscreen presence in the film (except, very briefly, in a still photo of the director), is even more distanced from the usual relationship of interviewer to interviewee. This distance grows even greater when, at one point, the tape is wound back, so that the old man hears both Godard's question repeated, and his own answer as well he seems not to recognize his own voice, suggesting the inevitable disconnection from reality that occurs in the mechanical processes of capturing sound and images.
The difficulty of capturing the quality of a sound is emphasized in a scene where Emile and Patricia discuss an incident that happened among their friends, when one made a half-joking comment and the other responded with an enthusiastic, "Oh, yes!" They try, in vain, to recapture the specific quality of this exclamation, which obviously conveyed something to them in the moment that cannot be either explained or reproduced (least of all by mechanical means like a tape recorder, had they had one handy when it was first said). This gets at the way that the mere meaning of words, even mundane syllables, do not contain the full possibilities of communication. The nuances of expression, context, phrasing, the voice of the speaker, and a thousand other variables coincide to produce the unique qualities of every utterance. It is this multiplicity of language and communication that Godard is getting at in the very form of his film, which veers through every possible permutation of cinematic expression without ever settling into one for very long. There is realist cinema, in which the sound and image coincide in ways roughly corresponding to reality, at least to the extent that when someone is moving their mouth onscreen, words are coming out on the soundtrack. But several times even this seeming realism is undermined, as in the scene where Patricia mouths the words onscreen while Emile speaks them on the soundtrack. Is this realist?
More typically Godardian is the use of collage, both aural and visual. The soundtrack is a confusion of noise, music, and speech, piling up fragments of protest speeches, the voiceovers of Godard, Berto, and Léaud, and snippets of television broadcasts. Similarly, the visuals switch between the darkened minimalist studio set and a polyphony of still photos, candid street scenes, and collaged magazine images and cartoons, often with Godard's slogans and enigmatic fragments of phrases scrawled over the image in pen. In one of the film's funnier images, a magazine photo of a naked model is accompanied by two labels: "Freud" with an arrow pointing to her head, and "Marx" with an arrow pointing between her legs. While the former is concerned with understanding the mind, the latter is busy worrying about the body; the labels invert the popular understanding of Freudianism but make intuitive humorous sense anyway. The same can be said for the scene where Patricia, dressed in a ludicrous purple dress that looks like it came straight from a period film set, reads mangled nonsense language from a book of poetry against a white backdrop painted with images of comic book characters, while Emile reads over her with a more coherent text. This scene is collage in motion, in sound, and even in ideas, creating juxtapositions between time periods (historical versus modern), between forms of art (pop versus classical), and in language (meaning versus incoherence).
These kinds of dialectics are, as anyone familiar with Godard's work knows, his essential tactic of discussion. He loves to encompass both sides of a contradiction within the same framework. In this way, the image of the magazine nude, torn between mind and body, is indicative of a larger structural theme within Le gai savoir: the split between theory (represented by Berto) and action (Léaud). Early on, the duo agrees to divide their study of image/sound relationships into three phases, each lasting a year, and though the film is not quite as rigorous as you'd expect in following through on this separation, it does provide a framework for discussion throughout. The first phase is one of complete uncritical study, in which they will simply watch and listen, collecting sounds and images and examining them, both in isolation and in concert. Only in the second phase can they begin to critique their collected sounds and images, as well as conducting an auto-critique of their own ideas and responses to these stimuli. And the third phase, naturally enough, begins the action stage, in which they will, having been informed by theory, put their ideas into practice and produce their own images and sounds.
Of course, this is just the duo's theory, and it's one of Godard's most subtle jokes that he quickly reveals all this talk of separating theory and action as, itself, still just theoretical. Godard's own view of the relationship between the two is infinitely more complex, and this film represents both the elucidation of his theories and the proof of his action. For Godard, as he says in voiceover, correcting his actors' misconceptions, form and content, like theory and action, are not stages in a process but parts of a circle, continually informing and devouring one another in an eternal process. There is no film that demonstrates this better than Le gai savoir, in which the form and the content are nearly identical. After all, what would the film's discussions of image/sound relationships and the language of bourgeoisie versus radical cinema be without Godard's restless visual and aural imagination to illustrate them? In this way, the film's clarion call of "returning to zero" is misleading, despite the blank black backgrounds and minimalist characters that populate this void. Godard's idea of a "return to zero" is in actuality not empty, but densely populated, full of possibilities; full of all possibilities, in fact. In creating a new idea of cinema from scratch here, Godard is not so much erasing the cinema of the past as erasing the limitations of that cinema, restoring the openness of thought and imagination that can see a cinema without arbitrary boundaries on "acceptable" images and "acceptable" ways of using sound or "acceptable" ways of combining them.