Monday, August 11, 2008
"Sometimes the class struggle is also the struggle of one image against another image, of one sound against another sound. In a film, this struggle is between images and sounds." This voiceover, delivered about twenty minutes into British Sounds, might describe both the dialectical nature of the film itself, and the general aesthetic thesis of director Jean-Luc Godard during his politically radicalized tenure with the filmmaking collective Dziga Vertov Group. This aesthetic is summarized even more succinctly by the film's title card, on which, between the words "British" and "Sounds," the word "Images" is crossed out with an "X" through it. Commissioned for British TV but never broadcast, this was the first film made under the aegis of the Dziga Vertov Group, Godard's brief utopian experiment in revolutionary filmmaking. British Sounds is a fascinating time capsule and indispensable viewing for those interested in Godard's evolving aesthetics. The only thing it's not is a compelling film in its own right.
Of course, it's only fair to note that Godard and his collaborators never intended to make a compelling film. As the above rhetoric about images and sounds implies, at this point Godard saw the two elements of film style as working, not in concert, but at cross-purposes. He had always played with the relationship between sound and image in ways far removed from mainstream norms, subverting their conventional linkages and calling attention, through the disjunction, to the ways in which they might be considered separately. But by the time he made this film, Godard had come to distrust the image altogether, and the result is a strange documentary which documents nothing other than the filmmakers' polemical purpose. The form of British Sounds is relatively simple. It consists primarily of six segments, which are linked only by the structures of the film itself, and which are loosely "documentary" in content if not in form. The main blocks are: a long tracking shot along an auto assembly line; a nude woman walking through a house, stepping in and out of frame in front of a static camera; a right-wing news anchor delivering a hateful speech; a group of workers discussing working conditions and the possibility of socialism; some Maoist students trying to rewrite Beatles songs with more revolutionary lyrics; a bloody hand in the snow reaching for a red flag.
These images are simple in every sense. Each image communicates a single idea or documents a single situation, and the aesthetics with which the film presents each image are minimalist in the extreme. For the assembly line, the camera pans along the line in an agonizingly slow, hesitant left-to-right pan that might be Godard's idea of a deadpan joke on the similarly endless tracking shot from Weekend if you thought watching a traffic jam for ten minutes was dull, check this out; these cars aren't even finished yet, so there's no chance of them moving anywhere. The other shots are equally minimal (though they are not, as is often said, continuous shots: there are many interjections of titles and other materials). The sequence with the nude woman is composed of three shots: a static angle up a stairs, with the woman off-screen more than she's on; a shoulder-level close-up while she's talking on the phone; a static close-up on her hips and pubic hair. The news anchor is of course shot in the conventional talking head pose, while the two group discussions are captured with a shaky hand-held style, the camera swinging around in a way that would normally denote an attempt to focus on each speaker in turn, except that in this case the speakers are most often kept off-screen. The final sequence holds a close-up on a hand for a long time as it clenches into a fist in the snow, then snakes slowly along in search of a flagpole to grasp, at which point the camera zooms out to encompass a broader view of arm and flag together. Each of these shots is purposefully limited in its style and execution to the absolute minimum of what's needed, and the dull quality of the visuals pushes the emphasis onto the soundtrack, which is of course exactly what Godard wanted.
At every point in British Sounds, the prosaic quality of these images is at odds with the fervent, polemical nature of the soundtrack, which is a near-constant exhortation to Marxist revolution. The film's purpose is most obviously demonstrated in the frequent voiceover interludes in which the male and female narrators teach slogans and bits of revolutionary history to a young child, who dutifully repeats whatever they tell him by rote. This suggests, to say the least, a somewhat uncharitable characterization of the target audience for this kind of film if these segments are to be taken at face value, Godard and his collaborators saw the Dziga Vertov Group as a revolutionary schoolhouse, imparting knowledge to common people as though they're children in need of an education. At one point, the voiceover contrasts bourgeoisie films (Hollywood, of course, with Gone With the Wind cited by name) and revisionist films (read as "Soviet" in this context) against the truly revolutionary films that they wish to make. The revolutionary film, the voiceover declares, is like a blackboard on which political ideas can be discussed and debated. This ideal of open debate is contradicted by the condescending and narrowly didactic tone with which this material is delivered; it's hard to imagine anything so strident and polemical fostering real discussion.
Even so, the film remains interesting for the ways in which it illustrates Godard's ideas about sound/image dichotomies in their most extreme forms. In the opening sequence, as the camera pans along the auto assembly line, there are two competing soundtracks: the cacophonous noise of the factory itself, and a narration track that delivers a Marxist analysis of factory working conditions and the idea of "wage slavery." While the former might seem to contradict Godard's separation of sound and image, the sounds of the factory do not serve the traditional purposes of diegetic sound in the cinema. The sounds, in the strictest sense, do seem to be originating with the images on screen, which gives them a documentary function within the scene. And yet, paradoxically, the shrill, grating quality of the sound, its constant barrage on the senses, is distancing and even aggravating. The sound is continually pushing against the image with sheer volume, keeping the audience on edge, simultaneously annoyed by the sounds and bored by the repetitiveness of the visuals. The sound and image match up in the traditional way, and yet they are still working at cross-purposes, giving the eyes nothing to see and the ears too much to hear. This dichotomy is heightened by the addition of the secondary, polemical track, consisting mainly of quotes from Marx, which one often has to strain to hear over the roaring factory noise. The diabolical genius of Godard's technique becomes apparent when one realizes that, when driven to near-madness by the combined aesthetic effect of this sequence, the polemical speech is like a buoy of relative coherence amidst the enervating din.
The tension between sound and image is, if anything, even more pronounced in the film's second segment. As a nude woman walks silently past the camera, in and out of the frame, a female voiceover expounds on sexual liberation, women's rights, and the necessity of women making demands for better treatment. The images provide long expanses of nothing to look at just blank white walls and a staircase and momentary flashes where the naked girl walks by on her way up or down the stairs. The sequence takes an image of a sexual nature and all but defuses it of its arousing potential, placing it between long stretches of complete stasis and accompanying the whole scene with a feminist voiceover. The effect of this juxtaposition remains ambiguous how do you show an exploitative image without being exploitative? but the intent is clear: to create a dialectic between the sexualized depiction of women through the filter of the male gaze, and the voice of a woman speaking out for her rights. A more subtle dialectic is at work in the racist news segment, as Godard cuts from the anchor's angry rant to completely unrelated pastoral images, with no soundtrack at all accompanying these prosaic scenes. The effect, oddly enough, is to radically undermine the speaker, mainly because the form of the documentary has conditioned audiences for what to expect with these kinds of cutaway shots: they should be illustrating what the speaker is saying. Since the images do nothing of the kind, and are in fact so generic that they could hardly "illustrate" any polemical point, the speaker's words, lacking in visual support, are invalidated by the form of the film itself, revealed as hollow. This is, perhaps, one of the most effective and nuanced of Godard's experiments with sound/image disjunction here.
The final two "documentary" segments of the film offer an interesting case study in the different forms of revolutionary thinking, and it's especially difficult to figure out just what the film's point of view in these scenes might be. In the first, a group of assembly line workers discuss Marxist theory and the numbing working conditions of the factory, while Godard's handheld camera ensures that whoever's speaking is usually off-screen. The result is compelling, and makes a nice change from the dry, polemical tone of most of the film's voiceovers. These workers don't want an academic discourse on Marx and capital, but a discussion that circles around the concrete conditions of their lives and approaches socialist ideology in terms of practical changes and improvements that can be made. From a strictly formal viewpoint, the scene provides the obvious starting point for a similar discussion in Godard's 1982 film Passion, in which Isabelle Huppert and a group of factory workers discuss strikes and unions as the sound and image continually fall in and out of sync. The next scene here features a group of students rewriting Beatles songs to include revolutionary slogans: "You say U.S./ I say Mao." Godard doesn't seem to be making fun of these earnest young radicals, but juxtaposed against the stoic practicality of the assembly line workers, it's almost impossible not to view the students as silly and insipid in comparison. Nevertheless, in this sequence the sound and image are closer to being in sync than they had been throughout the rest of the film, raising the troubling possibility that Godard viewed these ridiculous dilettantes as a truer expression of revolutionary power.
In any event, the sound and image are finally united in the last sequence of the film, which abandons documentary pretense for a more abstracted, symbolic image of a bloodied hand struggling through the snow in order to reach and lift a red flag. This is the first time in the film that Godard consciously presents a compelling image and a recognizably Godardian one, with the incredibly bright reds of the blood and the flag enforcing one another and recalling the brilliant color schemes of earlier films like La Chinoise. It's also the first time in the film that sound and image make sense together. The polemical speeches, joined now by stirring revolutionary songs, are a fitting accompaniment to this symbolic image of the workers' struggle toward Communism. The film ends with a series of shots of a fist punching through the British Union Jack, as on the soundtrack the male and female narrators speak in unison of their solidarity with various British radical groups and newspapers. It's the first time that two voices are speaking together, towards the same goal. In the earlier scene with the nude woman, when she's speaking on the phone she repeats several phrases from the feminist narrator, but out of sync with the voiceover itself, in a way that simply confuses and creates layered noise rather than clarity. Only when joined in revolutionary exhortation does the film allow two voices to speak as one, suggesting that the only route to unity is through true Communist revolution.
Seen today, British Sounds works primarily as a document of Godard's developing formal and ideological interests. In his films with the Dziga Vertov Group, he was working out a rigorous aesthetics of boredom and dialectical tension that would carry over into much of his later work as well, and find perhaps its fullest expression in Numéro Deux. This film, like many of Godard's more polemical works, denies nearly any possibility of cinematic pleasure, except for the final moments celebrating the worker's struggle. There's also very little sign of Godard's characteristic humor, though his playfulness does shine through in the use of hand-lettered title cards that flash on screen periodically (my favorite was the transformation of "Ford USA" into "For Us" by crossing out the last letter of each word). Still, it's hard to fault the film too much for failings that were, after all, fully integrated into the very conditions of its making. In making a dull, didactic, challenging, aggravating film, Godard completely fulfilled his revolutionary purpose at the time.