Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Film Socialisme (take 2)
Take 2, because take 1 was not enough. Because this latest film of Jean-Luc Godard defies interpretation at every step. Because Godard released Film Socialism with "Navajo English" subtitles in the English-speaking world, defying Americans to glean some meaning from the minimal, fragmented translations that reduce this film's at times complex texts to disconnected strings of verbs and nouns, at times run together into compound words. Not that seeing the film with more complete translations in the subtitles completes the picture: there are still gaps, still confusions, still whole sections where that signature Godard logic is fully comprehensible perhaps only to the filmmaker himself. The film, grandiosely titled as the document of (or monument to) an entire political philosophy, is a summation of Godard's relationship to commerce, quotation, politics and nationalism. As such, it can only be as gnomic and digressive as Godard's whole career has been. The document of a journey now lasting over 50 years, the journey of a filmmaker who's always been interested in questions of art, commerce, political action and inaction, history with its repetitions and echoes, and of course his own role as an artist in dealing with these subjects, and our role as the audience in watching him deal with them, trying to follow him. That's what the film is, a game of "follow me," with the implied dare being "if you can."
This intellectual gamesmanship is bracing and enthralling, even when the film remains baffling and unapproachable despite multiple viewings and multiple attempts to get closer to it. At one point, one of the characters, a young woman trying to trace the various losses of socialism like a detective of history, suggests that not everything is comparable (and thus comprehensible?), that sometimes "the incomparable can only be compared to the incomparable," a paradox that Godard applies to the machinations of history, the march from Hitler and Stalin to the current global capitalist status quo, where such flashy dictators have been replaced by the dominance of gold and money. That's why, perhaps, this woman is trying to discover the truth behind the various robberies that define the past: money stolen from Spain, from Palestine, by the West and by the supposed representatives of Communism alike. The gold funneled out of national banks by businessmen and capitalists: this, it is implied, is the foundation for the modern order, for the opulence of the cruise ship and the culture that revels in such luxuries.
Photographs are important in this film, as Godard examines the relationship between reality and the document of reality. A discourse about the imperialist history of the West's involvement in Palestine ends on the revelation of "the first photo of the Bay of Haifa," which segues into an image of the cruise ship photographer snapping pictures of partying tourists, then an image of an Arab woman looking at a photo, presumably the already mentioned imperialists' document of the West's arrival in the Middle East. The implication is that a photo is not just a document, not just a representation of what is seen. There is a story behind each photo. Just as a photo of a cruise ship passenger tells a story about luxury and privilege, a photo of a Middle Eastern location, from the vantage point of arriving imperialists, tells a story about a history of conquest and exploitation. That's why so many shots in this film show people using cameras, taking photos, documenting their surroundings and documenting, in the process and perhaps unconsciously, their relationship to those surroundings. The importance of the camera is asserted again in the film's second half with the presence of the TV journalists, whose cameras are never present during the intimate, private interior moments where the family discusses their ideas and their emotions. The TV cameras are only present outside the house, and mostly glimpse people rushing back and forth, trying to avoid the camera's gaze. Only Godard's camera, which exists outside the diegesis, can capture the more private moments that really count.
The second segment is Godard's return to the territory of his 1975 film Numéro deux, an examination of the political foundations of the family, dealing with the question of how ideas are passed from one generation to the next. The parents try to make a connection, to forge a mutual understanding, but they frequently falter, struggling to pass on their understanding of a world they don't really understand themselves. This is a near-constant undercurrent in Film Socialisme, this struggle to make sense of history and the present, which is the current endpoint of history, the situation that everything before had led towards and created. Politics and family life interweave, as the outside world unavoidably intrudes upon the domestic status quo, influencing the relationships that form between parents and their children, influencing business and daily life alike.
In the first scenes of this segment, first the family's father and then the mother are questioned from offscreen by their children, an interview technique that references Godard's frequent use of such dialogues dating back to Masculin féminin. In these unbalanced conversations, the children want to understand, while the parents just want to be loved and appreciated. Godard spaces out these dialogues amidst the quiet stasis of daily living. The pacing of these pastoral scenes of home life is exquisitely slow and meditative. Godard holds shots for a long time, watching as these people brush their teeth, or as the daughter rests her head on her father's shoulder in the dark, or the mother washes the dishes. There's a casual domesticity to such moments, and Godard purposefully infuses political dialogue and considerations of history and the image into this context. He's suggesting that such concerns are not — or should not be — separate from daily life or daily concerns. There is no disconnect between the home life and the political life, as the journalists hang around the family's home trying to create a political documentary, filming these domestic moments while shouting out questions that never get answered.
The film is, like many of Godard's films, about culture, though not in the obvious way of Passion, where he posed his characters like figures from classic paintings, nor of King Lear, where the search for Shakespeare provided the foundation for all manner of ruminations on culture and art and meaning. The young blonde son of the film's second segment is an avatar of culture, recreating the paintings of Renoir, moving with the rhythms of classical music and dreaming jazz. Godard's relationship to art has always been complex; he both loves beauty and is suspicious of it. He seems to be suggesting that art, rather than providing a commentary on reality and a way of expressing ideas about the world, has become an escape, a refuge from reality. A voiceover says, "We have only books to put into books. But what if we have to put reality into books?" Art feeds into art, creating a cultural conversation that is abstracted from the real world, from the experience of life as it is lived. That is why Godard subtly shifts the emphasis onto domestic routine, onto the peripheral tasks of the cruise ship's maids and waitresses as they do their work, onto brief scenes of Arab women talking and doing daily work.
In the final section of the film, culture becomes both a document and a warning, as Godard tries to develop an alternate understanding of art as essential, as intimately connected to life as it is lived. As Godard visits several European and Middle Eastern locales in turn, he finds the lessons of history in culture, and particularly the cycle of war and violence that has defined both world history and the depictions of it in art. The constant warring of Greek mythology and Greek tragedy, the emphasis on mortality in Egyptian art, the endurance of the Odessa Steps as a site of dramatized bloodshed: all of these markers are for Godard signs of the continuity between current situations and the grand tragedies of the past.