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history, the march from Hitler and Stalin to the current global capitalist status quo, where such flashy dictators have been replaced by the dominance of gold and money.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.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Godard had used children this way before in his great TV project France / Tour / Detour / Deux Enfants Truffaut loathed it as Godard refuses to sentimentalize or infantilize children as Truffaut does. And this kicked off their finally verbal set-to (with Godard taking off the gloves and declaring that La Nuit Americaine was REALLY about Truffaut trying to nail Jackie Bisset)

Glad you used a still of that Ilama, as Godard shoots animals the smae ay he shoots peopel, and several animals in the film are shown to "talk."

As for its comprehensibility this raises the issue of the fact that fictional narrative so dominates the cinema that anything without recognizable "plot" or "characters" is viewed as "incomprehensible." This entirely ignores the enjoyment (which is immense) to be dreived from simply looking at and listenting to the images and sounds Godard puts before us.

Ed Howard said...

The donkey also seems like a connection to Au hasard Balthazar, which is of course an important film to Godard.

Re: comprehensibility, it goes beyond the lack of clear plots or characters - Godard doesn't give us *anything* we expect to hang onto, he just challenges us to follow his lead and take what we can from the film. And of course there's a LOT to be found here. But you're right too that this film, like all of Godard's unfailingly beautiful late work, can also be enjoyed as simply a torrent of images and sounds to immerse oneself in.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Tilda Swinton said the greatest performance she's ever seen in the cinema was the donkey in Au Hasard Balthazar.

Stephen said...

"...there are still gaps, still confusions, still whole sections where that signature Godard logic is fully comprehensible perhaps only to the filmmaker himself."

I like that Godard doesn't seem to be watering down his message or turning his gaze away from his own mind's preoccupations in order to let us more obviously in on the party.

I could quote more but this piece is excellent. Take 2 is clearer and sharper than Take 1 (and there was nothing wrong with that!) in explaining and revealing analytically, and its a personal reaction that echoed/articulated much of my own.

Is there a take 3?

David, the best performance is surely the bunny boiled in FATAL ATTRACTION - more dedication than De Niro ever showed.

Stephen said...


I referred to something you said about BLACK SWAN (comparing the nail file BEth stabs herself with to a beak) in a review. I hope you don't mind. I thought it was a great observation.

Ed Howard said...

Stephen, you're right, this is Godard's mind unfiltered, and he's letting us see its workings but not necessarily making it easy for us. I may return to this film yet again down the road, I'm sure there's lots more to be said.

And I read your Black Swan piece when it was posted, thanks for the mention. I would've commented but I'm a little burned out on discussing that particular film, I've probably said my piece on it by now. Really liked your take on it, though.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I was at an event for The Social Netwrk at Spago last night and Film Socialisme came in on conversation with (of all people) Scott Rudin. He's a great Patii Smith fan.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The National Society of Film Critics has just given Film Socialisme a special award for "Best Film Awaiting U.S. Distribution"

Sam Juliano said...

I've shied away myself from discussing this films on blogs, as I know it's challenging, and essential to any dialogue on what can be summarized as one of this past year's most formidable cinematic achievements. I have read both posts here, and as always am exceedingly expressed with the ideas and erudition. As, ultimately I wouldn't be able to include it among 2010 releases (hence no Top 10 finish or any consideration at all) I am taking my time with it, though I have informed by some 'internet angel' that a copy may be flying in from half-way around the world soon! Ha! But still, this is a 2011 film as per impending opening in USA theatres soon.

I am intrigued here too by the comment section, which mentions of Bresson's AU HASARD BATHAZAR, a film I regard as one of the greatest ever, and a favorite of Godard's, and Ms. Swinton is one to something there. I love that designation too from the National Society, which may in some measure answer my question.

The idea of a "Take 2" is most inspired.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the kind words, Sam, and for the Monday Morning Diary link. I'm not too concerned with when a film is released or what year it "counts" for — and I'm not exactly holding my breath for a proper theatrical release of this one, though I suppose it may play somewhere in NYC — but taking your time with this film is definitely a good idea. It's hard to think of another film that so demands consideration from multiple angles and over the long-term — a tall order in an ADD culture that's never had much patience for Godard past his most whimsical early 60s films.

Anonymous said...

after reading so much bullshit around Film socialisme, it was quiet refreshing to read such accurate account on take 1 and 2. please keep on with the good work. it would be interesting to go back and revisited Godard onw quotes and procedures cause it looks like FS is the most copmplete retrospective of God's works so far...
And programmers of the world united here is your chance to start a new cycle: the navigator, the countess of hong kong, um filme falado, la nave va... and filme socialisme. i wonder what kind of review the old Karl M. could write on that.