Monday, January 24, 2011
Wind From the East
Wind From the East is a product of Jean-Luc Godard's involvement, during the late 60s and early 70s, with a collective filmmaking experiment known as the Dziga Vertov Group. The film is, typically of the films he made during this period, about ideas and simultaneously about how best to express those ideas through the medium of film. The film deals with the situation of a strike and, during its first half, methodically analyzes the different components of the strike: the workers, the radical students who encourage the strike while not quite being able to communicate in the same terms as the workers, the union delegates and other middlemen who preach moderation and compromise, the employers who demand the immediate resumption of work, the police state that suppresses the strike on behalf of capitalism.
All of these forces are allowed a voice on the film's dense, verbose soundtrack: a collage of voices constantly talking, expressing different points of view on the strike and on anti-capitalism in general. Some voices, in sympathy with socialist ideas, advocate for small measures, for small steps and incremental advances, while other voices, representing the bourgeois and the capitalist classes, say that things are already good enough, or getting better, that the strike is accomplishing nothing, that it should end already. Both of these views are contrasted against the voice of the agitator, the radical, the militant, who denounces both those who say that the work is already done and those who say that the work should proceed more slowly. Godard doesn't speak himself, but it is obvious that this last voice is representative of his own.
The film's soundtrack essentially tells its story, subverting the conventional narrative expectations of the cinema. Its images, related only tangentially to this tale of strike and conflict, instead depict a pastoral rural setting through which various characters wander, dressed up to symbolically embody the various voices of the soundtrack. There is a bourgeois woman in a frilly dress, carrying an umbrella to shield herself from the bright sun. There is a union representative, a compromiser, dressed in a bold suit that makes him look like a reject from the Sgt. Pepper's photo shoot. There is a policeman or army officer, dressed like an American cavalryman in a John Ford Western, with his musket and his saber and his horse, a real Hollywood icon of law and order. And there are the young radicals, the students and workers in their shabby clothes and long hair, opposing these forces of suppression and status quo. The whole thing has an aura of playfulness that belies the dead-serious ideas being expressed in the film. When the militants fight with the cavalryman, it's staged as a play cowboys-and-Indians battle, like kids waging pretend war, the bullets never hitting anyone, the sword never slicing anyone up. When someone does bleed, it's the bright red paint that Godard favored — along with an equally bold blue — in title cards and mise en scène alike in many of his films from the second half of the 60s on.
Godard's playful references to the Western are made most explicit during a segment in which he declaims and analyzes the filmmaking theory behind his radical films of the late 60s and early 70s, opposing this filmmaking practice to Hollywood's "realism." In contrast to radical filmmaking, the voiceover declares, Hollywood works on the assumption that an image of a horse is not only the same thing as the horse, but is in fact better. Godard, drawing on Magritte's infamous painting Ceci n'est pas une pipe, says the opposite: this is not a horse, this is not reality, this is not a real Union soldier, this is not an Indian. His joking deconstructions of Hollywood plots and characters in earlier films had already hinted at this point, and here, by toying with genre and narrative in only the roughest and most casual of ways, he is definitively rejecting the idea that what we see on a cinema screen should be taken at face value.
In another scene, Godard parodies the conventional understanding of cinema as a source of spectacle and entertainment. A man breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the camera in Italian, his words translated into French by the female narrator, describing the dark space of the theater and the people in it. The man ends his monologue by coming on to a pretty girl in the back of the theater, asking her to join him in his splendid rural surroundings. This is, as Godard sees it, the essential nature of the cinema, an act of seduction, asking audiences to believe in the space of the screen so completely that they wish to enter it.
Godard is suspicious of this cinema of seduction, but in some ways he can't help recreate it as well. His images are at times calculated to produce boredom, to focus attention on the words pouring by on the soundtrack: static images of youths lying in the grass, their faces obscured by protruding shubbery, or endless takes of people trudging slowly through open fields. Godard is critiquing the pictorial sensibility, the presentation of images as beautiful, but his own images are often beautiful as well — one suspects that Godard's aesthetic sensibilities frequently sabotage his theoretical embrace of ugly or functional images. At times he deviates from his subjects to film the leaves on trees nearby, a move dating back to 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, in which he wondered aloud why it was necessary to photograph a woman if the tree swaying in the breeze behind her was equally interesting.
Later, he stages a scene in a field of pink flowers that might have come from a Monet painting: a bourgeois woman sitting with umbrella over her head, chatting amiably with a man standing nearby. The two figures, particularly the woman, are obscured by long green stalks topped with pale pink buds, the kind of pointillist field of flowers beloved by Monet. On the soundtrack, the female narrator applies various historical and fictionalized names to the two figures, positioning them as representatives of bourgeois oppression: a white woman who falsely accuses a black man of rape and gets him lynched; a scientist who develops napalm to destroy Third World lands and people; a German Communist who urges moderation in responding to the encroaching Nazi threat before the Second World War. One of the names given to the woman in the image is the wife of Monet (although with the wrong name), along with a (presumably fabricated) description of her opposition to worker activism. Coupled with the pastoral beauty of this very Monet-like image, the message is obvious: beauty is to be distrusted, and the bourgeois people framed within such lovely images are often actors in racist violence, in fascism, in the suppression of the working class.
Interestingly, though the film is all about getting beyond the abstract and the theoretical into practical action, Godard really only runs into trouble when he tries to advocate for specific action, which for him at this point means revolutionary violence. Gone are the back-and-forth debates over violence that marked his La Chinoise, from a few years earlier. The advocacy of violence here is direct and troubling, complete with practical advice for militants — avoid leaving fingerprints — and images of homemade explosive devices constructed from various consumer goods. Godard does nod to Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers — which earlier in the film he'd criticized as an unforgivably Western take on Third World struggle — in his direct images of bourgeois businesspeople and children shopping or traveling, but the disconcerting advocacy of random violence is never resolved by counterarguments as it often was in Godard's other films. Allowed to stand alone as it here, it's the clearest example of Godard's theoretical ideas existing in a vacuum where priorities and relativities are obviously skewed.
Elsewhere, though, the film is simply fascinating and complex, deeply engaged in dealing with the question of how to represent class struggle, how to deal with questions that aren't fully resolved even for the people taking part in the struggle themselves. As with most of the Dziga Vertov Group films, Wind From the East is in part about its own process of production. At one point, in a convoluted meta maneuver that's hilarious in its boldness, the narrator talks about how the next scene is a document of a conference that was called for the purposes of deciding how to film the next scene, with the subject being how to film an assembly of socialists and the ideas they present. Then the scene plays out exactly as described, with overlapping voices only occasionally resolving into an identifiable phrase, in French or Italian, while the camera spins around, revealing the sound crew, filming the trees, showing images of Stalin and Mao, panning among the students sprawled out in the grass at the gathering. The scene consists of filming the discussion that is intended to decide how to film the scene, a kind of filmmaking paradox that Godard obviously finds delightful, and invites us to find delightful as well. As the narrator says, the voices are confused and the ideas are not necessarily fully developed, but they're trying to move forward, trying to express complicated ideas and incite change.
That describes the films of the Dziga Vertov Group in general. Although in practice the "group" generally consisted of Godard and his collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin, the theory of the DVG was intended to create a whole new practice and ideology of making films. Wind From the East is thus constantly calling into question the methods of Godard and Gorin as well as the methods of Hollywood cinema. The narrator often speaks in the second person, as though talking about the filmmakers: always "you," encompassing everyone in the failures and limitations of the film. When the narrator describes images of apartment blocks and suffering working class people as enforcing the bourgeois order, she might be describing 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, with all its similar images of towering urban buildings representing the alienation of its characters. Godard, who broke from his own past and his own oeuvre after 1968, is consistently looking forward in films like this, trying to start over from scratch. If he doesn't always succeed, as the film itself frequently and explicitly acknowledges, the results are rarely less than fascinating anyway. Wind From the East is a rich, complex work, a work of bold ideas and slapdash, often goofy aesthetics, approaching the cinema not with a reverent aesthetic sensibility, but with an anything-goes mentality that promotes experimentation and risk-taking on every level.