Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Pravda was the second film that Jean-Luc Godard made with his collective cinema experiment the Dziga Vertov Group, after British Sounds. Like its predecessor — and like the later Struggles In Italy — it is a kind of critical report on a particular country and the status of the socialist revolution in that country. Filmed in Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Soviet invasion of the country, with the assistance of DVG collaborator Jean-Henri Roger, Pravda is a savagely sarcastic indictment of the Soviets, the Czechs, and what Godard considered "psuedo-Communists" everywhere. The film's soundtrack is structured as another dialogue between Vladimir (as in Lenin) and Rosa (as in Luxemburg), the favored names that were repeated throughout Godard's revolutionary films. These two commentators, mimicking TV newcasters, dissect images of what Godard sees as the infiltration of Western imperialism and socialist "revisionism" into a Communist country: billboards advertising American companies; American-style rock n' roll music blaring on the soundtrack, cutting in and out unpredictably; the presence of Hertz and Avis renting Czech-made cars at the airports, thereby appropriating for profit the labor of the proletariat; the dominance of Hollywood-style exploitation pictures and spectacles at local movie theaters. Godard, at the height of his doctrinaire embrace of Maoism, finds evidence of socialist failure everywhere, and the resulting film is by turns savagely funny, utterly blinkered (the continued exultation of Maoist China as the ideal to aspire to is absurd and embarrassing), and intermittently boring.
In other words, it's a typical example of Godard in his "lost" years, after declaring the end of cinema in Week-End and proceeding to rebuild from scratch the artform he'd once loved and had come to distrust. At the root of his distrust was a suspicion of the too-easy consonances between sounds and images, and much of his work with the Dziga Vertov Group constituted a self-questioning attempt to create new relationships between sounds and images. He often didn't succeed, and he knew it: towards the end of this film, Vladimir lambastes Rosa because, he says, she hasn't created new conjunctions of sounds and images, she's merely resorted to the language of posters and slogans, and in the process has taken a step back instead of forward. These kinds of disclaimers are peppered throughout the DVG films, signaling Godard's awareness of the limitations of his current modes of expression. That's part of the point: when Godard declared the end of cinema, he meant the end of commercial cinema, and the films he made subsequently in the late 60s and early 70s were self-conscious "blackboard" films in which the director, while delivering dogmatic ideas well-suited to sloganeering and polemics, was simultaneously querying the very foundations of cinema, the union of sound and image, trying (and usually, and admittedly, failing) to advance beyond mere slogans into the truly revolutionary cinema he envisioned.
If Pravda, like the other DVG films, falls well short of that goal, it's still a fascinating failure. The voiceover ironically calls attention, again and again, to the disjunctions between words and images — in other words, between theory and reality. This is a central theoretical construct, the idea that the image is reality, the documentation of something actually happening, while the sound is something else: on the one hand, the revisionist cover-up that uses words to disguise the reality, and on the other hand the ideal, the theory that has not yet been put into practice. Thus, the disjunction between sounds and images, between words and the reality they ostensibly describe. This is the reverse of the dynamic at work in British Sounds, in which images were presumed to lie while words and sounds provided the revolutionary truth. Godard hasn't exactly regained his faith in images, but Pravda already displays a more complex and dialectical understanding of the relationships of sounds and images to the truth. Thus, the voiceover says, "that's a picture of a girl in a bikini," but the image is missing, replaced by a black screen: the image had been sold, the narration corrects itself, to the Columbia Broadcasting Corporation, and thus could not be shown. The voiceover says, "those are wire fences that the government puts around everything which is the private property of the people." The image shows a playground, fenced in, looking grim and forbidding, and the irony in the description — intimidating fences to demarcate land that supposedly belongs to everyone — emphasizes the discontinuity between words (the people are supposed to be "free") and images (the government continues to control and channel the people's activities from above).
This concept introduces one of the film's most effective sections, as the voiceover, posing as objective reportage, is actually engaging with the subject of ownership, the issue at the root of the debate between capitalism and socialism. Godard shows an image of a wheat field, while Vladimir says, "that doesn't belong to anyone, it's collectivized wheat." In another image, the film makes a distinction between a fruit tree that's genuinely placed by the side of the road and one that's separated from the road by a fence. The image of the tree, sitting just outside the fence's barrier, right by the side of the road and thus accessible and free to anyone, makes the point that the space between freedom and constriction is incredibly small. Through these clever juxtapositions of images and words, Godard is probing the thorny question of who owns what in capitalist versus socialist societies. The deadpan quasi-journalistic presentation adds a note of irony to these sequences: this is a tree, this is wheat, this is a "nationalized food store," and yet all of these things are more complicated in their status than they appear.
That's the essence of Godard's approach to the Dziga Vertov Group films. Pravda frequently gets bogged down in its polemics and contradictions, but one of those contradictions is that even when Godard is being didactic and extremely politicized, he's also grappling with his own assumptions and with the methods of representation he's chosen. That's what makes these films so interesting, despite the theoretical knots that Godard ties himself into over the course of each one. For all the seemingly humorless didacticism of Godard the polemicist, there's still a strain of bitter, ironic humor in this film's wordy narration, and also a lingering appreciation for beauty, as in the image of a solitary bright red flower, alternately blooming brilliantly or trampled in a mud puddle, a classically beautiful symbol for socialism's bold promises and its often disappointing betrayals. Godard is lamenting the need for tanks to "watch over" the peasants, and mocking the kind of men, brainwashed by Western advertising, who "would rather wash their cars than fuck their wives" on the weekends. This film, from Godard's transitional "blackboard" period, is hampered by all the flaws that are common to his DVG works — the ideological blinders, the inexplicable affection for Mao — but it's still a fascinating film that even pushes beyond its polemics in some unexpected ways.