Friday, May 6, 2011

Lettre à Freddy Buache/Changer d'image

Commissioned to make a film about the Swiss town of Lausanne on the occasion of the five-hundredth anniversary of the town's founding, Jean-Luc Godard responded in the form of a videotaped "letter" to his longtime friend and associate Freddy Buache, the founder and director of the Cinémathèque Suisse. Lettre à Freddy Buache is basically a film about Godard's refusal to make the film, or about the failure to make the film, or even more pointedly, about what Godard predicted would be the perception of his failure. Speaking in voiceover, Godard adopts an intimate, conversational tone appropriate to a letter to a close friend. His narration is almost conspiratorial, including by implication Buache, and the eventual viewer of the film, in his musings on how best to represent or not represent a particular place.

The film alternates between three basic types of footage: Godard in his editing room listening to records and playing with sliders and buttons on audiovisual equipment; scenic tracking shots of the Swiss countryside in which Godard's camera restlessly wanders about as if in search of the one right image; and images of people walking around the city, drastically slowed down with the choppy slow motion video manipulation Godard had developed in his late 70s video experiments and especially in his then-recent 1980 return to cinema, Sauve qui peut (la vie). The footage of Godard himself emphasizes that this is a personal response, not an impersonal documentary or generic tribute but the work of an artist who is thinking and shaping his material. As in much of Godard's post-1967 oeuvre, the film is very much rooted in technology, in the reality of the editing methods applied to the footage, and in the exigencies of shooting. At one point he inserts a sequence of himself arguing with a local police officer who hassled the crew for stopping by the side of a highway to film. The policeman tells them that they can only stop for emergencies, and Godard's reply — delivered in a tone of voice that suggests it's the only rational response — is that this is an emergency, that the light would soon be gone and, with it, the opportunity to capture this particular image. For Godard, this is undoubtedly a moral question; it is vitally important to find the right images, to capture a particular moment before it is lost forever, and the failure of the police officer to understand that urgency is, from Godard's perspective, the failure of much of society to understand the importance of cinema, the potential of cinema, and by extension the responsibility of the artist to think, to document, to express his or her ideas.

The other two categories of images here are thus embodiments of Godard's thought process, his uncertainty about whether a place can best be represented by its landscape — its light and its colors — or by its people. In his musings, which have the quality of thinking aloud, drawing connections to Picasso or Wittgenstein, Godard suggests that, in filming Lausanne, there exists tension between the greens and blues of nature — the sky above and the foliage below — with Lausanne itself in the middle, gray and rocky, made of stone and concrete, manmade buildings sandwiched between a bright blue sky and the lush greens of nature. It's a perverse and implicit rebuttal of the commission's purpose: asked to commemorate the founding of a town, Godard all but laments that it was ever built, his sweeping images of natural splendor jutting up against the boring grays of the city itself.

Instead, Godard suggests that the soul of the place, the thing worth commemorating and talking about, is the people who live there, and his slow motion images of people captured on the streets have a sensuous quality that's a parallel to his gorgeous tracking shots of cloudless skies and the shade under dense trees. These images have a dual purpose implied by the film's final text, an onscreen dedication that calls this short "en souvenir de Robert Flaherty et Ernst Lubitsch." In other words, Godard's images of people arise both from the ethnographic impulse to observe and study, and from the desire to tell stories, to create fictions and narratives from people's faces, their movements. It's this tension, Godard suggests, that is valuable and worth exploring, and that's why he couldn't make a film about Lausanne and made this instead, a film in which Lausanne is more or less a departure point for the filmmaker's ideas on form and the reality/fiction dialectic.

Changer d'image was another commissioned project for Jean-Luc Godard, a short film prompted by the one-year anniversary of the election of the leftist French president François Mitterrand. Godard, naturally, takes this subject as the implicit basis for his subsequent film, and never explicitly mentions anything about Mitterrand or French politics or the occasion being commemorated. Instead, the commission seems to have made him consider the subject of "change," broadly speaking, and he sets out to examine not only what it means to change, but how to represent and envision that change in the form of images, of art. In other words, like the roughly contemporaneous Lettre à Freddy Buache, Changer d'image is not, strictly speaking, the fulfillment of a commission but an essay about how to fulfill the commission, an essay on the question of whether it can even be fulfilled at all.

To tackle the problem, Godard turns by analogy to his experience in Mozambique during the early 1970s, where he was enlisted to advise that country's new Marxist government on their television plans, and to produce original content that would create a new, radical form of television. The project never went anywhere, and Godard's voiceover analyzes the ways in which political upheavals in that country conspired with the difficulty of the project itself to prevent his success. He quite literally beats himself for the failure, showing images of himself, shirtless and strapped to a chair, being beaten and tortured by someone who's questioning him about cinema and television. It suggests how Godard sees his position with respect to governments and the other institutions and organizations that ask him to create what amounts to art on demand: as a torture victim being asked questions he can't possibly answer. He's holding up his various failures and aborted projects, wondering why it's so difficult to change things, to create something new.

The film opens, in a poignant and stripped-down visualization of that difficulty, with Godard seated, his back to the camera, in front of a white screen. This image persists throughout virtually the entire 10-minute film, sometimes alone, sometimes superimposed with others. It is as though the director is facing a quite literal blank canvas as he wonders aloud how to fill it, while the voice of an unseen woman questions him about change. He seems uncertain, except that he knows what the image of change is not: it is not the televised news, the endless debates and discussions of politicians talking about reform, a word that suggests slow and incremental alterations whereas "change" is harsh and speedy. After a while, the question-and-answer format is replaced by a third-person voiceover that refers to Godard, the director, the artist, as "the idiot," a variation on the similar roles he'd play as the holy fool in later films such as King Lear or Keep Your Right Up. Godard sees the artist as a fool, an idiot, because he believes in change, in the possibility of creating images that foster or document change, even though it's a quixotic and near-impossible task. But the artist keeps striving, through self-flagellation and the burdens imposed from outside, to create change.

This romantic image of the artist-filmmaker is offset by the film's final lines, an anecdote Godard tells about his grandfather driving the young Godard and his siblings around. The grandfather always drove very slowly, and the children in the back always shouted at him to go faster, to change gears, the cries devolving eventually to "change, grandfather, change," with the grandfather simply responding with a petulant whine. The film abruptly cuts off in mid-whine, a high-pitched sad sound of a grumpy old man resisting change, and Godard's implicit question to himself is: has he become the grandfather, or is he still the child in the back seat shouting "change," even knowing that his words are fated to have no effect?


DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's Changer d'image . Pretty disturbing.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, it's very disturbing. Cinematic self-flagellation.