Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Here and Elsewhere

[This post is a contribution to the Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon, running from November 4-9 at The Cooler.]

As with so many of Jean-Luc Godard's films, Here and Elsewhere is an intensely mediated, indirect examination of reality (or, as Godard would probably prefer, realities). It is not so much a political film as it is about political films, about the ways in which images, sounds, and their combinations can contribute to or impede understanding. It is also a study in contrasts, with the title's dual concepts the central dichotomy at work: "here" for the familiar, the domestic; "elsewhere" for the unfamiliar, the foreign. This dichotomy arises, naturally for Godard, in the very process of making his film. Here and Elsewhere began in 1970 as a project for Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's Dziga Vertov Group; the duo visited Israel to make a film about Palestinian guerrillas, only to have the film fall apart unmade once they returned to France with their footage. Five years later, Godard completed the film with his new partner Anne-Marie Miéville, and the result is as much a commentary on the unfinished film and its failures as it is a film about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

In its finished form, the film opposes the original material, the footage from Israel, against new footage shot "here," in France, of a typical working class family, who are mostly depicted watching TV. The suggestion is of a French family receiving images and sounds from a foreign place, from "elsewhere," a mysterious locale removed both in distance and time. The elapsed time creates profound discontinuities between the images of the Palestinians and those of the French family, and Godard continually points out this disjunction by reminding us, in voiceover, that most of the people in the images from "elsewhere" are now, just five years later, dead. The film thus contains the proof of its own irrelevance as a piece of propaganda: the battles it attempts to represent and to awaken understanding of are long since fought and lost, presumably replaced in the present by new conflicts and new fighters. There is a sense of sadness in these images, which are now in a sense out of date, disconnected by half a decade from the place and time they captured.

Godard goes beyond the specificity of this particular instance, however, to suggest that images are always disconnected in this way from the reality they represent. The Dziga Vertov Group films evinced a distrust of images for this very reason, preferring to trust in sound. Here and Elsewhere is arguably a more sophisticated take on this philosophy of images and sounds: both are distrusted, and at the same time the film invests both components of the cinema with the potential for revolutionary education. Towards the end of the film, Miéville utters what might be the film's defining line, "learn to see here in order to understand elsewhere." The process of learning described involves both critiquing the conventional use of images and developing new ways of treating them. The film's critique of cinematic images is most cogently stated in a series of scenes where Godard demonstrates the ways in which cinema's method of showing images, one after another, is limited. In one scene, a group of five people parade in front of a camera, holding up images from Israel one by one, speaking a slogan as their image gets its time in the frame.

This is an undoubtedly limited way of exploring complicated realities, and throughout the film Godard posits several alternative ways of presenting images to facilitate greater understanding. One of the most common is the chain of images presented simultaneously on the screen, so that each link in the chain can be seen at every moment. A series of three small monitors hold photo cells, which Godard switches in and out in one scene to demonstrate various chains of causality, violence, and oppression: a photo of Nixon, a photo of a bomber plane, a photo of a group of revolutionaries. Godard views these strips of images as an improvement of cinema, a way of demonstrating the relationships between images in a more permanent way, without trusting the "memory" of the cinema that requires relationships to exist between frames that flicker only briefly on the screen. Another of his characteristic techniques of handling images, familiar from his 70s video work, is the overlapping and juxtaposition of multiple images in relation to one another. Here and Elsewhere contains some of his most radical usage of the technique prior to his much later Histoire(s) du cinema project, which could be said to revolve almost entirely around juxtapositions of this type. In one scene, Godard displays an image of an old Socialist with "Lenine" written on his upturned palm, then washes a second image across the screen, fading the old man into a crowd of 1930s Popular Front radicals, then to the image of Hitler. The images suggest the connections between socialism "then and now," a counterpoint to the film's title, while also interpolating the fascist enemies of socialism. The juxtaposition also serves as a reminder of how easily populist movements can be co-opted for fascism; Godard flashes the word "populaire" on screen across the images of both Hitler and the socialists, rapidly cutting between the opposing forces to link them in unexpected ways.

To some extent, this tendency towards equivalence is betrayed by Godard and Miéville's differential treatment of the Israelis and Palestinians in the footage from 1970. An image juxtaposing Hitler with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, while the letters of "Israel" slowly morph into "Palestine," is controversial, to say the least: there's obviously a huge distance between the two political leaders that Godard's image purposefully elides. Similarly, the film condemns Israeli-committed atrocities but fails to do the same for those brutalities inflicted upon Israelis. At one point, Miéville's voiceover appears to support the 1972 abduction and murders of the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich games. She faults the abductors for their mistaken agenda and tactics — she says that, instead of demanding that Palestinian prisoners be released, they should have used their leverage to get images of their people's plight broadcast on international TV — but she does not condemn or even question the necessity of the killings. There is something academic and distanced in this revolutionary zeal, a perverse willingness to advocate violence and bloodshed from an armchair position outside the action. It is also by no means a foregone conclusion that the film's wholesale application of revolutionary socialist rhetoric to Palestinian guerrilla fighters is a comfortable fit. It is interesting to consider the Palestinians' lost homeland and conflict with Western capitalist powers in the context of Marxist class struggle, but class is hardly the only pertinent consideration. Certainly, this must be the only film to discuss the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in such depth without even once mentioning religion.

These limitations and paradoxes are of course familiar components of Godard's political perspective, which incorporates self-questioning dialectics with polemical rhetoric, often allowing contradictory elements to bump right up against one another. That's certainly the case here, where the entire film is founded on a system of oppositions: between 1975 France and 1970 Palestine, foreign and domestic, seeing and hearing, film and still images, politics and everyday life. In bringing together all these opposing forces and interrogating them, Godard and Miéville are attempting to posit a new form of political discourse, one which finds common ground and points of resonance without regard to national borders, instead emphasizing class unity. The film attempts to forge connections between the oppressed and their counterparts "elsewhere," while simultaneously drawing the connections between their oppressors: Nixon, Brezhnev, Golda Meir, Hitler. The film is predicated on the French family depicted as "here" realizing that the Palestinians they see on TV are in fact their mirror image. Godard holds up images of the distant oppressed to the oppressed at home, hoping to create a new consciousness. If the film doesn't quite succeed at that, it is nevertheless a flawed but fascinating document of Godard's emergent video-editing techniques and his vision of their political potential.

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