Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Comment ça va?

Comment ça va is one of the most dense and abstracted of the several essayistic videos Jean-Luc Godard made in collaboration with his partner Anne-Marie Miéville during the latter half of the 1970s. As with much of Godard and Miéville's work from around this time, this video concerns itself primarily with meta questions: questions about how to produce a video or a film, how to show certain things that they're interested in showing, how to communicate their ideas. They explore these subjects through the loosely structured story of an editor at a Communist newspaper (Michel Marot), who collaborates with the radical Odette (played by Miéville herself, though her face never appears) in order to make an educational video about the production of a newspaper.

This seemingly simple project becomes increasingly elaborate, however, because of Odette's ceaseless and probing inquiries into every aspect of the production process. If the editor views his project in basic terms, as simply a matter of filming people at work on the newspaper and then showing the results, Odette is not so sure. She wonders why he chooses to cut at one point and not another, how he forms his soundtrack, what kind of a relationship there should be between images and explanatory texts, and indeed whether texts and speech even can (or should) explain an image. Her questions call attention to the limitless number of choices, many of them taken for granted by both filmmakers and audiences, that go into creating a film. Odette doesn't want to take anything for granted, doesn't want to make choices out of habit. She's interested — like Godard and Miéville, for whom she stands in here — in deconstructing the form and aesthetics of the cinema, interrogating what's on the screen in order to discover alternate ways of communicating.

This is an investigation of what it means to look, and the film's characteristic shot is an over-the-shoulder perspective on two people looking at a TV or video monitor. The film is about watching people watch things, and coming to understand through this how we watch things, and especially how we think about what we watch. The voiceover repeatedly draws connections and distinctions: between the way the eyes move across a page of text and the way a typewriter mechanically recreates a text; between radicals in France and radicals in Portugal; between a gesture of solidarity and a gesture of violence, both represented with raised fists. Godard and Miéville play with static photographs, blending them together, cutting between them, allowing the camera to pan across their surface in order to focus on different elements in closeups. They're exploring the different ways of relating images to one another, an interest that has, in some ways, consumed Godard's attention right up to the present, and would certainly be a driving force behind the Histoire(s) du cinema. There's also an acknowledgment that different people see the same images in different ways: that point about violence versus solidarity again, the question of whether a striking worker is raising his fist as a sign of protest, or as a prelude to violence. As the image focuses on a closeup of the worker's face, his mouth open and his lips pouted outward, Miéville's voiceover attempts to separate the image from its context, pointing out that, in isolation, this could easily be the expression of a pop singer in the middle of a song — it's only because he's a working class radical that his expression appears angry and threatening to some.

The film also considers the tension between the espousal of radical ideas and the incompleteness of most people's commitment to those ideals, particularly when it comes to the treatment of women. Throughout the film, Odette subtly critiques the ways in which the newspaper editor and his son cast women into the same kinds of roles that they inhabit within traditional capitalist society: homemakers doing the wash and the laundry, caring for the children, and if they enter the workplace, doing so as typists at most. The work of typing is discussed as particularly alienating because it requires, essentially, reading a text without being engaged by it: reading divorced from thinking, seeing divorced from thinking. Thus, when Odette asks Michel to recreate a scene of her typing up a newspaper article for him, she pauses in between lines, providing a running commentary on what she's thinking, what the words she's typing mean, what it means to be typing it as opposed to reading it or writing it. For Godard and Miéville, words matter, they're not to be used idly or reproduced by rote mechanical processes: words require first seeing, and then thinking in order to process their meaning.

Seeing and thinking are the results that Godard and Miéville were after in this film, and the others they made around this time. Like Godard's earlier ventures with the Dziga Vertov Group, this film feels intentionally unfinished, a work in progress that also charts its own progress towards the ideas that the filmmakers want to explore. The abstraction and minimalism of Comment ça va can be offputting, even for those accustomed to Godard's extreme disjunctive experiments in his late 60s and 70s films. This is a film where everything has been stripped away, the characters reduced to ciphers who are often only seen from behind, the story reduced to the barest hint of a thread winding through the wordy dueling voiceovers, occasionally glimpsed amidst the thickets of theory and ideological investigation. This is, like the DVG films, a kind of "blackboard" film, an education in thinking about images, sounds and their relationships. It's not one of Godard's best or most fully realized works, but it is nevertheless an interesting experiment from his forgotten period.


Classic Maiden said...

Great review - really gives an idea of what it's about and what it's intentions were and are...

*writes on future viewing*

Best wishes,

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Sebina. It's not the best of Godard's late 70s period, but it's interesting -- as, I must admit, I find all of his films.

It makes a good companion piece to his overlooked masterpiece Numero deux from a few years earlier.

Sam Juliano said...

Utterly brilliant, astounding piece of writing. I have not seen this "essayistic" video, but sounds essential. You are in a class by yourself when it comes to 70's Godard. (and any Godard for that matter)

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