Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Struggles In Italy

During his early 70s flirtation with collective filmmaking, Jean-Luc Godard came to think of cinema as a "blackboard," a conduit for revolutionary political ideas, a blank slate on which ideas could be debated and developed. As a result, most of the films from this period, made under the aegis of the Dziga Vertov Group (consisting, in practice, mostly of Godard and his collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin), are unfinished by design, as much about the (thought) process as the final result. This is especially true of Struggles In Italy, the film the group made about the situation of the class struggle in early 70s Italy. This is a road trip movie for the group, who shot much of the footage in Italy, but one would be hard-pressed to tell that from the film itself. Other than the presence of Italian along with French on the voiceover track — sometimes overlapping, sometimes translating for one another — the film betrays few traces of a specifically Italian outlook on the issues that typically wove through the Dziga Vertov Group films: class, gender, sexuality, work, the difference between "theory" and "practice." Indeed, some of the film was shot back in Paris, at the apartment Godard shared with Anne Wiazemsky (who appears briefly as a store clerk), and the film is so reliant on interiors and abstracted, minimalist locations that it'd be difficult to parse out just how much of this is actually even set in Italy.

The result is a modest, minor work from the DVG, an hour-long examination of the difficulties of the class struggle. Even more so than most of these films, Struggles In Italy deals explicitly with the process by which would-be radicals can develop and change from a cursory understanding of radical politics to a deeper engagement with their ideas. The film itself directly reflects this process. Its first half is confused and fragmentary, mired in dense mazes of words from which few concrete ideas are able to escape. The voiceover keeps making distinctions between "theory" and "practice," but it's difficult to see much of either in the rambling, discursive style of the film, which at first almost entirely avoids tangible reality in favor of textbook-style pronouncements and theoretical dialectics. One is tempted to dismiss the film altogether as a particularly frazzled product of Godard and Gorin's revolutionary period. Godard in the late 60s and 70s was often teetering on the edge of this kind of self-referential nonsense, always in danger of tying himself into such ideological knots that the film might implode, but seldom actually achieving the level of incoherence on display here.

Godard being Godard, of course, it turns out that there's more going on here than there appears to be at first. Something interesting happens about halfway through: namely, it becomes clear that the film's first half is intentionally obtuse and confused, and that Godard is very interested in discussing, in some detail, just why his film was in such apparent danger of disappearing up its own ass. The film's second half proceeds to critique, dissect and analyze everything that happened in the first half, with a self-critical perspective that is disarmingly candid. Loosely speaking, the film is the story of an Italian girl named Paola (Cristiana Tulio-Altan) who is involved in revolutionary Marxist politics within her country. She disseminates radical newspapers and makes posters decorated with slogans, but she struggles to get at a deeper understanding of how to live a truly "radical" life: in her relationships with her parents, her university professors, her lover, and the worker who she tutors.

In the first half of the film, she acquiesces to bourgeois conventions even while preaching a radical philosophy. She obeys the dictates of her professor, who teaches from a position of authority and passes on bourgeois learning. She doesn't talk openly with her lover, dodging political and sexual subjects, and when the worker she tutors asks her questions, she evades them as well rather than trying to engage him in a dialogue. Even an attempt to become part of the working class by taking a job in a factory doesn't achieve her goal: she finds herself more alienated than ever from the proletariat, handing out fliers that are quickly glanced at and then tossed aside. She has "theory," but she has not managed to apply her ideas in practice.

The aesthetics in the film's first half reflect the heroine's fractured state. The images are frequently interspersed with lengths of black leader, empty spaces that Godard would later fill in with concrete representations of factory workers, links in the chain of production. The voiceover rambles aimlessly, often disconnected from the images, unable to string together a coherent argument. The film is about a process of discovery, about the search for answers that accompanies growing up. Godard of course positions this discovery within a Marxist context, but this could just as easily be a film about growing up in general: learning to refine and develop one's ideas, to put them into practice, to gain new knowledge and experience. The film is about the transition from naïve youth to mature adulthood.

As Paola gains confidence — opening a political conversation with her lover, struggling to answer the worker's questions, rethinking her previous unthinking acquiescence to authority from parents and teachers — the film itself begins to find its bearings along with her. Scenes from earlier parts are revisited with new images and contextual material to clarify the ideas being explored. A lengthy sequence of Paola trying on clothes is fleshed out with images of factory workers and machines in order to draw the connections from the means of production to the final consumer, and also to accentuate the money gained in between these two stages: from the working class with their low wages to the very expensive final product, making money for someone but certainly not for the original worker. Even the voiceover subtly shifts in its pronouns, from a disinterested third person to a second person "you," drawing the audience into the film, and finally to the first person, with Paola taking responsibility for her own critique. From a disjointed and unsatisfying melange of regurgitated "radical" ideas, the film subtly morphs into a critique of those ideas and a genuine attempt to get beyond polemics and empty radical posturing.

Not that the film always succeeds: even after achieving this newfound clarity, Paola's rhetoric to the worker she tutors verges on incoherent chatter, a barrage of abstractions thoroughly divorced from prosaic reality. It's not at all clear if Godard realizes this or if he thinks she's saying something profound. But in any event, this film is clearly a starting point rather than a destination. It's about the thought process, about the ways in which ideas can change and mature over time, about self-discovery and the questioning of one's own ideals and behaviors. If the film is often trite, confusing and contradictory, looping back on itself and running in circles, well, that's often the way one's thoughts seem when one is trying to grapple with big ideas and complex issues. As with all of the DVG's work, Struggles In Italy encourages this kind of self-conscious thinking, this process of rejuvenation and reconsideration. The filmmakers, like their heroine, refuse to become stale or static, preferring to continue asking questions and digging deeper, even if it means reevaluating their own aims and ideas. There is in these films a refreshing openness to intellectual inquiry and debate, a curiosity and restlessness that belies the sometimes polemical thrust of the films' ideologies.


Sam Juliano said...

Well, I just read this entire review, and appreciate your customary stellar appraisal. Of course I haven't seen this film, and several other Godard's (even if I have seen most) and can relate some of the experience you had watching this with my own experience with NOTRE MUSIQUE, even if they ultimately aren't to be compared in any rational way. I think of this:

"The voiceover rambles aimlessly, often disconnected from the images, unable to string together a coherent argument."

But subsequent viewings of NOTRE MUSIQUE for me have been better, which is what I would believe would be the case with STRUGGLES IN ITALY.

But first I need to see it once.

Superlative review on a director you know better than anyone.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, what I meant in the line you quote is that to some extent Godard intended this incoherence here. The film is about the process of discovery, about moving from uncertainty to a greater understanding of one's life and political ideals. Which is not to say that the film isn't also sometimes just plain incoherent.

On the other hand, I was blown away by Notre Musique the first time I saw it -- especially the opening segment in "Hell" -- and consider it one of Godard's best later films.

Sam Juliano said...

OK Ed, I see what you are saying here. Thanks for the clarification, but I'll admit I read it wrong.