Film Socialism

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 2010)


Dedicated to the memory of Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022)


The Wind Cries …


Patti Smith said that William Burroughs “gave me the freedom to communicate with the future through sound”.


Nicholas Ray dreamed of a project titled Passport in which a child would be found in the final shot, idly tearing up a passport and throwing it into the waves overlapping several nation states. National identity would be found and lost there, in that watery intersection.


What would music and texts already heard and read be if not dust, cultural dust, museum pieces, savings bonds … What would music and texts be that did not resist, that would let themselves be tamed? And films?


Film Socialism is the film that nobody expected. Not even from Jean-Luc Godard. A baffling, violent, absolutely uncompromising film, impossible to grasp on one viewing and maybe on ten viewings. The film we should all aspire to make as we approach the age of 80 years.


An assault, a fuck-you. No Comment. Sensory overload. Take it or leave it. As always, it has been rejected, ridiculed, suspected by many. That much is inevitable. Does this Godard think he is smarter than us? Does he want us to feel stupid, lost, confused? Maybe a little, yes.


* *


But if there is overload on one channel, there is simplicity on another. Pared down, purified. A woman walks up to a swimming pool on the ship and lets herself fall in: a perfect moment of limpid performance art amid the hellish society of the spectacle. Godard’s films have often had these simple gestures that cut through the chaos: Jean-Pierre Léaud wrapping and unwrapping his head in bandages; the Biblical Mary of today, in her car, putting on lipstick.


For criticism, for a new criticism, the task is neither to blindly refuse Godard’s film nor to just as blindly champion it. The task is not to interpret it, either – at least, not in the same old ways. The challenge is to use it, to take it in and take it over and remake it. With words and images and sounds and music; with computers and design and collage. The Critic as Artist: let’s give it a shot. We won’t all be as good as Godard, naturally. Not straight away, anyhow. We need practise at being creative. Creative criticism, which extends, which responds, which opens.


In a book called Opening Bazin (Oxford, 2011), we find a startling reformulation (by Hervé Joubert-Laurencin) of the standard relationship between film and the critical act. We are too used to thinking of the film work as something that is closed, formed, finite – and criticism as that which opens the film up, unpacks it, demonstrates its workings. Criticism as the unfixing of what is fixed, a deconstruction. That is the past model, our antiquity. Today, we can think things differently. The work of art or of film is what is, on the contrary, open – it offers and provides an opening, in every sense.


Then, what criticism does is to close the work, wrap it up and narrate it around a certain sense or direction – not definitively, once and for all, but always provisionally. A provisional closure. Criticism closes the film work in its embrace, which can be as sweet as it is deadly – Kiss Me Deadly, Kiss Me Stupid. But then the film, on the next viewing, effortlessly levers itself away from this bear-hug, smooth or smothering, and re-opens all its questions. Films are always ahead; critique follows in their wake, in their surf trail, reassembling the clues and telling the stories. This new way, as critics, is not our antiquity, it’s notre musique, our music.


* *


Remember what Giorgio Agamben said about the primordial split between the Historian: the one who remembers – and the Artist: the one who sings. It’s the chasm between theory (history) and practice (art) – two totally different mind-sets, two different approaches to the world and its works. Each position creates agony, envy, suspicion, reproaches in relation to the other: one is too cold, the other too hot; one is cerebral, the other intuitive; one works with systems and logics, the other with drives and feelings. And there is also the longing in each to escape who they are and become the other, to live in that other being for a while: to grasp things so clearly, or to be immersed in them so deeply, as to not grasp them at all. Yet Agamben – and this is his special gift as a thinker – once he has defined and articulated the stark poles of this dilemma, he saves us from despair, from the void of non-articulation, with a sudden, striking formulation: he reminds us that, ultimately, the voice that remembers also sings, and the voice that sings also remembers. That might be a good motto for 21st Century Godard; and for us, too.


* *


Godard’s American biographer spends many pages telling us that JLG’s recent work is determined by his fear of travel. That he has become insular, afraid, melancholic, withdrawn into himself in his Swiss interiors. So what does Godard do? He goes boating. (Or, at least, sends his chosen delegates boating.) With a vast set (the ship) and hundreds of extras (the passengers) and at least three cinematographic collaborators. Actions, events, interactions, dialogues, monologues, lectures, little shows are set up everywhere on the ship for roving cameras to capture, never very fully or comprehensively: for almost the first time ever, Godard approaches, in the way of staging and shooting here, the party-carnival atmospheres of Robert Altman or Abel Ferrara. Except that this cruise is a Dantean Ship of Fools. With various Circles of Hell.


Godard crosses the whole space of the Mediterranean in Film Socialism. He touches down everywhere – an image in very port. He films, he captures, he pillages. No Godard film has ever been populated, so rich. An astonishing chromatism of colours, tones, hues. A painterly cinema reborn, in total agitation. Action painting. So much like a documentary – but not – and no longer exactly an essay of the kind he has been making for some years. Contemporary world history washes in and out ceaselessly. The waves mark a point without fixity, yet riven with territory. War equals Art plus a Knife, says Patti Smith as she wanders, ship troubadour of the 21st Century.


It’s democratic, and it’s puvlerising. Every man for himself and Godard against all; sink or swim. Patti Smith and Alain Badiou get no better treatment than any other random, ugly tourist on board. Everybody, everything, is truncated, grabbed, inserted, and then whisked away. Montage is today a general principle of all-over pulverisation.


* *


We all know that Godard said, at the start, with Breathless (1960), that films should have a beginning, middle and end – but not necessarily in that order. Even Tarantino knows he said that. But what happens to narrative, and to narrative time, is stranger and trickier than that in Godard, right from the earliest works, 1961 or ’63 or ’65.


First, let us try to fix the unformed story, or rather stories, at the heart of Film Socialism. They are stories that Godard researched, turned over and thought about for a long time. On the ship, it is almost a kind of detective or crime story. There is an investigation – rambling, floating – of an incident not happening in the present, but which has happened decades earlier, during wartime. All society is a prolongation of war in Godard, of art plus a knife. All life is Life During Wartime. Godard has often quoted and re-used William Faulkner’s phrase: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”.


So we circle the traces of a crime, following a shadowy but zealous detective-investigator or two: gold, money, the hiding and transportation of wealth between individuals, between nations, between classes and cultures. Where Godard’s films once upon a time tended to be all about prostitution, now they tend to be all about theft. Shadowy, hard-to-find theft. Yet Godard has always believed that the Truth is Out There, the truth of history, in some book, some archive, even on the Internet as we see in Film Socialism – Godard’s rendezvous with the age of Wikileaks.


Like the grand hotel in Detective (1985), the ship here functions like a vast, interactive set that gives the illusions of fixing, in a rigorously coordinated space or place, a key event, a moment of origin. And yet this event is going to slip away, elude everybody. It’s not here, and yet it is everywhere. It has already happened; it is going on, perpetually happening; and at the end, it still remains to happen – an event, a moment looking for its future, its fulfillment.


These are precisely the three times of narrative, or the three levels of narration. First, the story already exists, as a solid, historical thing: it’s a myth, a cliché, like the story of the Gods in Contempt (1963), that we all know already, that has been told a million times. It’s History, closed up and repeating itself. This Immortal Story therefore does not really need to be told; it’s enough just to gesture to it, allude to it – pulverise it. It’s still the same old story, the fight for love and glory, a case of do or die – to quote a film of merry internationalism and resistant crime that Godard has always been fond of.


Second level, second time: the story is being told, it’s in the process of being fabricated, it’s something to be pursued, in flight, or at sea: like all the films-within-films forever being made, and never being finished, in Godard’s cinema. This story is happening all around us, and yet it is unlocalisable. It has no physical centre. In Film Socialism, the story is behind this or that door, happening in this or that monitored, surveyed conversation. But only ever in ambiguous grabs, looks, hints. Does power truly run through these bodies, these bank accounts, these electronic circuits and terminals? Didn’t Peter Wollen once name a certain kind of new cinema, between fiction, documentary and essay, as cinema without a passport?


Third level, third type of time: by the end, the story has not managed to be told, it still remains to be told, it is projected out into the future, to be taken up again. The proleptic tense beloved of Samuel Fuller: the end of this story can only be written by you, the spectator. Or the critic, if he or she dares.


* *


There is also a strange family story in Film Socialism. It is the hardest part to follow, or to grasp, or maybe even to like. For a long time now, Godard has enjoyed putting these hard, intemperate blocks in our way. Right in the middle of the road, in this case. Nothing comes easy. Where the first third of the film ranges wildly across the ship, and the final third returns to a magisterial restatement of poetic, historical collage, this second part is the stop-over, the shut-in. Land-locked. It’s a family as Godard has sometimes filmed the family, no dialogue, no togetherness in the room, only brutal, shouted commands and steady interrogations – each person in their corner of the space, and frequently with that corner positioned off-screen in the set-up of a scene.


The family devolves – Film Socialism is a film of devolution. Who are we? We are Devo! The animals run wild everywhere; the kids take over the state. A reign of Lewis Carroll-like nonsense takes hold. These are traces, echoes of futuristic, science-fiction stories that Godard has always liked, or even announced he would shoot at one time or another. Of course, he never makes or conventionally remakes any of the classics, the best selling novels, the famous films by his predecessors, that he makes the show of optioning. He pulverises them. These stories of animals and children speak to his sense of anarchy. A boy becomes the medium for music, twitching and conducting like Jean-Pierre Léaud did so often for Godard, a boy as a conducting rod, lightning rod.


Some of the cameras that were on board the ship come to this land-locked place. Has there ever been a Godard film with more cameras on screen (and also off-screen) than Film Socialism? Every kind of camera, still and moving, from the most professional to the domestic toy or mobile phone. Cameras, like interviews, once posed for Godard certain ideological questions: whose point of view, whose representation, for whom, broadcast how, along which lines and circuits of capital? That concern is still there, with these reporters, photo-journalists, ubiquitous TV producers, an occasional stray artist or filmmaker. But now it’s also, even more pressingly, the question of an image-democracy, something new to excite Godard’s sensibility.


Early in his career, Peter Greenaway launched a project titled Who Has Been Photographed? – still in the solid assumption that there were some people in the world who might not yet have been photographed. It’s as if Godard returns now to that project to answer: everyone is photographed, at all times. Image-banks run parallel to the world financial banks. Yet this is not so bad, not such a problem for Godard: he likes the transparency, the hollowing out of this, the level playing field. Contrary to yesterday, to ‘70s broadcast TV or the era of advertising and billboards, images come from everywhere and run everywhere. They are – can be – as undisciplined as the animals and children taking over the world.


Bring in the evidence, Godard once said, in his challenge to the American film critic Pauline Kael, and to all critics: use images and sounds to talk about images and sounds. In the age of the Internet, more than ever, these materials are there at our fingertips, to use. Godard said often in 2010 that, to distribute Film Socialism, he would like the young producer-exhibitors to parachute into certain unknown territories from a plane and hand out DVD copies.


* *


On the one hand, it’s every Godard film in one, an anthology, a summary. Whatever particle you pick, you will be brought back to some other Godard film; or whatever earlier film you begin from, you will find its trace here. The inventory would be truly endless: water, birds, sport, petrol stations, Palestine, TV, grand hotel, ancient Greece, characters carrying around every kind of camera …


On the other hand, it’s nothing like any Godard film has ever been before. At the end of a prodigious career (if we believed for a moment, foolishly, that this was truly the end), a totally new beginning. The images are produced from every kind of gadget: mobile phone, digital camera, degraded video (it’s Godard’s version of Brian De Palma’s Redacted [2007], another film of war). Blazing heterogeneity of means and effects. And sourced from totally banal places Godard has never gone to before – like DVD menus and YouTube clips.


If Film Socialism is any kind of sum-up or apotheosis, it might be for this ever-growing sense in Godard: the aching gap between the small private story and the vast public one, the décalage between the realm of capitalist money flows covering and driving everything, and the tiniest flash of personal, musical, poetic epiphany, the glimmer of the smallest and most fleeting epiphenomenon of beauty. The family garage is the site of this beauty; so is the garish boat with its disco-exercise screens and slot machines; so, too, the hotel or holiday rooms where so much of Godard’s furtive cinema of love and pain, betrayal and regret, plays itself out, from the first film to the latest. Here in this very room, where I have sentenced my love affair to death, as Leonard Cohen sang in the ‘70s.


For a long time now, Godard has evacuated psychological characterisation from the on-screen figures that bear these weighty stories of history and passion. But he has insisted on their human presence – just that little bit of reality, as he once avowed, something in the way they look, move or breathe. As presences who become vehicles for quotations, conduits for certain flows, place-holders in a complex diagram of power relations that precisely remain external to them – almost no one ever actually acts, as in gets to take action, in Godard’s cinema – these heavy bodies become cryptic vehicles, allegories almost, for a sentimental experience that, too, is lost to the determining grids of surveillance and control. A fight for love and glory, a fight never won in transformative action, and seemingly lost from the start – but also never fixed in the binary of winning and losing, success or failure, either. Nothing, no point, no fixed destiny, can be divined in those waters.


This would be the stake: to speak to those who have neither heard nor read rather than to those who do it out of duty, through routine or idleness, and to say to them: “Here, this too belongs to you, and is worth being read, heard or looked at; this violence is yours, and this desire”.


* *


A film that is wild and regressive. Surreal, infantile. Mad children, stray animals everywhere. Total breakdown of language: cries, squawks, shouting, babble, Lewis Carroll nonsense. Cats on YouTube having a dialogue that is mimicked by a human. A philosopher who speaks to no one; a child who seems to have jazz music pouring from his sleepy mouth. Godardian comedy taken to its zenith.


And what a soundtrack! Not the careful mixing and layering we have come to know from the last two decades of Godard and his sound man Musy. Not much classical music, no soothing sounds of nature. The soundtrack is – for the first time since his harsh TV series of the 1970s – resolutely raw, full of holes, straight from the camera. An automatic, machine sound (Metal Machine Music) distributed like in a ping-pong game across the stereo speakers, left or right, and very little in the middle. Absences, intervals, ditches and glitches everywhere.


And the wind! Godard lets it hit the microphone without any protection or filter, producing only a sheet of white noise, a wall of sheer, ugly sound that no professional would ever keep in the mix. A cinema of noise; a Wall of Noise. The wind cries, screeches, obliterates. This is often all we hear on board the boat: the flapping of that aural distortion. Everything is secondary to it. Speech disappears into it, forcibly truncated (no conversation or monologue retains its beginning or its end, not even when it’s from Patti Smith); dead silence registers as an exhausted pop produced by it. Pulverisation of all vocal and aural meaning. Back to the zero of the cries and the miaows …


* *


What, after all, is philosophy, art, revolution? Deleuze & Guattari said it: “This is, precisely, the task of all art and, from colours and sounds, both music and painting similarly extract new harmonies, new plastic or melodic landscapes, and new rhythmic characters that raise them to the height of the earth’s song and the cry of humanity: that which constitutes the tone, the health, becoming, a visual and sonorous block. A monument does not commemorate or celebrate something that happened but confides to the ear of the future the persistent sensations that embody the event. … The success of a revolution resides only in itself, precisely in the vibrations, clinches and openings it gave to men and women at the moment of its making and that composes in itself a monument that is always in the process of becoming.”


Or: What circulates, transforms itself, generates itself between these words, their resistance and the resistance of the material – concrete materials: cameras and microphones, and – less malleable – faces, bodies, ways of speaking. And more: light, wind, shadows …


Jean-André Fieschi said that, in around 1973, of the films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub – where he also said other words lifted here – but his words were a sound, a voice destined to communicate with the future, with our Utopian State of Film Socialism.


Patti Smith again, and one last time: Where there is conception, let there be intuition. And: where there is the drama of birth and death, let there be play, vacillation. Where there are borders, let there be waves.

MORE Godard (films): Aria, Soigne ta droite, Hélas pour moi, Histoire(s) du cinéma 1A & 1B, For Ever Mozart, Masculin Féminin, Éloge de l'amour, Vivre sa vie, Sauve qui peut (la vie), La Chinoise, Made in USA, Tout va bien, Alphaville

MORE Godard (essays): Godard in the Gallery: Story of a Ruination, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible

© Adrian Martin August 2010 / November 2015 / August 2018

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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