Monday, May 19, 2014

Jean-Luc Godard, Dziga Vertov Group and Woody Allen

What makes Jean-Luc Godard’s films so unique and what about them changed and what would remain the same as he would evolve as a filmmaker? Is there anything in particular that can unite films as diverse as Le mépris (1963), 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (1966), Le Vent d'est (1969), Soigne ta droite (1987), Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998), and Film Socialisme (2010)? Since his first full-length feature À bout de souffle (1960), a Parisian crime thriller influenced by the Hollywood film noirs from the 40s - and which proved its cinephilic credentials by being dedicated to the B-movie studio Monograph Pictures - to his agitation-propaganda, video work and the most recent digital and 3D films, Godard has engaged with three primary principals: cinephilia, formal experimentation and politics. If some of his films are so different than the others it is because in them Godard solely pursued one of these principals to the disregard of the others. But if there is consistency to Godard’s oeuvre it is that he inevitably returns to an equilibrium.
Having revolutionized the ideas of a modern, self-conscious cinema first through criticism as a film critic at Cahiers du Cinema and then through filmmaking along with the nouvelle vague directors, Godard has then spent the subsequent fifty years of his life making over one-hundred cinematic works on a variety of formats, which are consistent in their constant interrogation of the world and the medium’s potential. This paper will explore Godard’s signature filmmaking traits with a particular focus on his Dziga Vertov Group (DVG) films and his subsequent film and video work. As well as how these new political filmmaking practices were conceptualized at Cahiers as they themselves were radicalizing.
The mass student protests in May 1968 was the catalyst for Godard to spend 1969 to 1973 with the DVG where with Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jean-Henri Roger and Paul Burron, among others, they escaped the authorial point-of-view for that of the collective. They made over ten films that represent the theoretical summit of what is the ‘political film,’ which was for them a form of social intervention that also radicalized the film form. After this period in his life, Godard, with his new wife Anne-Marie Miéville, moved to Grenoble where he started an alternative video production and distribution company, Sonimage. Like the Hitchcockian wrong man, Godard needed to fall from grace, having to denounce the entertaining commercial films of his early career to pursue the logical conclusions of a cinema of protest, before he can re-invent himself in the 80s having matured, where he now could focus on the intimate and explore the political through the personal.
There is a binary for Godard, which is that cinema offers both the potential for an authentic human experience along with a form of deception. For Godard, acknowledging how that the later – cinema’s veil of fiction – is corrupt inevitably complicates the former and makes it more difficult to search for authenticity and honesty in the creative process. If Godard has appeared cynical or ironic, in either his films or public media appearances since the 80s, it is because these positions have become the general starting point for a serious discussion of the human condition within the growing, omnipresent televisual and new media landscape of late capitalism.

Dziga Vertov Group
“The problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically,” writes Godard. This mantra is useful to understand the DVG films. To make a political film or to make a film politically there are some defining questions that must be asked: What is the role of cinema on the cultural front-line? What can a film achieve on a local, national and global context? How to film the Marxist class struggle? What is the ideal organizational form of a society? What alternative does communism and socialism have to offer against a dominant global capitalism? What is the relationship between theory and practice? These questions don’t have any easy answers nor are they static but instead are both personal and social, and evolve with maturation and in response to a changing world.
The DVG films and Cahiers in the 70s due to their militant position offer an interesting case study to answer these questions. Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni were the chief editors at Cahiers from 1965 to 1974 and they changed the editorial position of the magazine from a classical cinephilia towards a more modernist one, which emphasized emerging new world cinemas, political films and theoretical texts. This is the period of fighting back against the “authoritarian” Fifth Republic of Charles de Gaulle. There is the protest against the censorship of Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse (1966) and there is the Henri Langlois affair, there is the closing down of the Cannes film festival and the May 1968 student riots. This period of heavy politicization at Cahiers not only reflected larger cultural ideas of political engagement but was also an attempt to catch up with the social engagement of one of its foundational figures Godard whose film La Chinoise (1967) was a catalyst for their change. With this change came a distancing between the magazine and its publisher Daniel Filipacchi who they would eventually split with due to disagreements over having to publish more on a popular cinema (which is what he preferred and also had commercial imperatives) and afterwards they reduced their publishing to only four issues a year, which they would print at the French Communist Party publishing house. There is a retreat to marginality, which is against a mainstream cinema and the official ideology of France. These changes would be in parallel to Godard’s political utopianism, which he was trying to achieve with his own filmmaking practices with the DVG.
One particular incarnation of Comolli and Narboni’s new editorial position would be their essay “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism.”[1] It was a way for them to lay out a proposition for a more scientific form of film-criticism beyond a less ‘subjective’ aesthetic, religious and moral criteria. For Comolli and Narboni, “This implies awareness of its own historical and social situation, a rigorous analysis of the proposed field of study, the conditions which make the work necessary and those which make it possible, and the special function it intends to fulfill.”[2] By this Comolli and Narboni mean that they would interrogate their subjectivity just as they would the films and their relationship to its ideology. One of the important points of the essay is when Comolli and Narboni describe the relationship between cinema and the economy,

One the one hand it is a particular product, manufactured within a given system of economic relations, and involving labor-factored within a given system of economic relations, and involving labor (which appears to the capitalist as money) to produce – a condition to which even ‘independent’ film-makers and the ‘new cinema’ are subject – assembling a certain number of workers for this purpose (even the director, whether he is Moullet or Oury, is in the last analysis only a film worker). It becomes transformed into a commodity, possessing exchange value, which is realized by the sale of tickets and contracts, and governed by the laws of the market. On the other hand, as a result of being a material product of the system, it is also an ideological product of the system, which in France means capitalism.[3]

Comolli and Narboni would adopt a more aggressive Marxist-Maoist position where cinema was utilized as a tool on the cultural front against a capitalist industry of profit. As Sylvia Harvey argues in May ’68 and Film Culture the impact of May ’68 greatly contributed to the development of Marxist film criticism in France.[4] The emphasis at Cahiers and at other intellectual cultural journals like Cinéthique, Tel Quel and Positif would be that of a bourgeoning new kind of film writing based around theories of ideology and a materialist understanding of culture and culture production. Christian Metz and the study of semiotics along with Jacques Lacan and psychoanalysis would become important analytical tools for the Cahiers film-criticism in this period.
In this period the ideas of the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser were becoming influential. In his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” Althusser defines society dually: It has an infrastructure, which is it’s the economic base (e.g. the ‘unity’ of the productive forces, the relations of production), and a superstructure, which includes the state and the law.[5] There are two potentially different forms of state apparatuses: there are the Repressive State Apparatuses and the Ideological State Apparatuses. The basic difference between the two is that the, “Repressive State Apparatus functions ‘by violence’, whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses function ‘by ideology’.”[6] The Ideological State Apparatuses present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions, which includes religion, education, family, media etc. And even though the idea of ideology is an abstract concept it is rendered physical by concrete subjects incarnating them. As Althusser writes, “there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects. Meaning, there is no ideology except for concrete subjects, and this destination for ideology is only made possible by the subject: meaning, by the category of the subject and its functioning.”[7]
What is interesting about the cinema and film criticism of this post-68 period is how by pushing the boundaries of cinema and politics it exemplifies an uncompromising commitment to political cinematic forms as well as the limitations on what they can accomplish. Godard was already becoming more politicized before he joined the DVG. The iconoclastic cinephilia of Godard’s early films and the nouvelle vague in general was meant to be a revolutionary rupture within film history. Godard’s key filmmaking stylistics created a shift in acceptability in filmmaking practices and led to a transition towards a new modern cinema. Some of these stylistics include technological effects that arise from practical filmmaking solutions, a nonchalant worldview as incarnated in people’s attitudes and gestures, a youthful and fast-pace style, an original and daring approach to the creation of content and adaptation, and a sense of daring and scandal. Even though there was a joyous and entertaining quality to Godard’s pre-La Chinoise films there was a still a political aspect to them. For example Le Petit Soldat (1963) is about a soldier during the Algerian War, and Les Carabiniers (1963) is about a dystopian society always at war. Even in his famous interview with Fritz Lang Le Dinosaure Et Le Bébé (1967) Godard was already describing the negative effects of French censorship and his combative nature against it.
When the DVG goes to Czechoslovakia to make Pravda (1969) or Italy in Lotte in Italia (1969) they are travelling to engage with international social movements while creating films that attests to this radical spirit. Their Marx infused method aims for the revolutionary seizure of power and their tactics called for an organized movement. Some of their championed causes included the workers movements, civil rights and third world struggles. A goal of the DVG was to highlight protest, which the media was not covering, along with to democratize the filmmaking apparatus by allowing the workers and strikers to make their own films. The group is generally credited to have made nine full films: Un Film comme les autres (1968), British Sounds (1969), Pravda, Le Vent d'est, Lotte in Italia, Jusqu'à la victoire (1970), Vladimir et Rosa (1971), Tout va bien (1972), and Letter to Jane (1972).
The group was in activity up to 1972 and they disbanded after the pair films Tout va bien, about a manifestation at work meat factory and how it was reported in the news, and Letter to Jane, a gauchiste critique of the Tout va bien American star Jane Fonda and her liberal humanitarian activism for the anti-Vietnam War movement. The films of the DVG are famous stylistically for their aesthetic techniques that include a Brechtian form, a Marxist ideology and lack of personal authorship. Quite a few of the films remained unfinished or were denied the right to be projected. If by pushing cinema, which at its roots is an industrial narrative art-form that is most regularly identified with the Hollywood factory, towards politics the DVG and Cahiers were proposing a radical break with its tradition and instead the pursuit in uncharted territories of a new political cinema.
The DVG film about the Palestine Liberation Organization Jusqu'à la victoire could not be completed by the group so Godard and Melville would later make from the material Ici et ailleurs (1974). Godard and Melville would go on to create other works on video, which includes Numéro deux (1975), France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1977), Comment ça va? (1978), as well as some short-films, documentaries and other miscellaneous videos. After this Godard’s return to more traditional fiction films was first with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980), which was the first of a series of films marked with autobiographical currents. The other films include Passion (1982), Lettre à Freddy Buache (1982), Prénom Carmen (1984), Détective (1985), and Grandeur et décadence d'un petit commerce de cinéma (1986). These films were also controversial and Godard was never a director to receive unanimous praise – for example, see the negative critiques on his films from the Positif throughout his entire career – and some of his films like Je vous salue, Marie (1985) would condemned by the Catholic Church for alleged heresy. In this period Godard also adapted King Lear (1987), which became an extraordinary and freewheeling mediation on William Shakespeare and language.

Godard, Capitalism and Woody Allen
In Anne-Marie Miéville’s Nous sommes tous encore ici (1997) Aurore Clément plays a stand-in for Miéville while Godard acts for himself as the two of them relive and discus their intimate romantic and personal dramas, in a tradition similar to what Godard did with Anna Karina in the 60s. The film is divided into three parts. It begins with two women (Clément and Bernadette Lafont, two icons of the nouvelle vague) reciting one of Plato’s Dialogues as they perform domestic chores, and then it goes to Godard on an empty stage where he recites Hannah Arendt's essay "The Nature of Totalitarianism," and finally in its longest section Clément and Godard go about a day in the life of a married couple as they discuss their social disappointments and personal fears.
Godard is often typified as being an angry, reclusive, vague, impenetrable, unwelcoming, serious, formalist etc. There are too many negative character traits associated with him even though the films themselves remain most of the time unseen, especially his output since the 70s, and this unfair characterization tends to overlook the diversity of his oeuvre and his warmth, generosity, honesty and humor. It is true that since the DVG films some of Godard’s key themes include a negative critique of capitalism and the human alienation that occurs within it – as illustrated by the reoccurring character of the prostitute in his cinema, selling herself to the uncultured business man – and an impenetrable approach to form – for example, the allusive Navajo subtitles for Film Socialisme – but since his departure from the DVG there has also been an internal questioning of humanity, which has made him less cynical. For example in the extended documentary-television series France/tour/détour/deux/enfants on a mother and her two children, there are the children that speak for themselves, and reflect a kind humanity, which both humbles the criticalness of Godard’s inquiry, and shows how Godard’s critique of a capitalist society has validity, because at times the children reflect on the sadness of the world. In Sauve qui peut (la vie) the mother-children relationship is a site of emotional struggle within a very harsh landscape.
This transition from the political to the personal is a really interesting shift in Godard’s career as it illustrates the limits of the former and interrogates the idea of the self-expression and the creative process of the later. The Godard-Miéville pair and their output is actually very similar to another director and his work and the relationship with his wives: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, and Allen with Mia Farrow. If one looks at Allen’s career and his films after his shift away from slapstick comedies to more serious intellectual comedy-dramas: the films between Annie Hall (1977) and Celebrity (1998). Even though Allen's films after this start to feel more like a routine activity then they do as political statements, in these early films there are many key social themes and personal anguishes that are being explored, which make for an interesting comparison with the films by Godard from this period.
The most obvious connection between Godard and Allen is the documentary Godard made on him, Meetin’ WA (1986). Opening on a shot of Godard looking out a window onto Central Park with a superimposed drawn portrait of Allen onto, Godard begins by describing his friendly relationship with the famous New York City director. This is the beginning of their eventual meeting. In Meetin’ WA there then a lengthy conversation between the two that is filmed in Godard’s characteristic filming style as it is interjected with sub-titles and has an unusual approach to perspective, sound and editing. The two directors discuss the press, acting, architecture, inter-titles (“The way you use it is a cinematic device, the way I use it is a literary device.”), cinematography, the changing nature of cinema, and the dying repertory culture in New York. There is a shared anxiety between the two directors and it is more than just personal as they bring these doubts to the visuals of their films.
Some scenes that stick out in Allen’s career that seem Godardian include: The scene in Annie Hall (1977) where Allen’s character goes to Los Angeles and critiques the sitcom with its laugh-track, in Stardust Memories (1980) there is the director who is angry towards his appreciative audience, in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) the young woman who meets a character that walks right out of a movie-theater’s screen, the dealing with gender and race issues in Radio Days (1987), and the documentary on the philosopher in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). The list can go on. Another connection between both directors is their interest in doomed couples that inevitably break up (e.g. the couple in Tout va Bien). They both also have an interest in jazz that they include on the soundtrack of their films. Godard has even casted Allen in his film King Lear.
Though there are influences by other comedy directors on Godard, most notably Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin but also Jacques Tati, Woody Allen and his anxieties, which are both personal and social, are an important reference point for Godard’s 80s films. It is through this return to a classic interest in cinema and the films of Woody Allen, and away from the directly political, that Godard was able to re-invent himself in the 80s by shifting the subject of his films more towards himself in a stylized comic representation, which would become a starting point for him to discuss personal experiences, though somewhat ironically, and their relation to the social body.

A key aspect of Godard’s cinema is its role as historical memory, which is both political and cinematic. This can be seen in Histoire(s) du cinéma in regards to politics through its interrogation of the ability of cinema to document and make sense of war and the abuse of human right. This can be seen in Alain Fleischer’s documentary Morceaux de conversations avec Jean-Luc Godard (2009) in terms of film history when Godard takes Jean Narboni into his film collection and discusses the key directors of the medium as they browse through his VHS collection. Raymond Bellour highlights this Proustian quality to Godard in the essay “When the Photograph of Cinema is Written”[8] where he discusses Jean-Francois Chevrier’s book Proust et la photographie and its relation to Godard and other art-film directors like Michael Snow, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Chris Marker, Marguerite Duras, Jacques Fieschi, and Thierry Kuntzel. Bellour highlights the modernity of nostalgia amongst all of them and how this trait builds upon the classical film narrative model, “being Proustian means scratching that film, not accepting its mirage.” For Bellour being Proustian also means,

attacking the image’s substance, its irrepressible tendency towards naturalism, and its mechanical consent to tendency towards naturalism, and its mechanical consent to the dispositive (there are many ways of going about this, but the voice – words, phrases – is certainly one of the privileged access points: touching the image from the outside, it alters and reconstructs it, modifying its enunciation).[9]

While for Daniel Morgan in Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema describes Godard more in pictorial terms. [10] There are five key filmmaking stylistics to Godard’s work since 80s, according to Morgan, and they are: an argumentative quality to the montage, manipulated images, a medium specificity, an authorial point-of-view, and a natural beauty.[11] The films have less to do with a photographic realism as elaborated by André Bazin and more to do with painting and a wider tradition of image making. For Morgan,

His understanding of cinema, as I’ve been arguing throughout is fundamentally impure, containing multiple styles, media, and forms of appeal. And so photography is not entirely eliminated from Godard’s account of cinema: it takes a place within the wider ecology of artistic media that cinema contains and is built out of, no longer the privileged medium, but one of many.[12]

There is a sense of rediscovery that comes from acknowledging the impurity of cinema, and through this comes the potential to renew the contemporary relevance of its forms. The cinema has a complicated relationship to represent the social and political realities of they day as it evolves with the new technologies of media production and distribution. Godard brings to this whole situation an emphasis on the medium’s aesthetic potential, its philosophical role, and ability to protest. With Godard’s new films like the recent 3D projects 3 x 3D (2013) and Adieu au Langage (2014) he is paving the way for the future of cinema.

[1] Comolli, Jean-Luc & Jean Narboni. “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” from Movies and Methods Volume II. Bill Nichols ed(s). California: University of California Press, 1992.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Harvey, Sylvia. May '68 and Film Culture. London: British Film Institute, 1980.
[5] Althusser, Louis. On The Reproduction Of Capitalism: Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses. New York: Verso, 2014.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Bellour, Raymond. Between-the-Images. New York City: Distributed Art Publishers, 2012.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Morgan, Daniel. Late Godard: and the Possibilities of Cinema. Berkeley: University of California, 2013.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.

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