Tag Archives: Jean-Luc Godard

Daydreams and Revolution

…much of what the dossiers call Pirate Prentice is a strange talent for-well, for getting inside the fantasies of others: being able, actually, to take over the burden of managing them…It is a gift the firm has found uncommonly useful: at this time mentally healthy leaders and other historical figures are indispensable. What better way to cup and bleed them of excess anxiety than to get someone else to take over the running of their exhausting little daydreams for them…to live in the tame green lights of their tropical refuges, in the breezes through their cabanas, to drink their tall drinks, changing your seat to face the entrance of their public places, not letting their innocence suffer any more than it already has…to get their erections for them at the oncome of thoughts the doctors feel are inappropriate…fear all, all they cannot afford to fear…

-Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

At the beginning of his magnum opus Histoire(s) du Cinema, Jean-Luc Godard states his goal: to present a history of all the films that were never made. Over the hour of the first installment, his own chanting voice layered over itself with tape effects suggesting a religious chant melting is paired with snippets of popular songs and dialogue from movies played over snippets from these and other films, stills of historical events and famous paintings. These images fade in and out of each other, blink back and forth rapidly. Sometimes they’re held in stillness. They sometimes cut to images of Godard himself poking at his typewriter or thumbing through titles on his bookshelf. Other times they cut to patches of black blank screen.

As the film progresses, the importance of the title makes itself apparent-sandwiched between history and cinema is the “s”. The parentheses around the “s” are just as important; they present it simultaneously as a letter we can see and the implication that it isn’t actually supposed to be there; a speculation made concrete by the conjuring power of the language, be it a typed phrase or the space between the images in the film reel. The unreachable sublime object that forms the center of the title the same object being reached at throughout its run time. Images mired in context are brought into the space of dreams; what was the Brechtian device of distancing in the avant-garde structuralist cinema becomes in fact the very space of the immersion of dreams. And as we know, the operations of dreams far exceed the strictures of the pleasure (of their) principle(s).

In the weeks and months after the Zuccotti Park uprising was suppressed by the storm troopers, rumors and excited proclamations still abounded. I got a phone call saying tents were going to be set up in Bryant Park that December; excited I shared the news only to arrive at the same ice rink, the same giant library steps, the same little shops with the same conspicuous trinkets, the same Bryant Park I’d always known, and in the these presences I saw only the lack of tents. I wandered a bit. On a bench I sat and stared at the excessively well dressed couples lazily gliding on the ice long enough for my mind to begin the actual wandering I’d come for.

These proclamations distanced themselves as echoes do. Eventually they stopped altogether. And so the repression begun by the police in the space of the physical had to be completed by the Occupiers in the space of the mind. Further calls of a reemergence were soon met by other activists with angry chastisements made in the guise of practicality or “being real” that it wasn’t going to happen. Underneath this anger sat, of course, the fear of another heartbreak. The many onlookers, some of whom had sent money or visited the Occupation, who had seen it the entire time as a space to watch from a distance in which they could once again be freed to daydream their long repressed daydreams of the possibility of something else, repeatedly asked and continue to ask in confused tones “Where did it go?”

Occupy was the “s” in the parentheses. And in the hasty essays which have since and continue to be piled into the lumpy monolith of the digital left, we see, etched into its surface, tessellated images of a couples’ dance between the possibility of the parenthesis and the frustrated enclosure of the redaction. And we squint; we want to see what these dancers that have so mesmerized us look like, to ponder their faces like those of Hollywood actors or those well-manicured suburban lawns of boys and girls in the catalogs, to wonder if they’d like us or what we’d chose faced with the possibility of rejecting them, secretly secure the odds are against us ever consummating that horrific encounter with their actuality. While squinting sometimes the faces look familiar. Punch and Judy perhaps? But which is Punch? Which is Judy?

Is it naive to consider the revolution any differently? And so, to those who ask of my prior anecdote, “Why didn’t you bring a tent yourself?”, therein lies both your answer and my evasion. And in my evading, I must ask whether the stigma on the evasion is performed with the proper weight.

All that has taken the mask of the practical has led us here.

And so I keep squinting, writing the histories of all the revolutions that were never made.

From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995)

Most film lovers are familiar with Jean Seberg. Her iconic look in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless has been imitated so many times that even people who have never heard her name are familiar with her work. But Seberg was more than just a blond pixie cut and a bad French accent. She was a progressive, even a revolutionary political activist. She was also the victim of one of the most vicious FBI smear campaigns in the history of Cointelpro.

Daniel Levine — the director of the new film American Plain Songs — briefly introduced us to the work of Mark Rapport last year. Rappaport, who’s almost completely unknown to the general public, but highly regarded among film critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and the late Roger Ebert, has made what might be the only documentary that does Jean Seberg justice as a political activist and feminist. His approach, an imaginary, “found” autobiography read by an actress who looks almost, but not quite like Jean Seberg, he not only rescues her from the movies. It rescues her from herself.

Mary Beth Hurt, like Jean Seberg, is a blond American “girl next door” with a pixie cut, and a flat, Midwestern accent. But, 50 years old in 1995, she lacks Seberg’s movie star glamor. Rappaport could have easily cast a more beautiful actress in the role. Chloe Sevigny in her Kids/Trees Lounge days looked remarkably like a rougher version of the young Jean Seberg. But Seberg as a plain, middle-aged woman – someone who looks like your English professor – is entirely Mark Rappaport’s point. Mary Beth Hurt is the real Jean Seberg, not the glamorized icon of the French New Wave. In Rappaport’s imagination, she becomes the woman she might have become had she not been destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover, and a series of abusive husbands.

In Mark Rappaport’s “found” diary, not quite history, yet not quite fiction, Seberg becomes a lost voice of the 1960s counter culture. She starts at age 17, when she was chosen by Otto Preminger to star in his film Saint Joan, not in spite of, but because of her lack of acting experience. Preminger wanted to cast an actress the same age as the real Joan of Arc, but what worked for Franco Zeffirelli in Romeo and Juliet fell flat for Otto Preminger. Seberg was terribly miscast as Joan. What’s more, as Seberg/Rappaport/Hurt make clear, realism isn’t always “realistic.” Sometimes it’s just distracting. The fact that Seberg was actually burned by the real fire Preminger set to consume the fictional Joan of Arc adds nothing to the story’s dramatic impact, as Rappaport makes clear when he juxtaposes images from Preminger’s clumsy film to Dreyer’s masterpiece, The Passion of John of Arc.

Even worse, Seberg’s relationship with Preminger, who liked to bully young actresses, probably set the template for her marriage to Romain Gary, an abusive relationship that made her all the more vulnerable to the attacks by the FBI’s Cointelpro program. If Seberg was miscast, as Saint Joan, Seberg maintains, then it was because Joan, unlike Juliet, an ordinary teenage girl, was a woman of heroic stature. When she mentions Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave as two actresses who would have probably done better in the role, it’s more than just an offhanded suggestion. Instead, in a remarkable sequence, Mark Rappaport weaves the lives of Seberg, Redgrave, Fonda, three women dedicated to radical politics as well as film, into a single thread, making a familiar side of the 1960s even more familiar by re-imagining it from a novel perspective.

Indeed, instead of going into a detailed history of how J. Edgar Hoover became obsessed with Seberg after she became a supporter of the Black Panthers, Rappaport shows us that she was part of a larger trend. Redgrave was widely vilified in the 1970s for her support of Palestinian nationalism. Seberg herself was subjected to a Cointelpro campaign in a large part of the corporate press, especially those newspapers loyal to the FBI. When she bore a stillborn baby to Romain Gary, she actually displayed it in a glass coffin to prove that the father had been white, and not a member of the Black Panthers, as Hoover had convinced so many newspaper reporters.

But it was Jane Fonda who became the focus of the venom of the American right, a hatred that lasted right through the Bush administration, and probably still exists today. Rappaport’s parallel lives of Fonda and Seberg are richly detailed, uncovering connections between the two women we never quite realized existed. Fonda’s failed audition in the film Klute, for example, has her reading lines from Preminger’s Saint Joan. Had she read for the part? Fonda’s early role in Barbarella as an insatiable sex kitten was later echoed in a Romain Gary film starring Seberg, where Seberg’s character, unlike Barbarella, is a nymphomaniac who can’t achieve an orgasm. If Jane Fonda survived Cointelpro and the right-wing smear campaign, Jean, or rather Mark Rappaport, maintains, then it was largely because of her wealthy family and privileged upbringing. She had resources she could draw on that a middle-class girl from the Midwest didn’t.

Nevertheless, while she didn’t die at the age of 40, racked by the drug and alcohol addiction that came from J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta, Jane Fonda, in the end, backed down. Filming On Golden Pond with her father Henry Fonda, she issued an apology for her trip to North Vietnam. “Why?” Rappaport asks us, did Fonda apologize for her heroic opposition to the Vietnam War, and not for her role as a “bimbo” in Barbarella? The answer is obvious. We live in a culture that accepts women as bimbos, but not political activists. The FBI destroyed Jean Seberg because she stepped out of the role American conservatism demanded she play. They could handle her as a blond movie goddess. They couldn’t handle a woman who had supported racial justice in her teenage years – when she volunteered for the NAACP – and continued to support racial justice, and black nationalism, even after she became rich and famous.

Like the recent The Internet’s Own Boy, From the Journals of Jean Seberg is a powerful statement about how the United States destroys it’s best and brightest.

Weekend (1967)

Halfway through Weekend, Jean Luc Godard’s best known and least watched film, we are treated to a performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 18 in D Major. A grand piano is set up in the courtyard of a farm in rural France. As the pianist, no romantic Liszt or Chopin, but an ordinary looking man in a sweater smoking a cigar, plays the sonata, which has the sublime grandeur of a baroque cathedral, the camera pans 360 degrees, twice. We notice the shabby looking peasants, the run down farmhouse, the agricultural equipment scattered about as though it were in a junkyard, the bored petty bourgeoisie couple. How different the visuals are from what we’re hearing.

A man and a woman stroll by. The man, who I don’t recognize, is discoursing to the woman, who I do recognize — She’s Anne Wiazemsky from Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and Godard’s own La Chinoise, a coltish beauty descended from the grandest Russian nobility — on music.

There are two kinds of music,” he says, “the kind of music people listen to and the kind they don’t. Mozart is the kind of music you listen to. Imagine the royalties that poor man would get if he were alive today. Modern music, serious music, nobody listens to that.”

A perceptive, honest film goer will immediately scratch his head and wonder how it applies to Weekend. Is it the kind of film people enjoy? Or is it the kind of film they pretend to enjoy? Is it Mozart? Or is it John Cage?

Many film critics, the kind of people who say things like “non-linear narrative,” “resists interpretation,” “difficult work,” “one of Godard’s least accessible films,” won’t, unlike Godard himself, admit that the question exists. If you’ve spent any time in hipster Brooklyn or on a college campus, you’ve met them. They talk about the Brecht/Lukacs debates as if it’s a settled question. Brecht won. There no arguing the point. Of course, they say, no great work of art is meant to be enjoyed. That was for Mozart’s day. These days, a great work of art is supposed to be “difficult, ambiguous, alienating.” Anybody who disagrees should just go back to the Midwest, or Jersey.

Then they pen their articles for Salon or Slate about Game of Thrones or True Detective.

Weekend, is all of those things, alienating — oh my God is it alienating — difficult, full of people we hate, Brechtian, but it certainly does not “resist interpretation.” On the contrary, it invites interpretation. The pretty young girl dressed like Alice from Alice in Wonderland but who’s supposed to be Emily Bronte, what exactly is she reading? It’s nothing from Emily Bronte I recognize. Do you know who Joseph Balsamo is? Have you heard of The Affair of the Necklace? You probably have, if you’re French. If you’re American? Well, I had to look it up. What is Saint-Just –- played by Jean-Pierre Léaud from 400 Blows –- doing here? Does it make any sense? Or is it like Family Guy or The Simpsons, vapid trash designed to do nothing but flatter us when we get the cultural reference? The two philosophical garbage men discoursing on Frederick Engels in front of a pile of trash, are we supposed to listen to their words, or just get annoyed at how rude they are eating during a tight closeup?

Indeed, Weekend not only invites interpretation. It demands it. If, like many critics, you decide it’s all about form, not meaning, that it’s an “anti-narrative,” you’re not only missing the point, you’re precisely what Godard is attacking. Weekend is a highly moralistic, cultural conservative attack, not only on the shallow, materialistic, French bourgeoisie, but also on the counterculture and the May 68 generation. Weekend is not a fun movie to watch. In fact, you don’t watch it. You study it. But it is a fun movie to have watched. Had I known it existed when I was 16, and had I been able to understand what it meant — and I doubt I would have been — I would have immediately felt validated for rejecting popular music in favor of Beethoven and Brahms. It’s true. I did. I hated the 1980s as much as Godard hated the 1960s. I would have just as soon set myself on fire as listen to heavy metal.

The plot?

(And yes, there is one.)

A married couple, Roland, Jean Yanne, and Corinne, Mireille Darc, are planning to go away for the weekend to visit Corinne’s father, a fabulously wealthy man on his deathbed, who they both want to “help” cross the final threshold before he plans to change his will. In case that’s unclear, they’re planning to murder him. What’s more, Roland, who looks like a sleazy French gangster, and Corinne, a bourgeoisie cunt who looks like a thirty-year-old Joan Rivers, are planning to murder each other. Are you offended by my use of the word “cunt,” you politically correct? You probably are, but get over it. Weekend has rape, torture, murder, carjackings, cannibalism, rape with eggs, rape with raw fish (although admittedly the fish might have been consensual), rape with a saw, and the very breakdown of the social order. If you demand that I react only with polite, decorous language, you’re missing the point. It’s an obscene, ugly film about a pair of bourgeois psychotics who care about nothing but money. The only time Corinne shows any emotion at all is when her Hermes handbag goes up in flames. Weekend is a harsh, angry film designed to “push the boundaries,” to piss you off, to throw shit at western civilization, and, ultimately, to mourn the loss of western civilization.

It’s a film for when “fuck” just isn’t obscene enough.

The most celebrated scene in Weekend comes near the beginning, the famous 10 minute long traffic jam. If it’s overrated, that’s partly because it’s the only thing you really understand on the first viewing. Jean Luc Godard, the son of a Swiss banking family, hates the car culture. The car culture is centrifugal, chaotic, loud, ugly. It’s part of the breakdown in the universal order, the universal order that gave us Mozart. I was less impressed than Godard because, rather then being a sissy Frenchman, I’m from the great state of New Jersey, and I’ve seen worse. Indeed, I was a little puzzled as to why everybody was letting Roland and Corinne pass them on the left. Nobody’s ever let anybody cut the line in any traffic jam I’ve ever been in. It’s a good way to get yourself shot. But I suppose it was necessary for the progression of the movie. Ironically, I probably got Godard’s point better than he did. There’s something about the car culture that brings out the beast in any bourgeoisie. That Jersey soccer mom in her Range Rover might be a perfectly nice woman at PTA meetings, but get in her way on the road, and she’ll run you down without a hint of remorse. She’ll be pissed that she got to the red light 5 seconds late. That’s about it.

The most under-appreciated thing about Weekend is how Godard is as cynical about the counterculture as he is about the bourgeoisie. The 1960s were a bit before my time. I mainly learned about them during the blast of Woodstock nostalgia that came in the late 1980s. Weekend’s hippie culture is no Woodstock. The cannibal hippie guerrilla army that kill Roland and admit Corinne as a member — the last scene has her happily dining on a mixture of pig, English tourist, and her husband —are more than just violent. Violence can be glamorous. In a movie, especially a Hollywood movie, it usually is glamorous. Samuel Jackson never looked more cool than when he read the Bible and tortured a couple of young drug dealers in Pulp Fiction. But in the last 15 minutes of Weekend, the hippie culture, and popular music, is just ugly. The cannibal hippies can’t even play the drums or the guitar. They just bang on their instruments like the mentally ill in a lunatic asylum. The hippies, Godard tells us, the May 68 generation, are just as bad as the French bourgeoisie. In the end, they won’t eat the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie will eat them, consume them then spit them out with their own values, greed, predatory capitalism, materialism, a lack of appreciation for Mozart or a cute young Emily Bronte, whom Corinne and Roland set on fire rather than go on listening to her read poetry. The hippies, Godard tells us, were pigs.

Sadly, nobody understood Godard’s film well enough to take his advice: overthrow capitalism but put the counterculture behind you. Build something better. If you can’t, then stay home and listen to Mozart. The modern world is a pile of shit.

Le Petit Soldat (1960)

Back in the Bush years, when there were still contentious debates about torture and water boarding, I went to an anti-war demonstration in Washington near the Capitol. A crowd had gathered around a group of people in orange jump suits. They had a long wooden plank, a towel, and a big plastic container of water. One man lay back on the board. His companions stuffed a rag in his mouth. Two more held him down, and they poured the jug of water over his face until he came up, frantically gasping for breath. After I took a few photos, I moved on, thinking I had seen nothing more than performance art. Later, at home, after I browsed the Internet, I realized that I had indeed seen performance art.

But I had also witnessed a genuine water boarding.

Jean-Luc Godard, in his second feature, Le Petit Soldat, does something very similar. Banned in France for most of the early 1960s, and effectively banned in the United States and the rest of Europe — The French government threatened Godard, a Swiss citizen, with the loss of his visa if he released the film internationally — Le Petit Soldat contains an extended torture sequence that includes a real water boarding. Michel Subor, who plays the hero Bruno Forestier, also, it seems, allowed himself to be handcuffed to a sink and burned with a thick book of matches. You can see him wince when the flames touch the palm of his hand. Whether or not the electric shock is real is anybody’s guess.

Le Petit Soldat is a flawed movie, but there’s no question that it was a courageous decision for the young Godard to risk his commercial viability in order to include a piece of anti-torture performance art in his second film. Set in 1958, Le Petit Soldat relocates the Algerian War to Switzerland. Bruno Forestier, a 26-year-old French photojournalist and deserter from the French army, arrives in Geneva to photograph Veronica Dreyer, Anna Karina in her first role. Forestier works for the French Information Agency. Dreyer is a fashion model, and a Danish citizen of Russian descent. She’s a sullen, high-maintenance beautiful woman. She doesn’t give up information easily. In a long interview — we’re never explicitly told if Forestier has been assigned to interview Veronica Dreyer or just photograph her — Forestier takes hundreds of photos while he coaxes her out of her shell. Eventually they sleep together.

Little known to Veronica, Forrestier is a member of an underground right wing political group that’s been heavily involved in a terrorist war that’s been raging in Geneva over the previous few months. He’s been assigned to, or, to be more accurate he’s being coerced into killing a pro-Algerian radio host. Forestier has a past as a right wing assassin, but his heart’s not really in it anymore. After a few halfhearted attempts to shoot the radio host, he gives up, convincing his fellow French terrorists that’s he’s unreliable, perhaps even a turncoat. They start to harass him. They steal his car, crash it into another car, and report the accident to the Swiss police. They follow him. They threaten to get him kicked out of Geneva and sent back to Paris, where he’s likely to face charges for deserting from the army.

Forestier’s comrades on the French right are, in fact, such a hostile group of “friends” that, two thirds of the way through the film when he’s kidnapped by a group of Algerians, held in a motel room, and tortured over the extended, famous sequence, it takes awhile to figure out they’re not his fellow French nationalists. This is probably intentional on Godard’s part. Yes, the Algerians quote Lenin and have a beatnik looking young woman as their secretary. The French nationalists blow their horns three short beeps plus two long, code for Algeria will stay French, but there are no clear boundaries in neutral Geneva.

After Forestier escapes from the Algerians, we learn the most startling secret of all. Veronica is involved, in some way, with the NLF and the radio host he has been assigned to kill. We never learn exactly what Veronica does for the Algerians, but, when Forestier’s comrades find out, it’s her death sentence. They think she can give them information about the Algerians they think Forrestier is withholding. Like her lover Bruno, Veronica becomes a torture victim. Unlike Bruno, she fails to escape. She dies off screen in the last minute of the film.

The first two times I saw Le Petit Soldat, I found it fairly tedious. Veronica is so obviously not a terrorist, or even a political ideologue, that it’s almost impossible to believe that the French would actually believe she knew anything. It seemed an unnecessary detail to give the film an unhappy ending, as contrived in it’s own way as a Hollywood film with a happy ending that comes out of nowhere. But when you understand the internal logic of Le Petit Soldat it makes a lot more sense. Jean-Luc Goddard met Anna Karina shortly after his first film Breathless rewrote film history. Goddard was no longer just a Swiss film student who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema. He was a rock star. Suddenly, women like Anna Karina were his for the taking.

If we should ask ourselves how much of the torture in Le Petit Soldat is real, we should also ask ourselves how much of the love affair between Veronica and Forestier is a thinly fictionalized roman a clef about Godard’s own relationship with Anna Karina. Veronica is initially shy and standoffish. It’s Karina’s first film. She’s nervous about acting. Veronica is nervous about the interview. Forrestier the photojournalist, in effect, becomes a stand in for Jean-Luc Goddard the filmmaker.

Godard sets up a parallel narrative between sex and torture. Bruno Forestier is a lover, not a fighter. The Algerians kidnap him, subject him to water boarding and electric shock, but he tells them nothing.

On the other hand, Forestier, the obscure little French photojournalist, gets Veronica to open up simply by talking. It’s a tedious melange of philosophy, aesthetics, theories about painting, and music.But it works. Forrestier is that rarest of all men, a pretentious grad student who talks a Vogue cover girl into bed. Surely, Goddard is implying, love is better than torture. Culture is better than terrorism.

Indeed, when Forestier talks about why he’s proud to be French, it has very little to do with political or military power. The French have great poets and philosophers. That’s why he’s proud to be French, not because they run Algeria. Forestier’s attempts to shoot the pro-Algerian radio host explore the idea of culture vs. terrorism in even more detail. Every time he gets close, every time he gets a clear shot, someone moves in front of him. If these scenes are hilarious, it’s not because Godard finds murder funny. On the contrary, Forestier is a street photographer, not an assassin, the gun a camera, not a 45 automatic. His clumsy attempts at assassinating the radio host become a cinematic metaphor for a man with a Leica, or a Nikon, trying to capture the “decisive moment.”

Does Le Petit Soldat succeed on its own terms? Is it a good film? Probably not.

But I don’t think Godard cared. Fresh off the success of Breathless, he sidestepped the idea of the “sophomore slump” by making an explicitly political film. Success came in the form of de Gaulle’s heavy handed censorship. Godard, who was politically suspect on the French left, had positioned himself as a leftist radical with genuine credibility. That’s pretty meaningless in the United States of 2014, but in France in the 1960s, it meant something, as Jean-Pierre Melville would later find out when his great Army of Shadows was attacked as propaganda for Charles de Gaulle. Le Petit Soldat as an inferior film to Army of Shadows, but, as performance art, as a provocation, it probably worked better than what I saw at the Capitol back in 2007.