Go to Youtube and you’ll find an intriguing four-minute trailer of Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film just about to be released: Socialisme. It’s exciting and at the same time it resists any easy putdown: there’s just enough to see the close relation with all the video essays, including the monumental six-hour Histoire(s) du Cinema (1998) which took him ten years to develop out of nowhere and, what is more, Socialisme is shot with that same Kino eye. Let’s not make assumptions: so, if you are not familiar with Godard’s films, get hold of Colin Maccabe’s Godard. A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (2003) written by a very busy man whose connections with France began in the 1970s, and supplement it with Richard Brody’s excellent Everything is Cinema. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (2008), but leave David Sterritt’s edited Jean-Luc Godard. Interviews (1998) till later. And watch the films, of course. Start with the early ones. Or look at clips on the web. Either way, read on.

Brody documents the sad fact that Godard is just part of the past. He is and he isn’t. He is in the sense that, for many, his work is enshrined in the remote 1960s; it has been reified, historicised, theorized. Godard himself, in an interview on the web, says he is cut off and that’s what I think he means. But these people who perceive his work in this way could not be further from the truth, as many contemporary film-makers know well. Of course, if you relate to film only for entertainment and distraction, you won’t get it from JLG. You’re better off sticking to Hollywood blockbusters.

Let’s just say that Godard’s work divides quite neatly into two periods: the time of his early ground-breaking movies which depended on the commercial distribution system, (still stunning today, even though they were mostly made on a shoestring). And the time when he had the courage to break away completely (which he could not have done without the help of his partner Anne-Marie Miéville), by becoming completely self-sufficient for equipment and technology and exploring the potential of video and digital techniques. He moved from Paris to his ivory tower, in Rolle, Switzerland, and thirty years ago Godard and Miéville mastered video, then still in its infancy. They went on to invent new ways and means, really, of doing film which still raise all kinds of questions. Most importantly, he owned the means of production, which meant that he could exert full control on the aesthetics through the whole complex process that film production involves.

This is crucial when so much video and film shorts in art galleries today are repetitive and boring, often making astonishing theoretical claims which are contradicted by the evidence of failing to address the material craft of the medium. By inventing from scratch a new kind of montage and editing, Godard’s recent work overlaps film and painting, articulating a solid new art form from brave years of experimentation. Critics call his recent film work video essays; I am not so sure that they are not simply films, but of a disarming and thought-provoking kind that we are not used to anymore.

Godard and Revolution, now: Socialisme (2010) and then: La Chinoise (1967)

Socialisme is built around Godard’s same logic of montage, with recurring visual themes evoked through clips, such as seconds celebrating Sergej Eisenstein’s famous Odessa stairs of Battleship Potemkin (1925), conjuring up the association between contemporary Europe and classical Empire in antiquity (the Pharaohs’ Egypt, Alexander the Great’s Magna Grecia), and paying homage to Roberto Rosselini’s Roma Città Aperta (1945). Both Eisenstein and Rossellini have been cited by Godard again and again in previous films, as emblems of non-commodified film making, the former one of the two early masters of montage, the other an early exponent of Italian neorealism which defied the Hollywood dream factory. Godard’s own highly personal form of montage, developed since the late 1980s, has to be seen to realise what it can do; text comments on image and image on text, with divisions into sections and also the musical juxtaposition of baroque organ music with images salvaged from the past (a kind of deliberately discordant montage of music and image, something you’ll find in Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) and La Ricotta (1963)).

In the trailer, you will also find the montage of art history’s visual and conceptual archive with the contemporary occupation of Palestine (a preoccupation that dates back to Godard’s Dziga Vertov cooperative days of the 1970s), variations on the innocence of childhood (which Godard always places side by side to the brutality of the twentieth century) and the solitary resistance of the intellectual in the wit of Cervantes (through the telling shadow of Miguel Cervantes’ character Don Quixote and his imaginary windmills). The four minutes of Socialisme is all of this.

The trailer invited me to think more deeply about Histoire(s) du Cinéma, De l’Origine du XXIe Siecle, The Old Place, as well as other recent Godard films; specifically in terms of his solution to the pitfalls of didacticism when an artist has an urgent meaning to convey. After watching the Socialisme trailer, I turned to how Godard had approached politics and art early on, in La Chinoise (1967), a film he made the year before the students revolt of May 1968, at the same time of student anti-Vietnam protest in Berkeley, California, and the Cultural Revolution which had begun only in January of that year.

The first part of La Chinoise takes place almost entirely in a large middle-class apartment in Paris (which belonged to a friend of his), where a group of young people sleep, discuss, argue, teach each other, invite a black guest student speaker from the newly built Nanterre campus (still quite exceptional then, the black is cast in a position of mastery when it comes to Marxist theory, he answers questions and settles discussions), listen to Radio Peking, plan how to make the shift from theory to action. They are French Maoists (very timely, in the wake of the contemporary Chinese Cultural Revolution). Actually, Maoism offered French students an alternative model to the dominant and established Left French Communist Party (PCF) which, only a few months later in 1968, was to betray the new movement by siding with the government and supporting anti-strike policies against the students, when ten million students and workers went out on strike in May and June. Godard’s Maoists are openly critical of the PCF, Moscow and their policies. One character says: “PCF is close to Moscow, Sartre is hiding in Flaubert, that’s why we must find our ideal in China.”

Maybe the reason why I was always put off La Chinoise is precisely that I anticipated it would come across as a didactic film about revolutionaries in the making (I was wrong). So I disagree with Adity Singh who thinks that “like most of Godard’s films, La Chinoise is a didactic film, its main aim is to teach both the characters, who are being ‘educated’ in Marxism-Leninism, and the audience, who is supposed to engage critically with the ‘represented matter’ of the film (and not just enjoy its aesthetics).” The only time Godard did fall into the trap of telling the viewers what to think was a few years later, in Tout va bien (1972), made when he was very ill and therefore mostly directed by someone else. But didacticism is just what Godard so deftly avoids, in La Chinoise. For one thing, the characters teach each other, rather than teach us. This is borne out by the seminars given by the different activists who make a Maoist cell out of a swanky Parisian flat and also by the black visiting activist and by the inter-titles that flash on the screen with the words: this a film “in the course of being made.”

’68 on the horizon? You could say that in France as in Italy, there was a strong politicized elite for years, radicalized by struggles in Algeria, Southern and Northern Italy. But the mass movement looking for real change in society was itself an unexpected event (in the sense of a rare occurrence, one which the philosopher Alain Badiou defines as undecidable, in that there is no way of knowing or predicting it. When it has taken place, it dissolves into nothing, unless a trace remains in the form of people who go on fighting for the paradigm shift it stands for).

Another recent essay about La Chinoise is convincing in this regard. It argues that the way Godard avoids being didactic is by refusing the all-knowing author role. As Alberto Toscano puts it: “Godard’s didactic anti-didacticism constantly frustrates that organisation of the image which would allow the overlay and imposition of meaning from director/ producer to viewer/ audience.” Take, for example, the scene in the flat where the character’s gaze conventionally looking out towards the spectator engages with an out-of-frame voice belonging to Godard or another member of the film crew, followed by the inclusion of the movie camera and sound crew into the frame. The illusion is broken again and again and in many other ways. Toscano scotched my qualms about how topical a film shot in 1967 is in 2010: not just because both Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou have recently written about La Chinoise, but more importantly because such a renewed critical and philosophical attention needs to be seen in the context of the current debate over the relevance of politics in contemporary aesthetics, “a major practical and theoretical preoccupation as of late, both in the artworld and in academia.”

Toscano cites radical exhibitions such as Documenta XI, the Communism exhibition at the Project Gallery in Dublin, and the discussions about Nicolas Bourriaud’s so-called relational aesthetics. And one might add the attention afforded aesthetics in relation to politics by contemporary philosophy. I think he is right in claiming that this relation is forging new links between academic departments and the artworld; but I am not so sure that it is a sign of defeat (as he seems to suggest), especially in the light of total absence of debate in the world outside. Leaving aside Bourriaud’s self-defeating micro-utopias which deny any possibility of change in our capitalist society (let alone radical change or effective action), much more interesting in the shift from theory to praxis, is Grant Kester’s dialogical model of art, or the loftier politics of aesthetics, however vague, associated with Rancière, with Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, authors of Empire and Multitude, and Paolo Virno (like Negri, once a leader of Potere Operaio in the years before they theorised Autonomia), all these have recently placed near the centre of their attention engaged art practice, even political art.

Forty years on, the short introduction to La Chinoise by Colin MacCabe shrinks the scope of the film to a portrait of young people, reflecting Godard’s fascination in youth at the time when he married Anne Wiazemsky, the female protagonist who had acted in Robert Bresson’s Au hazard, Balthasar (1966) while at the same time a philosophy student at the new university of Nanterre, the very place where the following May the student protest broke out. MacCabe acknowledges that it is also a film in which “every line, every interaction is determined by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, an uncritical plunge into Marxism.” This line of interpretation is echoed by Rancière’s claim in Film fables that the voiceover in the first part of La Chinoise is Marxism. What is being implied? That Marxism is represented as simplistic? Toscano, again: “As Godard put it in a discussion in California in 1968: ‘La Chinoise had to be very simple, because they were very simple people trying very modestly to learn about simple things. So I had to be the simplest I could. It was the beginning of a new alphabet, so I didn’t even know how to speak.'” MacCabe also states that the film is totally fictitious, and a historical document, as people were trying out various kinds of collective action. He goes on to say that the film is not a very accurate account of Maoist students (some of whom rejected the film for its emphasis on violence). So there are contradictions in this presentation; somehow we have to make sense of the paradox between historical document (of Godard’s early film making, presumably) and fiction. Actually, for Godard this is always the case, as Junji Hori notes. The distinction is not essential because fiction films, as much as documentaries, document history preserving its trace metaphorically, so that it is a museum of the real. Commenting on La Chinoise, Godard made the point that: “the events of Nanterre happened a year later, so there was something true; but I filmed it before it really took form.”

The sentimental sub-plot MacCabe mentions may be endearing to some, but what interests me is how Godard tackles the risk of didacticism in a feature film about political militancy (both his own and that of his characters), how Godard deals with theory in a potentially very didactic film. Don’t be fooled by the disjuncture of still and moving image, text, voiceovers, interviews, burlesque (the shrill refrain from a contemporary French pop song: “Mao! Mao!”, the morning exercises on the balcony carried out in unison by the people living in the flat, several striking tongue-in-cheek sequences, more like iconic images, emblems or tableaux from art history than anything to do with Nouvelle Vague films).

What Herbert Marcuse called ‘critical mimesis’ explains the logic of Godard’s representation of activism that he scripts and shoots in La Chinoise. It is a representation, not an enactment. Critical mimesis is still a fiction of sorts, but closer to the real; although it generates narratives, it then subverts them, in fidelity to the real. Godard’s re-presentation rings true: there really was earnest study and drastic attempts made by students at mastering revolutionary theory. But it works even better because it is marked by certain – let’s call them anti-Hollywood devices – that recur ,especially in his more recent films, such as dividing the film into titled sections, breaking up the pace of the narrative with quasi-documentary interviews between characters and off-screen voices, the use of documentary photographs of the time and from earlier periods that serve to bring into relevance figures from the history of Marxism and film, as well as contemporary events, such as the war in Vietnam (that also attracted Godard’s attention early on, in 1965), and mise-en-scène moments (very carefully constructed scenes that are deliberately artificial which provide a gentle satire aimed at the students, juxtapositions or montages of sorts, for example, comparing US Vietnam intervention to comic-strip violence, featuring characters such as Captain Fury and Superman.

More than half the film revolves around the Parisian apartment which acts as the site of theory, of discussion, lecturing, study. We learn little about the characters themselves. What I find more compelling is Godard’s representation of how these individuals engage to form a political collective. There are all the writings of the Situationists and the Italian Autonomist workerists published from the late 1950s until 1971 to prove just how political collectives could and did work effectively in spelling out their rejection of orthodox positions. These Maoists may be fictitious (that’s mimesis for you; after all, it is a film), but they are nevertheless an accurate enough representation of dissent in those years.

Of course, in ’68 and in later years, engaging in these ways, may have been naïve perhaps, but was still in opposition to professional political conformism and comfort zones, in a growing realisation of the power of rebellion and the power to effect change. Eric Hobsbawm’s essay on 1968 in his book Revolutionaries captures the significance of the moment: “It seemed to demonstrate that revolution in an advanced industrial country was possible in conditions of peace, prosperity, and apparent political stability.” But what made it so unique was that it was not a revolution from above. “This was achieved by a grass-roots popular movement, without the help of anyone within the power structure. And it was the students who initiated, inspired, and at crucial moments actually represented that movement.”

It would be a gross simplification to say that the plot leads directly from political cell to botched assassination of the Soviet ambassador, because the real dénouement happens somewhere in between, on a commuter train going from Paris to Nanterre, between Anne Wiazemsky playing Véronique (both Philosophy students at Nanterre) and Professor of Philosophy Francis Jeanson and contributor to Sartre’s Les Temps modernes, playing himself. So the first claustrophobic inside of the film is upstaged by the outside train scene which begins with an amicable conversation in which Jeanson who had been put on trial for his participation in the Algerian struggle for freedom for having been a courier on the side of Algerian resistance in the national war of liberation against French domination, shares with his student his plans to leave Paris, teach in a new way, get involved outside the university. He says: “I want to do cultural action. Culture is now cut off from action. Culture gives control of the world.”

She asks: “Is it important to take action?” “Yes,” he replies. But for him, ‘action’ means becoming involved in contemporary theatre and learning how to teach differently, so that students are not treated only as passive receivers. Then the two swop roles: now the student speaks and the professor asks the questions. “You think you can do the revolution on behalf of others?” he challenges her, rejecting her view that violent action is legitimate even when there is no movement behind it. This is when the exchange ceases to be a conversation, as the professor gradually adopts a confrontational tone which makes this almost sound like a court scene of prosecution and defence, while the character of Jeanson defends a revolutionary politics of emancipation which rejects terrorism altogether. The rest of the film adds little to what, in my view, is a dramatic closure between nineteen-year-old and seasoned revolutionary, turned professor of philosophy.

What is fascinating about the film is the engagement with theory and its direct (even dangerous) link to practice the year before the ’68 event; both on an experiential level, in terms of capturing the dynamic of change while it was happening in the real world, and in terms of how that worked on a speculative level, in relation to what is possible at a moment in time, and what we can learn from that experience today. The film is remarkably close to the real in its representation of youth coming to grips with political theory and argument while at the same time trying to extend their lives outwards from personal interests and sense of identity to a public, indeed a political, sphere of action. Student occupations, assemblies, collective meetings, or even certain types of squats were like that. They really were the testing ground for speaking out, learning and practising militancy, debate, organisation, strategising, belonging to the movement with its tendencies and phases which was something one felt was greater than any one of us. After the repression that followed the end of that revolutionary sequence and its last expression in 1977, the rise of terrorism and, much later, the fall of the Berlin Wall, this entire sequence of history was retold in the narratives of people like Andre Glucksmann, one of several activists turned neo-liberals in the years that followed, people whose interpretation soon became dominant. In one scene of Socialisme apparently, Alain Badiou himself (who was directly involved in May 1968 in Paris and has always defended it since) will lecture to an empty hall on a cruiser on his revolutionary philosophy of the event.

Notes

Brody, Richard Everything is Cinema. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Faber and Faber, 2008.

Godard, Jean-Luc, Socialisme, 2009 < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXzAQyt1qLE>, accessed 29 December 2009.

Godard, Jean-Luc, Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma, Paris: Éditions Albatross, 1980.

Hori, Junji “Godard’s Two Historiographies”, in Michael Temple and James S. Williams and Michael Witt (eds), For Ever Godard, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004.

Hobsbawm, Eric, “May 1968” in Revolutionaries. Revised and updated edition, London: Abacus, 2007, pp. 307-319.

MacCabe, Colin Godard A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Singh, Adity Godard’s La Chinoise and The Apprenticeship of Hopefulness (without hope), Second Annual Conference of Film and Philosophy, University of Dundee, July 2009, <http://syllabicinterlude.wordpress.com/>, accessed 24 December 2009.

Sterritt, David (ed), Jean-Luc Godard. Interviews, Jackson: Mississippi University Press, 1998.

Toscano, Alberto “Money, Militancy, Pedagogy: Godard 1967-72“, 1 June 2008, <http://kinofist.blogspot.com/2008/06/money-militancy-pedagogy-godard-1967-72.html> accessed 24 December 2009.

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