Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Godard at School

Thanks to Gabe for alerting me to Serge Daney's "The T(h)errorized (Godardian Pedagogy" (available on Steve Erickson's site, in a translation by Bill Krohn and Charles Cameron Ball, here). It's been ages since I've looked at that piece, probably not since a time that I barely knew any of Godard's '69-'76 work.

For me this is a really telling paragraph:

"For the most radical fringe of filmmakers - those farthest to the left - one thing is certain in 1968: one must learn how to leave the movie theater (to leave behind cinephilia and obscurantism) or at least to attach it to something else. And to learn, you have to go to school. Less to the "school of life" than to the cinema as school. This is how Godard and Gorin transformed the scenographic cube into a classroom, the dialogue of the film into a recitation, the voiceover into a required course, the shooting of the film into a tutorial, the subject of the film into course headings from the University of Vincennes ("revisionism," "ideology") and the filmmaker into a schoolmaster, a drill-master or a monitor. School thus becomes the good place which removes us from cinema and reconciles us with "reality" (a reality to be transformed, naturally.) This is where the films of the Dziga Vertov Group came to us from (and earlier, La Chinoise.) In Tout va bien, Numéro deux and Ici et ailleurs, the family apartment has replaced the movie theater (and television has taken the place of cinema), but the essentials remain: people learning a lesson."

Of course Godard himself soon grew out of the type of cine-school that we associate with his Dziga Vertov years. For viewers & commentators who long for pre-'68, "mildly" politicized Godard, this post-DVG "growth" is seen essentially as a thankful renunciation of that evil-to-end-all-evils, communism, and a pesky corrolary, didacticism--Godard at least realized that was crazy and unsexy, right?, and his work from 1980 onwards has been a bunch of fits and starts that occasionally approach or achieve the Criterion Collection greatness of Le Mépris or Alphaville--back when he was playful and "good" and threatened to alienate those with bad taste (but thank god never challenged those with bad politics).

What makes Godard (particularly the immediate post-DVG Godard, the one of Numéro deux and Ici et ailleurs) so interesting to me is that his didacticism is shared with the viewer--as is his ignorance! This is why he stumbled over "filmer's block," why he had to break down his forms in films that most people don't seem to enjoy (and why film culture has relegated them to secondary status at best). He made brilliant films even then: we just haven't taken the jump with him. I suspect that this property of mutual ignorance-learning is true in a submerged sense for even the pre-'74 Marxist tirades in Pravda, Vent d'est, even Tout va bien and Letter to Jane, etc. ... Godard was trying to toe a hard line in good revolutionary faith, but it took him a few years to realize that he had never really "started over" (the opportunity which Numéro deux presumably afforded him). To start from the bottom up, to realize that the direction of real critical thought and real revolutionary behavior. And I don't mean to use words like "critical" and "revolutionary" as quick and lazy Marxist buzzwords, because I think what characterizes the movement of Godard and his art (and that of his collaborators) at this time is a gradually stronger engagement with ethics--the full realization of the challenge he set forth before to make political films politically. Criticism and revolution of the self, of the social whole and its parts: the final concern is with change for the better rather than change for some revolutionary master. Godard has his heroes & his whipping-boys in the late 1960s, but slowly they dissolved as such.

I would venture that his later incendiary comments, such as his unforgiving criticisms of Steven Spielberg, come from a totally different polemical perspective, one that I think was forged in the 'awakening' and 'rebuilding' of Godard in the 1970s. And to touch on this question of Godard, his distaste for Schindler's List (or Full Metal Jacket?), will require more time, and more thought. But I'd like to do it in the future.


Andy Rector said...
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Andy Rector said...

Great post Zach. Today Godard continues to share ignorance and "start over" - he says that only when he's not sure know why an image seizes him does he put it in. This is obviously somewhat of an exaggeration however it is linked to his objection to the contemporary media that oversaturates images with commentary, disallowing images to speak for themselves as grounds for discovery (which goes back to Bazin), and with the possibility of locating hidden relationships of radical power.
I think its interesting that JLG's criticisms of Steven Speilberg roughly coincide with JLG's confrontation of the Holocaust. It's a challenge, comparably, to find references to the camps in any of his pre-1988 films. In almost every film he has made since 1988 (Le dernier mot) he has referenced the camps and/or the war in either images or anecdotes. And of course there is the similar earlier commitment to Vietnam across pre-DVG, DVG, and post DVG films. I'm wondering now if his outright disdain for Speilberg and Schindler's List can go back even further than the Maoist period, because what is Schindler's List but a film in the "Tradition of Quality" that so riled the Young Turks?

Anonymous said...

Zach, I've really enjoyed your posts over the last few weeks. I'm planning to spend the fall and probably most of the winter studying Godard. I've seen ten or fifteen of his films over the years but have no real sense yet of his evolution, politically or aesthetically. I'm jotting down and bookmarking your reading suggestions; any others would be much appreciated.

Winstrol said...

A person has a greater success in learning if he/she participates in the process.