Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Sound and the Fury: Some First Impressions of 'Film Socialisme'

While it's too early on the basis of a single viewing to say whether or not Film Socialisme (2010) is a masterpiece, if nothing else, Jean-Luc Godard's latest mind-boggling contraption makes every other new commercial feature look horribly antiquated and square by comparison, like something you'd find collecting dust in your grandma's attic. Let's face it: Compared with Godard, most other filmmakers just aren't working very hard.

The opening scenes in particular, which take place on a cruise ship sailing around the Mediterranean, find the octogenarian master at his most assaultive and perverse. And I mean that as a compliment. The first thing one notices about the movie is that it has the worst audio you've ever heard in a commercial film. Godard shoots in windy conditions evidently without a wind sock. In some scenes, the ambient audio abruptly cuts out between lines of dialogue. And at times, there's a distinct hissing noise on the soundtrack--exactly the sort of audio glitch you'd expect to find in a video posted on YouTube but not a professional feature film. Audiences are pretty forgiving of crappy cinematography, but sound is another matter entirely; even the drabbest of drably-shot of American indies coming out of the South by Southwest scene will have a clean, professional sound mix. Here, it's as if the most sophisticated filmmaker ever to work in the medium, and one of the most innovative when it comes to sound, were trying to convince us that he's never used a microphone before in his life.

After this opening barrage, however, the film seems to back down somewhat. The second part of the film, set in a family-run garage in rural France (or is it Switzerland?), has good quality sound and is even slightly easier to follow as storytelling. Of course, compared to the majority of commercial movies, even this part of the film is radically unorthodox: Godard characteristically separates dialogue from image, and withholds exposition about the characters. But still, this isn't anything that Godard hasn't been doing for the last thirty years. Likewise, the film's final sequence is a typically beautiful, poetic, non-narrative video montage whose geographic itinerary neatly echoes that of the cruise ship in the movie's opening scenes: Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, Greece ("Hell As"), Naples, Barcelona. Godard gracefully weaves together documentary footage with clips from old movies (including, natch, the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin [1925]), and onscreen text and narration with a keen sense of juxtaposition and rhythm. Viewers who've made an effort to keep up with Godard's recent output will recognize some of the clips used here from his short masterpiece Dans le noir du temps (2002) and the "Inferno" sequence from Notre musique (2004). And if I'm not mistaken, he's used the same crashing piano theme before as well, although I can't recall where.

When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it was shown with subtitles in "Navajo English." For instance, according to Michael Sicinski, the name Goldberg in the first part of the film was translated at one point as "gold mountain," which is obviously relevant given that the character in question is a Nazi war criminal who plundered gold from Spain during the civil war. Watching the film on my laptop, however, I had to settle for conventional English subtitles (which only translate the film's French dialogue and titles, and not any of the other languages spoken in the film). It's hard to say, alas, whether this puts me at an advantage or a disadvantage. In any event, I doubt that the subtitles I saw would change Todd McCarthy's mind about Godard being a member of "the ivory tower group" of filmmakers "whose audience really does consist of a private club with a rigorously limited membership." Now that the secret's out, I guess I might as well tell you that we don't actually meet in an ivory tower, but because of the recession, we've had to downgrade to a modest chateau in Switzerland, where we consider how many applicants we can reject each year for not being elite enough and still bring in enough money to keep the lights on.

Returning to the film, for McCarthy, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." My feeling is that people who talk about "getting" a film (including Pauline Kael, who famously never saw a film more than once on the basis that she "got" it the first time) really don't get it at all. McCarthy talks as if Godard only had one point to make, and that his job as a filmmaker is simply to get viewers across the finish line of understanding. (At which point, presumably, the movie ends and everyone can put on their coats and go home, having "gotten their money's worth," as the saying goes.) For one thing, Godard doesn't strike me as a very linear thinker. In this film, a young black woman says at one point, "You want to hear my opinion? AIDS is just an instrument to kill the black continent." To which her white companion replies, "Why is there light? Because there is darkness." Clearly the latter thought doesn't follow logically from the previous one, but by placing them side by side, Godard invites viewers to make an association. The same principle applies later on when Godard juxtaposes a shot from Battleship Potemkin of a crowd waving to the boat as it comes into port with a contemporary scene of two Ukrainian teenagers waving to a cruise ship as it sets sail. To make a connection between the two sentences or the two shots requires a degree of inference-making that goes beyond the letter of the text, but has nothing to do with getting (or not getting) a particular point.

To be fair to McCarthy and Roger Ebert, who also missed the cruise ship on this one, we should take into account that their job consists largely of reviewing films that are designed to be understood and consumed in a single go. The only American commercial film I can think of that even comes close to what Godard is doing here in terms of audio and montage is Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998), which split reviewers when it first came out but today feels like a canonical classic (especially now that Criterion's released an expensive Blu Ray edition). That's not to say that Godard's film will become an accepted classic in ten or twelve years (unlike Malick's film, it doesn't have studio backing or any stars, so it won't get a wide release), but I can't think of any recent commercial film that I'm as eager to watch again--maybe this time with those crazy Navajo subtitles so I can see what I'm missing.

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