The Charm of Nothing
One comes face-to-face with nothing, and one balks. If I were writing about the films of any other screenwriter or director, I would insist that such a sentiment ought to be received as an insult of the most petulant stripe. However, I find myself reviewing a new DVD collection of four films by Jean-Luc Godard released by Lions Gate Entertainment, and I can only imagine that I meant that opening gambit as the kind of ambiguous compliment warranted by such obscure, perplexing, and yet (mostly) compelling acts of creation.
I use the phrase “acts of creation” advisedly, inasmuch as these films are hardly what one ought to consider completed works. They are not wholes; they disavow their seeming status as products. They are the recorded vestiges of processes and as such they bear the marks of an idea manifested in a fleeting visual trace.
When the trace succeeds in documenting the alluring lineaments of the idea in all the heady excitement of its moment of conception (as three of the films manage to do remarkably well), the unfolding process succeeds in seducing the imagination to the very extent that it confounds the understanding. When it fails (as it does in the fourth film, Oh, Woe is Me), one is asked to accept misdirection in the place of profundity.
But already we have gone too far. I began by insisting that one balks at nothing. The ambiguity that resides in that phrase (particularly in this rephrasing of it) would, I imagine, appeal to Godard. On the one hand, it seems to imply that there is nothing in this world from which we ought to shrink. On the other hand, it elucidates the inevitable tendency to recoil at the thought of the emptiness that threatens to enclose us at any given moment, the emptiness that suffuses our daily experiences and eviscerates our faith in meaning.
It is this playful vacillation between nihilism and contumacious insouciance that separates Godard from other filmic philosophers (such as Dreyfus, Truffaut, and particularly Bergman). It is not that Godard refuses to think a thought through to its conclusion; rather it seems that for him every depth reduces to a mere surface; the riddle of the sphinx is, in the end, humorous.
Of course, the Godard of the 1980s is a figure of some contention. There are always those critics who claim every new film the director delivers is a “return to form”—perhaps this is the vice of mediocre critics: a fear of the judgment of endurance leads them to proclaim all works of a formerly great artist a new purchase on mastery. However, for most Godard fans, the icon of the New Wave lost his stride after Weekend when his films became more overtly Marxist.
Having alienated the greater part of his audience, Godard retreated into a filmic idiolect through which he gave rise to statements that blithely commixed the banal and the oracular. However, it is precisely this peculiar admixture that makes three of the films included in this collection such a pleasure to revisit (or, for many lapsed Godard aficionados, to discover for the first time). These are films in the purest sense. They are films divested of narrative (or films that utilize narrative as the skimpiest of scaffolding). They are films that rely upon the image. An image in Godard’s hands insinuates; it does not define. It suggests but it refuses to declare.
The opening shots of Passion (1982) perfectly illustrate the suggestive yet elusive nature of the image. The handheld camera peers into an azure sky, daubed with the wisps of clouds, as the exhaust of a passing airplane draws a straight white line across the canvas of blue. At first it appears to be the ideal gesture of abstractionism—the manmade device sketches its mark against the vast expanse of nature, reducing amorphous nature to the clear expression of the modern.
But the movement of the handheld camera reminds the viewer that this is not “nature” in any pure sense; it is already a framed version of nature. It is a perspective on nature and as such it is already manmade. And as the airplane’s exhaust begins to dissipate, we are also reminded that the human attempt to paint over nature, to remake nature in the image of the human, is itself subject to decay. The human trace is also, in the end, natural and can attain no ideal permanence.
This irremediable foreclosure of the ideal turns out to be the subject of the film (if this film, so dismissive of narrative, can be said to have a subject at all). And indeed, a discussion of this film, in many ways, can stand in for a discussion of what is best in all of the films included here.
The main character is Jerzy, a disillusioned filmmaker who struggles to maintain funding for his project, which has gone hopelessly over budget, while wasting time and resources in the attempt to realize an unattainable and ultimately empty ideal. Jerzy’s film involves the recreation of several famous paintings, including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, Goya’s The Fifth of May, and works by Delacroix. The production stalls in part because Jerzy finds no satisfaction with the lighting. Although they work on a soundstage with no natural light, Jerzy continually insists that they should quit early and try again the next day.
His fastidiousness with respect to lighting leads members of the crew to contemplate whether or not the lighting was actually correct even in Rembrandt’s original painting. And so we return to Plato’s concerns over mimesis and the image—if art is an imitation of an imitation, it is doomed to imperfection. For Godard, Jerzy’s film is yet a further remove from the truth and seeks its ideality through the perfect reconstruction of the imperfections of the original paintings.
Jerzy fares no better in his personal life. He is involved with two women: Hanna, the owner of the hotel where his crew stays, and Isabelle, a recently fired employee of the factory run by Hanna’s husband. It is a rather passionless love triangle in which Jerzy’s main concern seems to be the maintenance of some kind of bloodless equipoise. When he decides to return to his Polish homeland, he invites Hanna to join him when she would prefer that he remain in France with her and Isabelle proclaims her willingness to go to Poland while Jerzy claims he would prefer to remain in France with her—a bizarre and idealized symmetry in which nothing really changes and the triangle is preserved if only for the sake of its emotionless geometry. When the two women conspire to travel to Poland together, Jerzy exclaims that he will “have to watch out for those two bitches”.
The film exaggerates its “fashioned” quality in an attempt to ponder Jerzy’s complaint about film as art: why should a film require a narrative? Thus snippets of music abruptly begin and then stop without any direct connection to the unfolding of the images onscreen. Characters emerge and disappear. We eavesdrop on conversations that seemingly have no beginning and no conclusion.
In his attempt to disavow any connection to a narrative unfolding, Godard continually appeals to the shreds of narrative that emerge frayed and in disrepair. These shards of a storyline never cohere; they merely ask the viewer to invest in them as fragments isolated from any overarching whole that would serve to explain them—or better, to explain them away. Thus, we must deal with the plenitude of the fragment, the deceptive wholeness of the moment.
It is the compelling nature of the characters and Godard’s imagery that allows the viewer to become enraptured with the evanescence of the moment. It is the lightness of Godard’s touch here that makes this film (even with its intentional confusions) so enjoyable.
The same cannot be said for Oh, Woe is Me (1993). In this retelling of the Greek myth in which Zeus enjoys carnal pleasure with a faithful wife by disguising himself as her husband, Godard manages to stretch the 83-minutes of the film’s running time into a small eternity—but hardly the eternal bliss of the heavenly embrace. Indeed, this film may be worth viewing in conjunction with Passion if only to investigate how the latter was able to succeed using many of the same devices that make Oh, Woe is Me so very tedious.
The same approach to sound and editing that made Passion worthy of contemplation reduces this film to a collection of tricks without the allure of an idea. This is not to say that Oh, Woe is Me avoids questioning the profundities of life and divinity (indeed, it wears its philosophy in a fashion similar to the rumpled raincoat God sports in this film) but rather that Godard’s answers here are far too obvious, trivial, and insulting to one’s intelligence. This film is not an invitation to thought; it is a lecture—and a bad one at that.
First Name: Carmen (1983) is, perhaps, the tour-de-force of the collection. It gets around Godard’s concerns with the superfluity of narrative by employing a story so familiar (Prosper Merimee’s Carmen made popular through Bizet’s opera and its many adaptations) as to be easily ignored. What emerges as important here is the manner in which film as a medium is exploited—not as a means to a narrative end but rather as an end in itself.
Hence, the most involving element of the film is the juxtaposition of image and sound—particularly the images of naked bodies embracing and fighting interposed with the sounds of a rehearsal of various Beethoven string quartets. Godard is less interested in the combination of music and image than he is in creating a counterpoint between the two expressive systems.
Every time image and music seem to coincide, Godard abruptly cuts off one of them, disrupting the confluence. Music and image thus comment on each other from across a chasm that separates them; this film is not the union of seemingly disparate arts so much as it is the concurrence of means of expression that eye each other warily, speaking of different things in different manners, forcing the viewer to realize that there is no greater, organizing whole in operation.
The viewer must continually understand the streams of meaning as just that—different streams flowing in their own directions. There is no position of fullness from which the viewer can determine an overriding interpretation of what takes place. All perspectives are equally lacking in privilege and yet perspective itself is unavoidable. Hence, the viewer is allowed the responsibility for her own experience. This is the trick behind Godard’s quasi-Nietzschean take on Brecht’s political vision for theater.
Perhaps there is little that I could say about Detective (1985) that I have not already said in relation to Passion or First Name: Carmen. Each of these films resists verbal explication of its particular pleasures. Perhaps that is what makes Oh, Woe is Me so disappointing. It is too easily explained.
The producers round out the collection with a short documentary, Jean-Luc Godard: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma. The banality of the title anticipates the insipidity of this collection of platitudes. We are informed by a stream of talking heads that Godard is interested in film as art, that Godard’s misogyny derives from his deep concern with human love, that he wants to remind you always that you are watching a film. It is not that any of these statements are wrong (they wouldn’t be platitudes if they were completely false); the problem is that such statements seem to be informative while they say absolutely nothing. And perhaps the same can be said of any attempt (including my own) of verbally coming to grips with Godard’s filmic acts.
For all the pretense surrounding these films and their attempts to grapple with “big ideas”, they are, in the end, experiences that one must live through; they demand viewing and listening. They simultaneously invite and derail conversation. They are not really “idea” films, although ideas appear and are explored within them. They leave one with so little to say because conceptually they themselves are nothing. They are not expression through the medium of film; they are expressions of the medium. And so we return to our starting point: one comes face-to-face with nothing, and one balks.