This is what many film critics and historians will tell you about Jean-Luc Godard: After a string of exhilarating and iconoclastic films in the ’60s, he became so politicized by the events of 1968 in France and elsewhere in the world that he turned his back on commercial cinema. Working with Jean-Pierre Gorin under the collective moniker the Dziga Vertov Group, named for a Soviet filmmaker and theoretician, he produced a string of snooze-worthy, unwatchable Marxist lectures.
Some facts of this account are roughly correct, though in fact he challenged his audience with semi-hostile political films as early as his second feature, Le Petit Soldat (1960), and fifth, Les Carabiniers (1963). By 1967, an increasingly politicized Godard was issuing his most radical critiques to date of middle-class cinema, La Chinoise and Weekend, in which the concept of traditional narrative finally breaks down with bourgeois society itself. Whereas his previous films sometimes illustrated his famous quip that “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”, he now distilled the formula into girls with guns. La Chinoise, in fact, was the first film where he worked with input from Gorin.
So the history of Godard’s political aesthetics and personal associations is complicated. Another problem with loaded judgments of “unwatchable cinema” is simply that the movies have been not unwatchable but un-seeable. Only the final two Gorin collaborations films of 1972, Tout Va Bien and Letter to Jane, have been made available from Criterion. Both are fascinating, especially the former’s mesmerizing use of a large two-tier cutaway set in homage to Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies’ Man (1961). Also, its use of Jane Fonda and Yves Montand makes it more recognizably a “star” movie as well as a narrative, and thus it’s always seemed more accessible. As for the previous films of the Dziga Vertov Group, we’ve been left to imagine them as dated, irrelevant, talky artifacts of their time.
Now comes one of the most astonishing releases of the Blu-ray era and evidence of the format’s decadent phase. Arrow Video, a boutique company whose bread and butter more or less consists of being the Criterion of horror and exploitation movies, has ventured increasingly into the realm of the art house, and Arrow now presents us with glittering restorations of this most obscure period. Quite apart from the fact that these digital restorations make the images lush and inviting as eye-candy for the scopophile, we can now understand why. Whereas some viewers will surely be bored by these movies, others will be glad to watch them at last.
Godard and Gorin toured US colleges with some of these films with the intention of inviting heady post-film discussions and debates. The films aren’t so much didactic as deconstructionist, which means they’re not really about the lectures and arguments and dialectics that the characters engage in so much as formal explorations of how ideas can be presented, dissected, undermined and co-opted in a medium of sound and image.
You could take seriously the political arguments presented, but then you might be frustrated by the fact that these arguments are continually drowned out or interrupted by tangential or irrelevant remarks from other speakers, and how their presentation keeps scattering the viewer’s attention in multiple directions. If these are intended to be focused, rousing lectures, they fail utterly, but that’s not the intent.
In a two-hour interview with Godard dating from 2010, included as a bonus, he states that he dislikes how subtitles cover even more of an already reduced image and that he finds dubbed movies “more honest”. Certainly, movies such as this, in which the speaker often isn’t on camera, make a great argument for dubbing for the non-Francophone audience, and perhaps the easiest demonstration of this for the Anglophone viewer is the one movie that’s in English, British Sounds (1969, aka, See You at Mao).
This one-hour production presents us with several segments. The first consists mostly of the camera panning slowly beside an assembly line in a car factory, so it’s echoing the long pan across the traffic jam in Weekend. We hear the factory sounds mixed with several strands of dialogue: a Marxist lecture on how workers are alienated from their labor (while the workers we see often laugh and smile), an adult male teaching a child to repeat various facts and statistics that he can’t possibly understand (education and indoctrination), and other things. Not reading subtitles helps us to grasp the dissonant totality of sound and image, how their placement can be ironic or arbitrary.
The second segment is the most remarkable. A woman’s voice discusses how women are bound by the rules of a sexist society while we watch stationary shots of a naked young women walking back and forth on a stairway landing. Then we see her disembodied torso filling the screen, a strictly materialist image that can be read equally in several ways: objectification, provocation, demystification. This film was commissioned for London Weekend Television, who declined to show it, and this nudity would have been a more overriding reason than any concern over, say, the meeting of socialist factory workers, or the parodic black-and-white fascist editorial delivered by an old-school-tie twit, or the students making up new lyrics to Beatles songs.
As with the other films here, there are no credits. Wikipedia identifies the writer-directors as Godard and Jean-Henri Roger, although historian Michael Witt states in an extra that Roger claimed himself as more of an assistant. One producer, Kenith Trodd, is an important British TV producer who worked with Ken Loach and Dennis Potter, and who released this film to theatres through his Kestrel company. We have no trouble guessing that it must have made some money.
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Another one-hour film, Struggles in Italy (Luttes en Italie, 1971), takes a woman’s point of view. Narrated by women in Italian and French, it’s a coherent and intriguing presentation of self-conscious enlightenment via dialectic in three parts. The first part presents a montage of a woman’s life: family, shopping, working, living with a boyfriend. We see the woman in whole or broken up in metonymy — for example, a hand holding a coffee cup. The narrator enumerates various facts and theories during the second part to help the woman become aware of how her situations define her, and the third part supposedly presents her better able to comprehend her role in sex and class.
This is the most clear and straightforward film in the batch and doesn’t suffer for that. Witt agrees, calling it “the most tautly constructed and probably the most theoretically coherent and persuasive” of the Dziga Vertov films. It’s also most clearly a Gorin film, according to Godard himself, although it was basically shot in Godard’s apartment. As with the British TV production, the Italian TV network that commissioned this film never aired it.
The 1968 Un Film comme les autres, which means “a film like the others” or “a film like any other”, takes place entirely in a bucolic field of tall grass near a factory, chosen (Witt informs us) because of a student’s recent death there. The “characters” are a few men and one woman, mostly students, who “rap” about the recent political events in France from the perspective of how they can educate themselves about workers’ conditions and align with workers usefully, overcoming mutual mistrust based on class and experience. That sounds like a simple enough description, though the endless passionate abstractions are further abstracted by exquisitely careful framing that avoids showing anybody’s faces.
Just when you think you’re supposed to be enthralled by what they’re saying, the soundtrack veers into other voices declaiming historical facts and readings, sometimes in place of the students and sometimes over their voices, creating a complex hubbub of language as opacity. Their brightly colored images are also periodically interrupted by equally beautiful black and white newsreel images of demonstrations and similar events. The key to the perverse title, I believe, is that, like any other films, this one consists of a montage of sounds and images in juxtaposition, except it calls attention to that via Brechtian alienation effects.
Wind from the East (Vent d’est, 1970) presents a visual parody of a western narrative as a handful of people wander around a forest. We see a gun-toting leader (Gian Maria Volontè of many a spaghetti western); a young blond man who’s allegedly an oppressed Indian (Allan Midgette), and who might be intended partly as a comment on inaccurate racial casting, or simply as an attractive and charismatic Christ-like victim; and an uppity woman played by Anne Wiazemsky of La Chinoise and Weekend — and Mrs. Godard since 1967. The soundtrack is, once again, a cacophony or collision of political lectures with the characters’ dialogue, as interrupted by self-conscious analysis of the whole project. Gorin arrived near the end of filming to save it in the editing room with Godard.
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The final film here, Vladimir and Rosa (1971), stars Godard and Gorin as the title comedy team of filmmakers who reconstruct a parody of the 1969 trial of the Chicago Eight, as restaged in a Paris studio. The real trial was arguably more burlesque than this, but facts emerge through the parody, beginning with the point that the trial of the protesters, charged with “conspiracy”, distracted from the simultaneous trial of eight police officers charged with civil rights violations during the same 1968 Democratic Convention riots.
At one point, Godard and Gorin debate the project, stammering and stuttering, one holding a boom and the other a recorder, wandering solipsistically up and down a tennis net as a doubles match is played around them. Is this the give and take of synergy and competition? Is it a comment on how would-be revolutionaries are trapped within the world of bourgeois pleasures? Is it an illustration of how political clowns are ignored? Is it merely an absurd slapstick gag? It is, dear viewer, all of these things and everything else you can make of it.
These films and related projects are thoroughly put into context by an excellent, informative, easy-going 90-minute lecture by Michael Witt. Among other things, he explains how Godard had already shot the material for his films Le Gai Savoir (also with Gorin input) and the Rolling Stones/Black Panther documentary One Plus One (or Sympathy for the Devil) before embarking on this batch of unsigned films. Gorin’s stretch in the hospital with a broken leg after a motorcycle accident — uncannily foreshadowing Godard’s near-fatal motorcycle crash a few years later — meant he had no direct involvement in the first three films designated retroactively as a product of the Dziga Vertov Group.
Witt also discusses the film not included here, the 1969 Pravda, shot with Roger in the Czechoslovakia freshly cracked-down by Soviet troops, and a difficult unfinished project about Palestinian soldiers that Godard would partly recycle in Ici et Ailleurs (1974), the first of his essay films and video experiments with new personal and artistic partner Anne-Marie Miéville. Godard would continue on a vast body of work that continues to this day and has led to a personal hybrid of essay and docu-fiction, while Gorin moved to US academia and made three excellent documentaries released by Criterion as Eclipse Series 31: Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin.
One of the most amazing things in the set is the shortest: a TV commercial for Schick aftershave! It can be seen as a perfect distillation of a Godard film, since virtually all of his pre-1968 films center on dialogues between a man and woman in their bedroom. Here, a couple get out of bed in the morning while the radio blares something about the Palestinians. The woman complains that she’s sick of his obsession with the news, and this leads at random to praising his scent–“Schick, c’est chic!”
One carries away the impression that Godard accepted this assignment expressly to mention the Palestinians and public indifference. Thus he seamlessly applies his recognizable aesthetic and thematic interests with the thoroughly commercial intention of the sponsor and makes you wish he’d made more commercials. By now, you won’t be surprised to learn that Schick declined to air it.
Why so many mainstream commercial organizations were throwing money at self-described revolutionary filmmakers for projects they subsequently refused to show is surely one of the inscrutable paradoxes of this period, but as Mao is quoted in Struggles in Italy, history comes out of contradiction.
But wait — there’s more!
No sooner have we processed this box than a fresh entry in the “obscure Godard” sweepstakes arrives on the scene from the same era. Such is The Oldest Profession (1967), one of the endless European all-star multi-director anthologies of the ’60s that are often more cumbersome than amusing. Incredibly, this relentlessly commercial project emerged the very same year as La Chinoise and Weekend, although it must have been made the previous year.
When another anthology with a Godard obscurity was released last year, The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (1964), I was able to tease the reader by asking you to name a Godard film with Jean Seberg that isn’t Breathless. Now I can ask: what black and white science fiction movie did Godard make with Anna Karina that isn’t Alphaville? Yup, believe it or not, they made two of them.
First, let’s dispose of the movie’s first five sections, and I’m pretty much going to tell you spoilers and all. The “prehistoric” section is directed by Franco Indovina, who made a handful of Italian films, mostly comedies, before dying in an airplane crash. Filmed on a beach, it presents a world of childlike people in bikinis and swimming trunks who live and love communally, giving themselves to many partners in mating season and raising children as a village. This is explained by a narrator. In short, it sounds like the sort of free-love utopia associated with some hippies of the era, except that everyone is gorgeous.
Trouble enters when Brit (Michele Mercier) wonders if there isn’t some connection between sex and pregnancy, and a cave painter (Enrico Maria Salerno) cautions her not to spread such dangerous ideas, or everyone will want to claim their own children. This overly intelligent bombshell also invents “love”, a word that bursts from her mouth unhappily when she’s temporarily put off by a visiting trader (Gabriele Tinti), who’s got a busy schedule with the ladies.
The artist promptly invents makeup to paint Brit’s face, and it works like a charm, but now she wants to string the trader along — another of love’s perverse effects. He warns her that she will be thought immoral if she refuses a willing male, but then he offers her all his necklaces of shells and beads — and thus prostitution is born. One dangerous idea has led to another.
Clearly, the script by famed Fellini collaborator Ennio Flaiano touches on serious ideas satirically, although his script for Mauro Bolognini’s Ancient Rome section is more like a tired joke: a jaded emperor (Gastone Moschin) brushes off his statuesque empress (Elsa Martinelli) to visit a brothel, and discovers the high-priced harlot is actually — ah, you figure it out.
Director Philippe De Broca and his frequent writer Daniel Boulanger contribute the French Revolution vignette starring Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Claude Brialy. Like all the other sections, it’s beautifully designed in rich colors and unfortunately drawn-out for an alleged divertissement. This time the woman is cheated, but the Belle Epoque courtesan (Raquel Welch) comes out on top in a segment directed by Michael Pfleghar. Nadia Gray and France Anglade play an enterprising “Amazon” duo in the modern segment by old-guardist Claude Autant-Lara and his writer Jean Aurenche, and that brings us at last to Godard’s segment, which is set in the future.
As in Alphaville, it’s simply shot in contemporary Paris: the airport and a hotel. Like that film, and unlike the rest of this feature, it’s in black and white. Also unlike the rest of these teasing stories, this one has actual nudity. And radically unlike the other tales, which are all explicitly about exploitive relationships and calculating transactions while somehow giving the impression, through fabulous color and Michel Legrand’s music, that it’s all a fun romp, Godard’s vision is both cold and egalitarian while finally coming across as the most radical and romantic. It pulls this off by being set in a world, again as in Alphaville, where love itself is a radical and subversive concept. This links it subtly with the prehistoric segment, although that one’s still largely about a good time.
The story: A “Soviet-American” solder (Jacques Charrier) is staying overnight from Galaxy 4, having arrived on a TWA plane. He looks through a catalog of naked women and chooses one. Across from him, a uniformed female is looking through a catalogue of Tom of Finland-type drawings aimed at gay males! It’s astonishing to see such images in a ’60s mainstream movie — but Americans didn’t, as that part was cut out of the US version, along with the “Soviet-American” reference.
The soldier’s choice arrives, played by Marilù Tolo. By the way, that’s Jean-Pierre Léaud as the silent bellboy, and the whole segment has a female voice-over periodically announcing statistics like radiation levels and notes on “Soviet color” or “European color”.
The soldier is disappointed that his prostitute doesn’t speak to him, so she’s replaced with Eleanor Romeovich (Karina) in a frilly 19th Century gown, who comes from “the literary countryside” and has only been in the city about 150 years. She somewhat prefigures the anachronistic appearance of Emily Bronte in Weekend.
Eleanor explains that specialization, for which millions have fought and died, means she’s all talk, not physical, and she proves it by reciting from the Song of Solomon. The soldier, who speaks in an odd halting manner, rubs his lips in a manner not unlike the hero of Breathless and comes up with the idea of combining language and gesture via the mouth, and suddenly the world erupts into color as though struck by lightning. Karina once again, and like Seberg before her, breaks the fourth wall in the final shot.
This sleek variant of Alphaville is entirely welcome, especially after the rest of this fattening film. It fits perfectly into Godard’s output, including his output with Karina, such as her prostitution film My Life to Live (1962). She’d been divorced from Godard since 1965, so it’s fascinating that they could still work together even as he moved towards his Wiazemsky period. Perhaps their divorce made it easier to work together.
Aside from the trailer, the Blu-ray’s only extra is a significant one: the English-dubbed US version. Remember what Godard has to say about the “honesty” of dubbed films. The dubbing isn’t really terrible if you ignore it, and at least Welch’s lines (the only performer who acted in English) now match her lips. The two-hour movie has been judiciously cut to 93 minutes, which certainly picks up the pace. The most significant losses are Brit’s speculations about children in the prehistoric section (and the narrator’s explanations) and the gay and naked parts of the Godard section.
More importantly, the Godard section was entirely reconceived in terms of color tinting instead of black and white. Shots are now in single-tone washes of orange, red, etc., and negative is employed when characters start to disrobe. Presumably these alterations were made without Godard’s input, but the effect feels even more experimental and surreal. It’s an almost equally hypnotic alternate-universe incarnation of the same segment.
And there you have it — radically different radical films arriving on Blu-ray on the same day, all part of the same late-’60s universe. I guess we can say it is Godard’s world; we just watch movies in it.