Revolutionary Cinematic Suicide, Godard+Gorin: Five Films, 1968-1971by David Fresko
Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) famously ends with the proclamation “fin du cinéma.” Self-described as a “film lost in the cosmos” that was “found on a dump,” its violent, corrosive critique of late-60s bourgeois culture and society begins with a husband and wife plotting to murder her parents in order to secure a large inheritance and culminates with the wife devouring her husband during a cannibal collective’s hippie orgy. Here, life is defined by scenes of savagery and rage set in a nightmare landscape of flaming highway car-crash deaths, in which marauding bands from different historical epochs, political stripes, even different movies, salvage what hopes persist for the future. If, as Godard claimed months later, “every film is a product of the society that produced it,” then Weekend’s apocalyptic excesses signify a rupture—a “return to zero,” as many of his films of the time advocated, from which commercial filmmaking’s economic, aesthetic, and ideological order would come undone. For a filmmaker who had three years earlier signed Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) (1964) “Jean-Luc Cinema Godard,” it was a virtual suicide that would only be compounded by his real attempts to take his own life two years later.
Weekend, alongside La Chinoise (1967), which dramatized the struggles of a Maoist student cell committed to revolution and driven to terrorism, is the work of a filmmaker repulsed by society and driven to revolt; both, moreover, “anticipate” the events of May-June 1968, when France was brought to the brink of revolution through the combined efforts of workers and students, “an event,” in Alain Badiou’s words, “beyond all calculation; that displaces people and places; and that provides a new situation for thought.” Godard’s participation in France’s precipitate revolution is legend: he defended Cinémathèque Française director Henri Langlois after his ouster by French Minister of Culture André Malraux in February of that year (for François Truffaut, “the demonstrations for Langlois were to the events of May ’68 what the trailer is to the feature film coming soon”), helped close down the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, and took to the barricades, all while completing a handful of “Ciné-Tracts,” anonymously composed one-minute silent shorts created in camera and designed to be projected at political meetings.
1968 set Godard on a path upon which radical political and cinematic experimentation were inextricable from one another. What resulted was a series of films that explored different modalities of cinematic politics, celebrated as much for their militant commitment as they were vilified for the tortured aesthetic transformations they wrought upon cinematic norms. Most notorious were those produced under the aegis of the Dziga Vertov Group, a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist filmmaking collective that Godard spearheaded with Jean-Pierre Gorin and which took its name from the then relatively unknown revolutionary Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov (of The Man with a Movie Camera fame). Un film commes les autres (August, 1968), British Sounds (February, 1969), Pravda (July, 1969), Wind from the East (September, 1969), Struggles in Italy (February, 1971), Vladimir and Rosa (October, 1971), and the unfinished Jusqu’à a la victoire (1970) were designed to not only be experiments in the ways in which sound-image relations could be recalibrated politically, but also, and crucially, transformations of cinematic experience for both filmmaker and spectator, an imperative that on a micro-level endeavored to revolutionize the cinema’s relationship to society.
Five of these films—Un film comme les autres, British Sounds, Wind from the East, Struggles in Italy, and Vladimir and Rosa—are now included in Arrow Films’ DVD/Blu-ray box set, Jean-Luc Godard+Jean-Pierre Gorin, Five Films 1968-1971, providing for the first time easily available and beautifully restored commercial copies of films that even in France were deemed “invisible” for decades. What is more, an interview with Michael Witt, one of the world’s foremost Godard scholars and author of 2013’s Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian, gives uninitiated viewers essential background information detailing the historical circumstances of these films’ infamous productions, the philosophies inspiring their politics (above all, Mao and the French Marxist Louis Althusser), and the alienating stylistic features that have led many to decry their supposed unwatchability.
The films by the Dziga Vertov Group are notoriously difficult, exceptionally exciting experiments in political filmmaking that tantalized the curious with their relative unavailability and intimidated audiences with their political modernist aesthetics and doctrinaire hectoring. But Godard’s English-language biographers—Richard Brody and Colin MacCabe—are surprisingly in line with one another in their ultimate estimations of them. Brody, for instance, writes in salacious detail of the years Godard dedicated to revolutionary activity, but claims the filmmaker “had lost his moorings in the cinema before adopting a fidelity to a nominally Maoist ideology.” “He made films,” he continues, “in dogmatic service of his new politics” that were “petrified by ideology,” an abdication of the New Wave’s stimulating cinephilia in favor of a politics that refused to acknowledge the very barbarism of its inspirations. MacCabe’s critiques, though sympathetic to Godard’s commitment, remain ambiguous. “As for the Dziga Vertov Group films,” he writes, “they were made for an audience that didn’t exist at the time, and it is hard to imagine them finding a real one now.” Moreover, while “[their] politics seem grotesque, if not offensive,” MacCabe understands the films as constituting a thoroughgoing “critique of the audiovisual world of information, a world whose dominance is far greater now than when they were made.” “The films,” he concludes, “do not generate much pleasure, but anyone wishing to make a documentary is either consciously or unconsciously going to use techniques, strategies and procedures which are analysed with wit and brilliance in the Dziga Vertov Group.”
Both praise the energy of the Dziga Vertov Group’s execution, the rigor of its conceptual designs, and the fundamental break it signaled in Godard’s development as a filmmaker. They equally disavow the politics that characterized the group’s actions as monstrous and ill-informed (what Brody refers to as “a peculiar form of cognitive dissonance”). Yet the Dziga Vertov Group demands to be understood as actualizing the aesthetic-political rupture presaged by Weekend; politics, in fact, was their defining, indeed, existential feature. Channeling Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach (“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”), Godard proclaimed, in a widely reproduced aphorism of the time, “It is necessary to stop making movies on politics, to stop making political movies, and to begin making political movies politically.” In a line, no other filmmaker of international, commercial, and artistic stature had so repudiated his existence within the political economy of the film industry as vociferously and violently, rejecting with petulant provocations and churlish disdain the institutions of mainstream moviemaking and the sanctified status of the auteur for which he and his colleagues at Cahiers du cinéma so strenuously advocated a decade earlier.
Producing political films politically meant a “struggle on two fronts”: semiotic and economic. On the one hand, the “return to zero” set out to dismantle cinematic convention into its component parts in order to rebuild them anew. Revolutionizing film “language” by building from a cinematic degree zero engendered a radical reduction of film form: the minimization of camera movement save for the occasional, austere track or pan, the diminution of the image’s iconographic plenitude in favor of maximum semiotic impact, and a emphasis on the significance of sound. These aspects appear with particular intensity during British Sounds’ opening sequence: a ten-minute lateral tracking shot unfolding alongside an automotive assembly line over which a narrator rants about capitalist exploitation, a child recites catechisms commemorating key moments in the English labor struggle, and the horrendous sounds of industry blare. Moreover, Pravda’s unrelentingly didactic dialogues between “Vladimir” (as in Lenin) and “Rosa” (as in Luxemburg), Struggles in Italy’s recirculation of images that unambiguously encode a word or concept, and Wind from the East’s literal destruction of filmic matter further index the aggression, this tearing-apart of mainstream technique necessitated. Critical inquiry into the politics of film form blended with practical experimentation designed to uncover new forms of socially significant cinematic syntax.
The Dziga Vertov Group’s experiments in cinematic politics extended to the social relations of production. This first meant abandoning “Godard,” undoing the Romantic legacies of auteurism (what Gorin referred to as “a shitty mystique of the author”), in order to organize anew according to the principles of collective creation. While Godard and Gorin, as this set suggests, are the principle minds behind these films, it is necessary to note the conceptual contributions of Jean-Henri Roger to British Sounds and Pravda and that many of the ideas in the films were born of discussions held at Godard’s apartment with a group that extended to include, among others, Paul Bourron, Armand Marco, Nathalie Billard, Raphaël Sorin, Gérard Martin, Isabelle Pons, and Claude Nedjar, who operated as the films’s unofficial producer and served as the liaison with Grove Press in New York City to secure funding and stateside distribution.
Moreover, the group’s Marxism demanded they place production before distribution and exhibition. “For us,” claimed Godard on behalf of the group, “the most important thing was to come to grips with the role of production before that of distribution. Whereas all militant films define themselves by an attempt to distribute films differently, in our opinion this can’t be done and has always resulted in failures; on the contrary, as Marxists, we think that it’s production that should be in charge of distribution and consumption, that it’s the revolution which should be in charge of the economy, if you will, and that as a result, in regards to the cinema, it is only once we know how to produce films in the specific conditions of a capitalist country, under the heel of imperialism, that we will then know how to exhibit them.” In short, “to produce a film in a correct [juste] manner, politically, that must then give us the correct [juste] way of distributing it, politically.”
Though Godard and Gorin would use their given names to sign Tout va bien, their 1972 return to commercial filmmaking starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, and Letter to Jane (1972), their satirical-critical treatise on a photograph of Fonda in North Vietnam, the films claimed by the Dziga Vertov Group are the collective manifestation of a political imperative to reshape the cinema from a Marxist perspective—the drive to tear not just the cinema as we know it but also Godard himself to pieces, a point that highlights the pathos at the heart of the project.
Since as early as 1964 and Godard’s signature of Band of Outsiders, his name has been isomorphic with “cinema.” With this in mind, Weekend’s denouement takes on a different tenor, having set the filmmaker on the road to both revolution and self-flagellation. The Groucho-Marxist burlesque, for instance, of Vladimir and Rosa, a film on the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial the group only agreed to produce for Grove Press in order to fund Jusqu’à la victoire (their incomplete film on the Palestinian Revolution that would have made their political commitments concrete), thus appears retrospectively as a form of hysterical overcompensation for genuine struggle that revolutionary cinematic creation required.
And if Antoine de Baecque’s 2010 biography of Godard is to believed, then the experience of filming Wind from the East, the group’s scandalous anti-Western whose production MacCabe describes as a “comic nightmare” marred by waste, inefficiency, and differing political programs, left him on the verge of actual suicide. Abandoned by his wife Anne Wiazemsky for another man, Godard first attempted to take his life by overdosing on barbiturates and, when that failed, tried to throw himself from a window. The intervention of the painter Gérard Fromanger, who happened to be passing by Godard’s apartment, stopped the filmmaker at the last moment. Of Godard’s committment to a psychiatric hospital because of these suicidal tendencies, Fromanger recalled, “he took himself for Artaud, who he had seen at the Vieux Colombier twenty years earlier, an artist insane, visionary, suicidal.” Indeed, the films by the Dziga Vertov Group—“mad films, love films, political films—where the subject matter of the film is being transformed into the flesh and blood of the film,” as Gorin put it—testify to the visionary, suicidal madness that subtends genuine political praxis. “One must give everything up,” claimed Godard in 1968. “One must change one’s life … One must completely change oneself, and that is very difficult.”
Godard+Gorin, Five Films 1968-1971 is now available in a dual-format edition from Arrow Films. www.arrowfilms.com
DAVID FRESKO teaches in the New School's Department of Culture and Media.