It’s that time of the year again! From The Social Network to Film Socialisme, David Phelps profiles some of the New York Film Festival’s main slate features. Godard still prevails.
“If I put so many cautionary quotation marks around these proper names, beginning with ‘Europe,’ it is because I am not sure about anything.” — Derrida, Philosophy in a Time of Terror (2003)
“…the valorization of value…” — Marx, Das Kapital (1867)
“Private behavior is the relic of another age” — The Social Network (2010)
As psychology is the cheap tool of Hollywood plot and the bourgeois axis of identification, and capitalism’s made us itinerant mercenaries to our bank accounts or cattle homeowners branded by decor, the only ideology is that ideology is dead: men are bodies in a landscape or photos on a Facebook wall, but in any case commodity forms taken by money, that content without content, that soul without a soul. This neat outlook makes it somewhat easier to make movies—no plot and, as Godard recently explained, no characters—and so the main target and fodder both of Godard’s Film Socialisme, a documentary on-board a cruise and at a garage with national and noir stock icons passing through the frame and muttering melodramatic responses to unheard refrains (“why won’t you say you love me?”), is seemingly the unthinking image, proliferated by digital cameras, cell phones, and the local news as a commodified substitute for local consciousness: and yet the images bear witness anyway to become, as Godard said of Manet, “images that think.”
“What’s your point?” critics are already asking Godard, as if to keep score of his biases (Hollywood because of the Jews? The Jews because of Hollywood? Le FLP?), and shun the possibility that Godard, forever dealing in paradox and Eisensteinian dialectics, has framed his new movie like so many others as a series of interrogations because it is itself a long thought process through twining, diverse thoughts, la battaglia delli diversi pensieri. The vortex of rich Jews starting Hollywood has nothing to do with Anti-Semitism and anything to do with the historical background of the rich Jews who started a cultural mecca: a connection to Louis Dolivet’s funneling political money to Welles and Tati, culture built on blood; Hollywood as the original Jewish state searching for independence and self-realization as Palestine does now; Hollywood as the conceptual nexus of 20th century trade of merchandise—now of girls, guns, and concepts, in whose exchange Godard freely participates as well in Film Socialisme. That these ideas are irreconcilable is allowed as research, not theses. Like most of his films, Film Socialisme is a documentary in a fictional landscape and a fiction in documented reality; more than the rest, it exists in vertical montage, a twelve-tone-like piecing of evidence and incipient rhythms whose shards the viewer puts together and completes with his own imagination.
Critics praise Godard for his pop opportunism and anti-psychology, then insist on psychologizing him, while what seems like his real revolution, a return to the Soviets, has been in displacing the ongoing thought process of a character in a story to images in the world—like Henry James, his work a slow unfurling of a consciousness as it struggles to see its way through looming mysteries, here those of Mediterranean trade circulation and the missing Moscow Gold of the Spanish Civil War. Each image is self-evidence of history, metonymy before metaphor, and in a beautiful middle section of Film Socialisme, a small French family involved in local politics and dish-washing seem to look out onto the diegeses of all Europe past and present itself—and then, in a few scenes reinterpreting Jerry Lewis’ The Errand Boy, to reinterpret the continent’s music in their own internal rhythms as they go about their work. Godard doesn’t quite show characters, even as a wily boy, making a typical conflation of culture and action, offers his imaginary conductor’s baton, a walking stick, new imagined use-value as he tells the audience he can break their necks. These are people, actors in search of characters unlike almost anyone else in the festival, who think and act and act.
Without cause, animating idea, the “effect,” post-Scorsese, is still everything when conclusions have been drawn like swords. Silent Souls, structured as a lesson in machismo dread, deploys gimmickry of the camera attached to actors and dolly outs from pubic hair in the tale of two Russians grieving one’s wife in a procedural cock-strut (“she had three holes, and I penetrated all of them”) whose every ritual the widower’s companion chalks up to macho, ethnic tradition. Even here the festival’s latent thesis is knelled of globalization eroding all private rites of contemplation. Tuesday, After Christmas is shot in the house style of the “New Romanian Cinema”—long takes, indifferent pans, and a trial of public formalities and spaces—as if to explore a private melodrama without exploring it: the impending spaces are out-of-focus, and the human figures bob in and out of frame with swimming room above their heads; the dialogue is broken-marriage adultery clichés, and that’s probably the point.
My Joy tracks behind lumbering Ukranian peasants, like the camera, stalking prey to brutalize: after two hours of brute revenge cycles, history and the script doomed to repeat themselves in a snowy, lawless vacuum, the message comes that the only solution—to both local terrorism and the movie’s non-plot—is to kill everyone, all scum. Where the Coen Brothers play a comic variation on the idea—the characters, all plot devices, initiate a deadly web that is beyond them, a cosmic irony—My Joy plays the tragic, more-and-less condescending variation that brute instinct is a choice the characters make. Just as Poetry is shot handheld and in-focus to convey its repeated, Objectivist-lite mantra that poetry “is seeing things clearly” (not transforming: it is enough to remember an apple’s red), My Joy comes with a patina of verité from Romania’s top DP: some real locations and a walking camera, a nice suggestion of a physiological art film after Klimov, Tarr, the Dardennes, Gus Van Sant, but one that without the sound design of another world’s still a gimmick that the consciousness of an unthinking killer can be mimicked at the back of his neck, the sounds faded smoothly in and out. If the gimmick’s nobler, it just means it has to be taken that much more seriously.
Certified Copy, with its high-gloss, glassy sales pitch, looks like a car commercial, as if Kiarostami directed the sun, and Of Gods and Men looks like Giotto. Le Quattro Volte, telling the platitudinous story of the seasons and Time mostly through a goat herd immersed in an Italian town’s local traditions, sort of looks like it was shot by God, and accounts in its soundtrack for each footstep of its mile-off peasants: by giving precipitate goats the reign of another overdetermined script, it is probably the most impressive movie of the year outside of YouTube.
In mid-afternoon press screenings accompanied by coffee and Raisinets, these films, the work of masters as profound as Ansel Adams, are placidly submitted to as theorems of the world guiding the consciousness to a ready end point. Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men, with its attendance to the dutiful patterns of monks’ life in ‘90s Algeria, its geometries and rhythms, turns into a moving refrain of analgesic habit against circumstance, more Mizoguchi than Ozu in its architecture of daily life, and with the usual nostrum that religious faith signifies secular, racial hand-holding—Godard shows the idea in slowed-down footage of acrobats’ leaps. Eventually the monks, symbols of Derrida’s untenable, “unconditional hospitality,” become heroic for doing nothing, evoked crisply in a montage of close-ups at their last supper listening to the secular Swan Lake. Beauvois’ insistence on the material life of men who gave up living private lives is yet another sort of affirmation of quotidian routine whatever the vagaries of the newspaper and political landscape; it could take place in the Middle Ages to no loss in audience tears. Every insistence of tradition, taken from Renaissance iconography, could as well be an extension of Silent Souls. The moral is not to go into politics.
A single Lubitschian shot in Fernando de Fuentes’ El Compadre Mendoza (1934), a sidebar selection, is enough to make all apolitical political scores redundant, including its own: in a nowhere, tumbleweed town hall in Mexico, the hand of a proud bureaucrat reaches into frame to move the room’s only adornment, a poster of a beaming peasant-king with an ox-horn moustache, and the capitalized subtitle, “¡Viva Huerta!” Onto the blank wall the hand hangs the poster of an identical victor. “¡Viva Zapata!” Carlos’ 5.5 hours of a horny Marxist hustling for capital gain in another smooth, globalized world without significant language barriers or ideological development—despite the slow shift in suits and placemats and reconstructed kitchens in the movie’s background through the ages, and a callow speech about the end of Communism shunting Carlos’ relevance as a modern, political unconscious—only has consensus history to illustrate attentively, and thus an agenda to fulfill when it doesn’t mean to have one. For Carlos’ more speculative missions, director Assayas has the characters contemplate scenes never shown. The terrorist makes his way through a chorus line of girl-terrorists; like The Social Network, it builds from Orson Welles’ (hypo)thesis that “man invented civilization to impress his girlfriend,” or destroyed it. Acts of violence, taking after Scorsese, are treated with an apposite jolt of Wire and The Dead Boys. This is just historical movie convention for responsible treatments of irresponsible subjects, as the marquee idols they probably saw themselves as.
Amidst these sensible movies with their points and rules and consciences, the schlubby framing of a bad movie like Hong Sang-soo’s Oki’s Movie is deliberate comic relief; even a half-assed attempt at structural regenerations can’t keep the drunk figures in hoodies on-screen from being simply who and where they are. The happy pandering of The Social Network’s moneyed, mahogany Ivy League is a better bromide; inheriting the cultural lineage of ’40s war/postwar megalomania movies by Welles, Walsh, and Sturges, through Copolla and Paul Thomas Anderson, it proposes the same formula of dreams, the nobody American who clawed his way into the Opera Club and a porch with Greek colonnades. Those movies also offer self-realized El Dorados for the audience’s gawking, along with the Greek message that glory’s not worth the blood and roots can’t be transcended—that poverty’s nice to go home to. The Social Network never questions its promise of frattish elitism, the coke, BJs, lan parties, and cocktail nights all lifted from reality TV, but just milks its characters’ unsuitability for the role; it’s as blind to private life as its hero. Done in dull, rhythmic shot-reverse-shot to Aaron Sorkin’s pet cadences, it’s an amazing thing in The New York Film Festival: a proudly literal-minded spray of entertaining clichés, an ad for classicist and classist elitism in a world globalized, homogenized by Facebooks.
Only Godard sets his movie in this conceptual sphere the modern world is living in; the montage of Film Socialisme, like Vertov’s 80 years ago in Man with a Movie Camera acknowledging that consciousness can exist in a multiplicity of locations, refuses to distinguish between a scene from youtube and a scene from life watching youtube, as it refuses to distinguish between various digital media possibly embodied or not, as his sound refuses to distinguish between characters potentially within a scene and characters outside, and as his script refuses to distinguish between characters: typical Godard, one’s line will be picked up by another later on. This refusal to make ontological distinctions is not just a post-modern sensibility that can’t distinguish between newspapers and comic books as printed signals to whatever outside worlds, but the work of an intelligence that sees culture (fiction) as history’s (fact’s) unconscious, the two in eternal dialogue, soul and body. As noirs sprung the buried traces of post-war trauma in the 40s, Godard stages his mystery of the World War II-era Moscow Gold as the hypothetical tale of a young girl, accompanied by brooding strings, hearing rumors of her old craggy, fedora-and-trenchcoat German-Jewish companion’s involvement. History’s a nightmare, etc., but “there is nothing invented in cinema.” Herr Goldberg, trying to enjoy his retirement on a real Costa cruise, is a screen image, not of Germany or Jews or noirs, but all Europe’s crimes: Godard as always leaves nobody unindicted. But neither is the banker proven guilty. Even the archetype leads his private life as a man (this man) in a time and place (the toilet).
That images are history’s language is intuitive, esp. to a propaganda state; “language turns on those who speak it,” says the movie. Godard’s film is as much about the death of language—in the death-grip of the state and doctrine, standards imposed on the world, an objective currency used only for its idiomatic exchange-value—as it is its birth from the material world as an intuitive means to relate, like the dream of the Deguerre disciple’s photography that would show the Holy Land to the world (Godard, “access denied” from shooting in Palestine, has the story repeated). Animals speak with only sounds; a meowing woman notes that Egyptians called the cat “the meow”; Roman Jakobson is cited for saying in ’42 that sound and meaning cannot be separated; one of Europe’s Greek chorus of voices repeats that when Ulysses returned home, only his dog recognized him. In its roots, the movie is extraordinarily simple, concerned only with breaking boundaries of monistic meanings, distinctions, while respecting the various, dialects and tones, the sounds, of the chorus, each given particular weight in reciting texts, brought into material context: Godard’s idea of racial hand-holding isn’t administering medicine but Husserl. Socialism’s not a homogenized English-speaking world, trading in once currency, but some spectra of universal contact when everyone can speak each other’s languages and swap identities, hunter or critic, like clothes. To distinguish is to make sense of things, identities, and there’s a very sensical reason why Dadaism rose nipping at the ass of Nationalism.
So the movie works not in points but lines of thought, in sounds and shapes, gradations of color and texture and breaks in format from HD to cellcam—the more ironic that critics already leave the movie wondering if Godard can articulate anything when all they can hear is some sort of music. (Independencia’s annotated the movie here). Godard’s perversion of Eisenstein’s Odessa steps sequence is like Ezra Pound’s perversion of the symbols of Chinese poetry, in Hugh Kenner’s term, like Picasso finding “a baboon’s head in the shape of a toy car.” In this late sequence of montages of and relating to the movie’s cardinal points and primal scenes (Barcelona, Palestine, Odessa, Naples, etc.), Godard matches Eisenstein’s track across falling bodies on the stairs with his own, the modern-day stairs empty except for a couple tourists getting their pictures taken. That Odessa is presumably a reference point as the black void of the Moscow Gold, or the site of the massacre of thousands of Jews in ‘41—both years after Potemkin—and not for Eisenstein’s massacre, which almost certainly never happened except in front of his movie camera, doesn’t matter. As Joyce lets words cross-pollinate in forceful rhythms and unlikely, wayward puns for new meanings and spectra, sometimes never expressed—an artificial acceleration of etymology, a synthesis of separate language frames, a slight revolution in sense so that meaning and essence is in sound instead of definition—Godard’s cross-cut Odessa is not only posited hypothetically in dialectics, and not only carries the weight of buried outrage, but freed from context bears witness on a history that came after its filming.
History dissolves into this iconography that never meant to signify these things—it’s the sound, the image that means. In this real location, people were massacred as in a movie made years before; and anyway the past is as much a fiction as fiction. The parodied steps scene regains force even through its inadequacy as a placeholder and becomes what it was all along: not a historical depiction, but a historical expression in line with Godard’s impossible thinking that in the 20th century, history became the images’ language: a hazard, and also a promise that filmmakers could be legislators of the earth. Film Socialisme is built out of the scraps of real life and real texts, whatever that means, edited to parallel the circulation of money and a flattened world, but in its Dadaist and socialist layering of a diegesis that spans the earth and puts it into a dialogue with itself against the official interests of gold, it’s not just a modern elegy but some form of utopia floorplan, 2010. Godard quotes Genet—“stock up all of language’s images and help yourself to them, because they’re in the desert and you must find them”—and follows the advice in the Mediterranean, called “the desert” in the Middle Ages and throughout the movie. A woman declares she won’t die until Europe is united; someone says a line about tearing down the screen between the state and individual. As Vertov’s own, similarly-constructed, equally-socialist Man with a Movie Camera opens with a movie theater being filled by people about to enter another world, my favorite image in Socialisme is a hand, probably from Godard’s Hellas pour moi, working its way out of video static, to press up against a window and the screen.