Dans l'éloge de l'incertitude

*Warning #1: Very little comics talk today.

*Warning #2: Instead, I’m going to be discussing Jean-Luc Godard.

*Warning #3: Hitting the ‘Back’ button on your browser too hard can eventually result in painful joint problems; take care of yourself!

*So yes, last night I went off to the theater to check out Godard’s most recent feature-length film, “Notre Musique”, which was made in 2004 but only crept into my local shoebox art house just now, the very same week it was released on R1 dvd, and the same week some other movie is monopolizing theater time in the desperate hope that it’ll yank Hollywood out of its current box office slump (speaking of which, the Internet has been telling me that folks are angry because Darth Vader apparently quotes Bush at some point; was that Tom Stoppard’s contribution? Was this planned back in 1977, like the rest of this finely-wrought saga? Now I’m going to be watching the film with an eye toward other bits of comment - does Jar Jar represent Tom DeLay? Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and potent allegory!). I’ll be getting to that film eventually; it helps immeasurably that I’ve never viewed the first trilogy as anything more than decent-to-good summer popcorn fodder, and I thusly saw the later two flicks as more of the same (albeit with a measured downturn in personality and spunk). But yesterday, I was all Jean-Luc’s.

Even at the age of seventy-four, Godard still has the power to provoke strong reactions from viewers, reactions like “He’s still alive?” or “Was he the one in Close Encounters?” or “Who?”. But I’ve found that a certain downturn in public consciousness hasn’t particularly hampered his skill; “Notre Musique” isn’t an easy film, but it’s a consummately individual one, and more often then not a thoughtful, crisply intelligent, good-looking one, a film for which only the weightiest themes will suffice: the nature of war, the role of the creative person in society, the futility of art in staving off violence, the perception of the Other.

The film is divided into three sections: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. I expect that you all know where this sort of reference originates from. Of these segments, one is excellent, one is pleasingly thoughtful and ambiguous, and one takes up three-quarters of the film’s runtime. Tellingly, we spend most of our time in Purgatory, but let’s examine Hell and Heaven first.

Lasting about ten minutes, Hell is composed entirely of assorted stock footage depicting authentic and fictional wars. A piano accompaniment is provided, soft and brooding and periodically exploding into pounding chords. Every so often, a human voice will calmly read passages from philosophic texts or news reports (and at one point, a selection from The Lord’s Prayer, highlighting the bit about forgiving those who trespass against us while some particularly nasty stuff appears on screen). The presentation sounds similar to what I’ve read of a prior ‘found footage’ work of Godard’s, “Origins of the 21st Century”, which was commissioned in 2000 by the Cannes Film Festival and was barely shown outside of those hallowed confines. I’ve heard the content of that film was often difficult and explicit. The images here are frightful and at some times calculatingly cheesy. Footage of heaps of concentration camp prisoners being dumped into a mass grave shares space with shots of corny greasepaint Indians from old westerns. Godard has a predilection for severed heads, as both image and audio reflect. At times the gaps between fiction and newsreel are obvious, but gradually we become numb to the difference and we see scene after scene of marching men and flying planes, and it’s impossible to tell what is real and what is not. This will come up again later. Godard shifts his comment to a different level: the video footage is slowed down, the low quality of the image becoming blurry, and the fields of men are suddenly swirls of color, something close to the cinema of Brakhage. Even in abstraction, cinema carries the force of war. Or maybe cinema blurs the realities of war until they are beautiful, digestible. Perhaps everything is real (or fiction) in the projector’s light? It’s a great sequence, viscerally powerful and drunken with possibility. Hell is war? Hell is the aestheticizing of war? Hell is the breakdown between reality and illusion? Hell is distance?

Later in the film, we all go to Heaven (many of us doubtlessly relieved), and it relates nicely to its opposite sphere. This sequence is also ten minutes long, and follows a certain character (who’s just died in the film’s Purgatory segment), as she wanders through a gorgeous woodland setting. The image is clear and beautifully composed, the colors lush and bright. She follows a river, and encounters a fenced-in clearing, guarded by US military forces. Apparently, Heaven is under occupation. They check her out and usher her in, and she finds all sorts of artistic and thoughtful young people, just like her, reading and dancing and having a good time. It’s kind of a small area, but she sits down by the river by a handsome boy, who gives her an apple. One can’t help but wonder though: why all the soldiers? What are they guarding everyone from (the soldiers are all armed, but most of them are fishing or playing with children at their posts; they look kind of bored)? The girl bites her apple, looking awfully disconcerted. And that’s all.

So what does it mean? It’s good to keep Hell in mind here, as what we’ve seen there is the firing of such guns and the execution of such defense. Heaven seems happy and peaceful, but it carries the potential to become Hell at any point. And the image of content intellectuals herded into a glorified pen for protection from soldiers relates back to one of the Big Themes: what can a creative person do, in the face of necessary security, defense, fighting?

The answers may be found in Purgatory, in which we stay for an hour (the entire film clocks in at only an hour and twenty minutes, Godard perhaps recognizing a need for brevity in engaging such subjects). Unlike the stock-footage apocalypse of the beginning or the quiet pastoral of the ending, Purgatory is set largely in Sarajevo, at a Literary Encounters gathering; many prominent thinkers and writers appear as themselves, although the action is staged, the viewer observing the chats (J. Hoberman, in his excellent review, dubs the film “Olympian in its detachment," a fair analysis). Godard himself is also on hand, fluttering around and biding time before a big lecture he has to give to a bunch of young film students. In a purely superficial sense, this sequence evoked the feel of Goddard’s “Contempt”, with characters constantly followed around by translators, spitting the same (or maybe subtly different) lines out one after another in different tongues. Only some of this material is subtitled; indeed, more than a few times a huge block dialogue would be conveyed (summarized?) by only a few curt lines of English dialogue. I wonder how much of this effect is intentional, how much the audience is meant to be alienated by incomprehensibility. Certainly that’s one of the concerns of the film, with people constantly unable to understand one another. At one point a group of Native Americans deliver a speech (in English) about culpability of Europe in international suffering. Nobody seems to be listening. In the next shot, they are gone, as if they never existed.

There’s plenty of speeches in this segment, apparently a common motif among Godard’s later-period output (I’ve not seen much of it, I’m afraid), though the film remains keenly aware of its status as a film, as is always the way with Godard. Background music abruptly cuts out when certain characters speak, only to rise again, sometimes drowning out the words of other characters. Sharp cuts are made mid-scene, character movements jerking about. Sometimes, nearly mystic events occur. A lengthy, stagy, dreamy segment set in a ruined library pulls this off quite well. Other images, like that of leather-clad Native Americans sitting on horses in the middle of the city, only provoke unintentional laughter (perhaps Godard was referencing Oliver Stone’s “The Doors”?). And some moments are shockingly banal: the news of a character’s death sends our viewpoint cutting away from a garden of lovely flowers to a patch of, well, sad flowers, wilted or closed, away from the sun.

But the heart of Purgatory is in its conversation, as everyone discusses the nature of art and the role of the artist. One character mentions that writers really know nothing: Homer’s epic poems were heavily based on the witness borne by others, just as so much writing is only the chronicle of action taken by others. Reasonable people don’t start revolutions, we learn, they start libraries or cemeteries. A Palestinian writer nearly steals the show with an extended comment on why he feels the need to pose as a ‘poet of Troy’, a delayed representative of a vanquished people; the poems of the victors are what’s remembered, but they’re all so much fiction anyway, so why not become the voice of the defeated? Even the defeated may benefit from conflict - he notes that the problems facing Palestine would never have captured world attention had Israel not been their enemy. And this line of reasoning is taken even further in the segment’s centerpiece, Godard’s own lecture. Aside from taking shots at Howard Hawks (whom Godard claims could not tell the difference between men and women, judging from his compositional style), the director launches into the concept of the reverse shot (a basic of film grammar) as an extended and highly charged metaphor for all sorts of political confrontation. Israel and Palestine are reverse shots of one another, and like a good reverse shot, the composition differs on both ends. Walking toward a Holy Land, the weight of history and story and myth (maybe all the same) behind them, Israel has become Fiction. Palestine, meanwhile, has become Documentary. And everyone prefers Fiction to Documentary, as the latter suggests all the uncertainty of reality (which is different still). Film carries the power to illuminate such matters, to collect a multiplicity of viewpoints, to truly illuminate the Other. “Our music,” as the film’s title translates to, and as Godard dubs it. Amusingly, the crowd listening to Godard becomes more and more restless as his speech goes on, voices finally overpowering him, until someone asks him whether digital cameras will save the cinema. He is silent, not knowing what to say. Again, communication is defeated.

And that’s perhaps the true nature of Purgatory. A lot of terribly smart people saying awfully smart things, and few of them even able to reach each other, let alone anyone else. But what else is there to do but keep trying? That’s the dull sufferings of Purgatory. As I’ve said before, eventually one character orchestrates her suicide to become a symbol for peace, maybe the only way to really get through: to become a story, unalive (in a biological sense). Yet everything moves in a circle. Hell is combat, fiction and documentary indistinguishable. Purgatory is the discussion of Hell, the art of its prevention, and the nagging doubt that anything is accomplished, no matter what form the film takes. And Heaven is contentment, but the guns surround us and we realize that we can’t do anything to get rid of them. Maybe we want them ourselves. Heaven is only acceptance. And we are always capable of spiraling off the clouds, sinking back into the abyss. In Godard’s world, all of us can be fallen angels, and several times at that.