A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of its own past. So seems to suggest Jean Luc-Godard’s golden jubilee work Film Socialism (2010), the one film of recent times that has produced the least insightful body of criticism so far (with some of them being downright vengeful; one wonders if the film would fared better with the critics if Godard’s name wasn’t attached to it). The latter observation should come as no surprise for neither does the film provide the comfort of a clear, overarching authorial voice as in History of Cinema (1988-98) nor does it overtly embrace – as some recent works of the director have – the free associative essay form. What we have, rather, is a documentary with conscious fictional texts embedded within or a self-conscious documentary of a shoddy fictional production. Film Socialism’s ontological confusion might be a throwback to Godard’s films of the late eighties, but the picture that is closest to this one, to my mind, is Last Year at Marienbad (1961, more on this later).
The film is divided into three segments (or “movements”) the first and longest of which, titled “Things such as”, is set on a cruise ship (which has been noted to possibly denote a floating Europe – both financially and historically), whose passengers seem to represent a microcosm of Europe present and Europe past (including intellectuals who carry out dialectical conversations). Amidst the fragments of dialogues, scenes and visuals runs a plot involving an ex-Nazi turned Jew who might have appropriated a huge sum of money from the Bank of Spain. The brooding environment of the ship’s deck at twilight, the seeming absence of contact between various groups of people on the vessel, the contemplative images of the sea (water being equated to money right from the first line) that punctuate the segment and the general sense of hopelessness that pervades it – all serve to create a post-apocalyptic atmosphere redolent of Tsai Min-liang’s cinema. Likewise, the filmmaking here seems both like a desperate act to salvage and synthesize from what remains of a glorious civilization and a typical Godardian attempt and appeal to return to zero. The first facet is reflected in the fractured nature of this section, wherein shards of banal, familiar images, texts, words and sounds are sewed together (a treatise on Husserl gets to sit alongside Lolcat videos) using equally eclectic assortment of digital media (ranging from cheap cell phone camera footage to crisp high-definition, from unfiltered, noisy microphone recordings to studio-mastered sound), while the latter manifests as an intermittent but perennial discourse on the value of things and the possibility of reversion to barter system where, probably, the concept of surplus labour vanishes. (Godard’s use of nearly-unintelligible Navajo subtitles, in this sense, might be an offer to barter the film’s half-articulated ideas for our participation).
The second section, called “Quo Vadis Europa”, involves a middle class French family whose ‘head’ is disillusioned by the state of affairs of the nation. The children of the family take to anarchistic politics following which they adopt rigorous policies in the usage of language and show an increased involvement in the arts. Whether this is a straightforward parody of the Leftist agitation of the 60s (whose poster boy Godard undeniably has become, when it comes to cinema) or a serious consideration of an atavistic return of student radicalism (and the consequent sloganeering) is somewhat unclear, but these sequences marry the apparent emotionality and solemnity of the director’s post-eighties work with his flamboyant rigor of the years before in a manner that seems like new territory even for Godard. (It is mainly the absurd scenario – reminiscent of the filmmaker’s works featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud – of this segment that prompts the former reading. Both Melville and Herzog compared student anarchists to children and dwarfs respectively during the seventies. However, Godard’s insistence here that the spirit and ideas of the age persist through language seems more sober and hopeful and less nostalgic and playful).
The third part of the film – “Humanities”, an epilogue of sorts resembling the scintillating “Hell” segment of Our Music (2004) – takes us further back in time, into ages which are now considered ancient. I say ‘considered’ because the film appears to refer to our perception of those time periods than the periods themselves. This is an era where we see images of relics of Aegyptus, prisoners of Palestine and ruins of Naples alongside Eisenstein’s version of the Odessa massacre and Rossellini’s documentation of an archeological excavation. There is no logical reason for us to consider the first set of images as belonging to a remote past and the other to a more recent time (the same way it is illogical to consider one set as fictional and the other as real). Mythology and history interpenetrate irreversibly. (Elsewhere, Godard points out how Eisenstein’s restaging of the October Revolution now passes off as the actual event). In every case, cinema distorts, realigns or plainly obscures our perception of history, as does the written language to an arguably lesser extent. “It’s not the literal past that rules us, but the images of the past” said George Steiner. Like film technology, these images have persisted in our vision through the ages, distilling and redefining the past along the way. The visual language of photography, with its deceptive simplicity and misleading verisimilitude seems to have ‘become’ what it sought to represent. (“Roman Jakobson shows during the winter of 1942/43 that is it impossible to separate sound from meaning” quotes the film). Cinema is not just the defining phenomenon of the 20th century, it is the 20th century. Like the inhabitants of the cruise ship, we all seem to be aboard this boundless, floating fleet of images having almost no anchor to reality, in this quagmire of symbols where to say is to be, in this inverted world where our own footmen – our languages, our currencies – have become our rulers.
[Film Socialism (2010) Trailer]
Language is, of course, the central object of investigation in Film Socialism (as it is in almost all of Godard’s pictures; he calls Film Socialism his “Farewell to Language”). Money is treated as a language for communication at the outset and an examination of the possibility of returning to zero of economics is also extended to the possibility of return to zero of communication (Someone utters the maxim: “silence is golden”). (The Navajo text for the film is perhaps the first attempt at this, with its unambiguous, rudimentary words being uncontroversial and untainted in comparison to the meaning-laden sentences a proper set of subtitle would have provided. Like the Navajo subtitles, Film Socialism is composed of discrete, clear, nearly incongruous images which sacrifice meaning for concreteness). Speaking of concreteness and directness, Godard seems to have found a new respect for objects and surfaces in this film. The first movement of the picture, at least, is a cinema of superficies. Be they of the wet floors of the ship or of a slot machine at work, the images of this segment seem to acknowledge objects for what they are rather than as symbols or props. One could suspend the movie at any random point and admire the beauty of the objects seen, without any consideration of the context. Each image, each cut and each sound seem to have found their proper place, like these objects. Given that this section is a reflection on the value of (manmade) things, this apparent piety towards commonplace articles – made more palpable by the ‘immediacy’ of digital video and the use of static shots – is perhaps Godard’s (and cinema’s) way of appraising the objects he films.
Furthermore such use of images as objects invokes the issue of copyright and intellectual property, which the French has been long against. (The film’s opening credits cites all the film clips, sounds and texts used in the film and there’s the FBI copyright warning, surprisingly, at the end with the text “when the law is wrong, justice comes before the law”, as if asking if images of objects could be subjected to laws of private possession at all. Godard’s plundering, of course, ranges from John Ford to YouTube). During the seventies, Godard was not just concerned with making political films, but, as James Monaco points out, making films politically. Godard and company recognized that the whole enterprise of cinema – production, authorship, marketing, distribution and exhibition – inherently espouses an ideology and to subvert the ideology called for a subversion of all these systems. This also meant an effacement of individual authorship and ownership (for a person who had been at the forefront of auteur criticism). The movement, of course, fell apart and Godard went back to an even more personal mode of filmmaking. However, even with their esoteric eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, his films continued to possess the same critical charge and formal rigor. In that sense, Film Socialism might not (just) be a film about socialism but one that is made socialistically in the way it lets its audience take responsibility for and ownership of its text.
I’m, of course, only speculating. Part of the problem in properly responding to the film arises from the confusion regarding whether we should take what we see at face value or as symbols, metaphors and allegories, whether these things exist for the sake of an interpretation and not as themselves. Each shot simultaneously prompts interpretation and invites us to explore its surface. Susan Sontag, against all temptation to interpret it using literary prisms, praised Last Year at Marienbad for “the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form”. The same could be said about Film Socialism, which, for me, replicates the experience of watching the Resnais film. More than the fluidity of form or the repudiation of grammar, it is the lingering feeling that it might all just fall into place if we only stayed with the film – if we could just enter the film – for long enough that makes Film Socialism resemble Marienbad. “Conversation flowed in a void, apparently meaningless, or at any rate, not meant to mean anything. A phrase hung in midair, as though frozen, though doubtless taken up again later. No matter. The same conversations were always repeated, by the same colorless voices” could well be a paragraph from a description of Godard’s film. Like the floating phrases of Marienbad that are periodically picked up, the Film Socialism is a work that would, no doubt, be visited regularly by those fascinated by it, as I am, even if that fascination isn’t all for the right reasons. If the rumours are anything to go by, Godard might just have retired at the peak of his prowess.