Monday, March 21, 2011

Film Socialisme

There’s something crucially key about Luxury Cruises in evidence here: being entertained by someone who clearly dislikes you, and feeling you deserve the dislike at the same time that you resent it.
— David Foster Wallace, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”

I’m not sure why Jean-Luc Godard hates me, but I’m pretty sure he does.

Is it my comfortable North American lifestyle, which insulates me from all the suffering in the world? Is it the essential banality of my white-collar job? Is it my face? Do I read the wrong books? Do I watch the wrong movies? Is it because I’m gauche enough to visit the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris and take a picture of Henri Langlois’ honourary Oscar even though the sign clearly says no photography allowed? Is it because I’m self-absorbed enough to think any of this matters?

Maybe he hates me because I insist on watching his latest experiment, Film Socialisme, despite the fact that every inch of the screen seems to radiate a singular sense of purpose, a simple message delivered with a kick in the ass and a punch in the teeth: piss off. This means you, jerk, there in the audience with your chai latte and bourgeois hipster smugness. So you think you’re going to watch a bit of artful Gallic business and come away feeling oh-so-cultured and oh-so-so-sophisticated? Well, the joke’s on you, because here comes Godard to show us we’re not smart, not sophisticated, not cultured, and not much of anything else really. Look inside that cup. It’s not chai—it’s water! Presto! ART.

Like any magic act, your enjoyment of Film Socialisme depends entirely upon your own credulity. Believers will trust in what they see as sorcery, and give in to the spell. Skeptics, bored and distracted, will fidget and start poking around for the trapdoors. Or, put another way: everyone agrees that Godard is at least several steps ahead. The question is what planet he’s walking on.

Divided into three parts, the film defies easy summary. The first section is set on a luxury cruise, populated with the disparate likes of a Russian detective, numerous puckered silver-haired vacationers, and Patti Smith. There are glimpses of several stories, but these rumours of narrative remain unconfirmed. We move to a small gas station for the second part, where an obnoxious television news crew harasses the family that runs the place. The final section consists of a montage of art, film, and history, finally ending with white text on a black screen, the legal disclaimer against piracy you find on DVDs, and a defiant final message: “No comment.” No kidding.

Why then, despite all my skepticism, is it so hard to get that final silence out of my head? The entire film is a thwarted attempt at communication. The subtitles—written in a halting, gnomic style that has been dubbed “Navajo English”—are inscrutable little puzzles. When someone says, “War is war,” does it mean anything? How could it? You might as well say, “Chair is chair.” (Actually, maybe someone does at some point—it’s hard to tell.) But the audio offers little help to those not bound to the subtitles. Voices fade in and out in mid-sentence, the smothering noise of the waves against the ship swallows most everything else, and the rest is borderline gibberish.

There’s something despairing in all of these obstructing tactics. True, refusing to speak is perhaps the most damning gesture of defiance. It suggests an unwillingness to play along, to accept the rules of the conversation. But it’s also a futile act, one borne out of a lack of power. Godard gestures towards larger meanings, greater problems—Palestine, AIDS, colonialism—but he sets them adrift in this crippled vessel just to watch them drown. This is the work of a fatally wounded romantic.

Few filmmakers have loved the medium with the same molecular intimacy as Godard, and few can hate it as knowingly as he does. All of these distortions of sound and image make me think he wants to drag cinema through the mud just to see if he can love it afterwards. And in the end, does he not relinquish his mastery of the medium? The film's finale moves from image to word to blackness. Most films end in the dark, but there’s a brutal sense of finality in this particular progression, as if Godard were retreating from cinema itself. What does it matter what he says in a movie anymore? No one is watching.

Well, except for me, in this case—but I suppose that makes me the “no one” in this equation. And for what it’s worth, this no one would like to apologize to the film for watching. I feel like I just walked into a room to find someone standing on a chair with a rope in hand. How awkward. Do you want to, um, talk about it?

No, no, I suppose not. But perhaps we can be friends, some day, you and I, Film Socialisme. I hope you overcome this morbid depression that seems to have gripped you, this overwhelming despair that film is dead and all is lost. I also hope you don’t stink up the apartment next to mine. That’s not very neighbourly, you know.

So get well soon. And maybe we’ll meet one day on the street, perhaps in Paris, out by Parc de Bercy. I’ll smile and start talking about old times. Feeling better, I’ll ask. Sure, sure. Boy, we had us some times, didn’t we? Yeah, yeah, you’ll say, eyes drifting away to some distant memory. Say, there was something that was bugging me, I’ll ask, what was the deal with the llama, anyway? And your eyes will snap back to the present, and you’ll just grin your sly grin and laugh your coy laugh, and say, Oh, that? I just like llamas, that’s all.

Yeah, that would be nice.

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