Monday, December 28, 2009

Happy Holidays from the New Ennui

Something to tide everyone over until some new posts, soon to be coming thick and fast. In the meantime, I heart Chris Marker, and so should you.

Monday, June 15, 2009

And the rest is cinema - 4

Enter Structuralism. It is my firmly held conviction that Structuralism, after Freudianism and Marxism, was the last great intellectual adventure of the twentieth century, and so I sometimes get touchy when it is taken in vain. However, not having seen A Married Woman (the context of Godard’s first overt use of structuralist-inspired film work), I’m reticent about discussing Brody’s analysis. Is this, for example, true?

A Married Woman firmly established Godard as a politically and socially engaged artist. It placed him fully within his times and put the times firmly on his side. It also established the tonality of his work to come, both in its forthright assertion of the cinema as an analytical instrument and in its unique permeability to the events, moods and ideas of its day. Yet the specific view of the contemporary work that Godard offered was not favourable. Instead, he further developed the moralizing and puritanical critique of a modern life… - in other words, a critique of the world in which it was plausible for Anna Karina to leave him [as had happened at this time.] Godard’s intellectual and documentary engagement with his times would converge upon the burning point of his romantic agony, which it would reveal and salve, and to which it would offer the prospect - or dream - of a favourable resolution, literally a conservative revolution [I.e. the abandonment of adulterous passion for conjugal bliss.]

If Godard’s social outlook was conservative, his filmmaking was frenetically radical. The film’s startling fragmentation and abstraction reflect the modern philosophy [I.e. structuralism] that was on Godard’s mind - and his loss of faith in familiar Hollywood styles. Paradoxically, the frustrating uncertainty behind its conception lent The Married Woman an air of desperate urgency that seemed not merely the filmmaker’s but the era’s. (190-1)

There is a certain obfuscation at work here, or, perhaps, a core ambiguity around the term “conservative”. Cultural conservatives, as Brody understands it, implies the tradition of the old High/Low distinction in the art: that there is a Tradition of Great Works that cohere - important elision here - into a moral unity. Thus Brody can play on a received idea of aesthetic morality/moral aesthetics and contrast it to the hedonism ascribed to mass culture. There are three points that should be made here:

1. The assertion of an aesthetic-moral Tradition was, I think, as much tactical as anything else for Godard, who never ceased making the claim that the inheritor of this Tradition was Cinema as such. This legitimizes Cinema as an art form and also allows Godard to postulate it as Other to mass culture.
2. I personally find it somewhat touching, even a little charming, that these aesthetic conflicts, clearly felt very deeply by Godard, had a human-all-too-human source: “Godard could only assume that, were [Anna] Karina authentically free, liberated from the false consciousness of media propaganda, she would discover within herself her authentic nature, her true desire, her natural virtue and would come back to him”(199).
[1] I think that part of the power of the films that Godard and Karina made together does to some degree depend on the evident pleasure on Godard takes in filming her, as Rossellini did Ingrid Bergman, and Ingmar Bergman did Liv Ullmann, as Pasolini did Ninetto Davolia. Obviously, there is a less pleasant side to this: men framing their beloved-as-art-object, as well as the manner in which Godard figures pop and mass culture as the province of a deceptive femininity a la Madame Bovary. These are very serious issues (not really dealt with by Brody), but I am inclined to forgive Godard’s framing of Karina (not his abusive behaviour to her, even though the may, or indeed probably are, be related) as it seems so heartfelt that it seems churlish to condemn.
3. The postulation of a vantage point from which to engage in critique of capitalist mass culture is not solely a technique used by aesthetic/moral conservatives. Adorno’s Aesthetic Thoery argues, in fact, that such a vantage point (embodied there in Beckett, Kafka and Schoenberg and, ironically, definitely not film) is necessary for a critique of capitalism and its attendant culture industry. In order for Brody to make his point persuasive, he would need to show how Godard mobilizes this vantage point to specifically conservative effect (beyond banal sentiments like “people who are married should stay together”) either morally, aesthetically, or socially.

And, as Brody notes, there was plenty of social conservativism about, both in France and the US. The Married Woman sustained extensive “recommendations” (down to the level of the grammar of the title) from the censor board still reeling from the shock of Le Petit Soldat, while Godard moved further to the Left, and vice versa:

If Godard had found a home in the left, it was because the left had changed; it had become a matter of form and style, of tone and mood, instead of simply an ideology, and had, as such, redefined its criteria and realigned its spectrum to include him - even realigned itself to accord with him. (205)

Again, a deflationary move is taking place - from “simple ideology” to “form” (as in Marxsm and Form) and “style” (as in Revolt into Style), and then to “tone and mood (as in lifestyle accessory). Here, as elsewhere, one wonders as to the political stance of Brody’s work and how it relates to his sense of Godard’s trajectory, as in this sweeping judgment:

At the apogee of Godard’s public renown, at the moment of his triumph as a cultural hero to the young and a new classic to his elders, he was increasingly lost as a filmmaker. He continued to make brilliant, personal films, even epochal films, and he did so at a furious pace that left his acolytes breathless [ahem]. And yet he would work with an increasing despair. Precisely as Godard’s engagement with “life” - political, social, intellectual - and with the new complexities and incipient crises of the times was intensifying, he was in doubt regarding the cinematic form with which to represent it. As his films became ever more permeable with regard to the explosive tensions and wild energies of the day, they also became increasingly formless. The summit of Godard’s fame and his esteem as an artist and a cultural touchstone of the age was also the moment of his cinematic breakdown, which he displayed on-screen in real time. (209).

Sez you, one might respond. “Formlessness”, however, is a loaded term; if by “formless” one means “other than classic cinematic beginning-middle-end narration”, than Brody’s claim is mostly true. And in fact it is this attempt by Godard to find new forms AKA displaying his “cinematic breakdown” that leads us to the most exciting films of his career: Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Les Chinoise and Weekend.

[1] Note the unremarked shift from existentialist vocabulary - “authentic freedom”, “authentic nature” - to a more ur-Situ “false consciousness” “true desire” - to an eighteenth century, quasi-Rousseau “natural virtue”. Brody’s skill as a writer is in his ability to make these conceptual shifts almost subliminally.

Deeper Into Movies 6

Blue - Derek Jarman

I caught myself looking at shoes in a shop window. I thought of going in and buying a pair, but stopped myself. The shoes I am wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life.

Cezanne: “Things are looking bad. You have to hurry if you want to see anything. Everything is disappearing.”

The Mediterranean blue is fading on the 35mm film, so badly spooled that it took three tries before the chimes would ring. Scratches that appeared like boils and sores on a retina, black starlings flocking and dispersing. At times, the blue seemed washed out altogether, fading. But if there is one thing that we are sure of by the end of the movie, everything fades eventually. Sometimes in the time it takes to boil a kettle or break a heart. Or to watch a film.

I seem to recall a white screen the first time I saw it, at the beginning.

Proust: “…the memory of a certain image is only regret for a certain moment”

Jarman’s blindness was as monstrous as Baudelaire’s aphasia or the madness of philosophers. Do we lose the vital things first, leaving the juddering, wracked body to trail in its wake? Until there is only a spasm of lucidity, longing for its own annihilation?

But the origin of “monstrous” is the same as “to demonstrate.” In response to blindness, Jarman bathes our eyes in lush blues in what is in some ways his most straightforwardly narrative work. We leave the hospital and end in a reverie of blue skies, soft breezes, lapping water. Slender cool fingers reach to touch an antique smile. This is a demonstration of Jarman’s generosity, as is his installation of compassion and courage at the heart of the infinity he allows us to glimpse at 24 frames per second.

And there is righteous indignation. The virus rages fierce. I have no friends who are not dead or dying. The flashes of rage, protest (a demonstration), sorrow are mixed with the blue of bliss, the impatient youths of the sun dancing amid emerald lasers and coral amphora. A life lived with eyes open.

Blanchot: “The quick of life would be the burn of a wound - a hurt so lively, a flame so avid that it is not content to live and be present, but consumes all that is present till presence is precisely what is exempt from the present. The quick of life is the exemplarity, in the absence of any example, of un-presence, of un-life; absence in its vivacity always coming back without ever coming.”

My ghostly eye.

In Blue, Jarman creates the ultimate film, a film which exists only as film, spirit in matter (as he used to say). The point of minimal difference between not-film and Film. In this, he is a fellow traveller with Malevich, Cage and Beckett, other artists who marked the barely necessary condition for the work of art (film, painting, music, literature) to exist. An interstitial zone prior to recognition, where ghosts reside. Jarman hears their voices, and they flicker at the edge of the screen, made bold by the rising forth of Blue. The voices of dead friends: David, Terry, Graham, Howard, Paul. Of dead possibilities, stranding us in an agonized world (Sarajevo, the woman in the taxi crying before the helpless Jarman). The world is dying, but we do not know it. Filling up with spectres, ghosts.

Derrida: “The spectre, as its name indicates, is the frequency of a certain visibility. But the visibility of the invisible. And visibility, by its essence, is not seen…. The spectre is also, among other things, what one imagines, what one thinks one sees and which one projects - on an imaginary screen where there is nothing to see. Not even the screen sometimes, and a screen always has, at bottom, in the bottom or background that it is, a structure of disappearing apparition.”

The ghosts appear and disappear on the cinema screen - there is a sense in which watching this film on a dvd (however large the projection) is not to watch it. Blue is a film - the film stock bears the lesions of having been viewed, having been seen. And will eventually deteriorate, as Jarman wished. Art becomes its own death-mask. And behind the mask, the imperceptible becoming of the artist, this artist, this Derek Jarman, one with the ghosts that welcome him.

Chateaubriand: “This is how everything in my story vanishes, how I am left with only images of what happened so quickly. I will go down to the Elysian Fields with more shadows than any man ever brought along.”

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Further distractions

L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze (1996) available here care of Perverse Egalitarianism. For the longest time I've had to stretch my bilingualism to its limit, so the transcripts are actually quite helpful. NB the long fingernails, apparently his sole eccentricity. (Really??)

Eventually I get to some proper blog posts - there's been the usual bad excuses, e.g. search for gainful employment, generalized lethargy and depression, multiple distractions etc. etc.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In Memoriam: Robin Blaser

This is also too sad for words. The San Francisco triumverate of Blaser, Duncan and Spicer represent a sort of ideal for me, and now the last survivng member - indeed the last surviving member of the New American Poetry group - is gone. Reading Blaser's Robert Duncan poem nearly made me weep in Starbucks this morning. No more Image-Nations for us, just wreckage. The Truth is Laughter, but there's little to laugh about now.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Memoriam - James Graham Ballard

While it was not a big shock - he was sick for some time now, I am deeply saddened. We always had the next novel to look forward to; now there is less light in the world.

Ballardian corralles the tributes - Owen Hatherly and Mark Fisher (in Part 4) are characteristically thoughtful.

And Steven Shapiro beats me to the punch here. I think that Ballard's last four novels are a sort of auto-critique, especially the self-referential Kingdom Come which received horrible reviews. It is especially sad that Ballard's last novel (a painful, painful phrase) should have been so universally panned; somebody's sorry now, I should think.

Friday, April 17, 2009

In Memoriam - Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

This is quite sad really - 58 years old seems awfully young, and she had far more books in her. Her essay on Proust is unparalleled, I think, and Epistemology of the Closet remains one of the most compelling books on Queer theory - convoking (rather than oppossing) Literature and Life.

Wierdly enough, I was wondering just the other week what she had been up to of late.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mirth and Decay, in that order

via Poetix:

Q: How many Deleuzians does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: There is no need: the lightbulb is already a permanent flux of becoming. To dream of changing it is to dream of violence: a meaningless putsch that would only replace one lightbulb with another. Rather, we should seek to liberate the incandescent intensity of its illumination - we still do not know what a lightbulb can be.

Well, I thought it was funny.....
Also, Elminative Culinarism on the politics of decay! Right on!!
Also, I am putting the twit back into twittering. We'll see how that goes.

Friday, March 27, 2009

My Endless Quest for Novelty

Good lord this looks absolutely terrific!! Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism sounds like a must-read too! I need to get my act together! In particular in view of this, which looks the sort of book I wish I'd written.

Mark Fisher (again) on my current raison d'etre. Listen to "Bits and Pieces" here, a song that makes my socks roll up and down.

A version of the Badiou piece that has everyone talking. Everyone seems somewhat nonplussed by his appearance on HARDtalk, although it might be an idea to differentiate philosophers who can do TV (Foucault, Zizek) and those who can't (Deleuze and, as we can see, Badiou.) To be fair to Badiou, the interviewer is, shall we say, somewhat unsympathetic.

ooh the interwebs....

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Put the Book Back on the Shelf 3 - Sound Art: Beyond Music, Beyond Categories - Alan Licht

Writing a book on sound art is a fairly thankless task, in much the same way that summarizing something like “media art” would be; having been in circulation as a descriptive signifier for a relatively short period of time, sound art is a new medium intersecting other artistic practices – music, obviously, but also digital art, video and new media, film, performance art, sculpture, installation work, etc. Sound art negotiates these boundaries with considerable difficulty; in order to maintain its specificity, it must differentiate itself from music or media art, for example, by declaring itself to be not those art forms. (Even, or especially, when it is parasitic on those forms.) On the other hand, and this is a general problem, sound art cannot solidly define its borders as such without someone coming along to transgress them – “oh, sound art is ABCD, well I’m doing ABCDE, whatcha gonna do about it?” Of course, given the nature of boundaries and their transgressions as analyzed by the early Foucault, it might be the only definition of sound art as such is one that is purely negative, that is defined in terms of its status as “not being that”.[1] But then again, this seems unsatisfactory, as there must be some positivity signified by the rubric “Sound Art.”

Alan Licht, as musician, sound artist and frequent contributor to The Wire is in a good position to undertake this task, and he does so with brio. Licht enumerates three necessary conditions before an art work can be taken to be a work of sound art. The work must be:

1. An installed sound environment that is defined by space (and/or the acoustic space) rather than time and can be exhibited as a visual artwork would be.
2. A visual artwork that also has a sound-producing function, such as a sound sculpture.
3. Sound by visual artists that serves as an extension of the artist’s particular aesthetic, generally expressed in other media. (16-17)

One need hardly point out that this excludes a very significant portion of what people generally think of when they think of sound art, notably performance.
[2] But this definition does have the advantage of being at the very least a starting point, the onus on Licht being to make this definition substantive. Which he doesn’t quite do. What we instead get is little more than an annotated list of sound artists/musicians/poets/visual artists who defy easy characterization. The itinerary, moreover, is a pretty predictable one: Varese, Cage, Fluxus, La Monte Young up to Ikeda, Marclay and Lopez – musicians all, you will note. Licht does point out that they are not sound artists either, so why they are in a book about sound art is an open question.

Licht’s book promises more than it delivers. (Again, given the aforementioned hazards, this is possibly unavoidable). He does, however, make an interesting point about the emergence of sound and environmental art which, he claims, happened at roughly the same time. Licht suggests that the two art forms aspire to a mode of ex-human art (he doesn’t use that term) in which the homo sapien artist and audience are compelled to reconceptualize themselves in terms of the terrestrial environment as a whole. Licht’s concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full here:

Sound art, like its godfather experimental music, is indeed between categories, perhaps because its effect on the listener is between categories. It’s not emotional nor is it necessarily intellectual. Music either stimulates, reinforces, or touches n emotional experiences either directly (through lyrics) or indirectly (through melody and harmony). Even electronic or experimental music, which is often thought of as unemotional or intellectualized, still deals with human thought processes, technology and behaviour. …Music speaks to the listener as a human being, with all the complexity that entails, but sound art, unless employing speech, speaks to the listener as a living denizen of the planet, reacting to sound and environment as any animal would (with all the complexity that entails). This sounds dehumanizing, but this appeal to a primal common denominator may, in fact, show human gesture at its most benevolent and least aggrandizing. By taking sound not as a distraction or currency but as something elemental, it can potentially point to a kind of cosmic consciousness that so much art aspires to. (218)

There are several things to note here: 1) sound art is not, in this formulation, a practice defined by production as it is a practice defined by its consumption. At the point of artistic production, it would be untenable for Licht to claim that any human labour had neither emotional nor intellectual component. (Even the most aleatory art works have at least the idea that they are being aleatory.) Viewed from the perspective of the artistic producer, Licht’s claim doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, unless he is willing to bring in some sort of concept of “instinct” or Spinozist passion, of which there is nary a sight. (And is cosmic consciousness devoid of intellect and emotion? What is this consciousness conscious of??)

2) There is the claim that listening as a sensory intention is different for humans and animals. Or rather, sound art functions by bracketing the conditioned listening behaviour associated with human listening as such. There is a great deal to be said for this point, and it is a shame that it is not foregrounded and discussed more explicitly in Licht’s work. (Also, animals, it seems to me, have a pretty instrumental approach to sound: “Predator? Prey? Mate?”) The claim that sound art, in production and reception, require, create the need for, or respond to the emergence of a new kind of listening, or even an overall re-ordering of the sensoria, is something that is implicit, but should have been pursued more assiduously.

Which is the main difficulty about writing a review of Licht's book: trying to assess, or even articulate clearly, the claims that he makes about sound art is a bit like catching butterflies with a harpoon. (Not that I would ever do such a thing, Gentle Readers). As with a lot of books about sound art (which have a tendency to be scattershot anthologies, for the most part), there is a fundamental incoherence of argument that too often seems associative at best. At then end of Licht's book, I came away with a list of interesting artists who aren't doing sound art and a sense of certain trends in what isn't really sound art anyways. Which isn't a particularly good result from a book whose title is, after all, Sound Art. There are some excellent insights and arguments here, but they tend to be lost in the slush of detail.

Oh, and by the way, Jim O'Rourke's introduction is beyond inane. It would be charitable to call the man an idiot - charitable, that is, to O'Rourke, not to any actual idiots out there.

[1] Two obvious possibilities occur to me in formulating this, both from French thinkers starting with Ba-: Badiou inflected – sound art is the part of no part of art, or the Baudrillardian definition of sound art as the ecstatic form of music. Consider this review as the first tentative attempt at my book on sound art, fragments of which to be published long after I am dead.
[2] Here I must, as they say in British Parliament, declare an interest: the send + receive Festival of Sound (see blogroll on the right) that I have been involved with since 2001certainly involves installations/sound sculptures, and many audience members and participants are artists involved in a variety of artistic practices. However, performances make up the lion’s share of the programming, so it is with some bemusement that I discover that we haven’t been doing sound art at all, particularly when that is how we distinguish ourselves from other festivals (Mutek, for example.) Of well, life, as Celine is reported to have remarked, is full of disagreeable surprises.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Random Thoughts

It occurs to me that I might be accusing Brody of not having written and entirely different book, which isn't really fair, I suppose. Oh well, there we are.

WSB in fine form here. I particularly like the concluding "Probably not." in the first interview.

Poor old Roland Barthes's journals have been published and translated. They sound pretty bleak, but they can hardly be more so than Althusser's The Future Lasts Forever.

Everything you wanted to know about Paul Valery but were afraid to ask.

And Nina reports on the Birbeck Communism conference!

Finally, if you are feeling as glumb as me, there is this from the late great Sir Nigel Hawthorne, whose Straight Face is actually really interesting, if you like 1950s London theater gossip asmuch as I do.

Monday, March 16, 2009

And all the rest is Cinema - 3

Continuing from here.

Admittedly, scampering around Paris in sunglasses is hard to locate politically, so what does Brody make of Godard’s first explicitly engaged film Le Petit Soldat. Brody describes the stakes and the possible motivations for Godard:

Although Godard claimed that Breathless was “a film on the necessity of engagement,” he also could not deny its lack of overt engagement with the politics of the day. Since he and the New Wave were so casually and widely charged with promoting political noncommittment, Godard self-consciously took on the most pressing contemporary political subject to show that the New Wave could also be openly political. Yet he would do so in a way that was so personal, and so independent of any prevailing orthodoxy, that his will to engagement would merely succeed in infuriating almost everybody and satisfying almost nobody. More than proof of an expressly political engagement, Godard’s second film… was above all a revision, and a correction, of the autobiographical constructions of Breathless. (87)

More briefly, if somewhat more obscurely, rather than Godard’s filmthought thinking, Godard’s filmthought would thinking politically, “something about torture.”
[1] Again, Brody foregrounds the existentialism that he sees in the early Godard by making the claim that Le Petit Soldat contrasts competing engagements: “political engagement itself” and “a more subjective, personal form of engagement” (84), specifically, the nature of freedom (85). Brody admits that emphasizing the abstract “message” of the film - freedom - rather than the overt content - torture in Algeria - was tactical on Godard’s part; he wanted to avid the inevitable censorship that even speaking about Algeria would incur. Of course, it didn’t work; Le Petit Soldat would not be seen until 1963, some time after it had been completed and by which time the FLN and OAS would be eclipsed by other concerns.

So what is the political thought of Le Petit Soldat? For Brody, it is a bit of a morass: we have a right-wing photographer in love with a member of a pro-FLN group. Both sides engage in torture and are therefore morally/politically compromised, if not bankrupt. (One could point out that the pro-FLN group doesn’t actually kill anyone, whereas the rightist group has at least two corpses on its conscience by the end of the film.) Brody asserts, with good reason, that Bruno Forrestier (the photographer) represents a sort of Godard self-portrait with whom the audience is meant to identify and whose compromised political status represents Godard’s own confusion - if, like others in the Cahiers group, he rejected the Left’s call to film at the service of the revolutionary (or at least Soviet) cause, this nominally placed his sympathies to the patriotic Right. However, the Algerian war of independence made this an untenable position: “by implicating France in a dirty war to which it had never admitted, Le Petit Soldat as an act of defiance that belonged naturally to the Left. It was a singular rejection of the Gaullist censorship…”(99). Does this mean that the overall film is “an aestheticization of the issue at hand,… noncommittal regarding the Algerian War” (96)? As the ontology of film for the early Godard is the relation between character and circumstance, one might characterize Le Petit Soldat as Godard’s first extended attempt to film the relations between aesthetics and politics, or, as the first line of the film would have it, reflection and action. This would certainly represent a move away from the Rightist conservatism that Brody charges Godard with, away from an apolitical aesthetic to the assertion of a relation, however to be negotiated, between reflection and action, at least at the level of content. And certainly, the lack of overtly modernist “tricks” (bar some atonal soundtrack stabs that further emphasize that the characters are aware that they really can only choose the least worst of some pretty shitty options) further foregrounds this negotiation.

Le Petit Soldat is not only about the Algerian War but also about a man and a woman, as is Godard’s next films A Woman is a Woman. This promises to be a particularly exciting chapter, as Godard full-frontally assaults the conventions of on of the most convention-bound film genres - the Hollywood musical. And here one would expect that Brody’s argument about Godard’s neo-classicalism would come to the fore. Unfortunately, Brody doesn’t seem to think much of this film, isolating its interest largely in what it shows us about the fault-lines on Godard’s relationship with Anna Karina and the bravado nature of the film’s creation (110). As per the latter, we have Godard’s first explicit phenomenalization of the device - instead of a musical film, we have a film about the attempt to film a musical. Brody indicates that the systematic deconstruction of the movie musical - a template through which Godard depicts escalating tensions between director and actress - are “so distancing, distracting and self-inhibiting as to doom the film in advance” (114). I have to confess that this does not accord with my memories of the film, which are very pleasant indeed. And anyways, modernist distancing effects Turn! Me! On! In any event, we are clearly a long way from neo-classical cinema.

But not so far away from politics. The famous ending of the film and apparently the pun around which it was based - <<Angela, tu es infame. Non, je suis une femme>> - leads us right into where Brody, for some reason, never treads: Godard’s misogyny. Brody notes Godard’s appalling and utterly reprehensible treatment of Anna Karina without offering much by way of comment.
[3] I am aware that inter-gender relations are significantly, dare I say better, in 2009 than they were in 1961 and that judging a work or a body of work from a perspective that it could not possibly have shared is, for want of a better term, a little unfair. But this must be registered as a serious flaw in Brody’s otherwise encompassing if not encyclopaedic study: the role that women play, the way in which they are framed, is largely left unremarked in this text, and that Godard’s rather fraught (diplomacy, that) relations to feminism and women artists (whether actors or directors) needs to emphasized more than Brody does. So far, we have three films in which we have a woman is called a whore at the end of the film, a woman is dead, and a striptease artist whose most pressing intellectual concern is that she become pregnant. At this point in his career, anyways, women thinking are unfilmable to Godard, and this represents a major stumbling block in my appreciation of his work. In some ways it so apparent that this should be addressed that I am at a loss to explain as to how Brody avoids mentioning it. While it is true that Godard’s cultural, rather than sexual, politics are the main focus of Brody’s study, can the trope recurrent in Godard’s films of woman-as-force-of-nature really be meaningfully divorced from his cultural politics? If there is any “conservatives” in Godard, his framing of women would be a good place to start.

Brody is much better on what might be called the commercial politics of the New Wave, which, when A Woman is a Woman was released, was in some trouble. In brief, the Cahiers gang had a series of box office bombs, which left a lot of them stuck and the space opened by 400 Blows and Breathless closing rapidly. Brody further notes that the “failure” of the New Wave, and responses to that failure, contained “coming tectonic shifts in French cinema, culture and society” (123). Brody figures this in terms of an aesthetic conflict about how films should be made with Truffault and Godard representing opposing trajectories:

For Godard, the historical and critical orientation that defined the New Wave was… marked by paradox, “by regret, nostalgia for the cinema which no longer exists. At the moment that we can do cinema, we can no longer do the cinema that gave is the desire to do it.” The New Wave, for Godard, was born of its distinctive relation to the history of cinema. Godard saw the Hitchcocko-Hawksian cinematic canon not as a series of models to imitate but as a source of inspiration, a point of departure - and a lost paradise.
For Truffault as well, the
Cahiers group was defined by its historical orientation, but in an entirely different way. He claimed that their cinematic canon provided a set of formulas to follow, and declared that the commercial prospects of its directors in his circle depended on their willingness “to continue to pretend to tell a mastered and controlled story which is meant to have the same meaning and the same interest for the filmmaker and for the spectator.” (123)

The result being:

Truffault argued that the application of the Hollywood formula, that he and his Cahiers friends had absorbed as critics was the only way for the New Wave to reach the mainstream. But for Godard, if the New Wave (as he narrowly defined it) was to fulfill its original ambitions, the general conditions by which a mainstream - of cinema and of society - was constituted would have to change. If his cinema could not become the mainstream in French society, it was France, not he, that had to change. (124)

Several points need to be made here, the first being that Godard is clearly moving away from the “classicist” model he earlier espoused towards an almost stereotypically modernist aesthetic, whose use of conventions is precisely aimed at overcoming these conventions. Truffault retains the “nineteenth-century novelistic” style, the aesthetic by which a good story is well told (as indeed the case in his films). Additionally, as MacCabe points out, there is the question of audience for the New Wave in general and Godard in particular. Godard represents what might be called, paradoxically, the traditional avant-garde - if you don’t understand than that’s your problem not mine. More fairly, there are two trajectories at work here: the first, that Cinema as such has an artistic tradition that necessitates advancement, correction, investigation - that is, Cinema is an art whose parameters are inscribed as such. This means that cinema’s aesthetic principal is paramount, its relation to the history of its own art form, rather than the utilitarianism of “mere” entertainment/commerce. This trajectory will be maintained by Godard for the rest of his career, for better or for worse.

The other trajectory might be thought of as the process by which a film engages rather than seduces an audience. That is to say, the audience that Godard seeks is an audience willing to work; the symbolical labour of his films is approportioned between the Director and the Audience. The meaning of the film is not donated to the audience (as with Truffault); it is a sort of wage. This division of labour Godard would come to regard as essentially Leftist, in a marked (but not that surprising) politicization:

…[I]n 1961, Godard saw that the cinema that “speculates in advance” on the spectator, even in the name of Hitchcock, was necessarily reactionary; that art made in the spirit of aesthetic freedom and progress was inherently inclined to the left; that the right was necessarily hostile to such art; and that a new, post-Communist left would necessarily be favourably disposed to it. (125)

While all of this is certainly laudable, possibly even true, there are certain problems that lie ahead. The first is that locating the “classic” cinema in some mythological paradise can lead to a certain cultural despair (once there was Cinema, now there are extended TV shows) that can lead to exactly the cultural conservatives and Rightist ideology that Brody isolates as the main seam in Godard’s work. Unless, of course, there is another trajectory that counteracts this movements towards the Good Old Days. Such as the work of someone who recommended building on the Bad New Days: Brecht.

However, with Brody, we are back to Sartre in what is, arguably, one of the more overtly Brechtian of Godard’s early work - Vivre sa Vie: “Since the 1950s, Godard had been arguing that Sartre’s opposition of outer existence and inner essence was fallacious because it was transcended and resolved in the cinema” (131). Thus all the Leftism is dissolved in “existential cinema: (131), despite Brody’s admission that:

Godard got the idea for dividing …[Vivre sa Vie] into discrete sequences, or theatrical tableaux, from The Threepenny Opera. He had even planned to include a character taken directly from the film of that play, “a master of ceremonies who would say, ‘Here is the sad story of Nana…. Here is what happened to her one day, etc.’” Brecht was in the air, and in particular, in the air that Godard was breathing. The December 1960 issue of Cahiers du Cinema was entirely devoted to Brecht, in open acknowledgment of the potenital cinematic application of his ideas. (132)

However, we soon learn that “[b]efore shooting started, however, Godard purged the project of its plethora of Brechtian influences” (133), in favour of filling Nana’s story being filled with “pathos.” And that’s Brecht dispensed with: he was “in the air” (cigar smoke, presumably), suggesting that Godard may have heard about Brecht indirectly and that the level of his interest extended no further than that. I find this improbable: Godard is known for the breadth of his reading (even, like any good grad student, he only read the first and last few pages of the books he claimed to have read) and, furthermore, the attention that he will draw overtly towards Brecht and Brechtian ideas from hereon into his Maoist films lead me to wonder why this program (as it seems) of de-emphasis is taking place. Brody does seem to be arguing that while there may in fact be some Brechtian aspects to Godard’s work, there aren’t that many and they aren’t that important anyways. I find this bizarre; a lot of the pleasure, for me, anyways, in watching Godard’s films of this period is generated by watching his inventive appropriations of the Brechtian aesthetic.

Further, Brody seems to regard Brechtianism as being an impediment to Godard’s film work; certainly, it is one of the main criticisms he levels agains Les Carabiniers. Brody concludes that not only is the film too overtly intellectual (in the sense that the POV is that of an “intellectual” looking down from a height - Olympian? - on the film’s venal and stupid characters), but that “…[t]oo much ‘distance,’ together with ‘denying the cinephilia,’ the Rossellinian influences, compounded by the Brechtian one, made Les Carabiniers a film of isolation; there was indeed almost nobody there, barely even Godard”(154). So not only is Brecht dispatched with, but so too Les Carabiniers, as Brody promptly moves on to Contempt, where the issue of Godardian aesthetics and Brecht’s influence on it is displaced by Brody’s discussion of the “crisis of cinema history” (179) in Godard’s big-budget Contempt.

In fact this crisis as such had to do, as Brody has it, with Godard’s disillusionment with the classic Hollywood from, precipitated by the pressure placed on him by Contempt’s producers to make a sexy film with Brigitte Bardot’s tits. The result that, having managed to finish Contempt - which is ravishingly beautiful and, frankly, doesn’t particularly deserve the short shrift that it gets in Brody’s work - Godard was left with a strong sense of what not to do, that is to say, make classic narrative cinema in the manner of Truffault, for example. The problem that Brody will locate in the next few films is that Godard may have had a negative idea (what not to do), he lacked “a positive, constructive model [of film and filmmaking] to replace the one he had just jettisoned. [As such his]…films for the next few years would be, in general, decomposed rather than recomposed, and the collage-like fragmentation fro which they were celebrated was in fact a despairing avowal of lost bearings” (180). This is the period when for many, including myself, Godard was making his most exciting work, so it is provocative for Brody to suggest that they really indicate artistic confusion. This line of argument is strategically placed, coming as it does when Brody begins his chapter on Band of Outsiders which is my least favourite of Godard’s pre-Maoist work.[4] Brody avers that the film was made by Godard as a potboiler, and like most movies made as potboilers, failed to bring in the francs to keep get the pot boiling (Dune would be another example). In effect, the failure of Band of Outsiders, both aesthetically and commercially cemented the lessons learned from Contempt - the classic Hollywood cinema was no longer viable in any sense.

[1] Just as Eloge de l’amour would be <>.
[2] I am deliberately resisting the urge to offer readings of the films here. My intention is to do later posts focussing on individual films, so to a large degree, I’m working from memory.
[3] Notably Godard slapping Karina for having the temerity to agree to dance with another man, and Karina’s appalling response of the “it showed that he loved me” variety. Here as elsewhere, I have firm reason to thank our lucky stars that there were brave women in the 1960s and 1970s and in the present day putting a stop to that sort of thing.
[4] I am entirely willing to admit that Quentin Tarantino’s endorsement of this particular film makes it impossible for me to enjoy it. One more thing evil about the Man Who Mistook His Life for his DVD Collection. A plague on his house too!

More to come!

Thursday, March 12, 2009


I should have linked to this long ago. Local Genius Hugh Briss has enlightened us for years, so let him into your heart (or elsewhere, if you feel up to it.)

Persiflage! I wish I had thought of it!

Tom K

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"They have no records"

God this looks cool!

London readers (all none of you) should go and tell me all about it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Excitements Abound!

The blogosphere is full ideas lately:

Momus explores "Altermodernity" here.
Meaningwhile, Socialism and/Or Barabarism also coins the redolant "Salvagepunk" here and here.

note to self - bring into constellation altermodernity, salvagepunk and hauntology. Result - what ever the hell is happening now.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

And all the Rest is Cinema 2

Continuing from here:

Several points need to be made at this point. To begin, the definition of “cinema” in its specificity (that is its distinction from theatre, painting or literature) was one of the central motifs of the 1950s Cahiers group. That such-and-such a film is “Cinema” was the highest term of approbation that Godard, Rohmer, Rivette or Truffault could bestow; the later famously declaring that Boris Karloff’s death scene in the bowling alley from Howard Hawkes’s Scarface “isn’t literature. It may be dance or poetry. It is certainly cinema.” Or Godard himself on Nicholas Ray:

If cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to. While it is easy to imagine John Ford as an admiral, Robert Aldrich on Wall Street, Anthony Mann on the trail of Belliou La Fumee, or Raoul Walsh as a latter day Henry Morgan under Caribbean skies, it is difficult to see the director of Run for Cover doing anything but making films. A Logan or a Tashlin, for instance, might make good n the theatre or music hall, Preminger as a novelist, Brooks as a school teacher, Fuller as a politician, Cukor as a press agent - but not Nicholas Ray. Were the cinema suddenly to cease to exist, most directors would in no way be at a loss; Nicholas Ray would. (Godard on Godard 43)

This is high praise indeed and one can see the beginnings of a sense of vocation - Brody will speak of the “religious conversion” that overtook Godard as he sat in the various movie theatres around Paris catering to cinephiles. Not only is cinema an utterly distinct, if not superior, art form, the Director is the Artist Hero who can do one thing and one thing alone - make movies, and in making them, create this thing called “Cinema.” This is clearly the underlying aesthetic that forms at least part of the background of all Godard’s films and should not be pre-emptively dismissed as Romantic Auteurism. (Brody is, it must be said, very good about pinpointing what la politique des auteurs was really about, not so much as a theory of interpretation but as a kind of filmic poetics for the New Wave). All arts define themselves by their specificity, even if, or especially when, the boundaries of the artistic practice are perforated or ill formed.

The second observation to be made is that the contention of cinema attributed the Brody (correctly, I think) to Godard is not necessarily a conservative, right-wing or Anti-Semitic concept. And to be fair, Brody does not suggest that there is some inexorable logic that leads from auteurism to the Anti-Semitic conservatism that Brody argues lurks at the heart of Godard’s films. What Brody will do instead is indicate how the details of Godard’s fundamental conservatism lead him, or at least point him in the direction of, an Anti-Semitism that will sometimes shield itself in Anti-Americanism.

So what are the details of this cultural conservatism? Brody does not come right out and say it, but he implies that the germ of this tendency incubates at the heart of the New Wave itself. To begin with, Brody takes very seriously the culture wars that took place in the late 1940s-early 1950s, with the Communist denunciation of film intent on “depraving our [French] children by the glorification of gangsterism or erotic images, propagating the spirit of submission to the great benefit of religiosity” (12). That a certain chauvinistic theory of nationhood is present here should go without saying. Truffault writing film criticism, and getting good and much-needed money to do so, for the nationalistically right-wing Arts, as well as Joe-College type stunts played by the young men hanging around cafes and cinematheques are glossed by Brody as being connected to a sense these young men had of being extra-territorial in terms of the dominant cultural landscape:

The [Cahiers du Cinema] band’s right-wing stunts and sympathies, so soon after the end of the German occupation, suggested a wilful association with evil, a punk-like overturning of values. They also suggested the seemingly insurmountable distance between the young movie lovers and the official culture in which they desperately sought their place. Although they were, in practical terms, outsiders, intellectually they were insiders whose autodidactic fury suggested their craving for mastery of the canon. Godard’s own political provocations, which included his German pseudonym, Hans Lucas, and his article on political cinema [where he drew no qualitative or moral distinction between Soviet or Nazi propagandistic depictions of fervour], pointed to the underlying problem that the young future filmmakers of the CCQL/Cinematheque circle faced: despite their intellectual sophistication, they were condemned to anonymity, obscurity, marginality, unless they found a radical way to break into the French film industry, unless they found a way to attract attention. (23)

Effectively, these young men were, Brody insinuates, Left-baiting out of resentiment (going beyond the reasonable statement that films from America were perfectly good films from the point of view as aesthetics to brandishing right-wing or even pro-Nazi leanings in order to epatez les bien-pensants). However, Brody suggests there is more to it than that: there is the also the question of the Cahiers group’s defence of “classicism”, which Brody leaves largely undefined, but seems to suggest a certain, yes, cultural anti-modernism vis-à-vis narrative, character, order of plot, and, most of all, the primacy of the emotional truth of a film as opposed to its conceptual framework.

That Godard’s work should be seen as “anti-modernist” seems counterintuitive at best, and the emphasis on the “emotional” reality of film seems as un-Brechtian as one can coherently get. But at least in the early Godard, Brody suggests that Brecht was not an influence at all, claiming instead that it was the “philosophical modernism of Sartre and Camus” (29) and that Godard’s trajectory was a “conservative” revolution:

Based on the preservation, or restoration, of classical values. The cinema that Godard was praising aroused a direct emotional response through a traditional, nineteenth-century novelistic and naturalistic approach to character [c.f. Godard’s esteem, noted by MacCabe, of Balzac]. For Godard, paradoxically, this classicizing approach, as exemplified in such Hollywood films as the harsh melodramas directed by Hawks or Preminger, yielded a more authentically modern art - as a result of its forthright confrontation with the existential crises of death and the human condition - than the more formalistic and overtly artful films of Welles, De Sica or Wyler, which Bazin endorsed. For Godard, the cinema would be the definitive repository of a traditional idea of humanity as represented in art. (29-30)

And there is a lot to be said for this: the focus in Godard, even at his most narratively distended, tends to be on what happens to the main character(s) and how (t)he(y) respond to what happens - in effect, the ethical core of a certain kind of existentialism. This is clear enough, certainly, in Godard’s early criticism as such, but what happens when he starts making films? (Godard would hardly be the first or last artist, modernist, postmodernist or otherwise, whose statements of aesthetic intent did not gibe with her actual artistic practice.) One could also add that the one important aspect of Sartre that Godard seemed to avoid at this point in his career was the concept of engagement - a girl and a gun do not a political statement make, at least, not necessarily. One could better say that the cinematic framing of character as such, or, even better, the relations between characters, standing as a representative of “humanity” represents the ontology of film for Godard here; hence Godard’s defence of editing and montage to “provide the experience of reality itself” (39).

So what about the films and their relation to Brody’s thesis? Brody goes through the early shots (Beton, Un Histoire d’eau, Tous les garcons s’apellent Patrick and Charlotte et son Jules) in fairly, well, short order, and Godard eventually meets Breathless’s producer Georges de Beauregard “who made films on small budgets under eccentric and risky circumstances and barely scraped by - and whose sympathies were openly rightist” (48).[1] And so, with a lot of people’s help, they start making a film about “a boy who thinks about death and…a girl who doesn’t” (58) - Breathless. Brody regards Godard’s first feature as an application of the “classical”, “novelistic” aesthetic that Godard championed in his criticism, taking the structure of the generic film noir. The results, though, were none the less revolutionary: “Breathless would be an ‘action film’ in the sense of ‘action painting:’ the art and the moment of making the film were as much a part of the work’s making as its specific content and style. As such, it would be the first existentialist film” (59). I should note that I don’t follow how the last sentence follows from the preceding; in fact, its hard not to see the aspect that Brody isolates, rightly, as being most exciting about Breathless - the spectacle of thought thinking itself - is, if anything, proto-Brechtian. But more pressingly, how does this relate to the aesthetic Brody claims that Godard espoused?

It is in this context that Brody introduces an as-yet unexplored aspect of Godard’s version of la politique des auteur - that a film by Jean-Luc Godard will primarily about Jean-Luc Godard: in Breathless, Godard composed the dialogue on the morning of the shoot. The result was that:

Godard’s spontaneous method deliberately frustrated the actors’ attempts to compose their characters in any naturalistic or psychologically motivated way. …In effect, Godard’s actors were quoting Godard. Rather than becoming their characters, they were quoting him. (63)

Of course, non-naturalistic acting is essential to Brecht’s concept of theatre, and one could even argue that Godard may have been beginning to make a version of :earning films”, as it were, although what the audience would learn whatever it was that Godard was thinking or feeling during the time of the shooting, at least at this stage of his career. Brody systematically de-emphasizes Godard’s tendency towards and appropriation of Brechtian modernism in favour of what might unfairly be called Godard’s cult of personality and commitment to classicism. When faced with the radically “amateurish” lack of crowd-control (people gawking into the camera) and jump-cuts, Brody states:

Godard removed the scrim of convention by which the cinema transmits time and space to the viewers; however, by flouting the principles on which the classical cinema is based, he in fact ended up emphasizing them. In appearing amateurish, the film calls attention to the codes of professionalism, and in the end highlights the fact that they are merely conventions: it denaturalizes them. Breathless presents standard aspects of the classic cinema, but mediated, or quoted. Paradoxically, this interpolation of Godard’s directorial authority between the viewer and the action does not render the film arch, distant or calculated, but rather produces the impression of immediacy, spontaneity and vulnerability. Godard’s presence s invoked as a sort of live-action narrator who calls the shots as they unfold, with as much potential for accident and error as any live performance. But here, the “errors” only reinforce the illusion of immediacy. (69)

This illusion of immediacy, Brody argues, encourages us to identify not with the fictional character as such, but with the director; the modernist techniques are used to create an Author (or rather a Director) - Godard - on whom the audience transfers their affect.

But where is the right-wing neo-classicism in all of this? Identifying conventions as conventions is surely, pace Shlovosky et. al., the first step towards their deconstruction. Furthermore, beyond a vague ethos of “every man (and woman) for him (her) self”, there doesn’t seem to me to be anything essentially conservative at work here in with either the form or content of the film. (You surely don’t have to be either Hobbes or Celine to notice that life is often nasty, brutish and short.) It would certainly be possible to argue that there is an author-itarian aspect to the Godard the Maker, but when this construction is largely composed of quotations from cinema, painting and literature - what Brody refers to as Godard‘s “parasitism” (71) - than we have something closer to Foucault’s author function at work more than we have a Romantic, or at least pre-Lacan/Althusser concept of heroic artistic subjectivity. In other words, Godard the author-function does not in and of itself have rightist or conservative tendencies either necessarily (at the formal level) or in practice.

[1] Godard gets tarred by association quite a lot here. Brody also doesn’t entirely acknowledge that the practical political position of the Cahiers group is not quite as open and shut as he seems to think.
More coming soon!!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Random Catchment Area

For those of you who feel the need to purge themselves of the sense of wasted time after watching the Oscars last night (is it just me or are award shows just really badly produced? That "background" music they had playing all the time was really distracting; I'm amazed at how unprofessional it all seemed.), here's this treat to darken your Monday morning.

More Godard coming later this week.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

When Toffs Strike Back

Alain de Botton responds to IT's castigation here. I should at this point out that I have enjoyed all of Botton's work up to and including How Proust Can Change Your Life, after which I find an unpleasant degree of self-regard and, well, all around smugness in The Consolations of Philosophy etc. that make him almost impossible to read without wanting to put a fist through the wall. (But then, I'm more of a Bernhard, Houellebecq type of guy, aren't I?) And the allusion to anti-Semitism is a little cheap on wee Alain's part, I think. But I do really like and recommend The Romantic Movement and On Love, and, prior to reading his Proust book, read In Search of Lost Time when I am in a state of general confusion as to the progression of my life.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Deeper into Movies 5

Friday the 13th (2009) - Why did I go see this movie?

It is a well-known fact that the whole Jason Vorhees franchise was a knock-off of John Carpenter's still outstanding Halloween, so I can hardly be expecting much going in to see this movie, can I? But even by the minimal standards of the slasher film, the new Friday is formally incoherent and, well, silly. Effectively, we get about three movies in one, a good five people are killed before the long, long opening credits, and oooooh the killing stakes. Obviously, girls who have sex (a lot of tit shots in this movie, including a gratuitous naked-in-the-lake-with-a-machete-through-her-head that can appeal only to the really discerning necrophile) get the chop/machete, antler (I kid you not) first. We then take care of the ethnic minorities (a nerdy Oriental, a competent African-American), and we are left with the unpleasant rich guy, his pseudo-girlfriend, and the brother-looking-for-his-sister (who turns out to be alive). You can guess how it ends.

The really odd thing about this movie is its humour and its horror. Its humour: firmly stuck somewhere in American Pie and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (the latter film I actually quite enjoyed) - lots of jokes about masturbation, sex dolls and pot smoking. The horror: by current standards, quite tame and uninventive. Something else we can, um, credit the Saw films with.

And yet this is still a better movie that Benjamin Button.

Meanwhile, Infinite Thought gives the insufferable prat a much-needed, and, all things considered, moderate castigation. Shall we begin a much needed Facebook group - Let's Castrate Alain De Botton??

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Good to Know

Not apparently near 24 Sussex Drive. (Courtesy of I Cite)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

And all the rest is cinema - Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard - Part 1

Richard Brody’s Everything is Cinema is a monumental (600 pages plus notes) study of a figure whom, it must be said, is richly deserving of so detailed a study. Brody patiently goes through each of Godard’s films and even-handedly seeks to understand the whys and wherefores of their creation. It is to Brody’s credit that reading his book made me a) want to read it again, and again; b) go out and see all of Godard’s movies again (even the 1980s films like Passion and First Name: Carmen which have hitherto bored and frustrated me) and c) write an extremely long response. What follows is the latter.

Its difficult to know where to begin with so vast a study, so it might be useful to begin by comparing it to a similar study – specifically Colin MacCabe’s equally fantastic Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy. In some ways, the comparison is inept; MacCabe’s work is a “portrait” and provides details about Godard’s background, including his affluent Swiss Protestant childhood, his stormy if bookish adolescence, his weird kleptomania, his utterly appalling treatment of Anna Karina. As the title of Brody’s book suggests, this pre-working life detail is not within his remit, and so, referring interested readers to MacCabe’s work, Brody begins his analysis more or less with the publication of “For a Political Cinema.”

The major difference between the two Godard biographies resides in their representation of the constellation of Culture, Cinema, Politics, History and France in Godard. As this is not meant to be a doctoral thesis, I’m not going to go into extended detail here, but the impression is that MacCabe is far more sympathetic to the Maoist phase of Godard’s career than is Brody; certainly, Brody consistently de-emphasizes the centrality of Brecht to Godard’s films, often to the point of failing to register it at all.

So MacCabe’s “Godard” is a Bazinian-turned-Brechtian whose career trajectory moves from the representation of politics in cinema to the politics of cinematic representation. (This is, admittedly, a gross over-simplification.) What are the outlines of Brody’s “Godard”? The term that Brody will use several times throughout his study is “cultural revolutionary” which is useful if perhaps one with too much potential baggage.
[1] So what uses does Brody put this term to? In his preface, he paints a broad outline whose detail he will fill in later: the central premise to Godard in particular and the New Wave in general is, as the title suggests, “Everything is Cinema.” For Godard, this was as much a credo as it was an injunction; cinema not only could incorporate everything from the personal life of its creator(s) to the political, social, cultural and philosophical contexts of a particular film’s creation, but cinema had a duty to do so. As a result:

As the pace of social change outstripped his ability to invent new [cinematic] forms to engage it, Godard became increasingly hard on himself. Indeed, his pictures became public confessions and self-flagellations, but they were executed so effervescently, so inventively, so cleverly – with such a flamboyant and youthful sense of freedom – that they were often received by critics and viewers as virtuosic displays of experimental gamesmanship. …[Godard] spent the next few years [after Weekend] seemingly underground, working a frenzied yet sterile engagement with one of the doctrines of May 1968, a nominal Maoism. After years of intellectual woodshedding and a period of artistic and physical convalescence (following a serious motorcycle accident), he returned to the French film industry in 1979. (xviii)

One should pause here and note that Brody’s understanding of the postwar French intellectual scene as such bears the unmistakable imprint of Bernard-Henry Levy’s execrable Adventures on the Freedom Road.[2] Brody’s understanding of Godard’s commitment to Maoism is as unflattering as MacCabe’s is sympathetic.

But to return to Brody’s narrative outline:
…[N]o other director has striven so relentlessly to reflect in his work the great philosophical and political debates of the era: World War II and its political aftermath in France; the uses and abuses of existentialism in the postwar years; the structuralist revolution; the demise of Stalinism and the rise of the New Left; the growth of the modern consumer society and its political fallout in May 1968; the vast sea change and social heritage of the late 1960s; the hopes and disappointments of the Mitterand era; Holocaust consciousness and the recuperation of historical memory; new fronts of battle after the end of the Cold War; and the current era of big media and what might be called the American cultural occupation of Europe. But despite Godard’s ongoing attention to the crucial questions of the day, his approach to them has in recent years become so intricately interwoven with his advanced aesthetic methods, so rarified, Olympian and oblique, that many critics and viewers have instead rejected these last efforts outright, asserting that he has somehow grown detached from political reality.

In fact, Godard’s later work is marked by his obsession with living history. But this obsession has brought with it a set of idée fixes, notably regarding Jews and the United States. In recent years, Godard’s vast aesthetic embrace of the entire Western canon, from Greek mythology to New Testament prophesies to twentieth-century modernism, has gone hand in hand with his borrowing some of the prejudicial assumptions of that cultural aristocracy. Contemplating the contemporary world in light of lost traditions, Godard has adopted traditional attitudes as well, including several shared by some of the most discredited and dangerous ideologies of his times. (xiv)

Brody intends to argue that this sense of a lost cultural aristocracy is the core of Godard’s “analysis of the media, which is an integral part of his work…centred on what he considers their [sic] noxious effect on culture, on human relations, and particularly on the cinema” (xv). In effect, Godard engages in a series of manoeuvres: he identifies cinema as such with his own person and work by filtering its history through his personal life and vice versa. This cinema is then identified as being the highest of the high arts, being able to incorporate the histories of other visual arts (painting, sculpture), literature, music, history, politics and philosophy. From this “Olympian” perspective, Godard detaches “the cinema” as such from mass media, viewed as debased in its proximity to big business and big money as much by the an-aesthetic function of its entertainment value. The clear and unbridgeable distinction between “cinema” (standing as synecdoche for high cultural aspiration) and “media” (consumer culture culminating in television) is, Brody will argue, the source and effect of Godard’s “conservativism” that runs in contrast to the manifestly revolutionary aesthetics of his films.

More coming soon!!

[1]Anyone who lived in Ontario, Canada during the Mike Harris 1990s cringes at the memory of his “Conservative Revolution” which was basically part of the first wave of Market Stalinism in Canada after Ralph Klein’s intermittently sober regime in Alberta. A curse on both of them!

[2]A book which manages to be as nauseating as its title suggests, which is quite a feat, really. And indeed, Levy was interviewed a few times for this book. To be fair, Godard seems to have liked Levy for God(ard) knows what reasons.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

Put The Book Back on the Shelf 2

Reborn: Jounals and Notebooks 1947-1963 - Susan Sontag

The period of these notebooks stretches from the time that Susan Sontag was an extraordinarily precocious 14 year old to the time when she is 30 and on the verge of publishing the Against Interpretation essays that would cement her reputation as cultural arbiter. Edited by her son David Rieff, these notebooks are curious in a number of ways. Anyone, like myself, hoping for much by way of literary gossip will be pretty disappointed (beyond finding out that Allan Bloom was "disgusting", which is hardly news in and of itself); the lion's share of these notebooks tend to be little more than books sought, films seen and concerts attended. (The latter, curiously, not so much; music seems to have been an ambiguous pleasure for Sontag. In 1948, when she would have been 15, she writes that "Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts - it is the most abstract, the most pure - and the most sensual. I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion embodied in this music." While this is hardly earth-shattering stuff, the profound discomfort with her body - not uncommon in teenagers in general and culturally sensitive queer teenagers in particular - would never entirely leave her. In this context, it occurs to me that I can't think of a single essay in which music appears to have any role whatsoever.)

David Reiff, in his introduction, states that he was determined to make as few editorial intrusions as possible, but in some cases, it might have helped as, during the period recorded in these journals, Sontag goes through a number of significant changes - moves to Berkeley, embarks on a lesbian relationship with "H", moves to Chicago, gets married to Phillip Rieff and helps write/edit his book on Freud, has a son, goes to Oxford on a fellowship, runs a way to Paris, moves back to the UD and works at Commentary, etc.... - to have had some sort of timeline. As we get into the late 50's, early 60's, the only way of knowing what city Sontag is writing in is by guesswork - she is buying books at a shop on Rue Fontaine (Paris), she is sitting in a restaurant on 83rd Steet (New York.)

Perhaps it is this vagueness of context that makes the journals here seem strangely distant, even when Sontag is exploring the emotional treacheries of her romantic relationships. Her marriage with Phillip is, for the most part, couched in aphorisms and abstract reflections on "Marriage" as such. (To be fair, David Rieff does note that the journals for her married years appear to have been destroyed.) We get greater emotional detail in her relationships with "H' and "I", which are at times heart-breaking; the first night she makes love with H, Sontag writes: "Everything that was so tight, that hurt so much in the pit of my stomach, was vanquished in the straining against her, the weight of her body on top of mine, the caress of her mouth and hands." These momentary evocations of happiness are all the more stark given that the remainder of the journal is beset with lacerating descriptions of feelings of sexual inadequacy and hopelessness, the profound fear of being alone and the (self-)disgust inherent in that fear. So while the journals are short on specifics and strangely unrevealing in some ways (no Kafka, she), we get a very clear picture of Sontag's need for self-transcendence, her desire to become the ego-ideal Susan Sontag and how this ego-ideal changed over time, and the wounded, pain-wracked self that it needed to be transcended at all costs.

Friday, January 9, 2009

One or Fewer Robots

Florian Schneider quits Kraftwerk!! Is Ralf Hutter really going to continue by himself? Just as New Order wasn't New Order after Gillian Gilbert hung up her sequencer, it is hard to imagine Kraftwerk without jolly old V-2 Schneider.
(Also, apparently some guy from the Stooges died. Oh well.)