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.

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