'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, March 26, 2010

Film Notes: Le Gai Savoir 

At the 1969 Berlin Film Festival, there was a changing of the guard. An unknown German film director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, asserted the vitality of the New German Cinema, a cinema that would engage international audiences throughout the 1970s, with his first feature length film, Love is Colder than Death. Few seemed to recognize that Fassbinder had commenced a life long effort to delve into fundamental questions of human nature associated with the failure of people to perceive utopian alternatives. Throughout the 1970s, people would become more and more mesmerized by his enterprise, but audiences booed his first effort as they were unable to engage his studied, yet empathetic, portrayal on lumpen proleterian criminals living outside the consumerism and the political radicalism of the time.

Meanwhile, Jean Luc Godard, after a decade of crafting genre bending popular entertainments with radical social themes, aggressed his audience with Le Gai Savior. In Savior, he made a film for television that was rejected by the French national television network that co-produced it. Upon purchasing it, Godard entered it in the festival, where it received an equally chilly response. Many viewers walked out of it. It's not hard to understand why. Centered around the attempt of two young radicals, Emile Rousseau and Patricia Lumumba, to deconstruct sound and image in an abandoned television studio, people versed in the narrative conventions of what Godard described as Hollywood and Mosfilm were no doubt quickly bored and confused. But this was a festival audience, and doesn't fully explain the hostility.

No, there must have been something more to it. Just as Fassbinder suggested that the idealism of 68 was disassociated from the real life experiences of most people, Godard concluded that there was little prospect of transforming society through film. Rousseau and Lumumba discovered that the likelihood of understanding how the great mass of people were influenced by media images was slight, and the possibility of creating a new, engaging cinema that would inspire people to act upon their suppressed utopian aspirations even less so. It is hard to imagine a perspective that would be more outrageous to a 1969 festival audience than this, the equivalent of screening an unapologetic Zionist movie today.

The narrative of Savior, if there can be said to be such a thing, holds up well. It was a visionary movie that audiences could not appreciate. Emile and Partricia spend numerous late night hours in the studio, purportedly over three years, if one relates to the story realistically, in their effort to understand how sounds and images serve the purpose of perverting human communication so as to render collective resistance to capitalism impossible. As such, the story is a a dialogue between two people about the nature of society and the potential for transforming it. Over forty years later, festival audiences have had more exposure to experimental techniques and elliptical plots (consider, for example, directors like Wong Kar-wai, Peter Greenaway, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Abbas Kiarostami, all of whom have had their work enthusiastically received), and audiences would have responded favorably to Savior as well if it had been released in the last 20 years.

As you would expect in a Godard film, the acting is first rate, as, in this instance, the roles of Rousseau and Lumumba are performed by Godard film veterans Jean Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto. Both infuse their characters with a youthful mixture of naivete, intellectual curiosity, vulnerability and arrogance. One can even construe their performances as indicative of a repressed passion in which two people find themselves incapable of finding a common language in which to communicate their desire. Indeed, the inability to communicate is exposed as a primary social disability.

Rousseau and Lumumba are leftist intellectual activists. Both purport to act on behalf of the working class in France and around the world, especially the Third World, but neither is capable of relating to it as anything other than an abstraction. Separated from the working class by their education and social status, or, as Bourdieu might have said, their habitus, incapable of recognizing that their separation is an inescapable consequence of the division of physical and mental labor, they flail about in a sea of sounds and images generated by contemporary media, seaching for that organizing principle, that magic key, that will enable them to actually talk to workers and understand them. It is, of course, a futile task, given that they implicitly characterize them as passive recipients of subliminal messages. In this, Godard anticipates Baudrillard, who, not too many years later, derided the notion of a socialist media.

Beyond this, Rousseau and Lumumba are shackled by their investigatory method. Despite being professed radicals, they methodically go about their task, having subconsciously adopted the rigorous standards of French academia. They are, in effect, scientific socialists, quite an irony considering that both are representatives of a radical left movement that publicly repudiated the USSR and the PCF, the French Communist Party. Even as they listen to audio of a speaker maligning the reactionary nature of trade unions and the PCF, they adopt the same analytical approach. An episode in which Rousseau and Lumumba ponder the relationship of the word Stalin to another, seemingly unrelated, phonetically similar word, reveals the ghost that haunts their endeavor.

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