Sunday, January 15, 2012

FILM SOCIALISME (Socialisme, 2010): Homage to Concordia

1. The Last Voyage. Jean-Luc Godard's latest and possibly final feature film immortalizes the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship where he filmed much of the movie, which has disastrously run aground on the Tuscan coast this weekend in a real-life sequel that might boggle even the mind of the old new-wave master. The film itself is a final statement only potentially, in a chronological sense, less a summation than a continuation or repetition of the themes and tropes that have dominated Godard's discourse for the majority of his career and the aftermath of his popularity. He has added a blatant obfuscatory device for Anglophone audiences, subtitles composed by himself (I presume) in what he insensitively calls "Navajo English," a telegraphic pidgin that reduces sentences or sometimes paragraphs of French dialogue to nouns, proper nouns and the occasional compound word. The gimmick would be more interesting if it also appears in French prints, since it would make the same point for the director, calling attention to his inevitable selectivity in both inclusion and exclusion of detail. As it stands, the "Navajo" subtitles seem like a continuation of the Godard tendency to use words and names for evocative or representative rather than communicative effect. He uses people the same way, having cast radical philosopher Alain Badiou in the picture to no real purpose that I could perceive except to show off his own erudition. Veteran rocker Patti Smith may serve the same purpose. Just about everything in the picture is meant to illustrate Godard's narcissist doubt of the capacity of his own chosen words and images to convey ideas cinematically, an anxiety that reaches back across time to contemplate the utility of Egyptian hieroglyphs but is occasionally forgotten in the impulse to sincerely sloganeer about Palestine and other causes. The unreliability of cinematic communication and the imperative to communicate are Godard's great themes, but rather than rendering his films pointless they encourage his fans to see them as his act of thinking through montage and mise-en-scene, a personal drama made worthy of attention by the director's heritage of narrative innovation and pictorial inspiration. In other words, this is a film of interest only, comprehensible only to those familiar with and sympathetic to Godard's career. To indict it for its almost complete failure as entertainment is to waste effort, since it was never meant to entertain or introduce newcomers to the thought of Jean-Luc Godard. Its only true audience is those who want more from Godard and know what they're going to get.

2. The Navigator. I invoke Buster Keaton because I want to talk about Jacques Tati and Tati never set a film on a cruise ship. Yet while watching Film Socialisme's Concordia scenes, including scenes of a lone jogger on deck that may well have been inspired by Keaton's ocean-liner film it struck me that a cruise ship would have been a great setting for a Hulot film and that the movie Godard was most reminding me of initially was Tati's Playtime, if only in a negative way. Film Socialisme can be seen as an antithesis of Playtime's comic holism, Tati's effort to capture an entirety of society in long takes. Godard refuses Tati's holism and its comic harmony; hence his resort to montage and a variety of recording materials to emphasize an essential separateness of experience ironic in a film named after socialism unless intended to show the opposite of socialism in cultural rather than economic terms. Godard's refusal to unify the various character threads playing out on board the ship, or his resistance of the temptation, gives his movie such conceptual drive as it has before it gets off the boat and (with apologies to this weekend's real-life victims) runs aground.

3. Potemkin. Godard is actually quite obvious about identifying the Concordia with the battleship Potemkin, the historically mutinous Russian naval vessel and floating protagonist of Sergei Eisenstein's landmark silent film. He drives the point home with clips from Eisenstein and a visit by the Concordia to Odessa itself, home of the "Odessa steps" immortalized by Eisenstein and trod most likely heedlessly by Godard's tourists. The battleship was named after that official for whom "Potemkin villages" are also named, and Godard might not object to describing all or most of his films as Potemkin films, pretty facades hiding harsher truths despite his own efforts to problematize his own aesthetic instincts. The Concordia is arguably a kind of floating Potemkin village in more than one sense, as this weekend's tragedy may only confirm. Socialism as well as Tsarism has promoted itself with Potemkin villages of some sort, but I'm not sure whether this is relevant to Godard's title. He certainly hasn't made a utopian film, and I doubt he ever had one in him. His vision of socialism today may be closer to that of thinkers like Badiou or Slavoj Zizek who downplay any promise of harmony and warn of perpetual conflicts of irreconcilable elements. Godard's filmic socialism is a cacophony of juxtapositions and seemingly-random interventions of sound and image, an excess of otherness intruding by invitation on any hint of easy comprehension or passive aesthetic pleasure. It is illusory to the extent that it remains the idiosyncratic vision of a master auteur who scripts his actors and tells them where to go and what to do, though some skeptics would say that makes Godard a typical socialist.

4. E la nave va. I watched Film Socialisme on Netflix last Thursday. By Friday I had a plan to review the film in chapters using the titles of films set on ships. I wanted to include Fellini's And the Ship Sails On, not out of any great love for that film but just to continue the theme in a name-dropping manner Godard might appreciate. I wanted to use the original Italian title to keep things obscure in the Godardian spirit. But of course, as of tonight the ship -- the Concordia -- does not sail on. Except that it will every time someone starts the Netflix stream. Ironic, too, that more people in America will probably see Socialisme via this ultimate commercial tool than by any other means. Does the medium change the meaning? Does the new fact that Godard shot the movie on board the "doomed" Concordia change anything? It does and it doesn't. Will more people watch it now out of morbid curiosity? It wouldn't surprise me. Godard thus becomes a footnote to the history of maritime disasters, and a maritime disaster becomes a footnote to the history of cinema. Film Socialisme itself is a footnote as an exercise in "late style" instead of a breakthrough statement. It's a typically digressive essay film with a little bit of the incorrigible Mondo spirit and a lot of loss of focus in the second half. It's a film for Godard fans only, if that's not too vulgar a term, and it definitely shouldn't be anyone's first Godard film. I wouldn't call myself a fan -- I haven't seen enough of his films -- and I wouldn't want this to be his last word. He's a New Waver and they're a long-lived breed, so I hope he keeps trying.


Sam Juliano said...

Well, I extend my congratulations to you Samuel for an essay of exeeding originality. I can definitely see why you'd invoke that Keaton film and the Tati, where you feel Godard's film serves as a kind of antithesis to the 'comic holism.' I absolutely agree with you that this should be anyone's 'first Godard film' and much appreciate your insights on the use of 'Navajo English.'

I dislike this film intensely and doubt if I can ever watch it again (for me it's a hopeless hodge-podge of prention) but I will always see if some sense can be read into it. Your piece here is fabulous. I do read your split decision though.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I remember your scathing words on your own blog, and I can't blame you for them. Socialisme is a hodgepodge and Godard might have been better off with a featurette set entirely on the Concordia. There are audiences who will respond to it the way Godard presumably hopes, and I can get how they're supposed to respond, but it's so at odds with most people's expectations of a movie experience that it shouldn't be marketed as anything resembling entertainment, but installed in a museum. Godard has apparently lost the ability to or the interest in communicating his ideas to a newcomer; perhaps he expects everyone to see his earlier films first. Most folks can do that and skip Socialisme, but die-hards and eccentrics like myself will still find some highlights in the new film.