Monday, March 13, 2006

The Language of Giants

Jean Luc Godard's For Ever Mozart

There is a scene in Godard's For Ever Mozart (1996) where a wizened old director, in answer to the question "Why is the night dark?" remarks that when he looks through the stars at the night behind, he thinks of all that no longer exists. It is this combination of nostalgia and insight that is central to Godard's late films. In For Ever Mozart, in Elogie de l'amour, Godard's method is founded on the principle that a few scattered points of brilliant light are enough to illuminate the most universal of darknesses. Nietzsche writes:

"Once spirit was God, then it became man, and now it even becometh populace.
He that writeth in blood and proverbs doth not want to be read but learnt by heart.
In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak, but for that route thou must have long legs. Proverbs should be peaks and those spoken to should be big and tall.
The atmosphere rare and pure, danger near and the spirit full of a joyful wickedness: thus are things well matched"

Blood and proverbs is exactly what these late films of Godard are all about.

This kind of peak-hopping can be both rewarding and annoying. When we say that an artist is 'uncompromising' we usually mean that he spares no effort to bring out the truth of what he is trying to depict. But Godard is uncompromising in another way - he is completely unwilling to make any concessions whatsoever to his audience, allowing them little or nothing by way of coherent narrative, pushing them to be as well-read, as visually sensitive and as mentally agile as Godard is himself. If anything, his tone towards the audience in these movies is one of brusque disdain: like the fictional director in For Ever Mozart who rejects auditioning actors the second they open their mouths, Godard seems entirely dismissive of his audience, so that the difficulty of these movies seems almost like a deliberate screen to take out all but the most devoted and intelligent of viewers.

One result of this is that these last films may be largely inaccessible and unintelligible to the average viewer, which is a shame because they are films with so much to say. The other result is that this sort of sustained elision allows Godard to create a cinematic idiom that is truly unparalleled elsewhere, a sort of intense visual-cum-verbal poetry, the ultimate avatar of the film as art. If Bergman makes one think of Kafka, Kubrick of Burgess and Pynchon, Allen of Roth, then Godard's late films are essentially Rimbaud-esque - breathlessly beautiful meditations on the world that manage to be surreal, symbolic and natural at the same time (though, of course, significantly more political).

The plot (if one can call it that) of For Ever Mozart is simple enough. Three idealistic young people (including a girl who is supposedly the granddaughter of Camus, her cousin and his girlfriend) have decided to go to war-torn Sarajevo to put up a performance of a play. On the way (they are walking) they are apprehended by some local militia, and after a short period of being held hostage and abused (under the noses of a more or less disinterested Red Cross) are brutally killed. Meanwhile an elderly director (clearly a stand-in for Godard himself) is struggling to complete work on a film called the Fatal Bolero which attempts to explore the slow destruction of Europe by a series of historical patterns that evolve in what can only be compared to a bolero form. This is a difficult task because the director no longer gets the respect he deserves, neither from the producers whose only concerns are about money and who have no real interest in the artistic merits of the script, and an audience who, once they realise that there is no nudity involved, wander off to watch the Terminator films instead.

The symbolism of all this is embarassingly, heavy-handedly clear. Europe, Godard literally tells us, is in the midst of a crisis that parallels the crisis of the 1930s in magnitude, but is really far worse, for where earlier crises were marked by the clash of ideologies and therefore ended up being an exalting experience, the current crises is about nothing more noble than power, and therefore, far from exalting us, can only make us more indifferent to the world. Philosophy, in the form of Camus' clear-eyed and lucid grand-daughter has no place in this world, does not belong in it. Philosophy is now "nothing, or something you don't understand", ideology may be important to maintaining a consistent personal dignity, but it provides no protection in the confused gunfire of war. The age of Camus' rebels is over, the true rebellion, the philosophical rebellion has ended up dead in a common, unmarked grave.

Meanwhile art too is being destroyed by the twin assaults of commerce and popular culture. The instinct of the modern producer is essentially pornographic - entertainment is driven by efficiency, the phenomenal erudition of Europe has become irrelevant to cinema in particular and art in general. The great artists of a prior age can do little by swallow the gall of the treatment they are being given, and try to do the best they can.

There is a scene towards the end of the film where the director makes an actress repeat the single word 'yes' over and over again, because he isn't satisfied by the way it is being said. It's this search for affirmation that the film is really about, this task of trying to find the one positive we can put our faith in, the one positive we can trust.

The answer Godard gives us, is, of course, Mozart. Now that all the meanings have failed us, he seems to say, what is there left for us to fall back on but the purity of beauty devoid of meaning, the innocence and power of absolute music? After all the death and loss and despair, after all the humiliation and the frustration, if there is one thing that will console us, one thing that will bring us peace, it is music.That is why the movie finally ends not with words but with music. That is all that Godard can offer us, that is all, in the end, that he has to give.

I have three quibbles with the movie. First, that in choosing the characters the way he does, Godard does a considerable disservice to philosophy, making too weak a case for it. Making the 'philosophers' in the script out to be hyper-intelligent yet childishly naive and, conversely, making the soldiers all be uncultured brutes may be very romantic but it is also reductive. Ideology / philosophy is far from dead in our age, though particular strands of thought (such as those Godard holds dear) may well be out of fashion. By equating the philosophers to the impossible dreamers, Godard makes it easy to jump to the conclusion that philosophy is no longer the force it used to be, but that's a debatable conclusion.

Second, some of Godard's intense contempt for modern cinema seems jarring. While there is much to be said against commercial cinema, Godard's insistence on cinema being a dream permanently destroyed seems a little over the top, and because his frustration here is personal and self-interested, it throws much of the other socio-political commentary in the film open to suspicion.

Finally, whatever happened to subtlety? Or a sense of humour? In his best work, Godard is the consummate master of suggestion and implication - endlessly inventive, infinitely tacit, dizzyingly whimsical. Compared to these polished masterworks, these last films seem more like the snarls of an aging and somewhat frustrated old man. There is a baldness here, a sense of haste. These movies are so raw that they would barely qualify as art at all, if the sheer immensity of Godard's talent - his energy, his vision, his sheer panache - did not more than make up for the lack of finesse. Giants, after all, do not need to walk gracefully.

That said, For Ever Mozart is a spectacular and sublime film, one of the truest examples of film as poetry that I have ever seen. Scene after scene in this movie sparkles with a dream-like brilliance, its impact both immediate and unforgettable. This is a movie that pushes the envelope of what cinema can be, what the true artist can achieve in that medium. This is a movie that deserves to be learnt by heart.


Anonymous julien sorel said...

By equating the philosophers to the impossible dreamers, Godard makes it easy to jump to the conclusion that philosophy is no longer the force it used to be, but that's a debatable conclusion.

While I haven't seen this particular film, I don't think Godard has ever been contemptuous of philosophy or its role or philosophers. His main polemic is against the culture of commercialization, shallowness and trivialization which has in turn rendered philosophy obsolete. His films 2 or 3 things..., weekend, masculine feminine all are lamentations on this theme. I can well understand if godard comes across as frustrated and disillusioned because these things have only gotten worse since he started making films.

anyway its a very good post.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Julien: Thanks. Just to clarify though, I'm not saying that Godard himself is contemptuous of philosophers - as you rightly put it, he's railing against the culture that treats philosophy as irrelevant. My point is just that by placing philosophy in the mouths of characters whose actions prove them naive, if idealistic, he makes a weaker case for philosophy than he could have. The key argument of the culture that Godard is trying to combat is precisely that philosophy is the empty pursuit of 'intellectuals' how have no understanding of the realities of the modern world. By placing his most lucid lines in the mouths of people who are little more than impractical dreamers, Godard unintentionally plays into the hands of those he is trying to oppose. This is not true for In Praise of love, for instance (to take another of his later films) or of a movie like Alphaville, where the person making the philosophical argument is also a man of action.

11:28 PM  

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