Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sympathy for the Devil (a.k.a. One Plus One)

[Note, in the wake of Jean-Luc Godard's final work of his "classic" period, Week End, I will continue to review works by the director, but I cannot promise that I can find all of his films, even with the benefit of torrents. I will watch what I can when I can get my hands on it, but forgive me if this series suddenly stretches out even further than it already has.]

Whenever an artist loses control of his or her work, one naturally sides with the wronged party, raging at the profit-driven system that relegates those who actually make the art to the sidelines to satisfy those who use art as a tax write-off. Sympathy for the Devil, originally titled One Plus One, may be the one film where, appropriately, we actually do sympathize with the enemy. If this is the final product, what on Earth were the producers working with, and could Jean-Luc Godard have made a more complete movie if he'd retained control?

As with his subsequent, Le Gai Savoir, Sympathy for the Devil was made in a time of tremendous sociopolitical upheaval around the world: during the course of recording the titular song, the band had to amend a mention of the Kennedy assassination to the plural in the way of Robert's death in June of 1968. May '68 had unleashed the pent-up sexual tension of French youth, and riots broke out across America for various reasons. In Vietnam, growing resentment, fear and hostility toward the Tet Offensive early in the year led to the My Lai Massacre (though the revelation of this event would not be revealed to the American people for another year). Everything was going to hell, and a fully radicalized Godard needed something to crystallize his revolutionary thoughts.

As youth spurred the protests in America and France, Godard decided that rock 'n' roll bad-boys the Rolling Stones would be the perfect catalyst to spread his Maoist message. At the time, this must have seemed a keen decision: if sexual frustration was openly fueling one social cataclysm and at least partially influenced some of the riots on the other side of the pond, who better to kick-off sexual freedom than the most nakedly sexual rock band on the scene?

By the 10-minute mark, however, I was already checking my watch. It is difficult to write about Sympathy for the Devil without lapsing either into a list of outrages or a strained grasp at straws to forgive some of its numerous issues. When I first started this long retrospective in an attempt to get a handle on Godard, I had an image of the artist in my head of a pretentious intellectual who valued his ideas over how he used them. Very quickly I realized I was mistaken, that even at his headiest, the director could combine the intellectual with the sensual; who else could make an essay film like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her into such an affecting portrait when most of its shots are plainly symbolic shots of industrial production? Even the brazenly radical La Chinoise had a wry twist that kept matters from becoming too serious. Sympathy for the Devil is the first film to conform entirely to that initial, reductive vision of Godard, a mash-up of intellectual images without a bedrock of emotion. Granted, this is the producer's edit, but most of the vignettes are themselves lifeless and not even Godard's editing genius could save all of them no matter what tricks he pulled.

For Godard is not content to sit in the studio with the Stones and watch them compose the titular track. Instead, he intersperses his footage of the band with various sketches demonstrating his radical stances, albeit in the vaguest terms possible. A voiceover reads what sounds like erotic fiction with political conviction. A bookstore sells comics, pin-up magazines and radical pamphlets where paying customers must give the proprietor the Nazi salute and slap two bound Maoists. Various vandals spray-paint messages onto walls and windows, and Black Panthers read militant texts while handing out rifles as if preparing for a race war.

Each of these vignettes certainly has a purpose when stacked against the slow progression of the Stones' greatest track from its beginnings as a loose acoustic outline. Just as the band is composing its most sinister, relevant song, so too are the battles lines being drawn around the UK and, by extension, the Western world. Those spray-painted messages are rarely completed before Godard cuts away and, even though the film came out after the tumultuous events of the year, the director sought to make a film about preparing for revolution.

Yet the fact that, despite the continuation of social unrest for years, the movie was dated upon release severely undermines its impact. It's interesting to see some of the crosswords the vandals make of their graffiti, such as writing "HILTON" and then using the 't' to draw "STALIN" vertically, insinuating that companies can be as dictatorial and ruthless as political tyrants. I also couldn't help but look upon the scenes with the Black Panthers, situated in a junkyard sitting among derelict cars, and not think of Detroit and the upcoming post-industrial fallout, even though the scene, as with everything else is filmed in the UK.

Such moments are fleeting, however, and Sympathy for the Devil quickly morphs into a mess. The Panthers bring in white women as one of the group reads from the texts of Eldridge Cleaver, specifically his rapacious ideas concerning white women. By the end of the film, several of the ladies have been shot and one hangs from a movie crane. Godard's second wife, Anne Wiazemsky, appears in a scene as "Eve Democracy," a woman who walks around as a film crew follows and responds to increasingly complex sociopolitical questions solely in the affirmative or negative. Godard links the pornographic bookstore with fascism, but wasn't the whole point of hitching his wagon to the Stones that they represented sexual anarchy?

Speaking of ideas that don't gel with what the Stones were about, the threatened violence of Godard's revolutionary skits is completely at odds with the titular song, a composition about the temptations and downfalls of evil behavior. The murderous Panthers do not even take their armed revolution to the streets, settling only for killing a few white women (thus conforming more to an alarmingly racist vision of militant blacks than a depiction of oppressed people finally fighting back). As I watched Godard abandon the dialectical method that allowed him to counterbalance his radicalism with more measured study, I thought of that aforementioned line from the Stones' magnum opus: "I shouted out, /'Who killed the Kennedys?'/When after all/It was you and me." I also considered just how terribly the band would blanch at violence just a year down the road when their free concert at Altamont would erupt into fighting and murder.

I don't know who this film could thoroughly please. Not Godard, certainly, forced to contend with the producer's take on his vision and also confronted with a band that clearly failed to meet the philosophical importance he'd placed on them -- it cannot be coincidence that the band are never actually interviewed or shown doing anything but rehearsing the tune. Not the Stones, who, as previously mentioned, do not do anything on-screen other than work out a single song and work as a group solely because of their roots-rock simplicity and suffer from the intellectual attention. Fans of either camps also have nothing to latch onto, from the Godard lovers who won't understand why the director is wasting his time with one of the thicker bands on the scene and not the Stones fans who have to put up with the director's meandering nonsense.

Godard objected to the use of the full song over the end credits, and it's easy to see why. Made during social upheaval, he wanted to make a movie about preparing for the coming revolution he perhaps thought inevitable. Pay attention to the beautiful tracking shots with which Godard captures the Stones in the studio: they get more complex each time, reflecting how the song comes together from an initial acoustic sketch through a more complex arrangement as keyboards and increasingly layered percussion stack on top of the sound in each session. The spray-painted messages are never fully completed before Godard cuts away. Clearly, the director wishes to visualize how revolutions start, as gestating ideas that must bud and bear fruit before the time is ripe for an uprising. Unfortunately, what the unfinished thoughts of Sympathy for the Devil primarily illustrate is that, for the first time in his career, Jean-Luc Godard went off half-cocked.


  1. Interesting thoughts about this obviously flawed film that I still find pretty interesting and even often enjoyable. I liked it much more than you did. One thing to note is that the two cuts of the film — the producer's cut called Sympathy for the Devil and Godard's cut called One + One — are nearly identical with the sole exception of the ending. The producer changed the ending so that the full Rolling Stones song could play, and tweaked the editing of that sequence and added some colored filters so he could fit in the song. That and the title are really the only differences between the two cuts, though it winds up being a major difference since, as you point out, the whole idea of the movie is the parallel between the Stones' unfinished song and the unfinished revolution that Godard was hoping for.

    One thing that I think makes the film more interesting is the ambiguity about what Godard thinks of the various inserts and monologues and spoken materials he's filming. You seem to assume that all of these polemics are polemics that Godard would sympathize with, but I don't think that's the case at all. I see the film more as a collection of various ideas and perspectives, which together Godard sees as providing a portrait of an unstable society on the verge of a revolution. And within this unstable society, there's the potential for violence and ugliness, for racism, for a counterproductive racial backlash, for sexism and liberation and repression and revolution. The various texts read in the film are mutually exclusive and contradictory, and represent all sorts of different perspectives and ideas, some of which Godard certainly agreed with, some he certainly did not, and some where his own perspective seems more uncertain. This complicates the polemical nature of the film somewhat.

    And of course, the Stones footage itself is valuable for any fan of the band: it's utterly engrossing to watch that song come together over the course of the film, and though the film as a whole is problematic and uneven, the actual Stones footage is, without qualification, fantastic.

  2. A ill-assorted ragbag of then-modish ideas. I am quite surprised at the co-operation of the black actors in Godard's bizzare sexual fantasies. Liked the old cars, some real collector's pieces among them.