Tuesday, August 10, 2010

British Sounds

The Dziga Vertov Group years, both Godard's most contested and largely ignored, take after the anonymity of the collective's ethos by setting no definite start point. Having contributed already to one anthology project in the wake of May '68, the Chris Marker-led Cinétracts, Godard made clear his intentions to head in new, radical directions with Le gai savoir. Yet there is still some debate over which resulting film truly marked the start of the DGV collaborations. Both Un film comme les autres (which I could not find in subtitled form) and this bear no attached name, but purportedly Godard was the sole figure at the helm of both, with Pravda being the first movie that everyone can fully agree on being a collective film. For all intents and purposes, however, let us take British Sounds to be the beginning of this controversial period in Godard's career, following as it does the plate-cleansing Le gai savoir and generally conforming to what one may envision of the Dziga Vertov Group based on preliminary readings of their work.

Yet, if Le gai savoir proved that Godard could subvert my expectations for his Maoist years, British Sounds, released in the U.S. as See You At Mao, largely conforms to the opinions I've heard of the DGV years even from noted Godard enthusiasts like Jonathan Rosenbaum. Divided into five or six (depending on how you treat a portion of the middle) segments, British Sounds continues to expand upon the director's fascination between the relation images and sound, but not even his previous reinterpretations can adequately prepare one for the leap he makes here. As a narrator intones early in the film, the bourgeoisie "make the world into their image" -- implicitly suggesting that they have a God complex -- and British Sounds is his most aggressive film yet to seek the destruction of that image, to the point that the mildest attack in the entire film is the title card, which sports an 'X' over the word "Images" between "British" and "Sounds."

Godard films each segment with minimal technique, using long takes broken up by the odd flash of still photos before returning to the scene as if the shot had not changed. Where Le gai savoir presented the director's polemics through visual montage, here he roots the film in quotidian, even banal images in order to experiment with the sound. The first segment follows an automotive assembly line as workers weld together cars from basic skeletons into finished products. It's an everyday sight, something that fills untold hours of "How It's Made" and programs of that sort.

In Godard's hands, however, this sequence exists to place a droning narration of a man reading Marxist rhetoric about the emptiness of these workers' labor. Banging on about issues of wage slavery, the narrator almost sounds like a nature documentarian describing the curious social arrangements of less enlightened creatures. As the Marxist narration winds around the images, the tracking shot comes to take on a wry second meaning, as if deconstructing the noted tracking shot of Week End and its endless traffic jam to the point when the cars have not even been made yet. One cannot hold that thought too long, however, or indeed any other one, once Godard introduces the other aspect of the soundtrack, the amplified screeching of industrial metal-on-metal as car parts are carved and welded. Strangely, this diegetic noise is so overwhelming, bewildering and just plain annoying that the tedium of the flat narration becomes the only steady line of coherence, even when presented with molasses-thick pronunciations like "In bourgeois society, the past dominates the present. In Communist society, the present dominates the past."

That enticing subversion of even Godard's standard of presentation makes up for its overall weakness, and both the intrigue and the frustration of British Sounds magnifies in the next segment as the director films in a nude woman walking around her home as two dueling narrations overlap. A woman, perhaps the disembodied voice of the figure seen on-screen, launches into an eloquent, intellectual rant on feminism, discussing the manner in which women are repressed in society through a series of small inequalities that form together into a prison. Then, a man joins in, his voice louder and his statements blunter. As much as he's confounding the listener, I wondered for a moment if Godard was making some comment on the communicative differences between men and women. Then, he breaks up the static long shot of the woman walking up and down the stairs to film her from the shoulder up in close-up talking on the phone. She says what the female narrator says, but not in unison, and their disconnect only adds to the aural overload when the man, too, inserts his thoughts, and the stab at feminist cinema -- albeit one clearly made by a male, what with the cutaways to the woman's pubic hair -- quickly gives way to Godard's other interests.

Thankfully, the film pulls itself together slightly in the second half. Godard presents a repulsive televised speech by a British nationalist who perfunctorily assures the viewers that his views are "not racialist" before launching into a venomous screed that denounces immigration and the extreme poor and suggests sterilization if not outright extermination for those who impede society's focus on capital. He then cuts to images of the targets of his invective. To emphasize the point, Godard, moves on to a hand-held shot of a group of working-class whites at a table as they discuss Marxist ideals. But where the previous narrations were intellectual readings of Marx and Engels, these men place ideas in concrete terms of their lives and struggles. It's unclear how much of the Marxist philosophy Godard fed these workers, but their hatred for their bosses is clear and real as they spit over the idea that they do all the work just so a CEO can live not even on the profits of their labor but the interest of the investment of those profits.

Taken with the lingering shot of the factory workers assembling cars, this round-table discussion suggests Godard's keen interest on the dissatisfaction of the working class and his hopes that they would rise up. Emphasizing the idea is the contrast with youth activists, hidden away at the very universities the DGV demanded their work be shown. As the workers break their backs to assemble society's commodities, these young men and women hunch over picket signs, etching out their condensed messages and changing lyrics to Beatles songs in a laughable attempt to politicize them ("You say U.S./I say Mao"). Godard doesn't appear to want to mock them, but one can hardly look at these youths and not think condescendingly of them in comparison to the workers.

Therein lies the problem with the film, possibly the Dziga Vertov Group as a whole. When DGV films arrived in America, they came with instructions to show them in art houses and college campuses, appealing to the intellectual crowd who, let's be honest, would be the only possible demographic for such films. Yet this undermines their Maoist intent and emits a more Bolshevik attitude, inspiring a group of bourgeois elite to rebel against themselves. Godard's focus on the workers within the film communicates whom he really wants to inspire, but he recognizes that he's a part of the bourgeoisie he wants to destroy (and if there's anything more bourgeois than an artist, it's an art critic, and he's both).

Still, there's a hint of self-awareness in his focus on the hippies, and perhaps his muted frustration with them explains the haughty tone of the rest of the film. In Le gai savoir, Godard's use of a child's dictionary and other such devices expressed a playfulness and a representation of his "return to zero" mentality. British Sounds contains numerous audio clips of male and female narrators teaching a child about various historical events of peasant and working-class revolts, which the kid dutifully repeats. Eventually, the entire film comes to fell like a lecture, a condescending polemic from a frustrated artist that seems less educational than editorial.

At 52 minutes, British Sounds feels incomplete, but that's a deliberate step on account of Godard. While certain trademarks are there, he stops short of making this an auterial work, and if he was not yet collaborating on his work, he was at least preparing himself to work in a collective. Narrations cut off, occasionally restart when the reader flubs a line and overlap into incoherence throughout the film. In the last segment, as a synecdochical close-up of a bloody fist moves along a white carpet, the noise builds to a cacophony, various clips of rhetoric crashing like waves on rocks. Then, at last, the fist makes its way to a blood-red flag and picks it up, and the image cuts to shots of the fist punching through the Union Jack as all the voices suddenly speak in unison. The message is clear: all voices of dissent -- male, female, intellectual, working-class -- are unformed, but only through a Communist revolt can we all unify. Unfortunately, Godard succeeds far more readily in tearing us apart with the film that he does in bringing us back together, and British Sounds never amounts to much more than a fleetingly engaging mess, and an often unbearable one at that.

1 comment:

  1. Our views on this film are remarkably similar, and you even made some of the exact same points — about the factory sequence's wry reference to Weekend, and the contrasts between worker politics and student politics — that I made in my own piece from a couple years ago. It's an interesting little polemical film, largely notable for the insight it provides into Godard's thoughts about sound and image at this point, but it seems much more like an experiment than a finished or compelling work in its own right. Of course, that's typical of Godard for much of the 70s, when he was really experimenting with every aspect of his films, both formally and in terms of the ideas expressed, with variable success. This one is far from the best of the DVG period, but it's still worth seeing I think.