Monday, September 13, 2010


Pravda is the first film of the Dziga Vertov Group to definitively achieve Jean-Luc Godard's aim to tear down his brand as a marketable, even identifiable filmmaker, and it is perhaps because of this that even Godard has since dismissed it as "Marxist-Leninist garbage." Indeed, it's perhaps the hardest slog of any of his films to this point, a half-focused explosion of frustration over revolution and failed Communism in the Eastern Bloc that plays as horrifically naïve for such an intelligent man.

Godard shot the film in Czechoslovakia with a 16mm camera and a local crew, and the mere fact that he even got away with seems to irk him. For before he traveled to the country, the Czechs revolted against the Soviet government, and while Godard had already recognized the horrors of Stalinism, the Westernized Prague he surveys fills him with no uncertain amount of disgust. Western music blares on the streets, Godard rents a car from Hertz and a Coca-Cola will assuredly be within reach wherever one goes.

As they must, sound and image collide. Static shots show factory workers producing the cars that they cannot afford and will not be afforded by the government for their labor rubbing up against shots of American businesses that are either creeping into the semi-liberated country or never left in the first place, suggesting that both are equally oppressive. Godard seems to position himself as a war correspondent covering the latest invasion to befall the land: first they suffered the Nazis, then the Soviets, and now the corporations.

Viewing Pravda from this perspective makes it at least somewhat bearable, as Godard's insistence that he obliterate his namesake results in him finally taking too big a step away from any semblance of coherence. He edited this while Jean-Pierre Gorin cut Vent d'est, and when they compared their final products they were both pleased to see that neither could differentiate between the two, though whether one could really feel victorious when looking upon such a creation is dubious.

The playfulness that made Le gai savoir enjoyable returns to Godard's style, but if these films were cinematic essays, Pravda reads like a diary entry by a jilted lover, pouring out pain and anger at the once-appealing partner who so cruelly cast him aside. He does not want Czechoslovakia to remain under harsh rule, but for them to so instantly and blindly embrace the advances of the American corporations enrages him disproportionately to the change of public opinion. His English narrator tells us that men in the country "would rather wash their cars than fuck their wives," and even the man's matter-of-fact deliver cannot help but communicate Godard's revulsion. Meanwhile, the shot of tanks in fields watching over peasants earns half the focus.

Viewing the film as a take on the TV documentary, however, it becomes more wry. The flat delivery lends itself to a feeling of authenticity, playing off the title, which of course refers to the Soviet newspaper that translated as "Truth." Truth is not particularly on Godard's mind, as the narrator speaks of interpreting sound and image from his own perspective, seeking to document "external manifestations of the Communist reality, the Communist 'irreality' in Czechoslovakia" and the contradictions that each element of the documentary raises. There's even a shot of someone walking into frame with their head out of view, presaging the modern practice of showing overweight people on the streets only from the neck down.

If nothing else, Godard wants to make clear that just because we see something on television doesn't make it true, something many did not know back when government and business were keeping the worst of Vietnam off American airwaves and other forms of selective editing affected TV in other nations. As the narrator notes, the USSR runs on revisionism, constantly presenting their dictatorship as a people's empire and forcing the press into promoting this view. Godard emphasizes the false populism and secret capitalism that drives the Soviets with a boiled-down exchange between a factory overseer and a worker: "OK, comrade?" "OK, boss."

Eventually, Godard drops even this pretense, turning his flat newsreader into Vladimir, the disembodied voice of the revolution, and pairs him with a woman, Rosa, as the two overlap frequently. Rarely does one translate for the Czechs on-screen, and subtitles are absent as well. "If you don't understand Czech," deadpans Vladimir, "you better learn it fast." Godard wants complete control over how we interpret what he's showing, and he's not going to let a pesky thing like the people's voice get in the way, which makes his supposed Maoist intent all the more hypocritical and ill-formed.

Amusingly, the bits of the film that are most enjoyable and provocative are the ones that betray Godard at the helm and not simply a like-minded collaborator. His Brechtian influence has perhaps never been more overt, the narration structured as it is after Brecht's Me-Ti and its dialectical approach. Brecht's work was made in his own exile, and as Godard has his narrator speak of ceasing filmmaking, you can't help but wonder if Godard had begun to regret his decision to move away from making proper films, or if he still felt he hadn't gone far enough.

Still, he carries on with his didactic approach, tossing in lines like "It's by going in circles that we advance" with utmost seriousness and closing the film with Chinese tunes to promote Maoism as the true Communism. Pravda feels longer than its 58 minutes, and the greatest tragedy is, despite the danger of filming in Czechoslovakia, how few risks Godard takes. The rhetoric lacks the fire of earlier political works because disillusionment has set in, and a thudding sound fills the audio track for a minute or two during the film as if Godard is pounding his gavel in judgment of the failure of the Czech revolution and of the Communism that sparked it. I was grabbed, however, by a few parts of the film. One of the final shots of the movie is a long static shot of a factory worker staring at a machine doing work, subtly implying that the people can no longer really make a world for themselves because industrialization has left so many without anything to do. This unforced perspective on sped-up capitalist expansion is contrasted with appealing images of true Communism, such as a shot of cherry trees lining the streets for anyone to pick -- meanwhile, all private property is fenced off with barbed wire. By far the most memorable and poetic image is of a rose, positioned in the middle of a montage of shots of military equipment filling fields and factories, overproduced under Soviet orders to stock up for the pissing match with America. As the images of tanks and jets stack up, the rose begins to sink and wilt, finally appearing flattened on the ground, the red spirit of revolution trampled by the people it was meant to inspire. It's so powerful that its inclusion long before the end deflates the rest of the film somewhat, which only makes the tedium that much more unbearable.

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