Sunday, November 21, 2010

Le Vent d'Est

After the combined weight of British Sounds and Pravda collapsed the last bridge connecting Jean-Luc Godard to his former life, he and the Dziga Vertov Group now had the freedom to build a new structure, one that could take them wherever they pleased. Le vent d'est ("Wind from the East") still contains all the elements that are grating about DGV films, but if the agitprop itself still fails, Godard and the others slowly put together a way to tell their story inventively, even cheekily.

Opening with a held shot of two people lying in a field, the warring narration that defined the last few films returns as a woman and man overlap each other. The woman wins out, speaking of her bourgeois father's work at an aluminum company. She mentions that mounting union pressure led the man to lock himself in his office in fear, leading to panicked conversations between "Daddy and Uncle Sam" in which the man begged for aid from the capitalists. In dad's mind, the poor are used to being poor, so the continued exploitation of miners will not affect them, but for the rich to suffer even the slightest loss of money would be bewildering and far more harmful. I couldn't help but smile at that bit of dialogue as I thought of all those screaming "redistribution of wealth" now, in a time when the rich continue to profit off the recession they created. For all the hullabaloo over May '68, France did not change as drastically as some would have you believe, but the threat of mass union uprising shifting the power back to the worker could easily have put the terror into the wealthy.

That, sadly, is one of the last moments of the film that makes any sense, as Godard, Gorin and the rest waste no time overlapping sound and image until, once again, they create incomprehensible agitprop. Yet where the polemical dialogue fails again, the film's form demonstrates Gorin and Godard getting the hang of their new radical cinema. Godard always believed that the best way to criticize a film was to make another one, and never before has a work of his been more of its own critique. "What does it mean to ask the question 'Where are we now?' for a militant filmmaker?" posits the female narrator, and Godard's attempt to answer that question make for his most interesting filmmaking since Le gai savoir.

We see a film-within-a-film being made, what appears to be a spaghetti Western made in West Germany. As the actors prepare their roles, the narrator delves into the idea of revolutionary film. She castigates Sergei Eisenstein for being influenced by the "imperialist" D.W. Griffith and angrily laments that he went back in time to find an event of social upheaval for Potemkin rather than using an examination of then-current social strife to instruct through his lens. Of course, for Godard to slam anyone for looking to past movies and events is rich, but he acknowledges that and used Le vent d'est to grapple with that nagging sense of cinephilia that beckons to him as he tries to move beyond his previous life.

At last, Godard returns to placing provocative and even beautiful images on the screen. The actors, walking around a large field, put on flowing gowns that make them look as if they got lost on their way to the nearest Bergman film, and the narrator repeats "Death to the bourgeois" as a saintly clad Anne Wiazemsky reads in the meadow as hands bearing a hammer and sickle threateningly close around her head before pulling back again and again. The jumbled title cards bring back the invention of Le gai savoir's use of written word on the screen. As the narrator attempts to figure out how to proceed from May '68 (and, alternately, how Godard expects to move forward with his radical cinema), the words "que" and "faire" (literally "what to do") appear on a piece of paper over and over in perfectly arranged columns as if a kindergartner's copying assignment. The word "repression" uses the Schutzstaffel insignia for its SS. Lutte, meaning "fight, is scribbled over a page with a heavy black marker used to write "CRITIQUE" over everything, suggesting the manner in which Godard and Gorin have chosen to wage their fight against the bourgeois is through savage criticism.

The agitprop is, as ever, maddening, but Godard never lost track of his ability to see the aspects of Communism that failed. He delineates between "worker Leninism" and "student Leninism," and he takes aim at himself when he dismisses the latter as being naïve and unfocused. A shot of mass graves reminds everyone of what happens when a maniac like Stalin takes power. At any rate, Le vent d'est also takes the time to consider the Western wind, and compared to the more Maoist leanings of previous DGV films, this feature examines less the virtue of Communism than the ways capitalism undermines individual freedom even as it purports to be the most free societal structure. Godard is, of course, too scathing toward capitalism as a whole and not the abuse of it, but there are some valid points buried in the aural muck. His most damning critique, naturally, is of Hollywood, which he charges with being falsely liberal. My ears perked up at this, as I've been hating on Hollywood's love of cheap, faux-liberalism for years, the sort of pandering hogwash that serves only to rake in cash to studio executives (which doesn't exactly scream "socialist," does it?). Over an image of a man riding a horse, the narrator rages that Hollywood would have us believe that the horse on-screen is really a horse. Not just that, that it is more than a horse. Even as the DGV tries to uncover the true nature of the contemporary political climate, Godard still carries his pet theme of the illusory quality of the cinema, a them the film industry in Hollywood just sweeps under the rug because it raises too many questions.

Le vent d'est continues the director's deconstructionist streak, but for the first time since joining the DGV he begins to reconstruct images as well. A great deal of the film doesn't work, especially as it's nearly incomprehensible aurally or visually from taking low-quality source elements and blowing them up far beyond their capacity (not to mention the only way I could find of viewing the film was on a horrendous VHS rip), but I was finally interested in Godard again. I couldn't wait to see what he'd do next, and I felt rewarded by straining my eyes to make out what it was I was supposed to be looking at. Godard makes the camera into the general assembly with this film, posing questions about the revolution for other to answer. After talking down to us for the last few films, Godard continues to pontificate but finally lets the audience formulate its own thoughts and asks us for responses to the questions posed. We're not out of the woods yet, but Le vent d'est was a pleasant surprise after suffering the Dziga Vertov Group's nonsense for what felt an eternity after but two films.


  1. You write so much here that I seem to have lost track of your Godard posts, sorry about that — and I'm glad our Twitter discussion reminded me to go looking for the ones I'd missed.

    Although I haven't seen Pravda yet, which seems to be the DVG film you like the least, I find this period of Godard's career as fascinating as it is frustrating. I have pretty high tolerance for all the agitprop lectures and endless dialectical back-and-forth, and what redeems these films for me is the quality of self-criticism and self-questioning that you identify here. Godard never intended for these films to be finished works. He considered them "blackboard" movies, and that make-it-as-we-go quality of construction shows through in most of them; Vladimir and Rosa and Tout va bien being the exceptions as Godard took a few steps, however modest, back towards narrative and commercial moviemaking. In the DVG films, nothing is permanent or finished, nothing is definitive. They're films about struggling with ideology and how best to express that ideology.

    As for Wind From the East, I actually watched this recently and will be posting a review later this month. Like Le gai savoir, the Godard film it most resembles thematically if not visually, it's a film about its own making, about the difficulty of making a film that embodies the ideas that Godard wanted to explore. I loved the clever implied reference to Magritte in Godard's discussion of Hollywood and horses, and in general loved the loose genre parody here, a nod to Godard's earlier films, which had more thoroughly engaged with genre. It's often surprisingly funny, and just as often thought-provoking, and sometimes merely impenetrable. But it's never boring.

  2. Yeah, this is the first time that, while I was still frustrated by the deliberately incomplete nature of the DVG films, I felt that something fully interesting came out. If the DVG films are about leaving things unfinished so one can come back and fill in the gaps later (a sort of interactive lecture that preaches to the audience but then lets them supply their own interpretations without judgment), then we're clearly advancing in class years. The earlier films left less to the audience and showed the basics, basics Godard and Gorin were still trying to sort out, but here there are more concrete ideas to build off of, and it's a welcome relief.

    I agree with the Gai savoir comparison: I think it demonstrates Godard's ability to "return to zero" but also start rebuilding immediately. There were aspects of Le Vent d'est that frustrated me but that playfulness was back in full force, and Godard can move mountains with it.