Monday, April 18, 2011
Vladimir and Rosa is the most successful of the Dziga Vertov Group films to this point because, among its innovative styling and fresh comic timing, it dares to show the intellectual grappling with his efficacy. Though I've found the DVG films have not been as polemical as many claimed, Godard and co.'s use of Marxist dialectics to this point has chiefly resulted in political films that may be balanced but are still fiery. Vladimir and Rosa is the first to get at what I feel is the greatest concern of great thinkers: am I reaching anyone? It is well and good to be the greatest physicist or philosopher in the world, but what if no one can break through your impenetrable thoughts? Consider books on economics or astrophysics. Which receives more praise: thoroughness or accessibility?
Godard, along with Jean-Pierre Gorin, play the titular Vladimir and Rosa, respectively, and they open the film by contemplating the nature of revolution. Godard, playing the spirit of Lenin, looks at pictures of the revolutionary and thinks of the dialectic between theory and practice, of translating abstract thought into concrete action. That is the central issue with any revolt, and Godard and Gorin know it is the crux of revolutionary film as well. Godard's intentions of forming the DVG, to go beyond making political films and making the construction of the films themselves political, make all the group's films inherently self-reflexive, and this video is the culmination of the incremental revelations contained in previous works.
More so than the other group films, Vladimir and Rosa actually has something of a plot. Structured like Kubrick's Paths of Glory mixed with Peter Cook's legendary "Entirely a Matter for You" sketch at the Secret Policeman's Ball, Vladimir and Rosa makes for engaging political satire crossed with surprisingly effective courtroom drama. A free jazz riff on the trial of the Chicago Eight, the film replaces most of the actual people with deliberate archetypes of sociopolitical outsiders, and the actors use their real names. Anne Wiazemsky appears as a women's lib feminist, Juliet Berto a hippie from a commune, Yves Afonso as a protesting student who appears at the limits of his commitment to nonviolence, etc.
Each represents a different facet of the counterculture, but all (well, all but one) are equally silenced in court by the stand-in for Judge Julius Hoffman, a cartoonish fascist unsubtly named Judge Ernest Adolf Himmler. Himmler makes a mockery of the trial, refusing to allow any evidence or testimony that might exonerate or at least contextualize the defendants' actions, and he stacks the jury with nothing but old housewives and bureaucratic paper-pushers in gray flannel suits. Eventually, Vladimir and Rosa enter and ask to show what they've made of their film so far in the hopes of demonstrate to the jury what it is they see that informs their worldview, and the judge flatly refuses any plea for empathy (or maybe he just watched Pravda; anyone's guess).
One of the two members of the Chicago Eight actually represented here is Bobby Seale, for the simple reason that Godard could not have written a character more farcically put-upon than the co-founder of the Black Panthers. Transparently chosen by the actual Chicago authorities because he was black -- he was actually a replacement for another Panther, Eldridge Cleaver -- Seale received such absurd treatment that all he could do was shout insults to the infuriated judge, who eventually had him bound and gagged and severed from the other seven. I couldn't believe that when I looked him up, assuming that Godard chained and gagged his version of Seale to exaggerate the degree to which this court stripped anti-Establishment protesters of their rights.
Seale is also the impetus for a deeper, more complex portrait of radicals that reveals Godard's capacity for subtlety and distinction even in his political thinking. Both the real and fictional Seales requested their own lawyer instead of being tried with the other seven. One could attribute this to Seale refusing to let himself be considered among the group since his arrest was so laughable and clearly unconnected; by letting himself get lumped in with the others, he at least partially acquiesced to the Establishment's distortion of events.
Yet Seale also seems to recognize how little he has in common with the white radicals from middle-class backgrounds, a distinction Godard masterfully weaves into the narrative. All the issues Godard examines between theory and practice, of the difficulty of breaking from an all-encompassing social structure that has been the only system one knows, does not apply to Seale. As a black man, he never fully meshed with the bourgeois, white society before breaking with it, and so he successfully left with minimal effort -- it's easy to leave a party you weren't invited to, less so for the children of the host. Compare his action to the theoretical discussions of the whites, and the cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. Who can forget that moment in Gimme Shelter when the hippie woman walks around fundraising to free some Black Panthers from prison, airily cooing "After all, they're only Negroes."
A similar split occurs across gender lines. Wiazemsky reads from a feminist tract by a South African woman, and she has Afonso read with her to prove the point that extreme feminism cannot come from a man. Indeed, as the man reads, he simply powers through the words and offers perfunctory agreement, but flecks of chauvinism peek through -- "We're men and you're girls" -- and he clearly does not get on the woman's frequency. Yet even Wiazemsky cannot identify fully with the piece, as it is written by a working-class black woman whose perspective is completely different than hers. These radicals enjoy a privilege they cannot escape, and Godard himself seems to look upon black revolutionaries with naïve envy, wishing he too could so fully break from bourgeois society.
Watching a dilapidated, rust-tinted print, I missed a great deal of the visual cleverness, but if I couldn't play the usual game of quick-translating the scribbled messages of dialectical juxtaposition for the dim film quality, I could at least smile at some of Godard's funniest mise-en-scène in years. The filmmakers recall the use of infinite black space in Le gai savoir for the backdrop of the trial, giving the whole thing even more of a Kafkaesque flavor than it already has. Set apart from time and space and staring ahead with blank eyes, the bourgeois jurors look like aliens despite being chosen by the prosecution and a biased judge for their "normalcy." The scenes in which he and Gorin discuss the nature and aim of their film are hilarious: for a time, they pace around a tennis court as couples play doubles, the back and forth of the matches offering a wry visual gag at the games both the filmmakers and the subjects the film play with conventional power and artistic structures. Eventually, the players seem to get so pissed with their games being interrupted that they stand on the sidelines until Lenin and Rosa just go the hell away.
The most brazen joke shows Godard and Gorin dressing up as a cop and judge, respectively. To demonstrate police force, Godard unzips his fly and pulls out a straight nightstick, a hilariously suggestive image that bitterly attacks the pent-up sexual aggression of wanton beating but also exposes how much of a laugh the filmmakers are having. Their usual incorporation of artifice is so heightened here that the movie starts to turn back to more conventional forms. The police beating that opens the film is openly cartoonish, with obviously fake blood and nightsticks that look about as sturdy as twigs, a bit of mock theatricality that sets the half-acidic, half-parodic nature of the film. Shots of cranes erecting buildings recalls 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, and Godard's sympathetic but critical look at young revolutionaries brings La Chinoise to mind. If Godard threw himself into the DVG to find himself, he seems at last to have discovered that the way forward is also somewhat circular.
The central motivation behind Vladimir and Rosa, indeed of all the DVG films, is the question of how to make a film that will be practically useful. By being by far the most entertaining of the collective's films, Vladimir and Rosa might actually be the least useful of the lot as it motivates one to keep watching. The filmmakers amusingly suggest that it is the radical's job to simplify complicated views for the masses, but Godard cannot bring himself to stick to one idea. Too many thoughts bounce around his head for him to give preference to any one of them, and he struggles to find the way forward here. He admires one man's nonviolence but displays frustration at the inefficiency of it, just as he goads the young radicals on but also recognizes their weaknesses.
The film ends with more polemics, but they're delivered through a tape recorder. They're instructions from someone else, an acknowledgement of the trickiness of a democratic revolution when a movement needs a leader, needs guidance. Godard seemed to understand the artistic implications of this as well, and with his next film he began using his name again. Whatever he did or didn't learn from his DVG experiment, all the messy contradictions and intriguing insights can be seen in this film, making it the most essential of the collective's output. Happily, it's also the most enjoyable.