Thursday, April 21, 2011

Here and Elsewhere (Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville, 1975)

Partially cobbled together from footage Godard shot in 1970 of a Palestinian insurgency, Here and Elsewhere, his first collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville, serves as the final nail in the Dziga Vertov Group's coffin, not only because it uses the last of the group's material but because Godard uses the opportunity to investigate why the group failed. Predictably, he cannot go into such details without making a movie as messy as one of the DVG films.

Though five years removed from his time in Palestine, Godard clearly has not forgotten his outrage, and as Miéville translates the revolutionaries' anti-Zionist rhetoric, it becomes clear Godard agrees with them even before he starts visually comparing Hitler to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. As ever, Godard thinks in terms of the Marxist class struggle, and when he cuts to a petit bourgeois family in France watching these images on their TV the connection -- Palestinians and Westerners held down by the same capitalist powers -- is obvious. Too obvious, in fact; Godard does not account for religious tension, and his equation of Hitler with Meir is but one example of his single-mindedness getting the better of him.

And yet, Here and Elsewhere also serves as a response to that dogmatic commitment Godard displayed even at his most open and considerate during the DVG years. Godard and Miéville discuss collecting all the footage and feeling confident in relating the story and its currents of theory and practice, only to return to France and see how all the careful ordering was inherently false, no matter how pure Godard's intentions were. Adding further sobriety to this autocritique is the reason Godard and co. left Palestine before completing their original film in the first place: so many of the natives involved had been killed. Shots of children training in a camp to fight in the insurgency may once have convinced Godard of the commitment of the Palestinians to their cause, but as he looks back he clearly wonders how many of them are dead now, and the images seem tragic and mournful. By filming these people at all, Godard ensured he would present their struggle against Western domination through Western means and interpretations of art. All filmmaking is interpretive, meaning that, for all the elements the director stripped from his style during his Dziga Vertov years, he always retained the most bourgeois one.

Still, he presses on in search of a universal form, and the film largely serves as his attempt to sift through his failure and learn from the mistakes. The text on the monitor at the start reads "Mon/Ton/Son Image," communicating that everyone can lay claim to the image, not merely the filmmakers who believe they are getting the full story. As frustratingly didactic as the film can be, Here and Elsewhere is yet another fascinating peek into Godard's insecurity and self-doubt in his lofty goals. He considers images in both time and space and seeks a way to put images in the same space at the same time instead of having one follow the other as it must in film. Multiple monitors and new editing equipment allow Godard the freedom to juxtapose more images than ever, and he uses these toys, these capitalistic innovations, to try to get a more accurate representation of his Marxist aesthetic.

More than any of his preceding late-'60s/early-'70s work, Here and Elsewhere captures and further develops the ideas and desires that motivated 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, in which he first surrendered autonomy of the image to seek all around him. By finding methods of not only cutting up images to fit them all in the frame -- which he does here using video technology that allows him to blur, overlap and melt images -- he instead places all these monitors on the screen, so that we are in effect watching others watch the movie, sitting in the editing suite with the filmmakers as they judge which images to use. Thus, Here and Elsewhere transcends Godard's efforts to find a Marxist image by not only showing more freedom in the selection of images beyond those that serve Godard's narrative means to making the viewer a semi-equal participant in viewing the complete footage. Of course, Godard still has the power to interpret it, but now he starts to leave

Here and Elsewhere expands the scope of Godard's attempts to capture the world on film, delineating all around one's vicinity from the images we ultimately receive on TV or in film, all of which were shot "elsewhere." Because of this, the images and sound lack their full power. The family in France look no different watching Godard's imposed images of horror and war than they do watching an ad with a catchy jingle play in-between the Palestinian footage. By, however unwisely, tossing out religious considerations, Godard can frame the Palestinian cause as class struggle and draw comparisons from the families elsewhere who grew fed up with their station and began organizing to the Western drones who can start their own revolution on a similarly small scale before expanding. But since he does leave out all that vital information when compiling his thoughts, Godard's conclusions can be messy and taxing, like the worst of Dziga Vertov output.

I admit I got a bit lost with this film and felt I were missing something in between what Godard was aiming for and the final product, so I looked to Ed Howard (one of the people chiefly responsible for me deciding to go through Godard's canon in the first place and a fantastic resource for where to find so many of the director's forgotten films) to see if he made anything out of it. I think we largely agree, but one of the passages of his review of the film caught my eye:
"It is not so much a political film as it is about political films, about the ways in which images, sounds, and their combinations can contribute to or impede understanding. It is also a study in contrasts, with the title's dual concepts the central dichotomy at work: "here" for the familiar, the domestic; "elsewhere" for the unfamiliar, the foreign.

That's a spot-on observation, though I find it amusing that Godard would divide locations into "here" and "elsewhere" given the time he devotes to criticizing his obsession with Marxist dialectic. "It is too easy and too simple," Miéville repeats, "to simply divide the world into two." In fairness, his dichotomy here is flexible and relative as opposed to the more hardline "good/bad" splits of earlier rhetoric. However, the key component of the film's title (and the filmmakers' focus) is neither on "here" or "elsewhere" but on the "and." Godard stresses the "and" in comparisons as if stuttering, and a giant "Et" fills the screen when he does so. He wants to bury into the "and," the conjunction taken for granted, to find the mysteries it contains. Godard notes that even the most quotidian, insignificant image becomes part of "a vague and complicated system," and Godard desperately wants to map that system.

Despite these humanistic aims, Here and Elsewhere still contains the frustrating limitations it criticizes, including its moments of rigid condescension. "There are no more simple images, only simple people, who will be forced to stay quiet, like an image," the filmmakers say. And yet, Godard and Miéville do internalize some of their inclusive aesthetic lessons, lumping themselves in with the crowd when Miéville posits "It seems we do not know how to see or listen." The solution, it seems, is to "learn to see here in order to understand elsewhere." I can't say I'm not glad to finally emerge from Godard's political period (barring the chance to catch up with a few of the DVG films I couldn't track down). But as many issues I have with Here and Elsewhere's pacing and contradictions, its mature evaluation of those politics and the human motivations and limitations behind them make the film a surprisingly moving elegy for an ambitious but misguided period for the world's most ambitious filmmaker.


  1. Sounds like we agree on this one. It's Godard saying goodbye to the DVG period and trying to draw some lessons from the failures and problems of those films, but in the process he repeats some of the same mistakes and makes some new ones. But that's okay. I find the DVG films pretty fascinating, in general, precisely because of that willingness to fail, the willingness to truly experiment and try things out, to really think about filmmaking at the most basic level. All of the DVG films, to one extent or another, are autocritiques, and this after-the-fact assembly is even more so an attempt to look back at that period and really question the filmmaking ideas of the collective.

    In retrospect, the importance of this film is obvious mainly for the hints of Godard's future approach. It's arguably the real start of his interest in video and unconventional ways of organizing images. The scenes here where he tries to come up with alternate ways of displaying sequences of images point the way forward to the masterful screens-within-the-screen aesthetic of Numero Deux. If the DVG period represented Godard razing his aesthetic to ground zero, his late 70s period with Mieville represents his attempts to start over, to rediscover aesthetics and invent new approaches that are much more elaborate and versatile than the frequently barebones polemics of the DVG films.

    That means that Here and Elsewhere is mostly notable as a transitional work. Other than that, I totally agree that the failings of the film's outlook on the Israeli/Palestinian situation are readily apparent: the failure to so much as mention religion is baffling, and the equation of Israeli leaders with Hitler is indefensible. Mieville's voiceover commentary on the 1972 Olympic killings is also pretty offputting, recalling some of the most polemical and troubling moments from the DVG films, like the one where Godard describes how to make bombs and weapons for revolutionaries. Despite all this, the film is interesting in so many ways, and I like your description of it as an elegy for the DVG period. Considering the sadness over failed leftist politics that runs through many of Godard's 80s films, this can be seen as the beginning of Godard's long process of trying to understand what went wrong in the aftermath of May '68.

  2. I would have had less an issue with Godard pointing out the fascistic policies of Israel -- sequestering others into concentration camps, being founded on a shared ethnic identity over a social one -- but Godard is still struggling to find the nuance, and it's a shame that he can find humanity throughout this film but cannot address this topic with anything approaching complexity.

    But I was so damn intrigued by Godard's attempts to rebuild, to start back from zero. I like that shot of numbers being put in a calculator as the voiceover thinks about trying to add revolutionary numbers as if they'd make an uprising and the wonders if perhaps they'd subtracted by mistake and went back to zero. Then you get that even more thoughtful meditation on zero both as a function of nothing and of massive size, of hundreds and thousands. I got lost in that section so I wasn't comfortable talking about it, but I thought it was an interesting acknowledgment both of the misguided attempt to reset everything and of the potential in doing so.