Sunday, June 3, 2012

France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants (Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville, 1976)

In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie's alien offers a sadly poignant insight into the limitations of television, the manner in which he and his family learned of Earth. They saw the look and stylized behavior on TV, but as "Thomas Jerome Newton" gets caught up in emotions and interactions he does not understand, he laments to one person that TV leaves so much uncaptured, so much unexplained. Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville's France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants, a 12-part miniseries made for French television, attempts to rectify this shortcoming. They use typical TV techniques and formats—shooting interviews like any other TV news crew, returning to the studio for commentary—but they do so in such a way as to critique those conventions and dissect the false social image TV itself helps to create and perpetuate.

Godard and Miéville divide the 12 episodes, or "movements," into dialectical pairings. Therefore, the first episode, subtitled "Dark/Chemistry," matches up with the second, "Light/Physics." Later, "Violence/Grammar" contrasts with "Disorder/Calculation." The format for each episode is the same: it opens on some aspect of French social life that corresponds (however loosely) with the subject of each , whether it's a commute to work or the labor itself, with a narration caught somewhere between Marxist rhetoric and a bedtime story. Then, there's a section titled "Verité," in which an off-screen Godard poses questions to one of two child subjects, Camille and Arnaud, in an unbroken take lasting the majority of the 25-minute runtime. Finally, a "Télevision" segment goes back to a TV studio as actors standing in for Godard (Albert Dray) and Miéville (Betty Berr) debate what was said in the interview before throwing to a "Histoire" (both story and history) only tangentially related to what has preceded it. Compared to the radical video experimentations that preceded it, this is pleasantly relaxed, downright accessible by Godard's post-Week End standards. Even the montages are easily followable!

None of this is to say that the miniseries isn't as rigorously formal and intellectually challenging as the rest of Godard's video period. Instead, France/Tour/Détour serves more as a culmination of this time in the filmmaker's career, its refined techniques an advancement over the primordial soup of images and noise even as its focus on children nearing the cusp of social integration marks Godard's most literal "return to zero." The episodes all operate under this overarching dialectic, a contrast of Godard's serious, mature questions to the children and the overall playfulness of his rapport with the children and the steady deconstruction of the series as it continues.

By this time Godard had alienated practically everyone. The "hip" critics who championed one of their own had given him up as a pretentious, aimless bore (a consensus that continues to this day), and on the rare occasion anyone even reviewed his new work, it was to lament that he'd lost the spark from his early work. It is therefore not only fascinating but deeply funny that these two prepubescent children, still in the early stages of education and wholly unprepared for Godard's social and philosophical probings, respond more earnestly and thoughtfully to the director's advanced notions than all the grown-ups.

Godard asks such questions as whether night is space or time, what the revolution means to the girl, and what parts of the body are matter and what, like memory, isn't. Camille and Arnaud frequently look puzzled, and sometimes they either sit in silence trying to parse out the question or deflect with a "yes, no, I don't know" answer. The director clearly prods the children toward the answer he wants, his Socratic dialogue compounding each initial question so that the children contradict themselves or at least acknowledge that simple either/or questions are more complex. (This is as much autocritique as critique of the kids' answers, Godard proving that he knows dialectic has its limits and that it must be used in opposition to itself for the full image.) But the kids sometimes offer surprises: Godard asks Arnaud some space/time questions, and the boy offers an almost profound idea when he says of himself, "I'm more of a moving point in space."

These moments of stirring insight and inadvertent philosophy stand in sharp contrast to the socialization Godard and Miéville show at work on the children. Occasionally, Godard accompanies the children to school, where we can see Arnaud sitting silently, attentive but removed as his teacher idly instructs through recitation, his stiffness a sharp contrast to the fidgety cleverness he displays in the interviews. Similarly, a late episode devotes its Verité segment not to an interview of Camille but an unbroken shot of her in medium-close-up as she sits at the dinner table, her parents having a conversation with each other as she quietly eats. In both cases, the institutions that shape a child into a member of society—school, family—do not encourage growth but restrain it, mold it, limit it. In the interviews, the children seem so alive, curious, and unbounded. But in society, they are caged, and even a schoolyard at recess, drowned in echoing noise of happy screams and conversations, seems like a prison.

But Godard and Miéville don't stop there. Tracing their political obsessions to social roots and beyond, the pair extrapolate the intimate focus of the show ever outwards. A shot of Camille being punished at school by being forced to copy lines grows into an indictment of an education system that forbids plagiarism but teaches only through copying, not originality. But language itself is a binding, repetitive structure. A playful episode opening of two lovers describing each others and themselves with adjectives reveals both the sumptuously descriptive possibilities of language and its frustrating limitations. And of all languages, French is one of the most rigidly hidebound, with its grammatical rules held in check by its own institution, the Academie Française. So even communication, then, can be a form of indoctrination, learning all the verb tenses of grammar as much a means of controlling and shaping the children as making them line up in formation like a military squad or teaching them basic work functions.

These are lofty ideas, and even loftier ones come out in the Histoire segments. Here, the challenging polemics and philosophies of Godard and Miéville get to run riot. These sections feature asides such as a radical leftist cell madly deciding to make up for the failure of their hostage taking to produce change by planning higher-profile hostage taking. Elsewhere, a nude pregnant woman, a recurring figure in superimpositions as the symbol for humanity's hope and the possibility of engendering change, can be seen as a secretary, nonchalantly taking dictation and fetching things as men boss her around. The metaphor is clear, visualizing the one force capable of reshaping the world and how it is thus treated worst of all by that system. Montage also pops up from time to time, but Godard slows down the battery of images seen in various Dziga Vertov productions, instead focusing specifically on one idea. For example, the duo branch out of the discussion of light and dark to meditate on how some images, such as brightly lit photographs of Nixon and Mao, actually obscure the truth of their subjects where darkness would do them justice.

France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants routinely recalls the great Numéro Deux in its social inspection, but also in its giving spirit. Miéville's admonishment in that film that Godard stop reducing everything to either/or dialectics carries over to the questions he asks the children, all of them binary but posed in such a way as to disrupt binary systems. Furthermore, the Godard and Miéville stand-ins often critique themselves and the entire show, not only for deeper questions not asked but what they want out of the series. "Instead of keeping watch, the camera will transmit," comes an early, idealistic hope for the show's potential. By the end, however, "Miéville" is despondent that their questions give the impression that they want the last word in the discussion, when what they really want is the first. The two even end the series avoiding any kind of summary, the humorous anticlimax keeping with the delicate touch of the entire series. Taken with Numéro Deux, the miniseries returns Godard to the aesthetic and intellectual openness of his 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Godard's Dziga Vertov and video years married radical content with radical form, but it seems, at last, that the director finally realized that the best way to attain a socialist cinema was, as he concluded in 2 or 3 Things, to give it to everyone, even two schoolchildren.

[This post marks the shamefully belated return to my ongoing attempt to see as much of Jean-Luc Godard's filmography as I can (not the easiest of tasks for nearly anything made after 1967). I am skipping over Six Fois Deux, the first TV miniseries Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville made for French television, only because I am having a hard time finding a copy to download. The only place I can find it is on a private torrenting site where it would likely get me expelled for ruining my seed:leech ratio (for some reason my Internet connection almost completely blocks uploading). If I can get my hands on that series, I'll double back later and cover it. For now, though, I'm pressing ahead with this retrospective and Godard's subsequent "return to cinema."]

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