The sound crushes. The beat bounces against your heart, tightening it. Passengers are gathered together in what looks like a technological nightmare–a nuclear power plant, perhaps. The colors in this great hall are phosphorescent and bleak. But this is no power plant; it’s only a discotheque on a luxury liner; the passengers are stamping, dancing, to disco music that sounds like cannon fire, literally surrounded by the lo-fi winds of war. Bump bump bump. The camera jumps, too. It cannot look away from this nightmare of socialization, it can only cut to other moments framed by silence, or self-conscious “real” beauty: Patti Smith presumably on that ship’s deck in a skull cap, strumming her guitar; a woman who looks as if she stepped out of an Ingres; the sound of the sea again, rising and crashing against this ship of fools. These disjointed images amount to one image, or idea: about fracture, about nature seen through technology, and the smear of history and modernism that infects the lens with its own brutalities and realities and untruths. This is the first part of the latest gift from the now eighty year old filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard. The film: “Film Socialisme,” which is as much about the shirt sightedness of language and language turning history to myth as anything else. In Richard Brody’s full and enriching column about the movie, Godard’s biographer writes:
The McGuffin of Jean-Luc Godard’s new film, “Film Socialisme” is the vast store of gold that the Spanish Republicans shipped to the Soviet Union in 1936, ostensibly for safekeeping during the civil war (of course, it never came back), and, in particular, the batch of it that disappeared en route to Odessa. Yet the gold is more than a McGuffin: it’s a frequent subject of discussion, an object that lends the entire film its thematic and symbolic value, and the source of the movie’s elaborate backstory—and it has been on Godard’s mind for almost thirty years. In a 1997 interview with Alain Bergala (the interview that opens the second volume of “Godard par Godard”—“Godard on Godard”—a crucial book which has yet to be translated), Godard said that he heard about it from Jacques Tati “five or six months” before Tati died, in 1982. At that time, Godard wanted to interview him:
I offered to buy him a coffee. He said he could pay for it himself, and he took out a coin. A gold coin from the Bank of Spain. “That’s what’s left of the Spanish treasury that Stalin took,” he told me. It had been given to him by [the movie producer] Louis Dolivet, who was an agent of the Fourth International. I knew him from having approached him: he was my first contact, before [the producer Pierre] Braunberger, at the time of Gray Films [in the mid-fifties]. He produced “Mr. Arkadin” and “Playtime.” There’s even a shot in “Mr. Arkadin” where you see Dolivet. Tati explained the connection between them. He had been an assistant to the famous Willy Mutzenberg [sic], who had seduced the entire French intelligentsia and produced films, launched magazines. He had certainly placed money in Switzerland, which Dolivet inherited after the war. With this money, he produced “Arkadin,” which is a metaphor for the story of Stalin and takes place in Spain. According to Tati’s theory, Stalin had supported the war in Spain in order to get hold of this money. Which is completely plausible, since Stalin was a former bank robber…. That’s a story that I’d really like to have shown [in “Histoire(s) du cinema”]: what is the real relationship between “Mr. Arkadin” and “Playtime”? It’s the gold of the Bank of Spain and of the Spanish Republicans, which Stalin stole. With this money, Dolivet produced two catastrophic flops, but two very beautiful films.
The “search” here of course is not so much for the missing gold–this cinema universe is no El Dorado, or narrative cousin to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”–but the act of looking at cinema and it’s myths, its history, its inherent “socialiasme,” which includes this reality: everyone can make a movie now, or star in one. We no longer read history in books, or listen to it as Godard listened to it in that long ago interview; instead, we watch for it, or are bored by it, as it’s created or falsified through the magic of editing. What can language mean in the face of a young boy’s face–one of the film’s more interesting stars–waiting for an answer to his questions about the historical world and his place in it. He sucks his thumb, and Godard sucks our minds free of linear expectation, narrative pleasure–bourgeois impulses that speak more about our need to control information than our ability to receive and absorb knowledge as it happens. Godard’s mind is too fast for most of us, too drenched in facts and remembrance and in his love of cinema as reportage. What feeds him and makes him more agile makes most of us sleepy and exhausted because we want to wear history–to know it–whereas Godard moves through it; it is part of who he is and who we are, if only we could face it. And because we can’t, the filmmaker barrages us with it, thus creating a beautiful and satisfying cinema of cruelty. Godard shows us bloody Russia, but it is a film–Eistentein’s view of the Steppes. We see Spain, represented by a matador, and the bullring’s blood. These visual metaphors provoke real feelings in us (first about the Spain of Hemingway, then the photographer Robert Capa and his famous image of the fallen Spanish resistance fighter, and so on) especially as Godard italicizes cinema’s falseness through his exploration of color, sound, make believe and, most of all, language. His subtitles don’t “work” (for every long speech we see two or three words), images seep into titles. Language crumbles even before we’ve had a chance to understand it’s intention. We see words, but what of comprehension? For Godard, language has always been visual. But looking at pictures in our contemporary world should involve a level of distrust: there are too many movies. Cinema is as real and as false as history. We are all tourists everywhere, especially in our myth of living in a democratized world, whose anti-historicizing we fill up with the junk of noise, and the myth of togetherness, so that we don’t risk seeing or feeling much of anything at all.