by Reynold Humphries
Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 12-13
Godard’s espousal of Marxism-Leninism and his forming with Jean-Pierre Gorin of the Dziga Vertov Group in 1968 had two major results. It lost Godard the support of most of those who had championed his work up to 1967, it and removed him from the public eye for four years. The latter was deliberate, Godard preferring to work in alternate film circuits. The former was inevitable and is a measure of Godard’s importance in the evolution of a revolutionary cinema.(1)
Godard has always been a very controversial director, arousing enthusiasm and hatred in equal quantities. The enthusiasm, while having the unfortunate side effect of creating a new cult figure, was nevertheless positive in one way. Because of the controversy surrounding the director, it drew attention to Godard’s particular sort of filmmaking: improvisation and inconsequentialities, dislocated narrative and an increasing move towards a strong heterogeneity of the pro-filmic material (ads, posters, TV). These are all elements that Godard used later in his career, but with an explicitly political flavor.
The fact that, up to PIERROT LE FOU in 1965, these above-mentioned devices tended not to foreground politics and were constant factors in the director’s work had a predictable result. Godard became the ultimate auteur, an inimitable stylist who put his stamp indelibly on each movie. The concept of auteur is invaluable to the purveyors of the dominant bourgeois ideology. Such critics who adopt it(2) prefer to discuss a work in terms of its themes. This is especially so when the themes are recurrent and therefore seem to homogenize the texts into a single, unified, unbroken text. Or, if the themes are dangerous, auteur critics can resort to an exclusive analysis of the means of expression. Either way, HOW meaning is produced and WHAT meaning are problems thus avoided. The director remains an auteur, cut off from everything but his personal tastes in movies (Godard was a great help here as a former critic himself) and his previous films.
As long as the dislocations of “standard” narrative (itself an artificial device, naturalized by years of use) were not too extreme and as long as politics were limited to questions that any remotely progressive person would consider important—Algeria (LE PETIT SOLDAT), war (LES CARABINIERS), Vietnam (PIERROT LE FOU)—the critics in the “intellectual” papers and reviews were happy. For Godard’s detractors, of course, everything he did that was different—such as positioning the camera in the back seat of a car in BANDE À PART—was too extreme. By 1966, however, Godard’s anarchism (easily recuperable because never politically explicit) had given way to a more clearly-defined leftwing position that was quite incompatible with the liberal metaphysical anguish purveyed in ALPHAVILLE (and remarkably purveyed, but the question lies elsewhere). Thus DEUX OU TROIS CHOSES QUE JE SAIS D'ELLE marks the first major break in Godard’s work. Not only do we have an explicit political analysis of capitalism in France in the 1960s. But the film also relentlessly questions the representational techniques brought into operation to convey the meaning and function of that capitalist society. Godard is now interrogating the cinema itself.(3)
Twelve months later comes the second break. It is in the final sequence of WEEKEND where Leaud walks around reciting political tracts. All attempts at “realism” have been abandoned. Godard is foregrounding with increasing insistence the need to question every code at work in the filmic text: creation of a homogeneous time scale and a corresponding space; the matching of sound and image (what is the point of “realism” if a text foregrounds its own fictional status?). Just as shocking from the “moderate” standpoint is his rejection of previously cherished art forms such as classical music: Mozart is now irrelevant.(4) Several months later come LE GAI SAVOIR and the final break with every tradition of commercial filmmaking. May ‘68 is already in the air and Godard’s move to an extreme leftwing position does not pass unnoticed. The ruling class prevents the film from being screened on French TV, for which it was made. This was also to be the fate of other films commissioned for television: BRITISH SOUNDS (B.B.C.), PRAVDA (German TV), LOTTE IN ITALIA (Italian TV) and VLADIMIR ET ROSA (German TV).
With films like LE GAI SAVOIR, VENT D'EST and VLADIMIR AND ROSA (I haven't seen the other film from this period), Godard not only abandoned plots and narrative and foregrounded revolutionary politics, he also moved away from the concept of the individual and the portrayal of human relationships and interpersonal relations. Thus vanished the last and most tenacious link with bourgeois art: the character moving in a world which is subordinated to his personality and individual problems. By 1968 this has vanished, at least until TOUT VA BIEN in 1972.
TOUT VA BIEN is centered on the political education of a vaguely committed couple. If it has a fault, it lies in the fact that Godard and Gorin seem unsure as to whether to concentrate on this politicization or on the meaning of the events that radicalize the husband and wife. Clearly the two aspects of the film are inseparable. But I can't help wondering if Godard and Gorin may not have felt trapped by using two big stars. I suspect that the danger of foregrounding their personal relations was clear to the film’s makers, hence the reduction to the minimum of scenes involving their life together in favor of their lives outside the home (hence the crucial scene in the cafe where they talk to/at one another).
With NUMÉRO DEUX, however, Godard—now working alone—has solved this possible discrepancy. He brings politics and men/women relations into the home so that mere interpersonal and conjugal problems never run the risk of being analyzed for their own sake. From this point of view the film is crucial.
There is a sequence where the young wife returns home with the shopping and flops down on the bed, exhausted. Then she pulls up her skirt, pulls down her underpants and starts to caress herself. Her husband comes home, walks into the bedroom, kisses her, watches her for a moment and then suggests that they caress one another. He starts to kiss and fondle her, but she tells him to go away and to shut the door behind him.
It is an apparently banal sequence, but central to the film: it asserts the right of women to use their bodies as they like for their own pleasure, and not just to put them at a man’s disposal. Beyond this, Godard is calling for women to have the right to take the initiative and not to subordinate themselves to the man’s view of woman or of how women should fight to liberate themselves to the man’s view of woman or of how women should fight to liberate themselves. These notions are presented in a variety of ways and situations:
1) The couple are trying to get the washing machine to work, and the man gives instructions: no response from the machine. Then the wife tries and the machine works. Thus the concept of the man’s technical know-how and “inevitable” superiority over the woman is undermined.
2) The man asks his wife to come to bed as he wants to make love. She refuses. He caresses her, she fails to respond. He gets angry, slaps her head and stalks out. She remains where she is. Once again, the woman disposes herself of her own body. A variation on this occurs after a quarrel: the wife puts on earphones and listens to music, deliberately ignoring her husband who wants to talk things over. Significantly, he can neither leave things be nor remain calm (as the wife wants to and does). Faced with her refusal to bow to his wishes, he becomes violent.
3) One position the couple adopt in their lovemaking is with the man on his back and the woman sitting astride him, facing away from him with her behind near his face; this, so that he can kiss her behind and see a part of her she cannot see. We have the same situation again: superiority of the man’s sexual rights, not only in deriving pleasure from his wife while giving none in return and having control over a certain part of her body, but also being able to dominate the situation by not having to expose his face to his wife’s scrutiny while indulging in his pleasure. This the concept of a shared experience, central to love and sex, disappears; only the man retains all rights. (This might explain his uncertainty in another scene where he hesitates over whether or not to kiss his wife’s genitals; they are facing one another now and Godard overlays his face looking at her with her face looking challenging at him).
4) This scene is given a more explicitly political edge than elsewhere. The wife points out that there is a part of her husband he never sees either, that only she can see: his behind. But the context is radically different: she sees it when he goes off to work in the morning, whereas she has no work and has to stay at home. Thus there is no question of sexual equality. He either appropriates her body but refuses to allow her to do the same. Or else he has the right to work, whereas her work must be done in the home.
Ultimately, he is no more working for himself than she is, although he does not have a role, a function, imposed on him the way she does. Also of interest here is that, under capitalism, the worker’s labor is appropriated by another (the capitalist) through a financial system that is kept secret from him. Thus the husband/wife relations in the above-mentioned sequence become a paradigm for the capitalist/worker relations on the labor market.
5) This kind of thinking is extended in another sequence where Godard makes a particularly effective use of two images. On the left, the older woman (the mother, who with her husband lives with the young couple) is scrubbing the floor (“typical” woman’s work). On the right, the wife gives her husband a blow job. Or at least a partial one: she is not enthusiastic. Again, she is at his sexual beck and call, just as the mother is at the man’s beck and call. The blow job is used again in the film, this time juxtaposed with a shot where the wife refuses an invitation to go to a Women’s Liberation meeting, saying she has other things to occupy her.
It is at moments like this that Godard shows the need to move outside the home into the political arena, but only when the woman has had the opportunity for self-analysis at every point. The fatal trap is for the woman to see herself as the man sees her, including within the context of the revolutionary struggle. Man plus violence equals the degradation of woman. Giving her a rifle to shoot doesn't solve the problem. For the rifle is first and foremost a male weapon, and for the woman to use one is, yet again, to subjugate herself to a male role. Godard would seem here to be criticizing the ultra-leftist position of treating men and women exactly alike. Such an attitude runs the risk of masking the differences between the sexes in the name of equality and revolution, for neither can occur without coming to terms with these differences. It is in no way a case of regressing to bourgeois individualism, but of recognizing the sexual element, something revolutionaries are often loath to do, in the name of a very limited and limiting view of “equality.” The danger of the man’s thinking he knows best is always present and is summed up by the young wife when she says that the man tells the woman what to do or, worse, she says it for him, i.e., portrays herself in his image of her.(5)
The images the cinema uses to present and reproduce events is an aspect of the film that has preoccupied Godard increasingly since 1966, finding its most forceful expression in VENT D'EST. What values and ideas are already contained in an image from the fact of its mere presence? How does a spectator piece together the various images into a “coherent” and “meaningful” discourse? Godard approaches the problems involved by trying to undermine the concept of the unique and natural image on the one hand, and of a transparent, linear narrative on the other. The latter question doesn't really arise in NUMÉRO DEUX which is a series of fragments presented as such. Or rather, the problem is there at once because the film is composed of such fragments. But Godard displaces the narrative interest here onto the meaning of each individual image, the interaction between the various images projected simultaneously onto the cinema screen, and the meaning of a present image when seen in the context of an absent image. This way the spectator is constantly obliged to perform acts of synthesis through de- and re-construction.
At no time does any image of NUMÉRO DEUX fill the entire screen. What we have is an image in the shape of a TV screen filling a part of the screen, on the left or on the right. More usually, there are two images, sometimes more. Interacting with these images are the numerous titles of the film, introduced as constant breaks in the visual discourse and commenting on the image(s). The word REPRODUCTION is thus followed by an image of the old man talking on a big screen on the left of the cinema screen, followed immediately by and coexisting temporally and spatially with the same image on a smaller screen on the right. Thus the uniqueness of “art” is demolished. Godard foregrounds the technique of reproduction central to film and TV, showing that art has far less to do with it than has a mechanical use and application of scientific knowledge. Walter Benjamin commented on this phenomenon in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:
Those who control the means of production and distribution, be it of capital or products such as film and TV programs, thus have in the case of the mechanical image unlimited possibilities for disseminating their ideology. Their “image of what the world is” becomes the sole image on the screen, and the creation of meaning becomes natural meaning. What is so important in NUMÉRO DEUX is the fact that Godard is present on the screen as the person organizing the discourse before us. There is no attempt on his part to hide himself, as the bourgeoisie must do—in its desperate attempts to mask the image as meaning produced and to pass it off as natural meaning given for all time. Thus Godard’s hands are seen manipulating equipment to change images and to add various sounds and voices. It is in his use of sound that Godard most clearly reveals his own film as an artifact capable of unlimited meanings and, consequently, of misrepresentation.
The final sequence of the film shows two separate images, with accompanying soundtrack. Godard, in the foreground, uses the equipment constantly to change the soundtrack. Then the images disappear, but the commentary continues, despite the fact that it seemed to be coming from the mouth of the wife, whose image has now vanished. Normally when we watch a film, nothing lets us know that the sound emanating from the screen is reproduced separately, that it is not natural, that other sounds can be substituted (comic effects can be obtained this way by putting in place of the sound expected—because “natural—a sound usually linked to something quite different). By foregrounding equipment and continuing in sound only, once the images have faded from their respective screens, Godard questions the entire means of presentation of sound and image. This he has already evoked in the film’s opening sequence.
The screen contains the words MON TON SON. Alongside SON (to its right) appears the word IMAGE, flashing like a neon sign. Then an image of the husband’s face (partial, then complete), replaced by one of the wife’s face (partial, then complete). What has to be grasped here is the polyvalence of TON and SON and their interaction with MON.
TON = “your,” but also “tone.”
Thus Godard underlines the presence in the text of semantic ambiguity and linguistic interference. He juxtaposes the interaction of sound and image and puts the question: whose image, for whom, by whom? That opening sequence contains not only NUMÉRO DEUX in embryo, but is a metaphor for the entire cinema.
The key question then: whose cinema? whose struggle for recognition? One sequence in particular shows the problems involved in politicizing people. Godard is manipulating the soundtrack for three images: 1) top left; 2) bottom left; 3) center right. 1) contains shots from various coming filmic attractions, including Yves Montand in Sautet’s VINCENT, FRANÇOIS, PAUL ET LES AUTRES, a Bruce Lee movie and a soft-core porn movie. 2) is a news program and 3) shows images of the young couple’s little girl copying a sentence on a blackboard. Particularly important in this sequence is the use of sound and the juxtaposition of the images of 1) and 2).
The second screen shows a leftwing May Day rally at the same time as the first shows Lee in action. One of the political personalities (all people function mainly as personalities when presented by the dominant ideology) talks of people’s desire to struggle and the commentary for the Lee movie describes it as containing the greatest modern struggle. Which struggle therefore? On the one hand the proletariat is having to fight to preserve employment and a decent standard of living against the predatory ruling class. On the other hand the filmgoer—and to a great extent therefore the working class spectator—is encouraged by the purveyors of the dominant capitalist ideology to see the fascistic thuggery of a Lee movie as the great struggle. Godard is calling on the Left to displace the struggle, to move it onto a terrain where it can take the initiative. For as long as people are led to believe that the images of the world transmitted by the films made within a purely commercial framework are the sole images, then left wing figures—be they actors like Montand or trade unionists like Georges Seguy—will forever be recuperated, forced to struggle according to the rules of capitalism. They will continue to be just so much merchandise, like the films the former plays in. Godard puts the word MARCHANDISE on the screen at this precise moment.
The child is hence also seen as merchandise, and her degradation starts at an early age. Education is seen not as a learning process, but as a mechanical reproductive process: the girl has to copy a sentence to prove she can write. NUMÉRO DEUX thus juxtaposes two reproductive systems: that of the image and that of the written word. The former is meant to be unique, but is shown to be basically a technological phenomenon; the latter is claimed to extend knowledge, but in fact stifles it. Thus Godard reverses, comments on and destroys some of the most cherished and tenacious myths of bourgeois ideology. NUMÉRO DEUX is an essential movie for forcing people into an awareness of the function of the media and the viewer’s position in a system that exploits the media for its very own special purposes. Godard encourages constant questioning by the spectator in order to avoid apathy, becoming a willing agent in one’s own degradation. As the film states at one point: “When one enjoys being out of work, then fascism takes over.”
1. The method employed by the ruling class to transpose all discussion of art onto the terrain already occupied and laid out by that class. All the weapons are thus in its hands, including what is to be discussed and how.
2. Significantly, it is now commonplace in the discourse of those who had once so strenuously opposed it; they realize how it can be turned to their advantage.
3. A film like MADE IN U.S.A. is seen as a case of a sensitive artist disintegrating before the pressures of the modern world. What is really collapsing, however, is an entire way of portraying that world that hides its contradictions and refuses to take account of how meaning is produced. Even Glauber Rocha accuses Godard of destroying the cinema, which prompted Jean Paul Fargier (formerly of Cinéthique) to refer to Rocha, rather unkindly, as a “progressive.”
4. Or rather, the concept of Mozart as “genius” etc. is seen to be irrelevant in a world that cannot allow itself the luxury of such a fetishization of art. Significantly, those who champion his music never bother to ask why someone who produced so much died in poverty, forgotten and neglected.
5. From the point of view of the portrayal of sexual relations and the analysis of a person’s right to dispose of his or her body, NUMÉRO DEUX is the ultimate reply to those who consider that porn equals liberalization and revolution. A new review has just appeared in France called L'Organe (it has connections with Screw), devoted to porn, especially in the cinema. Its editor, Michel Caen, denounces opponents of porn as counter-revolutionaries. One can assume therefore that, for him, the presence on cinema screens of fucking and fellatio and the appearance of a review devoted to them herald in a revolutionary era. How mindless and pernicious this is can be gauged from analyzing what porn films stand for. First, they give people with sexual problems the chance to find some outlet without ever going into the social reasons for the inability of people to solve their problems in any other than a make-believe fashion. Thus they mask the social forces at work that help to cause sexual frustration and are thereby reactionary and counter-revolutionary. Second, they encourage people to assist in the degradation of sex and human beings without the shame of participating actively and, at the same time, reduce people to objects for the pleasure of others. As such, they allow a fascistic state to occur, not only in the film, but in the spectator.
Porn movies are apolitical and therefore are inscribed into and reinforce the dominant ideology. This state of affairs is now being helped along by the partisans of porn having recourse to various cultural alibis to justify a posteriori a) their own fantasies; b) their desire to capitalize on the fantasies of others. The key alibi adopted by L'Organe is to call a squalid little pornographer like Damiano “the Preminger of Porn.” It is not, of course, a case of comparing the directors, but of evoking the name of a celebrated director—read: “artist”—to lend some aura of respectability to an enterprise that is totally lacking in any. At every turn therefore porn merchants reveal themselves to be the spokesmen of the bourgeoisie: they pay people to degrade themselves and one another, encourage other people to pay to see this degradation, and purvey all the tenets of the dominant concept of “art” as an excuse. In other words, they are capitalist and counter-revolutionary to the core.
In France we can now see DEEP THROAT, DEVIL IN MISS JONES and a French film like EXHIBITION, which is honest in that it reveals its makers and voyeurs and, by extension, the audience too. In August we saw an entire festival of porn. The liberalization of censorship is not an accident: it fits in perfectly with Giscard’s desperate attempts to pass himself off as a progressive.
Whereas the authoritarian right wing views of de Gaulle and, especially, Pompidou were manifest all the time (police everywhere), Giscard has removed the “forces of law and order” from sight. They are now waiting in the background instead, and readers may like to know that Franco sends his police to France to be trained in riot-control. As people continue to believe in a relaxing of control, LE GAI SAVOIR stays banned.