by Robert Stam
Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 1, 5-7
The New York Times called Alain Tanner’s LA SALAMANDRE “a dangerously appealing movie.” Decoding the Times notion of “dangerous” to really mean “radical,” “subversive,” we have in the Times formula a concise account of the appeal not only of LA SALAMANDRE but also of Tanner’s latest film, JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000. Charming and appealing, JONAH is also radical, subversive, highly politicized—a combination to which we are not accustomed. Beneath its deceptively soft end lyrical surface lies a serious fun which deserves, despite some flaws, our enthusiastic support.
JONAH tells the story of eight people in today’s Switzerland trying, in diverse ways, to free themselves from the institutional and societal chains that oppress them. Mathieu is a typesetter and union militant who has just lost his job. Mathilde works in a factory end looks forward to having a baby, the Jonah of the title. While searching for a new job. Mathieu encounters Marguerite and Marcel, two produce gardeners. They hire him to collect the manure they use as fertilizer. Taken together, Marcel and Marguerite love the entire animate world. He discourses eloquently on the unfathomable mystery of animals and the horrors of imminent ecological disaster, while her obsession is with organic farming.
Max, meanwhile, is a disillusioned Trotskyist and gambler currently working as a proofreader. Although he has more or less relinquished political activity in despair, he does take action by disseminating information concerning an impending lend speculation swindle. He warns the potential victims, among whom are Marguerite and Marcel. Max meets Madeleine, a secretary by vocation and heretical tantric mystic by avocation. An employee of the bank that is perpetrating the swindle, she consents to help Max thwart it by securing the necessary documents.
Marco is a neighbor to Marguerite and Marcel. A dreamer and high school history teacher, a twentieth century descendent of philosophes like Rousseau and Voltaire, he lectures on sausages and the “folds of time.” He falls in love with Marie, a supermarket cashier who lived in France next door to a retired railroad engineer, Charles. As a cashier she knowingly undercharges her elderly customers. She is finally jailed for this generosity which the managers find suspect. Marco, for his part, in fired, presumably for his unorthodox teaching methods, but really for daring suggest that the capitalist system is not eternal end could conceivably collapse.
JONAH explores the interwoven lives of these characters. It situates them within the social and economic landscape. We see the kind of work they do and witness their struggle to live a more human life in the face of bourgeois alienation. The eight central figures are simultaneously integrated into society, if only by the work they perform, and live outside of it. They are both in the mainstream end on the margins. Earning their daily bread in the capitalist kingdom of means, they have their eyes affixed and their ears attuned to a distant kingdom of ends. While few of them are explicitly leftist, their words and deeds suggest conscious and unconscious opposition to the system, an opposition which takes diverse forms—Mathieu’s union militancy, Marco’s anti-authoritarian pedagogy, Marie’s cash register sabotage, Madeleine’s “transgressions,” Marguerite and Marcel’s organic resistance to the land-grabbers, Mathieu’s alternative school. The film implicitly, perhaps too implicitly, suggests a possible alliance between the forces of opposition embodied by these characters and all those oppressed, excluded, or marginalized by the capitalist system: the unemployed, the old treated like so much excess baggage, the Third World workers in their squalid bidonvilles.
This summary of the implicit political strategy of the film brings up two major flaws. First, it is inadvertently sexist. Second, it passes over the exploitation of Third World workers in Switzerland in an offensively cursory way. First, the sexism. The women in JONAH are pallid stereotypes (Mathilda the earth mother. Madeleine the spacey mystic, Marguerite the mysterious), while the men are multi-dimensional and more politically assertive. A disproportionate number of the good political lines go to Mathieu, Max and Marco. The women are granted no feminist consciousness and little left consciousness. Tanner has Marie, furthermore, cater to Marco’s sexual fantasies, while hers go unspecified and presumably unfulfilled.
One of the women—Marguerite—is strong. She drives tractors, hires and fires, balances the books. But what Tanner gives her in strength, he takes away in likeability, for Marguerite is in many ways the least sympathetic of the characters. Woman in JONAH are too often, and too stereotypically, associated with Nature (“All is mystery in nature,” Marcel says of Marguerite’s peccadilloes) or Nurture (Mathilde’s breastfeeding and waiting to be “filled up” with babies). Women are not shown as potential agents of revolutionary change; they are not even revealed to be oppressed ß.
Tanner compounds the problem by having Marguerite rent out her sexual favors to immigrant workers at twenty francs a throw. Why, one wonders, have her initiate these relations, and why with immigrant workers? Here Tanner takes two oppressed groups—women and Third World workers in Europe—and places them, for reasons that are not at all clear, in relations of mutual exploitation. Still shots show us the workers’ quarters papered over with photographs of nude women. Such an association runs the danger of confirming racist attitudes (the immigrant workers just want to sleep with “our” women) while it obscures the oppression of these workers. It is they, after all, who are the most brutally exploited victims of Swiss capitalism, and it is thanks to them that most Swiss people can live in relative comfort.
In his other films, Tanner lampoons Swiss xenophobia.(Witness the bitingly satiric sequence in LA SALAMANDRE where Paul, costumed as an Arab, elicits racist slurs.) And Tanner’s co-writer John Berger has written eloquently of their situation. Here, however, the treatment is too perfunctory and too ambiguous. JONAH thus missed an opportunity to highlight the links between the oppression of foreign workers and the other kinds of oppression shown in the film. Mathieu Points out that capitalism needs unemployment, but he overlooks the central importance of the immigrant workers within this process. JONAH is not meant, admittedly, to be a realistic tableau of Swiss society. In this case, Tanner might have better ignored the guest workers completely, rather than give then an enigmatical once-over lightly.
Barring these flaws, however, JONAH offers an intelligent analysis, in the form of a distanced fable, of life in the afterwash of the militant 60s. While Max, the burnt-out politico, argues that the 60s have left a legacy only of vulgarized mysticism, macrobiotic foods, and casual sex, Tanner the director regards the present with poised and guarded optimism. For him the 60s are less an irretrievable golden age than a lesson for the future, the springboard for new leap forward. In keeping with this optimism, the film moves, overall, from anonymity and isolation to community. As chance encounters burgeon into embryonic forms of solidarity, the characters begin to generate strong feelings of commonality. The child Jonah, one feels, is mothered and fathered by the collectivity; and he symbolically embodies their hopes and aspirations.
At the same time, JONAH never cultivates the counter-culture fantasy that capitalist society can be easily and painlessly “greened” by a modest planting of Consciousness III. The repressive arsenal of that society is far too evident throughout the file. Marie is jailed. Marco and Mathieu are fired. Documentary footage of the Swiss army put-down of unemployment demonstrations reminds um that peaceful, neutral Switzerland has its own heritage of repression. Where political and legal repression fail, economic pressure takes its toll. We spend cost of our energy trying to survive, Mathieu points put, and some of us, with the little energy left over, try to fight the system.
Nor does Tanner hide the conflicts that rend the fragile community of JONAH. The group is divided by philosophical differences (Madeleine would dissolve all contradiction in Yin-Yang complementarity; Max objects that the capital-labor contradiction is irreconcilable) and by tactical disputes (alternative versus public schools). Rather than obscure these tensions, the film makes of them a potential source of strength. While forming a kind of community, the members of the group criticize each other. Marguerite (apparently voicing Tanner’s own view on alternative schools) insists, against Mathieu, that the children attend public schools. Mathieu scolds Marco for not safeguarding his teaching job as a base for political work. Madeleine mocks Max’s Protestant moralizing and premature despair. (“Men want history to go as fast as life. It doesn't work that way.”). In turn, he censures her naiveté concerning class struggle. But it is in this very process of mutual and caring criticism that a kind of provisory truth emerges.
JONAH might be seen as a Rousseauist exercise in back-to-nature nostalgia, a communalist fantasy which nourishes the pipe-dream of small collectivist groups within the larger capitalist society, a kind of 70s OUR DAILY BREAD. In fact, however, the film is a critique of such solutions. The land speculators, we may assume, will eventually devour the produce farm. And their symbolic guerilla-theater victory over the banker (unseating him and putting a pig in his place) is clearly marked as a sepia fantasy.
Mathieu ultimately goes back to work and struggle. His final words, addressed to Jonah and to us, anticipate the day when Jonah will be involved in strike committees, until the police fire on thousands of people like him. And it is Mathieu the activist worker, rather than Max the pessimist or Marco the philosopher, who is the key political figure in the film. It is his comments on class struggle that “frame” the film. Fired for militancy at the outset of the film, he returns to militancy at the end.
But the fundamental project of JONAH is not so much to propose a fictive model for revolution as it is to politicize the desires and perceptions of a mans public. The goal is to show that capitalist oppression is systematic. In our society, says Mathieu, “the better is systematically put aside.” JONAH might be dismissed as a sentimental endorsement of vague and personal longings for a better life, if it did not lay such heavy stress on the systematic nature of capitalist oppression and on the ubiquity of class struggle. At the end of LA SALAMANDRE, Paul asks Rosemonde who her enemies are. She begins by hesitatingly citing those who have oppressed her most directly—her militaristic uncle, her foreman at the sausage factory, the manager of the shoe store. Them, as if undergoing a shock of recognition, she begins to spiel off the real oppressors behind the local oppressors: the army, the owners of the sausage factory, the president of the Republic. Class struggle, it is suggested, pervades every area of life in capitalist society.
The real strategy of JONAH, however, has less to do with a proposed political strategy than with a proposed way of making political files. JONAH was not made for leftists; it was made for a mass audience. It tries to appeal to what is revolutionary in most people: in all those, at least, who have no direct stake in oppression. JONAH is not, however, a sugar-coated pill, i.e. a file which gives the spectator some of the habitual satisfactions in order to make her/him swallow a left message. It is, rather, a film which maintains contact with the spectator, by its charm, by its humor, and by a certain realism, but whose process of construction favors a critical, distanced, spectatorial attitude.
Rather than organize itself as a linear story, JONAH orchestrates a dialectical music of ideas. The leitmotifs of Time, Nature, Work, and Education are sounded early and keep coming back. Marco’s inaugural lecture to him class initiates many of the central themes. Although Pauline Keel cells it “woozy” and “impenetrable,” his lecture is in fact quite coherent. Using blood sausages (his father is a butcher) and a metronome (his mother sang operetta) as visual aide, Marco offers a disquisition on the historical evolution of the notion of time. While agricultural societies were bound to the cycles and rhythms of the seasons, he says, capitalism brought with it the notion of time as a superhighway, a linear progression. Time became Progress. But it was the “winners” of history—the conquerors—who first formulated the idea of Progress.
Then Marco imagistically evokes the historical horrors of capitalist expansion into what we now call the Third World. The capitalists, turned into corkscrews, opened up the bottles of “inferior” cultures and drank then to the dregs. (One need only think of the Spanish plundering Inca silver or the British taking African ivory.) Their thirst satisfied, they broke the bottles. But the winners of history, and here we see a veiled allusion to the liberation struggles of the Third World, fear that this past might come back to haunt them. While believing in the straight and inexorable superhighway of Progress, they fear the savages displaced by its construction (one visualizes the Transamazonic Highway, where the image literally applies).
Marco then links this idea of the past, weighing like a nightmare on the capitalist brain, with the students’ personal histories. They too are an evolving creation of their own past. They are now reading the messages stored in their own chromosomes, just as Marco himself is the synthesis, in some sense, of his father (the sausage) and his mother (the metronome). Marco ends the class by beating out a series of rhythms. Opposition creates time, just as class struggle motivates history. Marco’s lecture, far from being “woozy,” constitutes a lyrical version of the dialectic wrapped in a philosophical meditation and expressed in images.
JONAH as a whole elaborates the leitmotifs of Marco’s lecture. The banker Vendeouvres (etymologically “seller of works” and phonetically “wind of works”) and his agents, as the provisionary winners of history, speak the language of Progress and Domination:
Social Darwinists, they fancy themselves strong by intrinsic right. The produce farmers and their allies, on the other hand, are Europe’s indigenous “savages” who besiege and harass the agents of capitalist Progress. When the bank’s agent visits Marguerite and Marcel in order to soften them up for an eventual land takeover, one of the farmhands—described by Marguerite as a “bit savage”—threatens to cannibalize him. And Jonah, like the Emile of the file’s closing Rousseau quotation, will be a new kind of savage: “a savage made to live in the cities.”
Marco’s lecture, in which apparent discontinuities mask real continuities, microcosmically typifies the film’s methods, for JONAH as a whole mocks the temporal strategies—the linear progression—of conventional fiction films. The opening sequences alert you to JONAH’s unorthodox narrative procedures. After the credits. we see a man (Max) enter a smoke shop and ask for cigarettes. He pays 1 Franc 90 for them and grumbles about inflation. An anachronistic intertitle—The Next Afternoon—is followed by a shot of a statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. An off-screen voice (if a mute statue can be said to be “off”) recites the celebrated passage from Rousseau’s Social Contract, in which the philosopher asserts that most people live and die in slavery:
Tanner incongruously couples two irreconcilable kinds of temporality—the temporality of contemporary Geneva and the temporality of a Rousseau quotation—with the absurd intertitle, The Next Afternoon. It is as meaningless to speak of “the day before a Rousseau quotation” as it is to imply, as occurs in Dali-Buñuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU: “eight years after once upon a time.” In both cases, the intertitles highlight the artificiality of cinematic time. Historical time and narrative time are as arbitrary in their slicing up as the links of a sausage—and bid us pay attention to something other than a linear story.
The opening sequences also introduce two major theses of the film: First is inflation. (The same cigarettes cost 2 Francs 30 by the end of the film.) Second is the oppressive nature of social convention. But rather than regard these two subjects—inflation and oppressive conventions—as separate, JONAH shows their interconnection by exposing the economic dimension of social oppression. Providing audio-visual object lessons in Marxist concepts, the film repeatedly underscores the alienation of labor in capitalist society. They're eating us up, Mathieu tells Mathilde. They suck surplus value out of us, and when they're finished, they throw us in the street. In capitalist society, people sell their labor. “I am labor,” says Mathieu, “and therefore for rent.”
But JONAH not only exposes alienation; it also offers a structural critique of the capitalist system. Marco, ashamed of his inability to explain inflation to his students, has Mathieu offer a guest lecture on the subject. Mathieu makes a powerfully lucid analysis of the crises and contradictions within capitalism. The capitalist system, he argues, citing the stage-managed oil crisis as an example, simultaneously requires crises and is threatened by them. It needs unemployment to maintain the working class in a state of fear and pitted one against the other. But at the same time, unemployment is dangerous, potentially leading to despair. depression, war.
Bourgeois thought compartmentalizes experiences into neatly ordered and immaculately separated categories—Economics, Politics, Education, Ecology -with the result that the sense of social totality is lost. Such intellectual borders, frontiers, and conventions also oppress us. Marco, paraphrasing the French leftist rallying cry for the German-born student leader Cohn-Bendit (“We are all German Jews”) shouts: “We are all frontier cases.” JONAH collapses categories and violates frontiers, passing by then as if they did not exist.
Marie’s situation, in this sense, is emblematic of the oppressive nature of borders. She works in Switzerland but is required by citizenship law to sleep in France. Here again segmentations, geographical in this case, are shown to be unnatural. But intellectual borders oppress as well, for example the border that separates economics and sexuality. Marie tells Marco’s students that she occasionally hitchhikes to work in order to save money, but that she prefers not to because the men who pick her up harass her sexually. When a student interjects “some men,” Marie insists that it involves men generally, that it is systematic. Conclusion: Economic necessity forces Marie to hitchhike; (male) capitalist power oppresses her in both the sexual and the economic realms. Men are likely to bother her, not because of some natural instinct, but because the sexual distribution of power favors such abuses.
JONAH displays an almost Melvillean awareness of the ecological interconnectedness of all phenomena. “O Nature, and O soul of man,” Melville wrote in his whale story, “how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies!” JONAH unearths the linked analogies of which Melville speaks. Marco, contemplating a halved cabbage, notes its resemblance to the twin lobes of the brain. Like Melville, Tanner creates a kind of metaphysical poetry, whereby dissimilar entities are joined and occult resemblances suggested. Just as Moby Dick is supernatural and earthy, metaphysical and physical, full of Plato as well as whale sperm, so JONAH is whimsically fantastic and rooted in the Swiss earth, flush with vegetables, onions, manure. Whales, furthermore, are frequently mentioned in the film. Human beings kill them for lipstick, Marcel observes, while the shrimp that whales usually eat go uneaten, so that people, left with nothing but shrimp to net, will eventually die of indigestion. Whales are not only material for lipstick, they are communicators (sending out coded messages) and musicians (Mathieu’s pupils sing along with whale cries). And Jonah, like his Biblical namesake, is to be vomited up by his whale, the twentieth century. (1)
While audaciously “collapsing” conventionally separated realms, JONAH also overturns implicitly respected hierarchies: adults over children, work over play, “high” art over “low” art. In an inversion of roles ,it is Mathieu who asks the children a series of “infantile” questions:
Adults, the film implies, should never stop asking the irrepressible “why” questions that children ask. The film also shows that work can be frivolous and play serious. The work of the produce farm is often a kind of play (“I'm the king of shit,” says Mathieu atop a mountain of manure), as is work in the classroom. Art, meanwhile, is both work and play.
JONAH demystifies high art. Rather than something special and exalted, frozen into monuments and artifacts, art is shown to form part of the process of everyday life. JONAH locates art everywhere—in a casual pun, a stylized gesture, an eloquent statement, a well-sung song. In a more politicized version of the surrealist vision of everyone’s artistic potentialities, the film is peopled by artists of the everyday. Mathieu (borrowing from Pablo Neruda) sings the democratic virtues of the onion. Marcel photographs animals in order to draw them afterward. Marguerite hawks her vegetables with poems. Mathilde poetizes her pregnancy. Marie and Charles reenact memories in song, dance, and sketch. Life in JONAH constantly transforms itself into creative, self-determining play. Everything—a tick, a whale, a name, a word—yields a pretext for a story or song. And much of the art is collective, consisting of group improvisations.
One sequence in which the children collectively paint a mural, using the adults as models, demonstrates both the collaborative nature of art and the absurdity of the high art/low art distinction. The mural simultaneously resembles a medieval fresco in which Max, the puritanical militant, is crucified like Christ, and a pop tableau of contemporary life. Emblematic of the film as a whole, the mural sequence shows children and adults collaborating on a work of art which is neither high nor low, which is at once representational (the children outline the adult bodies against the wall) and stylized, just as JONAH itself is representational and stylized, realistic and fantastic. The sequence is visual, verbal, and musical (in the mock-dirge that the adults improvise). Its text, to switch to semiological language, is sensorially composite, mobilizing diverse matters of expression, like JONAH itself. The film’s final freeze frame catches Jonah, revolutionary and cineaste of the future, chalking over the brightly colored mural. Individual works of art are ephemeral and time-bound, but the process of art goes on.
If JONAH demystifies art, it also demystifies history. Rather than being grand and remote, the exclusive province of emperors and generals, history is shown to be the very stuff of our everyday life. Charles is surprised that Marco is interested in his old train stories. “Of course,” replies Marco, “I'm a history teacher.” We are history, its subjects end its objects, and we should all be, to echo TOUT VA BIEN, our own historians. (“Imperial Rome is full of arcs of triumph,” Brecht wrote in A Worker Reads History, “Who reared them up? Over whom did the Ceasers triumph?”) The film’s title, JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000, spotlights our own immersion in historical time. This period is our segment, our sausage link, as it were, of history, and we will probably share it with Jonah. Mathieu wishes Marco’s students, and indirectly the spectators, a long and happy life; he hopes they are all alive and well in the year 2000. His words are followed by a cut to the same classroom, this time in black and white, inhabited by elderly people, presumably the same students grown older. Our minds flash forward to the year 2000. Time and history are deposited in our reluctant spectatorial laps. What will we, alone and together, have accomplished in the intervening years? The film encourages us not only to understand time but to seize it and change it.
A Brechtian ode to the thrill of comprehension and the joy of learning, JONAH shows people learning throughout their lives. Children learn to draw and sing. They master Boolean algebra and mimic the cries of whales. Everyone can learn, even the very old. Marco, not accidentally, winds up teaching in a home for the elderly. Like Brecht, Tanner sees life “under the sign of” education, and JONAH, like many of Brecht’s plays (Galileo, The Mother), proliferates in classroom scenes. In many shots, we find ourselves ranged as spectator-learners behind the students on the screen. But the film is designed less to inculcate specific didactic truths than to teach people how to learn. The classroom becomes the scene of two activities frowned upon in conventional schools: thought and laughter. Not only can anything be taught in class (Methieu speaks of inflation, Marie of cashiering), but learning can take place anywhere, such as in a greenhouse school, or even in the cinema.
By positing alternative kinds of learning, JONAH exposes the oppressive class-bound mature of the school as a key ideological apparatus of the bourgeois state. The school is the institution which mediates between the playful egalitarian games of childhood and the rigidities of the social and economic structure. Administratively obliged to give grades and stimulate the competitive spirit, Marco partially outwits the system by grading the students not on their answers but on the quality of their questions. He also learns from them. They teach him, for example, the principle of reciprocity. Asked to reveal their desires, they insist that he be equally reedy to expose his own. Present day schools have little place for truth (“truth at school?” Mathieu asks skeptically) or joy or reciprocity. But JONAH evokes the potentially inexhaustible charm and ongoing delight of what Brecht called “cheerful and militant learning.”
JONAH is reminiscent, at least to this viewer, of another “school film,” Jean Vigo’s anarchist masterpiece, ZERO FOR CONDUCT. Marco’s classroom is graced with a wall poster of Chaplin, whose cakewalk the sympathetic teacher Huguet imitates in the Vigo film. In a world where school becomes a microcosm of societal oppression and hierarchy, silent comedy calls up a realm of freedom from arbitrary authority. The Tanner film even “quotes” a camera movement from ZERO FOR CONDUCT. In the Vigo film, the camera tracks around the class as the midget-principal declaims with demented fervor. The camera tracks to the back of the class, picking up the bored indifference of the students. It pauses, then retraces its path to the front. Tanner uses a similar tracking shot at two points in JONAH—during Marco’s lecture on time and Mathieu’s lecture on inflation. The shots point up a contrast, since the students look less hostile than they do in Vigo, but the shots also suggest a similarity. The oppressive situation satirized in Vigo’s film has not really changed as long as classes are structured in the same way; that is, a teacher pontificating to students arranged in rows. Interestingly, Marco’s students become progressively more active throughout the film, as authority withers away to make way for participatory learning. The student reaction to Mathieu’s lecture on the other hand, seems bored and impatient, as if Tanner were commenting on the ineffectiveness of purely didactic films.
Brecht’s theater, as Walter Benjamin paradoxically put, “advances by interruptions.” It juxtaposes autonomous scenes rather than develop a causally coherent narrative flow. JONAH, similarly, segments itself into over two-score sequences, sketches, quotations, songs. The narrative line self-consciously exhibits its own kinks and knots, the continuity disrupted not only by intertitles but also by the intrusion (twenty-one times by my count) of black-and-white footage, often ushered in by minor jazz chords heralding a shift in mode. These monochrome interludes are very diversely used; they are often suggestive and occasionally unclear. One sequence interrupts Marco’s lecture on time. Max takes a pistol, aims at his image in the mirror, and them shoots am alarm clock. Is he symbolically threatening art as a reflection, shattering temporal continuity in the cinema,. exploding the continuum of bourgeois history, taking armed revolt against the arbitrary segmentations of clock-time in Switzerland, the manufacturing home of watches end cuckoo clocks?
All the black-white sequences have some oblique or fantastic relation to the real posited by the story. They realize a wish or name a fear. Some are brief excursions into life-as-it-should-be rather than as it is. Mathieu gets to look at the books of his employer. The adults get to play in the mud like so many happy porcine children. Marguerite gets to confront her banker-enemy with his ignoble double, a pig. The cold impersonality of a TV newscaster melts into relaxed gestures and warm personal words addressed to Mathilde seated before her set. Another fantasy sequence is only retroactively clarified. When Madeleine speaks of tantric rites involving naked bodies and impure food, we retroactively comprehend her fantasy-vision of her office-mates participating in such rites. Still other sequences constitute historical flashbacks, including the 1932 army occupation of Geneva. There are also fictional flash-forwards, as when Mathieu wishes Marco’s students long and happy lives.
One sequence is especially striking for its political ambiguities. Max’s melancholy lament that “politics are finished” precedes shots of military parades in Moscow’s Red Square. In Makavejev’s WR, such footage slyly insinuates a link between militarism and sexual repression. Here, however, since we know Max has an elephantine memory for past political betrayals, we wonder if Tanner is not presenting a disenchanted Trotskyist’s version of why politics are finished, i.e., because of Stalinism.
In still another black-white interlude, the hitchhiking Marie is picked up by a clean-cut young man who urges her to sit in the front seat. Marie bursts into a satirical cabaret-style ditty:
Her song burlesques the tight-fisted prudence of the petit bourgeois and her final query constitutes a sarcastically indirect refusal of an implied sexual proposition: “What made you think you could fly?”
The Brechtian theory of alienation and the alienation-effect, Tanner told Cineaste (5:4), form the basis of his film language. The black-white interludes, while unevenly successful, clearly do distance and “derail” the narrative. And JONAH generally is imbued with the Brechtian aesthetic. In its episodic juxtaposition of sketches, each is conceived as a little theatrical “act,” in the fugue-like presentation of its characters and the alliterative stylization of their names, in its archaic intertitles and its still photographs. The songs that dot the narration recall the dissonant, bittersweet ballads of Kurt Weill. And the frequent discontinuity between music and image effects a typically Brechtian “separation of the elements.” The music gains a certain autonomy by being dissociated from the emotional tone of the dramatic moment. Rather than direct our emotions in the manner of psychic traffic cops, as in so many Hollywood films, the music structures and punctuates the filmic discourse.
Several sequences recall Godard as well as Brecht. Marie, home from jail, play-acts her prison experiences with Charles. When he plays a male prison mate, she objects that there were no male prisoners. Then he mimes the ritual solemnity of a priest, but she complains that his gestures are all wrong. Charles finally opts for a Shakespearean solution; he plays the role of the prison itself by clasping his hands in front of his face in order to represent a wall. Brechtian, in its minimalist approach to décor, Charles’ solution implies that one need not literally reconstitute a wall; one need only “signify” it. More importantly, the sequence (like a similar sequence in TOUT VA BIEN where the workers debate how to convey the visceral feelings associated with their everyday working lives) confronts us with the problematic narrative and aesthetic choices involved in artistic representation.
JONAH abounds in aural and visual echoes of Godard. Pendulum-like lateral tracking shots stalk the conversation of Madeleine and Max, as they did for Paul and Camille in CONTEMPT. Marie’s undercharging of customers in a metallically pastel supermarket recalls the shoplifting rampage in TOUT VA 55N. The citations of Rousseau’s Emile (Godard is also Swiss) pay homage to LE GAI SAVOIR. The playful bursting into song by decidedly nonprofessional singers evokes PIERROT LE FOU. And the recited quotations from Rousseau, Piaget, Paz and Neruda, hark back to a similar practice in virtually all Godard films.
JONAH is not, however, secondhand Godard. In many ways Tanner does quietly what Godard does more obtrusively. His self reflexive techniques, like his colors, are more muted. “You don't see the camera,” Tanner said of his own MIDDLE OF THE WORLD, “But you hear it running.” The editing in JONAH is subtly “visible.” Shots are held jest a little too long or cut just a little too abruptly. The camera movements, rather than completely autonomous, are minutely displaced. The camera moves slightly when the personages do not, anticipating or trailing behind the movement in the shots. The passages between shots are often quietly startling. An extreme long shot of Mathieu on his bicycle. for example, cuts to alternating close ups of his face and a red light.
A film, as Tanner himself has pointed out, resembles its process of production. In JONAH, one senses a playful, egalitarian, communitarian atmosphere. One is struck, furthermore, by the absence of a hierarchy of stars. None of the principals (long-jawed Mathieu, freckly Marie, saggy Max, buck-toothed Madeleine, tubby Marco) is conventionally movie-star attractive. (Pauline Kael, characteristically scouting for star material, singles out the special magic of MiouMiou.) They are not immortal kings and queens of the screen; they are actors playing terminally inept everyday people like ourselves.
Working with synchronous sound and long takes, Tanner gives his actors room to breathe and the space to interact. JONAH is structured around roughly one hundred and fifty-one shot sequences (sequences basically composed of one continuous shot) plus a sprinkling of close ups. Such sequences allow the actors to spread their wings, unlike conventional practice where an hour might pass (devoted to adjusting lighting, experimenting with set-ups) between the question of one character and the answer of another. At first glance, Tanner’s method would seem to reinforce conventional realism by avoiding the fragmentation that goes with montage. In fact, however, it has a contrary effect, precisely because spectators are accustomed to “invisible” montage and fabricated continuity. Shots which literally respect the spatial end temporal unity of the scene create, paradoxically, an effect of unreality and alienation.
Tanner extends the lessons of Godard in very personal, innovative, and in some ways more sympathetic directions. I have spoken of the film’s subversive qualities, but what about its charm? What are its strategies for winning people to a left position? It is here that the file breaks new ground. JONAH refuses, and dialectically transcends, the sterile dilemma of pure deconstruction (films which avoid narrative and render identification impossible, like LE GAI SAVOUR) versus populist melodrama like Z. Instead, JONAH explores new routes into the spectator’s mind and psyche. In words superficially addressed to the other characters, but really aimed at the spectator, Mathieu speaks of unifying the field of our desires, finding their common thread, and using them as levers. “Capitalism survives,” John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, “by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible.” Previously achieved by means of extensive deprivation, he continues,
JONAH attempts a redefinition of the desirable. Using our desires as levers, JONAH appeals to deeply rooted but socially frustrated aspirations, including the desire for intimacy, for new modes of work, for warmth, for festivity, for community, for freedom. Too many left films play on guilt or appeal purely to the intelligence. JONAH tries to think through the social logic of our desires even while it demystifies the political and ideological structures that channel our desires in oppressive directions.
It is one thing to use our desires as levers; it is another to flatter and indulge our fantasies. We on the left, after all, also have fantasies. Sitting in movie theaters in New York, San Francisco, or Boston, we like to imagine ourselves Third World, or “First World,” revolutionaries. We are tempted to ask films to stage the revolution for us. JONAH, for its part, does not encourage facile identification with idealized personages. It largely refuses the constant flow of identification via the ongoing exchange of glances by which conventional films plug us into the psychological and diegetic momentum of the story. JONAH does, unlike deconstruction films, favor a certain kind of identification, but it is not with individuals, on the one hand, or with anything as abstract as “the masses” or “the working class” on the other. Rather, we identify with the ideas of a group in struggle which is groping, like the rest of us, toward solidarity. We identify with eight characters (nine including Charles) and their children. We identify, in short, with a community of aspiration.
Deconstruction films, and deconstruction theory, performed an invaluable service by unmasking the ideology implicit in certain bourgeois forms and denouncing the potential for exploitation resulting from conventional character identification situations. The work of deconstruction, as Godard’s NUMERO DEUX amply demonstrates, is important and should go on. At the same time, however, the cinema can move beyond deconstruction into non-exploitative identification and self-critical narration. It is utterly futile to condemn stories as such. Human beings need and love stories. That is why they tell each other stories when they are awake and tell themselves dreams when they are asleep. Stories are not the enemy but alienated dreams are. It is all very fine to demystify film and denounce Hollywood escapism, but we must also determine why people go to films. People are not forced at gunpoint to submit to their own cinematic exploitation. They go gladly to the slaughter. A film like JONAH crystallizes and actualizes our desires even while it criticizes them. It follows the way pointed by Brecht: to dream, to tell stories, but at the sane time to step out of the story and criticize it. Distancing is effective, after all, only if there is something such as an emotion or a desire to be distanced. It is of no value for films (or revolutions) to be “correct” if no one is interested in participating in then.
1. JONAH also makes a cinematic whale-quotation. Jonah’s birth is prefaced by some footage of whales cavorting in the waves. One is reminded that Tanner began his film career working with Karl Reisz, whose MORGAN recurrently juxtaposes human lovemaking with animal play.