Epic theater and
by Alan Lovell
Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 49-51
Godard's later films have been considered primary examples of "open text" strategies. This strategy is committed to displacing any one level (discourse) in the art work that claims to subordinate the other levels (discourses). A central concern for the creators of "open texts" has been to remove the narrator from the traditional position of dominance. It became easy to merge the open text strategy with Epic theatre. Both strategies distance the audience and encourage it to be critical of what it witnesses.
Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's WIND FROM THE EAST represents an emblematic film for the open text strategy. Its sound track uses a number of voices. A few of these (the first and second female voices, the male voice) emerge as substantial ones, which state different political positions. Their clash seems an invitation to the spectator to join in and work out his/her own position.
What is the nature of the film's political discussion? The film poses a variety of issues throughout. In fact, it touches almost all the themes of left politics-in the late 1960s: critique of the consumer society, sexuality, violence as a form of political action, Third World cinema, the entrenched and conservative quality of the trade unions and communist parties, the threat of revisionism, the ideological power of the bourgeoisie through their control over sign systems, and anti-Americanism.
Since no film the length of WIND FROM THE EAST can deal adequately with such a large variety of issues, the level of discussion throughout the film necessarily remains superficial and generally reduces these political issues to a parade of commonplaces. Thus we hear,
This difficulty is compounded by the film's organization. On the face of it, the film seems to have an orderly, rational organization, marked by division into sections, each of which is described by a specific title: "The Strike," "The Delegate," "The Active Minorities," "The General Assembly," etc.. Increasingly through the film, the content of a section bears only a tangential relationship to its title. Matters become introduced that have no relationship to that title. The section headed "The Active Minorities," for example, focuses not on active minorities but on a number of politically objectionable people. Some of the people are real, some invented. Some of the actions they are accused of occurred, some didn't. The orderly, rational framework is a deception, masking the film's movement in terms of leaps, displacements, and changes in direction. It's surely a basic demand of the open text strategy, in that it offers the audience substantial positions to engage with.
However, I find a stronger reason for rejecting WIND FROM THE EAST as a successful "open text." The number of voices, the speed with which they speak, and the range of issues touched on make it difficult to follow any given argument. On a first viewing, a spectator with some political knowledge could sense only that at some level a position is being asserted. Further viewings, particularly if they're backed by reference to the script, would reveal that position fairly clearly and make it possible to locate where it was expressed in the film.
The film takes a radical left position, one with a Maoist coloring. It posits as overall enemies the bourgeoisie and Communist Party revisionism. A prime target is trade unions. The film sees as politically positive theoretical reflection and violence. The Second Female Voice expresses these ideas and dominates the sound track as the film progresses. It even dominates the end of the film. It remains an unchallenged voice, one of the characteristic positions of authority and closure. And the final title concludes as cheerfully as any socialist realist film.
If WIND FROM THE EAST does not provide a good example of an open text film, how does it relate to Epic theatre? First, the fiction in WIND FROM THE EAST doesn't have the substantial status it has in Brecht's plays. There is a fiction of sorts, which seems to be an Italian western, but that fiction has an attenuated, undeveloped quality. This difference is crucial. In Epic theatre the fictions provide the matter for reflection. In Godard's film, the fiction doesn't provide much substantial matter for reflection, not as much as Brecht's story of the communist agitators in THE MEASURE TAKEN or the astronomer's life in GALILEO do.
It has been argued that WIND FROM THE EAST is organized differently from Brecht's plays, that it is an essay rather than a story, that the audience is encouraged to reflect directly on ideas rather than indirectly on them through the mediation of a story and characters. But this raises again the question of the film's lack of intellectual coherence and substance.
The way titles and other forms intervene into the fiction provides another point of comparison between Godard and Brecht's strategies. Brecht's methods are relatively conservative. Principally Brecht's interventions take the form of titles which have consistent functions, like locating the time and place of the action or indicating and commenting on how it will develop. Such interventions occur at traditional breaks in the drama, between scenes and acts, for example, and provide moments of rest and distance from the fiction.
Godard's interventions are more varied. As well as titles, he uses forms like black spacing, scratched film, and solid red frames. Godard uses such interventions quite unpredictably. Consequently, they work quite differently from Brecht's interventions. Even this is misleading, since they interrupt the fiction so frequently that WIND FROM THE EAST consists almost entirely of disruptions.
Godard and Gorin's distance from Brechtian methods is just as marked at other levels of the film. Where Brecht favors slow, relaxed rhythms, Godard favors fast, urgent ones. This is especially marked on the sound track, where words are spoken so rapidly that a minimal understanding of their meaning is difficult. At the level of color, where Brecht uses secondary, neutral colors (browns, grays), Godard uses primary, affective ones (reds, blues).
WIND FROM THE EAST's basic strategy is diametrically opposed to that of Epic theatre. The film takes an aggressive approach to the audience. Through rapidity of movement at all levels of the film, disruption of traditional conventions (genre, story, character, camera movement, color), and an extravagant range of political and artistic references, the film assaults an audience, seeking to batter it into submission. Instead of distancing and openness, the film offers nearness and closure.
Most of Godard's films (made often with Jean-Pierre Gorin) made in the late 1960's and early 1970s — PRAVDA, VLADIMIR AND ROSA, and BRITISH SOUNDS — are open to similar criticisms as WIND FROM THE EAST. TOUT VA BIEN provides an exception, and deserves separate- consideration for its relationship to Brecht's ideas.
More than any of the other films, TOUT VA BIEN has a substantial fiction. This is part of its attempt to establish a different relationship with the audience. The film has a less aggressive stance, is more relaxed, and almost genial in mood. The audience isn't assaulted and is allowed to maintain a certain distance from the film. The first half of TOUT VA BIEN, the description of the strike, uses broad comic conventions plus songs and direct statement. It suggests the kind of popular, political drama that theatre artists like Erwin Piscator in Germany, Joan Littlewood in Britain, and Roger Planchon in France have worked for.
The second half establishes the film as basically operating in a traditional genre, critical social drama. A bourgeois couple is depicted. The film shows them put into a state of crisis which forces them to reconsider their relationship and their social situation. In situating the relationship socially, TOUT VA BIEN is within the genre, not outside it. The audience is implicitly invited to approve of the development of the characters. The characters' growth in self-criticism and self-awareness is undoubtedly offered in a positive way.
The interventions in TOUT VA BIEN can be seen as a way of undermining "the bourgeois couple in crisis" genre, but if they are, a difficulty arises. The fiction advocates positions that Godard wants his audience to approve of and which most of his sympathetic critics do approve of: support for strikes, criticism of the Communist Party and the unions, hostility to the consumer society, awareness of the relevance of sexuality to politics. If the fiction is undermined, are these positions undermined as well?
This interpretive difficulty arises because, like most of Godard's later films, TOUT VA BIEN comes as the product of contradictory impulses, a political one and a modernist art one. The political impulse leads towards realistic representation and/or direct statement. The modernist one leads towards a separation between art and reality, an emphasis on the conventional nature of art and the consequent freedom of the artist to manipulate/ displace these conventions. TOUT VA BIEN puts the weight on the first impulse: WIND FROM THE EAST puts it on the second. Neither avoids the contradiction.
Brecht and Godard also differ in the nature of the reflection they ask for from their audiences. Brecht asks for direct, empirical reflection, in line with his view that his plays model what the world is really like: "People needn't behave like this", or "Things don't have to be this way." Godard asks for theoretical reflection at a certain level of abstraction.
One of the issues TOUT VA BIEN provokes is its ability to generate theoretical reflection. Take the opening sequence, which shows the signing of checks for the people involved in the making of the film. The sequence establishes that large sums of money are paid to people who make films, and that stars are necessary. These are commonplaces, well known to anybody even mildly interested in the cinema. The significant question, however, deals with the relation between the film as economic product and the film as artistic product. This involves thinking about TOUT VA BIEN in terms of concepts like capitalism, base-superstructure relations, ideology. Yet a sequence which shows checks being signed will probably not provoke reflection in such conceptual terms, except by people who already use those concepts and have little need to be provoked into using them.
Films like WIND FROM THE EAST and TOUT VA BIEN have been identified as the result of a political break in Godard's career away from the apolitical cinema of the New Wave with its enthusiasm for Hollywood movies towards a Marxist cinema constructed out of an opposition to Hollywood, a Counter Cinema. The problems Godard's later films raise can be better understood if his break is seen as much more qualified and politically ambiguous than critics usually acknowledge. To achieve this understanding, it's necessary to resituate Godard within the general cultural, political position of Cahiers du Cinéma.
In summary outline, Cahiers' position can be described as the attempt to join two antithetical positions: justify their positive enthusiasm for (1) Hollywood films, and for (2) the development of the cinema as a means of direct personal expression. The antithesis lies in the way the industrial, capitalist organization of Hollywood production creates maximum difficulties for individual expression.
Cahiers solved the critical problem by effectively ignoring the production system (yet, it was the nature of this system that André Bazin called attention to in his critique of the auteur theory) and by emphasizing the concept of individual genius (the auteur). How the auteur expressed him/herself was left mysterious. Not surprisingly, Andrew Sarris, the U.S. exponent of the auteur theory, talked about "an élan of the soul" in his attempt to account for cinematic auteurism. This amounts to a schizophrenic attitude to individual expression in filmmaking. It is dramatized by Godard in LE MÉPRIS, where Fritz Lang goes serenely on making his film of the Odyssey despite having an interfering producer (Jack Palance) in the worst Hollywood tradition.
If Cahiers' enthusiasm had centered on a cinema other than Hollywood, they would have faced a less intense problem, though very few cinemas are amenable to an individualist aesthetic (for example, U.S. avant-garde would offer a better choice than Hollywood). But the enthusiasm for Hollywood wasn't accidental. Rather, that choice of preferred object of criticism derived from a larger cultural configuration, the struggle of the European intelligentsia to come to terms with mass culture and with that society, the United States, which almost seemed to be defined by the existence of mass culture.
Cahiers du Cinéma's ideas reveal the strains and confusions produced by this configuration. French film criticism in the years immediately after the Second World War inherited a vital part of Surrealism's orientation to the cinema, a sympathetic interest in the mass entertainment film. Cahiers took over this interest but not its framework, one that derived from Freudianism and an anti-art stance. For the surrealist, the mass entertainment film, less inhibited by the controls of art, was more likely to reveal the workings of the unconscious — a trait highly valued by the surrealists.
In contrast, Freudianism established no strong presence in Cahiers' positions. A reverence for art is one of the most striking features of Cahiers' critical writing. Their discussion of all aspects of the cinema is full of references and allusions to traditional art. As part of their project was to establish the cinema on a par with the traditional arts. The auteur theory was Cahiers' principal critical method for dealing with Hollywood in this way. Like the traditional arts, Hollywood supposedly had great artists. Given the historical proximity of Surrealism, Cahiers respect for art is surprising. What Cahiers lacked, in contrast to Surrealism, was a critical politics, the kind which allowed the surrealists to identify traditional art as a powerful support of the established social order. Cahiers' critical writing was apolitical, veering towards an overt rightwing politics through an admiration for individualism and violence. Bazin’s left-liberalism made an obvious exception and led to his giving the auteur theory only qualified support.
In his early days as a critic, before he became a New Wave film director, Godard provided a precise estimate of Cahiers du Cinéma's general project:
Godard's own criticism fell completely within that project. He saw art as the direct expression of individuals, and the individualism as uncompromising:
A film's interest and importance depends on its expressing culturally sanctified themes, primarily of a philosophical kind:
Inside this basic position we see Godard's tendency to ask the kind of essentialist questions that have long stultified aesthetics like those in Bazin's What Is Cinema? And we see Godard’s tendency to unquestioningly accept abstractions like "beauty." Politics is only fleetingly present in such criticism, though it's worth noting Godard's frequent references to Andre Malraux. Godard undoubtedly responds to Malraux's fascination with the intermingling of violence and art.
Even if Cahiers' general position had been a more interesting one, Godard's development of it would have been compromised by the intellectual short-windedness and restlessness evident in his writing. He introduces a substantial idea, quickly drops it, and brings up another idea. He makes constant references over a wide area of cultural and intellectual activity in his youthful critical writings, but these references never rise above the level of decoration.
If, as the articulation of an intellectual position, Godard's early film criticism cannot be taken seriously, it does have other qualities. The restlessness, puns and allusions, and shifts from one idea to another combine to give Godard's writing an abstract energy. It consistently aims at effects of ingenuity, surprise and unpredictability. These writerly effects are sought often at the expense of the ideas being developed.
Even looked at in this way, Godard's writing cannot be validated as criticism. Whatever energy it generates, reading it remains a frustrating experience. Its vices — intellectual incoherence and lack of stamina — remain vices.
His attempt to use cinema as a form of personal expression shaped Godard's early films up until PIERROT LE FOU. To construct films as substantial, crafted objects, using consequently large budgets and big crews, appeared to be the main block to personal expression. Now, instead, Godard conceived of his films as rough sketches which can be made cheaply with small crews.
The rough-sketch film, for Godard, derived from a cinema verite-influenced approach or at least exploited the same kind of cinematic effects as the practitioners of cinema verite. His approach incorporates the unsteadiness of the frame through a handheld camera; the sudden, jerky camera movement of a newsreel approach to staged action; the violent contrasts produced by the use of available light. Godard's editing accepts the problems created by this camera style — especially that shots can't be matched and smoothly joined. Fictions are constructed in a way congruent with the cinema verite approach. Narratives build on simple situations which are not filled in by detailed development or complex characterization.
This sort of filmmaking can be construed as an attack on Hollywood cinema. In fact, it was an attack on a certain kind of French cinema, the cinéma du papa, as seen in the films of Claude Autant Lara, Rene Clement, Jean Delannoy, the writers Aurenche and Bost. In fact, it affirmed a certain kind of Hollywood cinema, such as the small-scale thriller, the B-film, the productions of Monogram Studios. In making this affirmation, Godard was following the surrealists, who a generation earlier also had celebrated "naive" Hollywood films and made "crude" films like UN CHIEN ANDALOU as a protest against Art Cinema.
It's difficult for European intellectuals to reproduce Hollywood genre films, at least with any degree of conviction. Almost by definition, they remain estranged from such forms of mass art. Of those who have worked in this territory, Jean-Pierre Melville perhaps came closest to making convincing versions of the thriller gangster film. Formed in the self-consciously intellectual milieu of Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard, despite an affection for Melville's work, was unable to follow him in his efforts to create pure genre films.
Godard's early films were based on an ironic awareness of this situation. They both re-created Hollywood genre films. At the same time by devices like mixed genres, displaced conventions, overt references, his films marked a distance from the Hollywood ones. Godard clearly wanted to validate his films through a strong intellectual dimension. He was not content to express ideas through mise-en-scene in the way that he claimed Nicholas Ray did, but he gave ideas an overt presence in his films.
Paradoxically, in all Godard's films a distance is usually established from these ideas. Sometimes, as in Jean-Pierre Melville's appearance in BREATHLESS, the ideas turn out to be nonsensical. Sometimes the context leaves their status uncertain — in VIVRE SA VIE an actual philosopher appears, Brice Parain, to discuss his ideas in a fictional film with a fictional prostitute. Sometimes ideas are deliberately undercut — e.g., Roger Leenhardt's monologue in UNE FEMME MARIE is followed by the emergence of a sleepy child who gives his own absurd monologue.
It's not clear in what way Godard's early films are being offered to their audiences. In the films, there is a double distancing — from cinema as a form of popular entertainment, and from cinema as a form of intellectual statement. This double distancing effectively confesses the absence of a more positive strategy. Godard's radical uncertainty in this respect distinguishes him from his fellow Cahiers directors — Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques-Doniol Valcroze, and Eric Rohmer (Jacques Rivette is probably closest to Godard). All these directors have more confidence in cinematic strategies based on fictions, through they use fictions which draw more on traditional art cinema forms that critique bourgeois life than on Hollywood genre films.
From PIERROT LE FOU onwards, the fictions in Godard's films become increasingly attenuated. In effect, he reverses the relation between the fiction and the disruptions, so that the disruptions structure the film. This change of strategy has been taken by critics as a mark of Godard's politicization and his development of a critique of Hollywood cinema. Central to this critical account of Godard's work is the critic's identification of Hollywood cinema with a specific fictional strategy. This cinema, according to James Roy McBean, in his introduction to the script of WIND FROM THE EAST,
The argument derives from traditional suspicions about fiction, the effect of which is described in terms of lies, delusions, misleading appearances. In a modern form, such criticism has been the basis of a pervasive, half-articulated response on the part of intellectuals to mass art. It is thought that mass art’s workings are analogous to processes which produce loss of consciousness, like drug consumption. In recent film criticism, this suspicion is often cast in a psychoanalytic idiom. Film viewers are seen as remaining within the Imaginary, as defined by Jacques Lacan.
Such a critique of mass art is at best partial and politically naive; at worse, it is misleading and politically reactionary. To produce fictions offering themselves as descriptions of the real is one of Hollywood's lesser artistic strategies. To produce "unself-conscious” fictions certainly remains a dominant Hollywood strategy, and this un-self-consciousness is sometimes offered as a definition of realism. But if Hollywood films do work within this definition, usually Hollywood presents its fictions not as descriptions of the real but as precisely the opposite, as fantasies, make-believe entertainment that works from a refusal to be dominated by the real. The global success of such types of presentations can be seen, for example, in ordinary conversation, where “Hollywood" is used as a synonym for "unreality" — "pure Hollywood," or "How Errol Flynn won the war," etc.
This critique about Hollywood "realism," through its preoccupation with fiction, masks the relation films like WIND FROM THE EAST have with artistic strategies often found in Hollywood films. Certain Hollywood films seem based on an idea of viewers who can only be captured by assaulting them — through speed, shock, disruptiveness, and discontinuity. This aesthetic approach is characteristic of a sector of Hollywood cinema which includes the crime film, crazy comedy, and cartoon films — all of which Godard wrote admiringly about in his early criticism. In making films later in his career like WIND FROM THE EAST, Godard perhaps owed most to the films of Frank Tashlin. WIND FROM THE EAST might well be thought of a film which introduces "gags" into all levels of its construction.
However, it isn't self-evident that this strategy produces an art less amenable to U.S. capitalism than one based on the production of fictions as descriptions of an external reality. Its aesthetic methods celebrate qualities like aggression and dynamism, ones central to the U.S. capitalist enterprise. In a way, such tactics articulate a significant cultural configuration; Godard's political-cinematic shift proves another way of "rediscovering the U.S."
The Dziga Vertov Group is credited with the making of WIND FROM THE EAST. It's not clear this group ever amounted to more than Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. However, the homage to Vertov provides a valuable insight into Godard's later films. Why should Vertov be chosen rather than Eisenstein, Shub, Pudovkin, Kuleshov or Dovzhenko as the group's emblem?
Of all the Soviet filmmakers, Vertov is closest to Futurism, with its celebration of the modern world. Futurism approached the modern world's technological, urban character, and tried to find artistic forms appropriate to the machine structures, speed and discontinuities of this "new" world. The United States, of course, represented the epitome of this new world. Godard's films show an excitement similar to that of the Futurists about the modern world, and like them, Godard connects this excitement with the United States. In Godard's earlier films the excitement manifests itself more within the fiction: cars are prominent, with travel and mobility treated enthusiastically. In later Godard's films, this tendency manifests itself more on the level of form.
Godard, in fact, reproduces Dziga Vertov's split attitude to U.S. culture. Both reject Hollywood cinema as a cinema of illusion, yet they admire U.S. dynamism and innovativeness. Still, neither director notes the importance of both these qualities for Hollywood films.
Godard does not simply mimic Vertov's work. WIND FROM THE EAST isn't just a remake of Vertov's MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA. There are noteworthy differences in the films, which are highlighted by the directors' attitudes to cinema itself. Vertov sees cinema in the optimistic perspective of technological transformation. To him, the camera becomes representative of technology, and, in MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, it is celebrated as a marvelous toy with a magical power to transform. Godard's evident enthusiasm for cinema is compromised by his pessimistic perspective on sign systems, which can lie about the world and prevent its transformation. This pessimism produces in Godard's work a Dadaist strain, revealing an impulse to destroy cinema as well as to celebrate it.
The characters' individualism in Godard's films, their isolation, the way they relate to others critically and intellectually, has often been noted. This conception of character bears the marks of Cartesianism, though Godard's Cartesianism seems strongly marked by Existentialism. Such a perspective not only influences Godard's conception of character but the overall structuring of his fictions. At the characters' center is the individual’s critical ego trying to come to terms with an alien world lacking value and meaning. This lack of value distinguishes the modern world, and Godard sees indications that in the past the world did have value and meaning. In the modern world, violent action seems the most viable choice.
As the fictions lose their centrality in Godard's films, and as politics becomes more overt, Cartesianism becomes, if anything, more pronounced. Commentary replaces plot as the organizer of the films. These commentaries are cast in the mode of critical questioning. They offer themselves as a political version of the Cartesian strategy of systematic doubt, a refusal to accept the easy and obvious answers offered by bourgeois society. But the character of the commentary, the relentlessness of the questioning, its wideness of range, the speed and force with which it is delivered make it, difficult for an audience to respond intellectually. As it is worked out on the sound track, the strategy doesn't favor critical inquiry.
LETTER TO JANE focuses the problem. Given Jane Fonda's situation as a woman and film star, given her radicalization and her relationship as an actress with Godard and Gorin, what she represents overall demands careful examination. The film's opening acknowledges this, but the acknowledgement proves rhetorical. What Fonda represents is subjected not to critical inquiry but aggressive denunciation. One photograph becomes the subject for a number of dubious and crude assertions which often have McCarthyite overtones.
The following section of commentary is a good example of the methods in LETTER TO JANE:
A series of links is made: Jane Fonda with Henry Fonda; Henry Fonda with THE GRAPES OF WRATH and the "future fascist" John Steinbeck; via THE GRAPES OF WRATH, Henry Fonda is then linked with YOUNG MR. LINCOLN and the "future admiral of the Navy," John Ford; from Ford, there is an implicit link with John Wayne and his support for the Vietnam war. All of this is then linked to the New Deal. All the connections are flimsy ones. They allow Godard and Gorin to present U.S. history as an inevitable movement from the New Deal to Vietnam. Hollywood becomes simply identified as the ideological arm of capitalism. Politics, art, economics, ideology join together. Left and Right merge into each other. From the starting point of a single news photograph, Jane Fonda's efforts to support the North Vietnamese is made to seem an integral part of imperialism's activities.
It would be naive to be uncritical of Jane Fonda's politics, but the overall aggressiveness of LETTER TO JANE — those insistent voices on the sound track, the yoking together of so many disparate features into a radical denunciation of the world, all of which are characteristic features of Godard's later films — call to mind Roman Jakobson's judgment of Mayakovsky's poetry:
Godard has been an extremely influential figure in cinema for the cultural left for a long time now. But if the obvious roadblocks his work has run into are to be avoided by others, he needs to be displaced from the central position he has occupied.
The account of Godard that I have been challenging can be found in numerous books and articles. The most straightforward accounts of the position can be found in Peter Wollen's essay, "Counter Cinema: VENT D'EST" (Afterimage, No. 4, Autumn 1972) and in James Roy McBean's Film and Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975).
Cohn McCabe's Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics (London: BFI/Macmillan, 1980) appeared after I had written this essay. It makes a substantial enough case for Godard to deserve to be dealt with separately. However, its account does not basically differ from the one I have discussed.