While well-to-do New Yorkers on both the Upper East and the Upper West Side prepare themselves for the luxe offerings of Friday’s Opening Night Gala of The 42nd New York Film Festival, hosted at the world-famous Tavern On The Green, (where I have secretly replaced their regular coffee with Folger’s crystals), we not-so-well-to-do (in my case, anyway) industry professionals have already begun settling in this past week for the annual press screenings at the Walter Reade Theater. Today was the launch of the ‘main program’ and, after last week’s post-Toronto fatigue, my first film of the festival was a whopper, Jean-Luc Godard’s outstanding Notre Musique. While the public gets to sample Agnes Jaoui’s Look At Me as a first course, the press and industry got a mouthful right from the start.
The film, like so much of Godard’s later work, is formal in structure and theme, quoting freely from the visual history of war and carnage, while creatively employing written texts, political analysis and enough bon mots to rival an Oscar Wilde biopic (the highlight for me was a line spoken by Godard himself: “He who kills another man in defense of his ideas has not defended his ideas, but has killed a man.”) Unlike his peers in the Nouvelle Vague who have gone on to the more placid territory of romance and satire, Godard’s work remains challenging and powerful, and JLG himself has matured into the quintessential polemicist, a wise and well-reasoned voice against the casual brutality of our times.
There is little of the Vivre Se Vie JLG on display in Notre Musique; whatever cool, detached humanism remains in the man has been thoroughly routed by his outrage, not at the ‘progress’ of modern civilzation, but at the misapplication and misreading of history by those in power. Watching the film, you immediately see why Godard would take exception to Michael Moore’s filmmaking technique (as he famously did at this year’s Cannes Film Festival); it is not so much that he disagrees with Moore’s politics, but that he clearly recognizes the similarities between Moore and GW Bush– both are politicians of a sort, and therefore manipulative and artlessly literal-minded. The problem is, unlike JLG, neither man is a poet.
There are moments in Notre Musique that are truly poetic and powerful, no more so than the opening segment of the film, Hell (The film is divided into Dante’s Three Kingdoms– Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.) The opening is a roaring montage of atrocity, war, and carnage through the ages and across cinematic traditions. The images rivet your eyes to the screen and, when juxtaposed with other images (from the great Kiss Me Deadly to a lovely shot of children sledding,) Godard’s thesis, that human action and inaction bear responsibility for these atrocities, is illuminated.
From this opening, we follow Godard to a literary conference in Sarajevo, where characters from various territorial conflicts freely mingle. A Basque poet, a Palestinian writer being interviewed by a young Israeli journalist, Native Americans, and a multi-lingual Bosnian interpreter provide the crux of the drama here, but it is Godard who steals the show with his lecture on ‘The Image and The Text.’ This five minute sequence alone is worth the price of admission. After showing a photo of a bombed out Roanoke Colony during the American Civil War (an image that provides a haunting rhyme to the WTC images post 9/11/01 and powerfully illustrates American violence as self-destructive), Godard begins comparing ‘reaction shots’ across history. The singular moment of Godard, his back to the camera, holding up images of Jews arriving on an Israeli beach, and Palestinian refugees fleeing occupation by walking into the sea to ‘drown,’ provides a simple lesson in powerhouse filmmaking, one that seems almost directed at filmmakers like Moore– when you allow the cinema to teach you to see, the images speak for themselves. Atrocities rhyme without comment. Understanding becomes poetic recognition.
The final sequence involves the afterlife of a young filmmaker named Olga who takes an Israeli movie theater hostage and threatens to blow herself up. In her quest to find one person willing to stand up with her against the power of the state, Olga chooses a cinema (…only in a Godard film.) Of course, she is left alone, because who in the cinema will stand and cast his lot with the righteous? Olga’s fate is to spend eternity in Heaven, a place that somewhat resembles a defanged version of the hippie commune in Godard’s own Weekend, only this paradise is defended by US Marines (who, to me anyway, look like actors ready for an audition to star in On The Town, but I can let that one slide.) The final look on Olga’s face underscores her lack of surprise; in a previous discussion about suicide, she said that “Only when life on earth and the afterlife are united in our experience can we be free.” It appears that Olga was right. The Americans even control paradise.
It will be difficult to find a more powerful indictment of the abuse of power anywhere, and Wellspring is to be given credit for distributing a great and difficult film this November. In a perfect world, John Kerry and George Bush would be interested in sitting and watching this film before contemplating the nature of American power. That, I imagine, they would never even think of it says something about the state of the arts in American culture. That is, there is no relationship at all between the ‘state’ and the ‘arts’. In spite of the willfull blindness of the politicos and the indifference of the culture, Godard has made an impassioned plea for sanity, feeling, and humanism that is both a sigh of recognition and a powerful statement by an artist who demands, and deserves, to be heard.