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Godard’s 60s: Sympathy for the Devil

Godard's 60s: Sympathy for the Devil

One helluva cock-tease, Godard’s dance with the pop cultural zeitgeist famously failed to deliver a completed version of the title track (corrected by an unapproved end scene overlay), dedicating as much screen time to oddball agitprop dioramas as it does to Mick and Keith. Godard’s preferred title, One Plus One, more honestly reflects the provocative equivalency of his project, and anyone actually paying attention to what he’d been doing up to and during the period can’t have expected a sober, unproblematized documentary recording. Furthermore, this was 1968, and there was simply too much going on outside to spend an entire film stuck inside a recording studio.

The dramatic tableaux that interrupt the studio documentation are similar in their cheeky audacity to set pieces from Weekend and La Chinoise, and establish a decidedly un-Stones-like (but very Godardian) atonality. But though this back and forth between the Stones and various anarchic skits has its appeal (as does the film’s top-quality color-stock sugar high), it is Godard’s subtle deconstruction of the supposed straight-up side of the equation that truly resonates. For though the camera is in studio and recording as the song comes together, it’s not necessarily trained on the Stones.

Cluttered with equipment for both music and film recording and artificially catacombed by rolling dividers, the studio would seem an unlikely space for a tracking shot. Yet that shooting strategy, dominant throughout the film as it unites interior and exterior, documentary and fiction, process and provocation, effectively democratizes a space primed for star-making and gazing. In the early going, the Stones seem just as primed, with Mick Jagger mugging for the fly-on-the-wall camera like a wannabe Belmondo, and Keith Richards shambling with a bit more shoulder-shruggery. But at the most photogenic moment of the sessions, with the whole band and assorted gal pals gathered round the mike for song-long background vocals, the camera tracks around the perimeter of the room, toward the singers and then away, passing behind dividers and dwelling on technicians, crew, and workmen whose matter-of-fact disengagement contrasts sharply from the dandily dressed rock stars shouting falsetto woo-woos across the room. Privy now to both sides, and with each come upon so even-handedly, it’s suddenly absurd to see one without considering the other, to not anticipate something more beyond the moving frame. No matter the subject or the star, the camera (and by extension we) privileges whatever it sees and seeks.

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