Heady, disorienting, and above all progressive—artistically, politically, socially—the late Sixties work of Jean-Luc Godard is known more by reputation than by first-hand appreciation. Seeing such rarely screened films as Le Gai savoir (1969) and Un Film comme les autres (1968) at Film Forum’s “Godard’s 60s” retrospective reaffirms why that is the case. Though wildly different in concept, content, and execution, both films are nevertheless supremely challenging affairs. While Un Film is aggressively distanced, verging on viewer-repellent (apparently some of Film Forum’s flabbergasted ticket buyers, echoing the film’s notorious New York Film Festival premiere thirty years prior, sought a refund), Le Gai savoir, though cheeky and lovely to look at, is non-narrative pastiche, reveling in Brechtian stiff-arms and dog-rousing sonic whistles. Both films seek a new language for film and for society in the months after May ’68, and as such both succeeded in offering a wholly fresh, if frequently inscrutable discourse. That audiences were (and are) bound to disengage from that discourse would seem to reveal the folly of Godard’s revolutionary project, but seeing these films out of the context of ’68—as hard as that is with such historically located texts—it’s apparent that failure was part of the philosophical expectation.
Built into Le Gai savoir and Un Film comme les autres is an acknowledgment of the impossibility their ambitions. Even as Godard pushes envelopes and audiences alike, he’s too smart not to consider the limitations of his form and discourse, too savvy to presume that words or images can well communicate the scope of his ideas, too self-critical to presume that propaganda—yes, even his own—will truly reach or persuade the masses. He’s too realistic to be idealistic, even about his own impassioned ideals.
Un Film comme les autres is indeed “like the others” in that there are moving pictures edited together and accompanied by sound, but otherwise the film strives to separate the viewer from any further familiarity with cinema. Several young people sit in a circle within tall grass near a dormitory/apartment/factory complex, their heads eliminated by the top frame of the picture so that inexpressive backs and arms and bent legs account for what’s visible. This static shot is periodically intercut with handheld documentary footage from the events of May ’68. The audio is an overdubbed translation of a conversation about those events and their aftermath, ostensibly conducted by those featured onscreen. Yet overdubbed doesn’t adequately describe the audio, which sounds like a hurried, unrehearsed recitation of a poorly translated (into English) transcript by a single, affectless voice, accompanied only by the faint ruffle of pages. Though I knew better, I still found myself looking back to the projection booth to spy our bumbling conduit, but alas he wasn’t live. Since one can’t delineate between different speakers’ recitations, it’s impossible to discern personality behind dialogue—though since we hardly see heads or mouths there wouldn’t be much to pin voices to anyway. It may seem like our monotonous monologuist is punishing us for not speaking French, but the low din from the original soundtrack suggests another layer of refusal—conversant voices are processed through a reverberating electronic filter, flattening all to a clamorous sameness. Though the conversation’s thus nearly impossible to follow, it should be noted that it’s conducted during the summer of ’68, deals with the aftermath of May, and considers ways forward for students and workers who participated in the general strike. About 45 minutes into the film, a title card announces the end of part one. With part two, the conversation continues, but features the same footage in the same sequence as part one, except this time the picture is ever-so-slightly out of focus. After another 45 minutes, the film ends.
Picture cedes ground to audio, conversation is reduced to recitation, recitation is foiled by imprecision, and an overwhelming amount of complex talk is heard as a maddening jumble. Expecting a down-and-dirty didactic trip to the summer of ’68, we’re left to stare at the flower patterns of a woman’s dress, watch a wavering blade of grass (later dearly missed in the second half’s blur), wonder at the context for dramatic documentary clips, and laugh at the absurdity of a messenger so thoroughly obscuring the message as to make it null and void. From an artist so thoroughly engaged in the politics of that time, the conveyance of that void is startling, and haunted me long after Un Film comme les autres ran its devious course.
As a friend said upon exiting the screening of Le Gai savoir directly before mine, compared to Un Film comme les autres, Gai is like a bowl of candy. Fashioned as an audiovisual primer for a society relearning how to see, hear, and make sense of the world, it features Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto as Beckettian figures on a black Brechtian soundstage, good-humoredly playacting a series of theoretically and dialectically motivated vignettes. They talk and pose, sing and shout, embrace and bicker, and perform slapstick representations of “Fascist Film,” “Funny Film,” and “Mozart Experimental Film.” At one point they play a deceptive game of word-association with a little boy and then an old, bedraggled man, while they themselves are constantly pestered and prodded by an offscreen voice (Godard himself, reprising his trademark distorted basso electro-god) who lays out a clearer—and drier—agenda. There are punny intertitles handwritten onto magazine advertisements and occasional intercuttings of Parisian street-scene documentary footage.
Ostensibly meant for French television, Le Gai savoir is an engaging assault of ideas, conceits, jokes, and propaganda tossed from one black box to another, deconstructing all that passes by while scrambling to find new sounds, signifiers, and meaning for a society primed to go back to zero and start anew. Godard’s pedantic basso inevitably elicits whispers of didacticism, but I’m yet again struck by how willfully ineffective the film serves as such. For how can a film be didactic if it’s impossible to fully discern from one moment to the next what’s being expressed? The film is constantly pulling us out of the familiar, overlaying sound to distraction, splicing up speeches and statements to create banal fragments, and simply providing too much—and too complex—information and stimulation for a viewer of even the highest cultural/political literacy to comprehend. As film, and furthermore as one-off television, one can’t possibly consciously absorb it all. For all its language, the film’s pointedly disjointed formality—like a zippy Sixties variety show further fractured to infinity—is paramount here, demanding neither adherence nor cooperation, just sharpened senses and a healthy tolerance for the indiscernible and unknowable. As expressed by Berto’s final reel lament that the film has been too “vague,” perhaps even a failure, frustration is of the very fabric of the project, while tolerance, then as ever, is hopelessly self-selective.