By June 18, 2011 Read More →

Swimming with Jean-Luc Godard

My friend Andy gave me a call last night and asked if I wanted join him downtown at the Waverly to take in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2010 movie, “Film Socialisme.”

I hadn’t seen Andy in a while, hadn’t even been out to the movies in a while.

So I took him up on the offer.

The Waverly had been one of the central icons of Greenwich Village as a showcase for foreign films and retrospectives back in the day when the neighborhood was bohemian and artsy.

But as the Village became both more gentrified and more honky-tonk, the demand for the kind of films the Waverly was known for simply shriveled up. The legendary theater shut its doors in 2001, only to be reborn in 2005 as the IFC Center, where it once again presents a wide selection out-of-the-mainstream movies.

It’s also been subdivided from a single theater into a number of mini-theaters, a few of which hold just about 30 viewers.

At about 10 pm, Andy and took our seats in one of these tiny showcases.  I was immediately struck by the intimacy of the surroundings.  The scale of the theater made it feel like both a public and a private place at the same time, an interesting context in which to view “Film Socialisme.”

I was excited when the lights grew dim.

Now, although I do enjoy foreign films, I wouldn’t call myself a big fan, especially of French cinema.  Sure, I can get into the slow-paced moodiness that seems to characterize so many films made outside of the U.S., but I can also find it annoying and pretentious.

Having read and heard absolutely nothing about “Film Socialisme” before Andy called me, I didn’t quite know what to expect.   As a film from one of the world’s great avant-gardistses, I figured it would probably be interesting in concept but boring in execution.  Something you’d rather talk about than actually watch.

At first my expectations were confirmed.

From the the very opening, you have little idea of what is going on ‘Film Socialisme.”  From the outset you’re presented with what seems like an incoherent assemblage of vignettes and historical illusions in a melange of mixed-media.  There’s “live action” which hints at some kind of storyline or trajectory.  Intercut are what looks like camera-phone shots, along with bits of text and grainy historical footage.

jean-luc godard

Jean Luc Godard

The “characters,” (if you can call them that) speak to one another in a mixture of French and German, when they are not staring existentially into space.  The movie has subtitles, which you think would help its comprehensibility, but Godard has chosen to write them in a cryptic pidgin-language he calls “Navajo.”

(I might add that a knowledge of French and German is of little help. Years ago I lived in both countries and understand the languages, but what was being said was little more intelligible than the enigmatic gibberish that appeared irregularly at the bottom of the screen.)

As a backdrop to it all,  “Film Socialisme” offers a jumbled sound scape of voices, musical snippets and sound effects.

You know, there comes a moment in a film like this when you realize what you’re in for.  After about five or six minutes of trying to make sense out of what I was watching, I came to the conclusion that:

This is going to be it.  It’s not going to change.

I started squirming in my seat.  I fidgeted.  I looked around at the other viewers.

Were they getting this?

But after another 10 minutes of so of discomfort, my attitude changed.  Out of respect for Andy, I wasn’t going to walk out.  (He might have been thinking the same thing in respect for me.)   So, recognizing that I was trapped, so to speak, I began to accept, or try to accept, what I was seeing.

Okay, it’s not a movie, it’s a piece of music.  Go with it.

 

Oddly, by framing it in this way, I was able, to a certain degree at least, to just float along with what in front of me.  It was no longer a question of following the movie, but rather swimming along with it.  Instead of trying to make sense of its myriad elements, demanding of myself to fit them together in into a straight line, I began to appreciate each of them on their own.

In short, I was accepting the movie on its own terms.

By letting go of the need to comprehend, “Film Socialisme” became, well, more comprehensible.  In fact, after a while I don’t think I was comprehending it at all, but rather, apprehending it.

And after some time, I did discern a kind of logic.  There were patterns here, some sort of formal non-linear structure that held things together.

They weren’t the kind of patterns I was used to or expected from most movies, but there was a brand of grammar or syntax at work.

Godard was thinking in a box.

For those of you who have attended my seminars on creativity, you know that I talk a lot about the importance of thinking in a box.  By which I mean that any successful creative work establishes a set of rules.  The way you arrive at those rules may be circuitous, and you may not be totally conscious of the rules, but what makes a creative product “work,” what makes it at the very least apprehensible, are a set of constraints and limits, kind of like those that define a language.

So sure, “Film Socialisme,” may at first have appeared to be all over the place, but the more I relaxed with it, the more I grasped it, and at times even enjoyed it.  Godard was offering a deliberate and coherent point-of-view.  He had made decisions. He knew what he wanted.

And because of all that, I felt secure enough to swim along with him even if I didn’t always understand what he was saying.

After the film, as Andy and I walked up 6th Avenue to find a good coffee place to discuss what we had seen, he too, made a similar observation:

“I’m not sure what it was we just saw,” Andy remarked, “but somehow I felt like I was in good hands.”

Perhaps it was Godard’s projection of absolute surety in his vision that inspired us, as we sat over our late-night coffees, to go on and on about
the film.

We discussed Godard’s concern for culture and his meta-historical view. We noted that the structure of the movie seemed to mirror the structure of contemporary life.  Most of all, we talked about how different this movie was from almost all other movies that are out there, and about how Godard’s vision is not only countercultural, but may also be seen as subversive.

All in all it was a wonderful evening.

As I hailed a cab to take me back uptown, Andy and I joked whether or not we’d want to see “Film Socialisme,” again.  For both of us, the answer was a resounding ‘non.’

But the more I reflect upon “Film Socialisme” this morning, the more I realize how it’s gotten inside me.  I keep on reliving the fragmentary images and sounds I saw last night.

Perhaps I’m still trying to make sense of them.  Perhaps they just feel good. Perhaps there is something to be said for boring movies that are more interesting to talk about than they are to watch.

What I do know is this:  Despite its obtuseness and the frustration that provokes, “Film Socialisme” may actually be a great work of art.

If you get a chance, check it out and go for a swim with Jean-Luc.

And, if you have a moment, let me know what you think.

 

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