Saturday, May 17, 2008

Godard & Marx

This is a paper I wrote for one of my philosophy classes.

Godard & Marx

Marx has often come up when discussing Jean-Luc Godard's films. Many times Marx is even referenced in his films. But why? Godard, without a question, has made some of the most contextually dense films ever, ranging in topics from, the bourgeoisie, cannibalism, political youths and of course cinema. But each of these things can coexists in a Godard film, when a philosophy is behind it. I will examine Godard's background and how he developed an interest in Marx. I will also examine the cultural upheaval leading up to and after the events of May 68' and how Godard used Marx in his films. That will lead me to examine specific scenes, characters and motifs that show Marxist themes and ideologies. Among those themes Godard uses to critique are major mainstays in Marxist ideology, capitalism and political action.

Jean-Luc Godard was born in Paris, France, to a wealthy family, in 1930. During the period of the Second World War, he spent the time in Switzerland, often refered to as his second home. Part of Godard's history that is interesting is that he avoided the German Occupation in France and the Algerian War draft. Not being a part of these conflicts ostracized Godard from his colleagues who had served in various conflicts. Godard went to school at lycee Bouffon where he specialized in the physical and biological sciences, classical literature and mathematics. (Kreidl 23-24) From these fields of studies, especially mathematics, he was able to form his way of understanding. His desire for extensive research and documentation proved to be a mainstay in his way of making films.

Godard references many philosophers and political ideologies in his films. His relationship with Marx is a unique one when examining how much he was used. From as much as we know, Godard has read Marx from a third hand source: a book reviewer's review of Althusser on Marx. (Kreidl 30) With that in mind, don't be surprised if Godard proves himself wrong within the same film. He understands that he isn't even exempt from contradictions and he often uses those contradictions to make social statements on our culture, something Godard took from another philosopher, Hegel. Godard once said "Truth is in all things, even, partly, in error." (Roud 9) A famous French quote, often attributed to Godard, was "I am a Marxist of the Groucho variety." Marx doesn't make an appearance in Godard's films until 1965 (Pierrot Le Fou), but looking back to his films we can see the progression of the Marxist ideologies in his characters and stories. It's easy to understand why Marx's philosophy, especially when critiquing capitalism, was so appealing to Godard. The events of May 68' gave Godard an opportunity to relate Marxist philosophy to the problems in France.

The events of May 68' had a profound effect on France and on the international culture. The first event, known as the student crisis, involved a key force in the revolts, the universities. There had been a growing gap among the youth and their parent's generation about cultural ideas and values. The working class grew frustrated with the government, while noticing the gap of the wealth distribution. The students at the universities also looked toward uncertainty in the job market. The university proved to be the first push to get the ball rolling, by having a one day strike (May 13) in response to the police brutality toward the students. The strike expanded to a longer strike and caused a work stoppage of nearly 2/3 of France. The workers crisis, hijacked the student strike with different goals in mind. The workers strike lasted a few weeks until the pinnacle point of May 30. Only days before had the government been in shambles trying to stop the movements. General de Gaulle, who was being blamed for the heavy handedness of his ruling, agreed that reformation was good, but not by masquerading in the streets. After his speech on May 30 and the support of the 'silent majority' the month of upheaval had subsided. Although the protesters hadn't made sudden change, they had started the fall of the Gaullist regime, which led to elections the following June. (Reynolds)

Godard's relation to the events of May 68' stem before 68'. In 1967 he released his most overtly political film La Chinoise. The film was about a teach-in household of a handful of students discussing Maoism in relation to France. Even then Godard understood that France needed a change. From La Chinoise the "students" say:

"If you have the wrong policy, you have the wrong politics. If you are unaware you are blind. Why are you doing dishes, for example."
"To clean them."
"Then you've understood."
"So 1967 France is like dirty dishes."

La Chinoise was the beginning before the beginning of his Dziga-Vertov Group, which consisted of Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. After Weekend (1967), Godard began making political films in an effort to revitalize the education system. Godard was an advocate of getting rid of de Gaulle and for revolution in France. His films were that of an artistic experiment, with the hope that people would utilize them for their own revolutions. Godard was often ahead of his cultural revolutionaries and was often an embarrassment to the groups he wished to join. (Kreidl 202) Godard's job as an intellectual was to show, not do, which was often met by blank stares of unwilling students, or misunderstood revolutionaries. "Godard is the most negative of the Swiss Maoist" was written on the Sorbonne wall, graffiti that Godard had defended as a form of expression forced by restricted laws. His audience was turning on him, but that didn't stop Godard. Godard went small and continued to make political films. His final two films of that era, Tout va Bein and Letter to Jane, felt like a last hooray for the movement that had mostly dissipated.

No matter how many books you might read, in order to understand, or more likely to experience Godard (with the exception of himself, since few may understand him), you have to look at his films. Marx in his films may range from a reference that is said by a character, a title card, or through a character's philosophy. The first reference, directly, to Marx was made in the film Weekend.

"We are all brothers, as Marx said."
"Marx didn't say that. Another communist said it. Jesus said it."

In the film a bourgeois couple is on a holiday. The title card in the film explains the sentiment perfectly. "From French Revolutions to Gaullist week-ends" The film is a scathing critique of the middle class French, which the main characters are modeled after. The film begins with the female character describing, to her significant other, an explicit sexual act. What makes this interesting is how they treat the subject. She tells the story in a very boring and uninterested tone, while the husband couldn't be more uninterested. This sets up an interesting dynamic when examining these characters as they make their weekend holiday.

Soon after that we are given a critique of capitalism. The couple run into an absurdly long traffic jam (simulated by a 7 minute, untouched, tracking shot) of other Parisian couples taking a weekend holiday. As we move along the crawl of the cars, Godard slips his critique within a critique. We are supposed to look at the traffic jam as a part capitalism failure to control the greedy mentality of the middle class, but Godard adds a little extra. As we move along, we see a Shell gas tanker blocked in between two cars. The Shell gas tanker is a symbol for capitalism, one that is deadlocked in a system that is broken, a system that needs change. One car in front of the Shell gas tanker is facing the opposite direction of the tanker possibly showing the resistance to capitalist organizations, but ultimately that it's not enough, because traffic jams have to end, right? The traffic jam works as a poignant critique of the falsehoods of capitalism. People are able to get what they want, but at what price? The Parisian couple will later show that it will be at any price, even the price of their souls or their lives.

In Weekend, we get the sense of greed and competition among the greedy with the bourgeois couple. Marx says "The only wheels which political economy puts in motion are greed and the war among the greedy, competition."(Baird 312) In the film we definitely get a sense of greediness of this couple. In one instance they crash their car in a pile up and their car is in the midst of a fireball, when the woman yells out "My Hermes handbag!” Godard doesn't shy away from showing Marx's argument of commodity fetishism within the capitalist society. Later in the film Godard also shows the couple wandering a road, littered with wrecked cars, trying on dead peoples clothes. He uses scenes like that to prod the viewer. To ask them, "Do you really want this?"

In Masculin Feminin and La Chinoise, Godard gives us very similar characters with similar ideologies and not surprisingly they are both played by the same actor (Jean-Pierre Leaud). His characters in both the films are activists. In Masculin Feminin Leaud plays a would be intellectual who is involved with the communist movement in France. In La Chinoise Leaud plays again an intellectual who is among a group of students in a teach-in of Maoist/Marxist/Leninist ideologies and their hopes for revolution in France. Leaud, in a way, is a mouth piece for Godard. In Masculin Feminin he was literally a mouth piece, since Godard fed Leaud lines through an earpiece. Leaud's characters are a great reflection of the youth at that time in France. They wanted change and were willing to do whatever it took for that change. Godard in La Chinoise examines that urgency of trying start a revolution when dealing with youth and the problems it brings up.

La Chinoise is as much a documentary as it is a work of fabrication. Godard uses Brecht's epic theatre (Godard quotes Brecht almost as much as he does Marx) to express the ideas and platforms of these young students. La Chinoise is one of Godard's most Brecht inspired films. He uses the epic theatre movement as a platform to express his ideas. Much like an epic theatre play the film is more about it's purpose than it was for entertaining or imitating reality. By using the epic theatre as a platform Godard saw many of the problems that would later arise in the events of May 68'. The film is littered with Marxist/Leninist ideologies quoted or cited by the Maoist students who surrounded themselves with Mao's "Little Red Book". The main theme and the main problem in the film is revolution. Revolution for the North Vietnamese, the Chinese, the French, etc. They make their case of why and how these things should happen, but you get the sense that something is missing. The students express a forwardness that is almost blinding to them. In the film, Henri (who had been excluded from the group), gives an example of the group, "The Egyptians believed their language was that of the gods. One day to prove it they put new-born babies in a house far from any society. To see if they would learn to talk. To speak Egyptian alone. They came back 15 year later. And what did they find? The kids talking together, but bleating like sheep. They hadn't noticed that next to the house was a sheep-pen. For us in that flat where we were, Marxism-Leninism was a bit like the sheep." Godard is able to show a sense of rationality, meaning, to put what these students are learning into context. The students would argue against Henri's analogy with the sheep, saying that it is capitalism who is the sheep next to the house. Later in the film one of the students meets with a professor she is acquainted with and they discuss the problems the students are trying to solve. The student brings revolution and strikes to the table, while the professor uses reason and logic to question her motives.

"So, what will you do afterwards?" the professor asks the student,
"I don't believe you know. You only know that the present system is awful and you're impatient to end it".

Their argument isn't that something is a problem; it's on how you deal with it. Godard to a certain extent realizes that the students, the youth, are unreliable. Yes, they can be apart of something, without questioning, but is it more than a summer party to them? At the end of the film the students in the teach-in go back to their lives, almost forgetting the work they were so passionate about in the summer. The people who own the flat, come back to it and make fun of the writing on the wall (writing that the students put there, "All roads lead to Peking", "A minority with the right ideas is not a minority", to showcase their ideologies). Life as they wanted to live it was no more.

Two of Godard's more blatant Marxist films were Tout Va Bein and his essay film, Letter to Jane. Both of the films Godard collaborated with Jean-Pierre Gorin during their time in Dziga Vertov. These were the last films of that group’s collective. Tout Va Bein is a film that examines a labor strike (much like those in May 68') of a meat factory. Susan (Jane Fonda) is an American reporter working for a French paper when she and her husband become hostages during the strike. Before the story ever begins, Godard (much like a Picasso painting) deconstructs how the film should begin. Who should meet, what should happen, what they will say. It's Godard's way of prepping us for the madness of capitalism.

The film shows us two fronts of the labor strike. We see management's point of view and the workers point of view. This dynamic is an interesting way to show the short comings of both sides. No doubt, we see Marx's reference to alienated labor. Godard uses Jane Fonda's character and the positioning of the camera (for a profile, head on shot) to eliminate a sense of theater. The characters are talking to the reporter, straight into the camera, as if they were talking to the audience. From the manager's point of view, who is locked in his office by striking workers, he tells the reporter "Marxism and collectivism certainly don't protect you from exploitation and alienation....This even is just a flash in the pan."

The workers express, in the same way the manager does (cinematically) the problems of capitalism. The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) delegate talks about company mergers and acquisitions and how one or two large companies control a large percentage of the profit, while 567 companies control 6% of it. He continues to talk, as if he was reading from Marx, that profits keep going up along with production, but that workers salaries still stay the same. Godard goes back and forth, justifying and retracting, putting the viewers in a sense of disillusion. Out of all the places, the sense of clarity comes from a super mall (much like a Wal-Mart). In a place of pure capitalism we see Marxism prevail. Godard sets up the scene, by doing a long tracking shot, showing the rows and rows of checkout counters. Towards the middle of the tracking shot we see a man at a table selling communist books. Again with the critique within the critique, the man speaks out "Outside the factory it is still a factory. The market is like a theater. Everyone is shouting, except the audience who don't speak to each other. They're waiting for new actors." A woman then comes up to the man and he tells her that the book is "4.75 marked down from 5.50", but she is uninterested. As the tracking shot continues past the man, he is drowned out by the hum of consumers purchasing items at the checkout counters. Only when students (the new actors) swarm the market, questioning the man with the communist book for explanations about what he is reading, are the shoppers able to break free of their consumerist ideology. "It's free." yell the students as they pull products off the shelves. They form a mob with the shoppers and create madness in the store, until the police come and try to silence them. In effect the students, in the film, had brought about something Godard had been trying to inspire with the students outside of his films. He was trying to tell them that you can participate in a revolution, but you can't invent one.

After Tout va Bein, Godard and Gorin made an essay film in response to the photograph of Jane Fonda in North Vietnam. It was called Letter to Jane. Now taking into account of what pops into your head when you think essay film and I can assure you that you won't think that after it's finished. Clocking in at over 50 minutes it's a fairly static film visually, but it is so on purpose. Narrated by Godard and Gorin they examine the photograph that had been inciting so much controversy. They begin by giving a sort of disclaimer. They reference Marx by saying in his preface to Capitol that he asked for people who were not afraid of minute details. That is all Godard and Gorin ask of the viewers. Needless to say the minute details in the photo become everything to the meaning of the picture. The photo itself might look innocent enough. It captures Jane Fonda, speaking with a North Vietnamese half in frame, with another anonymous Vietnamese who is semi-out of focus behind her. Godard and Gorin interpret the picture like this: The picture and the text next to the picture say and imply different things. The text explains that Jane Fonda is in North Vietnam speaking with inhabitants, while Godard and Gorin point out that her mouth is closed in the picture, implying that she is listening. They take that one step further and show the missteps of the Americans, who speak first, before listening to the Vietnamese. "It is the Vietnamese who will tell me what kind of peace they want."

Godard and Gorin also take Jane Fonda and the Vietnamese man behind her as representations for ideologies. For example, "The American left view Jane as blurry while the Vietnamese left view the anonymous Vietnamese man as sharp and clear. The American right sees sharp, while the Vietnamese right or Vietnamization is becoming unclear." This comparison of who's sharp and clear and who's fuzzy is an important one to make. The face out of focus, the Vietnamese man, is sharp and clear, while the sharp and clear face, Jane Fonda, is vague and out of focus. The Vietnamese man express his reality on his face, while Jane has an expression that looks more like a function, it could be anyone given by anyone and it contains to much ambiguity (which leaves room for misinterpreting the picture). The man's face is that of Marxism and revolution, while Jane's face is that of an expression in search of capitalism. Uncle Bertle, they quote, says "We must have the courage to say we have nothing to say of these faces, unless it shows a caption of lies, and one must admit one's weakness and failure for one has nothing to say." It's all part of the experiment. To solve the problem is to examine all sides, to experiment and to explore. And for Godard, that's his job.

Godard's relationship to Marx dwindles after Letter to Jane and his Dziga Vertov years. Some might argue he didn't buy into that ideology anymore and others would say that as an artist Godard needed to move on. Moving on, something Godard is known for, is hard for the audience, an audience that wanted a filmmaker to keep making Breathless. It makes it hard for the audience to understand something like Marxism in his films, when he has already moved on to Shakespeare. It's clear that without Marx in Godard's early films his later films would have been much different. I'm sure Godard could make the case against that. John Kreidl makes that point clear with Godard's quote about films "One has no right to "read in" themes to films, says Godard, even though that is what most people do." (Kreidl 213) Marx is clearly evident in Godard's films, but whether Marx is still, or ever was, evident within Godard himself is a mystery.


Kreidl, John Francis. Jean-Luc Godard. Twayne Publishers. Boston, MA 1980.

Roud, Richard. Jean-Luc Godard. Doubleday & Company Inc. Garden City, NY 1968.

Reynolds, Chris. May 68: A Contested History. Sens-Public. .

Baird, Forrest E., and Walter Kaufmann. Nineteenth-Century Philosophy. 4th ed. Vol. 4. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2003. 312.

Films Referenced

Pierrot Le Fou. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina. DVD. Criterion Collection, 1965.

Masculin Feminin. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Pierre LéAud, Chantal Goya. DVD. Columbia Films S.a., 1966.

La Chinoise. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Jean-Pierre LéAud, Juliet Berto. DVD. Pennebaker Films, 1967.

Weekend. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Mireille Darc, Jean Yanne. DVD. Athos Films, 1967.

Tout Va Bein. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin. Perf. Jane Fonda, Yves Montand. DVD. Criterion Collection, 1972.

Letter to Jane. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin. Perf. Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jane Fonda. Criterion Collection, 1972.


Anonymous said... - Learn how to turn $500 into $5,000 in a month!

[url=]Make Money Online[/url] - The Secret Reveled with Binary Option

Binary Options is the way to [url=]make money[/url] securely online

Anonymous said...

rernDreasmibe xaikalitag Jadabeefs [url=]iziananatt[/url] odofsdelsbomi oriedlisedods

Anna Monsen said...

I really enjoyed this. I just started getting into Godard and this was really cool