Back to Zero

By Benedict Seymour, 10 April 2001
Image: Jean-Luc Godard, Lotte en Italia

With digital technology and ‘anti-globalisation’ politics fusing to create a new wave of activist cinema, Jean-Luc Godard’s post-1968 films, screened recently at the NFT’s Godard retrospective, make instructive viewing says Benedict Seymour

Emile Rousseau: Let’s start from zero. Patricia Lumumba: No, first we have to go back there. Back to zero. To find the solution to a chemistry problem or a political problem you must dissolve – dissolve the hydrogen, dissolve the parliament. Here we’ll dissolve images and sounds.

This exchange, from Godard’s 1968 film Le Gai Savoir, announces the programme of the French auteur’s least auteurial phase of production, marking the point at which Godard’s mainstream audience switched off and Godard himself switched to a new idea of audience and a new mode of film production. Le Gai Savoir laid out the territory Godard would explore in his new collaborative role as a member of the Dziga-Vertov film collective, a group that took its name from the revolutionary Russian avant-garde film maker. Vertov’s Kino Pravda (‘cinema truth’, or, more accurately, Bolshevik cinema) prioritised montage, blurred the opposition between documentary and fiction, and sought to activate the spectator.

Together with principle collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin and other young Maoists, film-makers and activists, Godard began to systematically extend the intuitive deconstruction of cinematic ‘realism’ he’d been practising in his art cinema career. Ceding ideological control to his comrades, he turned his famously improvisatory and associative sensibility over to a more determined – you might say over-determined – dissection of the politics of representation. Enthused by the events of May ’68, the group’s films combined formal experiment with a vanguardist attitude to discipline and carried a volatile freight of revolutionary propaganda. The site of projection became a cross between school room and drill hall as the films educated and agitated the audience in a systematically disorganised manner.

Godard came into the circle of his Maoist collaborators through his film La Chinoise in 1967, which not only anticipated the events of May 1968 and the terrorism of the ‘70s but also Godard’s own political development. The Maoists opposed both capitalism and Stalinist socialism, attacking the French Communist Party and the trade unions as stooges of the French state. Where orthodox Marxism seemed to disparage culture as a mere reflex of economic ‘reality’, Western Maoism authorised the activity of artists and intellectuals like Godard by stressing the importance and ‘relative autonomy’ of the cultural sphere. Film-making, it held, could be a legitimate arena of class struggle – although, as an intellectual, the film-maker would need re-educating as much as his audience.

For the Dziga-Vertov group, unlike other leftist film collectives, production was the key site of struggle in film making: going ‘back to zero’ meant changing how film was made and the way it engaged its audience, leading to a radically different kind of distribution. Rather than setting out to politicise the atomised audience of commercial cinema and television, the group’s films – Pravda (1969), Vent d’est (1969), Lotte en Italia (1969), Jusqu’à la victoire (1970), and Vladimir et Rosa (1971) – addressed fellow Maoists unified by political struggle (and, presumably, an appetite for Althusserian theory). The traditional documentary imperative to deliver authoritative reports or authentic images was not just marginalised in these films but subjected to theoretical vivisection: there could be no ‘correct image’ – only the privileged ‘correct sound’ of Maoist theory as it bore down upon the otherwise disparate and polyphonic indeterminacies of image, text and action. As a result, if these films sometimes came on like an alternative media for the post-May days (for example, Pravda promises a report on the state of things in ‘Revisionist’ Czechoslovakia, Lotte en Italia a from-the-barricades update on ‘Struggle in Italy’, Vladimir and Rosa a critical reconstruction of the trial of the Chicago 8), they were really an investigative, plagiarising détournement and deconstruction of other media, tortuous exercises in self-critique that only accidentally ‘inform’ the viewer about pro-filmic ‘events’. These films mock the formula of conventional documentary in which voice-over plus compliant images equals truth. In Pravda a shot of a man washing his car by a lake receives the commentary ‘They’d rather wash their cars than fuck their wives’. At the start of the film the same voice sarcastically addresses the spectator: ‘Don’t speak Czech? Better learn it fast.’

Similarly, in Vent d’est, a ‘Marxist western’ from a script by student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, story is displaced by ketchup-splattered tableaux, colloquies on Stalin versus Mao, and hilariously polemic vignettes: A fine Victorian lady sits complacently reading Proust in a summer meadow while, alternately, a hammer and sickle make Brechtian passes at her head and a voice-over intones ‘Death to bourgeois culture!’ As so often in these films, the very over-identification with the Maoist dogma lends the scenes a burlesque, self-cancelling air of the ludicrous. It’s as if, in the name of seriously engaging with his ideological super-ego, Godard had actually come to parody and dissolve it. This investigation of film may be, as Colin MacCabe once argued, the most conscious and rigorous ever undertaken, but its unconscious impulses keep breaking through and upsetting the laboratory.

At the same time, the pantomime violence that sometimes illustrates the Dziga Vertov group’s efforts to hothouse revolutionary activism belies their desire to cut to the revolutionary chase. Hollywood manipulates the spectator with narrative, slipping them bribes of visual pleasure; the trade unions and the communist party fabricate consensus through speeches, rallies and derisory reforms, but these Maoist movies, for their part, occasionally imply that voluntaristic violence can cut through the ‘lie’ of mediation and obtain immediate results. The isolated intellectual (Ulrike Meinhof, say) could cut out the middleman (the working class) and single-handedly trigger revolution by blowing up the local Monoprix. The rejection of orthodox political representation, coupled with increasingly evident working class indifference to the Maoist ‘alternative’, predisposed Godard and others on the vanguardist left to terroristic and theoreticist extremes. Indeed, Godard’s wife and ‘leading actress’ of the time, Anne Wiazemsky, described the director as ‘very feebly’ a terrorist in those days.

With the demise of the Dziga-Vertov group and his collaboration with Gorin, Godard seemed to acknowledge their films’ hysterical tendencies. In 1974’s Ici et Ailleurs (‘Here’ being the consumer society of media-saturated France, ‘Elsewhere’, the lethal front line struggle of the Palestinian revolutionaries) Godard and his new partner Anne-Marie Miéville conduct a sobering autopsy of the Dziga-Vertov group’s practice. Ici comments sardonically on the triumphal ideological soundtrack of the ealier films – ‘we wanted to crow victory right away’, ‘we turned up the sound too loud’ – the voice latent in the image was drowned out. If Le Gai Savoir insisted that ‘the eye should listen before it looks’, the chastened Godard of 1974 registered an incapacity to see or listen, adding remorsefully, ‘If we wanted to make revolution for them [the Palestinians] it is perhaps because at that time we did not really want to make it where we were as opposed to where we weren’t.’ Like the orthodox left, the Maoist film-makers ended up trapped in their own representational prison house, a school room where a whole (intellectual) class has been given detention, effectively out of communication with the (working) class they thought they wanted to galvanise. To quote Godard, interviewed by Colin MacCabe in 1980: ‘If you’re too much alone, you become exhilarated. You claim that what you do is good but it’s too good. Like the other stuff is too bad.’

Benedict Seymour <ben AT> is a writer and film-maker based in London. He is currently working on a film about regeneration and housing in London with Year Zero films.

The NFT Godard season was at []