Thursday, 30 August 2012

Can I Have a Flake, and Chocolate Sauce with That?

Academics.  They miss so much.  And forget the rest of us.  Infatuated with other people’s theories, they lose themselves inside vast abstractions; the only things they seem keen to write about.  Big kids with ice cream.

Another adaptation from a popular novel, in which Godard fragments the narrative fiction in order to raise questions which throw the romantic aspirations of the protagonists into perspective.  The debt to Hollywood is evident in the use of the gangster film convention of the couple in retreat from a hostile society, but the film uses various formal strategies to question that notion.  Its protagonists are doomed, by the conflict between their inner desires and the violence and corruption of society, to destruction.   Godard uses CinemaScope and colour to emphasise the seductive nature of their dream of an idyllic paradise.  Social reality constantly interrupts the idyll, however, and the protagonists are driven back into society, which finally kills them.  In spite of Godard’s evident ambiguity towards politics at this stage, the film looks forward to the explicitly political concerns of later work.

The film’s central theme is that of the escape of the young couple away from civilisation.  The film also illustrates Godard’s strategy of fragmenting the narrative, juxtaposing written texts with film image.  Godard has often been accused of a puritanical distrust of the seductive potential of the cinematic image: here, Scope and colour emphasise the lush beauty of the fantasy island, while written texts constantly intrude to ‘jog’ the spectator out of the fiction in the direction of politics.

The film’s basic romanticism is conservative in many respects: for example, in the representations of Marianne as instinctual and Ferdinand as ‘the thinker’, and in the anarchism of Ferdinand’s final gesture of self-destruction: the only alternative, it would seem, to utopianism. (The Cinema Book, edited by Pam Cook & Mieke Bernink)

My interpretation is markedly different.  This one seems, at least to me, not only superficial but blinkered: it misses the very nature of the work itself.  Like writing about Joyce’s Ulysses but unaware that its form is its main character – most of the meaning is in the language. 

As I read this passage I wondered if the nature of traditional politics, of what it means, has changed, at least for the academics.  I believe this is so: it is now a portmanteau word which covers every aspect of life.  This explains its ubiquitous use, particularly in film studies,i although it creates much confusion, especially for the laymen, because it suggests there is a moral value to everything we do.  Politics historically depended on a vision of the world, which included some ideas on how best to organise it; influenced by notions of good and bad this vision was intimately connected with one’s perceptions of society, which arose largely, but not totally, from the experiences of daily living.  Believed to be extremely important it was nevertheless a world separated from the rest of life: from family, often work, and certainly books and music.  To give a trivial, but all too common, example: most families tended to confine political talk to a few exchanges before or after dinner, to avoid unpleasantness and familial schism – two men with radically different views akin to two bucks rutting after a female.

Politicians, activists and shop stewards were a species apart…

Over the last twenty years managerial technocrats have taken over politics, which has become a profession like any other – visions and moral values are now simply advertising material used to secure office.  I doubt the professor has this kind of politics in mind.  Rather, it is the older style, where the participants were defined within an ideological spectrum, which included substantive ideas and real beliefs.  This style has now left the political tarns of Westminster and the conference hall, and has, at least according to the academics, flooded the social realm – today we are all politicians!  Even going to the bathroom can become an act of politics: a Labour bath very different from a Tory shower... I go too far of course.  But let's go further... A radical Leftist if you choose a 99; the flake a gesture of Trotskyite defiance at corporate efficiency; while the Revolutionary Workers Party will always demand the chocolate sauce.  I let you decipher the metaphors...

This is not to say that there are no (conventional) politics in this film, only that they play a minor role.  To concentrate on them is to therefore seriously misrepresent the movie.  The critic might be right, and Pierrot le Fou may well point to the politics of Godard’s later work, but such comments confuse rather than elucidate; since the nature of politics itself changed between 1965 and 1968; shifting from a counter-cultural bohemianism to extreme revolutionary Marxism, later descending into the cults of Chairman Mao.ii  Such nuances are easily lost amongst such large abstractions.

What seems more interesting is the way politics is treated in the film.  Godard’s crude caricature of America suggesting that he finds political discourse hopelessly stupid and inane.  It is the form, or the style, of its presentation that seems to interest him more than its content, of which there is very little.iii

Politics is not society!  But the writer’s equation of the two suggests an underlying assumption and value judgement: the social world is evil.  Here is the common cold of the intellectuals: épater la bourgeoisie.  Thus, almost inevitably, there is the assertion that society is responsible for the lovers’ fall: they are “doomed… by [its] violence and corruption”.  This is true, but not exactly in the way this writer believes.  Quite the opposite!  But before I explain, a slight digression.  Society will never be suitable for dreamers and utopians, because it will never submit to their fantasies; it is too messy and uncontrollable for that.  But is this so a bad thing?  Should a community be organised to satisfy only the wishes of the most profound of egoists?  We should run it for Narcissus, you say.  Really?  OK.  It’s a point of view.  But before you blast me with your scorn, take a long look at Calvin’s Geneva;iv it may puncture your self-assurance.  Think about it.  And think about it again.  Hippies, and all those who worship at the altar of their own freedom, are, when you think about it properly, actually Puritans in their hearts.v Only happy when their ideas run things…vi

So, yes, on a superficial level, society kills Marianne and Ferdinand, as it kills us all – by sapping our individual spirits.  However, is this really the theme of this film?  As you know, I have a completely different view: Pierrot le Fou is about two characters living their life as if it were a work of fiction; the gangster motif the source of nearly all the violence here.  How does this writer miss that?  But they do, and thus they completely reverse the meaning of the movie!

You are lost?  OK.  To make myself very clear: it is art that kills these two lovers, and not their society.  If they had stayed out fiction, hadn’t jumped in between the pages of their favourite paperbacks, they would have survived the film intact: in real life we rarely meet terrorists and murderers, and are therefore reasonably safe from torture and death by unnatural causes.  Only in such a self-referential film can so many adventures occur; ordinary life transformed into a popular novel with all its attendant dangers.vii   Full of art this movie overflows with cinematic texture, so that the final deaths symbolise and embody all of these following things: the end of a love affair, the last sentence of a book, and the requirements of a commercial film – it must have an explosive finale.  Could anything be clearer?  Godard even winks at us in some scenes… remember Ferdinand in the car with Marianne turning to talk to the camera?

If you are absorbed in politics the answer is probably not: for an activist the power struggle is the only reality that exists.  But these are academics, you say.  Even worse.  They have a new religion to worship, construct and elucidate.viii

And so the writer, musing on their new metaphysics, misses the obvious: these characters are living in a make believe world of their own choosing.  Ferdinand’s suicide is the most fantastic way to go.  Wouldn’t you do that if you could?  Always knowing that once you put the book down there will be another one to pick up… or a film to go and see… where you can be… an American ambassador, in a high class brothel, watching a beautiful prostitute dance Salome; her lack of talent compensated by her lovely figure and inviting nakedness, barely covered by a transparent pink scarf…ix 

Let’s dream on!  And on and on… until the wife calls us back to the party; and we’re offered a job in marketing; at the executive director level, of course.  A life of big bucks and bores; where the only books you buy are for the kids at Christmas.

Did you notice how the writer mixes up society with civilisation?  They believe they are the same thing.  This is not so obvious.  Once upon a time we talked of a civilised society, which implied a difference between them.x   Art and literature not only representatives of the former, but instruments that could help tame a world seen as crude, raw and unsophisticated.xi  Although the writer’s somewhat loose use of the term creates an interesting paradox: they might be right but for the wrong reason.  For it is true, civilisation actually does kill Ferdinand and Marianne: books and films, in short art, eventually did do the evil deed.  Not quite, I think, what they had in mind!

Such ideas are too frivolous for university study.  So let’s go back to the more serious stuff.  What notion are these “formal strategies…question[ing]”?  To me this sounds like an academic formula: a generalisation used to cover up a lack of insight into particulars.  If all the techniques that Godard uses in the film are undermining the gangster theme, and thus the conventional idea of the rebel, why is this writer still so keen to concentrate on the conflict between the individual and society?  Doesn’t the use of such irony suggest the director is poking self-reflexive fun at this cliché?  Shouldn’t the professor at least be alert to the probability that Godard is not taking these traditional tropes seriously?  That the gangsters are really just sophisticated kids mucking around… for art’s sake.

How weary we get carrying these heavy reference books – Oxford Guide to Film Studies, The Oxford History of World Cinema, An Introduction to Film Studies 2nd edition.  Crippled by a bent back and short of breath we have energy enough only to mouth the conventional pieties: all those questioning of standard assumptions we read about so much in the academic press.  Too busy putting question marks on the computer screen we forget to look at the film itself; and see how it plays with the conventions of its own cinematic tradition to create art of the most entertaining kind.  Godard is having a laugh!  And so should we.  The professors, however, and we know and accept this, are paid to be boring – to themselves and others -, and they do a very good job at it too.

Politics is a dangerous game for amateurs.  Art equally so for the professionals; as Godard knows only too well.  And academics?  Too often they seem to be poor amateurs in both realms, and thus very easily manipulated and misled; for they don’t have the “touch” or the “instinct” to be much good in areas where your require more than simple intellect.xii

Perhaps, and this is to stretch a point, the great director is satirising them.  These lost souls wandering around the labyrinths of their own ideological fantasies; blowing up the world with phrases from Karl Marx and Louis Althusser.   A revolution rising up from the clutter of their university desks; creating the gun smoke and tear gas that invests the apartment, and obscures the TV screen…

[i] A number of upcoming posts will be deal with this subject. 
There is an interesting review article by David Hawkes that actually suggests that cultural studies (of which film studies seems to form part) are mostly agitprop.
            “Gramsci argued that revolutionaries should turn their attention to the cultural sphere: the arts, the academies and the press.  By working to undermine the hegemony of bourgeois culture while simultaneously developing a proletarian alternative, they would engage in a ‘war of position’ designed to prepare the ideological ground for the total expropriation of capital once political circumstances permitted.
“The post-war Left took up this project with enthusiasm…  The academic discipline of Cultural Studies emerged as the most self-consciously radical of their projects.  It challenged the conventional divisions of the humanities, insisting on ‘inter-disciplinarity’, and defining itself by its methods rather than its objects of interpretation.  Yet more disturbing, it undermined the traditional canon of works, proclaiming that popular culture, minority cultures and the cultures of non-Western societies were as deserving of scholarly attention as Michelangelo, Mozart or Milton.
“In cultural terms the project was a huge success.  Western culture was completely transformed….  All that was solid melted into air, all that was sacred was profaned, and Cultural Studies provided both commentary and highly effective encouragement to this process… Yet the Left’s rise to cultural power was accompanied by its descent into economic and political impotence.”  (TLS 17&24/2012)
This reads like a parody, but I think it is intended as straight description.
It feels so bizarre because so much emphasis is placed on the cultural Left for the displacement and devaluing of high art.  And yet, as I have argued elsewhere (Dropout Boogie), this landslip in value is due to the nature of monopoly capitalism of which these cultural Leftists are foot soldiers and lowly bureaucrats.  That is why their ‘project’ has not revolutionised the country.  Hawkes argues that it is ‘facile’ to be think that “Cultural Studies are no threat to capitalism’.  I agree, for it misses how much they are a part of it!   It also ignores how much these ‘radicals’ are conditioned by the university system to which they belong: their concern with “method” shared by many other disciplines, including the completely apolitical Oxford School of Linguistic Analysis, dominant in Britain in the 1950s (I have a forthcoming piece on this particular topic).
            I intuit that Hawkes’ description is accurate, at least for the first generation of cultural terrorists; the later ones would exhibit the ideological exhaustion of most movements, to become essentially apolitical (that’s right! – politics by now a rather empty abstraction) and careerist.  What Hawkes doesn’t tell us is that this view of Gramsci is almost certainly incorrect. Being a creative thinker, and more subtle than his followers, he wasn’t subject to their simple and hopelessly reductive thinking.  According to JG Merquior:
            “As much as Lukács or Bloch, he cut a highly sophisticated figure, a friend of revolution who was no foe to high-brow culture and modernist trends in art or literature.  His lifelong concern with political education was also… a matter of lifting politics to an elevated cultural level, an enlightened, universal humanism.”  (Western Marxism.  My emphasis) 
            As we wander through the barren gardens of Hawkes’ paragraphs the most enlightening revelation, one beautiful fountain amongst the dust and tarmac, is when he reveals his ignorance of the subject he is supposed to be deconstructing.  It suggests the biggest weakness of Cultural Studies: it has no interest, and therefore no understanding, of art and its history.  To give just one example: the classic work on non-European aesthetics, Primitivism in Modern Art by Robert Goldwater, was first published in 1938!  The work of cultural reallocation was taking place within the subject itself, and had no need of political activists and ideological professors.  Adolescent vandals, one and all, who like to walk over the immaculate lawns in their Doc Martens, ripping up the bushes and destroying the flowerbeds… Later comes the litter, the crisp bags and coke cans… and yet later still… the bulldozers of the big developers… 
[ii] Pointed out by Peter Jenkins, in his Mrs Thatcher’s Revolution: the Ending of the Socialist Era.  Emmett Grogan also captures something of this change from culture to politics in his autobiography, Ringolevio.  A book, especially in the first half, that is not to be trusted.  My guess is that he wants to hide his rich, upper middle class origins.  As a result this part of the book is thin and often unbelievable.  The latter sections are a 1960s classic.
[iii] This is the central point that Terry Eagleton makes in his How to Read a Poem: students are no longer taught about the dramatic form of a literary work; the reason why he wrote the book.  It is an important criticism, coming from somebody from inside the (radical) establishment, for it shows just how little contemporary literature departments are concerned with aesthetic values. 
The same criticism seems applicable to film studies: writers appear to be unaware that a subject is less important than its treatment.  If it were not, if only content mattered, there would be no difference between Godard’s Weekend and propaganda from a Soviet news agency.  That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are people who do believe they are the same.
[iv] An excellent assessment can be found G.R. Elton’s Reformation Europe.
[v] This is wonderfully brought out in G.R. Elton’s England Under the Tudors, when he is writing about parliament, and particularly Peter Wentworth.  Summarising the work of M.M. Knappen, he uses his phrase to define them: collectivist individualism.
[vi] For further discussion see my Dropout Boogie. 
[vii] It is odd that although our academic recognises this, they nevertheless treat the entire film literally.
[viii] Dropout Boogie has an extensive discussion on the religious nature of intellectuals: it is their belief, and in the worse cases, their obsessions, in a limited number of fixed ideas that produces their religion.  They are natural priests.
[ix] I’ll leave you to work out the reference.
[x] Even the great Walter Benjamin, who many of these ‘radical' academics like to quote on the subject, implicitly recognised the distinction:
            “For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror.  They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries.  There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”  (Illuminations. My emphasis)
            The point of this passage is that civilisation is not free of the taint of exploitation; feudal, commercial, capitalist, whatever…. 
To underline this point Benjamin makes a clear distinction between barbarism and civilisation: not the “cultural treasures” themselves but their “origin” we must contemplate with horror.  The distinction made between great and small talents and minds emphasising the line of argument.  What Benjamin seems to be suggesting, at least when we read this thesis within the context of the rest of his work, is a double vision: we have to look at art both aesthetically and politically.  Many people who later quote him seem to be blind in one eye: they can only reduce civilisation to the “violence and corruption [the barbarism] of society”; and therefore seriously misrepresent his views.
For a good discussion on Benjamin see JG Merquior’s Western Marxism, where he argues that the Theses on the History of Philosophy may actually be an aberration in his thought.
[xi] There are some very good passages on this in I.A. Richards’ The Principles of Literary Criticism. Though a very good book, it now reads like an antique.  Hopefully, like the more commercial kind, it will rise in value over time.
[xii] An excellent discussion of political instinct can be found in Norman Finkelstein’s discussion of Gandhi on Democracy Now!  His view is that most people on the Left have poor political touch, and thus prefer to espouse unrealistic and impracticable positions to actually doing constructive work; which often requires compromise and a sense of what is culturally possible, at any given moment.
            I.A. Richard has similar passages in The Principles of Literary Criticism.  Of course, I’m referring to a general trend, not to all academics.  Michael Wood, for example, is in my view one of the best film critics currently writing – and far superior to even Pauline Kael.

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