Sound and Vision

Tobi Haslett on “From the Third Eye: Evergreen Review on Film” at BAM

Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Henri Roger, British Sounds, 1969, 35 mm, color, sound, 54 minutes.

GODARD HAS ALWAYS made an art of his petulance. For as long as anyone can remember he’s been the stroppy malcontent, spitting rebuttals to Hollywood and the state, to the middling film industry and its slack-jawed forms. Hence his late-1960s dalliance with Maoism, his retreat into agitprop, and his decision (shocking at the time) to shirk the mantle of “auteur” and cofound the Dziga Vertov Group, a collective that, from 1968 to 1972, would inflict upon us the most ruthless works of his career.

The editing got brutal; the politics, caustic. Italian militants belt out pledges and manifestos; Palestinians shout oaths in the desert; and the camera itself, swiveling to eat up more and more of our bloody, dialectical world, is singled out for censure and critique. (This is my favorite Godard.) But if Godard was a brat, at least he was (to paraphrase Woody Allen) a brat for the left. “I was from a rich, bourgeois family,” Godard says, “and then I escaped from this bourgeois family by joining show business. And then it took me quite a lot of years to discover that show business was a bigger bourgeois family than the one I escaped from!”

These words are flung, cream pie–like, in the face of legendary critic Andrew Sarris a third of the way through Ralph Thanhauser’s Godard in America (1970). Behold Godard at his most sneering and ideological; follow him on a lecture tour of American universities, pumping packed auditoria with gaseous pronouncements on the Revolution. He’s contemptuous, charming—and punitively French. And he’s accompanied, of course, by Jean-Pierre Gorin, the young comrade with whom he would collaborate for the entirety of his Dziga Vertov period. (Gorin went on to create his own whorled, scintillating essay films in the 1980s.)

On March 31, Godard in America will screen along with the Dziga Vertov Group’s British Sounds (aka See You at Mao, 1969) as part of BAMcinématek’s series “From the Third Eye: Evergreen Review on Film,” curated by Ed Halter. The two-week program—which also features Frank Simon’s 1968 The Queen and films by, among others, Susan Sontag and Jean Genet—valiantly recovers works either championed or distributed by Barney Rosset, the publisher behind both Grove Press and the countercultural vade mecum Evergreen Review. The latter was a kind of house organ for the American radical left, where from 1957 to 1973 the Norman Mailers and Samuel Becketts jousted and recanted and pontificated on sexuality, politics, Vietnam—and yes, film.

But the Godard program sparkles with a witty and, well, Godardian contradiction. It pits Godard the righteous ideologue working in a radical, collective mode (British Sounds) against Godard the squirming celebrity, snarling into the microphone (Godard in America). The result is a blurred picture, as if captured by a wobbly lens: As Thanhauser announces at the start of Godard in America, the college tour was meant to “promote” British Sounds, and it was only undertaken to finance the Dziga Vertov Group’s film about Palestine. We have on the one hand Godard the slave to capital, selling his brooding image to scores of kids, and Godard the full-throated propagandist, slapping together strident images—or really sounds—from an England in the throes of revolutionary overhaul. Both films see Godard’s entanglement in the asinine processes of production, distribution, advertising—the niggling necessities and howling inanities of the system he’s trying to topple.

British Sounds opens with a taut declaration from a regal English voice as the camera zooms in on the Union Jack: “The bourgeoisie creates a world in its image. Comrades: We must destroy that image!” Then a fist punches through the paper flag—the film will end this way, too—and the scene cuts to the screeching and whizzing of a car factory, where a red automobile is bolted together while a voice reads a (modified) version of the Communist Manifesto for ten minutes. But the voice is obliterated by the dreary workshop’s clanging machinery and sparking metal. This will happen often: Sounds muddle and mix, skating along the surface of Godard’s images or blasting them out of our minds. The point is to “destroy that image,” to stanch the gush of pictures: As he announces in Godard in America, we have so many ghastly photographs of Vietnam, which have done nothing to dent the Western public’s blithe irresponsibility, as smoke rises over the Mekong. The image has ceased to be revolutionary; we must assault the ear.

There’s something deflating and blue about seeing these films in 2016, as the American empire stomps into the new century. Godard’s bombast has quieted in the intervening decades. Film production has become more bloated and mercenary, and those who find themselves tilting against the coercions of capital have few revolutionary models to look to—or, as in Godard’s case, to fetishize. Two years ago, around the release of Godard’s Goodbye to Language, I found myself thinking of the fists of British Sounds that poke through the screen’s skin. But in the Great Man’s first experiment with 3-D, that membrane is durable, elastic—it stretches and wobbles, as snouts, limbs, objects lunge from the screen. But nothing punches through.

Godard in America and British Sounds screen Thursday, March 31, at BAMcinématek as part of the series “From the Third Eye: Evergreen Review on Film.”