Wrapping things up once and for all ("About bloody time." "I can hear you, you know") I give you Ben Livant's term paper on Godard 101. Enjoy.
DIALECTIC OF REFLEXIVITY:
GODARD'S SECOND TRACK AS A NEW MODE OF REALISM
The truth must not only be the truth, it must be told.
- Fidel Castro
There's no reason for viewers to trust anybody! It's television!
- David Simon
Cinema is truth 24 frames per second.
- Jean-Luc Godard
Godard is influential. Perhaps incalculably influential. What he is not is imitated. Borrowed from, yes. Ripped off even. (And it serves him right). Here and there, this scene, that technique - for sure. But not one of his New Wave films as a whole is imitated, even as a parody, because it is not possible to imitate one of his films as a whole.
This is because the holism of the work appears to be so tenuous in the first place. How a Godard film hangs together is a question that invariably comes up during the watching of it. As he famously commented himself: "A film should have a beginning, a middle and an end - but not necessarily in that order." This raises sloppiness to a point of high principle.
And yet, it does hang together. A tale is told, sort of in spite of itself. For within any one of his films, the director himself transgresses whatever code of narrative conduct that film relies upon and perpetuates. If this sounds like a contradiction, that's because it is. Even if Godard had not evolved towards the political position of Marxism, he was from the start philosophically disposed to a dialectical treatment of his chosen medium. He embraces contradiction.
Probably the most obvious manifestation of this is the way in which he copies all sort of genres and distorts them at the same time, adopts all kinds of conventions and twists them out of shape as he does so. But as we move through the eight years of his New Wave period, the cumulative accomplishment of his own cinematic rhetoric in the context of his increasingly politicized attention to current events causes him to craft his films as internal interrogations of themselves.
It is this self-dialogical quality that makes them unfit for imitation, especially according to any sort of formulaic reproduction process driven by mass marketing. And the extrapolation of this, just as impossible to imitate is Godard's exploration of different approaches from one film to the next. Yes, there are topics and tactics that come up repeatedly, sending a strong signal of an absolutely unique style, an auteur identity. But this must be discerned from within his voracious appetite for self-destruction, as it were. That is, his ongoing obligation to himself to find new ways to do things, commercial constraints (and budgetary limitations) be damned.
As with any true artist, then, Godard's first responsibility is to the conversation he is having with himself. What I am emphasizing about this artistically sincere conversation in his case is how schizophrenic it is. I don't mean this literally, of course, but there is to each of his works an almost split-personality. Almost. This is due to the film-maker simultaneously making the film and "reviewing" it (re-viewing it) as he does.
Analogous to the independent sound track that must by synchronized to the reel of moving pictures, Godard runs a second conceptual track that makes an intellectual object of the film in order to tease it, challenge it, criticize it. The upshot of this is that
he is the first to distrust the epistemological status or truth-value of the artifact he is presently producing. Dialectically, his distrust promotes our trust in his artifact.
Godard synchronizes this second track in very un-synchronized ways. In fact, his main tendency is unmercifully to obstruct his own film and make it struggle to carry on. This involves all sorts of interruptions of the story, digressions away from the main character, exposures of the actor, distractions framed into the image, anti-sequential edits and the list could go on.
It is correct that he is often non-linear and likes to put together pastiche in order to advance juxtaposition and oxymoron, sometimes to the point of absurdity. But to observe this and take it on its own as a satisfactory explanation is a superficial aesthetic understanding in my estimation. As strange as a Godard film can get, most of the strangeness is for me evidence of Godard's second track organically interwoven with the otherwise straight-forward aspects of the film.
I can understand how this second track might spoil the movie for certain viewers. It's definitely occurring at a level of abstraction that demands viewer participation contra the passive, easily empathetic entertainment a lot of folks expect when they pay for a ticket. It calls for an entirely different leap of faith from the one usually demanded of an audience out to enjoy a fiction.
Rather than the classic literary/theatrical suspension of disbelief originally theorized by Coleridge, Godard is clearly Brechtian and means to provide the viewer with a demystified opportunity to engage intellectually with the fiction as a fiction. The leap of faith attending this is the notion that entertainment can endure such self-witnessing, especially since Godard is often so analytical and apathetic. Does the second track actually add to the enjoyment of the film?
Well, I like it. For the most part, anyway. But I do have to acknowledge that there are always parts of every Godard film that are boring and/or irritating. The interruptions and digressions and distractions sometimes stall everything. The making of the movie an object to be inspected by itself kind of cancels the movie momentarily. There is a breakdown of momentum - remarkable, considering the frenetic pace at which things sometimes move - as the cumulative weight of the second track threatens to undermine the motion of the motion pictures.
I think, ultimately, assessment of the second track must address the very purpose of the film in the first place. Is it just an excuse for itself or something more? Personally, whenever I was able to look at one of Godard's films and see it as something more than an excuse for itself, I was that much more positively captivated by Godard's second track. My ranking of his films reflects my feeling about this, when it seemed to me that the medium was not the totality of the message. However, my fuddy-duddy concern for what used to be called content is beside the point.
The point is to recognize the method in Godard's madness, to find the unified forest among his many trees that otherwise stand alone as so many novelty-acts. Admittedly, he has a rapacious taste for variety. There is a strong anything-goes creativity that often includes the kitchen sink (kitsch-in-synch). But Godard does not get bogged down in difference for difference sake. His avant garde expressions are always tempered by a traditional commitment to communication and a respect for popular accessibility.
It is not just his reliance on pulp literary tropes, film noir types and so on that make his movies experientially available to the general public. Much more fundamentally, his new cinema syntax is essentially intelligible for a mass audience, especially the young. It is not an arcane dialect that speaks only to cinema intellectuals in command of the esoteric grammar. There is nothing of the idiosyncratic symbolism and baffling metaphysical mysticism of Tarkovsky's Mirror, for example, or the anti-syntactical serial entrapment and mechanistic surrealism of Resnais' Marienbad, for another.
Godard is weird, but he's not THAT weird. Alternative? Yes. But not for an elite, for the mainstream. In short, he's pop. What is more, it strikes me as reasonable to grasp his seemingly disparate weirdness as being all of a piece in keeping with his popular orientation. I see it as a barrage of variegated approaches to the second track, which is for me the essence of Godard's original cinematic genius. It is his unwavering dedication to providing ongoing recapitulation of the second track for a mass audience that makes him truly unique, impossible to imitate.
No doubt, what I am calling Godard's second track has generated no small amount of discussion among film theorists according to the category of reflexivity. This is as it should be. That is, depending on how this reflexivity is understood.
I'll bet my bottom dollar that a fair few fashionable Ph.D. dissertations have favorably identified it as pre-postmodern. Granted, it is difficult to avoid describing what Godard is doing in terms of a deconstruction of a text's discursive grounds.
More conservative types, conversely, who maintain that there is nothing new under the sun, are probably quick to point out that there is no shortage of precedents in painting, literature, theater and cinema too when it comes to giving asides, making meta-statements, breaking the fourth wall and what-not; as in, the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
I find both camps equally unattractive. I am not inclined to make Godard the unwitting poster boy for Derrida in advance just as he was grappling with Althusser and tending towards Mao. His reflexivity is not an utterly indeterminate utterance without any referents for his references.
Nor am I prepared to demote Godard to a mere footnote to the footlights that Shakespeare occasionally gave his characters license directly to address. His reflexivity is not a perfectly determinate speech act with an unambiguous correspondence between words and what they stand for.
I prefer instead to argue further that Godard's reflexivity is a dialectical contradiction of self-reference that does not posit himself as its referent. It posits instead the world in which his characters are situated. He refers to himself in order to situate himself in exactly the same reel world in which his characters are situated. But as he is, of course, in the real world, his characters in the reel world reciprocally take on real world status by his association with them; "virtually," if you must.
My thesis is that Godard is best appreciated as the founder of a new mode of realism.
This goes "beyond the didactic dogma of the Soviet realism, the Italian neo-realist synthesis of journalism and melodrama and the French cinema verite, somehow incorporating an almost hallucinogenic [private] disorientation into what would otherwise be prosaic [public] visions." (6/29/2011 11:55).
I am especially concerned to forestall the strong pull to interpret Godard's self-referential reflexivity in a one-sided way that reduces it to a sign of self-consciousness. This is a tendency that implicitly rests on disregarding the internal dynamics of the reflexivity in order to demarcate the second track and the rest of the film. This takes far too literally that the film is "reviewing" (re-viewing) itself. According to this, the second track is at best a running editorial commentary rather than moving in and through the organically interwoven whole.
To be sure, it is because the holism of the work appears to be so tenuous in the first place that there is such a strong pull to reduce Godard's reflexivity to self-consciousness. The variegations of the second track can come off as pretty glaring subjective "interjections" after all. But what exactly is interjecting what? For the purposes of conceptual exposition I speak heuristically of a "second track" but of course, there is actually no second track. There is no such discrete entity. Really, there is the whole movie. There is a single oscillator, one subject-object Gestalt, vibrating figure-ground reversals for 90 minutes.
I am prepared to accept interpretations of Godard's art as expressions of auto-ethnography. But in my estimation, any non-dialectical split between a supposedly primary narrative and the second track invites the opinion that Godard allows navel-gazing to trump story-telling; an ego obsessively spiraling in on itself in ever deeper spins of subjectivity. The reduction of his reflexivity to self-consciousness is an idealist error that runs the risk of rendering Godard's art little more than narcissism unto solipsism.
If we truly respect the internal dynamic of his reflexivity, however, we instead observe that the second track draws our attention to what empiricism calls the external world by way of what the Freudian paradigm calls a reality principle. Godard definitely looks at himself but not in order to look inward. The dialectic is, in looking at himself, he makes us look outward.
As it is not literally the case that Godard runs a second track, perhaps it will be helpful to pick up a cue from the conservative types who have long noticed reflexivity in the device of a-play-within-a-play; i.e., the play-within-the-play is the thing wherein Shakespeare catches the conscience of Hamlet.
The-movie-within-the-movie is a less heuristic conception than the second track because there actually is a discrete, secondary cinematic entity within the primary film containing it. Yet in being contained by the primary film, the secondary film within is not simply subsumed but dialectically works upon its container. Robert Eberwein - attending to Godard not at all but rather Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels - provides a succinct explication of the realism at work generally in any movie-within-a-movie.
It is as if the film within a film alters the ontological status of the characters in the main film by foregrounding them in our consciousness […] Next to an illusionary filmed image within the narrative, the characters in the diegesis become, for the moment, more real: it is as if the film within a film thrusts the primary characters out from the screen toward the audience, (emphasis added, quoted by Adrian Danks: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/
2010/feature-articles/the- film-we-had- imagined/) .
I am saying the same thing about Godard's primary characters that Eberwein is saying about Sturges', but from the exact opposite direction. It is in secondary relation not to an illusionary filmed image but rather to the very real presence of the film-maker himself that the ontological status of the primary characters is foregrounded in our consciousness. Understood as a movie-within-a-movie, then, the argument here is that Godard' second track of self-referential reflexivity is such that his characters in the main track diegesis become more real.
Our macrocosmic understanding of the second track as a movie-within-a-movie is made all the more attractive here by the microcosmic observation that occasionally it literally is the case that Godard shows his characters watching a film. Naturally, in these cases, Eberwein's insight into how the illusionary filmed image works on the main film is valid in the way he formulates it. Nonetheless, such instances are at the same time happening in the larger context of the second track.
That the primary characters watch films not made by Godard himself should not suggest to us that the reflexivity involved is not self-referential with respect to the film they are in that is made by Godard. While it might be fun to chase this in a circle, my intention is to spiral out of the semiotic twister, land on my thesis and hold about the microcosmic movie-within-a-movie that it all the more fortifies the realism of Godard's situated characters in the macrocosmic movie-within-a-movie.
In tracking the second track this way we are apprehending it as what the old Germans would have called a logic. But to complete the case I am making about Godard founding a new mode of realism, it is now necessary to locate Godard's logic within his developmental trajectory over the historic course of the New Wave period. Remembering what was going on in the world during the 1960s is absolutely essential to this theory of Godard's reflexivity.
For it is an incontrovertible fact that the film-maker evolved away from purely stylistic concerns to thematic issues, that he became steadily more devoted to current events in the real world about which he conducted ideological inquiry. Whatever his reputation as a story-teller, there could be no doubt that this was no navel-gazer. Hey, the works of his New Wave period were nothing if not immediately topical and provocatively opinionated about the contemporary state of affairs.
And yet, this growing politicization featured not the decrease but the increase of self-reference. With his own catalog growing, the director could fashion intertextual quotations on the basis of his own previous work instead of Howard Hawks or whomever. Even more significant than such internal allusion, he grew more brazen in putting himself in his artifacts, not as a reel persona but as a real person, most especially as a non-omniscient narrator who is situated outside but not "above" the fiction. Eventually, in one film, The Chinese, even this outsider position is compromised by the director literally turning the camera on himself.
So the dialectical development was increasing self-reference but decreasing introspection. Look at me is not back to me. It is the exact opposite: Look at me - see the world! His films became ever more strident about not being merely excuses for themselves. And yet again, with this came a growing risk. The second track more and more give the impression that the logic was on the verge of back-firing, that at any moment the whole film might devolve into a self-referential parade of home-recreational, junk-movie footage; threatening to present the director's artifact as the work of a poser full of coffee-table philosophizing, sociological tourism and dime-store political theory.
To say that Godard's art did not for the most part back-fire in this way is to take a stand on what his pop orientation was all for. It is to choose sides between the establishment of the mainstream and the counter-culture challenging this establishment and daring to take over the mainstream.
If it is correct that Godard was in the vanguard of the popular counter-culture - and I believe it is most definitely correct - then any attempt to make sense of his art must first recognize to what it was counter. To highlight what was most negatively conditioning Godard's art as the 1960s progressed, I propose that we need to pay attention not to what he was watching but rather to what he was not watching. Not movies. Television.
Let me dial in on this more precisely. No doubt, Godard was watching television. Perhaps plenty of it. Hell, he may have even done some directing for TV for all I know, although I very much doubt it. No matter. For what he was not doing in general was finding television remotely palatable; aesthetically, politically and epistemologically.
In retrospect, film critics and other film-makers love to recognize all Godard's quotes and allusions to previous movies. That he perhaps drew just as much from literature - from current trashy fiction to classic egghead tracts, from narrative source material to dramatic templates - this is left for sorting by the wing of the humanities department more literary (less illiterate?[Herzog]). Meanwhile, not other films, (and certainly not books) but an entirely other media was consolidating the most general hold over the mental life of the populace at that time. It is exactly against this growing entrenchment of TV that Godard's art is struggling.
And I do mean struggling. The cultural hegemony of television was still nascent at the beginning of the decade but was a fait accompli as it came to a close. French culture was not as fully absorbed by television as was American, but the saturation of TV into Godard's homeland was complete enough; all the more insidious to the extent that it imported and/or reproduced the American model with respect to either corporate agendas or state indoctrination.
In the 1960s, the expanding manipulation of society by either commercial or government television networks made it plain to any radical that this was THE cultural force with which one had to reckon. It was the sound of Edward Bernays plus vision, radio and now moving pictures piped directly to the individually-isolated constant consumer/sometime voter. This media management of the masses is the dominant cognitive field or central communicative circumstance for Godard's art and to which his films run counter. How artistically to forge political resistance to the consent that was steadily being manufactured as promised by Walter Lippmann was the question.
In fact, television proved to offer challenges to its masters. By the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the anti-war demonstrators would chant for the TV cameras as the cops swung their clubs: "The whole world is watching!" Clearly, public relations was a double-edged sword. Godard was not conducting public relations - at least not before May 1968 - but throughout the decade prior to this he was increasingly waging a war for hearts and minds nonetheless.
Again, he's weird, but he's not THAT weird. Whether using techniques of TV against itself or introducing baldly TV-unfriendly strategies, Godard's second track demonstrated in no uncertain terms that his movies were alternatives to television. Hey kids, switch off the tube and watch this instead!
Notice from Breathless through to Week End, not once does Godard show people watching television. If memory serves, there are only two instances of television appearing in his cinema from 1959 to 1967. A television briefly appears as part of a living room set in A Married Woman - and the thing isn't even turned on, never mind being watched. In 2 Or 3 Things, there are three verbal references to television and a television store (retail/repair?) appears in the background at one point. Viewed from within an interior, through a window and across the street, a television is visible in the store window - and the thing isn't even turned on, never mind being watched. It is as if his whole New Wave purpose is to portray a world without TV. More precisely, a world with TV, but never turned on, never watched.
I will fine tune this. It was Hollywood that was commercially threatened by the advent of television with respect to dramatic/comedic programming; that is, fiction. For the increasingly politicized Godard, however, the contest was not crudely economic but rather cultural in the deepest and fullest sense of the term; and the principal ideological issue was not the overtly fictional but rather the ostensibly realistic on television. Godard was engaged in a battle against the false realism of TV on two fronts. The evening news and advertising.
The evening news and advertising are the epitome of phoney realism, albeit in completely opposite ways. The claim of the news to realism is its explicit stock and trade, hardly requiring repetition. Supposedly pure facts unfettered by opinion delivered by neutral professional journalists with nary a spin doctor on staff, etc.
The claim of advertising to realism is, conversely, implicit and operates not on the rational faculties but instead on the emotional side. Regardless of the various psychological angles employed, all advertising makes a claim to realism insofar as it informs the potential customer of his supposedly authentic desires and delivers the promise of genuine satisfaction.
These, then, are the twin towers of TV's simulacrum, screen-tested in favour of the capitalist system. Godard's art in the 60s is a kind of shock therapy for minds newly and naively in the stranglehold of the bogus positivism of the news and the fake utopian directives of advertising. The illusory objectivity of television that dopes the viewer alone at home is countered by Godard's cinema through the placement of his own subjectivity within fiction that reveals itself to be fiction and in so doing, exposes reality.
Godard was also a brilliant publicist, with an adman's talent for reducing ideas to captions... What Godard had grasped was that film didn't have to pretend to be real... It is tempting to brand Godard as a sophisticated high-class soap, a product based on a tailored understanding of market and media,
(Chris Petit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/
books/2008/aug/09/film. jeanlucgodard? INTCMP= ILCNETTXT3487).
Petit - no doubt, not just petit in name but actually with respect to his bourgeois sensibility - does not want to give in to the temptation to brand Godard this way because to do so would be to tarnish the obviously high-brow aspects of the director's art with low-brow credentials. But one more time folks. Godard is pop! This is what makes his art politically dangerous, a genuinely radical alternative to the culture delivered by television.
It is only reactionary historiography today, however innocently exacted, that refuses to highlight this radical danger, by wrongly thinking that Godard's art is unrealistic because it does not pretend to be real. In so doing, it cordons off the pop of New Wave as a purely stylistic concern and turns Godard himself into a figure as safe for the system as Andy Warhol. I hold, conversely, that Godard's freaky-deaky yet fundamentally fathomable imaginary constructs served to critically expose the reality of the day.
What is more, so unlike television, this reality was exposed to groups of people out on the town for an evening of cultural recreation... philosophic debate... political argument... For the experience of cinema was still a public cultural experience generating a socialnexus with potential for ideological resistance. Many in Godard's audience will indeed go from talk to action in 1968. "Godard [was] staking a claim for cinema as the Media of The People," (7/14/2011 5:25), especially as he came to draw a degree of inspiration from the Cultural Revolution going on in China.
Today as movie houses are fractured into multi-screen display factories barely economically viable themselves since VCR, DVD, internet downloading, streaming, and all the rest of it viewed on individual Dick Tracy wristwatches, the status of the cinema as a site of political mobilization stands to us as some sort of ghostly republicanism set in a long antiquated Greek amphitheatre.
Radical cinema? Never mind the cinema! The television networks that consolidated their hold over the culture by the end of the 60s are themselves now relatively emaciated media powers, analogous today to newspapers when the wireless showed up. That these television networks, radio stations and newspaper chains even survive today is only as sectors of global media conglomerates with advancing monopolistic reach. Yet, a bit of historical consciousness is all that is needed to remember the ocean of television that was flooding everything for the first time back in the day. The New Wave did not turn back the tide. Yet, some water flowed counter.
Radical cinema? Never mind the cinema today, however excellent some of it is. The New Wave is still new, still radical. Even those who mistakenly like to think of themselves as apolitical in their art-for-art's-sake aesthetic interpretations of Godard have to admit that he is just as fresh today as he ever was, just as modern in this so-called postmodern era.
But for those of us inclined to radical politics, Godard was already fighting against coca-colonization. The Big Macification of the world today is exponentially off the chart for which he had compiled data in the 60s. So we need that ancient amphitheatre now more than ever. Good news. Godard's art is not in ruins. It stands! Hey kids, turn off that internet re-run of what was already a lie in 1968 and watch Godard instead. Damn straight!
Picasso said that art is the lie that tells the truth. Godard deals this out in spades. As I attempted to elaborate convincingly above, the main mechanism operating in his art is a second track of reflexivity that dialectically draws our attention to the world by making us notice the emperor crafting his own clothes.
For all the sometimes excessive imposition of his subjective style, Godard is not a dandy preoccupied by his own artifice. Quite the contrary, he is an objectivist who manages to heighten our focus on the facts of the matter by exposing his own presence as one of those facts. He brings reality into view by way of his fictions. The film focuses on it's "filmsy" (see: 7/14/2011 5:02), and forthwith finds facts facing fiction fractiously.
Hence, dialectically, not in spite of but rather because of all of the wild and wacky fabrications, there is always to a Godard film a documentary quality. It must have been noted by many others that Godard's New Wave films stand as a testament to those times. They somehow document the reality of that moment in history. The very thing that is the most far-fetched according to "normal" movies, his second track, is the thing that brings us back to earth, overturns the illusion of film, tells the truth. That's realism.