From The Soho News (February 18, 1981). — J.R.
Ici et Ailleurs
A film by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville
Against the Grain
A film by Tim Burns
James Agee Room, Bleecker Street Cinema
Despite all the signs of exacerbated brilliance in Godard’s work since 1968, it is arguable that only after he left Paris in 1973 for Grenoble and Rolle — and before he made Every Man for Himself about a year ago — has he been able to function seriously as a political filmmaker, in direct and personal confrontation with his subjects.
Before that, preoccupations with the “correct” lines about certain struggles and their representations have cheifly yielded case studies for conservative armchair Marxists — ideal meditations for Parisian camp followers preferring to keep their feet dry and their politics fashionably academic. And from the vantage point of the next five years, it is difficult to avoid seeing Godard’s recent alliance with Coppola, at least partially, as a gesture of impotence and defeat.
The more purposeful stretch of his career that I have in mind begins with Ici et Ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere), in 1974, continues with Numéro Deux (1975), Comment ça va and Sur et sous la communication (both 1976) and ends with his difficulties in getting his second TV series France/tour/détour/deux/enfants broadcast as he intended in 1978 and 1979. It is precisely the work of this period — comprising about 3 1/2 hours of film and 16 hours of video — that has remained most inaccessible in the U.S. (Even the print of Ici et Ailleurs at the Bleecker is unsubtitled, meaning that viewers without fluent French have to depend on a printed version of the text in English.)
What makes Ici et Ailleurs important in a pivotal way is the fact that both of Godard’s major collaborators — the grandstanding Jean-Pierre Gorin and the deliberately invisible Anne-Marie Miéville worked on it at different stages over a four-year period. In 1970, Godard and Gorin traveled to Jordan, invited by the PLO, to film the Palestine revolution for Till Victory — a work-in-progress saluted on the opening cut of Patti Smith’s third album Easter but never completed. After Godard moved to Grenoble and set up his first Sonimage studio, he re-examined the Palestinian footage with Miéville (who has collaborated on every subsequent work of his); Ici et Ailleurs is the record of that encounter.
The “here” of the title is France — a working-class family watching TV, Godard and Miéville watching the Godard-Gorin footage and communicating offscreen. The “elsewhere” is not merely Palestine, but the film that Godard and Gorin wanted to make there in 1970. Like sound and image, now and then, or life and death, here and elsewhere essentially define one another dialectically, through a series of relays and exchanges — a process that for Godard and Miéville is indistinguishable from their responsibility to their subject.
What does it mean to be “responsible” to one’s subject? Something other than what Godard and Gorin are in Letter to Jane (1972), I would say, where their irritation with (envy of?)Jane Fonda ultimately bends their analysis into a form of glib self-flattery. Here, on the contrary, the injunction is, “Learn to see, not read.”
As Colin MacCabe points out, when “Godard went to Palestine to find images of the revolution that had never been seen in France, the sound (the political analysis, the practice of the Dziga-Vertov group) was too loud, so loud that it was impossible to see these images in relation to the quotidian images of France, so loud that it was impossible to see one’s own activity in the image, finally too loud even to see what was in the image itself.” Honestly, modestly, even beautifully, Ici et Ailleurs sets out to redress that imbalance, and it does so without vanity or masochism.
For one thing, most of the Palestinians filmed in 1970, training in refugee camps, died before Godard returned to the footage. Life, work, and the film itself proceed proceed remorselessly in their separate ways. Titles are situated within a musical arrangement of sounds and images like markers or place names set down on a multicolored road map: “Death in the film is represented by a flood of images…a flood of images and sounds that hide silence…a silence that becomes mortal because it is not allowed to emerge alive…. Maybe, in 1001 days, Scheherazade will tell this differently.”
It has taken Godard some time to learn ow to bear witness to brutal facts that are external to his fragmented sensibility. These facts are not readily exchangeable for media coverage, prizes, film festival slots or Hollywood contracts, and Godard has had to go elsewhere — with other goods and promises — to get those rewards. In Ici et Ailleurs, as in Numéro Deux (which is being promised a belated opening at Carnegie Hall Cinema this spring, in a subtitled version), the principal reward is irreducible clarity — and a human engagement that passes beyond the nihilism of Godard’s films with Gorin (as it does in Gorin’s own solo effort, Poto & Cabengo).
What happens when a filmmaker of little discernible imagination, craft, or talent (apart from a propensity to save and remember quotations) adopts some of the collage principles of Godard (who once said, “One must put everything into a film”)? Not so much to contend with for everyday moviegoers, who generally know enough to stay away; a bit more for hapless reviewers, who have to stay to the end so they can send back honest warning signals.
From the manufacturer of one time bomb to the explosion of another one inside a TV monitor 80 minutes later, Against the Grain follows the simple, hard-line aesthetic that a film equals X number of sounds plus Y number of images, shoved together indiscriminately and allowed to rattle about at will so that explosions, empty pockets of silence or dead space, or the intermittent drones of newscasters are made to seem equally haphazard and enlightening.
Most of the time, it’s like being stuck forever inside a badly acted version of a Huxley-style dialogue novel, peopled with leftwing terrorists and other Australian subversives who say bright, original things like “To photograph someone is a sublimated murder.” The terrorist hero’s mother offers a “revolutionary way” of making bread, and Randy Newman’s “Political Science,” mislabeled in the credits, gets played on the soundtrack for its Australian reference — and in order to tie up with the issue of whether Australia should mine its own uranium deposits and seek to become a major nuclear power; neither sequence gets articulated filmically, with any sense of pace or design. This is the first Australian underground feature I’ve seen, and it might deserve to go down in history as that country’s Guns of the Trees — for those who can still remember that early Jonas Mekas effort.
This review, from the February 4, 1981 issue of The Soho News, is most likely harsher than it needed to be. Since Mary McCarthy’s death, I’ve been moved to reformulate some of my positions about her after reading the wonderful book Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1995) edited by Carol Brightman, which reveals a side of McCarthy that seems quite contrary to her much better-known bitchiness as a critic. It proves to me that unforeseen and unforeseeable sides of some people tend to come out only in specific relationships with certain other people, and the loving generosity of McCarthy’s letters to Arendt are a particular striking example of this. —J.R.
Ideas and the Novel
By Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $7.95
Despite her wicked way with some words and ideas, Mary McCarthy has never exactly thrilled me with her aesthetics. With a taste stuck so comfortably, nostalgically, even trivially in the prosaic 19th century that even the avant-garde that she values often seems furnished with fog and brass doorknobs à la Doyle, Verne, or Poe, her acute critical intelligence usually whiles away its time polishing statues and suits of armor — rather like the New York Times Book Review — whenever she turns to the Novel. (Her intriguing comments about Charles Bovary in The Writing on the Wall offer an exception to this.)
The principal limitation of this 121-page antiformalist essay – actually, four lectures given last year at University College in London — is that there isn’t very much that’s substantially new in it. Many of the same preoccupations, with a somewhat different orientation, can be traced back to a shorter, better McCarthy essay derived from lectures, “The Fact in Fiction,” published 20 years ago, and reprinted in both On the Contrary and The Humanist in the Bathtub. (The earlier piece should probably be coupled with a 1957 by Dwight Macdonald, “The triumph of the Fact” — a broader cultural survey whose climactic quotations from Dickens’ Hard Times are taken over virtually intact in the fourth chapter of Ideas and the Novel.)
The parallels between the two McCarthy essays are striking. Both lament the alleged decline of a particular form — the novel and the novel of ideas, respectively. Basically the same hit parade of 19th century luminaries recurs in each: Austen, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky (the gossipy narrator of The Possessed is twice singled out), Eliot, Stendhal, and Tolstoy — although, in the latter case, special attention is also paid to Hugo.
Henry James is credited in both essays with “killing” the novel as McCarthy understands it – that is, the novel as newspaper — essentially by aestheticizing the 19th century novel out of existence. There is also a certain persistence of imagery, e.g., the brass safety pin proffered in 1960 as an educated stab at the small, unidentified object manufactured by the Newsomes in The Ambassadors makes a comeback cameo in the same capacity in 1980, when she seems even more certain about it.
Wishing the novel to be vulgar (with facts) and stuffy (with ideas) at the same time, McCarthy refuses to concede it much authenticity without them. (A figure like Beckett scarcely seems to exist for her.) This makes for a dull porridge of absolutes every time she decides to hoist her tired battle flag.
Already celebrated for her filmophobia, she has a few brief reflections on film here that stagger belief. A movie, unlike a novel, can’t be an “idea-spreader” because “its images are too enigmatic, e.g. Eisenstein’s baby carriage bouncing down those stairs in Potemkin.” Somewhat earlier, she virtually applauds James’ omission of any precise description of the furniture to be possessed in The Spoils of Poynton “because we can supply `real’ tables and chairs from our own imagination.” But if we can do that, why can’t we imagine a “real” revolution through a bouncing baby carriage — or the lifting of a drawbridge in October? I’m reminded of McCarthy’s injunction to Harold Rosenberg about action painting in 1959: “You cannot hang an event on a wall”; apparently you can’t project one, either — at least not in her house.
Compounding her confusion, she asserts that a film “cannot have a spokesman or chorus character as in a stage play; that function is assumed by the camera, which is inarticulate” — a bit like saying that a poem can’t have a spokesman because that function is assumed by a pencil, which can’t utter a syllable. “And the absence of spokesmen in the films we remember,” she continues — thereby banishing from our memories significant films by Cocteau, Resnais, Sternberg, and Welles — “shows rather eerily that with the cinema, humanity has found a narrative medium that is incapable of thought.” Incapable of eliciting thought from McCarthy, in any case.
Describing the supplementary information about paper, publishing, and related matters offered by Balzac in Lost Illusions, she concludes, “All this, of course, has a bearing on the story, and I do not know whether a present-day novelist, deprived of the right of auctorial [sic] intervention, could succeed in tellinh such a complicated story at all.” Who says? “A novel that ha sideas in it stamps itself as dated,” she later states categorically; and adds, “there is no escape from that law.”
Looking beyond McCarthy’s Law, I can sympathize, even empathize with her plight as the author of timely, ambitious novels like Birds of America and Cannibals and Missionaries that have met with massive indifference. I know what this feels like, but I’d hate to construct a theory about fiction or narrative based on my disappointment, even if I were invited to give a series of lectures. It makes McCarthy, for all her spirited public zeal — and despite the half-interesting parts of this book (the middle chapters, about authorial voices and Napoleon as a governing idea of 19th century France) –an unexpected soul sister of those radio-cassette-carrying teenagers who truck the streets inside their own mystic bubbles, forsaking the possibility of any social exchange. Wait until this comes out in paperback, and borrow it from a friend.
–The Soho News, February 4, 1981