by Serge Daney
May '68, as we know, confirmed Godard's suspicion that the cinema was, in every sense, a 'bad place', at once immoral and inadequate. A place for facile hysteria, for the eye's filthy roving, for voyeurism and magic. A place where, to use a metaphor that was once all the rage, one came to 'sleep in the picture bed' (dormir dans Ie plan lit), to get an eyeful and in fact to see nothing at all to see too much and to see it badly.
The doubts cast by May '68 on the 'viewing community' - a community that secretes more images and sounds that it can see and digest (the image flashes by and disappears) - reached the generation that had invested most in it, that of the self-taught cinephiles for whom the cinema had taken the place of school and family, the generation of the New Wave, brought up in the cinematheques. From 1968 Godard was to react by pulling out and retracing his steps: from the cinema to school, and then from school to the family. Regression? Why couldn't one say 'regressionism'?
In 1968, for the most radical - the most left-wing - element among film_ makers, one thing is certain: you have to learn to get away from the cinema (from cinephilia and obscurantism) or at least forge a link between the cinema and something else. And to learn you have to go to school. Not so much the 'school of life' as the school of film. That was how Godard and Gorin came to transform the scenographic cube into a classroom, the film dialogue into a recitation, the voice-off into a lecture, the shooting into a practical, the film topic into course headings ('revisionism', 'ideology') and the film-maker into a schoolmaster, tutor or supervisor. School thus becomes the 'good place', the place that gets you away from the cinema and closer to the 'real' (a real awaiting transformation, of course). It's the place which has brought us the films of the Dziga-Vertov group (and already, La Chinoise). In Tout va bien, Numiro deux and lci et ailleurs the family apartment has replaced the classroom (and television had taken the place of the cinema), but the essential remains. The essential: people giving each other lessons.
We need look no further to explain the extraordinary mixture of love and hatred, of rage and irritation, the moans and the groans that Godard's 'cinema' - pursuing a fairly tough Maoist line, initially - proceeded to unleash. Had Godard been 'recuperated by the system', people would have forgiven him a lot (even today, how many people are still indignant at the idea that he won't give them another Pierrot Ie fou?). Had he become totally marginalized, an underground figure happy with his underground status, they would have rendered him discreet homage. But what can they do with a Godard who continues to work, to teach and be taught, whether people come to see his films or not? There's something in Godard's pedagogy that the film world - the film world especially - won't tolerate: the fact that it is addressed to no one in particular.
Godard's pedagogy. School, as we were saying, is the 'good place' (the place where you make progress, the place you're bound to get out of) in contrast to the cinema (the 'bad place' where you regress and where your chances of getting out are nil). Let's take a closer look and pursue the analogy.
First, school is more than anywhere else the place where you are allowed, indeed encouraged, to confuse words and things/ to remain in ignorance about what links them, to postpone having to think about it until later (is there anything to vouch for the truth of what we are taught?). School means nominalism and dogmatism.
Now the sine qua non of Godard's pedagogy is this: you must never question the other's discourse, whatever it is. You must take it literally, unthinkingly. You must also take it word for word. Godard concerns himself only with things-already-said-by-others or things-already-said in the form of established statements (quotations, slogans and posters, jokes and stories, words on a blackboard, newspaper headlines, anything at all). Statement-objects, little monuments, words taken as things: learn them or not as you prefer, take it or leave it.
Things-said-by-others have the status of a fait accompli: whatever else, they exist, they consist of something. Their very existence rules out any attempt to reconstruct behind, before or around them the domain of their enunciation. Godard never asks any questions of the statements he receives - where they come from or what makes them possible, or what guarantees they offer. He never queries the desire they betray and at the same time conceal. His approach is anti-archaeological in the extreme. It consists in noting what is said (about which nothing can be done) and immediately looking for the other statement, the other sound, the other image which might counterbalance this statement, this sound, this image. 'Godard' would simply be the empty space, the black screen where images and sounds would co-exist, cancel each other out, recognize and point to each other - in short, struggle. More than 'who is right?' and 'who is wrong?', the real question is 'what could we oppose to that?' The devil's advocate.
Hence the malaise and 'confusion' with which Godard is often reproached. He always replies to what the other says (asserts, proclaims or recommends) by what another other says (asserts, proclaims or recommends). There is always a big unknown quantity in his pedagogy, and this is because the nature of the relation he entertains with his 'good' discourses (those he defends) is ultimately uncertain.
In Ici et ailleurs, for example, a 'film' based on images brought back from Jordan (1970-5), it's clear that the film's self-interrogation (the way in which it dissociates 'here' and 'elsewhere', images and sounds, 1970 and 1975) is possible and intelligible only because, early on, the syntagm 'Palestinian revolution' already functions as an axiom, as something that can be taken for granted (something already-said-by-orhers, in this case by Al Fatah), something in relation to which Godard doesn't have to define himself personally (and say not just 'I' but 'I'm on their side') or mark his position in the film. He doesn't have to make his position, his initial choice - for the Palestinians, against Israel acceptable, convincing or desirable. The logic of school, again.
Second, school is more than anywhere else the place where the master doesn't have to say where his knowledge and his certainties come from. And on the other hand it's the place where the pupil cannot reinscribe, use or Put to the test the knowledge imparted to him. Before the master's knowledge, and after the pupil's knowledge, is a blank, a no man's land, a question that Godard will have nothing to do with. the question of how knowledge is appropriated. He's only interested in (re)transmission.
And yet in every pedagogy there are values. positive contents, to be communicated. Godard's pedagogy is no exception. Every single one of the films made after 1968 latches on to (and distances itself from) what one might call with out any pejorative nuance - 'a correct discourse' [discours du manche]. Let's recapitulate: Marxist-Leninist politics (the Chinese positions) in Pravda and Vent d'est' Althusser's lesson on wrong notions of ideology in Lotte in Italia; Brecht's lesson on 'the role of intellectuals in the revolution' in Tout va bien and, more recently, snatches of feminist discourse (Germaine Greer) in Numero deux. Correct discourse is not a discourse in power, but it's a discourse that has power it is violent, assertive, provocative and fully constituted. Correct discours changes hands, so to speak, but it always comes from above and is quick to lay blame (things to be ashamed of, in turn: being a cinephile, being a revisionist being cut off from the masses, being a male chauvinist).
But Godard is not the conveyer - still less the originator - of these discourse which he asks us to believe in (and submit ourselves to). His role is more lik: that of a tutor [repetiteur]. A three-term structure is then established, a littl theatre a trois, where the master (who is after all only a tutor) and the pupil (who only repeats) meet up with what has to be repeated, the correct discourse to which master and pupils are subjected, if unequally, and which bullies them.
The screen, then, becomes the place where this bullying is experienced and the film its staging. But in this arrangement two questions are completely ignored: how the correct discourse is produced (in Maoist terms: where do correct ideas come from?) and how it is appropriated (in Maoist terms: what is the difference between true ideas and correct ideas?). School is not of course the place for these questions. The tutor appears as a modest and at the same time tyrannical figure: he makes the pupil learn a lesson which doesn't arouse his own curiosity, and to which he is himself subjected.
After 1968 this master-discourse is conveyed more or less systematically by a female voice. For Godard's pedagogy implies a division of roles and discourses according to sex. Man speaks but woman makes the speeches. The voice that reprimands, corrects, advises, teaches, explains, theorizes and even theorizes/terrorizes is always a woman's voice. And if this voice begins to speak about women's issues, precisely, it adopts the same assertive, faintly declamatory tone: the opposite of the naturalistic experience and concern. Godard doesn't film a revolt that can't speak for itself, that hasn't found its language, its style, its theory. In Tout va bien we see the character played by Jane Fonda move very quickly from dissatisfaction to a kind of theoretical explanation of her dissatisfaction (one that Montand doesn't understand). There is nothing at all before discourse, before things-said-by-others.
Third, for the master and for the pupils, each year brings with it ('back to school') a re-enactment, a repetition of the first time, a going back to the beginning. To the time when nothing was known, when the blackboard was empty. So that school - the place of the tabula rasa and the blackboard on which nothing remains for long, the gloomy place of permanent transition and waiting for things to happen - is an obsessional, non-linear place, closed in on itself.
From his very first films Godard has shown an extreme reluctance to 'tell a story', to say 'at the beginning, this happened' and 'at the end, that'. Getting away from the cinema was also getting away from this obligation, well formulated by old Fritz Lang in Le Mepris: 'You always have to finish what you begin: A basic difference between school and the cinema is that there's no need to please or to flatter schoolchildren because school is compulsory. The state insists on schooling for every child. Whereas in the cinema, to hold on to your public, you have to give them things to see and enjoy, tell a story (spin a yarn): hence the accumulation of images, the hysteria, the calculated effects, the retention and the discharge, the happy ending - the catharsis. The privilege of school is that it retains its pupils so that they retain what they are told; the master retains his knowledge (he doesn't say everything) and punishes the bad pupils with detention.
Keeping and giving back
School was therefore the 'good place' only because, as the place of endless deferral, it allowed you to retain the maximum number of things and people for the longest possible time. For 'to retain' means two things: 'to keep back' but also 'to delay', 'to defer'. You keep an audience of pupils to delay the moment when they might move too quickly from one image to another, from one sound to another, see too quickly, come to premature conclusions, think they're done with images and sounds when they have no idea of the complexity, the seriousness of what is involved in the ordering of these images and these sounds.
School allows you to turn cinephilia back against itself, to reverse it like a glove, taking all the time you need. This is why Godard's pedagogy consists in for ever coming back to images and sounds, pointing to them, matching them. commenting on them, putting images within images and sounds within sounds, criticizing them like so many insoluble enigmas: not losing them, keeping them in sight, keeping them.
A masturbatory pedagogy? No doubt. It has as its horizon, as its limit, the enigma of enigmas, the sphinx of the still photograph: it is what defies the intelligence that can never exhaust it, what holds the look and the meaning, what fixes the scopic desire: actively retains it.
For the place from which Godard speaks co us, from which he addresses us , is certainly not the secure place of a profession or even a personal project. It's somewhere in between, even a between-three, an impossible place that embraces the photograph (nineteenth century) and the cinema (twentieth century) and television (twenty-first century). The photo is what retains once and for all (the corpse to work on). The cinema is what retains for a moment only (death at work). Television is what retains nothing at all (a fatal spilling out:. a haemorrhaging of images).
Thus Godard's advance on other manipulators of images and sounds has to do with his complete disregard for any discourse on the 'specificity' of the cinema. You have to see how he finds a place on the cinema screen for both the still photo and the television image, how he quietly fits them in (the cinema's only specificity now consisting in - provisionally? - receiving images that Wet'e not made for it, in allowing itself to be taken over by them: Numero deux), to understand that Godard goes beyond any discourse on the specificity of the cinema, whether the spontaneous discourse of the spectator (that's what the cinema means to me), or that of those professionally involved (that's how you make films) or that of enlightened academics (that's how the cinema works).
The cinema, as we were saying at the outset, is a bad place, a place of crime and of magic. The crime: that images and sounds should be taken (torn removed, stolen, extorted) from living beings. The magic: that they should h; exhibited in another place (the film theatre) for the pleasure of those Who See them. The one who benefits from the transfer is the film-maker. That's Where the real pornography lies, in this change of scene: it's literally the ob-scene.
People will say: these are moral questions, of the sort addressed by Bazin and what's more, this type of symbolic debt can't be repaid. Indeed. But Godard's itinerary happens to poine to a very concrete, very historical question a question in crisis: that of the nature of what might be called the 'filmic contract' (filming/filmed). This question seemed to arise only for the militant or ethnographic cinema ('Ourselves and others'), but Godard tells us that it concerns the very act of filming. Is he exaggerating? One can't seriously think that this is one of those questions that can be resolved with good will and pious hopes (for the good cause - the artistic masterpiece or the correct militant action). It is going to arise and is bound to become more pressing as the traditional contract between the film-maker, the filmed and the film viewer, the contract established by the film industry (Hollywood), becomes ever more threadbare and the cinema, as 'a mass, family, popular and homogenizing art', reaches crisis point. Godard speaks to us already about this crisis; because it was this crisis that made him into a film-maker. But it's already a question of pornographic films (Exhibition) or militant films (Un simple exemple). A question of the future.
For Godard, retaining images and his audience, pinning them down in a sense (as butterflies are cruelly pinned down), is a despairing activity, and a hopeless one. All his pedagogy wins for him is a little more time. To the obscenity of appearing as the auteur (and the beneficiary of filmic surplus value) he has preferred that of displaying himself in the very act of retention.
The impossibility of moving on to a filmic contract of a new sort has therefore led him to keep (retain) images and sounds, not knowing who to give them back to. Godard's cinema is a painful meditation on the theme of restitution, or better of restoration. To restore is to give back the images and sounds to those from whom they were taken. It is also to commit them (a truly political commitment) to producing their own images and sounds. And so much the better if this forces the film-maker to change his way of working!
A film in which this restitution-restoration takes place, at least ideally, is lei et ailleurs. Who can these images of Palestinian men and women that Godard and Gorin (invited by the PLO) bring back from the Middle East, these images that Godard keeps to himself for five years, be given back to?
To the general public eager for sensation (Godard + Palestine = scoop)? To the politically aware anxious to be confirmed in its orthodoxy (Godard + Palestine = good cause + art)? To the PLO who invited him, allowed him to film and trusted him (Godard + Palestine:: weapon of propaganda)? No, not even the PLO. So what does that leave?
One day between 1970 and 1975 Godard realizes that the soundtrack has not been translated in its entirety - what the fedayeen say in the shots where they appear has not been translated from the Arabic. And he realizes that basically there would have been few complaints (everyone would have accepted the superimposition of a voice-over). Now, Godard tells us, these fedayeen whose speech has remained a dead letter are themselves awaiting death, as good as dead. They - or ocher fedayeen like them - died in 1970, assassinated by Hussein's troops.
Making the film ('You always have to finish what you begin') then amounts, quite simply, to translating the soundtrack, making sure that people can hear what is said; or better, that they listen to it. What is retained is then released, what is kept is given back, but it is too late. The images and the sounds are given back, just as tributes are paid, to those to whom they belong: to the dead.
Translated by Annwyl Williams
Cahiers du Cinema /Volume Four: 1973-1978: History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle/Edited by David Wilson