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Presenting ‘Selves’ As ‘Radical Art’

To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body – both go together, they can’t be separated.” – Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard (December 3, 1930 – September 13, 2022) directed La Chinoise in 1967, after crafting 13 films in his inimitable style. The story revolves around five young people, who were vacationing in a Paris apartment. Like the Maoists of various countries, they, too, called themselves Marxist-Leninists. The colour red was shown in abundance, around them. Those young men and women were seen spending their days arguing, speculating, and rehearsing on different nuances of the revolution. A few months after that, May 1968 would take place in Paris, where young people would trigger protests on the streets, and also in university campuses across the world. Some time since then, people seemingly thought that there would be a rise of Socialism all over the world. Initially, La Chinoise had come under heavy criticism, but Godard’s amazing prediction surprised everyone later.

Jean-Luc Godard

From 1968, Godard would be known as a Maoist for the next three years, as he clearly stated his Political Position in La Chinoise. However, the film had angered most of the Leftists, because it has never been easy to understand who exactly the Director was speaking for. The political elements in La Chinoise gradually became clear, after the fiery moment of the radical spring passed.

La Chinoise

Jacques Rancière was one of the philosophers who started reading Marxism, yet again, in that decade. Rancière recalled the quote of Louis Althusser from the introduction to his 1965 publication Reading Capital (Lire le Capital). Althusser wrote: “However paradoxical it may seem, I venture to suggest that our age threatens one day to appear in the history of human culture as marked by the most dramatic and difficult trial of all, the discovery of and training in the meaning of the ‘simplest’ acts of existence: seeing, listening, speaking, reading – the acts which relate men to their works, and to those works thrown in their faces, their ‘absences of works’.” Rancière stressed: “Althusser’s project of knowing what ‘seeing, listening, speaking, reading’ mean is exactly what Godard puts into play in La Chinoise.

If one remembers those words of Althusser, s/he can easily understand why Godard used the colour red and uncertain gestures too much in this movie. One should also remember that the colour of blood, too, is red. In 1967, Godard crafted another film, Weekend. While talking to Godard on Weekend, a journalist had asked the director: “Why so much blood in this film?” “Not blood, but red,” replied the French film-maker.

Rancière is of the opinion that Godard’s films help one think about reality. The reality is formed with some elements, and Godard wanted people to arrange the sounds, colours, and words according to their own perception in order to realise those elements, as well as the reality. It can be considered as the political work of Godard. Although he had already started this work, it took a Marxist form in 1967-68.

Godard expanded the possibilities of cinema

French poet Louis Aragon reportedly said: “Art, today, is Jean-Luc Godard.” After watching La Chinoise, Aragon, who was one of the leading voices of the Surrealist Movement in France, mentioned that he had found the entire city of Paris turning red while coming out from the theatre. He recalled that Godard had used blue and yellow in his Pierrot le fou (1966). Aragon qualified Pierrot le fou as a movie with a gorgeous beauty, stating that in this film, actor Jean-Paul Charles Belmondo, with the colour blue painted on his cheeks, was seen holding a yellow dynamite on his head. Suddenly, the dynamite became red, and exploded. Thereafter, the camera panned over the blue sea, and the lines of Arthur Rimbaud‘s verses flowed like a gentle breeze. In a similar fashion, Godard paused the sound midway through the action in his Little Soldier (1961), after which one character started speaking the dialogue of another. As the first phase of Godard’s venture of prolific film-making came to an end by 1967, he kept storytelling aside, and started concentrating on images and sound. He also moved away from the object to emphasise the colour, sound and image. It is because when one says: “I love you“; the pronunciation comes first, and then comes the feeling of love. Similarly, one notices the image of the script on the screen first, and then realises the meaning of the words (or dialogues).

Later, when Godard would reach his major project History of Cinema (1989-98), he would tell the world that the misfortune of the 20th Century was hidden in invisibility or disappearance or illusion. In other words, the image never really met the text that captured the history. According to Godard, image is not a second layer where one sees the image of the primary layer, i.e. the image of reality. Reality does not exist without images, because the former is not a mere collection of objects, but a map of relationships.

French philosophers are different, as they do not hesitate to pen serious books on films. Apart from Rancière, other noted philosophers who have written extensively on Godard include Gilles Louis René Deleuze and Alain Badiou. Deleuze reportedly said that Godard was a filmmaker of relationships. While everyone else thinks of ‘is‘, Godard thinks of ‘and‘, and also concentrates on ‘and‘ while making films, he added. This is how film itself becomes a thought-process, rather than showing thought, thanks to Godard. According to Deleuze, there came a moment after the Second World War when cinema was facing a crisis because of the shift from movement image to time image occurred during this period. However, the French New Wave Film Movement was able to respond to the loosening of the bond between action and reaction by seizing the opportunity of new image-making. Godard, a pioneer of that movement, portrayed the poetry of dissonance in his films. In films made by Godard, people travel, but do not reach anywhere. Audience hear the question, but not the answer. They also do not see the reaction to an event, as there is a beginning of an expression, but not an end. Instead of moving forward, events turn in circles. All these break the very basic habit of our thought process. Human beings start thinking only after creating a perspective, and understand an event by looking at the background, as well as the context. Godard flattened the shape of depth in his films. It can be identified as the Post-Modern phase.

Philosopher Alain Badiou suggested in 2013 that cinema is a “metaphor for contemporary thought… almost reminiscent of the way in which the tragedies had functioned as a metaphor for thought in ancient Greece“. According to him, this particular form of philosophy is concentrated in Godard’s films. Commenting on Passion (1982) and the Film Socialism (2010), Badiou stressed that in a particular scene, the apathy of nature, the deviation of history, the instability of human life, and the creative power of thought process were arranged simultaneously. From the first image, real characters appeared in the story in their respective roles. A glimpse of the main character was seen only in the second image. This is also a method of turning the flow of a story. It became difficult for the audience to separate a story and a documentary; as the reality, itself, was wrapped in images and stories. From Godard’s very first film, Breathless (1959), his viewers discovered plenty of symbols throughout the background… a city printed on news, advertisement, paintings, and posters. Thus, Godard started levelling the audience’s habit to create a perspective. It cannot be questioned where the lead male and female characters of Breathless came from. In that case, actor Belmondo might have said that he was from a Hollywood gangster movie. When he was shot dead by the Police at the end, he seemingly had no idea whether he died in real life, or in a reel.

Just as most of the philosophers, Godard used to think about death. As he did not follow the limits of fiction, he met with a different tragedy. One can recall a scene from Little Soldier in which the assassin was seen telling the last part of Jean Cocteau‘s novel Thomas the Impostor. Like Belmondo, Thomas was also shot while fleeing the scene. He thought that he would survive, if he pretended to die. However, William Thomas breathed his last, as the story and the reality were same for him.

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