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Waiting for Godard

This weekend I did something I’ve done perhaps a half-dozen times already in my lifetime: re-watched Jean Luc Godard’s classic 1966 film: Pierrot le Fou. Pierrot le Fou is many things: Hollywood romance, romantic poem, parody, high-modernist novel, leftist critique — but above all, I think, its transcendent essence, is revolution; rebellion; aesthetic coup d’etat. The plot of the film is simple: Ferdinand, (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a complacent bourgeoisie, disgusted with his life and wife, runs away with his family’s nanny/ex-girlfriend Marianne (Anna Karina); committing murders, stealing cars — heading south to (apparently) meet up with Marianne’s brother, who is a “gun-runner in Africa” (interestingly the same career that Arthur Rimbaud undertook after quitting poetry). As Roger Ebert writes,

Godard never sticks closely enough to this plot to make it important. He does a curious thing. He will have a scene that is perfectly conventional, like a scene in a Hollywood gangster movie. But it doesn’t come out of anything or lead into anything; it is important because of its tone, its texture and not because it advances the plot. Thus a Godard movie becomes a montage of pure technique; the parts don’t fit together — but they add up to an attitude. Does this make sense? More than any other director, Godard resists being written about.

It’s this “attitude” that not just interests me, but continually arrests me; arrested me, perhaps most of all watching the film in the Age of King Trump. Ferdinand’s attitude — Godard’s “attitude” — is incalculable bitterness mixed with longing; the film’s cartoon violence (its plot points) are not the point — the point is ethical, it is about disgust, disavowal, contempt (the title of another Godard film) for society. While the film is in some sense, a parody of late 19th-century romanticism — with its references to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Renoir — it is also an homage; a loving extension of that romanticism into the DNA of cinema. Ferdinand — the romantic rebel — wants to know why life can’t be about color, beauty, sex, nature; why language and culture and society can’t be expressions of these essential goods. Ferdinand is Godard the filmmaker, who in his mode of composition asks the same questions about film — why can’t film just be made up of radiant truths? Ferdinand tells Marianne a story about the man on the moon who is visited by both American astronaut and Russian cosmonauts; who offer him Coca-Cola and Lenin respectively, to his equal disgust. The man on the moon, of course, is another self-reference to Ferdinand/Godard/The Rebel. Empires and their economic systems will not leave the individual alone; they will pursue his solitude all the way into space. Philosophically, the Godard of Pierrot le Fou is deeply, if covertly, Kierkegaardian. This is from Kierkegaard’s 1848 essay, “The Present Age”:

A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age a rebellion is, of all things, the most unthinkable. Such an expression of strength would seem ridiculous to the calculating intelligence of our times. On the other hand a political virtuoso might bring off a feat almost as remarkable. He might write a manifesto suggesting a general assembly at which people should decide upon a rebellion, and it would be so carefully worded that even the censor would let it pass. At the meeting itself he would be able to create the impression that his audience had rebelled, after which they would all go quietly home — having spent a very pleasant evening.

“A rebellion is… most unthinkable.” In life, in politics, in cinema. In ordinary life, ordinary politics, ordinary cinema. Which means only the virtuoso can survive as an individual capable of action-rebellion. The Kierkegaard, the Godard, the Ferdinand. Pierrot le Fou gives us the impression — even forty years after its release — that “we have rebelled”; meanwhile, its inner-rebellion continues, left to its own devices. This is what is so extraordinary to me about the film: it is a radical manifesto — a radically existential manifesto — that has passed by the “censor”: become a part of general film history; a widely acknowledged classic. “A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity.” It was true in 1848, 1966; it is true now — truer (truest) now. Advertisement, publicity; streams of “news”; streams of “entertainment” — a flood that drowns alternatives, alternate voices and modes of voice. Yet I watched Pierrot le Fou for free on a channel sponsored by a fashion brand; that was the most extraordinary thing of all. The censor in the present age is not an actual authority, it is the metaphysical technology called ‘banality’: the reduction (the concealment) of the sublime to the level of the absolutely ubiquitous. Only “virtuoso” works of art can retain their structure and integrity in the banality-flood; most works of art or thought blend in so well, so naturally, with the banal that they reveal themselves to have been banal from the very beginning. Only a “virtuoso” like Godard can stuff a film with the symbols of power and commerce and not be poisoned by them. There is a warning here for us, writers and artists of the age of King Trump. The myriad jeremiads, litanies, complaints, calls-for-resistance are for the most part, perhaps entirely, driving up advertising revenue for someone we can’t see. Girding the very system we believe we’re attacking. Godard’s film does something very interesting: it makes us wonder whether we are Ferdinands and Mariannes (ensnared subjects caught in a never-ending Hollywood adventure story) or Godards (the virtuosos who have found a way to sneak out the back door of the movie theater).



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