Sympathy for Godard
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (Jean Luc Godard, Britain, 1968) — 7
Does it count as a good movie if you hate an artist with a passion and he makes a film that so perfectly embodies all his myriad flaws that you find it enjoyable as an exercise in critical chuckling? In the “this is exactly the sort of crap that this fraudulent, pretentious pseudo-intellectual quack and his cult of windbag-enablers thinks is good” sense? Is there a film-criticism equivalent of Schadenfeude?
Honestly, if SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL¹ (aka ONE PLUS ONE) had been directed by (just a “for example”) me, as a parody of Godard’s work, I would consider that film one of the greatest of all time. Everything that I hate about this man’s films is here with a vengeance — the stupid pseudo-puns on the title cards,² the indifference to coherence, the desultory editing, the lengthy takes that mostly fill themselves with their own emptiness, the radical chic, the rambling on-camera preaching, the Maoist politics, the slapdash plotting rhythm.³ But I found myself … not exactly “engaged,” but critically amused in ways not unrelated to Mystery Science Theater 3000, and sometimes even interested in the material in spite of Godard’s best [sic] efforts. Honestly … if you reject Godard and all his works and all his empty promises, this is your film — it could almost be retitled SYMPATHY FOR GODARD.
Godard interspersed basically two movies (1 + 1 … I think), made in very different styles; he cuts between a lengthy scene from one “film” to a lengthy scene from the other. Both films are shot in several-minute takes that underline their own length by their other-formal or content emptiness — it doesn’t work in the same virtuoso way that the traffic jam in WEEKEND does. Over both films, Godard mixes into the soundtrack what sounds like the reading of some cheap pseudo-naughty “famous names” pornographic novel, in the “…and then Pope Paul fondled the Venezuelan ambassador’s wife” genre. To be perfectly frank, I found myself simply tuning this out (necessary to avoid being annoyed by it).
One of the films is a fly-on-the-wall documentary on the Rolling Stones’ recording sessions that eventually yielded “Sympathy for the Devil.” The several-minute takes go in a predictable arc, as if by a security camera that happens to catch what it catches (though the sound mix is quite precise and quite good for cinema-verite). This is more than watchable because of the inherent interest of its subject matter. We see how one of the greatest of rock songs took its shape: how in the earlier sessions, Jagger sang in a much slower, bluesier tempo; how the song’s propulsive “galloping” quality, despite its samba rhythms, really only came when the piano was added to the arrangement; how the lyrics changed; how Brian Jones was clearly zoned out throughout (he’d become a member of the 27 Club within a year). This is all simply thrilling in spite of the uninflected degree-zero style that Godard brought and which is indistinguishable from half-assed boredom with the subject matter.
The other film isn’t inherently interesting in that sense, but it is … the kind of thing you just can’t take your eyes off in a mixture of pity and bemusement. It’s an essayistic series of “political” vignettes, involving black revolutionaries, a junkyard, a book shop that sells pulp fiction, political tracts and porn interchangeably, on-camera recorded interviews, names painted on cars, as if the visual incantation “Lumumba” were the 60s equivalent of “Abracadabra.” All this flotsam and jetsam may add up to Godard’s and other 60s-infected minds’ idea of profundity (or it may not; there’s no way to know and hardly any way to care). There’s a pastoral romp with a woman named Eve Democracy who doesn’t speak English answering a series of inane 60s-radical questions with an uncomprehending “yes” or “no” (mostly the former; my favorite being “is the only way to be an intellectual revolutionary to cease being an intellectual” and the promptly noted by the on-screen interviewer need for “deculturation”). There are incessant voiceover readings from “Soul on Ice” and “Mein Kampf” (neither is identified as such) and maybe there’s some point to the fact that the Adolf and Eldridge excerpts sound rather alike and had more points of commonality than you’d guess. There is of course, and it had me laughing, but it’s a point that a 60s-detesting, Allen Bloom-loving reactionary in entitled to note; I’m pretty sure a Maoist who shilled for the Eldridge Cleaver Defense Fund isn’t.⁴
SYMPATHY is so ridiculous in so many ways (doesn’t Godard recognize, for example, that the Stones are showing that even popular art is NOT spontaneous, regardless of how the final product looks, making a mockery of everything Godard was saying in the 60s) and infatuated with the infantile zeitgeist of that vile era (“U.S. = [swastika]” graffiti … oooo, how daring, how radical) that it all becomes enjoyable in the most “meta” of sick-joke ways. In an almost iconic moment, one shot follows the unpacking of some assault weapons among Black Panther types at the junkyard as the camera pans from left to right. They’re arranged over some already-dead white women, then disarranged and passed back the way they came. In other words, something happens but nothing actually does. All the while a black revolutionary is being interviewed (or “Soul on Ice” is being read from … as if it matters which) — the only thing not “taken back.” I mean … if you hate Godard and “Godard” as I do — this undermines-its-own-action scene is a pitch-perfect parody of his method. It hasn’t failed to occur to me that the only other post-1960 Godard film I find tolerable is WEEKEND,⁵ which I largely enjoy as a comedy and often a self-parodic one in its latter half.
Oh … and did I mention that Godard declares THIS self-indulgent junk his last “bourgeois film”? If you find that line amusing and have a contemptuous streak, you might enjoy SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL exactly the way I did. Otherwise, STFA.
¹ I’m giving it that title because the version I saw at a few days ago at a weekend midnight show as part of AFI’s Godard series was the one that had the complete Rolling Stones song (one of my all-time favorites) over the film’s end.
² Is “Cinemarxism” or Sovietcong” meant to mean … well, anything at all; does the fact you can get the word “love” from the letters in “alL abOut eVE” wow anyone over the mental age of 5; does writing “Marx” so that the lower part of the “X” straddles the shape of a model’s crotch imply something that writing “Schillebeecx” or “Knox” (John or Ronald?) or Axel Rose wouldn’t?
³ There is no “plot” here per se, which at least has the virtue of dispensing with the pretense that there is one.
⁴ The Mein Kampf reading takes place in the porn shop, and I was asking myself “is it even worthwhile to point out that actual historical National Socialism strongly opposed both pornography and bourgeois culture?” No … because doing that would take Godard and his fawning courtiers too seriously. Indeed, my very contempt is central to what I see as amusing about this movie — it’s like watching some televangelist froth about … whatever. It’s darkly amusing that Godard is often lauded for “being political,” as though that was a good thing separate from the quality of the political ideas.
⁵ I had in fact intended to see WEEKEND and DEVIL as a “945pm/midnight” double bill, but AFI had to cancel its WEEKEND screenings and substituted in its stead VERTIGO (which it was already showing for another program). I told the ticket-seller at 930, “I can manage to suffer through that one, I think.”