Saturday, August 6, 2011

Comment Ça Va (Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville, 1976)

Despite the blatant reflexivity of the film's premise, Comment ça va might have been a remarkably straightforward film about a newspaperman making an instructional video about the paper business with his partner. But as much as Godard has always been fascinated with process, the single question out of the journalistic "Five Ws" that is truly addressed here is "Why?" The complexity that will eventually push the film into some of the director's most challenging work to this point (no mean feat) is prompted by an almost childlike simplicity on behalf of the radical woman, Odette (Miéville), who oversees this project with the Communist newspaper editor (Michel Marot). Though her questions are complex, political, philosophical and aesthetic, they ultimately boil down to that simplest yet most agonizing of queries.

The editor considers himself a radical but, as Odette points out, he pays little heed to the process of his video editing beyond utilitarian and populist concerns; what's more, he also routinely comes into conflict with the more commercialized and tepid mainstream media, which always finds a way to soften and bury his more radical stories. He shows her a workprint, and immediately Odette asks why the film cut over information, demanding to see all of the footage first. Naturally, this results in a flood of imagery and explanatory text, but even that is soon challenged by the silhouetted Odette as she criticizes the imagery of Portuguese and French worker uprisings shown within the educational film Marot put together. After all, can text really break down an image, or can it only propose one interpretation, usually prompted by a narrow focus on but one aspect of the image?

Godard and Miéville, through Odette and a slowly contemplating Marot, delve into that theme with exacting analysis of the primary film stills of the workers. For the editor, he believes that showing such scenes while cutting out the fluff hones his statement into its clearest form. Odette, however, uses the still images to point out how one's interpretation is often formed by preconceived notions, and that to edit together only these striking images only serves to make the meaning more ambiguous. For example, Odette asks, is the gesture of raised fists a show of solidarity or a precursor to violence? For already-converted radicals and leftists, a glance at such an image would provoke the former interpretation. But what of the conservatives? Would they not view the fearsome collection of angered workers as a mob? But even then, Godard moves beyond dialectics to show even more observations that arise from the image: Odette points out that, without any context, the one worker with his mouth agape looks almost like a pop singer in gesture and body language.

And once text gets placed over the image, the meaning only further obscures. Marot, by now wise to what Odette is arguing, types "To go on strike, that is joy" onto the screen, the word "joie" making him view that same worker's open mouth as a smile or laugh. Then, he muses about removing the letters r-e-v-e from "grève" (strike). In French, "rêve" is dream, suggesting that Marot just robbed his interpretation of its optimism. This being 1976, the primitive computer equipment that allows for Godard and Miéville's image manipulation throws up text via a giant pixel of a cursor, a block that darts over the screen as it types out the letters and simply moves according to the whims of the computer operator. Perhaps this signifies the movement of the eye over the image and how importance of the mise-en-scène is subconsciously imparted to the viewer, that same ordering of importance defining meaning for the viewer before he or she truly has time to think about it. Godard had pursued a democratized film image since at least 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, and here we see a refinement of the philosophy and motivation behind that push, a desire to parcel out how we perceive images, and indeed whether auterial intent, however intellectually reasoned and intricate, matters at all the second someone else views the product.

Complementing this obsession with perspective and interpretation is Godard's pointed critique of the gap between ideological beliefs and commitments to those beliefs. Marot and his estranged son believe themselves to be radicals, but we see the son primarily getting his news through half-heard newscasts in the morning when he eats breakfast in his comfortable apartment with his lover. Meanwhile, Marot's aforementioned ignorance of the full power of his editing and film construction blinds him to the potential impact of his sloth. For him, he wants to edit the shortest distance between two idea-affirming images, but Odette demonstrates the folly of his approach.

She (and by extension the filmmakers) also subtly critiques the repression of women among these so-called radicals, showing how they assign stereotypical roles to women: the son's lover appears almost solely as a homemaker, while Odette herself gets roped into stenographer work typing out print copy, something that annoys her almost visibly (amusing, since we never see her unobscured by shadow) to the point that she slowly types and even later replays the scene in an attempt to get the man to see the error of his ways. But by then Marot's already dropped a line about women being "copying machines," effectively spitting out genetic duplicates of, erm, let's call it input data.

It is important to note that the profession Godard uses to prompt this film is journalism, a profession nominally dedicated to publicizing the truth. But religion was quick to teach the concept of lying by omission, and Godard wishes to show how casual editing for the sake of legibility and flow can undermine the power of journalism even as it makes the profession more esoteric and unappealing to the common reader. He does let on an understanding for the complicated, self-defeating position in which that places everyone, and he wryly notes "Language is the place where the executioner transforms the victim into another executioner." But if Godard finally works out that success in his quest to democratize the film image will obliterate meaning in the flood of interpretation, he suggests a path back to full directorial control by having Odette say, "What is unseen is what directs." However slowly, Godard is working his way back to narrative cinema even as he consolidates his more radical experimentation of the decade.

The first text of the film, projected on a black screen, dubs Comment ça va "A film between active and passive," and Godard shows how easy it is to lean back into passivity. Even Odette notes how she can switch her brain off while typing up copies of polemics, arguing that even a blind man can do this job. Godard shows how life itself gets in the way of full dedication to one's beliefs: can a mother be a full-time radical if she must worry about the health and progress of her children? Can someone in even the most liberal profession not devote a portion of his time to ensuring some form of paycheck to survive? It is, however, unclear whether Godard has fully accepted the truth he has uncovered, for he still suggests irritation with passive commitment. Still, the fury and autocritique of the DVG years is cooling into more a measured response to his frustrations, and if Comment ça va is not as stunning a work as Numéro deux, it is at least a refined insight into Godard's thought process as he navigates ever headier waters.

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