“A Film in the Making” is how Jean-Luc Godard defined “La Chinoise” (1967) in the film itself, in one of its many aphoristic title card face-slaps, and it’s a simple parameter with which to view all Godard: as a process, not a product; as interrogation, not “entertainment”; and as a refutation of commercial culture and every easy market-driven conclusion it encourages. Of course, a filmmaker can hardly take a more politically radical position, and here we have Godard entering, at the spiraling end of the ’60s, into his most radicalized and notoriously forbidding period, when the youthful ardor for old Hollywood began to slip away and a maddened attention to the unsolvable political present gripped him like a fever. I know, I’ve had my randy libertine’s way with Godard and Godard-love a good deal in this space lately, as his massive oeuvre gets digitized for home video posterity, but a few things always remain to be said, particularly since we’re celebrating the anniversary of the May ’68 strikes in France that Godard virtually prophesied or perhaps inspired. Or perhaps he just became the atomic telescope lens through which his society could view itself (in 1967, he also released “Two or Three Things I Know about Her” and “Week-End,” and two shorts), which would make him at the very least the Balzac or Hugo of the mid-20th century.
Godard was and is more than that, and “La Chinoise” which uses an apartment full of Maoist students spouting dogma and half-assedly planning terrorist action as base materials to form a screaming, yowling, uneasy, tongue-in-cheek collage of capitalist and Communist chic is a fabulously ambivalent film, embracing the hot contradictions in Paris culture at the time. It was decried as being pro-totalitarian and pro-terrorism, but presumably only by people who haven’t seen it. In reality, amid its cacophony, “La Chinoise” explores the idea that Marxism in its Soviet and Maoist forms wasn’t Marxism at all, but rather new “brands” to be hawked and consumed and argued over, like Coca-Cola and Marlboro. (In fact, nothing in Godard’s filmography gets as much artillery shot at it as the cultures of advertising and marketing, especially if it’s American.)
Jingled together with news photos, laughable faux-radical pop songs, play executions, sloganeering so incessant it begins to mock itself, arguments about piddling 1967 controversies surely forgotten by the next spring, vandalism (the apartment is not the kids’ to deface, it turns out), and Godard’s most explicit self-reflexivity (the camera operator and sound man are addressed, and filmed themselves), the movie’s characters are simultaneously satirical caricatures and painfully realistic, and Godard loves them (Jean-Pierre LÃ©aud, Juliet Berto, Anne Wiazemsky) for their self-absorbed foolishness and youthful rage, even as they brandish weapons and rationalize sacrificing lives for the greater good.
“Le Gai Savoir” (1969) is Godard wrestling with the hungover aftermath of the short-lived utopia of ’68, bringing LÃ©aud and Berto back into a TV-studio field of complete darkness to reignite their arguments from nearly two years earlier, this time focusing on language and how it distorts history, and therefore any genuine political involvement. The resulting text, and the scrambled referential pop imagery around it, scans like the movie equivalent to an obsessive blog, inconclusively choked with links and downloads and pedantry. (Godard sticks a pin in his Truffaut doll with a sequence involving an absurd free-association-test session with a young boy, Ã la “The 400 Blows.”) The pair of talkers point to the subtitles, talk back to the tumultuous soundtrack (Godard often cuts to black, and lets the bubbling stew of newsreel audio and political speechifying swallow the film), comment on the nature of unknowability in a world controlled by corporate commercialism and so naturally, the discourse itself sometimes becomes nonsensical, incoherent, inadequate. This isn’t a movie at all (as we know it), but an uncompromising statement of frustrated fury sent like a missile at the summer ground zero of 1969, as if it was meant to be witnessed just once, like a public protest, and then merely remembered.
Here’s an old-school tonic water to cut the grain alcohol of Godard’s postmodernism the new Criterion Eclipse set of three silent comedies from the first phase of Yasujiro Ozu’s unassailable career, back when Japan was just acquiring talkie technology (the first sound film came in 1931, but Ozu, a lifelong heel-digger, waited a few more years), and when he, in his late 20s, was just finding the calm and observant syntax that made him happy for the next three decades. Naturally, none of them are simply comedic. “Tokyo Chorus” (1931) is a rather pathetic tribulation about a helplessly obstinate man failing as an insurance clerk and then scrounging for work; Ozu’s gentle-at-a-distance and sympathetic eye suggests an almost Flaubertian sensibility hovering over the action, and the social satire blooms because of it, as in the scene where several salarymen attempt to spy on each other’s bonus checks and end up pissing on them in the office urinal. “Passing Fancy” (1933) is more assured, set in and around a low-rent boarding house and evolving into a portrait of a dazzlingly dimwitted single dad day worker (Takeshi Sakamoto, an infectious presence who acted in 22 other Ozu films) and his bumbling relationship with his impetuous son, which builds to a lacerating and tragic pitch. In synopsis, all Ozu films sound mundane, and the early comedies even more so but visually there’s something mysterious going on here, as Ozu exercises his personality on the camera, the cuts, the actors and the length of shots, and comes away with experiences that feel just as large as our real lives, and just as poignant.
The masterwork here is “I Was Born, But…” (1932), which again lands on the tatami mats of a struggling salaryman family, this time blessed with two young brothers, who battle their new neighborhood’s complex and contentious schoolboy society as they reflectively confront their father’s low position on the company totem pole. It’s a film about power as it’s prized and exchanged and used on every social level, but it’s also outrageously and hypnotically funny, with the most precise and eloquent camera placement outside of Keaton, and the best cast of implacable child actors ever assembled for a comedy. Remarkably, the visual palate Ozu used until his final film is here (low angle mid-shots, skies cut by eaves and telephone wire, etc.), as well as his battery of endlessly affecting gestures (i.e., the reaction shot that begins with an inexpressive pause, as if still registering the pleasure or hurt that came before). But here, the kids rule no crisis is so intense that the action can’t pause for a crotch scratch or the urge to pick up an odd rock off the road.
[Photos: Godard’s “La Chinoise,” 1968; Ozu’s “I Was Born, But…”, 1932]
“La Chinoise” & “Le Gai Savoir” (Koch Lorber Films) and “Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies” (Criterion Collection: Eclipse Series) are now available on DVD.