“This is Radio Peking.”
LA CHINOISE (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
posted by Akiva
At this point, what can you do wih Godard? Do you relegate your admiration to the “early, funny stuff,” the unimpeachably chic Band of Outsiders or Breathless, the kind of movies you can play on mute during dinner parties — and here I suspect Vivre sa Vie works best — to cultivate a mood? Do you laugh at the grad-school-level circular dialogue, because political radicalism, existential philosophy, and Brecht no longer carry weight? (And maybe this is just a new alienation technique for contemporary urban elites to reckon with; I certainly heard laughter at New York’s Film Forum last night, at least until the kids starting talking terrorist tactics…) Or do you — pardon my French — shut up and deal with the Hobermanian assertion that Godard reinvented cinema and you just weren’t around early enough to notice?
Well, there’s a level on which Godard will always get me. His ability to meld form and content (while keeping both form and content very clearly in the foreground) makes just about every other film seem like it exists in 2-D. There’s a specific scene in La Chinoise in which Anne Wiazemsky’s Maoist militant tells her boyfriend (the forever puppyish Jean-Pierre Leaud) that she no longer loves him, attempting to make him simultaneously feel the pain and understand her decision. She is trying to prove a point, something about how a revolutionary needs to be able to fight a war on two fronts.
And of course, Godard is not content with this snippet of conversation as an explanatory device. Throughout the rest of La Chinoise, he makes the viewer attempt to make sense of two threads at once; a scene heavy on didactic dialogue will be intermittently interrupted by a fragmented sentence presented to the viewer via title cards. This is complicated further for non-French audiences because the title cards flash so quickly that they often can’t be fully subtitled. It’s a potent and baffling barrage of intellectual engagement, and like any would-be revolutionary, you’re either all the way in or you’re out.
I love Susan Sontag’s historical explanation of this technique in her essay on Vivre sa Vie: “Throughout the history of film, image and word have worked together in tandem. In the silent film, the word — set down in the form of titles — alternated with, literally linked together, the sequences of images. With the advent of sound films, image and word became simultaneous rather than successive. While in silent films the word could be either comment on the action or dialogue by the participants in the action, in sound films the word became (except for documentaries) almost exclusively, certainly preponderantly dialogue. Godard restores the dissociation of word and image characteristic of silent film, but on a new level.”
One of my favorite Brechtian illustrations of alienation-as-engagement is the way Godard uses a title card to announce The Last Scene of the Film. Seeing that, how can you not pay attention?
I’ll let others deal with the muddled politics of La Chinoise. From today’s vantage, Maoism is nobody’s idea of social progress, and I’m not even convinced that Godard’s haute bourgeouis radicals believe their own bullshit, but I love the way Godard allows his characters the time to pose ideas, argue and protest. My favorite scene is a ten minute argument on a train between Wiazemsky and a professor. She’s trying to convince him that a terrorist act is the logical next step, and he’s trying to make her realize that she has no follow-up plan. For a film built in fragments, La Chinoise really gives this conversation room to breathe. While polemics shout from the walls of the film’s revolutionary cell, these two characters speak in complete paragraphs.
La Chinoise is all about theory and practice. How do you bring home violence from across the world? Well, you stage it as theater. The characters argue about whether or not they belong to the Communist tradition from Russia, debate the ramifications of Stalin’s death, attempt to define just and unjust military action, and recreate war zones using G.I. Joes and toy guns, but really, they never leave the apartment. (I think that modern-day SDS meetings also follow this blueprint.) And when they eventually do make it outside to turn theory into practice, the fun and games quickly dissipate, and it’s time to close up shop.