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Godard's 'Le Gai Savoir'

Separate and Minimal Truths About Film

By Mike Prokosch

IN THE MIDDLE of Le Gai Savoir (1968) the word "exploration" is offered up for definition. Jean-Pierre Leaud, like Godard's earlier heroes, calls it "the act of exploring a country." But Juilette Berto, rather like the heroine of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, says it means "the act of examining attentively the symptoms of an illness." In Le Gai Savoir Godard also turns from explorations of society to the analysis of ailing images and language.

For many this change has made Godard's films less political and more self-indulgent. On the contrary: an increasingly Maoist line is disciplining his own intellectual obsessions more and more strictly.

Godard has always needed to know how people think about the real things and events of their experience. Masculin-Feminin (1965) included a crude attempt to find this out directly: one sequence had Jean-Pierre Leaud go around Paris asking housewives sociological questions. Significant though the confusion of their resources seemed, it only invited the question, What do these women actually mean? or, How are they using language? That's the question Leaud and Berto now realize they must answer before they can know anything else. First they decide:

Let's go into people's houses and ask them what we want to know. But after they listen to some samples they find:

It's not so simple.

Of course- their speech is disordered.

This disorder aggravates me.

No, listen- we're studying relationships, connections, differences.

The disorder of people's speech is not just personally aggravating; it is politically significant. The modes of speech which capitalist societies generate serve, like bourgeois philosophy and education and ideology, to mask capitalism's gross injustices. In order to make clear the relationships on which this exploitative social order is built, a Communist needs more than a scientific theory of history. He needs a language more exact than the one capitalism gave him.

(Whether the language and images of Communist societies are more scientific is not a question one can ask of this film. Le Gai Savoir devotes itself to the only language Godard knows- that of his experience under capitalism. Indeed, he is so preoccupied with the existing conditions of capitalist societies that it is impossible to imagine him working in a post-revolutionary situation: what would his films be about?)

Thus Godard, far from playing self-indulgent word-games, is working at a necessary revolutionary task: to show people living under capitalism how their speech imprisons them. If that idea seems far-fetched, note that O. R. T. F. (French National TV, a creature of the bourgeois state if ever there was one) censored language it thought shouldn't be used:

How I undressed the official TV newscasters (under orders from the ghost of Artaud) and had them take it up the ass from the Minister of Information, since that's what they like.

A heroic subtitle saved this speech for English audiences. O. R. T. F., for which Godard made Le Gai Savor, bleeped out every word except "under orders from the ghost of Artaud"

One might object that such obscene language was rightly censored, and that in any case it was gratuitous in a political film. But for many European intellectuals "obscenity" is an essential part of an "intellectual guerrilla warfare" against the bourgeoisie. One of Le Gai Savoir's last images is a book cover reading Bertolt Brecht- from Rimbaud to Lenin, that is, from scatological to revolutionary. Attacks on bourgeois thought cannot limit themselves to "politics" narrowly defined; epater la bourgeoisie is a political slogan. The censorship of "obscenity" is thus a bourgeois device to restrict free thought. Everything could be discussed under a language that is really free.

Perhaps this line of argument seems trivial. Languages does roughly what we want; words and sentence constructions describe what we mean with passable precision. Why should a revolution require a new language of its own?

Because when we approach certain problems our language hinders our thinking. The way American social scientists write makes it practically impossible for a layman to understand what they mean, or to understand the society they nominally discuss. An even grosser example is advertising, with which public media saturate the whole populations of capitalist countries. The language and images of advertising condition us with consumption-directed ways of seeing reality. Recent Hollywood films also present life as a process of acquisition that far exceeds need. When we take such depictions of reality for granted, they enslave us. Unexamined assumptions about reality are the most dangerous- especially to a man trying to change society scientifically, and Marxism is nothing when it is not scientific.




GODARD'S heroes have always been the instruments of his makeshift analysis. The two of Le Gai Savoir are more useful tools than his earlier protagonists could have been- because he has abandoned the naturalistic conventions that restricted their functions. In an ordinary film characters have to play fixed roles; to speak into the camera, or step into new roles, is to break the illusion or convention of reality so many people depend upon. But in a crucial passage of Le Gai Savoir Godard attacks this "ideology of real life." To tell the meaning of a film you must look at what it concretely is, a sequence of sounds and images. "Film is not the reflection of what is real, but rather what is real in this reflection."

To think that a film represents reality is to obscure the significance of its design. If you want to discuss the meaning of a film all you can talk about is its form- the way this and that occur, and the way that is juxtaposed to this, on the screen and nowhere else. A film's form does not lay out a spectacle without interpreting the material of that spectacle. It sets thing struggling against thing and thereby generates specific emotions and ideas. If you do not become aware of that struggle and participate in it, you accept the emotions and ideas the makers of the film want you to have. You must look at what is actually on the screen and criticize the way it combines with other images and sounds. Then film will stop being a diversion, and will become a true education.

Films that further the "ideology of real life" are reactionary; they obscure the political line the film presents by pretending to be true representations of what exists. Films that make you want to watch them critically are progressive.

Le Gai Savoir is often, even if not always, progressive. The design of each successful sequence reveals itself- Godard's way of presenting material creates its own self-criticism. Juliette Berto, for example, turns at one point to the camera to tell us, "I'm eighty-four . . . thirty-three feet six inches tall . . . my sweater [which we see as blue] is yellow." Either the sound or the image is lying; will we ever again trust the statements of men speaking on TV? She recommences: "I'm twenty . . ." "That's obvious," interrupts Leaud, offscreen, for us. "Yes," she replies, "but imagine de Gaulle talking to students, or Franco. . ."

Le Gai Savoir works best in cases like this, where a certain mode of presentation suggests the way to analyze that mode. A more suggestive example occurs when Leaud and Berto decide to interview a Frenchman of the year 2000 by satellite; Godard cuts to a small red-haired boy dressed in red against a blue background. They feed him single words and he responds: "Aristotle"/"Red," "Circle"/"Lion." As in One Plus One's interview with Eve Democracy, we immediately begin weighing his responses for their political significance ("Revolution"/"October," "Stalin"/"Airplane.") Then, however, the problems implicit in this mode of presentation suggest themselves- problems that become more explicit in a similar interview with an old, possibly senile man. When the subject does not respond is it because the device feeding him words is faulty, or because his hearing is bad, or because words like "tenderness" simply don't evoke a response from him? When he responds without repeating the stimulus-word, can be sure he heard the same work we did? These questions do not center, as they might under the "ideology of real life," on the problem of whether we should believe that what we are seeing actually occurred. Instead the central question is how to interpret the material we are watching, without forgetting that it exists only as film.

In sequences like these Godard raises complex questions with the simplest of material. The method by which their images and sounds are internally constructed and externally combined provides a discourse that clarifies the meaning of each separate sequence. Form, by directly realizing material, shows the right way to analyze it.

In some sequences form is not clear enough, and the implications of Godard's method of presentation do not reveal themselves. During the long "experimental film," for example, one tape recording of a student's speech during the strike of May '68 is played, then speeded up, then slowed to catch a section of his speech so far ahead that its subject has changed. When this tape is running at high speed a whispering voice supplies theoretical dicta for revolutionary action, possibly as a critique of the first. What this mode of presentation implies is unclear. Lacking accompanying images, the two broken-up monologues have no reference and scarcely more meaning. An extended enquiry might reveal the point of this sequence- it may be just that non-referential speech has no meaning. But as it stands, Godard's method of presentation does not lead us to that conclusion. If anything the sequence is so confusing and long that it discourages critical involvement. The spectacle of boredom that results is almost as reactionary as the spectacle of "real life" to which Hollywood has accustomed us.

Those sequences which employ metaphor also have limited success, for their meaning comes less from their formal mode than from a semi-representational correspondence to real events. One sequence finds Berto singing scales on "oh." Leaud, standing directly behind her, begins to strangle her and say "ah"; she falters, begins brokenly saying "ah," and with Leaud's approval ends singing scales on "ah." Because the sequence represents something far more awful than the action it presents, it cannot avoid a note of falseness. It is not at all suggestive formally because the meaning to which it refers bears no relation to its form of presentation. That is, it shows us nothing of the way bourgeois education does strangle free expression.

So the film's limitations spring from its virtues. While Godard's method brilliantly analyzes the language of film, it cannot analyze anything else. We can apply the lessons learned in Le Gai Savoir's sounds and images to our experiences in other films and- occasionally- to our parallel experiences in reality.

MISTODIMAN . . . a mixture of "method" and "sentiment" . . . It's a word I made up to describe images and sounds. -Leaud, at the end.

WHEN the formal method of a sequence makes itself clear it also generates a great optimism that explains the film's title, joyful knowing. Sequences that reveal their own analysis can be genuinely moving to those progressive people who rejoice in discovering how sounds and images mean. Who want films that will provoke criticism, films in which le sens joue, instead of spectacles to dull their critical faculties.

But to put all one's hope for political freedom in theoretical work is a desperate act. It's the act of a man committed to scientific, conscious, progress- and a man alienated from "reality" by this commitment to intellect, as well as by objective conditions. If his images and sounds have any sentimental content, it comes from their divorce from the real- their inability to embody the real directly.

Some of the film's most moving moments present material far from Godard's experience. At the conclusion of a few sequences we hear large choruses singing Socialist songs; other sections end with shots of Chinese woodcuts in which red children sweep some sort of reactionaries from their homes. Their inspirational tone is made quite poignant by their lack of application to the situation at hand; they have no social or critical context in the film, and are equally distant from Godard's pre-Revolutionary situation.

The film's young children have an almost identical effect. In all recent Godard they have been a source of optimism, for they can grow up with a correct political education. Thus an adult male voice in See You at Mao (1969) occasionally reads sentences of a Communist history text to a young girl, who repeats them. Easy though this is to interpret as brainwashing, the absence of any criticism within the film reveals it as one of the purest hopes Godard still has. The thought that someone can learn the truth of history, and evolve a good way of thinking, without having to struggle through bourgeois thought as Godard has the last ten years- that thought is very positive. Godard's uncritical acceptance of it shows the depth of his need for real knowledge, not just theories, of reality.

But Godard's intellectual commitment, like that of his heroes, keeps him from a direct (and therefore false, because unexamined) participation in "reality." He does what he can- he refines images and sounds as means of analyzing and coming to know reality, the way a philosopher might refine his terms or a physicist his instruments. Le Gai Savoir, as of 1968 Godard's furthest attempt, is consequently cut off from reality. There's no more going into people's homes with questions, no direct action or activism, no direct contact with reality for the characters. The images Leaud and Berto see are all second-hand; still photographs with handwriting predominate.

The pull of the "real," though, remains very strong, and Godard succumbs a few times. Shots of Parisian shoppers taken from a moving car, which looks more like documentary than anything in his previous films, alternate with very short shots and speeches of the two protagonists. Almost at the end of the film Juliette Berto complains, "The people- we talk about them, but we never see them." Godard, in the film's most romantic moment, cuts to a shot of a bus which, leaving the frame, reveals the People on the sidewalk. For an instant direct apprehension of the "real" seems possible.

But a formal analysis of cinema tells him that such direct embodiment is impossible, and he acknowledges this twice. First, and more gently, come the three successive times when Leaud tells Berto: "If you want to see the world, close your eyes, Rosemunde." Godard cuts to shots of Parisians on the sidewalk: within a film, seeing the real can only be an act of imagination, that is of closing your eyes. Second, at the end of the film Berto declares: "This [the film] was not and never will be, because this IS." It never has actually existed and never will- it can only exist in the moment when it is projected, and then only as a film, not as any other reality.

It's this reality that we must criticize carefully. Only then will film become the scientific tool of analysis Godard needs so he can reach sure knowledge of the real. His desperation for experiences of the real will not let him accept delays; but on the other hand his rationalism will not let him follow a shoddy line of analysis. Le Gai Savoir, far from being a crude propaganda film, absolutely refuses to move beyond the separate and minimal truths about film that it reveals. This refusal kept him from adopting a "correct" line before 1969; since then it has made him constantly redefine his Maoism.

Why should he have become a revolutionary? His humanitarianism will allow nothing less. Godard's films of 1969 combine all these necessities of his character. Made for analysis by fellow cadres more than for propaganda, they are rigorously theatrical attempts to recreate sounds and images so that film can someday become really revolutionary. In them the problem of "reality" has become quite distinct. Maybe after the revolution, when language and image have been freed, Godard will begin to know things as they really are.

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