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Sympathy for the Devil

By James P. Frosch

at 7, 9 and 11 p. m. through Monday in Emerson 105

GODARD said to an interviewer in 1961, "My three films all have, at bottom, the same subject. I take an individual who has an idea, and who tries to go to the end of his idea." His films have always been pieces of criticism, visual essays about ideas and culture in a declining West. He was never interested in making "good art." That notion of finely wrought and finished work was itself the legacy of a moribund sensibility.

As his vision of the modern world becomes more apocalyptic his films became more didactic and relentlessly intellectual. Where artists traditionally sought unity he sought fragmentation and where they traditionally depended on illusion and empathy he aimed at a self-mocking anatomy. His basic technique was simply to project a series of images and provide a text that explained them. Thus in Weekend we are subjected to long readings of Fanon while the camera clinically surveys innumerable auto wrecks.

All this might be pretentious and boring if Godard were not so inventive and terrifying. Others have explored decadence and the death of the Old World sensibility, but no one has related that death so graphically to the automobile. What better symbol for modern culture? As we calmly drive our cars on the highway, does it occur to us that our own life and death is almost completely out of our hands? That at any moment we might perish because somebody on the other side of the road is watching the sunset, or hits an oil-slick, or is just crazy? And if even Camus died that way can any of us be immune?

Like Weekend Sympathy for the Devil is about cars and Black Power. It is a series of episodes unified by three basic threads. The first is, of course, the Rolling Stones slowly working out the song from which the movie takes its name. At the same time a group of blacks are in a London junk-yard, reading from Le Roi Jones and Eldridge Cleaver while they periodically machine-gun obsequious white women wearing virginal white gowns. The third thread is a hilarious pornographic narrative spoken throughout the movie in clipped, unemotional tones.

FOR ABOUT half the film the effect is stunning. The juxtaposition of the Stones, singing black music and gyrating to black rhythms, and the blacks themselves, sitting on wrecked cars (the destitute remains of the West) reciting texts of third world liberation, is superb. And, for about half the film, the Stones are fascinating to watch. When Nicky Hopkins plays the organ (not the piano, as on the recorded version) while Jagger chants, "I was here when Jesus Christ had his moments of doubt and pain," you begin to believe that the devil is holier or at least more human, than God.

But something always happens to Godard in the middle of his films. He seems to get bored and self-conscious. But even bored and self-conscious Godard is worth seeing- it just becomes that much more difficult to separate the profound from the trivial. In an interesting sequence called "All About Eve" an interviewer harasses a mournful woman (played by Anna Wiazemsky) with questions Godard feels obligated to ask himself in the middle of every film: "Do you think culture is order? Is a man of culture as far from an artist as a historian from a man of action? Is the only way to be an intellectual revolutionary to give up being an intellectual?"

Sympathy for the Devil has its problems, particularly in the second half, but it also contains flashes of intellectual and visual brilliance. Perhaps we can forgive Godard his unease about being a revolutionary who makes films and feeds on the movement he supports. Just as we can forgive the Stones for feeding on black music. If it weren't for Godard and the Stones, how would we know ourselves?

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