Near the middle of Vent d’Est (Wind from the East), Godard has filmed a sequence in which Brazilian film-maker Glauber Rocha plays a brief but symbolically important role. As Rocha stands with arms outstretched at a dusty crossroads, a young woman with a movie camera comes up one of the paths—and the fact that she is very evidently pregnant is undoubtedly “pregnant” with meaning. She goes up to Rocha and says very politely: “Excuse me for interrupting your class struggle, but could you please tell the way toward political cinema?”
Rocha points first in front of him, then behind and to his left, and he says, “That way is the cinema of aesthetic adventure and philosophical inquiry, while this way is the Third World cinema— a dangerous cinema, divine and marvelous, where the questions are practical ones like production, distribution, training three hundred film-makers to make six hundred films a year for Brazil alone, to supply one of the world’s biggest markets.”
The woman starts off down the path to the Third World cinema, hesitates, takes a half-hearted kick at a red ball she finds lying on the path, and then reverses her steps. The ball comes rolling back behind her, however, as if it were insisting on following her—like Lamorisse’s famous “red balloon,” which it resembles slightly. In any case, she ignores the ball, which comes to a stop at the side of the road, and she doubles back behind Glauber Rocha, who is still standing at the crossroads with arms outstretched like a scarecrow or a crucified Christ without a cross. And finally the pregnant woman with the movie camera sets off anew along the path of aesthetic adventure and philosophical inquiry, proceeding slowly, checking out the bushes alongside the path, leaving no leaf unturned in her search for clues regarding “political cinema.”
I choose to begin an analysis of Godard’s Vent d’Est by describing this brief sequence and suggesting some of its tonguein-cheek symbolism because I believe it to be of critical importance not just for an understanding of what Godard is trying to do in this film, but also for an understanding of the way certain very important issues are shaping up in the vanguard of contemporary cinema. The issues involved certainly go beyond just Godard and Rocha—and ultimately it may well be cinema itself which now stands at a critical crossroads.
To get at these issues and to delve more deeply into the significance of the crossroads sequence, I think it best to take first a brief detour and explain a little of how Vent d’Est came into being and of Glauber Rocha’s problematical association with this film at various stages of its development. Shortly after France’s “May Events” in 1968, Godard contacted one of the May movement’s leading militants, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and suggested that the two of them collaborate on a film project that would explore the deadly ideological malaise at the root not only of French politics but of the. post-Cold War political situation in general. Godard also indicated his desire to make the film in such a way as to draw parallels between the repressiveness of traditional political structures and the repressiveness of traditional film structures, particularly those of the standard Western.
Cohn-Bendit agreed, and Godard contacted Italian producer Gianni Barcelloni, who had previously worked with directors like Pasolini and Glauber Rocha and the young French underground film-maker Philippe Garrel. Barcelloni jumped at the chance to produce a film by Godard and he persuaded Cineriz to advance him $100,000 for “a Western in color, to be scripted by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, and starring Gian-Maria Volonte” (Italy’s current box-office favorite).
What the producer and distributor apparently were expecting was something on the order of a “Cohn-Bendit le fou.” In any case, shooting took place in early summer 1969 in Italy. Godard, who by this time had committed himself to collective creation, assembled his three-man Dziga Vertov Group (which at the time included Jean-Henri Roger as well as Godard and Gorin),* enlisted his actress-wife Anne Wiazemsky, numerous Italian actors and technicians, and a number of French and Italian left-wing militants of diverse leftist persuasions. Cohn-Bendit, who had discussed with Godard the overall conception of the film, showed up for only a portion of the shooting, apparently argued with Godard and Gorin, and does not appear in the finished film.
Exit Cohn-Bendit. Enter Glauber Rocha.
In Rome for talks with producer Barcelloni, Rocha encountered Godard, who, as Rocha tells it, suggested that the two of them should coordinate efforts “to destroy cinema”—to which Rocha replied that he was on a very different trip, that his business was to build cinema in Brazil and the rest of the Third World, to handle very practical problems of production, distribution, etc.
This disagreement seems to have given Godard the idea of shooting a “Rocha at the crossroads” sequence to include in Vent d’Est as a way of delineating different revolutionary strategies. Rocha agreed to play his part, although not without indicating his reluctance at “joining the collective mythology of the unforgettable French May-Gang.”
In the summer, then, the sequence was shot, and Godard and Rocha parted amicably, but with each man apparently feeling that the other had failed to understand his position. Godard went to work on the editing of Vent d’Est, and he and Gorin completed the film early in the winter of 1969-70. Rocha happened to be in Rome again at the time of the producer’s private preview screening of Vent d’Est, saw the film, and found himself—and everyone else—in such bewilderment and consternation at the path taken by Godard that he decided to write an article about the film for the Brazilian magazine Manchete. 17
At Cannes in May 1970 Vent d’Est was given a midnight showing. (Godard, by the way, didn’t want the film shown at Cannes at all: it was entirely the distributor’s doing.) A few people admired the film; most hated it. Ditto for the September showing of Vent d’Est at the New York Festival. Ditto again for the showing a few weeks later in Berkeley. But that kind of reaction is more or less to be expected whenever a new Godard film is first released. What is unusual and a bit more complicated is the controversy over whether Vent d’Est can be considered a “visually beautiful” film and whether or not visual beauty is an attribute or a liability given Godard’s revolutionary aims.
Much of the controversy over the visual quality of Vent d’Est may arise simply from the fact that both 35mm and 16mm prints of the film are being shown; and that visually these two are very different films. Although the film was shot in 16mm (entirely outdoors, by the way), it is the 35mm print (blown up from 16mm) which is by far the better of the two (especially because of the lush greens of the beautiful Italian countryside near Cinecittà and the lovely rose red wall of an old half-ruined peasant dwelling). The 16mm print, on the other hand, is extremely dark and murky, with very false, somber color.
But the controversy really gets thick when people start debating the relative merits and demerits of visual beauty (or its absence) in Vent d’Est. One argument has been that because the film is “too beautiful,” it remains in the realm of bourgeois aesthetics and doesn’t really function as a politically militant film. Godard, however, turns the argument around to assert that “if Vent d’Est succeeds at all, it’s because it isn’t beautifully made at all.” Rocha, in his Manchete article, comes out against Vent d’Est not because the film remains in the realm of aesthetics, but rather because he sees Godard as trying to destroy aesthetics. Rocha praises the film for its “desperate beauty” but reproaches Godard for feeling so desperate about the usefulness of art. Rocha laments that such a gifted artist as Godard (whom he compares to Bach and Michelangelo) should no longer have faith in art and should seek instead to “destroy” art.
For Rocha, a Brazilian, the present intellectual crisis in Western Europe over the usefulness of art is senseless and politically negative. He sees the European artist—best exemplified by Godard—as having worked himself into a dead end; and Rocha concludes that where cinema is concerned, the Third World may be the only place where an artist can still fruitfully go about the task of making films. Godard, on the other hand, reproaches Rocha for having “a producer’s mentality,” for thinking too much in so-called practical terms of production, distribution, markets, etc., thereby perpetuating the capitalist commodity structures of the cinema and extending them to the Third World . . . and thereby neglecting in the process urgent theoretical questions that must be asked if Third World cinema is to avoid merely repeating the ideological errors of Western cinema.
What sorts of ideological errors might Godard have in mind? Well, let’s go back to the crossroads sequence in Vent d’Est, which, with its obvious association of the woman with a movie camera as a symbol for the cinema itself, reads something like this: at a very pregnant stage of creative development, the cinema turns to the Third World for direction regarding the proper relation between cinema and politics. (The question “Which way to the ‘political cinema’?” is actually a question of “What ought a socially responsible, liberating cinema to be like?”) Given a somewhat equivocal answer by Glauber Rocha, but sufficiently impressed by what he says—or, more accurately, by what he sings —regarding the “divine and marvelous” Third World cinema, our woman with the movie camera starts off down the path Rocha has identified as the path of Third World cinema. But a few steps along the way she has some misgivings, takes a half-hearted kick at a red ball inexplicably lying on the path, and changes her direction to double back behind Rocha and to set out on the path of aesthetic adventure and philosophical inquiry.
Now, as I said earlier, the fact that the red ball comes rolling back to her after she kicks it reminded me of Lamorisse’s famous red balloon, which also doggedly followed its “master.” I can’t say, of course, whether Godard had the red balloon in mind when he put the red ball in the path of the woman with the movie camera; but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that certain ideological misconceptions inherent in Western cinema are manifested in Lamorisse’s charming film about a little French boy and a red balloon that follows him wherever he goes.
André Bazin, one might recall, devoted one of his more important essays,18 “Montage interdit,” to The Red Balloon and to Lamorisse’s other popular short film, Crin Blanc (White Mane). Bazin’s argument, a basic stepping stone in the development of his realist aesthetics, was that even in a film of such imaginative fantasy as The Red Balloon, what was essential (ontologically essential) was the cinematic faithfulness to reality, “the simple photographic respect for spatial unity.” The fact that a trick was used to enable the balloon to appear to follow the boy didn’t matter to Bazin just so long as the trick was not a cinematic trick —like, in his opinion, montage. What mattered was simply that whatever we saw on the screen had been photographed as it really happened in time and space. What we didn’t see (like an imperceptible nylon thread which enabled Lamorisse to control the movements of the balloon) didn’t matter to Bazin so long as what we did see really took place, was pris sur le vij (captured alive) by the camera, and was untampered with in the laboratory or on the editing table.
And it mattered not a bit to Bazin (in fact, it fitted in perfectly with his bourgeois humanist idealism) that this faithfulness to “reality” served as a jumping-off point for simplistic metaphysical pretensions and sentimental moralizing—as, for example, in The Red Balloon, where the struggle between the little boy and a gang of street toughies symbolizes the struggle between Good and Evil, with Evil winning out here on Earth as the balloon gets popped, but Good winning out in another, “higher” realm, as thousands of other balloons miraculously descend from on high, lift up the little boy, and whisk him up to the heavens.
Bazin’s reality, as I have pointed out in the “Introduction: Ideology” section of Chapter 6, sheds very quickly its material aspect and is “elevated” to a purely metaphysical (one could justifiably call it a theological) sphere. And Bazins realist aesthetics, with its insistence on cinema’s supposed “reflection of reality,” makes cinema a very useful ideological tool for the ruling bourgeoisie, which, in the cinema as elsewhere, attempts to pass off as reality (and thereby elevate to a metaphysical essence ) the status quo of class society.
Perhaps, then, these are the sorts of ideological errors Godard would like to see the Third World cinema avoid, for Godard clearly deplores the way in which Western cinema from its birth has been disfigured by a bourgeois capitalist ideology that permeates its very theoretical foundations. In Vent d’Est, therefore, Godard systematically takes apart the traditional elements of bourgeois cinema—especially as exemplified by the Western—and reveals the sometimes hidden, sometimes blatant repressiveness that underlies it.
What Godard attacks in Vent d’Est is what he calls the “bourgeois concept of representation,” which encompasses not only a certain acting style but also the traditional relations between image and sound—and, ultimately, of course, the traditional relationship between the film and the audience. Godard accuses the bourgeois cinema of overemphasizing and playing upon the deep-seated emotional fears and desires of the audience at the expense of their critical intelligence. And Godard seeks to combat this tyranny of the emotions not because he is against emotions and for rationality, nor because he is opposed to people’s attitudes and actions being influenced by their experience of art, but because he believes very strongly that the film-goer should not be taken advantage of the way he is in bourgeois cinema, that he should not be manipulated emotionally but should instead be addressed directly and forthrightly in a lucid dialogue which calls forth all of his human faculties.
The way things now stand, however, every element of a bourgeois film is carefully calculated to invite the viewer to indulge in a “lived” emotional experience of a so-called slice of life instead of assuming a critical, analytical, and ultimately politicai attitude toward what he sees and hears. Why should one’s attitude toward a film be political, one might ask? The answer is, of course, that the invitation to indulge in emotion at the expense of rational analysis already constitutes a political act on the part of the people who produce and make and distribute the film, as well as constituting a political act and attitude on the part of the viewer-listener—without the viewer-listener’s usually being aware of it.
For one thing, by letting himself be emotionally moved by the cinema—and even demanding that the cinema should be emotionally moving—the film-goer puts himself at the mercy of anyone who comes along with a lot of money to invest in seeing to it that film-goers are moved. And the people who have that kind of money to invest also have a vested interest in making sure that the film audiences are moved in the right direction, that is, in the direction of perpetuating the investor’s advantageous position in an economic system that permits gross inequities to exist in the distribution of wealth. In short, cinema (as well as television) functions as an ideological tool or weapon used by the rulingowning class to extend the market for the bourgeois dreams it sells, and, at the same time, to divert people’s attentions away from any serious questioning of the economic system which privileges one class at the expense of another.
Moreover, as Godard asserts in Vent d’Est, cinema tries to pass off bourgeois dreams as reality, and even plays on the heightening and enhancing effect of cinema in an effort to make us believe that the bourgeois dreams depicted on our movie screens are somehow larger than life, that they are not only real, but somehow more real than the real. In bourgeois cinema all conspires to this effect: the acting style is at the same time “realistic” and larger than life; the decors are “realistic” (or, if filmed on location, simply real), but they are also carefully selected for their beauty and their larger-than-life aspect. Likewise the costumes, clothing, jewelry, and make-up worn by the actors and actresses, who, themselves, are carefully selected for their beauty and their larger-than-life aspect. Finally, even sound in the bourgeois cinema is used to give us the illusion that we are eavesdropping on a moment of reality where the characters are oblivious to our presence and are simply living out their real-life emotions.
Since Weekend Godard has rejected conventional film dialogue because he finds that it contributes to this misguided illusion of reality and makes it all the easier for the viewer-listener to imagine himself right up there with the people on the screen, present yet safe, in a perfect position (that of an eavesdropper and a Peeping Tom) to participate vicariously in the emotion of the moment. In short, the bourgeois cinema pretends to ignore the presence of the spectator, pretends that what is being said and done on the movie screen is not aimed at the spectator, pretends that cinema is a reflection of reality; yet all the time it plays on the viewer-listener’s emotions and capitalizes on his identification-projection mechanisms in order to induce him subtly, insidiously, unconsciously to participate in the dreams and fantasies that are marketed by bourgeois capitalist society.
There is an excellent sequence in Vent d’Est where Godard demonstrates and demystifies what takes place behind the fagade of bourgeois cinema. On the sound track we are told that “in a few seconds you will see and hear a typical character in bourgeois cinema. He is in every film and he always plays a Don Juan type. He will describe the room you are sitting in.” We then see a close-up of a very handsome young Italian actor standing at the edge of a swift-running stream and looking directly at the camera. Behind him—but photographed so that depth perception is greatly reduced and the image as a whole is markedly flat—rises the muddy embankment of the opposite side of the river.
The young man speaks in Italian, while voices on the sound track give us a running translation in both French and English. The translation, however, is rendered indirectly: the voice tells us, “He says the room is dark. He sees people sitting downstairs and also up in the balcony. He says there is an ugly old fogey over there, all wrinkled; and over here he says he has spotted a good-looking young chick. He says he would like to lay her. He asks her to come up on the screen with him. He says it’s beautiful up there, with the sun shining and green trees all around and lots of happy people having a good time. He says if you don’t believe him, look . . . ,” and at this point the camera suddenly pulls back and upward, keeping the young man in focus in the right-hand corner of the frame while it reveals on the left side—and what seems like almost a hundred feet below the young man—a breathtakingly beautiful scene of a waterfall spilling into a natural pool in a shaded glen where young people are diving and swimming in the clear water.
It’s a magnificent shot. The image itself is extremely beautiful, and most amazing of all is the very complex restructuring of space accomplished by such a simple camera movement. But if we think about this sequence and its dazzling denouement, we realize that everything in it is a calculated come-on aimed at the dreams and fantasies of the audience. The man is young and handsome. When he speaks, he disparages age and ugliness, and glorifies youth and glamor. What he wants is sex, what he offers is sex, inviting the audience to come up on the screen and have sex with him. On the screen, he assures us, everything is beautiful and people are happy.
And that sudden restructuring of space literally invites us into the image all by itself. Like bourgeois cinema in general, it presents the bourgeois capitalist world as one of great depth, inexhaustibly rich and endlessly inviting. And the bourgeois cinema’s predilection for depth-of-field photography (see Bazin) emphasizes the you-are-there illusion and thereby masks its own presence—and its own act of presenting this image—behind a self-effacing false modesty calculated to make cinema appear to be the humble servant of reality instead of what it really is—the not at all humble lackey of the ruling class.
In short, the bourgeois cinema is nothing other than a sales pitch monologue aimed (indirectly, to keep us off guard) at the audience, which is flirted with, coaxed, and cajoled into coming up onto the screen to join the “beautiful people” for a little sex and leisure amid beautiful surroundings! And the thing that really clinches the deal is the stunning virtuosity of the cinema in providing visual thrills.
Once again this raises the problem of visual beauty in political cinema; but it also demonstrates how Godard uses visual beauty in new ways that serve to demystify (and make us less vulnerable to) the old uses of visual beauty in the bourgeois cinema. After all, if beauty (like language) is one of the arms the ruling class uses to pacify us and keep us in our place, then one of our tasks is to turn that weapon around and make it work against the oppressors. One way to do this is to demystify beauty and to show how it is used against us; another way is to effect a “transvaluation of values” in which we make a vice of the bourgeois concept of beauty while making a virtue of a different concept of beauty (e.g., “Black is beautiful”). In his films since Weekend, especially in the films made collectively with the Dziga Vertov Group, Godard has been utilizing both of these tactics. His films now have a very different look about them which a lot of people are unable to consider beautiful because it doesn’t conform to their bourgeois standards of beauty. And when individual shots or sequences do have a visual quality that most film-goers would consider beautiful, there is always some cinematic element or juxtaposition of elements that calls our attention to just how this beauty is achieved and how it is used as an ideological weapon.
Whatever the pros and cons where beauty in a militant film is concerned, it certainly does no good to criticize Godard’s use of visual beauty in Vent d’Est without having understood just how and why he uses it—or to assume that Godard is trying to move people emotionally as the bourgeois cinema does, but that he fails in this effort because his images have a very formal, austere beauty which somehow turns the viewer off instead of turning him on. Writing in Manchete, Glauber Rocha criticizes the fact that the shot of the American cavalry officer roughing up the girl-militant (Anne Wiazemsky) is not really frightening at all, but only beautiful. What Rocha fails to appreciate is that Godard does not want this shot to be frightening and that he makes it beautiful in precisely such a way as to ensure that it won’t be frightening. While the officer (Gian-Maria Volonte) wrings the girl’s neck and shouts at her, someone offscreen throws thick gobs of red paint that catch in her auburn hair and occasionally splatter the officer’s dark blue coat. The visual effect, with its rich interplay of colors and textures, is quite striking, and it serves to distance us from the action and the potential emotion it might otherwise arouse.
A few moments later Godard gives us another, similar shot, only handled this time more in the emotive style of bourgeois cinema. Instead of shooting from behind the girl’s right shoulder as he did in the previous “torture” shot (with torturer and victim face-to-face, but only the face of the torturer seen by the audience), Godard now has the torturer holding the girl from behind so that the scene can be shot to reveal both of their faces in frontal close-up, with the framing and composition and lighting drawing our attention particularly to the girl’s grimaces of pain. This time, however, no paint is thrown in and there are no overtly theatrical elements of the distancing kind. There is only a very good acting performance by Anne Wiazemsky, who really seems to be wincing with great pain. In a bourgeois film this shot might be quite frightening for the audience (especially if the girl screamed, as the bourgeois cinema loves to have actresses do), but in this film, coming after the earlier torture shot with the paint thrown in, the painful or frightening effect of the shot is minimized (notice that I do not say it is eliminated) and our critical intelligence is alerted to analyze the differences in handling between the two shots.
We are shown the differences again in a later sequence where the cavalry officer rides around on horseback clubbing the recaicitrant prisoners—another scene which Rocha finds extremely beautiful but which he criticizes for not turning out to be brutal in the way he (and even Ventura, who was the sound man for Vent d’Est) thinks the scene was intended. What Godard does in this sequence is to utilize a few of the common place technical devices for this type of violent action sequence: turning the sound volume way up and continually making abrupt camera movements. The effect of these devices is usually a high emotional intensity and a very visceral sense of violence and confusion. (Remember their use in Tom Jones. ) But Godard has made one major variation on these elements which completely changes our relation to this sequence.
His camera does continually make abrupt movements, but it also traces a very precise formal pattern—swinging about 35° left, then 35° right, back and forth several times, then swinging about 35° up, then 35° down, and so on, exploring in a very formal way the closed space of the lush ravine where the action takes place. The purely formal quality of these camera movements (Rocha proclaimed them “unprecedented in the whole history of film”) effectively distances us from the action and prevents us from reacting emotionally to it. In short, this sequence is not meant to be brutal, but it is meant to call our attention to the way bourgeois cinema would make the sequence brutal—and, in so doing, brutalize us.
What’s wrong is not what Godard does with image and sound; it’s the tremendously strong habit we have of demanding that a film fulfill our bourgeois expectations of what a film should do. What’s wrong is that even politically militant films are expected to express their militancy in the same language that bourgeois films use to inculcate the dreams and fantasies of bourgeois capitalism. What’s wrong, in short, is that even among the world’s leading film-makers—and even among those who are seeking a revolutionary transformation of society—not nearly enough thought is given to theoretical questions of the uses and abuses of image and sound and of the ways to build new relations between images and sounds that will no longer exploit the viewer-listener by manipulating his emotions and his unconscious fears and desires, but will instead engage him openly and forthrightly in a lucid dialogue, the other half of which must come from him.
But the way things stand now, the film-goer rarely seems to look upon the cinema as a dialogue between himself and the film, and he relinquishes all too readily his own active part in that dialogue and hands over the tool of dialogue exclusively to the people in the film. And the more emotionally charged the dialogue in the film, the more the viewer-listener is moved by it. In Vent d’Est, however, this habitual passivity is challenged from the outset, as Godard gives us an opening shot that arouses our curiosity (a young man and woman are seen lying motionless on the ground, their arms bound together by a heavy chain) but he systematically thwarts our expectations by simply holding the shot for nearly ten minutes without any action (the young man does stir enough to gently touch the face of the young woman at one point) and without any dialogue. In fact, when the voice-over commentary finally breaks in (on the forest murmurs we have been hearing), what we get is not dialogue but the critique of dialogue.
Ostensibly talking about strike tactics in some labor dispute, the speaker states at one point that what is needed is dialogue, but that dialogue is usually handed over to a “qualified representative” who translates the demands of the workers into the language of the bosses and in so doing betrays the people he supposedly represents. This voice-over discussion of the failure of dialogue clearly refers to the bargaining dialogues that go on between labor and capital; and a few minutes later, in the next sequence, there is a demonstration (in the style of a Western movie) of the way the “qualified representative” (the union delegate) distorts the real demands of the workers (for revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system which exploits them) by translating those demands into terms the bosses can deal with (higher wages, shorter hours, better working conditions, etc.). But in a strange and insightful way, this discussion of the failure of dialogue in the hands of a “qualified representative” also refers to the failure of dialogue within the “bourgeois concept of representation” in the cinema.
“What is needed is dialogue”— this statement in the voiceover commentary seems to echo our own thoughts as we watch this exasperatingly long, static, and dialogue-less shot. We are impatient to get into the movie, we are impatient to get on with plot. We wonder why the young couple are lying on the ground and why they are chained together. We wish they would at least regain consciousness enough to start talking to each other so that we could find out, from their dialogue, what is happening—that is, what is happening to them. As usual, in the cinema we don’t ask ourselves what is happening to us. We don’t ask ourselves why a film addresses us in a particular way. In fact, we rarely think of a film as addressing us, or, for that matter, anyone at all. We sit back and accept the tacit understanding that a film is a “reflection of reality” captured in the mirror of that magical “eye of God” that is a movie camera. We sit back passively and wait for a film to lead us by the hand or, more literally, by the heart.
What is to be done, then, to get us out of this situation? As the voice-over speaker in Vent d’Est puts it,
Today the question “what is to be done?” is urgently asked of militant film-makers. It is no longer a question of what path to take; it is a question of what one should do practically on a path that the history of revolutionary struggles has helped us to recognize. To make a film, for example, is to ask oneself the question “where do we stand?” And what does this question mean for a militant film-maker? It means, first but not exclusively, opening a parenthesis in which we ask ourselves what the history of revolutionary cinema can teach us.
Then follows a capsule history on some of the high points and weak spots of what could qualify as revolutionary cinema, beginning with the young Eisenstein’s admiration for D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Certainly Griffith was a decisive influence on Eisenstein and, through Eisenstein, on the first great chapter of revolutionary cinema—the Russian silent film. But the commentator in Vent d’Est asserts that from a revolutionary standpoint this borrowing of technique from the expressive arsenal of a “North American imperialist” (Griffith) eventually did more harm than good and represents a defeat in the history of revolutionary cinema. As a consequence of this initial ideological error, it is affirmed, Eisenstein confused primary and secondary tasks and, instead of glorifying the ongoing struggles of the present, glorified the historic revolt of the sailors of the battleship Potemkin. As a second consequence, in 1929, when he made The General Line (also called The Old and the New), Eisenstein managed to find new ways of expressing Czarist repression, but could only utilize the same old forms to express the process of collectivization and agrarian reform. In his case, it is asserted, the “old” ultimately won out over the “new”—and, as a consequence, Hollywood found no difficulty in hiring Eisenstein to film revolution in Mexico, while at the same time in Berlin Dr. Goebbels asked Leni Riefenstahl to make “a Nazi Potemkin.”
All of this may sound somewhat heretical and perhaps arbitrary, but there is actually a very perceptive argument here if one follows it closely. The same techniques that Griffith used to glorify in retrospect the old racist cause of the Southern whites in the American Civil War were taken over and developed by Eisenstein to glorify in retrospect an already twenty-year-old episode (the mutiny of the battleship Potemkin took place in 1905) —and not a particularly important one at that—in the history of the Russian Revolution. Later, when confronted with the task of dealing with issues of contemporary urgency (agrarian reform and collectivization), Eisenstein could only trot out the same though now somewhat older techniques. Still later, those same techniques were perfectly compatible with the fascist propaganda of the Nazis; and Eisenstein himself was not altogether unjustifiably considered to be “co-optable” by Hollywood.
The problem is that the cinematic forms which Eisenstein inherited from Griffith and which he then developed were not flexible enough to deal with the complexities of the ongoing present but were very well suited to emotionalized, reconstituted documentaries of past history. Moreover, precisely because they emphasized the emotional, “lived,” “you are there” aspect of history, it was all too easy for these cinematic forms to be used to stir up people’s emotional involvement in even such aberrant doctrines as Hitler’s “racial purity” and blind obedience to the Führer.
Next in line for critical scrutiny is Dziga Vertov, in whose name Godard founded his militant film-makers’ collective. Vertov is credited with achieving a victory for revolutionary cinema when he declared that “there is no cinema which stands above class, no cinema which stands above class struggle,” and that “cinema is only a secondary task in the world struggle for revolutionary liberation.” But Vertov is faulted for having forgotten that, in the words of Lenin, “politics commands the economy”—with the result that his film The Eleventh Year does not sing the praises of eleven years of sound political leadership at the hands of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but glorifies instead Russia’s surging economy and rapidly developing industry in exactly the same emotional terms that capitalist propaganda uses to glorify its own economic growth. “It is at this point,” the commentator of Vent d’Est asserts, “that revisionism invaded the Soviet movie screens once and for all.”
Next in the rundown of revolutionary cinema is the “false victory” of the early sixties, when progressive African governments, having achieved their revolution and kicked out the imperialists, “let them back in through the window of the movie camera” by turning over the production of films to the old European and American movie industry—”thereby giving white Christians the right to speak on behalf of blacks and Arabs.” Finally, a victory is claimed for revolutionary cinema in the recent report of Comrade Kiang Tsing19 (wife of Mao), in which the theory of “the royal road of realism” was denounced, along with a denunciation of most of the canons of the old Stalinist “socialist-realism” aesthetics.
Throughout this brief bird’s-eye view of revolutionary cinema there runs the unifying thread of the necessity of thinking through very thoroughly the theoretical foundations of one’s cinematic praxis. If we (along with Godard) can learn anything from the history of revolutionary cinema, it is clearly that constant selfcritical vigilance is necessary if a film-maker is to avoid playing unwittingly into the hands of the oppressors. And if a film-maker’s commitment to revolutionary liberation is more than just an emotional identification with the oppressed, then his cinematic practice must address itself to more than just the emotions and identification-projection mechanisms of the audience. Moreover, if he is firmly convinced (as Godard is) that the process of revolutionary liberation involves far more than just the revenge of the oppressed and that it offers the concrete possibility of putting an end to all oppression—in other words, of creating a more just society in which the free development of the individual works for rather than against the free development of his fellow man— then it is the film-maker’s urgent task to create cinematic forms which themselves work for rather than against the free development of the viewer-listener, forms which do not manipulate insidiously his emotions or his unconscious but which engage him directly and openly, in a way that calls forth all of his human faculties—rational and emotional—in a lucid dialogue that can help both film-maker and film-goer to forge a revolution in the way man relates to his fellow man and to things.
And self-criticism is an integral part of Godard’s cinema, as witnessed by the fact that the second half of Vent d’Est is given over to an implicit critique of Godard’s own previous efforts. The first and most serious criticism brought forth is his own lack of contact with the masses. (Since he began working collectively with the Dziga Vertov Group after May 1968, Godard has made increasingly frequent and fruitful contact with militant workers’ groups.) Second, Godard criticizes the bourgeois-sociology approach to cinema, in which the film-maker shows the misery of the masses but does not show their struggles. (While this criticism is made in the voice-over commentary, we see a number of shots of shantytown houses and of modern high-rise apartment buildings like the ones Godard photographed for Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle, which film he has referred to as “a sociological essay.”) The trouble with this approach, as well as with cinéma vérité, it is asserted, is that by not showing the struggles of the masses one weakens their ability to struggle; and the implication is that the cinematic image of their misery simply reinforces their own self-image of misery, while the cinematic image of their struggles conversely reinforces their ability to carry on the struggles. Finally, it is pointed out that contemporary cinema in Russia (“Brezhnev-Mosfilm”) is perfectly interchangeable with contemporary cinema in America (“Nixon-Paramount”), so pervasive is the bourgeois ideology of cinema; and, moreover, that the two of them together are perfectly interchangeable with what passes for “progressive” cinema at the avant-garde film festivals throughout Europe. These so-called “liberated” films, it is asserted, are revisionist because they do not question the bourgeois cinema’s relations between image and sound, and because, although they have broken the old bourgeois taboos on sex, drugs, and apocalyptic poetry, they have continued to uphold the most important bourgeois taboo of all—that which prohibits the depicting of class struggle. (Self-criticism is clearly implicit in this statement too, since the same reproach could be made—and has been made by Godard himself—to all of his own films up to and including Weekend. )
But Godard’s self-criticism does not arise out of morbid selfdoubt, defeatism, or an urge for self-destruction, as Glauber Rocha argues in his article on Vent d’Est. On the contrary, selfcriticism plays a large part in Godard’s current cinematic practice (and, for that matter, it always has—at least implicitly) for the simple reason that Godard (along with Mao) considers selfcriticism a constructive activity of the highest order. Self-criticism is a way of opening ourselves out of a competitive, self-assertive approach to problems that concern us all, of helping to assure that we do not simply impose our views on others by the sheer force of personality or the power of office. (And in the cinema, as we have seen, this kind of check on the almost unilateral power wielded by the film-maker over his audience is urgently needed. )
Godard’s recent films are politically pointed, to be sure; but although the verbal commentary is prominent, if not preeminent, the films are not exhortatory. There is nothing demagogic in Godard’s approach either to cinema or to politics. A film like Vent d’Est is at the opposite pole in cinematic method from either Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or Eisenstein’s Potemkin. And for that matter, Godard’s British Sounds, Pravda, and Vent d’Est are far removed in cinematic method from Glauber Rocha’s Black God and White Devil, Land in a Trance, and Antonio das Mortes. There is a strong messianic tone in Rocha’s films that is very alien to Godard’s way of constructing a film. (It is quite clear, by the way, that Rocha’s outstretched arms in Vent d’Est—suggesting a parallel between Rocha and Christ—constitutes Godard’s ironic comment on the messianic aspects of Rocha’s film style.)
And while both Rocha and Godard are committed to the worldwide struggle for revolutionary liberation, they clearly differ about how revolution can develop and how cinema can contribute to that development. Rocha takes the spontaneous approach and largely discounts the importance of theoretical concerns, which he considers mere “auxiliaries” to the spontaneous energy of the masses. He has expressed his belief that “the true revolutionaries in South America are individuals, suffering personalities, who are not involved in theoretical problems . . . the provocation to violence, the contact with bitter reality that may eventually produce violent change in South America, this upheaval can come only from individual people who have suffered themselves and who have realized that a need for change is present—not for theoretical reasons but because of personal agony.”20 And Rocha emphasizes his belief that the real strength of the South American masses lies in mysticism, in “an emotional, Dionysiac behavior” that he sees as arising from a mixture of Catholicism and African religions. The energy that has its source in mysticism, Rocha argues, is what will ultimately lead the people to resist oppression—and it is this emotional energy Rocha seeks to tap in his films.
Godard, on the other hand, rejects the emotional approach as one which plays into the hand of the enemy, and he seeks to combat mystification in any form, whether it comes from the right or the left. While there is no indication that Godard underestimates the importance of the agonized personal experience of oppression as a starting point for the development of revolutionary consciousness, he takes the position that solidly developed organization on sound theoretical foundations is urgently needed if the revolutionary movement is to advance beyond the stage of abortive, short-lived, “spontaneous” uprisings (like the May 1968 events in France ).
And in emphasizing the theoretical struggle, Godard follows in the path of no less a practical revolutionary than Lenin himself, who, in his pamphlet entitled What Is To Be Done? (echos of which abound in Vent d’Est) roundly castigated the “cult of spontaneity” and pointed out that “any cult of spontaneity, any weakening of the ‘element of lucid awareness’ . . . signifies in itself—and whether one wants it this way or not is immaterial— a reinforcing of the influence of bourgeois ideology” (Lenin’s italics).21 Or, as Lenin puts it a few lines further, “the problem poses itself in these terms and in no others: bourgeois ideology or socialist ideology. There is no middle ground (for humanity has never set up a ‘third’ ideology; and, in any case, where society is torn by class struggle, there could never be an ideology above and beyond class) .”22 And, later, “but why, the reader asks, does the spontaneous movement, which tends towards the direction of the least effort, lead precisely to domination by bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that, chronologically, bourgeois ideology is much older than socialist ideology, that it is much more thoroughly elaborated, and that it possesses infinitely more means of diffusion.”23 And, finally, “the greater the spontaneous spirit of the masses, and the more the movement is widespread, then all the more urgent is the necessity of the utmost lucidity in our theoretical work, our political work, and our organizing.”24
(This latter statement comes closest to Lenin’s later qualification of the position set forth above and adopted in What Is To Be Done?, which position, as Lenin indicated, was a tactical response to a concrete situation—the 1902 squabbles among diverse factions of the Russian left. Later, when the potential dangers of the spontaneous position were no longer so much of a threat to the revolutionary cause, Lenin toned down the attack on spontaneity and called for a more dialectical approach of “organized spontaneity and spontaneous organization.”)
Lest anyone be tempted, however, to jump to the conclusion (which Rocha seems to encourage in his Manchete article on Vent d’Est) that the differences of opinion on revolutionary strategy between Godard and Rocha are simply the result of cultural differences between the European situation and that of the Third World, it should be pointed out that even in Latin America—and in the Latin American cinema—there is nowhere unanimous support for the spontaneous approach espoused by Rocha. In fact, Latin American film-makers are increasingly, it seems, following the lead of Argentine film-maker Fernando Solanas (La Hora de los Homos) in calling for an intensification of the organized and lucid theoretical struggle at the level of ideology. (See Chapter 9. )
By way of a conclusion, let us pick up once more the crossroads metaphor. Godard’s path—which, as he points out, is simply the path that study of the history of revolutionary cinema has helped him to recognize—is the path of creating the theoretical foundations of revolutionary cinema within the day-to-day practice of making films. In short, the real dilemma for film-makers today is not a choice between theory and practice. The act of making a film necessarily combines both—and this is true whether one makes films in the Third World, in Russia, or in the West.
In the crossroads sequence in Vent d’Est, there is even a strong visual suggestion that the threeway intersection is simply the point where two paths—that of the Third World and that of the European cinema—converge and join together in what is really one big ongoing path of “aesthetic adventure and philosophical inquiry,” which, by necessity, combines both theory and practice.
* The nucleus of the Dziga Vertov Group has always been a working relationship between Godard and one other person—first with Jean-Henri Roger (a young militant from Marseilles) for British Sounds and Pravda, then with Jean-Pierre Gorin (a twenty-nine-year-old former journalist and student activist) for the last five films the Group has made—but the collective planning and making of the Group’s films have involved many other individuals and militant groups as well. (Incidentally, some Godard filmographies list Un film comme les autres [A Film Like All The Others ] as the first of the Dziga Vertov Group’s films; however, although this film on the French riots of 1968 grew out of Godard’s participation in some of the loosely organized militant groups that sprang up during that time, the film was finished in late 1968, which, to my knowledge, antedates by at least several months the founding of the Dziga Vertov Group. It should, I think, be considered a precursor of the Group’s work rather than a part of it. )