Critique ( AUGUST 1969, MUNICH )
In Weekend Godard pushed spectacle to its limit, and, in so doing, revealed the inadequacies and pitfalls of spectacle. In his next film, Le Gai Savoir, Godard switches tactics and approaches the problem of cinema from the other end. Experimenting with his own distinctive brand of “minimal cinema,” Godard here dissolves not only the traditional appurtenances of the cinema of spectacle—action, plot, characterization, local color, and the preeminence of visual rather than aural stimuli—but he attempts to dissolve as well the very composition of image and sound as we generally encounter them in the cinema.
As the film’s young protagonists point out, to solve a problem in chemistry or in politics one has to “dissolve” the component parts. “In chemistry, they dissolve hydrogen, for example; in politics, they dissolve parliament. Here, we’ve got to dissolve images and sounds.” And what few elements of spectacle Godard carefully builds into Le Gai Savoir —elaborate lighting and color contrasts, for example—are designed more to change our notion of spectacle than to satisfy our expectations and demands.
For the most part, the only “action” in the film is two radical film-students (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto) talking before the lights and cameras of a television studio; the only “plot” is what they talk about (the uses and abuses of image and sound in bourgeois capitalist society); the only “character insights” we get are from hearing them talk; and the “local color” (due to the TV spotlighting) is a pervasive inky blackness which envelopes the young couple and seems to set their conversations in a void. Furthermore, the visual stimulation in Le Gai Savoir is pointedly subservient to the aural stimulation and edification from the sound track.
Interspersed with the long, wordy discussions in the TV studio are a couple of equally wordy “direct interviews,” which are actually word-association experiments carried out by the film-students—first on a very delightful seven- or eight-year-old boy (who is identified as one of the “Afranics,” which, it is explained, means the “français” of the year 2000); then on a colorful and touching old clochard, who is both puzzled and delighted by the tape recorder’s ability “to speak” when part of the wordassociation experiment is played back for him. Finally, throughout the film there are innumerable intercut shots of Paris sidewalk scenes and intercut stills of newspaper photos, drawings, bookcovers, and printed passages from books and articles—nearly all containing various handwritten marginal comments (mostly enigmatic) by Godard. The intercut material sometimes seems intended to demonstrate a point made by the young couple in their discussion; but generally the film as a whole proceeds far more by association and allusion than by actual demonstration and comes dangerously close to deteriorating into a mere enumeration and aberration of all of Godard’s cinematic tricks (and tics ), divorced this time from any larger narrative structure.
But in Le Gai Savoir it is clear that Godard seeks to free the cinema as much as possible from traditional narrative structure and to explore and develop, instead, the cinema’s educational resources, especially its ability to demystify itself through an analysis of the praxis of its basic cinematic means. Ultimately Le Gai Savoir is very much in the vein of an “educational film” (it was commissioned by French television, which indignantly refused to show the finished product and, instead, filed suit against Godard for having failed to produce the sort of “educational film” —supposedly a “loose” adaptation of Rousseau’s Ēmile —he was commissioned to make); and one might say that Le Gai Savoir is an educational film on the subject of education—especially, but certainly not exclusively, on film education.
In a sense it is Godard’s own cinematic education which is presented in Le Gai Savoir; and the film might easily be subtitled “How I Studied Image and Sound and Discovered Marxism,” for Godard, in pursuing what he calls the “scientific experiment” aspect of cinema, has increasingly questioned the nature of the cinematic image, and has come to a recognition that just as there exists no such thing as a “neutral” science, there is likewise no such thing as a “neutral” image. To paraphrase Eldridge Cleaver, “an image which is not part of the solution is part of the problem.” Or, as Patricia (Juliet Berto) declares in Le Gai Savoir, “In each image one must find a method . . . and the discourse of that method . . . . In each image, one must know who is speaking. . . . Our task is to discover images and sounds which are free.”
The question of what constitutes a “free image” is obviously a difficult one—perhaps analogous to and as difficult as the question Jean-Paul Sartre faces in calling for an ethics based on total freedom. For both Godard and Sartre, however, the first task is to reveal and “unveil” the freedom that is presently covered up and hidden by the ideology of bourgeois capitalism and its concomitant exploitation. One of the first tasks, then, for those concerned with notre civilisation de Timage is to demonstrate how so many of the images which surround us today in the mass media are not at all as innocuous as they might seem, but are, in fact, carefully calculated to inculcate bourgeois values that serve to perpetuate the privileged position of the capitalist ruling class.
Le Gai Savoir addresses itself to this problem, but in a way that is unfortunately both cryptic and allusive. There is, for example, a shot of a magazine-cover depicting a well-built, bikiniclad young woman cavorting in the sea. The title of the magazine is ACTION ; and Godard has penciled in words to make it read “Plaisir de la Ré-ACTION.”
Here, as usual, Godard makes his point simply, sharply, and ironically; but it is worthwhile to ask whether the point itself can be grasped and appreciated by someone who has not already understood the insidious nature of the mass media’s twin cults of leisure and sex as instruments of repression. In other words, one should seriously question whether simply alluding, cryptically and ironically, to exploitation and repression constitutes in any useful sense an unveiling of that exploitation and repression. (There are quite a few members of the radical movement in both America and France who even accuse Godard—unjustly, I think, but not without raising some important questions—of doing far more veiling of issues than unveiling.)
Granted, however, if one misses the point here about leisure, sex, and capitalist ideology, one can later read—that is, if one looks carefully at the penciled-in (vertical) handwriting which Godard has added to a series of briefly held stills of various advertisements, posters, and pictures of nude women—the statement that “le . . . capitalisme . . . bourgeois . . . a . . . transformé . . . la . . . technologie . . . et. . . la . . . sexualité . . . en . . . instruments . . . de . . . répression.” Even here we are not presented with an unveiling, but simply an assertion. To demonstrate how bourgeois capitalism has transformed technology and sexuality into instruments of repression would constitute an unveiling of the situation. And this task, I would maintain, is done far better by Godard in films like Une Femme Mariée or Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle, for example, than in Le Gai Savoir.
But in making Le Gai Savoir a far more avowedly militant film than any of its predecessors, Godard has made this film far more vulnerable to the two most serious criticisms directed at radical films in general: first, that they often make assertions without demonstrating the truth of their assertions; and, second, that the films seem to be addressed to an intramural club of initiates who already assume that the assertions are true, with the result that the film-maker has only to flash the appropriate key word or image on the screen in order to elicit from his well-trained audience the appropriate revolutionary salivation.
Perhaps the reason Le Gai Savoir is much more vulnerable to these criticisms than, let us say, La Chinoise, Une Femme Mariée, or Deux ou trois choses is simply that Godard’s cryptic allusions and verbal and visual puns lose a great deal of their subversive power when they are not integrated within the richly woven narrative tapestry of an “adventure” Godard can both utilize as a sort of demonstration model, and, at the same time, criticize and subvert.
But Godard seems worried these days that films like La Chinoise and, especially, Weekend may have been “absorbed” by the bourgeoisie without the subversive dose of social criticism ever taking effect. When reminded recently that Weekend was doing well at the box-office in America, Godard replied: “Yes, but possibly in the wrong way. That’s why I’m sorry I didn’t make it dirtier.” Behind this remark lies an interesting and provocative hypothesis. There are two basic ways, he apparently believes, to guard against a film’s being “absorbed” by the bourgeoisie: first, by reducing drastically the element of spectacle; and, second, by making the film insolent to the point of offensiveness. In the case of Weekend, where the basic conception of the film required a heavy dose of spectacle, Godard now regrets that he didn’t make the treatment of sex still more provokingly insolent in order to offend the bourgeois sensibility.
Providing a sort of formula for his film-making projects since Weekend, Godard recently said:
The idea is to make the script [by “script,” of course, we can assume he means either “treatment” or simply his working notes rather than a full-blown scenario] out of a political analysis, and then to convey that, sometimes in poetry, sometimes scienee, sometimes all it takes is film. The film itself is less and less spectacular because I think very strongly now that the more spectacular you are, the more you are absorbed by the things you are trying to destroy. You don’t destroy anything at all, and it’s you who are destroyed because of the spectacle.9
In Le Gai Savoir not only is spectacle reduced to a minimum, but also what remains of spectacle is transformed from a diverting aspect into a teaching device; and the film’s “educational exercises” (which delve not so much into the ontology of the cinematic image but rather more into its sociology) make up the entire film and provide its sole raison d’être. The title itself, which suggests both the medieval troubadors’ “gay science of love” and Nietzsche’s Die Förhliche Wissenschaft (best rendered in English as “Joyful Wisdom”), seems to imply that the individual’s selfdevelopment, when guided by love and concern for his fellow man, constitutes life’s most joyful adventure. The cinematic correlative of this notion—upon which Godard has built Le Gai Savoir —seems to be that in going to the cinema, we should neither expect nor demand any “adventure” other than that of learning—about cinema, and then through cinema, about society. The joy, as well as the adventure, should be in the harmonious development of the individual and society.
In Le Gai Savoir, however, it is difficult to say what we are supposed to be learning, and it is questionable whether most people will find the film very joyful. There are, of course, some joyful moments in Le Gai Savoir: for example, Patricia Lumumba (Juliet Berto) telling Émile Rousseau (Jean-Pierre Léaud) that she has taken a job posing in bra and panties for a radical publication (Humanité-Dimanche) because she thinks it’s a shame the way radical publications always use the same sort of sexy photos as the reactionary press, whereas she hopes to prove that a girl can show her underwear in a “revolutionary” way; or Patricia standing in front of Émile and serving as his masque while he uses foul language to vituperate against the Gaullists, the police, and the “Establishment shits,” then dares the censors (the police) to determine who should be charged with obscenity. But there are also long stretches where Godard’s usually wry humor and sharp irony seem to miss their mark completely and the film keeps droning on as the “educational” exercises are simply strung together en vrac.
Given this sort of structure (as Léaud says, “even chance has structure, like the unconscious”), one is reduced to picking out isolated moments and concentrating on one or two effects. The single most striking visual aspect of Le Gai Savoir is the elaborate lighting effects Godard uses to photograph in as many variations of light and shadow as possible the same two people (Berto and Léaud), whose only activity throughout the film is either to sit and talk or else to stand and talk. Surrounded by inky darkness, they are lighted now from above, now from below, now from the right, now from the left, now one is lighted, now the other, and every combination thereof, in a shifting kaleidoscope of light, shadow, and color contrasts; as first the red of Juliet Berto’s slacks is highlighted, then the blue of her pullover, then the brown of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s jacket, then the bright red plaid of his scarf, and so on throughout the entire film.
In a way, Le Gai Savoir’s lighting effects recall those of the well-known “love ritual” sequence in Alphaville, where Lemmy (Eddie Constantine) and Natasha (Anna Karina) were alternatively lighted as they stood together, embraced, and took the first hesitant steps of love. The first hesitant steps taken by Émile and Patricia are those of revolution rather than love, but, as a handwritten note asserts in Le Gai Savoir, “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” In any case, the effect the lighting has on the viewer in both films is a thoroughly hypnotic one. The slightest gestures—the movement of a hand or the turning of a head—seem to be beautifully choreographed dance movements and the “action” seems somehow set apart from reality in a sort of ritualistic dreamworld. However, this effect in Le Gai Savoir certainly leads one to hold some grave doubts about the practical efficacy of these “revolutionary” discussions which seem to take place in a void.
In cinematic terms, however, the elaborate lighting seems designed to demonstrate that a certain intrinsic element of spectacle exists in any cinematic image, but that one can, and perhaps should, eliminate from cinema those extrinsic elements of spectacle which cinema has more or less inherited from the novel and the drama in order to retain only what is fundamentally cinematic: the varying degrees of light and shadow, the way in which the image is framed, the movement within the frame, and the way in which the film proceeds from one shot to another. These elements alone, Le Gai Savoir attempts to demonstrate, can hold the viewer’s attention without being so obtrusive that they divert his attention away from the learning process and the issues being explored.
Le Gai Savoir also attempts to demonstrate that these cinematic elements can be used to focus one’s attention on a specific issue. Unfortunately the occasional attempts too often simply lead the viewer to say “so what?” For example, a statement that “since Freud, we know that perversions are the result of sexual repression” is accompanied by the cinema’s equivalent of a “perversion”—a faux raccord in which the camera shows Jean-Pierre Léaud turn his head toward what is for the viewer the left-hand border of the frame, followed by a panning camera movement to the left which halts momentarily on Juliet Berto, who likewise turns her head to the left-hand border of the frame, followed by a second panning movement to the left which reveals Jean-Pierre Léaud, who, by all “normal” cinematic expectations, should not be there at all. This little exercise may be rather charming and the pun on “perversion” rather cute, but that’s as far as it goes. Neither the subject of perversions nor the subject of faux raccords in the cinema is developed any further, and the viewer is left wondering whether Godard really intends anything by the “cinema-logical” implication that faux raccords, like all “perversions,” are the result of sexual repression. And if so, then what?
A general and not inconsiderable fault throughout Le Gai Savoir is that it raises issues—or, all too often, merely alludes to issues—without ever really exploring them. Finally, at the end of the film Godard, using Léaud as his porte-parole, acknowledges that quite a few issues have been left unexplored: like, for instance, “demonstrating that there are no problems which cannot be fruitfully analyzed from a Marxian or a Freudian point of view”; or, for a second example, “analyzing the problem of taboos in a bourgeois family”; or, for a third issue, “depicting the ecstasies of looting in the Third World.” But these tasks, Léaud assures us, will not be left undone. “Bertolucci will do the first in Italy; Straub will do the second in Germany; and Glauber Rocha will do the third in Brazil.”
And what, we might ask, will Godard do in France, in England, in America, or wherever he chooses to make his next films? Will Le Gai Savoir mark a turning-point in his development, or will it simply stand a bit apart from the mainstream of his work—a compendium of possibilities put together for educational purposes? It is hard to tell. As Godard himself whispers at the very end of Le Gai Savoir, “this film cannot describe nor embody cinema, but, more modestly, it can suggest some practical means of making film; and, in any case, cinema must follow some of the paths shown.”
True. But that covers a lot of ground. The question—for Godard as well as the others—is which paths?
Auto-Critique du Critique ( OCTOBER 1969, PARIS )
Bien que les nombreux intellectuels
révolutionnaires jouent un rôle
d’avant-garde et servent de pont,
tous ne sont pas révolutionnaires
(Although the numerous revolutionary
intellectuals play a role of avant
garde and serve as a bridge, not all of
them are revolutionary all the way. )
(The above statement is part of a
handwritten epigraph which appears
at the very beginning of
Le Gai Savoir.)
Unfortunately, the critique you have just read seems to me to be an illustration of the way in which even those intellectuals who seek to affirm and advance the cause of a revolutionary transformation of society have great obstacles to overcome and a long way to travel if they are to succeed in being revolutionary all the way. Moreover, as a statement from the voice-over sound track of Le Gai Savoir puts it: “To apply a bourgeois work-style to the study of Mao’s thoughts, is to apply a bourgeois politics.”
What I suspect, then, is that my original critique of Le Gai Savoir also illustrates just how difficult it is for intellectuals in general—and particularly those of us concerned with art—to throw off bourgeois notions and a bourgeois work-style, which, whether they are applied to Mao’s thought or Godard’s films (and the two have much in common ), add up, albeit unintentionally, to a bourgeois politics.
But this auto-critique is not meant to imply that I disown the views expressed in the original article (as if such a thing were possible; as if a product of thought were a product like any other —a possession to be owned and disowned). What I want to put in question, however, is what Le Gai Savoir itself puts in question —a notion of art which in the long run is a bourgeois reactionary notion—and I have decided that the best way to do this is to let the original critique stand, but to point out the limitations of its argument and to demonstrate that this sort of argument is perhaps all the more dangerous precisely because it is often put forward with the best intentions of serving to advance the revolutionary praxis, a task it does not necessarily fulfill, and may even impede.
At the base of my article on Le Gai Savoir there lies a fundamental principle (one which I continue to uphold) that a “revolutionary work of art” must be effective in a revolutionary way in both its art and its politics. Perhaps the best articulation of this principle is the following well-known statement by Mao himself, often quoted by Godard:
What we demand is the unity of politics and art, the unity of content and form, the unity of revolutionary political content and the highest possible perfection of artistic form. Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, however pro gressive they are politically. . . . On questions of literature and art, we must carry on a struggle on two fronts.10
In the name of this principle, then, and in seeking to advance this struggle on two fronts, I attempted to strike a balance between the task of delineating the very urgent practical and theoretical issues which Le Gai Savoir raises concerning the relations between film and society; and, on the other hand, the task of pointing out, regretfully, that the “art” of Le Gai Savoir seemed, on the whole, annoyingly “artless.” In short, it seemed to me that since so much of what usually works in Godard’s films this time seemed not to work—or simply worked more equivocally than in the earlier “narrative” films—the end result was a film which, in spite of having a most laudable revolutionary politics, failed much more than it succeeded, both as politics and as art, precisely because it seemed to fail as art.
But here, I think, is where I overlooked the real revolutionary action of Le Gai Savoir, which is the action of applying the revolution to art itself. In criticizing Le Gai Savoir for failing to be effective as art, I either did not fully realize or perhaps was simply not ready to accept the degree to which Godard had moved beyond mere subversion of the narrative as his contribution to revolutionary consciousness, and that he now sought to lay the foundations of a truly revolutionary art which would no longer conveniently neglect the much needed task of making the revolution chez soi; of sweeping away all of the dust, dirt, and intellectual bric-a-brac of that bourgeois duplex we honor as the House of Art and Culture; of destroying the accepted bourgeois notion of art, the mystique of art, all that we have come to worship in art—in short, the religion of art.
Like any other religion, the religion of art is an “opiate of the masses,” a mystification which covers up and diverts attention away from the very real repression that exists within society. And like any other religion, the religion of art is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the Establishment; and that is why the power elite not only tolerates this form of religion but actually cultivates it. As André Malraux, the self-proclaimed apostle of the religion of art, expressed it more than a decade ago, “we have transformed our churches into museums; there remains only the next step of transforming our museums into churches”—a step which Malraux accomplished by aligning himself with DeGaulle’s mystification and elitist policies, and, as France’s “Minister of Culture,” by setting up a Maison de la Culture in towns all over France.
Moreover, the more the Establishment “domesticates” art by cultivating the religion of art, the less it has to fear from art, even from would-be “revolutionary art.” As Marcuse has pointed out, the increasing permissiveness in the arts in modern industrial capitalist society is by no means a sign that the Establishment is weakening its hold; on the contrary, it is rather the case that the more the Establishment is secure in its position of power and privilege, the less it needs to exercise any overt censorship over art—simply because the task of emasculating the potentially subversive elements in art is accomplished more efficiently and painlessly by letting these elements be expressed within the Establishment-controlled and therefore easily absorbable context of the religion of art, than could ever be accomplished by overt repression.*
What Godard has gradually come to realize (partly as an outgrowth of the May 1968 events in Paris and partly as the very natural outgrowth of his own development as an artist) is simply that, given the fact that even the most uncompromising artistic experiments are compromised in the end by being absorbed within the bourgeois religion of art; and given that even a work of art with a high dosage of potentially subversive elements (like Weekend, for example) is all too easily emasculated, absorbed, and co-opted by the simple bourgeois reflex of hailing it as a masterpiece and placing it on the altar of art as still another object of worship; then the time has come when the only way for art to be revolutionary is to destroy itself, to destroy even the most advanced artistic values, to break down the cult of the “masterpiece,” to produce purposely flawed works of art which the bourgeoisie will not even recognize as art, and which will therefore escape being absorbed and emasculated, and will preserve intact their revolutionary power.
But how can we reconcile this destruction of artistic values with our own already stated position of demanding the unity of politics and art, of form and content, of revolutionary political content and the highest possible perfection of artistic form? And if we agree with Mao when he states that “works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, however progressive they are politically,” then we are entitled to question (as I did) exactly what subversive power is preserved intact when Godard (or anyone else) creates a deliberately “artless” work of art.
The answer, it seems to me, is provided by Le Gai Savoir— namely, that the creation of a revolutionary work of art must be an act of simultaneous destruction and creation; that revolutionary art must destroy the accepted artistic values (and, consequently, appear “artless” by even the most avant-garde standards) at the same time that it creates, out of the rubble and debris of the old, new artistic values which will be truly revolutionarv because they will challenge the prevailing mystification and repression in art itself.
Godard’s films have always sought to attain some sort of balance between creation and destruction, between creating within a tradition of “adventure” and “spectacle,” and, at the same time, criticizing and undermining that tradition; but Le Gai Savoir marks a crucial shift of weight to the side of destruction and seems to mark a realization on Godard’s part that balance between two poles is not necessarily attained by equal portions of each; that when the fulcrum is off-center, then a much heavier weight must be placed on the short side to counteract the greater leverage it is up against; that when the bourgeois religion of art holds such overwhelming leverage over the would-be forces of change, then it no longer suffices (if indeed it ever did) merely to construct a more or less traditional narrative of adventure within which there would be traps, mines, and holes inviting the spectator (but often only the very sophisticated spectator) to subvert and destroy the traditional pattern; and that, instead, what is urgently needed today is a revolutionary art which will completely reject and eschew the traditional pattern, will decompose one by one all of the individual elements that went into the old pattern, will refuse to put these elements back together in any of the ways we have come to expect them to be put together, and yet will hold these decomposed elements together by demonstrating—as Le Gai Savoir does—how each formal element in a film can and must be related to the class struggle and to the struggle for the means of production—in short, to the revolution in art and society!
In other words, in Le Gai Savoir Godard has almost entirely done away with the traditional apparatus of the bourgeois cinema (and that includes the “art-cinema”); and, instead of holding the film together by means of even a “fractured” narrative (like that of Vivre sa vie, Pierrot le fou, or Masculin-Féminin ), Godard holds Le Gai Savoir together in just the way that the children’s alphabet-primer (read aloud by Émile and Patricia) is held together: that is, by running through the ABC’s of image and sound; by giving examples of how they are used—and abused; and by pointing out how each formal element in a film necessarily engenders questions other than merely formalistic ones, questions which imply and involve a certain view of the world and our own situation in that world—questions, in other words, which force us to confront the fundamental structures of society and to recognize that behind every cinematic image, in capitalist society there lies a class struggle and a struggle for the means of production; and that any image which does not address itself to solving the problem of exploitation and unequal distribution of capital automatically serves to perpetuate the problem and to strengthen the stranglehold of the exploiting “haves” over the exploited “have nots.”
If the destructive element seems much greater in Le Gai Savoir than the constructive element, this is because—as the film itself tells us—the revolutionary dream of “starting again from zero” can never be realized unless we first get back to zero. But it is important to understand the sort of destruction that Le Gai Savoir performs and to distinguish this sort of destruction— which destroys the old pattern by systematically breaking it down into its individual component parts, which are then analyzed to determine how they can be used in the future in new and revolutionary ways—from the sort of mindless destruction that simply smashes everything to shattered and unusable smithereens. For Godard, getting back to zero means destroying the existing structures by taking them apart, not by blowing them up. And once back to zero, the task, as the film itself acknowledges, will be to look around at whatever traces are left and to see how we can use them to build something new.
And the task, it seems to me, is performed by Le Gai Savoir itself—particularly the way Godard decomposes the spectacle, analyzes it, reduces it to its essentials, then puts it to use in a new and revolutionary way in which spectacle is no longer the diverting aspect of film, but rather becomes the cinematic means of focusing our attention on social problems and issues, and, at the same time, becomes the cinematic means by which the analysis of these problems is carried out. As for my own discussion of the function of spectacle in Le Gai Savoir, while it was probably the most insightful point in the original critique, it did not go far enough and did not prevent me from falling, at one point, into the very trap the film warns against : the trap of the idéologie du vécu (a term Godard and the Cinéthique theorists are using to designate the bourgeois cinema’s emphasis on the illusion of the lived, emotional, “you-are-there” aspect of film).
When I pointed out that Le Gai Savoir s elaborate lighting (like that of the “love ritual” in Alphaville) had a hypnotic effect on the viewer and seemed to set the “action” (in this case, the “revolutionary” discussions of Émile and Patricia) apart from reality in a sort of ritualistic dreamworld, I then proceeded to question the advisability of creating such an effect in Le Gai Savoir on the grounds that it leads us to hold grave reservations about the practical efficacy of those “revolutionary” discussions “which seem to take place in a void.” However, implicit in this remark (although I didn’t realize it at the time and wouldn’t have made the remark if I had) is an assumption that if Émile’s and Patricia’s revolutionary discussions had taken place in a different setting (not even necessarily in a more “revolutionary” setting, like in a factory or in the street, but simply in a more “realistic” setting, like an ordinary room lighted in an ordinary way), then we might be more likely to believe in the practical efficacy of these discussions.
But practical efficacy for whom? In the latter case, if it is true that we would be more likely to believe that the revolutionary talk would lead somewhere, to some revolutionary action, it is only because we would be better able to believe in the cinematic fiction of Émile and Patricia, and, consequently, in the practical efficacy of these discussions for them.
But this is beside the point. They don’t exist. There are no Émile and Patricia outside of Le Gai Savoir; and from the very beginning, where Émile and Patricia make a point of introducing each other to us, the film preserves only enough of the conventional pretense of fictional characters to unmask this pretense, to demonstrate to us that the pretense of representation is simply a tool in the task of presentation; and at the end of the film, when the task has been accomplished and the tool has served its purpose, then the pretense itself is dropped and the actor and actress make a point of addressing each other by their real first names. In short, for Godard (as for Brecht), the actor’s task is not to make us believe that he is the role he is playing, but rather (as Brecht insisted Charles Laughton should do in playing Galileo) to force us to understand* that he is an actor who does not represent a certain character so much as he presents to us through the words and actions of that character certain issues and certain problems, which the artist does not pretend to solve and which require our participation, our give and take, both during and after the presentation, which, far from being a reenacting of something that happened in the past, is itself only a prelude to the work which, after the film, awaits all of us.
As Patricia/Juliet Berto says in Le Gai Savoir, thereby providing a definition of Godard’s notion of revolutionary cinema: “Pas représentation, preséntation . . . pas spectacle, lutte!” (“Not representation, presentation . . . not spectacle, struggle!”)
It is interesting to notice, moreover, that if there is such a thing as “ontological realism” in the cinema, then Godard has both been faithful to it and at the same time located it more precisely —not in the mere verisimilitude of the representation, but rather in the demystified reality of the presentation. Furthermore, in shifting the accent away from the representation (whose basic dynamic lies in the tension between the actor and the role he seeks to incarnate) over instead to the presentation (whose basic dynamic lies in the tension between, on one hand, the issues and problems the actor presents and, on the other hand, the minds (and not the mere credulity) of the audience; Godard thereby succeeds in demonstrating the truth of his oft-repeated assertion that ultimately the reality of the cinema lies not in what takes place on the screen but rather in what takes place in the give and take between the screen and the spectators’ minds.
In conclusion, then, we discover that those revolutionary discussions in Le Gai Savoir do not take place in a vacuum. The dialogue between Émile/Jean-Pierre Léaud and Patricia/Juliet Berto constitutes only one-half of a much more important dialogue, the other half of which must come from us —and the real question we must ask is whether these revolutionary discussions have any practical efficacy for us.
But we should realize (as I originally failed to do) that if we couch our response to this film in the language of even what may heretofore have been the most advanced notion of art, then we not only run counter to the real revolutionary praxis of Le Gai Savoir (which applies the revolution to the art itself) but we may also find ourselves, albeit unwillingly, in the position of counterrevolutionaries in relation to the revolution as a whole. Unless we who are concerned with art have the courage and perseverance to look our art in the face and to recognize the counterrevolutionary visage which often lurks there, then I’m afraid that for people like us—as Bertolucci’s Fabrizio says—it will always be “before the revolution.”
* Le Gai Savoir also points out that, where film is involved, a great deal more censorship—especially politically-motivated censorship—goes on than the public hears about; not the least of the censor’s work involves censoring public dissemination of information on just what and how much does get censored.