As media democratizes, actual democracy is in decline. Cheap technologies proliferate to the point that anyone can distribute what they create, but does this lead to a grassroots, vox populi like the French Resistance’s newspaper, Combat (which was specifically referenced in the film)? No, it leads to endless uploads of cats on YouTube. In the words of one of the film’s characters, we need to produce before we distribute.
Godard shows us the best and worst of these new digital technologies. Many of his shots are simply gorgeous, but at other times he intentionally washes everything out, shows the grain of the video image, and allows his microphones to be completely swept away in a strong wind. Of course, Godard was an early adapter of video technology so I don’t think he has a serious issue with the medium itself. Rather, I suppose that he never would’ve imagined where all of this would end up when he started tinkering with it back in the 1970s. Ever the radical, he probably imagined the proliferation of militant film- and video-making collectives with easy access to affordable technology. The emergence of YouTube and the belief that anyone can be a filmmaker because anyone can operate a video camera seems to boggle his mind. The sheer amount of inanity that has become available and the amount of time and attention that we spend on it, to the detriment of participation in democratic movements, seems to have galled Godard into making this film.
Of course, Film Socialisme is more than a treatise about the democratization of media. It is also a film essay on the use of media as propaganda or as a tool. The two ends of this spectrum are the Soviet Union and revolutionary Spain and the relationship between the two, as referred to through multiple images and allusions to “Spanish gold.” During the Spanish Civil War, the Spanish Republic did actually send all of its gold to the Soviet Union as credit for arms and munitions and for safe-keeping. Of course, that gold that was sent for safe-keeping never saw its way back to Spain. Godard uses this incident to clarify his position on “film socialism,” or the uses and abuses of film as a political tool. We see shots from the famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin juxtaposed with actual documentary footage of barricades in Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War/Revolution. One exists as a tool of the state and the other as the tool of the people.
A large section of the film revolves around a cruise ship making its way around the Mediterranean Sea, stopping in ports-of-call that act as cradles of Western civilization. Greece (Hellas, or Hell As), Odessa, Naples, Barcelona, Alexandria, Gaza; they all make their appearances in the film and serve as a specific point on an aimless map. Naples is lined with garbage; Greece is both the birthplace of Western democracy and a tempestuous cauldron of strife and warfare, as seen in clips from old sword-and-sandal epics; Barcelona is no longer the hotbed of revolution, etc. So, where exactly is Europe going? Is the ship off course?
Godard partly answers that question in the second half of the film, which takes place at a family-run gas station in a small town in France. There are local elections in the works and a news crew has arrived to interview the family about the elections and the general state of democracy. Again, digital technology is easy to use and to carry, but what difference does that make if, as Godard’s ubiquitous titles tell us, voter turn-out for the fictional election was abysmal?
I’ve heard rumours that this is supposed to be Godard’s last film. I certainly hope not, but it most definitely had that feel, especially the last 10 minutes or so. In that section, Godard offers almost a retrospective of his own career, or at least the issues that he has always dealt with over the course of his career. It almost seemed like a hyper-abbreviated version of his Histories du cinema, which might end up being seen as the culmination of his career. As if to say, “I have nothing more to say or to show you when visual culture has been hijacked by YouTube and democratic values are no longer debated,” Godard ends this film with a summation of his concerns and then walks away.
This is a dense, difficult film and I don’t pretend to understand everything about it (your guess about that llama is as good as mine, for instance). But to fans of Godard, many of the motifs and leitmotifs will be familiar and can be contextualized in the broader scope of Godard’s career. This is at times a beautiful film and always provocative; I certainly hope it is not the last we will see from Godard.