A Spectre Is Haunting...: The Dziga Vertov Group

Jean-Luc Godard's notorious and difficult to see (as well as to watch) films made with the Dziga Vertov Group are finally available.
Michael Sicinski

The retrospective Godard and the Dziga Vertov Group is showing from February 27 - March 26, 2018 on MUBI in the United Kingdom and United States.

British Sounds

British Sounds

The execrable new film Redoubtable by Michel Hazanavicius reduces all aspects of Jean-Luc Godard and his career to the level of a cartoon. And not even a great, cinematically advanced cartoon—the Fleischer brothers, Chuck Jones, or Tex Avery, something that might actually capture some semblance of JLG’s anarchic humor. No, Redoubtable is strictly Hanna-Barbara, two-dimensional animals lumbering about on an unchanging, depthless landscape. (Oh look! Silly Jean-Luc has broken his glasses again!) 

As if to drive home the childishness of the film, it is being retitled in the U.S. Now called Godard Mon Amour, it not only makes a mockery of an actually great film by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras. It emphasizes Godard as little more than a brand name, a selling point. This is to say nothing of its implicit assertion, that everything Godard ever did boiled down to desires at the level of the individual—“girl and a gun” type stuff.

But Godard was interested in erasing himself, not necessarily as a creator but as a “proper name.” Hazanavicius stages this, of course, as just more pomposity. But like many French intellectuals after the stalemate of May ’68, Godard was becoming interested in post-structuralist theory, particularly the writings of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. He took their theories of authorship and its erasure quite seriously, coming to understand the political limitations of being a “proper name.”  

It was at this point that Godard had the good fortune to meet Jean-Pierre (or “J.P.”) Gorin, a hard-leftist filmmaker with whom he formed the Dziga Vertov Group, a rotating collective of activists and film artists dedicated to making small-gauge, politically engaged cinema outside the studio system. Once again subsuming the social and political under the sign of the personal, Redoubtable turns the first encounter between Godard and Gorin into a kind of gay-baiting joke, implying that Godard’s interest in leaving his previous career behind in order to make these new, radical films was mostly a matter of infatuation. (Perhaps it was, in part, but there’s no question Hazanavicius plays it for cheap laughs.) 


Struggle in Italy

But there’s something uniquely problematic about the Dziga Vertov Group work that perhaps makes it ripe for parody by a hack like the director of the OSS films. In the intervening years, Godard may not have returned to “brand-name” status, partly because large segments of the viewing public have stopped caring about artistically inclined cinema. Nevertheless, if one were to ask a healthy sampling of cinephiles to name the world’s greatest living director, it’s certain Godard would land very near the top of the list. Despite his best efforts, he is a living legend. 

And yet, it is only recently that the Dziga Vertov Group films have been available on any form of home video anywhere in the world. Instead, they circulated as VHS-derived samizdat, liberated from an international film archive and traded like prison cigarettes. As of now, they remain some of the only Godard films not available in the U.S. (despite a frequently rumored Criterion Eclipse set). Only his video work is as inaccessible to the casual viewer. And so this current series represents a major milestone. To my knowledge, MUBI’s streaming of these five Dziga Vertov Group films represents their debut on any legitimate home format in North America. [NOTE: Unbeknownst to me prior to writing this, these five films have just come out on domestic Blu-ray. O happy day!]

But then, who will be watching? Part of the mystique of these films, and part of the reason for their obscurity, is that they are difficult, displeasurable, if not altogether terrible. There is a colossal bum rap in these assertions, to be sure. Everybody seems to have their favorite classic Godard—be it Breathless, A Woman Is a Woman, Contempt, Band of Outsiders, Pierrot le fou, or even “challenging” ones like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Weekend. And inevitably, people will bear some animus toward Godard for “not making films like X anymore.” This is the kind of nostalgic mewling that is easily dismissed.

In other ways, however, the claim that the Dziga Vertov films are “bad objects,” that they do not want to entertain or amuse, is a fair cop. This should not have come as such as surprise, really. As Theo Panayides aptly put it, Weekend (1967) was “a film by a man at the end of his rope,” and La Chinoise (1967) was, in certain respects, a dry run for many of the formal techniques that would come to fruition in both Le gai savoir (1969) and Wind from the East (1970). The decisive “break” of the Dziga Vertov Group was not so much stylistic as production-based. Leaving traditional studio and distribution channels behind, Godard, Gorin, and crew were taking a kind of high road that reflected back onto the films, making the objects themselves seem like elitist UFOs despite their auteurist continuity. 

Granted, even with his copy of Of Grammatology in tow, no one expected Godard to become a strange amalgam of Alexander Medvedkin and George Kuchar, heading out into the woods and near-spontaneously generating semi-“Godardian” films by committee. What’s more, the affiliation with Gorin gave Godard permission to unleash his inner avant-sadist, using extraordinarily long passages of text, shrill, dissonant noises, and complex editing patterns that, in retrospect, have much more in common with contemporaneous work by structuralists like Peter Gidal, Michael Snow, and Hollis Frampton, than any of Godard’s French comperes, with the possible exceptions of Alain Resnais (sometimes) and Jean-Daniel Pollet. 

Wind from the East

The difference, of course, was the politics. If we recall that, for most viewers, these films were hard to even see, challenging and possibly dissonant in tone, and contravened their nostalgic concept of who “Godard” was, then their ideology represented yet another stumbling block for the bourgeois arthouse audience. Granted, this ideology was a moving target, an amalgam of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist labor politics and post-structuralist image and linguistic analysis. Despite the films’ reputation for dogmatism, they are frequently in the process of figuring out their own position on things, as one might expect from artifacts of an evolving collective.

Still, many people are looking for an excuse to avoid “hard” films, and lots of potential viewers got what they wanted in Serge Daney’s classic essay “Godardian Pedagogy.” In it, Daney assesses Godard’s project as a dead end, the work of someone who ostensibly wants to efface himself but refuses to relinquish the “master discourse.” Daney writes, “But Godard is not the bearer of the discourse in which he demands that we believe - still less the origin - but something like the drill-master. So a structure with three places is set up, a little theater of three, where to the master (who is after all only a drill-master) and the student (who only repeats) is added the solicitation of what must be repeated, the solicitation of the discours du manche, to which master and student are subjected, unequally, and which persecutes them.”

As per Bill Krohn and Charles Cameron Ball’s translation, “discours du manche” refers to a “discourse of the handle,” that which both master and student grip in the process of learning by rote. It is also a reference to the Lacanian phallus, a high-handed way of saying that the new, “humbler” Godard is no less of a dick than the grande auteur. In trying to subsume his proper name within the collective, Daney seems to argue that Godard gave himself over to a different collection of proper names—Marx, Engels, Althusser, and of course Vertov. The viewing experience, then, is one of joining Godard and Gorin in prostrating ourselves before these discursive masters. 

But of course, this is only part of the story. The Dziga Vertov Group films are not purely rhetorical. They are also formal, with rhythms and patterns unlike anything else in the Godardian oeuvre. Take Struggle in Italy (1971), for example. The film is devised as its own double, the narration spoken in Italian and overdubbed in French. (English subtitles add an additional layer, offering a sneak preview of Godard’s convoluted “Navajo” subtitles in Film Socialisme). But more significantly, Struggle is a film of visual repetitions. A bowl of soup, a woman trying on a sweater, a math lesson, and other inserts alternate with the lessons in dialectics, as if the film is trying to teach you how to watch it as well as provide a lecture of historical materialism. Struggle in Italy may be Godard’s most Framptonian film.

Or take British Sounds (1970), which may be the single best film of this period. Godard and Gorin open on a long, slow tracking shot of an auto assembly line, left to right. The factory footage is accompanied by the mechanical shrieks and whines of electric soldering and riveting, producing an ear-splitting form of musique concrète. The point of the shot is as obvious as it is aggravating. The viewer is forced to experience for just a few minutes the aural assault that the workers undergo on a daily basis.

But on the more formalist side of things, this tension-generating light and sound machine is a direct quotation of Weekend, the last known siting of “the good Godard.” Directly mimicking the infamous traffic jam scene, Godard and Gorin provide yet another tracking shot over cars in various states of disrepair, scored not with horns but with grinding metal. A kind of kiss-off to those viewers still demanding Godard the auteur, this opening sequence is a hilarious shot across the bow in JLG’s war against his own identity. This aspect of British Sounds is continued somewhat obliquely near the middle of the film, when a virulently fascist news pundit delivers an anti-immigrant screed from behind a desk. The interminable rant is a kind of flipside to the Arab and African monologues in Weekend, although in form and tone, it more closely resembles the work of Peter Watkins. 

The consensus favorite among the Dziga Vertov films has historically been Wind from the East. It is certainly the most well-constructed of the bunch, and what's more it possesses the outward trappings of a Western. Granted, it satisfies that genre about as well as, say, Andy Warhol’s Vinyl serves as a legitimate adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, which is to say, barely. Visually, Wind from the East is charming, not unlike an amateur rendition of Weekend as imagined by Ken Jacobs during his Little Stabs at Happiness phase. Wind is indeed the film in which Godard presents his now-famous truism, "It is not a just image, it is just an image." And while the voiceover does, once again, consist mostly of unfiltered explications regarding true Leninism versus bourgeois revisionism, the opening segment offers a bit of a surprise. The catalog of revolutionary and anti-revolutionary moments in cinematic history, once matched with Godard’s later, more elliptical style, can certainly be read as a rough draft for Histoire(s) du Cinéma.

Are these films ready for a second chance? It would be quite something if they finally joined the great Godardian corpus. They have been the gaping wound in the man’s authoritative canon for so long, the films that are allegedly “better read about than seen.” (Again Warhol comes to mind. Was Andy the only director whose radicalism came close to JLG’s?) It’s possible that time and history have caught up with the Dziga Vertov Group, in the sense that two of the discourses that permeate the films—socialism and fascism—are now once again very much on the table. This is not to say that “Godardian pedagogy” will find its rightful place as the aesthetic mode of the 21st century, but the films’ handmade, declamatory style does fit nicely with the age of rampant amateur media production and a younger generation for whom activism and technology are entirely coextensive. 

The films also chart a compact rise-and-fall narrative, exhibiting a burst of creative energy that expends itself and then wanes. Godard and Gorin dissolve the group, attempt to reintegrate their ideas into the French studio system, with significant creative success (Tout va bien), and then peter out with a petty display of sexism and hurt feelings (Letter to Jane). The Dziga Vertov Group describes an almost irresistibly perfect arc, and even if claims of a chaste love affair between Godard and Gorin are unfounded, the films do chart an infatuation with analysis, a desire to pull the world apart and rebuild it, taking quite seriously Le gai savoir’s self-imposed injunction to “return to zero.” 

It’s cinema, kicking and screaming like a newborn Maoist infant. Are you game?

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