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At the cinematheque: “Le Gai savoir” (Godard, France, 1968)

Le Gai savoir
In Le Gai savoir, Jean-Luc Godard begins to integrate his formal concerns with his political ones, taking up the role of teacher and building a case for the historical necessity of revolution. Le Gai savoir is a sort of sequel to La Chinoise, in that it represents the next logical stage in the development (and increasing militancy) of JLG as a filmmaker. La Chinoise observes the process of revolutionary learning and the ensuing switch to praxis on the part of a revolutionary cell. Le Gai savoir instead puts Godard in the role of teacher, switching to a didactic mode of filmmaking that all but dispenses with plot, set, and character. If La Chinoise is a film about the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of radical action, Le Gai savoir moves past these meta-revolutionary questions and moves instead to the work of education, which forms a necessary base for future radical action (for the characters in La Chinoise as well as for Godard).
Godard's separation of sound and image in Le Gai savoir is perhaps the first full example of his methods of dialectical juxtaposition of sound and image (explored by Serge Daney in his brilliant essay The T(h)errorized (Godardian Pedagogy)).Though these juxtapositions explicitly intend to teach, Godard's method is less an audiovisual Socratic method than a form of Hegelian dialectics, in which the synthesis is the responsibility of the viewer. The dialectical approach is not limited to montage; Godard's use of text is also dialectical. Partial phrases, combined via montage to make sentences or slogans, are written on works of art, newspaper photographs of May 1968, or pages from radical works like The Society of the Spectacle. In these cases, the frame itself contains the contradictions of dialectical montage and the accompanying necessity for interpretive work.
Godard's use of sound in Le Gai savoir also makes heavy use of dialectical juxtaposition. There are two main kinds of sound in the film: first, the dialogues between the characters; and second, the disembodied voices and sound effects that appear to be beamed in via shortwave radio. These radio transmissions fall into two groups: first, clips of audio from past revolutionary moments, as if taken from a history of revolution in the media age; and second, a lone voice (Godard's own) accompanied by static and transmission noise, speaking of a more fully realized revolutionary society. Frequently the soundtrack jumps between the two, as if two competing signals were on the same frequency.
Both of these types of radio broadcasts remind me of the work of Chris Marker. The first group recalls Marker's historically narrative anthologizing, best exemplified by his chronicle of the revolutionary moments from 1967 to 1977, Le Fond de l'air est rouge (Grin Without A Cat) – which was completed years later but incorporates footage shot by Marker for SLON films of the period. As he does with text and image, Godard uses only small fragments of these audio histories, creating a fragmentary narrative that emphasizes historical directionality over detail. The second type of nondirect sound – Godard's voice, accompanied by static and futuristic beeps that recall the science fiction of the 1950's – seems influenced instead by Marker's 1963 masterwork La jetée. La jetée seems a better touchstone for the use of Godard's voice-from-the-future than Marker's documentary work, because the films share a concept of historical directionality guaranteed by causation paradoxes (note also that Marker's film was first released as a double feature with Godard's Alphaville). Godard uses his own voice to signal from a revolutionary future back to the present of the film, offering visions of the society to come. By transmitting on the same radio band as the historical narrative of revolution, it establishes historical continuity and places the present in the key position of intermediary and a locus of necessary action. If Marker's conception of history (in both fiction and nonfiction work) places the present at the center of a trajectory whose past and future are visible only in retrospect, for Godard history is primarily directional; the present is seen through the lens of the realized revolutionary future, and his transmissions are a statement of goals, leaving the characters in the present to address questions of methods.
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Le Gai savoir plays Tuesday, May 20th at the Film Forum’s series Godard’s 60s.
The bips where there because of the censure on the film

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