I Saw a Film
Today most of this film looks just spooky and provocative. The lasting meat, as I write this in 2020, is a series of sessions with the Rolling Stones literally creating one of their most iconic songs, the nominal one. More about this in a moment.
Jean Luc Godard was, very simply put, a man on a mission to undermine the dominance of Western commercial artistic technique. Or at least I imagine so, because he went out of his way to foil story-telling, and broke through the customary walls of film making by showing the camera, and having the actors actually acknowledge the camera (what the kids refer to as “meta” now). Of course, for a whole slew of people quite content with commercial entertainment his work just seems “bad”. I should add, that I’m no expert in film, nor anything like an expert on Godard, but this shouldn’t make much difference in the case of emotionally examining his work, as he was not a fan of “intellectual” approach. In my mind, he is a kind of Socrates of never-backing-down righteous artistic philosophy and I suspect loved nothing more than a good headstrong argument. But I can’t tell you that that’s true. I can tell you that he’s considered, according to most resources, the most influential of the post-war French (possibly European) film-makers. Others might say he was more than that.
What I will tell you is that in the midst of watching the Rolling Stones painfully dragging through their songwriting techniques in studio, we are subjected to many almost robotic vignettes that speak to fear and loathing of our times, and of course, this being 1968, those times. The areas of the film that seem to speak to the role of Black Panthers is presented in the most jarring way possible. Beautiful white women, dressed in nothing but loose white frocks, are held at gun point by muscular black men, and slain in a junkyard with the passionless operation of a machine. I’m sure we’re being slapped upside the face for our stupid racist terrors, but having this sort of ignorant fear brought to life doesn’t feel like satire, it just feels dirty and mean.
There are numbing voice-overs read from noir novels, people spray-paint graffiti, a young woman, I don’t recognize, and who I later read was meant to be a personification of Democracy (I don’t know how you would “intellectualize” that from what you see!) is asked a multitude of questions by reporters as she wanders sort of aimlessly about in a park setting. Her answers are always either “Yes” or “No”. Nothing else. A bookstore sells reading materials to a number of different people who seem to have been recruited for the roles minutes before and each slaps the faces of two unknown persons (later I found out they were meant to be communists) and gives a sort of clumsy Nazi salute as they take their products. Again, the reasons are left up to us in this collage. The effort is either too little to make any sort of point, or too vague to be rationalized toward anything, but then, I was four and grew up in America when this was made so maybe I’m not the target audience. I would not recognize a Maoist unless I heard some rhetoric out of them. So what I’m telling you is, despite having been alive in the late sixties, and having read a few books, not the least of which was Kurlansky’s 1968, and being a huge fan of novelists like Roth, Vonnegut, Mailer, and many others from the period, and having a PhD. I still had no goddamned clue what was going on.
Back to the Stones. I’ve read that the Beatles turned down the opportunity but that Mick and the boys were all too ready to take the chance. And it’s fascinating to watch them. Brian Jones is there, barely, and these would be some of his last moments on Earth. He’d soon be fired (from the band he founded!) and then shortly after found dead. I don’t have much to say about him, he didn’t make it past 27 and it’s not meant to be part of the film anyway, as no one yet know this song, nor new he’d be dead so soon. Did he contribute to some great music, and give us one of our era’s most distinctive and satisfying rock acts? Undoubtedly. Was he a great guy? Probably not so much, but then, strong personalities working together have a tendency to bleed on one another (think Neil Young and Steven Stills).
What is also most remarkable is that we’re hearing so many versions of Sympathy for the Devil, starting as a kind of slow blues jam, it grows by leaps and bounds towards the end of the film. Each time, we see them we’re thinking, oooh you’re almost there, you’ve almost got that song I’ve known my whole life. But, this is a kind of mirage at the time of filming. Watching (and listening) from the vantage point of our last fifty plus years, we know this song. For many of us (especially of a certain age) it’s been emblazoned into our psyche. Godard could not have foreseen this bit of lasting value. I’ll try to spell it out.
What is art? What makes a great piece of music? This little ditty by the Rolling Stones, a beloved one, was not yet in existence. Though, we, all have had that bit of music forever (post 1968), yet, there’s no reason for the Rolling Stones to have created that particular song. They could have stopped with the initial riff, set the lyric to it and recorded it. Or, they could have gone further with it and added an orchestra and/or lots more verses, or a million other things that would have transformed the piece away from the one we’re all familiar with. So a good bit of the fun of this movie is the fun of watching the Stones so long ago muddle about and create something that would be a landmark piece of music. What a lucky catch. What are the odds? I didn’t notice this, but I read later, that you can hear the lyric change from “who killed Kennedy”, to “who killed the Kennedys” meaning that assassination had to be added to the roll as it occurred.
Most of the film is too deeply mired in a moment of French history for it to be of interest to anyone but historians now, and while the Stones are fascinating for artists to watch, I have to imagine you need to be a serious fan to enjoy it.
Five bucks on Prime for those who’d like to take a trip to a world still resonating with ours, but in a much different shade. The issues have not been solved, and while we are making progress, it is slow and in fits and starts. Very frustrating.