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Between Objective Engagement and Engaged Cinema: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Militant Filmmaking” (1967-1974), Part I


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It is often argued that between 1967 and 1974 Godard operated under a misguided assessment of the effervescence of the social and political situation and produced the equivalent of “terrorism” in filmmaking. He did this, as the argument goes, by both subverting the formal operations of narrative film and by being biased toward an ideological political engagement. Here, I explore the idea that Godard’s films of this period are more than partisan political statements or anti-narrative formal experimentations. The filmmaker’s response to the intense political climate that reigned during what he would retrospectively call his “leftist trip” years was based on a filmic-theoretical praxis in a Marxist-Leninist vein. Through this praxis, Godard explored the role of art and artists and their relationship to empirical reality. He examined these in three arenas: politics, aesthetics, and semiotics. His work between 1967 and 1974 includes the production of collective work with the Dziga Vertov Group (DVG) until its dissolution in 1972, and culminates in his collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville under the framework of Sonimage, a new production company founded in 1973 as a project of “journalism of the audiovisual.”

Godard’s leftist trip period can be bracketed by two references he made to other politically engaged artists. In Camera Eye, his contribution to the collectively-made film Loin du Vietnam of 1967, Godard refers to André Breton. Then in Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere), a film Godard made with Anne-Marie Miéville in 1970–74, he cites Picasso’s Guernica (1937). These references help explicate Godard’s leftist trip years. In the former, Godard (mis)attributes to Breton a position aligned with the French Communist Party and their instrumentalization of art in the name of a political cause—what we will call “objective denunciation.” In the latter, by citing Guernica Godard enters into a dialogue with Jean-Paul Sartre and his theories on political engagement and aesthetic autonomy, especially his debate with Adorno about the effectiveness of images versus words in transmitting political messages. Oscillating between these two positions, Godard carved out his own form of objective denunciation in opposition to Sartre’s schizophrenic split between two activities that he considered to be incommensurable: “artistic enunciation” and “active political engagement.” Godard synthesized these activities, exploring and embracing the contradictions between the roles of “filmmaker” and “militant.” We must bear in mind, however, that Godard’s revolutionary constellation cannot be reduced to these literary references. Indeed, in La Chinoise (1966) Godard established the genealogy of his politicized aesthetics—one that departed from traditional European intellectual history—by classifying literary authors, philosophers, and artists as either “reactionary” or “revolutionary.” In general, between 1967 and 1974 Godard developed a revolutionary imaginary in which Dziga Vertov and Bertolt Brecht were pioneers, Breton was a deviation, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was a shared paradigm, Sartre was his bête noire, and philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Gilles Deleuze were his compagnons de route (fellow travelers).

Figures like Breton and Sartre are inseparable from the history and tradition of the French avant-garde, which I consider here in light of the relationship between French intellectuals and the French Communist Party (PCF). Modeled after Lenin’s vanguard party, the PCF bestowed a pivotal role on intellectuals between the end of World War II and 1965: the production and transmission of political knowledge to the proletariat. As described in What Is To Be Done?, Lenin’s Party functioned as the vanguard of the proletariat, a highly centralized body organized around a core of experienced intellectuals designated as “professional revolutionaries” who were charged with leading the social democratic revolution. This ideological avant-garde operated in the realm of opinion and leftist common sense, putting art in the service of political causes and taking for granted the artist’s position as the porte parole of humanity. Such an avant-garde posits a transitive relationship between art and politics—that is, a causal relationship between the two, even the instrumentalization of art in the name of leftist political ideology.

Committed French avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and writers were obliged to take a position regarding the PCF and its dogmatic socialist-realist aesthetic. For example, Althusser and Aragon were members of the party, Breton was a dissident, and Sartre was a distant “fellow traveler” and the “party’s consciousness.” Breton claimed to be a communist but distinguished his own artistic practice from the PCF’s socialist realism; he lamented the party’s “bad taste” and averred that the “leftist political milieus do not know how to appreciate art outside of art made with consecrated and expired forms.” The heyday of the PCF as a point of reference for intellectuals coincided with the highpoint of Structuralism, when political discourse and the ethics of the intellectual were shaped by Marxism, psychoanalysis, and linguistics. At that time, “the signifier” (the author, the phallus, the father) was treated with the greatest respect, as were intellectuals, who were regarded as public figures speaking truths. In the Sixties, however, the signifier, the phallus, and the father were contested as figures of authority and truth. Likewise, intellectuals and their status as the consciousness of the party and society were challenged. As Frederic Jameson has argued, this was an unprecedented situation in which it became possible for radical intellectuals to imagine revolutionary work outside and independent of the PCF.

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