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On the reluctantly militant cinema of Godard and Fassbinder


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Writing for 3:AM Magazine, Louis Armand examines a handful of overtly political films by Godard and Fassbinder. He argues that these films, which are superficially militant in form and content, actually question the value of the kinds of political militancy prominent in the 1960s and '70s. Read an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.

It would be redundant to state that Fassbinder’s and Godard’s takes on the theme of “militancy” are unapologetically parodic, the question is rather what is it that is being parodied here, and how can parody itself constitute a militant/revolutionary stance? If the first responsibility of revolutionary consciousness is self-criticism, then the answer to the first part of this question is the genre of “militant cinema” itself. Both are “anti-cinema” to the extent that they are against the pomposity of existentialist cinéma engagé – in The Third Generation the cell members use the Schopenhauerian pass-phrase “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” to identify themselves, while Fassbinder employs Godardian intertitles comprised of graffiti found in various men’s urinals, the locations of which are duly cited). It is in no way an Internationale film: the question of “cinema” here is not the depiction or advocacy of militant struggle or violence by or against the state, but the militant capacity of cinema itself to affect a criticism of ideology in all its dogmatic forms (including those of the socalled left). Nor is it simply the indictment of an ideologically bereft and self-contradictory “intellectual” class (the Meinhofs of the world, being the direct product of the Marshall Plan and West German post-industrialism), whose seeking after “social emancipation” is really nothing more than either a lifestyle choice or a product of their own boredom, where “militancy” is really a form of infantilism, of a “generation” immured in consumerism and an expired culture, unable to creatively or “authentically” assume responsibility for their own existence – sublimely portrayed by Fassbinder’s ironic infusion of ”romanticism” into the motivations of the group (Schopenhauer), coupled with rampant chauvinism and exploitation.

Like Godard’s student “Maoists,” the actions of Fassbinder’s “Third Generation” (the post-war “disenfranchised”) are shown to be gratuitous rather than staked to anything like the revolutionary discipline at the core of The Battle of Algiers: their militancy is informed by the ennui of a theoretical (if yet untheorised) “social consciousness” – and yet, in this extended acte gratuit there’s something fundamentally as revealing as in the work of André Gide (Dans les Caves du Vatican (1914)), or André Breton’s revolution surréaliste (a shot fired randomly in the street (1929)). And here is the point: what ultimately concerns Fassbinder, in this and numerous of his other films, is the paradox at the heart of what “militant cinema” can mean if it isn’t itself simply a mirror to all those parodically flawed actions held up as the measure of “political engagement” (history accomplished as conscientious farce). And this paradox concerns the nature of cinematic engagement, of cinematic action, of cinema’s own radical ambivalence – and of the militant “potential” of this ambivalence – measured against the fetishism of any acte gratuit. We are confronted, in other words, by a militant impulse apparently sans ideology. In this, Fassbinder is perhaps at his most incisive, responding in a sense to Debord’s critical stance vis-à-vis The Society of the Spectacle: that the only authentically revolutionary act has nothing to do with avowed ideology, but with the radical unbridled arbitrariness born of its simulacra.

Image from Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil via 3:AM Magazine.