Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 9: Vladimir and Rosa (1970)

Vladimir and Rosa (1970); viewing: first

Vladimir and Rosa was one of several films made by Jean-Luc Godard and his collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin under the name of the Dziga-Vertov Group. The group was formed to potentially usher in a new cinema - one that relied heavily on Brechtian technique to express its political ideologies in polemical, essay-style films. I've made no qualms about the politics in Godard's films being of little interest to me, and so needless to say the prospect of these films left me a bit wary. However if I want to come to the greatest understanding and appreciation of Godard as a filmmaker that I can (the ultimate goal with this marathon after all), no era must be left unturned, and so I stuck in a copy of Vladimir and Rosa and prepared for whatever was to come. My knowledge of the film prior to viewing was minimal; I knew it dealt with the trial of the Chicago Eight, and that's pretty much it. So I will tell you I was extremely (and pleasantly) surprised to find that viewing Vladimir and Rosa ended up being quite an enjoyable experience.

The title Vladimir and Rosa refers to the narrators of the movie, Vladimir Lenin and Karl Rosa (Godard and Gorin), who compare their omniscient perspectives to those of a bird in the sky who can see rain in the clouds before anyone else can, and indeed they will be our guides through the film, which is basically structured around a series of coarse Brechtian skits involving the trial of the Chicago Eight, the group of people arrested for protesting during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The Chicago Eight of the film however don't correspond exactly with the eight people in the real life trial; only two of the subjects in the film are actually patterned off the real people, those being Bobby Seale (Bobby X in the film), the black panther whose trial was eventually severed, and David Dellenger. We are introduced to the Eight being arrested in a overtly Brechtian scene involving fake blood and cops wielding phony batons, and from here a majority of the movie takes place in the courtroom where the trial is being overseen by the loud, annoying, fascist oaf Judge Himmler, a caricature if there ever was one. These scenes portray the courtroom as a kind of cartoonish bedlam, especially the moments with Bobby X on the stand, bound by chains with guns held to his head, where he eventually utters the best line in the film: "You can jail a cake, but not a revolution." There are also memorable scenes that take place out of the courtroom, one of the best being between Anne Wiazemsky (Godard's wife at the time), and Dellenger (Claude Nedjar), which takes place in an apartment and has the pair discussing and arguing the exploitation of women in the workplace and the oppression they endure due to the social status quo. The scene culminates with a text written by an African woman being read aloud by the characters and is probably the most overtly didactic scene in the film, but is so ripe with playful touches (including Wiazemsky handling Dellenger like a puppet) and honesty from the actors that it somehow feels remarkably real and interesting.

Godard and Gorin often appear themselves during the movie, in such notable scenes as one where they pace around on a tennis court with a microphone, interviewing each other with a machine that distorts their thoughts as they speak them, or in scenes where the pair portray a fascist cop and judge, one of the particularly interesting moments involving Godard zipping down his fly and pulling a baton out of his pants where it clearly appears as though he's about to pull something else out. Godard is energetic and spry during these scenes, bouncing around and doing physical routines with a sly grin on his face, and it made me think of a feature on the Pierrot le fou Criterion dvd, where Anna Karina in an interview talks about how youthful and energetic and vibrant Godard was all of the time in private, but few would ever see this side of him. I think one of the reasons Vladimir and Rosa works so well is because Godard does feel free and revived and energetic here, and we see it and feel it, not only in his appearances but in the flow and vibe of the movie. Godard and Gorin are obviously deeply fascinated with the subjects the film probes, and seem to be relishing the experience of making this film in their own style. Vladimir and Rosa is, when all is said and done, a serious yet winsome piece of filmmaking that balances out its polemical and political elements with a dose of cheeky humor and playful wit, and shows that though Godard had faded from the spotlight during this time, he was nevertheless still creating compelling and unique cinema.


Ed Howard said...

I'm so glad you liked this one. A few of the other Godard/Gorin films do live up to that image you probably have in your head of stern, didactic agitprop, not unlike Le gai savoir (which I do love) in complexity and verbal emphasis. The other DVG films have their merits, certainly, but this is the only one of that bunch which I really love, precisely because it's so playful, so inventive in deconstructing the real events into this cartoonish vision.

And, yes, Godard is a big part of that. I've often thought that Godard could've been a great slapstick comic actor, and this is an early trace of the goofy, nutty onscreen presence that he'd bring to some of his 80s films (King Lear, First Name: Carmen, especially Keep Your Right Up).

What's especially notable about this film, and about Godard's approach to humor in general, is that the goofiness and broadness of it all doesn't undercut the seriousness of his points. The tennis court scenes brilliantly demonstrate how media (as represented by the tape recorder, a metaphor for film itself) distort and warp messages even as they disseminate them more widely than would be otherwise possible. And the judge is a hilariously annoying caricature who completely skewers this kind of fascist perspective; it's impossible to have any respect for authority when confronted with an authority figure like this.

Drew said...

Thanks Ed! Of course I have you to thank for me watching this in the first place, as it's one I may likely have skipped over without your recommendation.

I did really like it a lot, and though I have only two other DVG films coming up, I would be surprised if I liked them anywhere close to this. But based on solely Vladimir and Rosa, I'm certainly thrilled I gave this period in Godard's canon a shot. I of course read your piece on it as well, which I agree with wholeheartedly and is by far the best piece on this film available on the web.

I also love what you've said: "What's especially notable about this film, and about Godard's approach to humor in general, is that the goofiness and broadness of it all doesn't undercut the seriousness of his points."

It's so true, and I think this is something that's really emerged for me after Week End and Vladimir and Rosa; not only does the humor NOT undercut the serious points, occasionally it even works at underlining it.