Notre Musique: Revolutionary Art

by tigermanifesto

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Notre Musique, like many later Godard films, at first appears more interested in the texture and fell of its own cinematic “skin” than communicating any lucid narrative. Its first third (entitled Inferno), a montage combining documentary war footage and clips from fictional war films, welds the “true” footage to the “false” through scratchy filters and distortion. As the film progresses and a skeletal narrative alights–a story about a pair of women visiting an arts conference in Sarajevo–we enter the segment called Purgatory, which takes up most of the running time. In this city, where war is barely a memory, a Tel-Aviv journalist named Olga Brodsky interviews poet Mahmoud Darwish, playing himself. A pair of Native Americans tag along, delivering entreaties to be recognized, seemingly invisible to most. A Russian-born Jew, Olga Brodsky, spends much of her time creating a digital video of her time at the conference, leading to some speculation from Godard about how digital video will save filmmaking as an art form. It also features Godard lecturing on cinematic language, including the lynchpin of this film: the shot/reverse-shot formula, which the director employs here to create provocative contrasts.

Native Americans in traditional garb/riding in a pickup truck

Palestinian poet/Israeli journalist

Victims/oppressors

Colonized/colonizers

This basis is further emphasized and made more explicit, even didactic, in a segment where Olga reads post-structuralist theorist Emmanuel Levinas’ Entre Nous, summarizing some of his notions on how the face of the other is the basis of our ethical obligation. At no point does the film suggest a way to transcend such difference; the figures in the shot are ultimately alienated from those in the reverse shot. Some mediating figures do exist, like the character of the translator. Perhaps Godard sees himself as something of a mediator, the language of cinema being a way to create links between these disparate groups.

When the film reaches its final segment (Paradise), Olga has died a suicide bomber, killing herself in the name of peace and asking any Israelis in the theatre where she dies to come with her. Heaven’s gate is guarded by American Marines and populated by people playing with invisible balls.

Though this film is a highly intellectualized mediation, not bearing much resemblance to mainstream film or even most obscure films, it begs the question of whether it has the potential to be a transformative or revolutionary work of art. Because Godard, early in his career, positioned himself as a Marxist and even issued a manifesto, one can read Godard through Godard or even against himself. His brief statement of purpose, entitled “What Is To Be Done” as a reference to the famous work by Lenin, argues for the creation of art in a political ways, making concrete analyses of concrete situations, working to transform rather than merely describe the world, studying the contradictions that underly unity in the world, and visualizing class conflict, his filmmaking in Notre Musique is much more of an aesthetic exercise. While the shot and reverse shot formula might be construed as a dialectical tool, allowing us to see the unity of contradictions through film, it more often than not works only to create fascinating surfaces. Its ironic portrait of a martyr’s paradise might be considered a critical repudiation of suicide, but for a film this didactic it is detached and almost fussily formalist. It prefers clever play and self-conscious reflexivity to transformational struggle, and so falls short of his own formulae. Perhaps he has repudiated them for being too “idealistic,” which would be a real shame indeed.

Criticism of Notre Musique from the right might dismiss the film as incomprehensible, as lacking in a certain acquired “commonsense” language that most commercial films use. This is not a I would consider this film to have a more “advanced” grasp of filmmaking language, and a more complicated and even beautiful artistic form. But it remains detached from struggle, and so requires a criticism from the left. In the talks at the Yenan Forum, Mao said:

“There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine. Therefore, Party work in literature and art occupies a definite and assigned position in Party revolutionary work as a whole and is subordinated to the revolutionary tasks set by the Party in a given revolutionary period.”

Notre Musique has several valuable critical insights about the depiction of violence in film and the marginalization of conquered peoples. But its politics mostly remain at the level of art and cultural production. While self-criticism is an indispensable tool for revolutionary practice, the film often teeters into self-obsession, falling into the error of making itself and what it is saying more important than the concrete reality it is portraying and criticizing. It is a good deal more progressive than the vast majority of films, but it remains more of an exercise in vanity, boasting an arresting form while remaining somewhat muddled in content. Of course, a film can only be about so much, and Notre Musique is plenty dense, but the fact remains that its points are rarefied and obscure. It is the filmmaking equivalent of much postmodern theory: complicated, loaded with jargon, and ultimately too diffuse and abstract to be  revolutionary.

Of course, I would not prefer that Godard had made a simplistic propaganda film. Rather, I wish that his considerable mastery of form were deployed in the service of the masses rather than pitched to a vanishingly small club of aesthetes. Neglecting the importance of formal beauty in art is a mistake; to value it to the exclusion of concrete political tasks is an equally pernicious and probably more common error. Mao expresses what needs to be done thus:

“Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, however progressive they are politically. Therefore, we oppose both the tendency to produce works of art with a wrong political viewpoint and the tendency towards the “poster and slogan style” which is correct in political viewpoint but lacking in artistic power. On questions of literature and art we must carry on a struggle on two fronts.”

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