Disentangling the Didactic
"Weekend wasn't done with a script. It came from a personal feeling, a personal intuition, as in Pierrot le Fou. But the intuition in Weekend was closer to the social situation in France than it was in Pierrot le Fou. It came from a clear political analysis and was then transformed into a movie." (Rolling Stone) Few films more than Weekend possess a predictive dimension, and in this instance it was both political and personal, even if they were interlinked. The film didn't only anticipate the events of May 1968, shot during the summer of 1967 and capturing the chaos and tension of an event still to take place, but also Godard's retreat from making films as aesthetic objects and towards making films for political ends. According to Richard Brody, at the end of the Weekend shoot, Godard "convened his crew, among them his regulars Coutard, Schiffman, Guillemot and told them they should look for other work, because he was going to stop making films for a while." (Everything is Cinema) That while was brief: he would promptly go on to make more politically radical works like Le gai savoir, One Plus One and Le Vent d'Est.
Yet Godard's cinema has always been a blend of the political and the aesthetic, as if he wanted to escape the notion of art for art's sake but could never avoid the paradoxes of any political position that left Godard a commercial figure even in an uncommercial world, and a man of familial wealth even as he pled poverty. And the poverty seemed real: Isabelle Pons said at the time of Weekend that "Godard thought nothing of living on a large sack of rice as his diet for the entire week." (Everything is Cinema) In the famous letter exchange with Francois Truffaut in 1972, he dismissed Truffaut's Day For Night and also the director more generally for his conformity to mainstream aesthetics then asked him if Truffaut would consider financing his next project. Here was Godard, the son of an industrialist, asking the former orphan for cash, all the while insulting the poor boy who had made good because what he had made was in Godard's opinion trash, and dishonest trash too. Godard wondered why he didn't show the director (played by Truffaut himself) sleeping with the leading lady when in life Godard had seen Truffaut dining with the actress playing the character, Jacqueline Bisset. Truffaut didn't respond kindly and opened his letter by saying, "so as not to oblige you to read this disagreeable letter to the end, I begin with the essential: I will not enter into co-production in your film." (Francois Truffaut: Letters)
Godard wanted to bite the hand that might feed him, aware that of course by biting it he wasn't likely to get the handout he sought. One can read the anecdote as a sign of Godard's atrocious behaviour or see it as vital to the many paradoxes to be found in Godard's life and career. Even if Godard wanted to become a political filmmaker it was as though his instinct was never going to be towards a Hegelian resolution of opposites, a dialectical process that would produce a state of revolution, but towards a proliferation of paradoxes. Understanding Weekend demands less that one works through Godard's political message; more that the viewer comprehends the entanglements involved in both the society of the spectacle, and the consumer society. Released the same year as Godard's film, Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle noted that "the consumption of cyclical time in ancient societies was consistent with the real labour of those societies, the pseudo-cyclical consumption of developed economies contradicts the abstract irreversible time implicit in their system of production." The Weekend of the film's title is itself an incorporation both linguistically and culturally of a system of the pseudo-cyclical: an English language notion of leisure time which gives the worker time off from the life that they generally lead which is work-based. The term became generally known at the end of the 19th-century but was very prominently part of the mid-to-late 20th-century consumer society, where workers would spend the money they had accumulated during the working week.
Speaking of The Consumer Society, Jean Baudrillard notes the object is objectless and says "consuming behaviour, which is apparently focused on, and oriented towards, objects and enjoyment [jouissance], in fact conduces to quite other goals: that of the metaphorical or displaced expression of desire, that of production, through differential signs, of a social code of values." What matters is that it is about a "...distribution of values across a corpus of signs" and thus Godard is astute not to the dialectical injustices of capitalism (though he is far from indifferent to its workings) but especially attuned to the emptiness of it if we see how his characters function within the sign, in contrast to other examples of a cinema of the consumer society, from James Bond films to La Dolce Vita, from Breakfast at Tiffany's to Belle de Jour. No filmmaker more than Godard during this period created an active gap between the thing and its status. Directors like Bunuel and Fellini may have questioned this status within the context of the surreal and the existential, within the indeterminate play of signs that leaves us unsure how much is dream and how much reality in Belle de Jour, in the anomie generated in La Dolce Vita, but one can come away from either film as impressed with the clothes as fretful over the alienation. As Pauline Kael said of sixties work by Resnais, Antonioni and Fellini: "Once again the sick souls are damned well dressed. From the look of all these movies, you might begin to suspect that soul-sickness is a product of the couturier." (I Lost it at the Movies) The point, if flippant, is applicable as it wouldn't be to Godard's work: there is in the French director a breach between the clothes and the characters, the story and the objects utilised. If Kael notes an interest in, even an exploitation of, couture evident in many an 'art-house' film of the sixties, which could still fall into a consumer model of the item, Godard keeps interrogating the status of these items and sees in them a complex relationship with consumption, production and meaning.
One can think of course about the scene early in the film when the central characters Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corinne (Mireille Darc) reverse their Facel-Vega into the Dauphin. It is one thing to note the make of cars in the writing of a piece on a film about Weekend and the consumer society; quite another for the young boy whose parents' car has been pranged to say : "Mama, they've damaged the Dauphin." If even a child can comment on the make of the vehicle then it suggests its functional purpose is low and its fetishistic commodity value high. The sign has been damaged rather than the thing. A couple of minutes later with the argument now involving the woman whose car has been hit, Roland sprays her powder blue dress with yellow paint before applying the paint to the Dauphin as well. The apparent wealth so vital to Bond and Holly Golightly's iconic aspect, and far from irrelevant in films by Bunuel, Fellini and others, becomes not so much conspicuous as evident. If the child hadn't mentioned the Dauphin, if Roland hadn't sprayed the dress, they would have been apparent but not evidently so. If Roland shot the woman then no matter how elegantly dressed she may have been the dress would have been secondary to the shooting she would have received. By using spray paint rather than a gun, Roland makes the dress our primary focus. "In a Hollywood movie", Godard says, "after the movie is over, there's nothing more. There is no relationship between the screen and the spectator. There's just a duration. If you don't like it, you go to sleep, the way I do. But in other movies, you can't forget about it. You have to talk about it afterwards." (Rolling Stone) One way in which Godard makes the viewer talk about it is by separating what is usually united: the sign and the thing, the apparent and the evident.
We see this most brilliantly and conspicuously in the famous traffic jam sequence. The car was the exemplary consumer object in the sixties, and perhaps only relatively recent concerns about consumption as an environmental catastrophe have curbed its appeal. John Orr notes, "through the car they drive, people to some extent express who they are," adding that there is a down-side, and none more so than "the seventeen million deaths in this [20th] century." (Cinema and Modernity) If the environment wasn't seen as so pressing a concern in 1967, automobile accidents were: numerous well-known names had lost their lives to car crashes: James Dean, Albert Camus, Francoise Dorleac and Jayne Mansfield amongst them. Godard reverses the statistical likelihood of dying in relation to the pleasure and speed the car provides by making the car all but immobile and death very likely. The lengthy tracking shot passes numerous vehicles caught trying to escape Paris for the weekend and shows in the traffic jam another form of entrapment that would surely be far worse than a weekend at home. But not only are the drivers mainly immobile, they can't leave alone beeping their horns as the country road becomes a cacophony of human irritation. We have more time than in most films to see the make and model of numerous motors but that may be the very point of Godard's critique of car culture: the car must never be allowed to fall into subconscious acknowledgement but must remain throughout pronounced. We can take time to look at the grey Citroen DC, a 2CV and a Renault 4 as the camera proves freer than the cars it shows us. If the car chase insists on the usual cinematic convention of following the action, playing catch me up with the speed of the cars in a virtuoso example of cinematic craft meeting technological haste, Godard insists on giving himself more freedom than the cars he films. While the vehicles are either stuck in the jam or fitfully trying to negotiate it and moving at a halting pace, Godard and cinematographer Raul Coutard move freely along the side of the road in a lucid, inexorable tracking shot that captures the car in all its horror rather than the fetish object in all its glory. The engines don't roar in a freedom metonymised by the Esso lion that Godard shows us at various moments; the cars cough and splutter towards their destination. If the car was one of the great phallic symbols of the era, the director does more than most to offer it as a castrated image.
Yet Godard's approach to the vehicle, as with much else, was an ambivalent one. His mother died in a scooter accident in 1954 and Godard would himself have a serious motorcycle accident in 1971. Yet cars are vital to his work as they are not so important to several new wave colleagues. Chabrol was always more given to focus on houses than cars, and Rohmer's characters are often seen in transit on foot, either walking through the streets of Paris or to the beach. However, numerous Godard films play up the presence of cars. Whether it is the beginning of Breathless as Michel decides whether or not pick up hitchhikers, the elegant red Alfa Romeo 2600 Spider in Le Mepris that the producer Prokosch drives, the various cars the characters steal in Pierrot le fou, or the Mercedes that runs the central character over at the end of the Slow Motion, cars are an important component of the Godard image. As John Orr says when speaking of Pierrot le fou: we see the "centrality of the car in Godard's imagination, that the car indeed is crucial not only to the movie's theme but to Godard's cinematic art itself." (Cinema and Modernity) Godard can hardly criticise the omnipresence of the car in our culture if it happens to be omnipresent in his work as well, especially if other filmmakers of his generation could all but ignore it. But we can also see it as a broader ambivalence that suggests any criticism of cars or anything else in Godard's oeuvre contains an ambivalence that leads to productive ambiguity rather than assertive critique: to the paradoxes we opened with.
One way of looking at this is to see Godard as always closer to existentialism than Marxism if we acknowledge first of all his own political shift over the years, and secondly the importance of the dangers of bad faith that the director worked hard to acknowledge and at the same time protect himself against. Antoine de Baecque noted, "it is a paradox of the New Wave that most modernity is born from the Left. The New Wave, however, because it was born of freedom, created modernity from the Right." (NewWave.com) De Baecque quotes Jean-Paul Sartre when looking at the position Godard and others took while critics at Cahiers du Cinema. Sartre insisted that the existential met the political and the aesthetic as he called famously for an engaged literature, which needn't be the same as propagandistic: "writers must be politically engaged as a function of an existential imperative, a necessary condition for any creative act aiming at an effective transformation of reality." (Camera Historica) The New wave filmmakers appeared closer to the "Hussars", who believed aesthetics needed to be kept separate from the political and "throughout the 1950s the writings of the young Turks of cinema criticism remained in close stylistic, editorial and ideological proximity to Hussar literature." (Camera Historica) However, as Godard became more engaged it wasn't to absorb politics into the aesthetic, into a seamless, generalised acknowledgement of the betterment of the world, as one could find in the work of politically purposeful directors like Pontecorvo, Costa-Gavras or Francesco Rosi, but in continuing the assault on the image with an ever-increasing radicalisation of the political. Godard's work even by Weekend (and most especially La Chinoise) had become politically overt without becoming politically clear. In a film like The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo contains a categorical sympathy with Algerian liberation allied to an aesthetic that nevertheless gives the French a fair hearing. Godard ostensibly asserts far more categorically the political in Weekend but where the sympathy may reside is much harder to identify. Sartre concludes What is Literature? by saying that "literature in this classless society would thus be the world aware of itself, suspended in a free act, and offering itself to the free judgement of all men, the reflective self-awareness of a classless society. But much earlier in the book, Sartre acknowledges that for writers and by extension any artist, "the system cannot work any differently, for his activity is useless. It is not at all useful; it is sometimes harmful for society to become self-conscious." Sartre adds, "for the fact is that the useful is defined within the framework of an established society and in relationship to institutions, values, and ends which are already fixed....the writer is a parasite of the governing "elite". But, functionally, he moves in opposition to the interest of those who keep him alive. Such is the original conflict which defines his condition." (What is Literature?)
To understand Godard's paradoxical situation is to see in the intricacy of Sartre's argument the complexity of Godard's own. The French director was by 1967 a cultural symbol, a product of the times as well as a chronicler of it. Anybody involved in the arts is obviously both at the same time but the emphasis can be more on one side than the other. Claude Lelouch captured a mood and tone in the mid-sixties with his fashionable film A Man and a Woman, which made far more money than any by Godard, but Lelouch himself remained a well-known but hardly legendary figure and wouldn't be a name anybody would be inclined to recall as a decisive icon of the sixties. Like, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Fidel Castro, JFK and Andy Warhol, Godard was an enormous name and yet a financially unsuccessful filmmaker. "I know that my films don't do well. Made in USA was a total flop. Two or Three Things I Know About Her isn't doing well. If nobody goes to see my films, I'll have to stop. Or to find another way of making them. Or to do something else." (Everything is Cinema) Yet he knew as well as Sartre that his position as an artist was contrary to the expectations of the society and all he could do was reflect the paradox rather than resolve the contradiction. Another filmmaker could have tried to be radically part of the solution the uniting of the societal and the aesthetic or offer the compromises he saw Truffaut making to become commercially successful.
Interviewed in 1969 by Jonathan Cott, Cott says to Godard, "you made a statement that a film is a practical rifle and a rifle is a practical film." Godard replies "Well, I gave another definition in an interview I had with a French newspaper: the film is a scientific experiment." Rather than using cinema to generate a new society, finally Godard's work even during his political phase between 1968-1980 continued experimenting with film's possibilities, trying to find in the cinematic the questioning that wouldn't allow society to give the impression it wasn't itself full of contradictions. "I've discovered, at about the same time as the major events occurred in France, that I was working only in the field of scientific experiment, and I myself have to be related to class struggle and struggle for production, though scientific experiment is still necessary." (Rolling Stone) Weekend is thus not chiefly a polemical attack against the bourgeoisie, it is an experiment in the problem of signs, where society is made up of a system that isn't only socially distinguished and separated by class, but also where individuals themselves are separated from the signs that they must reunite with to possess a coherent identity. If we make much of the dress that gets sprayed with paint, which in another film would be a character sprayed with bullets, it rests on Godard 'experimentally' wondering what a system of signs might look like if he absorbs the Bondian emphasis on the sign over the deed. When Godard says "people have been taught a James Bond film is a simple movie, while in fact it's really complicated and complicated in a dreadful, in a silly way because there was no need for complication", we can see this very specifically: that both a Bond movie and a Godard film are part of the consumer society but while the Bond film simplifies the problem; Godard complicates it. Both Bond and Godard play up the importance of the sign over what is 'behind' the sign. When in Dr No, Bond manages in his Sunbeam Alpine to outwit a hearse in chase, the scene concludes with the hearse disappearing over a mountain and Bond quips when someone asks what happened: "I think they were on their way to a funeral." What matters isn't at all that they are dead; it is that they died in a hearse, absurdly believing that they could take out Bond when the latter had a superior car. There is pragmatics here: the low-slung Sunbeam Alpine can make it underneath a crane in the middle of the road that the hearse steers to avoid as it goes over the edge, but that is part of our point: that mainstream cinema determines to absorb its signs into narrative function so that the consumerism is less evident even if always apparent. Imagine a Bond film where, instead of a story of 007 saving the world, he moves from one casino to the next, one restaurant to another, one well-dressed woman whom he beds before bedding yet one more. We would have the consumer society laid bare instead of clothed by plot. Godard refuses the capitalist attire of story but knows that he too is contained and constrained by the objects of consumption. All he can do is make sure that he allows the space for thinking about what the film shows us instead of creating a convoluted fast-paced story that gives the impression of false, cinematic mastery. "But if you go out of the last James Bond film and I ask you, can you tell me what you've seen, you can't No. There were 20,000 things in James Bond. The movie showed for two hours. I ask, was he in a car. Yes. What colour was it? Do you remember the colour?" Godard adds, "he was with a girl. What was he saying to her? And just after he left the girl, what was he doing? He can't remember. Maybe he could remember one or two moments. But he couldn't remember or describe to me the sequence of the story. It's like a mixed salad. You can't describe a mixed salad. There are too many things in it." (Rolling Stone)
Plenty is going on in Weekend too but the emphasis is reversed: the story sits behind the consumption; the consumption doesn't sit behind the story. After all, one way of looking at Weekend is to see it as a tale of a couple who have lovers elsewhere and the couple are determined to kill each other when her dying father passes away and they can get the inheritance. Indeed, their journey is predicated partly on this point: they are leaving Paris to visit her parents in the countryside. Describing the story thus wouldn't get close to the experience of the film; describing Dr No as a film about James Bond determined to rid the world of the titular character in the wake of an MI5 station chief murdered in Jamaica does. The plot becomes ever more convoluted but the point is that there are bad people out there and Bond isn't one of them even if he makes his living killing other people. He is on the side of the angels, or at least the side of lawful capital. The purpose of a Bond film is to hide its contradictions to suggest that 007 needn't be seen as a hired assassin for the state but a member of the jet-set who travels the world meeting people, and just so happens to kill a few of them. A Bond film makes a fortune and a Godard film struggles to make a profit but this is inevitable when in Sartrean terms the aesthetic is contrary to political appeasement: when you wish to acknowledge your own uselessness as a resource to the system of which you happen to be a product.
Godard well knew his status was complicated. He was useless because he didn't wish to become useful, didn't want an American career offered to him and wouldn't probably have been able to adjust his form to Hollywood demand. He knew that he had to fail harder to succeed at all: that if he refused to become useful as product then he could at least be usefully useless critiquing both capital and cinema, and in constantly seeing the link between the two. Godard may famously have said all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun but missing from that equation is the cash required to film them. Many of Godard's films have addressed the financial imperative involved in making cinema, and none more so than Tout va bien which begins: "I want to make a film," and someone replies "you need money for that". The film then shows the cheques being written for the film to be made: money for the director, the writer, the cinematographer, the electricians and others. Culture comes at a price Godard says, and the wonderful scene in the farmyard in Weekend needn't be reduced to such a statement but contains the claim within it. Here in 360-degree shots round the farm we see tractors, a farmworker in wellies and carrying a spade, farmers and their wives and a number of outhouses as well as the main house itself, much more elegant than the buildings surrounding it. But there is also a Bechstein piano and a man playing it who also talks of the royalties Mozart could be earning now if he were alive, and how much he has influenced popular music, from the Beatles to The Rolling Stones (who of course Godard would film recording Sympathy for the Devil a couple of years later): "real modern music, paradoxically, is based in Mozart's harmonies..." the pianist (Paul Gegauff) says, as he is interrupted by the sound of a plane overhead, with the director refusing harmony in his own work.
Throughout this sequence Godard insists on a virtuosity that may be the equal of Mozart but contrary to it: sounds (and images) that refuse the harmonious and insist on the disjunctive. He shows brilliantly how to block a complicated scene with numerous characters moving in and out of the frame as the camera follows its own aesthetic priorities but this has none of the narrative smoothness Welles deploys in A Touch of Evil as the American directors gives us all the necessary information, brilliantly allowing us to concentrate our mind because Welles has concentrated the scene. When Godard insists that there are as many things if not a lot more going on in a Bond movie than in one of his films he is deliberately missing the point: a Hollywood film, even by so wayward a genius as Welles, knows its centre and doesn't allow the viewer to get lost on its periphery. In Godard's cinema, the periphery counts: as Raoul Coutard would say of working as Godard's cameraman: "I never know beforehand just what he wants, and that complicates matters. And what he wants is usually a whole lot of things at once." (BFI) Godard refuses the centripetal demand as he pays more attention to the delineation of a social structure within one shot than the narrative coordinates that make up a sequence. It isn't that the scene in the farmhouse is surreal it isn't at all dreamlike or free-associational. The sequence is instead a montage within one shot of class divisions, labour and culture, music and noise, and how they can come together to produce Mozart, or fall apart to produce chaos and unrest? It is as though Godard is wondering how to assemble the parts societally as readily as cinematically, proposing that the sequence is an invitation to think about our social make-up rather than a determination to create a narrative event. Hence the experimentalism and why nobody watching the sequence can say what it means even if one can easily acknowledge the brilliance of the filming.
Yet let us look at a couple of examples of this dispersiveness within the sequence, and the way it plays with expectation. At one moment the camera stops briefly on Roland before Corinne enters the frame. While we might expect a conversation between them, instead we hear the pianist talking off-screen, which is in turn interrupted by what sounds like a plane overhead but heard so briefly that it cannot be anything but a noise imposed on the soundtrack. Roland and Corinne may be our central characters but they are caught in the scene like many of the others; anyone watching it outside of the film's context wouldn't assume they are any more important than anyone else. The camera which pauses its movement to pay them attention, then allows them no opportunity to present their importance within the drama. Instead, the camera picks up a farmworker we have seen moving through the travelling frame a moment earlier and starts moving again to follow him as we notice a mild limp when he enters a farm building that the musician is playing in front of. The camera stops again and we listen to the musician play and talk as his assistant turns round to look at the man with the limp and turns back again with what looks like a mild smile on her face, while in the background of the shot we see the man going up some stairs. These details the limp, the smile would be, in common film parlance, telling: they would be offering some sort of dramatic information. Yet instead, it looks like the limp may be some injury the person picked up at work and the young woman may have smiled inadvertently but Godard left it in. A specific knowledge of the production history could explain such moments but the purpose of a fiction film is usually to make sure that the extraneous needn't intrude on the intrinsic: the diegesis is the thing. Godard's work proposes that the story is contained by the production circumstances: that you can have a film without a story but it is rare to have a story without a production, without a set of situations and circumstances out of which a film comes: actors and locations. One can apparently escape this by making the story much more pronounced than the production but that is animation, which even then relies on actors for the voices and often has its own arduous production history as the animators take forever to sketch drawing after drawing. Godard however, more than most wants the production and the story to be intertwined so that the integrity cannot only come from the seamlessness of the tale told but from a reality greater than the limits of its telling. In the interview about working with Godard, Coutard also talks about the often frustrating process when employed by a certain type of perfectionist. In "the sequence with Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy getting ready for bed [in Une Femme est une femme]. Godard sent me away, thought it over, called me back, told me a thousand or so new things, kept breaking off in the middle of sentences, referred to 20 films I hadn't seen. I straightened out a few things, and we began. After a few seconds, Godard stopped everything. He said to Anna: "What on earth's the matter with you? You don't go to bed like that at home." Coutard concludes: "He put himself in Anna's place. Then he said: 'We're absolutely mad. We're trying to film Anna going to bed in her room and there's no ceiling. Anna has never slept in a room that hasn't got a ceiling.' A ceiling, of course, is expensive. The producer asked Godard: 'Will we see much of your ceiling in the film? Can't you possibly do without it?' 'We won't see it,' Godard said, 'but if there isn't a ceiling Anna can't do the scene. We must have a ceiling.'" (BFI)
Is this Godard's useless perfectionism, taking into account Sartre's comments earlier? A filmmaker who wants to create a piece of craft consistent with other films made before it knows that what matters is a verisimilitude that has nothing to do with reality but happens to be concerned with diegetic reality, with what works for the story. Another director might sack Karina for failing to know how to go to bed in filmic terms and knowing only how to go to bed in non-diegetic terms in going to bed as she would go to bed at home, and nobody would know better than Godard how she would do that, since he was married to Karina at the time. But Godard wanted her to go to bed not in the way a woman would go to be in a film with no ceiling but as someone who goes to bed each night with her husband who happens to be the director. When we opened on Godard attacking Truffaut for failing to acknowledge that the director gets to sleep with the leading lady it would be over a broader problem that he thought Truffaut was denying: that he was no longer concerned with the intricate interconnection of the world and of the film but wanted to create smooth uncontradictory works that would be commercially successful. He wanted money from Truffaut so that "viewers don't think that films are only made your way": films that showed how people went to bed in cramped apartments with ceilings rather than a director denying he was sleeping with anyone in slick entertainments that leaves nobody troubled. When Godard would say to Coutard he wanted to keep things simple, this was based however on the complications conventional cinema had built up to hide from the viewer the devices it was using as it gave a false sense of the world. As Coutard says: "Well, what is the point of a studio? How does it make the work easier? In a studio, for instance, one can lift up the wall at one's back, to make room for the camera and a lamp or two. I wanted to do just that. Godard told me: 'No. We mustn't move the wall. When a husband watches his wife bringing in the joint she has burned, he can't move the wall to bawl her out from further away. He stays in his chair and looks from there.'" (BFI) While Godard believed he wants to show the tensions between the world and film, Truffaut was no longer acknowledging that tension as he was making the sort of work that failed to contain a dimension of the useless as Sartre would define it.
All Godard could do, it seemed, was to try and make films people refused to pay for, and that films by those who were making money would support these failed projects. If people were paid royalties not on their work but on their influences, or paid for work in the present that earned money back in the future, many a useless artist wouldn't be living off bags of rice. But the royalties are paid to those who often have very little influence based on a success that wouldn't be possible were it not for the innovation of others. The filmmakers who have been influenced by Godard are too numerous to mention, but efficient yet hardly revolutionary directors like Tarantino, Soderbergh and De Palma have all acknowledged his importance. Godard put things bluntly when saying: "Tarantino named his production company after one of my films. He'd have done better to give me some money." (Guardian) Godard is aware that a simple Marxist approach acknowledging the money extracted from labour, indicative of cause and effect, is not enough. What temporal model would come into play to comprehend the nature of exploitation? If the worker is employed forty hours a week and on twenty of those hours he can live and cover the costs of the factory tools and machinery, and where the other twenty is profit, one can see exactly where the exploitation lies. But one of the ideas Godard explores in the scene where the pianist plays Mozart is that the profit extracted from the composer continues into the present, as we wouldn't expect Mick Jagger to find himself in a pauper's grave. The temporal complexity of surplus labour would never allow Godard to accept a simplification if it couldn't incorporate the nuances of aesthetic labour. That the pianist is played by Paul Gegauff, who was well-known as Chabrol's regular screenwriter, a filmmaker who made films critiquing the bourgeosie, while at the same time making money from them by absorbing the critique into cinematic conventions often of the thriller, suggests that the very argument the pianist makes contains within it a non-diegetic question about Gegauff's own involvement in the commercial and, too, the film's leading man, Jean Yanne, who appeared in three Chabrol films between the mid-sixties and the early seventies.
To conclude, we can look at the scene where the black and the Algerian discuss colonialism, a scene that can appear didactic from one point of view but radically enquiring from another. It is laying out the colonial problematic but also insisting on drawing out the cinematic irony of the very scene itself: of the humour that can be extracted from the colonial extraction process. As Harun Farocki says: "when Roland asks the African for a piece of bread, the latter gives him one equal to the Congo's percentage of the annual American budget." (Speaking About Godard) As we later focus on the face of the African eating a sandwich, a voice off-screen tells us of attacks on the West that will not even require a shot be fired: that sabotaging the supplies will be enough since the West is so reliant on so much that comes from the South. The film then cuts to the scene earlier when Roland and Corinne escape the traffic jam, and the film lingers on the death and destruction. If this is what the West looks like when its inhabitants try and go away for the weekend, sabotage might not be necessary: self-sabotage is working well enough. The scene shows carnage but no bomb has been dropped, no terrorist attack launched. The film cuts back to the man, eating the sandwich, as the offscreen voice talks of envying the methods of the Vietcong. The man looks directly at the camera as the other man offscreen talks of "our black brothers fighting in Vietnam for white America." The film cuts to Roland and Corinne sitting on the garbage truck and back to the scene on the road from earlier in the film, and back again to Roland and Corinne, and then to the scene very early in the film where the neighbour fires his rifle after an argument with Roland and Corinne over the minor car incident. Just as a minute earlier we had the Arabic man on screen as an off-screen voice tells us of colonial oppression, so the film may leave us sure of the didactic tone but to describe the scene, the meaning of the expression on the four characters' faces (the Arab, the African; Roland and Corinne) and the purpose behind the footage from earlier in the film, is rather more difficult to ascertain. Are the voices we hear those of the actors playing the roles, or different people again? The 'Arab' is played by Godard regular Laszlo Szabo, a Hungarian, which initself might not be without its problems: a white European playing a North African. To disentangle Godard's purpose from his didacticism is part of the paradoxical: the point of didacticism is to make a clear point; Godard manages to be unequivocal and ambiguous at the same time. It is clear a didactic message is being expressed but it isn't clear because of the intercut footage, the expression on everybody's faces, and the casting of a Hungarian as an Arabic man, how we should take it.
Gary Indiana says "the scene is essential for understanding the overall premise of Weekend, and at the same time so excruciatingly static that critics of the time advised the audience to go out for a coffee as soon as it started." (The Criterion Collection) Yet the scene is retrogressive rather than static, dragging into it earlier stages of the film not to further the message but to complicate it. When Godard cuts from Corinne and Roland sitting listening to the speech to earlier footage of sheep in the field, and then back to the pair of them as music comes in, briefly swells and then suddenly stops, what are we supposed to think? Godard's answer might be that we are not supposed to know what to think; we are supposed to think that he is putting images and sounds together to generate thought, so that even the most didactic of dialogue gets pressed into an audio-visual complexity, one that turns the didactic into just as an aspect of the film's meaning, which cannot be understood alone but needs to be comprehended within an audio-visual schema that undermines meaning just as it is in the process of creating it. As Godard says of Pierrot le Fou: it "is not a film, but an attempt at film". (Godard on Godard). It is as though a film is usually already made before it is filmed. As Godard says of Delbert (Marty) Mann: he "probably doesn't think this way. He follows a pattern. Shot - the character speaks; reverse angle, someone answers." (Godard on Godard)
To ask what the film means is to miss the point, and to regard the film as prophetic might be to miss a smaller one. More interesting a question may be to ask how so many other films make sense when Godard's films do not; how these films by others manage to offer numerous contradictions without apparently arriving at confusion; at having many things going on without giving the impression of anything but clarity. It may be where ideology and technique meet, where the consumer society Godard shows is absorbed into a form that makes invisible components that are at the same time very much part of the product being sold. A Bond film is as much a part of the consumer society and the society of the spectacle as one by Godard, but while the former allows the culture to work on the film invisibly, Godard insists on making visible the culture by refusing to align it with the form the film takes. Out of such an approach film evolves even if, paradoxically, a film isn't quite made
© Tony McKibbin