“A tracking shot is a moral decision,” Jean-Luc Godard once said, and the famous, fluid, interminable tracking shot of an endless traffic jam (Godard’s view of capitalism and the bourgeoisie taking to the road for an outing) in 1967’s Weekend would seem to have exemplified this concept with a certain finality.
But Godard wasn’t done. Not long after Weekend, he seemed to go underground, became something of a quasi-Marxist-- even more a contrarian, if possible, than he had already amply demonstrated himself to be-- and collaborated with Jeanne-Pierre Gorin in the Dziga-Vertov Group. I wonder if it was not something of a surprise to Godard’s now divided audience when the two collectivists emerged in 1972 with a feature film-- evidently not to be considered part of the Dziga-Vertov output, as that name appears nowhere in or on it-- starring Yves Montand and Jane Fonda. Any such preemptory surprise could, of course, never compare to the shocking, rather exciting experience of the film itself: anyone hoping for a Godard movie along the lines of Breathless, let alone those poor fools who might have come expecting to see a Montand/Fonda star vehicle, were simply begging to be galvanized. And Godard and Gorin were only too happy to oblige.
Tout va Bien is a political movie that has the explicit aim of politicizing its spectators and could therefore be dismissed as mere propaganda by those disinclined to share Godard’s concern for the working class. Indeed, the primary reason the film seemed so relevant when I watched it recently is that, were we to believe most contemporary cinema (and newspapers... and magazines... and television programs... and government policies), there simply is no working class. The fact, in evidence anywhere one cares to look, that George Bush and his supporters lay their little heads on their pillows every night and sleep easy with the delusory knowledge that the people who sling our hash at the diner, schlep our coffee at the Starbucks, manufacture and haul our goods, and clean up when the whole thing’s over are fulfilling their destiny-- just doing what they were put on the earth to do, which is to serve their betters-- is what makes Tout va Bien’s caustic rage seem entirely justified.
The film’s ostensible “plot”: A group of workers at a sausage manufacturing plant have gone on indefinite strike and taken hostage the plant’s manager. A New Wave filmmaker and the American radio journalist to whom he’s married (Montand and Fonda), both sympathizers, arrive at the plant to investigate and are taken hostage, too, though with a markedly different level of understanding than that displayed by the manager, who in their shared confinement treats them to a belligerent, utterly self-serving lecture on how outdated Marxism and the idea of bourgeois-on-proletariat oppression-- no oppressor, he!-- are.
When Fonda and Montand are let out, the workers speak to them about their conditions, and this is a problem: the workers, not used to having a voice, are, if not exactly inarticulate, a din of separate voices, doubtful of their own consequence or effectiveness. There is a remarkable scene wherein Fonda, in her journalistic capacity, is listening with concern to a woman worker’s description of her life and work. Fonda is completely decentered by the musings of a silent, bystanding worker (Godard’s then wife and star of Au Hasard Balthazar, Anne Wiazemsky), whose bilious thoughts are venomously delivered to the camera (e.g., “We can’t be bought with a 10-franc raise this time... we don’t want categories and tities. No more divisions! The unions told us to be patient, and we kept on working. But we never talked about struggle. We’ve woken up, and we’ve learned how to fight.“). This anger on the part of the workers comes across as palpable and entirely warranted; it is that anger that the film and its makers are most clearly dedicated to, and it is both strident and bracing.
The film is structured very formally and, of course, self-reflexively (this is Godard, after all). The credits are given to us in the form of extreme close-up shots of checks being written for each of the film’s budget lines; the final check, for “international stars,” is torn away to reveal Montand and Fonda gallavanting on a river bank while repeating bits of love-chatter directly transposed from the opening dialogue of Contempt, Godard’s film from a decade earlier.
The film’s theme, springing from a certain melancholy recollection of Paris’s few precious, clarifying revolutionary days of 1968, is where to place the “filmmaker” and the “journalist”-- where Yves Montand and Jane Fonda-- in the film’s “real” or relevant story (there is here a permeating conviction that no story can be relevant or complete without taking into account a certain amount of history and economics-- a certain amount of politics-- because none of our lives, none of our relationships, are free from the influence of such).
The answer is suggested by what we are shown post sausage factory field trip: Montand’s filmmaker takes a break from shooting a tacky commercial to discuss his ambivalence about “selling out,” his place, if any, in the revolution, and his overall sense of futility. Meanwhile, Fonda’s journalist files her story with the American press agency she works for, only to have it immediately rejected. She flounders at the microphone while attempting to record a story; she is, in her own way, experiencing the same alienation, the same sense of failing her ideals, as her husband. Their frustrations manifest themselves at home as they are compelled, in light of the events they’ve been through and the accompanying unpleasant realizations, to reexamine their relationship. As my friend Jamie pointed out to me, this is one of the film’s most interesting offerings: the relationships and struggles between classes are literally brought home, with Fonda insisting to Montand that their sex and marriage problems are not cozily enclosed between them, but part of a chain that must encompass life-- their lives, the lives of others, the daily occurrences and the systems within which those things play out-- beyond their four walls.
Tout va Bien’s three separately demarcated endings have the paradoxical effect of finally approaching a unification of its purposely disparate elements: In the first, workers independently protesting and rebelling are shown being beaten and shot by police. This is intercut with Montand, on a film shoot amid modern Parisian industrial ugliness, meditating on his responsibilities and hopes for effectiveness in his capacity as an intellectual and a filmmaker. The second takes place in a gigantic ultramodern supermarket (“outside the factory, it’s still like a factory”) in which Fonda, journalistically observing and writing notes, happens to find herself present at the same time as disruptive, anarchic young people who insist that everything in the store is free and whom we last see being beaten down by the riot squad as we cut to the third ending, which finds us finally arriving at the “love story” between Montand and Fonda that has throughout been shoved, almost violently, into the background. This consists of the evident reconciliation of Montand and Fonda at a cafe. They are seated before a window through which we see the clamor and traffic of a dirty, ugly Paris avenue. The same voices which, over the opening credits, held the “I want to make a film,” “You need money for that” voice-over conversation now say, “Yes, some films make the audience think that He and She solve one problem only to go on to the next, and that’s how life is. But in this film, we leave Him and Her looking at each other wordlessly. We’ll just say that He and She have started to think of themselves in a historical context.”
I imagined that Godard and Gorin would at this point have renounced most any aesthetic considerations, but, to the contrary, the film’s “moral” tracking shots are among the most uniquely stunning cinematic images I have ever seen. There is one in which we see an exposed cross-section of the worker-occupied corporate offices of the sausage factory, concretely illustrating the oppressive compartmentalization that the workers later struggle to verbalize for us. On a purely visual level, it brings to mind the similar exposed-workings mis-en-scene in Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies’ Man, or the very nice scene with Bill Murray introducing us to his vessel in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. Add the graceful, even camera movement, and you have the makings of any number of lateral-tracking Peter Greenaway movements (and those would often seem to match Godard and Gorin for politicization, for “morality”).
The aforementioned supermarket scene is also a tracking shot: the camera moves steadily back and forth to expose a uniform line of cash registers and aisles and the escalating crisis, the agitators and shoppers slipping into an anarchy that is a parody of consumerism. This very predetermined and designed shot paradoxically lends a feeling of inexorability, of “reality,” that even the shakiest handheld shots probably would not be capable of. This is the blissful contradiction of Godard’s evolving aesthetic: the shaky, raw, random, patchwork liveliness of the first phase of his work (from, say, Breathless to Bande a Part) is smart artifice; the shots may be taken in the handheld “realist” style, but this gambit is constantly exposed-- through editing, voice-over, and intertitles-- as just another -ism. Conversely, all distance is reduced by the smooth, smooth camera movements of Tout va Bien’s tracking shots. These and the remainder of the film-- mostly consisting of acutely static shots-- are actually less obtrusive than the verite style of most of Godard’s earlier films. The more of what is being captured by the even, symmetrical back-and-forth tracking camera eye is composed, designed, and subtly choreographed-- the more present it seems-- the more we are “there,” horrified both by the calmness with which all this strife is being recorded and by its very recognizability.
A few months after Tout va Bien’s release, Godard and Gorin made a short, called Letter to Jane, that furthered Tout va Bien’s insistence that the rightful place of the star (and the director as star) is a recession, a self-exile, into the background.
The short is a response to the notorious “Hanoi Jane” photo, which was published not long after Godard and Gorin completed Tout va Bien. It is not a dissection of Jane Fonda the person, but of Jane Fonda the photographic manifestation, which, it is implied, is the only Jane Fonda we can ever possibly know. Godard and Gorin tag-team voice-overs as they praise the blurred, muted Viet Cong soldier in the background of the photo and rather mercilessly lambast the Fonda visage in the foreground (they make it personal, hauling out the family resemblance to which Jane was so clearly averse by drawing a direct comparison between Jane’s acting-- they repeatedly play up their idea that she is acting, always-- in the photo and her father’s performance in Young Mr. Lincoln). Letter to Jane is not quite as succinct, full, or resonant (let alone beautiful) as Tout Va Bien, but, with its minimalist poststructural didacticism, it nevertheless effectively plants the seed for (or at least reinforces) a rigorous, unrelenting, and valuable way of thinking critically.
By coincidence, I happened to be reading Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History at around the same time I saw Tout va Bien, and it made for an excellent supplement.
Wilson’s book is much less impassioned and more equivocal than Godard’s work; it is history rather than polemic, though it is clear enough where Wilson’s sympathies lie (with the origins and continual oppression of the working classes). He records the lives, temperaments, and writings of those who “wrote history”-- Vico, Michelet, Renan, Taine, Anatole France-- and those who “lived” it: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky. The book also contains a “summary as of 1940” wherein Stalin gets the assessment he deserves.
Wilson is no hero-worshiper. For example, Wilson clearly prefers Engels as a person to Marx (reverse that, and you have his assessment of their writing). He also prefers Lenin-- not much of a writer, a bit absent-minded, but never, ever vain, always unselfish and self-effacing-- to the very committed but much too self-regarding Trotsky. He takes into account the contradictions, sometimes bordering on hypocrisy, of all the great socialist men of post-French Revolutionary history: for a man who gave all his time, effort, and, eventually, his health to the proletariat, Marx was a misanthrope and a snob; kind, good-natured Engels was something of a sycophant and lived a double life working in a management capacity at his bourgeois family’s factories; and the two of them together could be exclusive, snobbish, and even catty. Lenin, the book’s least tainted hero, bit off more than he could chew, and he overdelegated, but did the best he could given his pressured circumstances; Trotsky was, oxymoronically, a self-styled “star” of the worker’s revolution.
Wilson ingeniously interweaves all the minor players, personal histories, anecdotes, familial and interpersonal relations, and unique, ever-shifting political circumstances and instigations into something that grants the reader a very wide-ranging, acute perspective of what “the Revolutionary tradition” is, where it came from, and where it is going. He freely admits that there can be no socialist utopia, that much was sacrificed and many lives were ruined, often needlessly, for the compromised results of the drive to achieve a more humane society. But his very pragmatic attitude is one of accepting the brilliance and the urgency of the ideas along with the mistakes made in their implementation. He ends on a cautious note of respect for the great thinkers, regret at their failures, and optimism for an evolution of their humanitarian ideologies (including, if need be, a reevaluation of their beloved and troublesome Hegelian Dialectic):
”When all this is said, however, something more important remains that is common to all the great Marxists: the desire to get rid of class privilege based on birth and on difference of income; the will to establish a society in which the superior development of some is not paid for by the exploitation, that is, by the deliberate degradation of others-- a society which will be homogeneous and cooperative as our commercial society is not, and directed, to the best of their ability, by the conscious creative minds of its members. But this again is a goal to be worked for in the light of one’s own imagination and with the help of one’s own common sense.”
I found history of a less pressing but at least equally fascinating nature in David Thomson’s The Whole Equation, a circuitous, multidimensional history of Hollywood (read: the movies). Thomson begins and ends with Chinatown as a fatalistic metaphor, on several levels, of Hollywood’s meanness, insularity, resignation... and dangerous beauty.
Thomson tells the story of D.W. Griffith (a near-illiterate quasi-racist and cinematic genius to whom the credit for most initial technological and aesthetic advancement in film is owed), Louis B. Mayer (hustler, businessman, schizophrenically self-deluded moralist), Charlie Chaplin (sharp, independent, in a league of his own), David Selznic, Irving Thalberg, etc.-- also Clark Gable, George Cukor, Howard Hawks... and Roger Corman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Evans, and on and on... all the way up through the well-known part containing the studio system’s dissolution in the mid to late 1960s and the rise of those venerated 1970s movie brats, and then on into the ever-bleaker realm of Hollywood present.
So many levels are incorporated, from geography to politics to budgets and attendance records, that Thomson does, indeed, come very close to giving to the reader the endlessly expanding and contracting “whole equation” of the title. It’s an expression revealed in the end to be perpetually nebulous, but the book is the richer for it--there is a bevy of beautiful photographs tied in with the text throughout, but perhaps the most interesting is the reproduction, at the beginning of Chapter 3 (“The Place”) of David Hockney’s photo collage Pearblossom Hwy. 11-18th April, 1986, which Thomson captions: “Los Angeles is on the edge. Times change, but the roads always drain away into the desert.”
Thomson has some rather interesting things to say about the medium and even specific films itself, but the book’s recurrent, nagging questions are: Who is the author of the creative product, who owns it, and in what way? These are the salient parts of Thomson’s vast, complex “whole equation,” and they have undergone some very radical and consequential shifts since Hollywood (the place, the industry, the state of mind) came into being: is not a movie bound, absolutely predetermined, to turn out differently if the star owns a financially very significant part of it before a single frame of film is shot, or if everyone is fighting over pieces of a profit-pie not yet in existence? Thomson makes the rather obvious point that paying a star $20 million for a picture before it’s produced is a precipitate indulgence for which the movies, the studios, the audience, and most actors pay a steep price, but his clearly stated advice on resolving the problem really cannot be repeated often enough until someone takes it: some proportional responsibility should accompany creative independence and reward, and the lack of direct correlation between reward and responsibility in Hollywood has come to a breaking point that is causing an endless flood of indifferent product, not movies, into the culture.
Chinatown spells Hollywood and the movies to Thomson because it contains all the simultaneous elements-- the dream, the money, the people, the place, the time-- as they dissonantly play their part of the same piper’s tune as they occupy their places in the Hollywood dream factory (remote, relatively depoliticized shades of Tout va Bien, perhaps?). “When I talk about ‘the whole equation,’” he writes, “I mean not just the history of American movies, but the history of America in the time of movies.” It’s a tall order, and one J. Hoberman filled with much less convention and to much fresher, more radical effect in The Dream Life, but The Whole Equation, in its own circuitous, anecdotal, obsessively learned way, does well by its self-appoined duty to fill in another piece of the picture business puzzle for us curious bedazzled.
Since my early teens, when I first began paying attention to “grown-up” literature, I have looked forward with eagerness to anything new by Alice Munro. I can, in fact, trace my interest in reading about the complexities, ambiguities, difficulties, and inevitabilities of human relationships and behavior (an interest to be drawn not very long thereafter toward Woody Allen’s serio-comedies and Bergman pastiches) to her short story collection Friend of My Youth, which I sought out and read upon perusing a glowing review in the Oregonian review published when the book was first brought out in 1990 (I remember that the hardback edition, which I obtained at that time from the Multnomah County Library, had a beautiful, slightly unsettling cover design with a plaid background, teacups, and birds, so unlike the sloppy, blurry cover of the Vintage trade paperback that I have in my collection).
Munro is a Canadian and therefore often compared to her peer, Margaret Atwood; this is perhaps partly due to the fact that they are both women. But she differs from Atwood not only in her preferred form (she has written only one novel among many short story collections, while Atwood is known mainly for her wonderful novels), but in her subject matter and tone. Atwood’s temperament, style, and sensibility are simply better suited for the breadth of a novel; she is more cerebral and sardonic, and given to putting a little distance between herself and her characters in order to attain and offer to the reader a more wide-ranging intellectual grasp of their world. Munro gives us her people and their lives in a more intimate, apparently casual frame; the stories are rife with coincidence, chance meetings, etc., but all of the very most ordinary sort, or the sort that is made to seem ordinary-- no metaphysical or miraculous nonsense in these carefully taken snapshots of supposedly “ordinary” lives. She devastates through careful, acute observations, and the commentary is more languorously bemused than direct (the Tout va Bien-era Godard would surely have preferred Atwood to Munro).
Munro’s insinuations are restrained and finely wrought, making for delayed reactions, little implosions in the reader’s consciousness. A fine example of this comes at the end of a triptych of stories-- “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence”-- compiled in her new collection, Runaway, which concern, respectively, the tenuous young adulthood, liberated middle age, and contemplative older years of a woman named Juliet. During the course of these stories, Juliet has a daughter, Penelope, by a man from whom Juliet separates, and who dies when Penelope is a teenager. By the end, Penelope has completely extricated herself from any contact with Juliet. It is at the very end of these episodes from one life when Munro writes, “[Juliet] keeps on hoping for a word from Penelope, but not in any strenuous way. She hopes as people who know better hope for undeserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, things of that sort.” “People who know better,” is the kicker-- a thumbnail summation of Munro’s fatalistic (though hardly hopeless) worldview, in which any wise person knows better than to strenuously hope for things not likely to be forthcoming-- and it is so expertly interwoven as to be nearly hidden.
The stories in Runaway are uniformly fine, maybe almost too uniform: Munro would never, like Atwood, stray so far as to write a sci-fi novel with a male protagonist narrating in the first person (as Atwood did in Oryx and Crake). Almost all of her stories are about women in the small towns (and occasionally the big cities) of Canada, living their lives, which in Munro’s world means biding their time, waiting for something to happen to them-- the event usually comes in the form of a romance, if not something more sinister or tragic-- as they navigate the familial, workplace, or social relationships they’ve been granted. These relationships are the source of much unrest, however, and this is where the tension of Munro’s stories lie: people are unpredictable, very often even to themselves; motives are hidden, trusts are breached, the smallest comments or occurrences become revelations and betrayals. The primary question is whether two (or more, as the case may be) people can ever really know one another.
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