Reflections on Godard's Film Socialisme and Bitching about Netflix

If it should ever occur to you to write a review on Netflix, be aware that their review system suuuuuuuucks.  2000 characters or less and it can take up to 2 business days to appear?  So I was, I suppose you could say, "inspired" to write a review of Godard's Film Socialisme due to the magical effect that takes place whenever anyone mentions Godard's name.  That is, according to one camp, if you say you liked anything about this movie, you are either a former film student, lying, or confused.  According to the other camp, if you weren't so retarded and lying around all the time shoving Hostess cupcakes in your underwear while watching reality TV, you might have taken the time to educate yourself on film theory, languages and history to the point where the things that don't make sense in the movie somehow instantly would make sense.

Film Socialisme is a colorful, sometimes visually interesting film.  The movie is shot partially on a cruise ship and cuts between scenes of people dancing, talking, etc.  There is no easily discerned plot, though some of the loosely established characters recur and are followed later on.  Audio and video are both occasionally gently screwed with, to the tune of visual blips and sound cutting out on one or both channels.  There are several languages present, sometimes with a track being played over the footage on screen.  There is occasionally music: both random snippets and a repeating theme.  Various forms of visual media are sampled, sometimes being superimposed over the "action."  Subtitles are available, but there are two English subtitle tracks and one of them (which is the one Netflix has set for instant viewing) is more a stripped down visual mishmash of what is actually being said in French than a comprehensive translation.

I understand immediately why someone would not like this movie or not want to see it simply based on the above description.  I also don't think that Godard explores deeply and comprehensively enough the ideas he presents (which I'll get to in a minute) to justify a full-length movie which does seem to make some pretension toward narrative statement.  But it also occurs to me that the sort of abject hatred this style of film has sparked would probably not be present were the audience in question being exposed to, say, an exhibit of surrealist art in a museum that displayed some of the same elements.  People will look at an Ernst or Magritte and sincerely try to get something out of it, if only in a purely aesthetic way.  Most people who don't like these artists will actually be fairly neutral about them emotionally, or someone might decide that they like Dali because they think the melting clocks are cool, even if they don't understand the significance of the work.  Nothing about this attitude seems unusual.  Perhaps the difference with a movie is the fact that when you commit to watching it you expect to devote an hour and a half of your life to it, so you expect more in return.  In this respect, I understand why there would be more of a negative reaction to a movie that does not succeed in more directly connecting with its audience.  I do think this is a flaw, especially when the intention to communicate and express is, to my eyes, entirely there.  In deference to this, I gave it two stars.  At the same time, I enjoyed it.  The reason why has probably something to do with the fact that I am the kind of person who can sometimes stare at a film for an hour and a half the same way that some people can stare at a painting for an hour and a half.  If there is something visually interesting going on and there are complex ideas present which I can reflect on with the help of the visuals, I don't feel I'm wasting my time.  I mention this for the sake of a one-time, last-ditch explanation as to how it is possible that there are some free agents out there, like myself, who can enjoy a Godard film (while still seeing its failings) without a pretension or handicap to blame.  Haters need not read on.

By my reckoning, Film Socialisme revolves around the idea of limitations in communication.  Hence the smorgasbord of languages.  I don't think, as I believe I mentioned in the final, pathetically cut version of my Netflix review, that Godard expected his audience to necessarily speak French, or German, or Russian, or to be familiar with every cultural reference made and all the historical footage shown.  I think he is taking advantage of the fact that he has an international audience to make statements about the nature of language.  The weird subtitles are the best example of this.  You can choose to either have the French translated, or to have some sparse English word-art shown over the French audio track.  I don't know how it was shown in theaters, but this choice on the DVD seems intentional to me.  The English words are sometimes grouped together, as in "donot," rather than "do not."  This, along with the number of words being left out, seems to duplicate the experience of learning a foreign language.  You miss words at times, and your brain also doesn't separate words out automatically; you have to do that yourself once you've retained the sounds by memory.  This device risks being cute and I would not exactly call it ingenious, but I appreciated it.  I think it was rather conscientiously done.  Since I understand quite a bit of French, I tried to follow it at times, and at other times I intentionally shut part of my brain off and just looked at the spaced-out English.  I found that this seemed to present different (but not conflicting) facets of the same scene.  To me, this suggests knowledge or lack of knowledge affects one's experience, but does not necessarily add or detract from it, which is often assumed to be the case.  The person who knows French but no English will have a completely different experience of this film than the person who knows English but no French, and the experience will vary further depending on whether the subtitles are used, and which group of subtitles are used.  You can further choose whether to let the shorter subtitles try to guide your comprehension of what is being said (which sometimes might work, other times, less so) or to read them as separate from the person talking on screen.  In any case, there are plenty of choices to be made.  I thought it was fun, and I enjoyed letting go of my obligation to understand what was being said in a particular way.

Many other devices used in the film can be seen as an extension of this one, that is, they still follow the general idea of limitations in communication and how this affects choices, judgment, etc.  You sometimes have to choose between listening to one audio track and another which are playing simultaneously.  There are some overriding general questions brought to mind such as, how much information is enough information?  What is to be done with an excess of information that does not form a comprehensive whole?  These questions, which I found compelling, seemed to become unnecessarily confused in the second half with questions of a more directly political nature.  This could have worked as well, since there seemed to be a movement toward problems of globalization and international community directly related to various forms of media and modern communication, but this all seemed to funnel rather than expand, and not in a good way but a tacked-on one.  What I still found compelling apart from this was the presented problem of trying to live in a society where we don't understand each other as much as we think we do due on the one hand to too much information, but on the other hand incomplete information.  There's a lot of rhetoric in the modern world pointed toward devoting time to understanding one another and to understanding other cultures, when in fact a lot of the time this is both near impossible and a luxury of the rich.  There often seems to be a general attitude that deep down, we are all the same and therefore we should stop bombing the crap out of each other and live peaceful lives.  But what if we aren't all the same, or not enough the same?  What if we can never understand our differences?  Does that preclude us living peacefully side by side?  I don't know if any of these questions were what was guiding Godard in the making of this film, but these were the questions that came to mind for me when I reflected on it.

Due to the fuzziness of the second half, I lost interest in trying to understand the director's intentions at that point.  Like many Godard films, Film Socialisme seems to have a strong core, but remains unfinished.  At the same time, it did not bore me to the extent that a couple of his other films have, and the things about it that were comprehensible were presented in a way that made me want to pay attention.  I have a hard time believing, though, as some of those on the pro-Godardian side of the fence have suggested, that I was missing much due to a lack of knowledge concerning film techniques.  I have witnessed a lot of different styles of shooting films (from watching them), but I don't know enough to speak in a knowledgeable manner about them, and I think if you have to have this level of education in order to appreciate them they're probably not very effective.  A large percentage of people who watch this film and enjoy it will likely have at least seen some of Godard's other stuff due to the statistical probability that more of these people will give it a chance to begin with, but I honestly can't make out what there is to keep a layperson from enjoying it as much as someone who has had their head stuffed full of a particular type of information.  At the same time, if anyone with technical or historical knowledge of that kind would like to fill me in, I would be more than happy to listen.  It might in fact prove to be more of the same in that this information would simply change my experience.  I found the film to generally be of an egalitarian rather than an elitist nature (concurrent with the title), and I think the failure to communicate effectively is simply that.  At least I don't see any evidence to suggest that this film is only meant to speak to those who are already part of an exclusive club.

I would not rule out, however, that the plethora of crappy reviews on Netflix might be at least partially due to Netflix's crappy reviewing system.  2000 characters is not a lot.  It's basically encouraging 1 and 5 star reviews with a single sentence explanation.  It looks like one person even tried to write a haiku.

1 comment:

  1. I don't read NF reviews (or reader reviews on Amazon) anymore because there seem to be so many petulant rants about the audience feeling shortchanged by the artist. I know that I watch some movies in expectation of being entertained but there are many more that I approach expecting to have to concentrate, think, and maybe live with in my head for longer than I'd like. So I guess that's why my current NF envelope has been sitting in the table for 3 weeks.

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