Thursday, September 30, 2010

The 48th New York Film Festival: Film Socialisme (Written by Lisa K. Broad)

If the cinema was born on a train loaded up with all the promises of modernity, it seems content to spend its twilight years adrift at sea. With Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard joins fellow NYFF staples Aleksandr Sokurov and Manoel de Oliveira in creating a ship-bound fable that serves as an elegy both for film as we know it and for the western civilization that gave it birth. In the first, and most evocative of the film’s three parts, Godard – ever a devotee of montage – creates a metaphoric vessel that is at once an Ark and a Ship of Theseus.  (A philosophical thought experiment concerning identity across time, the Theseus paradox involves a ship whose various parts are destroyed and replaced until no original material remains.  And yet one is still inclined to say that the identity of the ship remains intact.)  In the same way, the cinema seems to have incorporated myriad new technologies while allowing the celluloid-based medium with which it was initially identified to fall by the wayside.

In much the same way that Dziga Vertov assembled Man With a Movie Camera’s (1929) virtual city from fragments of different places, Godard fashions his film’s cruise ship out of bits and pieces of digital footage shot on camera phones, consumer grade DV, and luminous HD. Ironically recalling and perhaps standing in for the richness of ‘real’ film, the HD passages, often scored to a haunting string sound track, take on a veneer of acute if unearned poignancy. While Godard has long explored the effects that can be achieved by juxtaposing sounds and images, the conjunction of different kinds of digital images adds a new dimension. For instance, the seamlessness of the HD images makes the consumer grade footage seem sometimes disturbingly immediate, while the heavily pixilated camera footage takes on an almost abstract quality by comparison. The shimmering tension that arises from the convergence of the diverse media recalls Eisenstein's notion of the overtone – an abstract aesthetic element that derives from the process of image juxtaposition without inhering in any of the images themselves.

While Film Socialisme is distinguished in large part by its commitment to an all encompassing multiplicity and heterogeneity, the film as a whole can be viewed as questioning the relationship between concrete parts (individuals, images) and imagined wholes (nations, families, art forms, industries). However, the result of this inquiry is frequently obscure or unsatisfying. Ultimately, Film Socialisme’s form is more eloquent than its content. While the brusque "No Comment" that ends the film seems to foreclose on future political discussion, the silent dialogue Godard opens between desperate incarnations of the cinema speaks to the director's continued aesthetic relevance.

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