ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Hell is a Postcard of Heaven: Godard's Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One)

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by Erich Kuersten

Part One: Postcards of Pierrot

Trying to watch some of the extras on the Criterion DVD of Godard's Pierrot Le Fou (1965), I found a very interesting documentary: a "celebration" of Godard's films which opens on long shots of a Parisian souvenir store's postcard rack, then close-ups of postcards on display for Godard's various early movies, the ones with iconic starlets particularly: Breathless, Le Mepris and, of course Pierrot itself. You might say, ah, oui, la femme, monsieur, so what? But Godard would know so what... indeed.

The purpose of this documentarian's montage was, sadly, not to create a post-modern mirror echoing Godard's own frequent use of postcards, book stalls, and magazine covers in his films as illustrations of--among other things--the way the press caters to humanity's base desires in an effort to suppress genuine change and revolution--but to canonize Godard and his "easy, early, sexy" films, to attach icnonic markers to his terrain so the bourgeoisie don't get lost in the thicket and start running for the exits. I'm reminded of Godard's phrase about the bourgeoisie seeing a Roger Vadim movie that's supposed to be Shakespeare and being very excited that they finally 'get' the immortal bard now that he's all tarted up as it were: "This is Shakespeare? But this is marvelous!" (1)

So the postcard sex opener of the documentary is just the sort of thing that would, one imagine, turn Godard's artsy post-modern stomach, and maybe already has. After all, he is the man who once urged the Cannes audience of Sympathy for the Devil (aka One Plus One) to ask for its money back after the producer tampered with the ending. If Godard's about anything, he's about resisting the "death" that results when an image is subjected to the dumbing down of signification, i.e. the death created by the media and the social order's eagerness to drain the resonance and meaning from any signifier they touch... with a little sex in it.

Everything in the media's purview is exploited and encapsulated in postcard form: Kurt Cobain screaming--for real--in rage in his basement becomes a postcard of the Nirvana logo, alongside elevator muzak versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; Godard's freewheeling deconstuct-ionist Brechtian noir with a little sex in it becomes a postcard of "the movie where Anna Karina wears a bathing suit... Hubba hubba."
In short, Criterion's people, for all their best intentions, play to the bourgeoisie prurience Godard professes to loathe. Rather than let the man's work challenge the masses as he intended, Criterion lowers the bar so the heavy old fogies can climb on without compromising their pearl-bespangled altruistic solipsism.

Am I over-reacting? It's just some postcards in a souvenir shop, you say. Ah, but Godard himself has shown us the error of thinking anything could be "just" a postcard.


The position of any outsider artist against the "establishment" will always be compromised by the acceptance of grants, mainstream distribution, awards, etc. What are grants and awards but the bourgeoisie's sly attempt to trap the artist in a web of dogma/egoic definition? You can see this all the time at the Academy Awards: The five nominees for best picture must all be summed down to basic elements for the show to exist. Thus No Country for Old Men becomes a "drug deal gone wrong in the Texas wilderness." Atonement becomes "a girl reads a book and finds herself" and so forth. The announcer at the podium reads from the teleprompter that the "different styles and subjects" in competition show a commonality of our cinematic experience; they are all "here"-- encompassed in the Academy's amorphousness. But it's the reverse: the more a film is defined and reduced, the less the appreciation of the hitherto un-analyzed angles. Now that the bourgeoisie have learned a certain film is about "this" it can't be about "that." We all have a tendency to absorb what we read and hear as our own, and once an opinion is formed, no matter how dubious its foundation, it's hard to change. Pigeonholing is the death not just of art but of free will. Bazin would be furious!

Like the advanced guard of an ancient army, the old ladies with their pearls and checkbooks reach out and subdue the inspired artist when all the advertising recruiters and art dealers have failed. Not even Lou Reed can resist the call, stuffing himself with sawdust and hoisting his aging body up on the BAM mantle piece for all the old money to coo over. The announcer introducing Lou at the reception says something like: "No more waiting for the man for Lou Reed, a man who has been our mirror and never failed to take that walk on the wild side." The downtown club CBGBs closes and in its place goes pre-fab banks and Starbucks. Meanwhile the graffiti-strewn walls of the club are sent to Vegas, to become a Hard Rock shrine.


This is perhaps the "original sin" of post-modern art. Marcel Duchamp regretted his "R. Mutt" urinal (right)--the first readymade work of art--for this reason. It was meant that all who went to take a leak might see that, lo, there was art. Instead, the museum bought the "original" Duchamp urinal for a huge sum, thus negating its "real" value as a ceramic receptacle for urine. This is the art world equivalent of the Zen parable of the finger pointing at the moon: Duchamp points his arc of urine at the unrinal moon of art. No one sees the urine or the moon; they all want to buy the urinal because it's signed 'R. Mutt' and therefore more valuable than a similar urinal from the exact same mould by the exact same ceramic urinal maker.

And thus, most of contemporary art sold today is fingers and urinals of various shapes and sizes, and the moon waits around in the sky ignored and the urine goes in that 'other' urinal, the ignored one, inside the men's lavatoire.  

In Godard's Sympathy for the Devil there is a short interlude wherein we see slow pans of lascivious and lurid pulp novels, men's magazines, and girlie mags on display in a London shop. An assortment of "common people" browse through them while the proprietor reads aloud from Mein Kampf. This scene drags on for what seems like hours, but how worth it to have seen it and then be able to compare it with the opening of the documentary for Pierrot on the Criterion disc! As viewers in the present we are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by these very un-PC old men's magazine covers. A fan or collector of old pulp magazines starts out in some sort of fantasia heaven looking at this old London shop--it's got everything our numismatic hearts could desire, stuff so lurid it's just not sold or seen anywhere anymore--and yet; after a few minutes of these endless pictures of women in bondage and men fighting monsters, it is too much. It is such an excess of sexualized imagery that we know not whether to long to go back and time and buy out the shop (all those magazines and books must be worth a pretty penny on ebay) or to shrink in horror at the way (in this case) printed media panders to our base attraction to images of sex and violence. Either way, we want to stop watching. The overload of imagery slowly makes us nauseous. 

Meanwhile regular announcements from an obscene British voiceover (reading from some sexy spy novel and/or pornography) and diatribes on revolution provide the narration for the bulk of the non-Stones segments of the film. The dull yet merciless dynamics of the rehearsal studio / recording session wherein the Rolling Stones are recording the title tune become havens from the sexual onslaught. Godard films the sessions in slow tracking shots around the studio. With the other segments being so jarring, we come to appreciate the regular returns to the comparative calm of the studio. Time slows to a crawl here, and if you were ever in a band, you have time to notice the intergroup dynamics, and the Stones can be merciless with their own: poor Brian Jones for example is turned off in the mix--only he hears his playing and Mick and Keith smirk at his attempts to participate in the sound mixing; the look of utter boredom on Billy Wyman's face as he stands around with a shaker in his hand is mixed with anxiety -- will he be next to fall, as Ian Stewart has fallen and soon to be Jones? Wyman's shaker is later even showed up by the addition of a black conga player who is the one who finally whips the rhythm of the song as we know it into shape.

It's fascinating and such a valuable document if for no other reason than watching the recording process of a classic rock song slowly coalescing out of nothing but some dudes hanging around in a London studio. The closest equivalent from the era is perhaps some of the stuff in the Beatles movie, Let it Be, but Yoko is there, and so there's not much collaboration, Lennon and McCartney each bring in their songs and play them, while the Stones work out songs together in the studio, albeit with a very rigid power structure centered on the brotherly telepathy of Mick and Keith; it's their show all the way and while everyone else in the band is subject to their mercy, they themselves don't fight, or let a Yoko come between them (their birds are too cool to interfere-- Marianne Faithful and Anita Pallenberg are on the opposite end of the cool chart from the dour, shrieking Yoko). So there is no conflict, only the peaceful boredom of indentured servitude in the eyes of Bill and Charlie Watts. Even ex-Stone but still keyboardist Ian Stewart seems to have more of a musical vote as the session progresses than Watts and Wyman, and then, with a non-vote, apparently in his own world (and certainly not heard in the final mix), Brian Jones. Without a voice being raised in anger, or a single betraying glance, time and monotony exposes a power structure inside the world's greatest rock and roll band to rival any cuthroat corporation.

Having been in a band and being a long-time Stones fan I'm fascinated by these displays, most of all by the patient attention to detail the Glimmer twins bring to every note. Godard's gutsy long tracking shots around the studio let us really soak up the unspoken tension generated by this power structure, which in turn echoes the rebellious creeds of the black panther-style revolutionaries shown in the other segments.

But while the Stones eventually craft a classic song it seems to take forever to even get started and then suddenly it's finished --while the revolutionary segments are all oaths and urgency and arms, leading nowhere. We see in other segments of the film that the counterculture is already lost in a narcissistic haze. Halfway to completion of the May 68 revolution, the young people catch their reflection in the broken windows of the looted shops and freeze to have their pictures taken. Twenty years later, all that's left is the image of revolution, now co-opted by the social order via T-shirts and post-cards. Imagine a Parisian version of the Hard Rock Cafe: Viva la May 68 Patissiere - may I take your order? The chairman Mao on rye? Tres-bien!
Godard may judge the sell-out angles of the revolutionary fervor, and he may judge the image replicating status quo bourgeoisie conceptions of art and icon worship such as are present in the opening postcard pan of that Pierrot doc, but he doesn't judge the Stones for their pecking order politics. He knows that keeping your fame means freezing your image. Group success especially indicates a snapshot of a collaborative effort that must be maintained for group image. Therefore, you can't get rid of Wyman and Jones, as they were there in the beginning, and are part of the "famous package" -- while Ian and the black conga player are not--per se--in the band: but their energy is essential to the song's development. Mick and Keith supply the character completely as they slowly fade out the original Stones founder, poor Brian Jones. Whereas clipping Ian was just a matter of logisitics (and he stayed on for touring and recording anyway), clipping Jones is a kind of sacrifice, the burying of the old king so the new may reign. Firing Bill or Charlie wouldn't make sense, but keeping them alive with the fear of being fired, keeping them ever cognizant of their own irrelevance, that's just good business.

See, if you're the Bill Wyman bassist type, like I was in 1986-1990, i.e. replaceable, you fear the vulture virtuoso types like the black conga player who swoops in to drop a real rhythm on the piece halfway through the "Sympathy" sessions. You realize in that situation just how precarious your role in the group is and how musical skill and "chops" have almost nothing to do with success. There's many a musician who has mastered all the scales and can blow your mind with a solo except for one thing: no one wants to hear  him play.

The average listener could give a shit about a virtuoso. Guitar students study Steve Vai and the rest of us stick with guys who "communicate" to us through music. They don't have to know half as much or be half as fast as Vai; they need to have personality that we can relate to, like Neil Young. We all love Neil Young, and he rarely plays more than a few notes, this drives the Steve Vais of the world CRAZY!

But when you're an insecure bassist like Bill Wyman, or me, you've got to get scared when the virtuoso vultures come around; they smell your budding fame as sharks smell blood. They ask to check out your axe before sound check and proceed to rip you a new hole in your soul with it. The thing is, if they're so great, why don't they have their own band? Why are they hanging around? This is nothing new for life in the bands, as all musicians are--at some level--insecure. And every successful band is surrounded by vultures of this sort.

As an insecure bassist, I may be reading too much into these scenes and be way off base in my analysis, but the scenes are so dull and slow you have time to imagine all sorts of things, and the very slowlness works to transcend notions of the imaginary "money shot" of a music video. Godard lets the slow lack of progress ask how a rock classic like "Sympathy for the Devil"-- is made. When is the magic lightning moment it roars to life?

For Godard, here in his prime 360 degree pan through myriad junk with people working and reading aloud from tracts phase, we're watching a film that could be cut up and stuck anywhere in Weekend (1967). The mix of colorful Brechtian political rants and interviews would probably be just another of Godard's "non-classic" works if not for the presence of the Stones, or his beautiful new wife Anne Wiazemski, interviewed in a long scene walking through Hyde Park, wherein she answers yes or no to elaborate Godardian questions. The interviewer asks: "Do you consider drugs a form of spiritual gambling?" Yes. "Do you agree that the only way an intellectual revolutionary can be truly revolutionary is to stop being intellectual?" Yes. "Do you believe America can ever get out of Vietnam, emotionally?" No. 

How right she was!

As with all Godard, disruptive narrative forms and challenging political outbursts are all in an effort (perhaps) to convince us to put away the labels and see the form beyond the forms. The shadow play of the cinema is imaginary while the shadow play of One Plus One is the real, or rather the finger of fantasy that points to the real, the urine arc leading we hope into a readymade and not to the bathroom floor, and what lies beyond even that, through the drain. Just as the Stones are seen building a soon-to-be-played-ad-nauseum-on-the-radio-forever classic of Satanic indulgence Godard is revealing the process of making the song to be as tedious and driven by the repression of the rhythm section as any patriarchal power structure. Godard illustrates the "street fighting men" of the revolution outside are as mired in talk and posturing as the band in the studio is slowly crafting art like a quiet, shy tortoise on a long round track. Language and image and even songwriting are exposed through this track as tools of oppression; the Stones are rarely shown even speaking to each other... and even so, Godard can't help being iconic.


When the orobous serpent finishes eating its own tail it doesn't disappear, Godard learns with One Plus One, it merely pops back into a different but basically the same reality, right where it started. Like the serpent, Godard goes all the way to the end of the signifier rainbow only to find himself back where he started--and where this rambling and humble article started--on a postcard, in a Paris souvenir shop, for a worshipful documentary focusing mainly on his sex life. Viva la May 68 patissiere! And don't forget to pick up Beggar's Banquet at a record store near you, smash a window to get it, if you must, with new revolutionary windowsmasher rocks, only from Rock-co!

c. 2009 acidemic

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