Jean Luc Godard in the 1970s. (Keystone-France, Gamma-Keystone…)
It could be argued that the most pivotal chapter ofJean-Luc Godard's shape-shifting career — as well as one of the most neglected — is the period of video-based experimentation of the mid-'70s. Emerging from a militant post-'68 phase, during which he formed the Dziga Vertov Group, in an effort to "make films politically," Godard developed a complex method of merging and pulling apart images, sounds and text — a dense, sometimes dazzling analytic approach that defines a significant portion of his work to this day.
New to DVD from Olive Films, "Ici et Ailleurs" (1976), which translates as "Here and Elsewhere," is a film born of failure. In 1970, Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, his Dziga Vertov Group cohort, traveled to Jordan to make a film in support of the Palestinian cause. It was to be titled "Until Victory."
Many of the insurgents at the training camps Godard and Gorin visited were killed just a few months later by the Jordanian army, and the film was never made. Half a decade later, Godard and his new collaborator Anne-Marie Miéville revisited the footage for "Ici et Ailleurs," probing it anew from a multitude of angles, folding in voice-over and text reflections ("almost all the actors are dead") and revelations that subjects were directed. The filmmakers also added scenes shot in contemporary France, mostly of an ordinary family in domestic settings, often glued to the TV set.
At once an auto-critique and an anatomy of the failures of the New Left, "Ici et Ailleurs" functions as a meta-political film, questioning the aims and methods of political cinema, and the effectiveness of filmed images as political tools. One sequence, in which a series of people take their turn before a camera, each holding up a still image, attest to the limitations of cinema — one frame invariably succeeding another — when it comes to conveying complexity.
Partly in an effort to complicate this linear chain, Godard embraced the still new medium of video, which he, like other radical filmmakers of the period, valued above all for its political potential. Video-editing techniques and the positioning of several video monitors on-screen allowed for layers and juxtapositions that were contradictory, provocative and potentially revealing.
Olive Films is also releasing another seminal Godard video-film hybrid, "Numero Deux" (1975), which in its very title implies a reboot. In an introductory monologue, Godard alludes to a remake of his first film, "Breathless" (apparently the pretext for funding this project), although the only trace of that movie is in a conversation between two children who seem to be recounting its plot to each other.
A rumination on politics and sex, bodies and machines, men and women, "Numero Deux" plays out at a Brechtian distance, on screens within the screen. The central drama of a family — with an unblinking emphasis on the joyless sex lives of the parents — is presented on video monitors arranged in different configurations, suspended in a void, alongside snatches of newsreels, Hollywood movies, advertising and pornography.
Within the flashing, constantly morphing text that appears on screen in "Numero Deux" can be found a blunt summation of Godard's larger project: At one point the word "politics" changes to "history," which in turn becomes "cinema."
"Ici et Ailleurs" is among his clearest demonstrations of these connections. It has also always been among his most controversial films. A homemade bomb was reportedly planted by a Zionist group at a Paris theater that was showing the film (it was defused), and the accusations of anti-Semitism that occasionally flare up with Godard sometimes point to an image that connects Hitler and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in "Ici et Ailleurs."
But it is entirely possible to question some of Godard's assertions and still appreciate the lucidity of his analysis and even be moved by the sincerity of the film's self-interrogation. Godard's unmistakable conclusion is of a left wing that coped with the failure of May '68 by, in a sense, looking away: to "make a revolution where we're not," when a tougher, more necessary task would have been to "learn to see here in order to hear elsewhere."
As the title suggests, "Ici et Ailleurs" is built on a series of oppositions and dualities, not just here and elsewhere, but also now and then, domestic and foreign, the so-called First and Third worlds. The "and" in the title is key — the word "et" appears repeatedly on screen — a connector that traverses time and space, allows for dialectical thinking and perhaps reflects a semblance of real-world complexity.