"Enjoy the the Navajo and the anti-semitism!" an impish friend commented on Facebook at my mention that I was seeing the new Jean-Luc Godard, Film Socialisme, this morning. Well, as one might have predicted, I enjoyed one but not the other. Let's deal with the "Navajo" first. For the English-language distribution versions of this film, Godard has put on the film subtitles that he's referred to as "Navajo" English. Instead of providing whole literal translations of entire patches of dialogue—and the dialogue is, in descending order of prevalence, in French, German, Russian, and English and maybe one or two other tongues I'm not remembering, and the soundtrack is layered in such a way that will not be unfamiliar to lovers of Nouvelle Vague and King Lear, which means in effect a very deliberate effect of artfully contrived Babel—he'll put up a series of key words, mostly nouns, sometimes invented compound words such as "nocrime" followed by "noblood" with, as seen here, nocaps. It doesn't take very long for the effect to stop feeling like subtitles at all and to play like a sort of running discrete text of its own, one made up in large part of what could be Twitter hashtags. In a sense this makes the film even more social-media-up-to-the-minute than the feature that preceded it at today's New York Film Festival press screenings, David Fincher's superb and engrossing comedic drama of the invention of Facebook, The Social Network. Not bad for a nearly 80-year-old crank largely sequestered in Switzerland, not exactly a finger-on-the-pulse of anything much spot these days. Certainly adds more than just a particular flavor to the experience, and made me feel a little proud that my overall grasp of spoken French is better than I thought it would be.
As for the anti-semitism, of course not so much. Although as usual with late Godard anti-semitism, the stuff is more by insinuation than anything else; what happens here, mostly, is that he cocks and eyebrow and you think he's gonna drop a definitively offensive and/or indefensible characterization, and then he veers off from it. It's almost as if he's toying with us, why would he want to do that. As in the film's first section, which is set on a cruise ship, which could here be some allegorical vessel representing late late capitalism, or not, and there's this old guy dressed kind of like a gangster hanging out on deck and the narrator, such as he is, informs us that his name is "Goldberg" which translates into "Gold mountain," yeah, Jean-Luc, we get it; did you know, in fact that the music industry bigwig Danny Goldberg once had a management company that he himself called "Gold Mountain?" Kind of outsmarted you, eh, little chum? There's another bit later with a reflection that Hollywood was "started by Jews" but this point too, drifts off, as the focus turns more anti-Zionist (I do believe there is a difference, and also, it should go without saying, that these are not two stances that work well together) and it doesn't matter because we're all kind of irritated now anyway. Helas. I'm beginning to think with late-period Godard it's not really a full experience without at least a little serious irritation. People talk admiringly sometimes of flies in the ointment, but a real fly in the ointment isn't particularly ingratiating. For all the moments of quicksilver wit and genuine playfulness in this picture, there's a certain pissy maliciousness as well. To consider this all morally, or even to make a moral judgment on it, even a negative moral judgment, does not oblige us to out-and-out condemn it. But before we cross that bridge—and we're not gonna do it here—first we have to make some sense of the piece.
Or do we? The more this film went on, the more I was reminded of Jaspar Johns' "target" paintings. Repetitions of the same thing—that is, an archery target. Always the same, only the dimensions, the colors, the thickness of the paint on the board, and so on, would vary. In Film Socialisme what's crucial is less the words—printed, spoken, sung—and the images themselves, but the way they're layered and delivered. The images that appear to be in ultra-bright 35 mm, and the images in smeary digital video, and the images in pixelated digital, or analog, video. The freezes, the glitches. The gorgeousness of the light and the light's inevitable technological distortion. There's the usual Godardian polemics and punning, the obsessive sifting through the ash heap of 20th century (and further back than that) history, the attitudinizing, the cameos by philosophers and artists (nice to see Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye pitching in), but then there are the various textures of conveyance, which go back to, and take in, imagery and grain from Eisenstein's Potemkin and Ford's Cheyenne Autumn, among others. (You know how Art Ensemble of Chicago had this tagline for its project, "Great Black Music: Ancient To The Future?" This film could well be subtitled Cinema: Ancient To The Future.) It is this quality, finally, for me, that makes the film remarkable and beautiful and challenging, rather than, in the classically funny Nabokovian formulation, "what [...] the guy [is] trying to say."