Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard — Book Review by Moira Sullivan

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Albertine Fox’s Godard and Sound (2017) is an impressive and elaborate study of the use of sound in Jean Luc Godard’s later films beginning in 1979 including his multimedia work. The study builds on the foundation of her doctoral thesis, which investigated the aural properties of film and the field of “audio spectatorship” in film criticism and scholarship. Fox’s interest in the subject developed through an appreciation of minimal music with an ‘acoustic’ echo. Repetitive identical musical patterns played in unison result in an echo, such as the music of Phillip Glass, Brian Eno and Meredith Monk. These echoes are likened to “after images” in paintings with overlapping patterns. There is also a parallel in film. Fox experienced two repetitive loops – the “soundtrack” and “the image” track “moving in parallel motion” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962), which became the genesis of Godard and Sound. Continue reading…

Godard and Sound explores the French director’s films characterized by multilevel acoustic phenomena with “rhythms, images, textures, spaces and colours” (Fox, 4). She argues that image and sound have been positioned against each other instead of with each other and their relationship is often ignored. French electroacoustic experimental composer Michel Chion, an established expert of importance to film sound scholars maintains that “audio- spectators” of audio-visual media, develop “audio- vision” (Fox, p 5). French broadcast engineer Pierre Shaeffer calls this “acoustic spectatorship”. Film critic and philosopher Gilles Deleuze classified Godard’s images and signs in Cinema 1: The Movement Image (Cinéma 1. L’Image-Mouvement 1983). In Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Cinéma 2, L’Image-temp 1985) he refers to the “sound image” where “talking and sound cease to be components of the visual image; the visual and the sound become two autonomous components of an audio-visual image, or better, two heautonomous images” (Deleuze, Cinema 2, 259).

The principle aspects of the stylistic system of film, cinematography, editing, mise en scène and sound are well-established in cinema studies and a primary tool for film analysis. However, Fox’s primary thesis is that sound receives minimal attention from film scholars whose primary interest is in the visual properties of film and where spectators are regarded as viewing rather than listening subjects. She argues that this is due to the film theories of the 1970’s that emphasized the visual aspects of film. However, as sound is part of the stylistic system, it may be neglected in analyses not because of theory but because of practice, the failure to examine sound in relation to the shooting, cutting, and framing of film. Film criticism and scholarly studies often rely on narrative conventions and form rather than style however with Godard this is a major neglect.

Fox utilizes Judith Mayne’s “narrative” of the history of film theory in the 1970’s to explain why film scholars have focused primarily on “sight” and the “visual image” in Cinema and Spectatorship (1993). The theory of the “cinematic apparatus” formulated by Louis Althusser, Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Comolli and others maintains that because the mechanics of representation for sound and image is ideological, the spectator is also ideologically positioned.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s concept of the Imaginary theorizes this distinction. Mayne points out that the 70’s theorists lived during the May ‘68 student revolts in France, Europe and US and were embroiled in rebellion against the established order. She even maintains that scholars were not only ideologically positioned by cinema but by the “reality” of the time. However, that some film scholars have not given Godard’s use of sound serious attention cannot be explained solely on the basis of French theorists living during May 68, just as Godard did as a film critic.

Filmmakers who rebelled against the style of “bourgeois filmmaking” during the French New Wave were foremost film critics such as Godard, Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut. As members of the French Critics Association, they demanded film open to all forms of cinematic expression in a protest at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival. They called for immediate solidarity with the student protests in Paris and that the festival should close. One of the outcomes of the protest was the creation of a parallel section of the festival the following year – La Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Director’s Fortnight) by the SRF (Société des Réalisateurs de Films – French Director’s Guild) – “the breeding ground” for “auteurs” in which Cannes reputation for innovative work in film was established.

In Britain, the theorists of the 70’s were also filmmakers. An oppositional voice that established ground for spectatorship theory was feminist film theory of the 1970’s, which has remained relevant and is used in film studies today. Laura Mulvey, Pam Cook, Claire Johnston, and Elizabeth Cowie were members of the London Women’s Film Group. They wrote about apparatus theory too, however their primary focus on the politics of representation in gender and sexual difference stands apart, as evidenced in Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1977), cited by Mayne and Fox. Mulvey, Cowie, Cook and Johnston used the psychoanalytical concepts of Lacan to analyze the construction of “pleasure” in cinema as a political weapon. Mulvey expanded the scope of film theory to include spectator studies of gender and sexuality. Fox also notes in her introduction Kaja Silverman’s The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (1988), a psychoanalytic approach to the female voice in film. Silverman addresses a need for feminist readings of sound in her study. (Fox, 7).

As a filmmaker Mulvey made Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) with Peter Wollen, a film designed for the spectator devoid of the “pleasure” of narrative cinema. The camera and editing are used to create a 360-degree pan – a ‘waist down’ long shot with no character identification or “male gaze”. The electronic score was an ensemble of psychedelic pop/rock by Mike Ratledge of “The Soft Machine”.

In Visual and Other Pleasures (1989), Mulvey credits Godard for exploring the politics of representation but maintains that the exhibition of women in his films remains unresolved. Several problematic films and scenes come to mind: the camera crew interrogating Anne Wiazemsky who is later shot on a beach and the representation of white women who are groped and murdered in Sympathy for the Devil (1968); the representation of the young “Marys”, and “Mary’s mother” in Hail Mary (1985); the problematic representation of young women in Prénom Carmen (1983) and Goodbye to Language (2014). Mayne states that spectatorship theory recognizes what a viewer brings to a film but also how a film addresses its viewer such as these films by Godard.

The concepts in Godard and Sound are also applicable to silent film. In Silent Film Sound (2007), Rick Altman argues that “we attach importance to sounds only when they have a demonstrable, physical, visible effect…sound quality depends on its ability to affect the visible” (emphasis mine – see Altman, 6). Altman describes how sound evolved in early cinema to create a successful audiovisual art. In fact, silent film used Russian montage and the closeup to compensate for the absence of sound, which later disappeared in talkies. (Wollen, 190). Godard was interested in how silent film used figures of language and incorporated them into his films, such as in La Chinoise (1967).

According to Peter Wollen in Ontology and Materialism in Film (1982, Godard’s objective in his post ’68 films and the Dziga Vertov group was to create “materialist” films as opposed to illusionist or romanticist that “present rather than represent their own process of substance”. This is evident through his choices in the stylistic system. (Wollen, 195) Godard’s post ’68 films, unfortunately were not commercial successes. Not all of Godard’s adherents embraced their “materialism”, preferring his “illusionist” work of early years that established his reputation as an innovative director. They criticized his later films for didactic political ideology and the rupture of “narrative pleasure”. Godard announced that Weekend (1967) represented the “End, End of Cinema” with a disruption of narrative linearity through image and sound. “We should replace vague ideas with clear images” is one of the “lessons’ for the students in La Chinoise (1967) who occupy a bourgeois apartment, and to this one might add “clear sound”. Throughout the film are shots of recording equipment, a radio, a phonograph and a sound mixing board. The film is a web of visual as well as aural interactions.

Innovations in image and sound were part of Godard’s early film and identifiable in his later work, such as Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961), Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (1962) Le Mépris (Contempt 1963), Bande à part (Band of Outsiders (1964), Alphaville, une ét range aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965). and Pierrot le fou (1965). The “tableaux”, or chapters used in Vivre Sa Vie in 1962 on sex workers starring Anna Karina have a “pleasurable narrative linearity”; however, Godard’s use of “tableaux” designed to educate the blue collar working class in Tout Va Bien (1972) is considered “unpleasurable” and didactic. Jane Fonda revealed that she was held at gunpoint by Godard’s partner Jean-Pierre Gorin to complete Tout Va Bien since during the shooting of the film she could not figure out what she was doing or what the film was about. Afterwards, Godard and Gorin made the misogynist Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still (1972). Made in USA (1966), the last film Godard made with Anna Karina, was not released in the US until 2009 because of legal complications about the script, in part written by Donald E. Westlake (Richard Stark). In this film, Godard splits synchronous sound and image and argued “you have to look at the image and hear the sound”. One example is when Paula Nelson (Anna Karina) is about to reveal the last name of her deceased partner “Richard”, and her voice is drowned out by diegetic sound – airplanes, bells, alarms etc.

Godard and Sound is divided into seven chapters that are varied in scope. Fox’s objective was not to investigate the use of sound in the earlier well-known work of Godard but a “selective assortment of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ works. A primary focus is Godard’s collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville from 1973 to 1979. Godard’s eight-part Historie(s) Du Cinema, Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary, 1985), Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001) and Notre musique (Our Music, 2004) are referenced throughout the book.

Chapter 1 surveys the work of Pierre Schaeffer, the “sonic experiments” of Godard in the New Wave and collaborations with Jean-Pierre Gorin and the Dziga Vertov group (1969-1973), and their influence in his later work, in particular montage.

In this chapter is a summary of some of the key characteristics of his work. Sound in Godard’s films had to be “real”, not “realistic”. He turned to video as a “laboratory tool” to research the use of sound. He also used microphones to pick up all sound that was heard. (Fox, 21). Godard returned to techniques in the silent period to create “a new kind of sound cinema”. In La Chinoise there is a disruptive visual, a “poetic insert” of clucking chickens, a device used by silent film directors to comment on a part of the diegesis.

In general, Godard uses sound and silence to disrupt narrative flow forcing the spectator to be aware of the soundtrack (Fox, 21). According to Colin McCabe, (Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics 1980), during his Dziga Vertov period sound was used to “reconfigure traditional cinema’s ‘fixed relation of dependence between sound-track and image’”. Godard studied the classical montage principles of Vertov and Eisenstein’s theory of audio- visual montage. Music was a structuring principle in his use of montage; he envisioned each film with music, which is often used for disruptive effect.

Chapter 2 is an analysis of the soundtrack of Sauve qui peut (la vie) made with Anne-Marie Miéville – a film which “looks back to the problematic status of the human body and voice in early sound cinema” (Fox, 34). Also analyzed is Scénario de Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1979) including a study of the voice of Marguerite Duras. The voice in sound is a component of the stylistic system and is seldom explored in film criticism. According to Michel Chion, “when the acousmatic presence is a voice, and especially when this voice has not yet been visualized – that is, when we cannot yet connect it to a face – we get a special being, a kind of talking and acting shadow to which we attach the name acousmêtre. (Fox, 44)

Anne-Marie Miéville and Godard began working in 1973 and formed the company Sonimage. Miéville worked on several films as co-director, co-writer, co-producer or co-editor of films such as Scénario du film Passion, Prénom Carmen, Nouvelle vague and Notre musique. Their first film was Ici et ailleurs (1976), an investigation of the debilitating effects of television on cinema and how the sound of media and advertising drowns out humans.

Chapter 3 explores Godard’s Scénario du film Passion (Scenario of the Film Passion, 1982) and Passion (1982), regarded as Godard’s return to mainstream film. Also included is Prénom Carmen (First Name Carmen , 1983) based on Bizet’s opera. Featured in the film is the Prat String Quartet who discuss Beethoven’s late quartets.

Chapter 4 takes up Godard’s short films Lettre à Freddy Buache (Letter to Freddy Buache, 1981) and Puissance de la parole (The Power of Words, 1988).

Chapter 5 studies the visual aspects of On s’est tous défilé (We All Ran Away, 1987), the voice of Catherine Ringer in Soigne ta droite: Une place sur la terre (Keep Your Right Up: A Place on Earth, 1987), and the film’s acousmatic sound and space. A further aspect explored in this chapter is the use of Virginia Woolf ’s novel The Waves (1931) in Godard’s King Lear (1987) with an analysis by feminist film journal Camera Obscura.

Chapter 6 reviews the film essay JLG/ JLG: Autoportrait de décembre (JLG/ JLG: December Self- Portrait, 1995) and the CD soundtrack for Nouvelle vague (New Wave, 1997). An additional focus is Michel Chion, Charles Altman and Pierre Shaeffer’s views on the soundtrack phenomenon.

Chapter 7, takes up Godard’s feature Film socialism (2010), and his 3D video Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014). Fox’s concluding remarks concern Godard’s collaborations in sound design and his 3D short Les trois désastres (The Three Disasters) (2013) that is part of trilogy with Peter Greenaway and Edgar Pêra.

Throughout Godard and Sound are important analyses of his use of sound and image that have not been previously studied in any of the numerous volumes written about Jean-Luc Godard. Fox’s important study will be of interest to filmmakers, film critics and scholars alike.

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Moira Sullivan

Moira Sullivan is an international film critic, scholar, lecturer, promoter and experimental filmmaker based in San Francisco. She is a member of FIPRESCI (Federation of International Film Critics) and has a PhD in cinema studies. Sullivan is one of the world's experts on the work of the legendary filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961). A native of San Francisco, Sullivan wrote her doctoral thesis and subsequent publication on Maya Deren's avantgarde and ethnographic filmmaking. Sullivan has been invited to special universities and art schools honoring Maya Deren in Italy, France, Germany, Sweden and the USA. Since 1995 Sullivan has been a staff writer for Movie Magazine International, San Francisco and does weekly radio reports on film reviews, film events and festivals. She also writes from agnesfilms.com named for Agnès Varda.