(Written August 28; posted October 3.)
I'm loving the f*ck out of the Dziga-Vertov Group's snotty-ass Letter to Jane. The 51-minute feature, filmed in 1972 on the frayed threads of a shoestring, can be understood in retrospect as a glaringly cinematic kiss-off to themselves (Jean-Luc Godard and collaborateur Jean-Pierre Gorin), their object of disaffection (the tit-tit-titular Ms. Fonda), the spirit of 1968 (especially as perceived by D-VG and like-minded others), and Western promulgations of radicalism in general. Viewing this austere polemic enduced an extraordinary numbness, later supplanted and exceeded by an overwhelming sense of delight and fulfillment. It was as if Spectacular Optical's "Videodrome" signal had been delivered through the ingestion of a chocolate beignet from NYC's Le Brasserie...
Dormant for eons, now fused to Criterion's luxe edition of Godard et Gorin's Tout va bien, Jane's carcinogens are a must to consume. (Think I'm fuckin' with ya? Think more clearly.)
The complete text of Michael Klein's review of Lettre à Jane in the Fall 1973 issue of Film Quarterly. It's not terribly galvanic, and rather dutifully doctrinaire. But he was there, and his persepective, however stilted, is instructive:
Tout va bien concludes by raising new questions about the possibility of viable commitnment by an intellectual to revolutionary struggles. Letter to Jane also deals with this question but in a more direct way, for all vestiges of narration have been stripped away. Instead we are presented with a sustained film-essay or lecture plus images that illustrate Godard and Gorin's states belief that "aesthetics is a category of politics." The films, which sparked fierce debate in the question sessions at the New York (Film) Festival, have apparently been designed as part of a cultural attack on the part of Godard and Gorin, to stimulate discussion on important questions in order to bring about greater clarity as a precondition to what they see as the need for the formation of a new Marxist-Lenist party in France.
Letter to Jane consists of a series of photographs, primarily a photo of Fonda in Vietnam that is recycled numerous times, and perhaps two dozen additional images (from Tout va bien, Vietnam, faces of film stars, etc.). The sound track is a political-stylistic analysis of the image of Fonda in Vietnam, delivered by Godard and Gorin. The film, made in 16mm for $300, lasts an hour, and rivets the spectator's attention.
(Letter's oft-fingered photo.)
In visual terms it is a montage sequence of photographs, at times shifting to a series of primitive wipes (one photpgraph lifted and pulled across the screen to reveal another image). I only recall the camera zooming (slowly) into a photo only once in the film. The space of the film is thus flat and planimetric, as it is in Tout va bien with the exception of the supermarket scene. The lack of spatial depth and the priority given to the sound track heighten the film's illustrative lecture-like quality; the rhythm of the montage works as rhetoric making us focus our attention as we would at a lecture.
Perhaps Godard feels he has taken this approach to its extreme - he has often expressed a desire to get greater depth in his films, to pay attention to the "angle of a shot" as he put it, remarking that this was the greatest lesson that one could learn from Eisenstein. (Not montage, which in spite of Einsenstein's writings was a process that only Vertov really understood.) However it should be stressed that Letter to Jane is, in spite of or because of its cognitive structure, one of the most exciting films Godard and Gorin have made.
The film opens with the key photograph of Fonda in Vietnam which was reproduced in L'Express. Godard and Gorin begin to speak to us: "The film asks the question what part should intellectuals play in the revolution, and many others... the film is a kind of detour that leads us back to ourselves... the spectator must be able to really think and to ask questions."
After this detour the voices come into congruence with the Fonda-in-Vietnam image: "How can cinema help the Vietnamese people win their independence?"
Then for about 20 minutes Godard and Gorin move away from their central subject (which however reamins the major visual image) saying that "we are going to analyze" but not doing so. In part this functions as rhetoric: we become impatient for the analysis, attempt to analyze the photo ourselves, and finally welcome Godard and Gorin's solution, in part simply to order the film. But in this long detour Godard and Goprin also touch on related questions for revolutionaries.
For example the image of Mao and Lin Piao appears on the screen for a brief second or two - the image shocks in its directness for an X has been roughly drawn over the figure of Lin Piao.
(Mao et Lin Piao, sans 'X'.)
On the soundtrack we hear: "Where do correct ideas come from..." The qoutation from Mao stating that correct ideas do not come from heaven (implicitly one's best wishes) is brought into relation with the visual equivalent (the brevity of the shot, the roughness of the X on Lin Piao's face) of Lin's fall, infusing criticism of his "idealism" with the emotions raised by the visceral quality of the image. The audience that will respond will be limited, but for them Godard has succeeded in the realm of "intellectual montage" (sound and image) that Eisenstein often wrote about in a heavy mechanical way.
(A 1974 poster from PRC's delightful "Criticize Lin Piao, Criticize Confucius" campaign. The text alerts the viewer that "The criticism of Lin (Biao) and Confucius is a matter of prime importance for the whole party, the whole army and the people of the whole country".)
After creating this visual-analytic image Godard and Gorin return to analyze the photograph of Fonda in Vietnam. The photograph shows Jane Fonda (left, facing us) listening to (the caption says talking to) a Vietnamese in Hanoi (he faces her, thus his back is to us), and in the background center, slightly out of focus, the face of another Vietnamese man listening.
The film makes the following criticisms:
(1) Although the photo was distributed by the Vietnamese the caption was written by the bourgeois media. The text extends a weakness in the photograph in that it puts Jane Fonda in the foreground and the Vietnamese people in the background, distorting further to say that Fonda is questioning when she is clearly listening.
(2) The photo focuses upon the militant as superstar. It is taken from a low angle, like Welles. The frame's relation to the actress who is looking is not in relation to what in Vietnam she is looking at.
(3) In the photo the image of the Vietnamese cadre in the background is blurred even though in reality the Vietnamese left is clear, and the image of the American militant is clear although in reality the American left is blurred.
(4) The expression on Fonda's face is tragic. This is incorrect for two reasons: the tragedy is in the US not in Vietnam; the expression implies passivity and resignation which are not qualities of the Vietnamese people in struggle.
Godard and Gorin expound upon the implication of her expression. We see photographs of a similar expression on Fonda's face in Tout va bien when she is expressing pity for the workers (deemed insufficient for it denies them the dignity of their struggle), and also in Klute when she asks the detective to have sympathy for her and stay the night. Godard and Gorin then show photographs of a very similar expression on Henry Fonda's face in Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln. (The four images are strikingly alike!)
The Fonda-senior photograph serves in Letter to Jane to raise questions about the adequacy of bourgeois tragedy and the narrative realistic mode in leftwing films. Godard and Gorin link this expression to the New Deal and Popular Front in the thirties. They regard it as an expression "that says I know a lot about things but doesn't say what," for "there is too much information" (feeling?) "in too short a space." This is "the swindle of capitalist art," an expression of pity that can be used mindlessly for any situation, undifferentiated idealist feeling.
[Point well made - TS.]
(5) Godard and Gorin criticize the tragic expression on Fonda's face as lacking content, in comparison to that on the Vietnamese cadre's face, for he suffers the daily tragedies yet continues to respond with strength.
(6) Finally, the key political criticism, stated near the end of the film. Fonda's expression (and the text) is pacifist, saying only "peace in Vietnam" and by implication "peace in America," instead of affirming the heroic Vietnamese people's struggle for independence and unification, and by implication, that of American working and oppressed people against exploitation and oppression.
All of this may seem to some (as it did to many at Livingston College and at the New York Film Festival, where the critics were hostile) to be making too much of a photograph. Yet Godard and Gorin do no more than an accepted stylistic art critic such as (Erwin) Panofsky or stylistically oriented literary critics ([Leo] Spitzer, [Erich] Auerbach) do. It is true however that at times they substitute a "logic" of wit and metaphor for the materialist analysis they advocate, a poetic mode that can as easily be subjective as it can enlighten about history.
However the film does take account of the limits of its analysis - a desire to raise new questions for the future for revolutionaries as well as the present. Thus the film concedes that the North Vietnamese have their reasons for circulating the picture: it is of value in appealing to a certain kind of audience as it is also detrimental for the reasons the film gives. In conversation and in public Godard stressed that had he been invited he would have served in the same way as Fonda.
The film is thus more than topical; the photo of Fonda raises questions not only of her visit to Vietnam but of the nature of revolutionary art, film, and reportage as well as the role of the intellectual and artist in the revolutionary movement.
This is obviously a question that troubles Godard and Gorin. In spite of the achievements of his latest flms Godard said he was anxious in his next work to move on to explore questions of depth, angle, lyricism, and music in film. This and Tout va bien indicate that perhaps Godard will again tap the emotional resources that infused his earlier, more narrative films. (Although Gorin shurgs off inquiries about aesthetic questions that were raised in the thirties, that period may be a key one from which to evaluate their future work.)
Godard and Gorin's most recent films have spoken to Mao's observation that "not having a correct political point of view is like having no soul." And while exploring new aesthetic and political questions they have produced some extraordinary films.
Whew! Aside from Klein's comma aversion, not too dreadful. Very much of its time, of course. That last Mao quote certainly gives one pause...
Ultimate moral? When in thrall, you shall fall.
Supplementary Lin Piao info from Encyclopedia Britannica:
In late 1958 Lin Biao suddenly began to assume a more active and important role in the army and the party. In September 1959 he succeeded Peng Dehuai as minister of defense, after Peng was ousted for opposing Mao's economic and defense policies. Lin then inaugurated a reformation of the army that both intensified the political education of its soldiers and upgraded their military training. As a result, Lin's army in the early 1960s became an example of how, according to Mao's teachings, professional expertise could be combined with political consciousness, and the army even became a model for the rest of society, including the party itself, to emulate. This movement to “learn from the People's Liberation Army” eventually developed in 1965 into the extensive purge of the party known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, whose principal casualty was Liu Shaogi, the party organizer who for more than 20 years had been Mao's second in command. In August 1966 the 58-year-old Lin Biao replaced Liu as the future successor to Mao; this position was formalized in April 1969, when Lin was so designated by the new constitution. From 1966 to 1971 the army effectively took over the role previously played by the party in ruling China.
By 1971, however, Lin and the army may have amassed more political authority than Mao thought desirable. In a desperate move to avoid being purged, Lin and others of the military high command plotted a coup that failed. The Chinese government later announced that Lin Biao was killed on Sept. 13, 1971, in an airplane crash in Mongolia as he was fleeing to the Soviet Union after having plotted unsuccessfully to assassinate Mao. Since then he has been posthumously criticized as a rightist reactionary and a traitor to the cause of Chinese Communism. Speculation that Lin was in fact assassinated by the Chinese leadership was reinforced in 1990 when Mongolian officials cast doubt on the Chinese government's claim that Lin had been among those killed in the 1971 airplane crash. The actual circumstances of Lin's death—and of the power struggle that immediately preceded it—remain an unresolved mystery in the history of Communist China.