It doesn’t seem as if this film collaborating with iconic 1960s rock band The Rolling Stones was particularly planned (it came together rather spontaneously when Godard visited the UK for another, failed project), but the work Godard has created from it fits in rather well with his ongoing politicisation following his end-of-days/end-of-cinema screed Week End. It re-examines the very fundamentals of artistic creation while looking towards certain increasingly urgent political themes that were developing even as the film was in production.
The film was shot in London in June 1968 as the Stones were recording tracks for their Beggars Banquet album, and specifically the song “Sympathy for the Devil”. This track has as its narrator Lucifer and recounts his involvement with a history of political violence right up to the present day (Robert Kennedy was assassinated even as the song was being recorded, necessitating a change to the lyrics). At the same time, with les évènements of May 1968 in France fresh in his mind, Godard’s sloganeering and agitprop tendencies have never been more in evidence. The film is punctuated by brief shots of a mysterious young woman spray-painting slogans around London, on cars, pavements, buildings and even the windows of the Hilton hotel, stuff like “CINEMARXISM” and “FREUDEMOCRACY”.
More substantial are extended scenes — almost skits in their jokey sketch-like quality — which unfold in long, measured tracking shots of student radicals and political protest, which form part of the structure of the film alluded to in the title (the documentary scenes of the Rolling Stones creating their track vs the staged scenes of radicals destroying civil society). The most prominent of these skits feature the Black Panthers, holed up in a junkyard alongside the River Thames (just under the Battersea rail bridge). Members of the group declaim political theory, including liberationist texts about the necessity of freeing themselves from the power of the white man and his language, though the first we hear deals rather more directly with the soul of black music (a wry nod towards the appropriation of a black rhythm-and-blues idiom in popular music such as that exemplified by the Rolling Stones themselves). These scenes wrap the texts up into a discourse of violence — guns are thrown around, and some (white) women dressed in white shifts are held at gunpoint and seen spattered with brightly-coloured crimson blood.
The counterpoint to this is the interview of “Eve Democracy” (played by the director’s wife of the time, Anne Wiazemsky), wafting around a forest glade being followed by a camera crew. She may seem to embody ideals of peace, reinforced by the rural, sylvan setting, but her responses to the interviewer’s elaborate questions are never other than “Yes” or “No”, and finally, as the revolutionary rhetoric becomes too forceful, she flees. The other scene featuring white protagonists is set in a bookshop, its walls lined with pulpy novels laden with sexual, racial and political themes, comics and pornographic magazines. The customers pay by giving a long-armed fascist salute to the proprietor (who also reads from a revolutionary text) then slapping two long-haired Maoist militants sitting in the corner of the room.
The film questions the very notion of authorship that had underpinned Godard’s career over the past decade. The studio scenes showing the Stones recording their track lay bare the repetition and boredom underlying artistic creation, as members of the band and their entourage try over and over again to establish the basic elements of the song (the drum beat, the lyrics, the guitar sound, the backing vocals, et al.). Stylistically, too, these scenes seem to lack a certain coherence, with the camera just panning around endlessly in lieu of a script to follow. Just as the process by which the text is authored is revealed here, so the interstitial sketches work hard to erase the idea of authorship — very little is said that is not quoted or read from a text, and interviewers and camera crews are a constant presence. The final scene, which is itself of a film crew creating a shot, ends with a woman’s dead body hoisted aloft on a camera crane, and so the film’s reflexivity has folded back in on itself.
The film was in the end retitled after the song it featured (and added a coda with the final studio version of the Stones song, much to Godard’s disgust), but either version has a lot of productive material that reflects the turbulent times in which it was made. The pose with regard to authorship, not to mention the rambling discursive methods used, makes it a difficult film to watch at times, but it certainly marks a forceful break with the rest of Godard’s 1960s work and looks forward to the continued formal experimentation of the 1970s.
Next Up: Most of Godard’s 1970s was taken up with experimental televisual work and overt political films, with the exception of the bigger budget Tout va bien (1972), starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. You can see a common thread uniting his earlier works with this one, but it again has a radical structure and is co-directed by theorist and academic Jean-Pierre Gorin.
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond [as “Tony Richmond”]; Starring The Rolling Stones, Anne Wiazemsky [as “Anne Wiazemski”]; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 28 July 2004 (also on VHS in the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 21 September 2013).