From his very first feature, 1959’s Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard has made films about films, images about images, and stories about stories. In his first burst of genius, which lasted through 1967, the director countered his chilly self-consciousness with hot-button topics: sex, war, youth, revolution. But when Godard returned to “narrative” films with 1979’s Every Man for Himself, the heat was extinguished, replaced by rueful humor, radiant imagery, and a powerful sense of loss, as well as by intellectual obsessions so personal that they can seem hermetic. His pictures of the past 25 years lack drive; they tend to float, sometimes bobbing maddeningly in circles.
So it’s a development of note that Godard’s latest, Notre Musique, achieves forward momentum, both thematically and narratively. Divided into three parts in homage to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the story is sketchy—and wrapped in layers of philosophical asides—but it does travel reliably in one direction: from despair to a sort of action. Of course, Notre Musique is still a post-Weekend Godard flick, and thus not recommended to anyone who’s ever walked out of a film the director has made since abandoning his very French style of Maoism sometime in the ’70s.
In fact, this is another movie in which the director retreats from his once-radical politics. As a filmmaker, Godard may seem imperious, but he has issued a series of indirect apologies for his former embrace of violence, whether for the sake of revolution or entertainment. Notre Musique opens with “Hell,” a brilliant 10-minute montage in the manner of his densely layered Histoires du Cinéma. Interlacing clips from classic films with shards of documentary footage, Godard creates a vision of war that is gripping and refuses to be merely diverting. Cued to spare, crashing piano are moments from movies by such auteurist favorites as Sergei Eisenstein and John Ford, collaged with horrific documentary glimpses of death-camp victims—as if the Russian Revolution, the Western, and the Holocaust were merely different manifestations of the same annihilating 20th-century project.
The next stop is “Purgatory”—aka Sarajevo—and documentary. The bulk of the film transpires here, during an authentic literary conference at which the actual Jean-Luc Godard is to lecture on “The Text and the Image.” Leaving the airport, the cinematic philosopher is asked why revolutions aren’t begun by the most humane people. “Humane people don’t start revolutions,” he replies. “They start libraries.” This maxim is a long way from May 1968, when French students and cinéastes believed they were indeed starting a revolution.
Like all Godard films—even the earliest ones—Notre Musique is stuffed with quotations, including references to Dostoevski, Hannah Arendt, and old Hollywood. One character is asked, “Have you ever been stung by a dead bee?”—a question posed by Walter Brennan in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not and also a refrain of Godard’s 1990 Nouvelle Vague. This time, however, many of the literary pronouncements come from genuine literary figures: Such conference participants as Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo offer their thoughts in interviews or conversations, yielding dialogue that’s more direct and engaging than the director’s usual quotefests.
While Godard, Darwish, and Goytisolo are (or play) themselves, the story focuses on two fictional characters, Franco-Israeli journalist Judith Lerner (Sarah Adler) and Russian-rooted video maker Olga Brodsky (Nade Dieu), both dark-haired young Jewish women who recall such iconic Godard-film presences as Anna Karina, Anne Wiazemsky, and Myriem Roussel. Lerner attempts to learn more about the past, including the man who sheltered her grandparents from the Nazis, but Brodsky looks toward a sort of future: She’s interested in digital-video minicams and is contemplating suicide as an action against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
Revealed in footage of markets, trams, and the famously war-damaged Mostar Bridge, the former Yugoslavia is just a backdrop for a consideration of defeated peoples—mostly Palestinians, but also Trojans and Native Americans, a few of whom have escaped the opening snippet of Fort Apache to attend the Sarajevo conference. “Do you know why we Palestinians are famous?” Darwish asks Lerner. “Because you are our enemy.” One of Ford’s Indians could say the same thing to John Wayne.
In a sense, Notre Musique picks up where Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s 1972 Letter to Jane left off. That film, which contemplated a single photograph of Jane Fonda in Vietnam, also analyzed the power of images of powerful people. Indeed, Godard’s lecture on moving images, reverse shots, and montage—the cinematic grammar he calls “our music”—continues a discussion he’s been having with his audiences since the beginning of his career. It parallels Notre Musique’s dialogue about victor and vanquished—or, to put it in more abstract terms, the one and the other.
Godard’s sympathies clearly remain with history’s defeated and enslaved, and his formal experiments continue to be radical, yet it’s fair to call the filmmaker conservative. In his own way, he has founded a library, a place for ’40s Hollywood movies, premodernist painters, French and Russian literary classics, and 19th-century European composers. And though Notre Musique’s “Paradise” is open-ended, it depends heavily on the familiar. The location of this disappointing final episode is the shores of Lake Geneva, Godard’s longtime habitat, but the vision of people, books, and new beginnings in the forest suggests Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut’s kitschy adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s kitschy novel about preserving great literature. Here’s the contemporary Godard in a characteristically paradoxical nutshell: Still angrily anti-imperialist and still doggedly deconstructing cinematic tropes, he wraps himself in his classical European education as if only it could protect him from the world’s cultural barbarians.
The Bush administration lied about its motives for invading Iraq, the success of its military campaign, and its long-term goals. The mainstream media accepted those lies and generally conveyed them to viewers and readers with no alterations aside from a little boosterish embellishment. If you already know all this, you don’t need to see WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception. And if you don’t—well, you probably don’t read the Washington City Paper.
Self-appointed “news dissector” Danny Schechter, who directed this film and wrote a similarly titled book on the same subject, is a veteran of radio, print, and TV journalism, including CNN and ABC’s 20/20. In 1988, he renounced corporate news, founding indie media company Globalvision and then MediaChannel. His analysis of the Iraq war and its media coverage is informed, cogent, and completely redundant. It adds almost nothing to such anti-war polemics as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Uncovered: The War on Iraq.
A smart guy with negligible artistic flair, Schechter opens WMD as a parody of Apocalypse Now, complete with a spinning ceiling fan and Jim Morrison’s intoning, “This is the end.” It’s a terrible idea that fortunately doesn’t last every long, but what comes next isn’t much better. After offering Vietnam War correspondents as an ideal of journalistic independence, the film shows how the Pentagon managed the news from both Gulf Wars, and how the media took happily to being “embedded” in the propaganda machine. Later, the Jessica Lynch affair; the dearth of Iraqi chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons; and the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib caused mild outbreaks of remorse. But these came too late, and they didn’t cause most news organizations to become fundamentally more skeptical of the administration. (Nor has an example too recent for Schechter’s film: After the assault on Fallujah, the American mass media reported that the Iraqi “insurgency” was smashed. Barely a week later, the U.S. Embassy banned its employees from using the road to Baghdad’s airport. It seems somebody’s still out there, acting rather insurgent.)
Schechter glances on a few interesting aspects of the war coverage, but they’re mostly minor or fragmentary: There was a full-time “best of the bombs” channel on satellite feed for producers who craved nifty explosions, one of the Pentagon propaganda ministers had previously managed the “spontaneous” demonstrations against the 2000 Florida recount, and CNN ran different reports for domestic and foreign viewers.
How were they different? The movie doesn’t actually say—which is typical of its scattershot approach. Maybe all the pertinent details are in the book, but WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception is an uncompelling teaser. It’s a film most Kerry voters could construct in their own minds, without any aid from a professional media dissector.CP