Sunday, October 21, 2007

cardboard paper tigers

In one of the most lovely scenes in Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise, which I gratefully caught a rare screening of tonight at the Film Forum, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Anne Wiazemsky (I think it was her but my memory could be failing me; it could have been Juliet Berto in this scene) share a cup of tea. He comments, apropos nothing in particular, that he wishes they were blind so that they would pay more attention to words, listening and speaking. Somehow the fleeting idea sets off a chain of free word associations back and forth, Leaud and Wiazemsky throwing Maoist buzzwords and catchphrases at each other punctuated by Leaud's "tenderness" and--responding to her paper tiger--"rock..." (a dramatic sip of tea) "..and roll." The moment encapsulates Godard's wonderfully double-edged portrayal of his earnest student heroes: responding with great tenderness to their seriousness of purpose and youthful idealism and at the same time ironically aestheticizing their ideals, placing them in front of overwhelming color fields and confronting them with the deflating faces of older radical politics. It is a movie as much about age and time as it is about social change or group identity. Like so many of the French nouvelle vague movies of the time (like Jacques Rivette's Out 1 or, a latter day reenectment, Philippe Garrel's Les amants reguliers) is partly wonderful is the setting, always the most concerted regency chairs and ornamental wall moldings to appoint the revolution.

Filling the wall panels with chalkboards and painting old window shutters Chinese red, Godard gets this; his main argument is more with time than with culture as the serious worst imperialist. Or he would refuse to make the distinction. (Another key moment has Wiazemsky turning up the radio and staging a romantic breakup with Leaud to teach him the power of keeping multiple ideas in the air at the same time. Multiple fronts.) And yet the tenderness seeps through the ideas, the way in the middle of lexical association Leaud can't help himself from a little of the word. The tension of loving the culture one is sworn (somehow, anyhow) to abolish.

I am reminded of a time when, on a drive through quiet Massachusetts woods last summer, inspired by various online questionaires, Farrah and I played a word association game of our own, throwing random words at each other to see what would pop out of the other's mouth. One of us was supposed to be leading with the word prompts, the other with the telling stream of consciousness. In practice, though, we both thought the other was in the directing role and we were merely following. Then, for maybe twenty captive minutes, we went back and forth with words: response, response, response, swimming further and further along through the language. I learned an actor's exercise in summer camp in which, like Groucho and Harpo and Chico in Duck Soup, two people would mirror each other's gestures across an imaginary midpoint, slowly trading the phenomena of decision until like a ouija no one could tell who was in charge. Is that the real anarchy: no one in charge? Or is it, don't worry: someone is the director, maybe all of us this very minute?--but sorry, no one's saying.

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