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Tony Grist

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Sympathy For The Devil [Jan. 10th, 2009|10:31 am]
Tony Grist

Sympathy for the Devil is an annoying movie. But then, it's meant to be annoying. Jean-Luc Godard- on the cusp of his even more annoying Maoist phase- really didn't give a fuck what the producers or the bourgeois cinema-going public wanted. It's curious- well, sadly funny-  that the more he tried to connect with the oppressed masses the more he found himself in an empty room talking to the walls and the ceilings.

Anyway, Sympathy for the Devil is nominally about the Rolling Stones. It was a commissioned work. Godard originally wanted to work with the Beatles (envisaging a Trotsky biopic starring John Lennon) but settled on the Stones when Lennon (what a pity) said no. We see them in the studio rehearsing the title song. The camera dollies round them and the takes go on and on and on.  We're eavesdropping- and there's a certain fascination in that. This is how musicians chill. And is that Lennon (after all) crouching by the upright piano, writing something in a notebook? Could be. Probably not.

Dotted in amongst the studio footage are certain equally lengthy, absurdist, political sketches. A character called Eve Democracy wanders through woodland pursued by a film crew and an interviewer who asks her questions- about the revolution, Vietnam and political theory- to all of which she answers either "no" or "yes". Eve is Anne Wiazemsky who played the kiddie in Au Hasard Balthasar and who, at this stage of her career, was newly married to Godard.  An in-joke- which adds another, extra-textual layer of meaning - is that Wiazemsky didn't speak English and was answering the incomprehensible questions according to signals from her husband.  Another sketch takes place in a junkyard, where heavily armed, black men read aloud from the works of Eldridge Cleaver and fondle and murder white, female prisoners.  For long stretches the soundtrack is overlaid by a reading from a porno-pulp narrative in which all the participants have the names of political and cultural celebrities.  The reader has the plummy accents of the great Denholm Eliott , but turns out to be someone called Sean Lynch.

I 'd been watching an earlier programme on Sky Arts and hadn't realised this was coming on- and  I had a letter to write and an article to read about the ghost-hunter Harry Price (a decent and much maligned man, it seems)- so I wasn't giving it my undivided attention. What with all the takes being so long and repetitive I hardly needed to. Still, it wasn't easy to ignore. Godard is important to me. I love the way he freed cinema up- how he left you with the impression that all you needed was a camera and a tape recorder and you could step out onto the street and make a movie that would change the world. Of course, Sympathy for the Devil didn't change anything. And the idea that the Rolling Stones were in any way revolutionary  seems laughable now.  Was Godard taking the piss? I don't suppose he was, given his subsequent career, but time has made the movie more ambiguous than it seemed when new.

It has also turned it (reduced it?) into an historical document.  We are witnessing the last gasp of a consumptive counter-culture.  A black man and a white woman are running along a beach. They have guns, they are being tracked by a film crew. The woman collapses- and an make-up artist applies fake blood. She is bundled onto the platform of a camera crane- which happens to be flying two flags- red for socialism, black for anarchy- and is hoisted up into the sky. And that's the final image- a woman pretending to be dead, a camera, the two- irreconcilable- flags. If you were there you won't remember, so here's an aide-memoire- and if you weren't, this is what it was all about- uplift, violence, sex, confusion, idiocy, death- very much as always.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: currawong
2009-01-12 02:17 am (UTC)
Great song, tedious movie ... Godard (cod-art?) didn't so much make tedium an art-form, he made an art-form tedious.

I did sort of like "Contempt" though, for some reason ...though I can barely remember it, I do remember it as being wonderfully silly.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-01-12 10:26 am (UTC)
Ha, someone finally commented on this post! :)

I was in Switzerland in 1968- with the Paris evenements carrying on off-stage- when I saw my first Godard (which happened to be Weekend). It matched the times. I've been an admirer ever since. He's not exactly my idea of fun, but I take a dose every now and again- and feel invigorated.

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[User Picture]From: currawong
2009-01-12 12:33 pm (UTC)
"Weekend" and "Breathless" were the only other films of his that I knew well ... I rather liked "Weekend" because it was so nuts ...I hated "Breathless" for the director's masturbatory admiration of thugs and murderers ... I reacted the same way to a lot of Genet, for all his literary merit. I guess I should read him again now that I am older.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-01-12 04:42 pm (UTC)
I own a copy of Weekend and watch it periodically. There are extraordinary things in it- most notably that very long tracking shot past the traffic jam.

It's ages since I saw Breathless. I remember finding it dull. I should probably try again. I saw Bande A Part fairly recently. I thought that was a lot of fun.
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[User Picture]From: currawong
2009-01-12 10:08 pm (UTC)
That is an amazing shot ... but I am reminded of a quotation from a much more popular film without any arty credentials at all ...in fact the biggest blockbuster in the world ... the quotation is from The Dark Knight, in which a character says, in reference to Heath Ledger's Joker ... "Some people just want to see the world burn" ... I think he could have just as easily been referring to Godard.

I wonder if he finds the world's present sorry state horrifying or rather delightful.
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