Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Sympathy For The Devil

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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