I just tried to get through the “partial commentary” by Christian Science Monitor scribe (and Godard author) David Sterritt for Jean Luc Godard’s anti-war satire, Les Carabiners and had to turn it off in disgust as he kept lecturing me that the Godard was employing Brechtian shock tactics to stop us from identifying with the narrative onscreen lest we forget for a minute that war is bad. It couldn’t have been a creative way to use a low budget, or how to make and edit a film in 20 days, or war can be fun in a sicko way, ala Dr. Strangelove, NO! It had to be Sterritt teaching us, the students, that Godard was teaching us, the audience, that war is bad. Bad! Bad! Bad!
It seems to escape this guy’s attention that Brechtian post modernism can be fun and work as a nifty trick of fourth wall breeching for its own weird sake? I personally enjoyed Les Carabiniers as a nouvelle vague version of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, another war satire completely rejected by the public and critics at the time of its release. But where Soup has since been hailed as a comedic masterwork, Les Carabiniers is dumped into this shock corridor where one isn’t allowed to enjoy the carnage depicted onscreen due to its artificiality, as opposed to because of it.
With no way to enjoy the movie then, it’s fallen by the wayside for all but the diehard Godardian. Why do I feel that with the right commentary, this film might be recognized as a masterwork along the comic-apocalypse lines of Dr. Strangelove?
I haven’t read much by Sterritt, but from the commentary, I fear he is one of those film professors for whom important and fun are mutually exclusive…and who cannot imagine love of cinema going hand in hand with satire of cinema, or that an anti-war film can succeed with a straight face as a pro-war film… or that a film-going audience is capable of loving and hating a film at the same time (how many of us feel about, say, Cat Women of the Moon or Showgirls) and that the stodgy deserves ridicule simply for being stodgy.
Part of this trouble I believe lies with the vanguard cinema studies professors. Bloodied from their battles with musty-tweeded literature professors over the worthiness of “pop culture” as a field of study, they seek to deaden the levity of their material, assuming that dourness and authority go hand in hand.
Cinema writers who are deep and entertaining at the same time–Robin Wood, Kim Newman, etc. tend to be British. The French have their own problems but, like Godard, are funny intrinsically (as long as they don’t try to be, in other words, as long as they keep it deadpan). It seems to be endemic to the U.S., that most intellectually insecure of nations, to mistake earnestness with importance. To paraphrase Randy Newman, if Mark Twain were alive today, he’d be rolling around in his grave!
The flaw of Sterritt’s reasoning behind Godard’s penchant for Brechtian devices can actually be uncovered in Godard’s own praise of the low budget gangster pictures of PRC and Monogram Studios in the 1940s and 1950s. Recycling action scenes from silent films, utilizing back projection and filming outdoor scenes mainly on barren studio parking lots, these films achieved “accidental Brechtianism” in that their artificiality was not an intentional device but practical. A genius like Edgar Ulmer could put the practical to poetic use, but didn’t need a pedagogical framework in which to do it, the Brechtian “meaning” came through on its own, without any need for a yellow highlighter, for its own sake. Godard has always understood that Brechtianism doesn’t need a reason for existing, any more than oil needs a reason for being in paint.
Like Ulmer, Godard makes limitations work for him, and though there’s intellectual intentions backing Godard’s spontaneity, there’s also playfulness and deadpan wit of the first order, a satirical edge so razor sharp and clever that one can perhaps understand it better by watching old Monogram Bela Lugosi movies instead of going to grad school.