Sunday, April 7, 2013

Jean-Luc Godard's "Notre Musique"

Last night, I watched a film directed by Jean-Luc Godard called "Notre Musique" (Our Music) with my friend Steve Elkins, who is an award-winning filmmaker himself.  For a while, Steve has been telling me that Godard is way more than the "French New Wave" guy.  Godard's most famous film is "Breathless," and that is usually one of the only films people know him for.  Steve told me that Godard has been making films almost every year since "Breathless" and that his journey as a filmmaker transcends the confines of 1960s French New Wave cinema.

Godard's film "Notre Musique" was released in 2004, at the height of the Iraq War.  It's a moving hybrid of documentary, drama, journalism, history, music, and poetry on the theme of war.  One of the main reasons Godard's post-Breathless films are not widely known is because they challenge our notions of what a movie is.  Rather than being linear narratives with a clearly-defined plot, films like "Notre Musique" are experimental, abstract collages packed with information and ideas.  The film forces the viewer to think critically, to internally make sense of al the fragmented parts, and this is difficult.

People tend to go to movies for escape or fantasy, to turn our brains off.  Godard's films give us just the opposite.  "Notre Musique" is difficult, but like a work of great literature or art, it is not interested in being easy.  It is interested in challenging the audience to do the hard work of thinking for ourselves.

"Notre Musique" has a three-part structure, loosely based on Dante's Divine Comedy.  Part I: Inferno (Hell) is a collage of film footage of war, spanning several decades and continents.  Inter-spliced with real film footage are scenes from war movies.  The overall effect of this fragmented collage is to show that war is a global/historical human problem.  One thing Godard does throughout the film is draw parallels across times and places, to show the interconnectedness of human societies and individuals.

Part II: Purgatory is, by far, the longest part and comprises the bulk of the film.  I could relate to this because a few years ago, I self-published and released a memoir of my 20s called An American Comedy, which also used Dante's three-part structure.  The longest part of my book is also Purgatory.  Hell and Paradise are almost book-ends for the lengthy waiting room of suffering and reflection that is symbolized in Dante's epic by the slow struggle up the mountain of Purgatory.  Along his journey, the main character (the poet) wrestles with the past and tries to atone for and understand the trauma that brought him to where he is.

As a character in Godard's film says, "Violence leaves a deep scar."  The characters in Purgatory are poets and intellectuals often sitting or standing in various places (an airport terminal, a ruined library, a destroyed bridge) waiting, thinking, discussing, and creating.  The film shows the necessity of this slow and painful process of reflection to deal with and understand the bewildering traumas of the past.  

One of the most powerful scenes in the film takes place in a bombed-out library in Sarajevo, a place where thousands of books (and humans) were burned and destroyed in the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s.  A lonely man sits at a table, flipping through a book.  Another man stands near a pile of discarded books.  One character says, "Humane people don't start revolutions.  They start libraries."  Godard (who is now in his 80s and has made dozens of films)  brings a lifetime of literature, film, and music knowledge into his films.  The movie is packed with quotes from great works of literature.  What we need, in the aftermath of such destruction and trauma, are books and writers "to clarify our memories."  The only way forward is to truly understand the past, and Godard's characters spend much of the film trying to do that.  

I could relate to this notion of trying to clarify the past.  For the past couple years, I have been working on researching and writing a local history of my hometown of Fullerton, California, USA.  Fullerton has a tragic history involving racism and segregation; however, like the post New-Wave films of Godard, most people don't know about these things (Or, if they do, they don't know how to make sense of them, so they choose not to deal with them).  One theme of Godard's film is the necessity of memory in the process of healing.

The final section of "Notre Musique" is Paradise (Heaven).  Like Hell, it is quite short compared to Purgatory.  It's sort of a closing book-end.  Paradise involves a young woman named Olga who was killed in a movie theater and is now in "heaven," which is an island guarded by fences and U.S. soldiers.  It is an unsettling and fucked-up sort of paradise, as it is detached from the outside world.  When you cut yourself off from the world, you may get safety, but you also get a very isolated, lonely, and empty place.  The film urges us to not wait for some otherworldly paradise, but to engage with this real world, with all its trauma and pain.  In my own life journey, I have learned that the only way to move forward and to escape the cycle of suffering is to plunge in head-first, to do the difficult (but necessary) work of trying to understand it, and to let that understanding transform who I am and how I live in this world.


  1. Luciana McCarvilleJuly 9, 2013 at 5:35 AM

    I must say that this one is the result of great creativity. Also useful, plus cost is also less for this.

    Best regards,

    Luciana McCarville

  2. “Our Music” by Jean-Luc Godard (2004) is simultaneously, a documentary and fiction-film (where fictional part keeps the “ascetic”/essential acting and where both parts follow Godard’s cinemagodarfically dense and intense montage). It is documentary in its representation of the typical characters of our times - the oblivious, though the suffering majority – those who just live through periods of happy forgetfulness and moments of grieving about their personal deprivations and traumas, with the hope that the next episode of historical violence (created by human indiscretion, frustration and megalomania) or unlucky occasions of accidents will somehow spare them. And it is a fictional film in its depiction of exceptional characters (those who play themselves without any proud awareness of their exceptionality, or played by actors without any self-admiring imposition on the viewers’ perception). The second category of human beings (addressed as fictional characters) are those who are awakened from the engulfing philistine dream of being naïve consumers of life, those whose compassion towards human suffering and concern for the destiny of humankind made them alert to how anomalous human life in today’ societies is and how tragically stupid we are in our passivity of carrying load of our greed and hubris as our banner in rivaling with others. These are those who are trying to do something to help to change the human historical habits and societal life. These critical minds and empathic and compassionate souls Godard classifies as two types of people which can be named as angelic humans and human angels in the most “prosaic” sense of these terms divorcing them from their mythological connotations. In spite of Godard’s self-impersonation as person with a genuine humility (as he is in life and, most obviously so, in his later years), we cannot help but to recognize him as belonging to the one of these two categories of special people in whom we cannot find neither frivolity nor vanity because of spiritual seriousness of their critical dedication to life and because they are able to overcome the very axiom of the difference between private and public, an axiom based on our deep narcissistic desire for being distinguished among others – bigger and taller than others. Godard’s images of angelic humans and human angels don’t mean seeing them as superhuman beings, but conversely, as more human (more human in their ordinariness) than people who can be rude and even vulgar in their primitive pretentiousness. They are people whose humanity is awakened by the general lot of human suffering and by their understanding that continuation of human intolerance of otherness expressed in our proclivity to manipulate and exploit each other and nature, can have fatal consequences for the destiny of humanity. It is this understanding that made them more self-reflectively alert, more conscious about the shortcomings of the human race. Godard’s “Our Music” is about life of everybody and about the necessity to change it in order to save us and our planet. It is a film about human soul trying to stay alive, and a planetary film of our present and future. The absence, in this film, of enemies personified is very important – there is no place for hate and there are no human beings to scapegoat. “Our Music” is an education without educating – disinterested and universal. It is dedicated to everybody who lived, lives and will be living in this world.
    By Victor Enyutin