Outside writing in: Kyle Szarzynski on ‘Tout va bien’

For the inaugural installment of Outside writing in, a series of über-exclusive guest contributions from writers living right here in Madison, I present to you a piece worthy of genuine enthusiasm: a short essay by fellow Daily Cardinal writer Kyle Szarzynski on one of Jean-Luc Godard’s signature films, 1972’s Tout va bien.

Szarzynski’s analysis of Tout va bien focuses on the profoundly overdetermined historical and political dimensions of the film, which many critics and scholars consider to be among Godard’s most radical and infuriating provocations. I think Szarzynski has hit on a lot of stuff here that more formally-oriented treatments of Tout va bien tend, à la Wittgenstein, to pass over in silence. For what it’s worth, Tout va bien can be viewed for free at the Memorial Library Media Center (though if you’ve never used the word ‘fascist’ in casual conversation as a pejorative, you may not have much fun watching it, which would be a shame, because the film is, without question, a remarkable work of cinematic modernism).  Oh, and while I’m at it, Kyle’s column from the latest issue of the Daily Cardinal can be accessed right here. Anyway, enough of me:

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by Kyle Szarzynski

“One could say the aim of this film is to fight for those who want change—and in particular for the core element, which is the exploited, the oppressed—represented in France by the men and women of the working class.”

-Jean-Luc Godard, 1972

I finally watched Jean-Luc Godard’s 1972 classic, Tout va bien (Everything is Alright), a film joyously recommended to me by ultra-rationalistic leftists and unquenchable film drinkers alike. With this in mind, perhaps the film’s premier achievement is its implicit yet lucid endorsement of a political agenda while staying true to the aesthetic merits of film. Commonly cited as the most important of Godard’s “revolutionary films,” Tout va bien is tendentious, but not in the same sense as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; it is not simply a fictitious calling for revolution, a crude artistic substitute for a political pamphlet. As Godard states in the same 1972 interview cited above, “We wanted to tell the same old story, but in a different way.” The result is as entertaining as it is inspiring as it is profound.

The events of May 1968 lurk beneath the tumultuous waters of Tout va bien, occasionally bursting into the air; in various modes, it is omnipresent. Indeed, the film is a reaction to those decisive happenings that, at the time of the film, occurred just four years earlier.

The Paris May—a student-worker rebellion that forced De Gaulle to flee to West Germany and nearly toppled the government—was undoubtedly the most potent expression of the upheavals of the New Left that grew up in the 60‘s. Ten million people, or 2/3 of the French work force, went on strike; students shut down their universities; barricades were erected in the streets; nightly battles with police were the temporary norm. The force behind these actions was revolutionary, but not just in the crusty, Stalinist, “old left” sort of way. What so many people were objecting to was not just the obvious forms of injustice, but the staleness of life under modern, consumer-oriented capitalism—a system in which physical needs could (mostly) finally be met, but in which life was deemed insipid, suffocating, etc. The slogans, shouted in marches and written on walls, of the period—clever, terse and inspiring (as all good slogans are)—tell it better than I ever could. They express an absolute rejection of class-based, profit-driven society, just as they express an absolute rejection of the type of struggle traditionally waged by the establishment left:

We don’t want a world where the guarantee of not dying of starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom.

Let’s not change bosses, let’s change life.

Politics is in the streets.

Workers of all countries, enjoy!

Since 1936 I have fought for wage increases.
My father before me fought for wage increases.
Now I have a TV, a fridge, a Volkswagen.
Yet my whole life has been a drag.
Don’t negotiate with the bosses. Abolish them.

Stalinists, your children are with us!

We refuse to be highrised, diplomaed, licensed, inventoried, registered, indoctrinated, suburbanized, sermonized, beaten, telemanipulated, gassed, booked.

The most beautiful sculpture is a paving stone thrown at a cop’s head.

Be realistic, demand the impossible.

I suspect God of being a leftist intellectual.

Commodities are the opium of the people.

(Even if you’re not a giddy lefty like myself, I’d suggest taking a look at more of these slogans by clicking on the above link. If nothing else, you’re bound to find them amusing.)

It was this type of politics—a politics of spontaneity, youth, irony, unbridled freedom—that Godard champions in his film. It stars newly radicalized American actress Jane Fonda as an American political reporter working in Paris, while her French filmmaker husband is played by Yves Montand, also a frequenter of the cosmopolitan radical scene. (Who but leftists like they could really capture their parts in a film like this?) While fortuitously reporting on an “indefinite strike” in a sausage factory in May 1972, the pair ends up staying with the workers for a while as they occupy their workplace, specifically in the office of the imprisoned plant manager. During their stay, they first interview the manager (a ridiculous character who champions liberal capitalism), then the shop steward of the Communist-dominated CGT union (who condemns the wildcat strike as “irresponsible”) and, finally, the workers themselves (who deride their workplace conditions, role in the system and union representatives who supposedly represent their interests). These and other non-diegetic inserts are decisive in capturing the spirit of the “interviewed” characters.

As the opening narration states, since 1968, “Beneath a calm surface, everything is changing.” But is it? Fonda and Montand’s characters reveal themselves as the film progresses, especially as we see them in their respective workplaces. Montand, playing a has been New Wave screenwriter, has resorted to making commercials, justifying it as “more honest” than pretending to create meaningful art under current conditions; Fonda is equally frustrated by an inaccessible creativity—the company she works for refuses to print most of her left-leaning articles. Later, they have something of a quarrel, an occurrence, we are informed, which “happens every few months.” Though both are impacted by the strike, neither is seriously radicalized as one would expect them to be. Commercial society, the source of their woes, was still intact, even if shaken; a reflexive rebellion would require much naiveté. Even with his enthusiastic endorsement of May ‘68 and its legacy, Godard is sober enough to acknowledge the disappointing reality, one that was just becoming clear as he made Tout va bien: 1968 was the culmination, not—as so many believed at the time—the incipience, of a movement.

Regardless, the concluding sequences of the film offer unabashed applause for the New Left; Godard leaves us with realistic, not disillusioning, conclusions—or perhaps they are just muddled. In one scene, the strikers are brutally attacked by police, charging on the workers with clubs and tear gas. Many workers fight back, risking so much for a cause that–as Godard makes clear time and again—is up against so much. Later, a 9-minute long take horizontally travels past a dozen or two cashiers in a grocery store from which Fonda is reporting, customers unloading their countless cans and vegetables as they are rung up on the conveyor belt. The concept and cinematography produce a remarkably penetrating critique of consumer culture—namely, the conformity it creates, the stupidity of buying and selling, the dullness of the process. The scene would have warmed the hearts of Marcuse and his fellow Frankfurt School theorists. As the camera travels back to its starting point, a loud group of young anarchist types create mayhem in the store, pushing customers away from the check-out lines and toward the door while shouting, “Everything is free!” As the police enter and begin their assault, their chant changes: “Cops, bosses, murderers!” The olive in this martini of a scene is a middle-aged Communist hack trying to sell party literature (on sale for 4.75 francs!) to oblivious customers behind the cashiers—he, a representative of the reformist left, is a thoroughly integrated element of the system.

In this thoroughly political film, Godard ends up telling a predictable tale; indeed, I can’t conjure up a single thing to which a Paris May participant would have objected. But by wiping away the obscuring dirt of propaganda that harmonizes the modus operandi, Godard exposes the authentic feelings of those suffering and left voiceless by their status. He explores the ever-discordant relationship between the worker and his productive life, the consumer and his purchasing life, the innate barriers to self-actualization in a society in which profit is the dominant value. This is not a film of propaganda; it is a work that recognizes politics as essential to the human experience, the exploration of which is the very basis of art. Props to Godard for this realization.

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