The best reason to see the political-movie retrospective titled “Dziga Vertov Group,” now at New York’s Metrograph Cinema, is that it offers an opportunity to grasp the puzzling romance with revolution evident in Millennial youth culture’s embrace of Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and Bill de Blasio’s soak-the-rich rhetoric. The films on view show that infatuation with revolution probably comes from the sentimentality inherent in leftist political fashion.
Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard accepted that fashionable romance and its rhetoric when he formed the Dziga Vertov Group in 1968 after a decade of dazzlingly inventive films (such as Breathless and Contempt) that he, the son of a Swiss doctor, eventually came to see as “bourgeois.” Fifty years later, these DVG films can be seen as artifacts of youth-oriented radicalism, and their politics are uniquely, deeply shallow.
Godard began the filmmaking collective, encouraged by polemicist Jean-Pierre Gorin, to follow the model of Bertolt Brecht’s didactic “epic” theater. But with cinema in his soul, Godard named his confreres after Dziga Vertov, the Soviet filmmaker best known for Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which spun documentary segments on workaday life into delirious montage. The six Dziga Vertov Group films, made between 1968 and 1972, offered a montage of documentary, lecture, and play-acting artifice. Their subjects were labor, imperialism, the Vietnam War, Maoism, Marxism, women’s liberation, black liberation, Palestinian liberation, media, and celebrity. The Group’s best-known film is Letter to Jane, a 52-minute critique of Jane Fonda’s political activism. Metrograph is showing them all plus two other related Godard features.
This clash of political topics and cinematic methods reveal Godard’s earnestness. His momentary desperation to be both relevant and youthful after the unrest of May 1968 (arguably the low point of his glorious career) happens to reflect contemporary political confusion — and that makes the “Dziga Vertov Group” retrospective matter.
Today’s meme-quoting and retweeting youth emulate activism without the motivation or experience of Godard and Gorin. Egged on by Marxist professors and shameless media, they repeat the Dziga Vertov Group’s misguided fervor but without the awareness, wit, or commitment. Those qualities (ignored in mainstream media’s fawning mentions of “activism”) are essential to understanding how political engagement such as Godard’s also held on to qualities of humane empathy, passion, and ethics — all missing from current protests. In Vladimir and Rosa (about an activist couple named to romantically invoke Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg), a militant opens a vein and in a surrealist jest uses the flow of acrylic to paint a protest sign.
Godard’s brainy yet open-hearted aesthetics helped improve pop culture for my generation. (See his early politicized films Le Petit Soldat, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and La Chinoise, which combined personal feeling with social observation.) He’s why some of us notice — and cannot accept — the single-minded dishonesty of today’s media as it relentlessly manipulates youthful political attitudes.
The Dziga Vertov Group’s bias was up-front and unabashed; it therefore remains completely transparent, unlike today’s right-side-of-history media-makers.
The Dziga Vertov films contrast the disingenuousness of documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth, Citizenfour, I Am Not Your Negro, and The Thirteenth. All these movies either prevaricate about political events or present past radicalism nostalgically, as if to make direct parallels to modern times and encourage insipid self-righteousness among poorly informed youths. The young title characters in Vladimir and Rosa derive from the ingenuous radicals of Godard’s Masculin-Féminin and La Chinoise, whose glamour and innocence have turned vengeful.
The Dziga Vertov Group’s bias was up-front and unabashed; it therefore remains completely transparent, unlike today’s right-side-of-history media-makers. A friend recently complained about Godard’s bygone political bias as if it were news. But while watching those films today, one appreciates their candid political commitment that fearlessly goes too far. In British Sounds, the overlapping of Marxist rhetoric, common-man frustration, and historical propaganda (a workers’ meeting interspersed with both right- and left-wing propaganda) is head-spinning. There’s more going on here than simple radical rhetoric. We overhear an obedient child’s indoctrination by adults through rote repetition, a sequence that amazingly explains the contemporary “radicalization” that today’s media will not dare admit.
In these films, there’s no hiding behind phony intellectual defense and elitism. Godard and Gorin shed their own egos and reveal their pretenses and flaws — in the name of honest politicization and art. Indeed, it is charming to see Gorin and Godard dressed, respectively, as a judge and a cop, barely keeping straight faces, In Vladimir and Rosa, their dialectic during a tony tennis game (a parody of Antonioni’s Blow-Up?) also parodies the political filmmaking process — vanity exposed yet defiant in the face of bourgeois indifference. Their ball-tossing recitation anticipates Scritti Politti’s astonishing 1982 track “Lions After Slumber,” pop art that transcends its own political basis — playful brilliance.
What contemporary American filmmakers claim as political awareness is merely the sentimentalized (often hostile) received ideas of the previous regime. Egotism and moral superiority (the high ground) take the place of real risk and effort and commitment. But Godard, even when part of a collective, responded to the world (the clash of ideologies and rhetoric) as an artist who feels through images, not as a moralizing scold. Each Dziga Vertov film is a theory-vs.-practice caprice.
In British Sounds, the searing whirr of machinery, drills, hammering, and workers’ talk during a ten-minute tracking shot at an MG British Motor Works plant is brilliant. The sensory impact of the Communist Manifesto voiceover is not inspiring but alarming: “In bourgeois society, the past dominates the present; in Communist society, the present dominates the past.” The film ends with a power fist bursting through Union Jack. (“We want a revolution, now!”) Yet we now understand that a propaganda struggle such as this is not being waged by students or workers but by a media elite whose arrogance makes them pompous — enemies of anyone who does not agree with them.
Godard gained pith with multimedia (sound and image), but this version of collage isn’t good enough — it’s sufficient for his genius but not worthy of his talent. Godard’s urge to communicate (make art) was greater than his urge to propagandize; he didn’t misuse his education or his civility. He graduated from Dziga Vertov Group to make more spiritually and visually impressive films (Detective; Nouvelle Vague; Oh, Woe Is Me; In Praise of Love; Goodbye to Language).
Through Godard’s visual poetry, the Dziga Vertov Group films reveal the romance of revolution, and Communism is confronted (as it is not by Bernie Sanders’s followers) and then implicitly, instinctually, and artistically dismissed.