“Work isn’t a part of [the laborer’s] life [in a bourgeois/capitalistic system]; it’s a sacrifice of his life, and is sold to the highest bidder.”
“There’s a science of the image. Let’s begin to build it. Here are a few pointers: materialism, dialectics; documentary, fiction; wars of nationalism, people’s war . . .”
See You at Mao, its U.S. title, better suits the British film that Jean-Luc Godard made, assisted by the Groupe Dziga Vertov, than its original title, British Sounds. This is, after all, a forward-looking film that ends with a stunning blast of hope. All that appears of a fallen soldier are his arm and hand as it proceeds across a battlefield until it grasps the red flag of revolutionary struggle, at which point, while a breeze enlivens the flag, the hand expires. Soon after, the flag, held up in the air by an unseen hand in a street demonstration, constitutes a resurrection of the dead soldier’s spirit as the struggle against capitalism continues. But Godard forever being gloriously ambivalent, the flapping flag also reminds us of the soldier’s death, complicating our feelings.
Moving very slowly screen-leftward, the dying soldier’s hand unites the present (and, hence, the future) with the past, the workers’ struggle, and echoes the long, momentous tracking shot inside a British automobile factory, which proceeds screen-rightward, with which the film opens. It is a “dead” shot insofar as it extends the message of wage labor’s plight, its “service” to its employer, its achievement of nothing more than the pittance it is paid for its grinding effort amidst the most god-awful din imaginable. Apart from the profit motive, one of several voiceovers at work in this film notes, all human relationships, between men, between men and women, at work and away from work, have been destroyed by competitiveness. The tracking shot reminds us that Godard is on occasion an ironist. The mise-en-scène is explicitly redundant; as it moves, the camera records the same harsh, alienating labor over and over while at the same time the steady camera movement teases the spectacle into the possibility of some new sight down the line. This is not to be—until, that is, the end and that “disembodied” hand picks up on some many of the film’s “disembodied” voices.
One of these voiceovers is that of a mother (or teacher) instructing her young daughter (or pupil), who repeats the information that the woman provides regarding the history of labor’s struggles in Britain. For instance: “In 1834, workers from Dorcester are shipped into bondage for being members of a trade union.” Throughout, Godard layers sound and image to create a complexity that descends from the Marxist dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis—what Eisenstein adapted for the purposes of his intellectual montage pertaining to, in silent film, the collision of images only. Thus, for example, while we hear this particular snippet of history in the unseen classroom of voiceover, we see, and also hear, a 1969 trade union meeting in progress. The synthesis denotes progress, but the larger context prods us to question whether such progress is real or the illusionary. Godard’s tone may feel very certain; but Godard’s concern is far more restless and unsettled than this tone of his suggests.
But there is certainly one voice in the film about which Godard feels no ambivalence whatsoever. It is the voice of capitalism and bigotry. Someone speaking directly into a television camera says odious things: “Workers have come to expect too much: high wages, short hours, the whole lot.” Meanwhile, this speech is interrupted by an image of men at work at street construction. The commentator continues: “Youth should be trained to play their part in industry. . . . These academic thugs, window-smashers, policeman-baiters . . . send [such] offenders to labor camps” insofar as they are assaulting the authority of British institutions. This creepily ugly, youngish commentator turns to the Vietnam War, the conduct of which he approves: “Sometimes it is necessary to burn women and children, sometimes to torture people, sometimes to cut people open and slice off their breasts . . . Wars are meant to be won by any means possible.” Finally, the chap turns his invective toward non-white immigrants: “They live in filth and suck our social services dry.” The immaculate interior of a posh store—perhaps a jewelry store—interrupts and combines with this nasty talk. The patrons there are white.
What about free speech? Doesn’t this white monster have a right to air his toxic views? A later insight provides some context for us to consider. One of the voiceovers notes how insufficient free speech has proven for the working class. It shuts them up, creating the illusion of freedom because it is not connected to power. It needs to be connected to political power in order to advance the cause, and lives, of workers.
From our vantage, in retrospect, we see (in our mind’s eye) that reactionary man on television morphing into Margaret Thatcher. He is connected to power.
See You at Mao: Wonderful film—although one sometimes feels bombarded.
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