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The Sounds of Revolution: Godard’s ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘British Sounds’

The Sounds of Revolution: Godard’s ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘British Sounds’


+1“Sometimes the class struggle is also the struggle of one image against another image, of one sound against another sound. In a film, this struggle is against images and sounds.”

 – British Sounds


There was something in the air when Jean-Luc Godard took up the political banner of the late 1960s and shifted his filmmaking focus in terms of storytelling style and stories told, and in a general sense of formal reevaluation and reinvention. Always considered something of the enfant terrible of the French Nouvelle Vague, Godard was keen from the start to experiment with the conventional norms of cinematic aesthetics, from the jarring jump cuts of Breathless (1960), to the self-conscious playfulness of A Woman is a Woman (1961), to the genre deviations of Band of Outsiders (1964) and Made in USA (1966). But Godard was still, at a most basic level, operating along a fairly conventional plane of fictional cinema, one with relatively typical characters and generally progressive narratives of beginnings, middles, and ends (“but not necessarily in that order,” as he would clarify).

But then something happened. Not so much eschewing narrative, rather reformatting it, Godard’s work began to change, to more blatantly challenge and provoke; challenging and provoking those looking at his films as films, but also those looking at his films as declarative cultural statements. With this shift in his work, signaled by sociopolitical features like Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966) and confirmed by Weekend (1967), which put the nail in the coffin of this first phase in his filmmaking career, Godard’s output grew ever more experimental and deliberately provocative and esoteric, alienating certai+n factions of his previous audience along the way.

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5So be it. As Godard stated, to make political films, one must make films politically, and with that, bridges would be burnt and expectations would be thwarted. But this was Godard the activist and provocateur as well as the filmmaker. There was a sweeping sense of revolution all over the world, and Godard was in it, of it, manipulating it, and filming it.

If one takes a general survey of Godard’s most memorable filmic moments from 1958 to 1967, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of those moments would be visually based. In other words, it is in many cases the images, or Godard’s treatment of the images, that stand out: those jump cuts; his use of color in Pierrot le fou (1965); the stark, wintery black and white photography of My Life to Live (1962); Anna Karina’s tearstained face as she watches Maria Falconetti act in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); and our band of outsiders doing an impromptu Charleston. Of course, sound (or the lack thereof) is every bit as vital in these films (even in these sequences) but by and large, the auditory usually played second fiddle to Godard’s camera placement, movement, editing, cinematography, etc. This too would change in post-’68 Godard. Now, if not of a possibly greater importance, sound was on an even-keel with his sights.

With these elements in mind—the forging of new politically motivated paths, the continual exploration of bold formal approaches, and a filmic discourse that relied heavily on sound over, or at least in equal accompaniment to, the images—Godard was making revolutionary films in a revolutionary way.

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First stop: England. Though initially considering The Beatles (the project fell through after several meetings and besides, according to Colin MacCabe, John Lennon was suspicious of Godard), The Rolling Stones entered the picture. Godard had early on expressed an appreciative interest in the group, particularly their 1967 psychedelic album “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” Cut to a year later and the Stones are working on “Beggar’s Banquet,” which, aside from containing songs of the moment like “Street Fighting Man” and “Salt of the Earth,” starts with the controversial and brilliantly written antagonistic anthem “Sympathy for the Devil.”

3One Plus One, as Sympathy for the Devil was originally titled, is often now subtitled, and is still considered by Godard purists, captures the gradual orchestration of this opening track, shot over the course of three days, beginning with rough strains of improvisatory inspiration as they meld into a more fully formed creation. As Godard’s camera dollies, pans, and tilts its way through the recording studio, we see the entire Stones crew at work: Mick Jagger, clearly in charge; Keith Richards, too cool for school and erroneously billed as “Keith Richard”; Bill Wyman, hovering around the margins; Charlie Watts, who never looks entirely thrilled to be there; and Brian Jones, who at just 27 would be dead within eight months of the album’s release.

The sequences of Sympathy for the Devil that focus on the Stones, roughly about half the film, which are intercut with those sequences that will soon be discussed, contain the false starts, slip ups, frustrations, struggles, and achievements that inevitably go into most artistic endeavors. Aside from sound being obviously key in the development of a rock song, Godard incorporates an audio editorializing by having the sound randomly focus on specific elements of the song: Keith’s guitar, Mick’s vocals, Charlie’s drums, etc. There isn’t necessarily a rhyme or reason to what gets the attention when, nor is there always a correlation between who happens to be on camera and what sound in heard. This is Godard manipulating the sounds of the Stones as he had with other sounds before and continues to do today, amplifying certain fragments then and others now, often with little to no obvious justification.

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4The other half of Sympathy or the Devil is the more explicitly political and formally demanding portion and was shot a few weeks after these studio sequences. This assortment of segments features an eclectic and uneven mix of episodic vignettes. Anne Wiazemsky sprays discordant graffiti on city surfaces and turns up in the woods as Eve Democracy, the film’s producer, Iain Quarrier, whom Godard would later punch in the face following disputes about the film’s title and its conclusion, is a “fascist porno book seller,” and Black Power militant Frankie Dymon, as himself, is joined in a junk yard by likeminded comrades in arms. Over some of this, or dropped in as the scenes transition, we hear Sean Lynch providing commentary by way of a text that includes political, sexual, and violent references to Richard Nixon, Che Guevara, Ben Barka, Trotskyites, Lolita, Francisco Franco, General Walt Disney, and others.

The audio/visual assemblage of these sequences is fascinating if not always coherent or interesting. The first primary chapter features Dymon and other heavily armed black revolutionaries as they roam amongst, on, and even in the broken down shells of dilapidated vehicles behind a garage. In this junk yard, a Godardian set piece if ever there was one, several of the men recite from texts by Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Baraka, and Stokely Carmichael, either simply aloud or repeated into a tape recorder, preaching and preserving the respective sentiments. This includes passages proclaiming a need to “concentrate on the main enemy” to others touting the smooth skin and softness of white women.

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Alongside these extracts, Godard’s additional audio or visual accompaniment is often ironic or upsetting to the perceived verbal focus. As we hear the call to militant arms, the men’s voices are frequently drowned out by the real world sounds of nearby car horns, passing ships, or planes flying overhead; there are additionally times when Lynch’s voiceover also interrupts the recitations. As these slogans of revolution are proclaimed or usurped, we are urged to assume one of two things: first, when a passage is clearly audible, by that fact we should presume its importance (why else would Godard make it so comparatively comprehensible?); and second, when the sounds of the everyday world going about its business come in over the readings, we then question the text’s significance (it must not have been too important to hear). Taken together, Godard seems to be providing a contradictory commentary about the meaning and potency of these black power passages as they are highlighted and confronted.

6No less aurally distinctive is the sequence with Wiazemsky as Eve Democracy. This segment follows a film crew as they ask Eve an assortment of questions about culture, drug use, sexuality, and politics. To each question, Eve answers only “yes” or “no,” a simplistic response to these dense and complex questions, again an ironic verbal contrast on Godard’s part: “A man of culture is as far from an artist as a historian is from a man of action.” “Yes.” “There is only one way to be an intellectual revolutionary and that is to give up being an intellectual.” “Yes.” (Richard Brody points out that Wiazemsky spoke no English, so Godard just cued her “yes” or “no.”) And like in the junk yard scene, amongst the beautiful green foliage of the forest even these sounds of social proclamation are occasionally compromised by the aurally overpowering natural songs of birds chirping.

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The third key non-Rolling Stones sequence takes place in a bookstore with an amusingly diverse inventory that includes everything from “Playboy” and “Penthouse” to “Justice League America” comic books, “Wrestling Illustrated,” “Motorcycle Mechanic,” “Complete Man,” and assorted sexually suggestive novels. Amidst magazine covers touting bawdy tales and crime stories, Quarrier reads from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” As the black power readings earlier leave one less than convinced of their polemic power due to Godard’s constant aural interruptions, the sections from “Mein Kampf” are similarly diminished in their influence by, on the one hand, Quarrier’s rambling presentation, and, on the other, the more dominant visual incorporation of tantalizing, comical, and tawdry magazines, which Godard’s camera continually hovers over.

The final segment of the film brings us back amongst the broken down cars as two African American women are interviewing the ostensible leaders of this revolutionary group. Spoken topics covered span the link between communism and Black Power, the oppression of the black populace in urban ghettos, and how Black Power will lead to political and economic gains. Most prescient in terms of this analysis is the stated hindrance of the communication barrier between classes and races: “Although we speak the same words, we are speaking completely different languages.” This then is something of a rarely overt proclamation of Godard’s own verbal preoccupations, especially as this film is concerned.

Through all of this, Lynch’s text and the Rolling Stones’ music come in and out of the soundtrack. But by the film’s end, “Sympathy for the Devil” as an organized song begins to take shape. When we return to the Stones during the final stages of the song’s completion, there is an evident cohesion of the tune’s disparate elements. Contrast this with the incongruous juxtaposition of political verbiage and ambiguous imagery in the film’s political segments. A little more than an hour into the picture, some of the political narration comes in over the Stones, but it seems to have trouble competing with the band as they hit their groove. Also as the song nears completion, we hear the isolation of vocals, drums, etc., all prior to the final mix. Here the similarity to the political vignettes is also obvious, as through the incorporation and dissemination of disparate sounds, Godard makes clear that context is everything, that any sound out of its unifying whole is perceived to be odd or incomplete, just as the reoccurring spoken texts are more or less vital given their surrounding accompaniments.

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Though we do hear the completed version of “Sympathy for the Devil” at the end of the movie, this was not by Godard’s design and was done very much against his will. To Godard, the completed song signified a conclusion to the film’s political commentary as well, something he insisted was still a work in progress. “Sympathy for the Devil” should remain unfinished, just as the plight of the socially and economically repressed remains unresolved. Still, during this concluding scene, which has a general disarray of action, the multiple tracks of sound seem appropriate given the rest of the film’s complex nature. And as Richard Roud summarizes, “One knew how important the soundtrack was to Godard’s films, but One Plus One proves it is primordial.”

British Sounds 1970 - 2Two years after Sympathy for the Devil, Godard, now fully ensconced in the political climate of the era, returned to England to make an even more revolutionary and formally audacious film. Shot on 16mm at the behest of London Weekend Television (which turned down and later disowned the film) British Sounds, or See You at Mao (1970), is also divided into distinct segments, beginning with a tracking shot that spans a considerable length of a MG assembly line at the British Motor Car Factory in Oxford. In shooting this, Godard retains the realistic surrounding sounds of the industrial force. Aurally alongside the grinding, grating, pounding machinery is a voice reciting passages from “The Communist Manifesto.” The inclusion of the ear-splitting factory sounds was done, according to Godard, to stress his point that while audiences decry the harsh noise for its 10 minutes of screen time, the workers who toil away in such a factory are exposed to the unremitting cacophony for eight hours a day. Point well taken. The inclusion of the Marx/Engels text, which preaches against economic disparities, suggests the working class is slave to machines and overseers, and warns against the exploitation of wage labor, is clearly the more obvious auditory message. Taken together, these two sounds work in an odd unison where we actually see a type of labor discussed in the “Manifesto” put into practice as a sort of illustrated thesis. During this opening portion, we are also introduced to another audio theme that will last through the entire film. An older man (later a woman) reads a history of authoritarian abuse and worker difficulties to a young girl, who then repeats the text.

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The second part of British Sounds takes leave from a broad appeal for working class rights and hones in on the concerns of women. A feminist text by Sheila Rowbotham rails against the exploitation of women, who when also workers are amongst the “exploited of the exploited,” while we see a totally nude young lady walk up and down stairs and enter in and out of two rooms. Here is a most perplexing form of audio/visual contrast or conflict on Godard’s part. While the text condemns blanket stereotypes and the objectification of women, we see the nonchalant objectification of women, the camera even at one point lingering on her pubic region (“Conceal your sex!” sounds out a male voice). Of course, every serious Godard scholar is quick to point out the non-titillating fashion with which the nudity is shown, but it’s still a curious decision. And when we see the woman on the phone, echoing the voiceover narration, the impression is that she is merely parroting the lines, repeating what she is told, not necessarily thinking for herself, which seems to go against the point of the segment.

Godard next includes black and white footage of a man spouting out statements in sharp contrast to the sentiments of the film so far. As an obvious counterpoint to the leftist proclamations in the first two sections, this astonishingly crass individual spews his extreme points of view regarding youth needing to “play their part in industry,” criticisms of students and worker ideology, and grumbling about “communist rabble” and Vietnam detractors. Most shocking are statements like, “Sometimes it’s necessary to burn women and children” and “We don’t like colored people, and I’ll tell you why.” Such profoundly offensive declarations are visually paired with either the man himself or insertions of printed text, everyday workers, or families.

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The constrictive fourth segment of the film has a group of men sitting in close proximity around a table discussing business strategy and effective modes of production, while also recognizing the physical and mental toil that factory labor has on the workers. Though these men speak like management, they also note the need for a “political party committed to Marxism and capitalism” and they are quick to profess the need of both millionaires and those in poverty in order for capitalism to exist. This least interesting (visually) of the chapters appears to try to have it both ways (aurally), with little success in either case.

7Following a poster with the words “students sound,” the next part of British Sounds has a group of university students listening to, and then revolutionarily rewriting, songs by The Beatles: “Hello, Goodbye” (“You say US, I say Mao”), “Revolution” (is rewriting really necessary?) and “Honey Pie” (“Money Pie”). These members of the Peoples Poster Brigade, as one poster indicates they are, are the youthful alarm of the coming revolution. Though their use of pop music to make their case is another ironic audio choice, they seem earnest in their attempts to take a commodity of popular entertainment and turn it into something politically active. In other words, to quote two of the printed texts that appear in this film, this is the amalgamation of “capital sounds” and “militant sounds.”

British Sounds concludes with two short scenes. The first features a bloodied arm making its way through the snow-covered ground toward a red flag, the second a barrage of voices and songs played over a montage of fists bursting through the Union Jack with appeals for solidarity. Throughout the film, the overlap of words makes for some challenging listening, with, like in Sympathy for the Devil, the assumption is that what is heard most audibly must by that fact carry some weight. To this effect, we get calls for the “abolition of the wage system” and statements that tie in nicely to this analysis, like “speech is the expression of power.” “It was the sound,” argues Richard Brody, “not the image, that mattered, because the sound carried the lecture, the doctrine, or rather, the indoctrination.”

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2In their conglomeration of multiple voices sounding off on everything from communism to orgasm, from Kennedy to Vietnam, Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, or One Plus One, and British Sounds, or See You at Mao, are prime examples of the filmmaker’s ever expanding use of sound in film, as an artistic tool and as a propagandist instrument. According to Penelope Gilliatt, Godard wanted to “pound people with language.” “Even these raw first works of a new stage that is now tough going seem likely in the end to reach the ears of people out of sympathy with [Godard’s] radical politics,” she writes, “not because of the yelling powers of polemics but because of the carrying powers of a poet’s voice.”

That poet’s voice continues to be heard, and over the course of the 40-plus years since these two films, it has been heard in ever-varying modes of expression. It is little wonder that when Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville started a video production and distribution company in 1972 they dubbed the enterprise “Sonimage,” and it’s no surprise that some of his more recent films of astonishing visual flourish bare the aurally evocative titles For Ever Mozart (1996), Our Music (2004), and Farewell to Language (2014). Godard remains as adamant as ever to explore the integration and juxtaposition of the visual and the aural, getting down to the most fundamental features of motion picture art, commerce, entertainment, and politics.