Friday, 20 March 2009

British Sounds

"Photography is not the reflection of reality... it is the reality of the reflection."

Quoted above is one of the many confrontational ideologies at the political and philosophical centre of British Sounds (1970) - the Dziga Vertov Group's lengthy polemic on socialism, feminism, equality and the class struggle, post May 1968 - in which the creative emphasis is placed on a continual conflict between the content and the presentation, illustrated in this instance by the further conflict between the film and the viewer. A film where the particular struggle is created by a continually warring juxtaposition between sound and image; with the drab, straightforward formalism of the filmmaker's sub-documentary style arrangement of the images conflicting with the often avant-garde approach to the soundtrack, which here combines lengthy snippets of dialogue and discussions on the various topical subjects listed above, amidst a continual background cacophony of nondescript sounds, musical tones and electronic textures.

The contrast is most apparent in the first half of the film, in which the filmmakers illustrate the central struggle within the narrative by a lengthy tracking-shot through the MG assembly line at the British Motor Car Company in Cowley, Oxford, wherein a barrage of contradictory sounds seem determined in their attempt to make the experience of viewing the film as dissonant and jarring as possible. However, as the film progresses, the idea of contrast - as one idea discussed on the soundtrack is placed against another idea presented on screen - will eventually reveal itself to be one of the central creative concerns of the film. As one would no doubt expect from such a presentation, British Sounds abandons any obvious notion of character and narrative in the conventional sense, with the film instead structured around six major sequences each presented in a similar approach, in which an uncomplicated visual tableau is set against a complicated soundtrack of ideas and expressions to illustrate and eventually educate the audience on the cultural issues of the day.

In a somewhat similar scenario to Godard's earlier film, Le gai savoir (The Joy of Learning, 1969), British Sounds was originally created for television - in this instance the UK's London Weekend Television (or LWT) - though was never officially broadcast as a result of the unconventional approach of its production and the challenging nature of its ideas. This fact is immediately recognisable from the opening sequences, in which Godard and his collaborator Jean Henri Roger confront us with a prolonged ten-minute track through the process of industrial manufacture, over which we hear various recorded arguments on worker's rights and ethics, a back and forth dialog between an adult and a child (further expressing the idea of education) and excerpts from the Communist manifesto being recited on the soundtrack.

Amidst this confusion the screen is occasionally disrupted by examples of agitprop sloganeering to punctuate the monotony of the images, with call and response statements like "what is work?" and "work is struggle" crudely hand-written in black marker pen to draw the obvious parallels with the student protestors and their home-made placards featured later in the film.

British Sounds directed by the Dziga Vertov Group, 1970:

Le gai savoir directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1969:

This opening sequence is an important one and as a result remains perhaps the most iconic moment in the film. It illustrates the political subtext of the project and the central idea of socialism in action: as the workers toil in the factories, producing cars that they'll never afford, for customers that will never appreciate the work or the craftsmanship that goes into their creation. It also plays on the symbol of the MG itself, of old England, of a certain kind of person and lifestyle that we never see depicted herein, but an idea that is contrasted perfectly by the later sequence in which we witness the workers engaging in a lengthy discussion about their rights in a capitalist society, and how the bourgeoisie, in opposition to a socialist regime, have harvested the power and wealth away from the working class proletarians in order to greater benefit for themselves. The argument presented in this scene, and the conviction and emotion of these people arguing a case for a structure that they believe in, is entirely compelling and no doubt convincing enough to inspire a serious desire on the part of the audience to read more into socialist politics and the subjects at hand.

The opening scene also works on a different level; in illustrating the creative act at its most honest and unpretentious. Like the writing of Sympathy for the Devil in the earlier Godard-directed One Plus One (1968), the tracking shot illustrates the spirit of creation and collaboration as the ultimate metaphor for the politics of the filmmakers and for the dynamics of the film itself; as the images are literally manufactured before our very eyes, documenting the creative process through its various stages until we end on a shot of the final, finished product. It allows us to contemplate the level of work, the creation of this everyday object - the motorcar, something that we so often take for granted - and see the process of work and deliberation that goes into its completion. On a personal level, it also brings to mind the infamous tracking shot in Godard's own masterpiece Week End (1967), establishing the rather perverse idea of where these cars are going, the congestion and confusion, and the image of the MG driven by the lover of Juliet Berto crushed under the weight of an industrial tractor.

British Sounds directed by the Dziga Vertov Group, 1970:

Week End directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1967:

Along with the opening scene in the car factory and the discussion between the proletarians that will eventually follow, the other key sequence here is the discussion between the student protestors who, once again, in a show of the creative cycle as presented on film, attempt to rewrite a contemporary pop song in a way that better represents the turbulent social and political climate of the day. As they strum guitars and stencil out placards and banners, we're immediately back in the realms of La Chinoise (1967); with Godard and Roger taking these kids with big ideas and good intentions and exposing the ultimate emptiness of their actions and the smug, pretentious, romanticised view of the working classes by these upper-middle class students, slumming it in an attempt to gain self-gratification from their "comrades" and peers. For all their desire for change and their belief in a socialist system, they are a world away from the hard-working proletarians; separated by class and circumstance, sat writing their trivial songs and making ironic slogans while the real working-classes are toiling in the factories and in the fields. No time for protest; they work because they have to, to make a living for themselves and for their families

British Sounds directed by the Dziga Vertov Group, 1970:

In the later sequences, we have an even more obvious attempt to deconstruct the film, with staged news bulletins offering the anti-socialist sentiment of the bourgeois classes, with the bile and vitriol expressed in these sequences tying into the ideologies of someone like Enoch Powell and his infamous "rivers of blood" speech of April 1968; as well as prefiguring the rise of the conservative party, the reign of Margaret Thatcher, the arrival of New Labour and the empty promise that "things can only get better." Such sequences are obvious perhaps, taking the film into the realms of pure agitprop and sitting uncomfortably alongside the other sequences described above, not to mention the lengthy sequence of post-feminist deconstruction presented in the second half of the film. Here, the filmmakers take the image of the naked female form and attempts to desexualise it through a continual soundtrack of sexual politics, equality and discussions about the objectification of women, voiced by a female student in a flat, upper-middle class accent, again showing the slant of the so-called educated thinker as the bourgeoisie.

As it stands, British Sounds, like much of the work of the Dziga Vertov Group, remains a fascinating if inconsistent look into the social climate and political situations of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its appeal will therefore be limited; with the constant reliance on the voiceover to explain the situations, the presentation will no doubt turn many potential viewers away from the film, with many perhaps becoming bored by the endless representations of socialism, communism and Marxist-Leninist concepts (the alternative title for the film is "See You at Mao!") that are expressed throughout. Nonetheless, it is an oddly absorbing film, filled with ideas and images that have the power to inspire everything from thought to criticism, dismissal and debate, as the overriding notion of a cinema of life as it appears is articulated in Godard's typical style of direct and indirect expression.