Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Kids Play Russian

It begins with a question. Why does the West want to invade Russia? The response: because it is the home of fiction, and the West has run out of stories to tell. In The Kids Play Russian (Les enfants jouent à la Russie, 1993), several voices of discussion are channelled through the director Jean-Luc Godard's typically formalist stylisations in order to create an examination into this particular dilemma, establishing what the screen-titles announce as an "experiment in literary investigation", where the filmmaker constructs various fictional scenarios around the iconography of classic Russian literature, in an attempt to define the birth of fiction, and in the process, the birth of cinema. To achieve this, Godard creates a film that is part detective thriller, part video essay; where the staggeringly apocalyptic declaration, that the future is "at stake", establishes a sense of foreboding more befitting a Hollywood disaster movie than the kind of films Godard is best known for. However, The Kids Play Russian is in many ways as much a disaster-movie as anything produced by Irwin Allen; a film where not only is the future at stake, but where Europe has been condemned to death.

"One has to speak of Europe", Godard says, "and of Dostoyevsky", and through his typically inscrutable combination of images and text, establishes a particular tone of remorseful longing for a vanishing world - "Insulted and Humiliated" as it were - in which the basic form of the film is confabulated by Godard's editing into becoming a fictionalised dramatisation of a metaphorical "event" presented as an actuality. Like much of Godard's work of this mid-to-late period, most clearly defined in his on-going video serial Histoire(s) du cinema (History of Cinema/Stories of Cinema, 1988-1998), The Kids Play Russian is not necessarily a film about, but a film on; presenting its various ideas and ruminations - which are sometimes obvious, other times obscure - through a combination of stock-footage, direct quotation and Godard's own dramatic recreations, which for much of the film consist largely of actors sitting around tables reading entire passages from books.

The style is perfect for presenting the various lines of thought and discussion that pass back and forth - between the soundtrack and the pictures on screen - and the often disorientating montage of images, in which each cut seems to work on a vague level of visual symbolism, or association. One of the most obvious of such motifs is the stock footage inserts of seagulls (or other such birds) whenever the narrator discusses the concept of freedom. Like the obvious romantic associations of the shots of two trains passing in the night, or the two ships at dawn used in both Masculin féminin (1966) and Prénom Carmen (First Name: Carmen, 1983) respectively, this image of the gull (or gulls) in flight would suggest a sense of freedom that is almost tangible; contrary of course to any brief black and white footage of the young woman bound by chains in an obvious visual representation of general oppression, or the great struggle. It also illustrates Godard's sense of humour, with each cut in many ways becoming a kind of visual pun, like the combination of shots in Histoire(s) du cinema, in which Godard illustrates the triumph of the Hollywood blockbuster over the independent spirit of the art-film by cutting to a pornographic insert of penetrative anal-sex.

Such stylistic devices complement Godard's recurrent interest in quotes, puns, anagrams and word games, as well as the general aesthetic appropriation of various cultural or literary iconography into the framework of the film. The most notable icons in this instance are culled from the pages of The Idiot (first published, 1869), The Seagull (written, 1895) and Anna Karenina (first published, 1877); the three symbols of Russia that dominate Godard's dramatisations, alongside the usual references to the work of filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, in an attempt to establish context. Through this however, Godard is able to collapse three separate layers, between the past and the present (meaning, in this case, the early 1990's), in which fictional, historical characters are placed into recognisable, contemporary situations. This approach once again evokes the continual idea of bringing the past into the present; like the symbol of Napoleon in La chinoise (1967), or the spirit of historical recreation as a contemporary "critique", as seen in Le vent d'est (The Wind from the East, 1970).

The basic plot outline of The Kids Play Russian has been listed by several sources as follows: A famous French filmmaker is hired by a major Hollywood producer to make a documentary on the state of Russia in the wake of the Cold War. The filmmaker however, subverts the project by stubbornly remaining in France and casting himself as the title character in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. As an attention grabber, the above description does give some suggestion as to the fictional background of the film; indicating parallels to Godard's earlier, little-seen work, A Letter to Freddy Bauche regarding a short film about the city of Lausanne (Lettre à Freddy Buache à propos d'un court métrage sur la ville de Lausanne, 1982), in which Godard was indeed approached to make a conventional documentary, but instead made a video response to the initial offer. However, the idea of seeking some kind of coherent narrative from Godard's continual aural and visual experiments in montage and association would no doubt be an exercise in futility. Again, this is a film on, not a film about.

If we were to reduce the film to the most basic sense of narrative, in order to - I suppose - better define the intentions (or assumed intentions) of its creator, then one could possibly consider this a film about the making of films. In this sense, it is a continuation of a theme that has run throughout Godard's career; not simply from the more obvious presentations of Le mépris (Contempt, 1963) or Passion (1982) - two films in which the actuality of film production is an essential concern to the lives of his central characters - but to films like Prénom Carmen, Détective (1985) and Soigne ta droite, ou une place sur la terre (Keep Your Right Up: or A Place on Earth, 1987). In these films, the characters are making movies of their own. From Uncle Jeannot in Prénom Carmen, creating a narrative from his hospital room typewriter that will eventually develop into the narrative being depicted on screen; to the trio of crime solving sleuths in Détective, piecing together their hours of video-camera surveillance footage in order to solve a murder that could be past or could be present. However, beyond these particular examples, the closest companion-piece within Godard's career is Soigne ta droite, in which he not only originated the same character of The Idiot/Prince from Dostoyevsky's great novel, but where he was once again placed in the position of delivering a film.

Godard's own appearances in The Kids Play Russian - initially huddled-over a pan of hot water, surrounded by miniature Russian dolls and with a red towel over his head, and later in his pyjamas and a woolly hat - continue the general presentation of the Godard "character" as it has developed through his own work; or at least through his own work since the early 1980's. From the aforementioned Uncle Jeannot (possibly insane, shuffling around the hospital in his dressing gown and wanting nothing more than to place a finger between the buttocks of a young woman), to his appearance in King Lear (1987) as the strange Professor Pluggy (extension-cord dreadlocks included), it's near-impossible to think of any other highly respected international filmmaker so willing to lampoon their own eccentricities (or exaggerated eccentricities) in order to add a separate layer of interpretation to the work itself; creating a recognisable persona, as immediately synonymous with his own work as Monsieur Hulot is to the work of Jacques Tati, or the various shades of the "Woody Allen" persona as it became more fully-formed and multi-faceted through films such as Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979) and Stardust Memories (1980).

When Godard isn't physically on screen (as in, within the frame) then he's nonetheless present through the words of the narrator, or the words that feature as screen-captions or inter-titles. He can also be heard, as himself, dictating a quotation to his actors, demanding that the lines be repeated, again and again, faster and more direct. This brief moment is a fascinating insight into Godard as director, suggesting that many of the performances in his work are dictated to an almost obsessive level; contra to the notion of Godard as a proponent of improvisation and freewheeling spontaneity, and more in line with the quote from his ex-wife Anna Karina, when she claimed that much of Godard's work was carefully designed to the smallest detail. However, it could simply be a comment on the nature of language; the natural rhythms that make up our languages, or the way in which we use and phrase our words in order to emphasise their apparent meaning. After all, "the historical world is described through language", as one character explains during the first part of the film.

Whenever Godard or his characters talk about language, it almost always relates back to the language of film. In The Kids Play Russian, the translator's line about "the historical world" gives way to a brief conversation on the state of cinema in the dying days of the Twentieth Century. Unsurprisingly, the response is a negative one. However, the process of using language to define history (or fiction to offer a viewpoint on reality) also allows for a process of simplification; i.e. to make the argument more direct. Is it then such a surprise to consider that the early Russian cinema was the only cinema at that point in time not to employ the use of the shot/reverse-shot editing structure? Is this because, as Godard puts it, these films were not about the exchange of viewpoints, but rather (we assume) the investigation of a single idea?

In his short essay, Je vous salue, Sarajevo (I Salute Thee, Sarajevo, 1993), produced around the same period as the film in question, Godard achieved his commentary on the atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina with a single image. In The Kids Play Russian, he reduces his argument to two intangible words: one for reality, and one for fiction. This language, which is as much the language of film as the language we use every day, offers two ways of seeing. So the war in Vietnam, as seen by Stanley Kubrick, becomes a reality, because it is familiar through the general accepted conventions of Hollywood cinema. Conversely, the war in Vietnam, if it were to be seen by Vertov, would be fiction; too extraordinary to believe. Therefore, the history of Russia is defined by its fictions; its literature, cinema, etc. So in Godard's mind, one can trace the present-day significance of the country by drawing a line through these fictions, connecting the symbols and associations that define the progression from the past into the present. If such definitions can be trusted, then the train that arrives at La Ciotat (station) could easily become one of the many trains used to carry passengers to Auschwitz (currently, as of 1993, being reconstructed by Steven Spielberg), just as the woman from the steps at Odessa can be found in a porno film on one of the twenty television stations controlled by the Mafia.

What the film is really about then, is the link that cinema makes between the reality and the fiction. A connection that seems perfectly implied by the following lines of text, in which the narrator breathlessly intones: "The Russians saw cinema differently from us, when they saw a train coming into the station. They weren't seeing for the first time an image of a train, but rather – once again – Tolstoy's young woman, who would throw herself under it." And alas, there it is; the cultural heritage of a country, defined by its fiction, made all the more tangible/glorious by the associations of (a) film. As if to remind us, once again, of the great struggle, or the impressions of freedom defined by those gulls in flight, the film ends with a shot of Godard himself, lit by a spotlight, hopelessly turning a crank, as the screen captions state, mockingly "once more... once more... once more with feeling". Such scenes remind us of the most impressive aspect of Godard's career: mainly, his extraordinary imagination, and his ability to create compelling works of cinema from the most basic of materials.