ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

THE ACCIDENTAL BRECHT (or how to take the fun out of Godard)

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Erich Kuersten

I just tried to get through the partial commentary by Godard author David Sterritt for Jean Luc Godards anti-war satire, Les Carabiners (on the Fox Lorber DVD) and had to turn it off after ten minutes, as he kept lecturing me that the Godard was employing Brechtian shock tactics to stop us from identifying with the narrative onscreen, lest we forget for a minute that war is bad. Over and over, without a trace of humor or insight beyond this obvious moral, Sterritt calmly restated this as if he was lecturing a group of high school delinquents on how they shouldn't emulate the Three Stooges lest they gouge out an eye.

Nothing personal against Sterritt. It's not that it's not true--of course it is--and the deadpan shrugging way the Carabinier thugs go about harassing locals, lifting up women's skirts with their rifles, and shooting civilians at random is shocking, all the more so for the light-hearted nouvelle vague way it's all depicted: Civilians march off into the woods to their deaths with a weary resignation. The recruiting officers who lure the brothers to war do so by promising vast riches and total freedom. War is a license to kill, steal, sexually assault, execute, burn, and otherwise run rampant, as opposed to achieving any particular objective. officers come and go in an array of uniforms, with no real attempt by Godard to depict any chain of command or semblance of order.

The two men are named Ulysses (Marino Mase) and Michel-Ange (Albert Juross) and are idiots true and true. Michel-Ange in his naivete and deadpan Harpo Marx blankness is so hick-ish he's never seen a film before, and, like a would-be Buster Keaton, tries to climb into the screen when he sees a woman get into the bathtub, tearing down the screen in the process. Dude from Erskin Caudwell's Tobacco Road is a genius by comparison!  

Critics loathed the film on its release, which boggled some minds since they were still fawning over Breathless. It's easy to see why they would hate the film, since it is the opposite of Breathless in many ways. But even the critics who praise the film often stress its brutal ugliness, as in this paragraph from 'Reverse Shot:'
Universally trashed by critics and audiences alike upon its release, Les Carabiniers still hasnt been successfully rescued or rediscovered in recent years. What caused it to be so rejected then and forgotten now? For starters, the film is true to itself. Its subject is the ugly, violent, and wastefully stupid collective mobilization known as war, and the film enacts relentlessly, absurdly, bitterly that ugliness, that violence, that wasteful stupidity. Unlike virtually every other war movie, even every anti-war movie, Les Carabiniers refuses to pull punches by offering courageous heroism, thrilling action, or manipulative emotionality to offset wars suffering and horror. This is not because the film is particularly violent or graphic, but because everything about it is off-putting, from its characters, two troglodytic dolts named Michel-Ange and Ulysse (Patrice Moullet and Marino Masť), forced to go to battle by order of the King, and their shallow, materialistic wives Venus and Cleopatre (Genevieve Galea and Catherine Ribeiro); to the unceasing parade of cowardly, graceless skirmishes that often end in systematic slaughter or disgusting, juvenile violation (nearly all the women in the film have their skirts lifted up by soldiers with their guns); to the films overall look, over-processed black and white that comes out as a drab, desolate palette of grays, grays, and grays, rendering the barren, wintry landscapes of ruined rural cottages and personality-less apartment complexes all the more drearily depressing. -- Michael Joshua Rowan Godard 60s Part One
Yikes! MJR's awesome descriptions of the characters should convince the reader that this film can be enjoyed as a goofball comedy:
"Brecht is, as usual, the presiding spirit of Godards strategies. The characters are cinematic constructs and not real people or soldiers all unknown actors, Moullet and Masť possess the odd physical exaggerations of a silent era comedy duo (the former a bizarre, freakish bumpkin boy, the latter a cigar-smoking, unshaven lug), while Galea and Ribeiros pancaked makeup and overdone lipstick make them ghostly, childlike apparitions straight out of a Griffith two-reeler."
Dude! Comedy duo! ghostly Griffith apparitions! But this sounds marvelous! Why are we compelled to see it only as disparaging the woes of war and the seduction of the image? If Les Carabiniers had Stanley Kubrick's name in the credits I think it would be a black comedy classic. People would 'get it' the way they 'got' the darker than black humor of Dr. Strangelove (as opposed to the didactic dourness of Paths of Glory). Apparently, war just isn't funny. Then again, the audience felt that way about Duck Soup when it came out in 1933.

In the end it's all about expectations and the era it was released. 1933--the rise of Nazi power in Germany--was a bad time for a war comedy. The Marx Brothers were supposed to take us away from all that. Similarly, Godard's name was associated--as was the New Wave in general--with sexy irreverence and magnetic actors like Jean Paul Belmondo, Bardot, Anna Karina, Jean Seberg. If you didn't get the artsiness you at least could dig the mod hair styles, the playful eye contact, the bare legs. Les Caribiniers exasperates those expectations as much as it can. The wives of two soldiers wear winter clothes, filmed in soggy war documentary style black and white as they trudge through the mud to get the mail, which consists of letters written by the boys while they're away. The gap between their postcard descriptions of war and the horrible deeds they perform widening with every new postcard.

But in their dopey, innocent abroad way the film dares to bring satiric black comedy to the horrors of war. And while Duck Soup has since been hailed as a comedic masterwork, Les Carabiniers is dumped into this shock corridor where one isn't allowed to enjoy the carnage depicted onscreen due to its deadpan mock brutality, as opposed to because of it.

With no way to enjoy the movie then, has fallen by the wayside for all but the diehard Godardian who is able to plunge deep into the cold ambivalence and--perhaps to the miffed annoyance of film professors at the revival screening--laugh sardonically out loud throughout.

I haven't read much by Sterritt, but from the commentary, I fear he is one of those film professors for whom importance and fun are mutually exclusive...and who cannot imagine love of cinema going hand in hand with satire of cinema, or that an anti-war film can succeed with a straight face as a pro-war film, or that a film-going audience is capable of loving and sneering at a film at the same time (how many of us feel about, say, Cat Women of the Moon or Showgirls) and that the stodgy deserves ridicule simply for being stodgy.

Part of this trouble I believe lies with the vanguard cinema studies professors of academia. Bloodied from their battles with musty literature professors over the worthiness of "pop culture" as a field of study, they seek to deaden the levity of their material, assuming that dourness and authority go hand in hand. Cinema writers who are deep and entertaining at the same time--Robin Wood, Kim Newman, etc. tend to be British. The French have their own problems but, like Godard, are funny intrinsically (as long as they don't try to be). It seems to be endemic to the U.S.-- that most intellectually insecure of nations--to mistake earnestness with importance. When the bourgeoisie smell art, they come with their gilded frames sparkling and their artistic sensibility anchored to the seriousness of being 'important.'

The flaw of Sterritt's reasoning behind Godard's penchant for Brechtian devices can actually be uncovered in Godard's own praise of the low budget gangster pictures of PRC and Monogram Studios (to whom he dedicated Breathless in 1959). Poverty Row's auteurs--like Edgar G. Ulmer--wrote the book on emphasizing artificiality for proper alienation affect: through fog and shadows, recycling action scenes (car chases and explosions), cheap rear projection, stock footage and library cue music, these films achieved 'accidental Brechtianism' in that their artificiality was not originally intentional but merely practical. That said, a true artist knows how to turn limitations into artistic 'choices.'

A genius like Edgar G. Ulmer could put the practical limitations of a poverty row studio to poetic use, but he didn't need a pedagogical framework in which to do it. The Brechtian "meaning" came through on its own without any need for a yellow highlighter. Godard has always understood that Brechtianism doesn't need a reason for existing, aside from cost-effectiveness. At PRC and Monogram as well as in the French New Wave, a budget-restricted palette is not a limitation, but a guiding framework.

Like Ulmer, Godard makes limitations work for him, and though there's intellectual intentions backing Godard's spontaneity, there's also playfulness and deadpan wit, a satirical edge so razor sharp an academic theorist expecting Godard to show kids playing jukeboxes and pinball if he wants to be 'playful might not notice it's cut them to a bloody quick.

(portions originally published on Bright Lights After Dark - 4/5/07)

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