Wednesday August 28, 2013
Far from Vietnam - dir. Joris Ivens, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, & Agnes Varda, 1967. Lincoln Center.
An omnibus documentary film about America's war in Vietnam by an all-star assemblage of French New Wave directors. Rarely screened in America and currently unavailable on home viewing formats. Shown in a digital restoration at Lincoln Center as part of the amazing "Cinema of Resistance" series curated by John Gianvito, whose Far From Vietnam-inspired omnibus documentary Far from Afghanistan, now struggling for distribution, is essential viewing.
Far From Vietnam is a major French New Wave film deserving of greater recognition in the canon of that movement. Different episodes are seamlessly woven together by supervising editor Christ Marker. Segments cover protests both for and against the war in the United States, reportage from both the American and North Vietnamese sides of the front, an interview with the widow of a man who self-immolated in front of the Pentagon to protest the war, a film essay by Godard about his failure to obtain authorization to film in North Vietnam, an interview with Fidel Castro, and a fictional segment by Alain Renais.
The film begins with an ice cold Marxist analysis of the war. The voice-over tells us that what is at stake in the Vietnamese struggle is not just Vietnamese independence but whether poor people have the right and the power to organize their societies independently of and against the interests of the rich. This film is a crystallization of a a crystallization. It captures the way that the war in Vietnam was perceived as history happening in the present tense, a symbol of all anti-capitalist struggles everywhere in the final round of the struggle against capitalism. No war has had such symbolic significance since--perhaps in this "post-historical" period, none can.
The analytical confidence of the film begins to wobble in Renais's segment, a ten-minute long monologue by an insufferable and insufferably handsome fictional French intellectual to his silent, reclining, predictably smokey-eyed and hot girlfriend about his feelings about the war in Vietnam. It is introduced by the voice-over narration as "a portrait of bad conscience." The scene is a kind of parody of mansplaining intellectuals and those who would listen to them, a self-reflexive critique of the film and its audience. What the Man says is not without truth. He talks (and talks, between sips of red) about his conflicting emotions towards Americans, who once liberated France and are now the Nazi's of Vietnam. He rues that Vietnam plagues his conscience while so many other, less "fashionable" armed conflicts around the world don't. He mocks the hypocrisy of a France that unanimously opposes American colonialism in Vietnam but, ten years earlier, fought a war to preserve its own colonialism in Algeria. It is a portrait of the political paralysis, of self-cannibalizing critique. You want to tell him to just shut up and do something--but then what can one do as a Frenchman in 1967 about America's war in Vietnam?
What Resnais parodies, Godard enacts. Godard's monologue relates how the North Vietnamese government turned down his request to film there, presumably because he could not be relied upon to make the kind of straightforward propaganda, like Iven's remarkable 17th Parallel, that was needed. Godard mulled over alternate ideas for segments he could shoot in France, like documenting a factory strike or describing the effects of napalm over footage of a naked woman, before deciding to make a film about the dilemma he found himself in, on the one hand not able to make a film about Vietnam--since he cannot not go there--and on the other hand not able not to make a film about Vietnam--since he has to, after all, and also because he cannot help but see Vietnam in everything he does. He decides that what his has to do is wrestle with his "personal Vietnam," the specter of Vietnam that haunts his everyday life. Godard has a poignant mediation on what today we'd call cognitive mapping: he says that the gap that separates him from the Vietnamese, with whom he sympathizes but is so distant from, is the same as that which separates him from the French workers, whose cause he tries to support with films that they never see, which is the same as that between the all French and the Vietnamese. Trying to make sense of these gaps, to negotiate them, transcend them, or even just conduct parallel actions on opposite sides of the gaps towards a common goal—collectively this is solidarity, individually this is one's private Vietnam.
Godard’s segment marks a pivot in the film. After his segment, we hear less analysis and more reflection, less third person and more first peron. The film’s intellectual orientation is more latter-day existentialism than burgeoning post-structuralism.
French philosophical agonizing finds its trans-Atlantic compliment in the implosion of American society captured in William Klein’s footage of conflicts between pro- and anti-war demonstrators on the streets of New York City. The obscenity of the pro-war protestors, their arrogant, barbarous lust to conquer and kill poor fucking peasants and shit on their fellow countrymen, was shocking. Greasy young stock bro-kers scream at those protesting the involvement of Chase Manhattan and Bank of America in South Vietnam: “Bomb Ha-noi! Bomb Ha-noi!” and “Bomb their Village!” (The latter double entendre, if it is disgusting as it applies to Vietnam, is at least a clever insult as it applies to the presumably East-, West-, and Greenwich Village-based protestors.) The anti-war protestors deserve credit for being ahead of the curve relative to most of America—this is pre-Tet Offensive—but have no coherence as a group. One hears the same kind of compromised, inconsistent opposition that is repeated today: support our troops by bringing them home, fight the enemy only on our own shores. Black militants and conservative non-interventionists talk past each other. Rarely is it expressed that it’s not just America that’s wrong but the Vietnamese who are right. Heated exchanges between pro- and ant-war camps take place at lowest level of discourse: “Do you think it’s right or wrong?!” A dirty hipster appears to speak in tongues: “Nnn-nnn-nn-nn-n-nnaaaaaa-naaaaaa-naaaaypaaaaalllllm! Nayaayayayapalm! Napalmnapalmnayyyyypaaaaallm!” A crowd gathers, probably out of concern for the terrified, fair-haired child holding the hipster’s hand. As though awaking from a spell, the hipster is suddenly lucid, articulate. “Do you know what it is? It’s gasoline jelly. They drop it on children like this one and burn them up for no good reason.” Scuffles break out here and there. There is an ethnographic quality to it: a portrait of savage America, a country of braying neurotic messes about to tear each other apart and themselves in the streets. But what a lively scene! The same internal struggle—the private Vietnam—exists on both sides of the Atlantic, hot and coarse in America, frigid and refined in France. When the Vietnamese finally won, they set us all free—everyone except themselves, as things turned out.