Degraded Cinema & Living Language

Jean Luc Godard's Goodbye To Language 3D

published in Film Comment Vol.50 No.6, New York 2014

In the critical discussion so far, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language has primarily been considered in terms of optics. But the film’s employment of 3-D makes it hard to perceive what its sound is doing. This conforms with Godard’s approach to narrative, where things are positioned to clash, oppose and contradict. From weighty recitations to clumsy cinematography to beautiful faces to banal landscapes, nothing is resolved, either momentarily or en suite. While cinematic language seems founded on such dynamic contrasts, Godard’s career has progressively focussed on the minute tensions born of the barest joints of sound and image. The result is something inherently didactic, but more so evidence of how he realizes a cinematic scene.

The term “realization” is precise here. I’m referring to the original polemic notion upheld by the musique concrète composers from postwar France. Pierre Schaeffer argued against the comparatively “abstract” ideals of classical music’s reliance on manuscript notation to generate musical performance. He and others brought sound into the concert hall by acknowledging how magnetic tape manipulation (in radio and cinema) enabled composers to orchestrate sound. His early works still resonate cinematically, evoking scenes to imaginary films by acknowledging how sound orients an audience during the story being told on-screen.

Godard imported musique concrète to the film soundtrack. He aggressively edited, brutishly multi-tracked, and violently mixed his Sixties work, bringing radiophonic and phonological devices, effects, and measures to bear on the celluloid strip. Godard went on to embrace the modernist mechanics and mysteries of the soundtrack so thoroughly that his cinema achieved an emboldened symbiosis between sound and image. Ultimately, Godard’s cinema is “difficult” not because of its insistent Brechtian stance, but because it refuses the idea that the soundtrack should merely service the image track.

Yet even that reduces Godard’s legacy to a formalist principle. Each Godard film presents distinct audiovisual insights. And it’s his films since Passion (82), the first on which he collaborated with sound recordist, editor, and mixer François Musy, that feature a broadened range of soundtrack designs. From the rich aural symbolism veined throughout Hail Mary (85) to the dismantled recording sessions by Les Rita Mitsouko in Keep Your Right Up (87), to the mesmerizing ambiences and soundscapes of Nouvelle Vague (90), film sound is always a shape-shifting presence. It performs in its own unique manner, often in contradistinction to the film’s images.

Musy, however, is not listed in the credits for Goodbye to Language. I’m not sure if this directly accounts for the film’s sound, which is remarkably skeletal, even when compared to Film Socialisme (10), whose sound is brimmed with diesel drones, the whir of electric fans, ocean noise, and piped music. But because it’s Godard, I place his outcomes above my impressions. The real “sound” in Goodbye to Language might, in fact, be language itself. The noisy chatter of words ascribed to Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Aragon, Darwin, Faulkner, Sartre, Shelley, et al, might be devalued quotations marked by their ineffectual and artless utterance.

Goodbye to Language could be retitled "Goodbye to the Soundtrack". Its sound editing conforms to pointillist and cubist aesthetics: points of emission are precisely directed to extreme vectors (left, right, center—each noticeably so), while fragments of atmospheres, voices, and events are edited to abut either silence or oppositional tonalities. It’s very musique concrète—and very Fifties.

Yet this is not a negative if there is deliberation behind the a strategy. Maybe perversely, I read the film’s audiovisual language (accepting the contextualization of its title) as a degradation of cinema. But I also acknowledge that cinematic audiovision—thanks in no small part to the likes of Godard—is currently more sophisticated than ever before. Film sound is no longer a matter of binary collisions between scripted dialogue and designed soundtracks, or between controlled authorial voices and overbearing abstractions of sound, music and noise. Film sound is a living language vital enough to bid adieu to cinema. Maybe that’s the farewell heard in Godard’s ears.

Text © Philip Brophy 2014. Images © Jean-Luc Godard