Jean-Pierre Gorin interviewed
Filmmaking and history

by Christian Braad Thomsen

from Jump Cut, no. 3, 1974, pp. 17-19
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

Q: How and when did you meet Jean-Luc Godard?

A : That was in 1965, when I was connected with a political group that published CAHIERS MARXISTES-LENINISTES. Godard had seen the issues we had published and wanted to meet one of us during his research on LA CHINOISE. He was seeing a lot of people from various leftwing groups. So we started to discuss movies, which is also to discuss all sorts of problems about movies and which, in turn, produce the kind of movies we have. And we started to discuss politics and aesthetics and aesthetics as a kind of politics. It went on as a kind of loose relationship the following years. I was not directly involved in the script of LA CHINOISE. But many of the things I told him, which were often jokes, were later put in LA CHINOISE. Jean-Luc has always had a great capacity for having his eyes and ears open and for picking up things and working them out in his own context. Long before meeting him I recognized that his films were the only revolutionary films being made in France. I remember the opening of LES CARABINIERS in 1963. Only nine people saw the film, and I was one of them.

Q: Many Marxist-Leninists criticized LA CHINOISE for being petit-bourgeois when it opened. What did you as a Marxist-Leninist think?

A: I had mixed feelings. First I was completely furious, because I was taking myself damned seriously at that time, and I was offended by the kind of image Jean-Luc was presenting of groups I was working with. Many people thought he was making fools out of us, but it was more complicated than that, and actually the film did capture the real spirit of the movement at that time. It was a realistic account, not a critical one at all. Jean-Luc had great sympathy for all those movements—for the youthfulness of it all.

At that time I found the form of the film highly satisfactory. But then we have seen it again after we started working together, and we found that the film is really very traditional in the narrative, and in a lot of aspects it seems to us to be obsolete today. It is less advanced than TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER or MASCULINE FEMININE or even MADE IN U.S.A.—which I didn't like at all when I first saw it, but which is still a very interesting film in its attempt to link together two words which have a lot more in common than the first two letters : politics and poetry.

Our discussions became more specific and centered around aesthetic points. We both had a strong need for a radical change in the aesthetics of cinema, which at first doesn't seem political at all, but in fact is. After WEEKEND Jean-Luc went into a state of crisis. He tried to film in 16mm, but decided to throw the material away. And then he made the cinetracts of May 1968 (the massive student and worker strike—ed.), which was a way to make propaganda films and at the same time to show people that films could be made very cheaply and very quickly. In fact his crisis started at the end of 1967, when he went to Cuba to shoot a fiction film, but it was a dead end. He couldn't complete it. After he came back from Cuba, our relationship became very close.

Q: Godard has been quoted as saying that the reason why he started to work with you was that he was on his way out of cinema in order to become political, and you were on your way out of the political camp in order to do cinema.

A: I wanted, for a long time, to make films, but I didn't want to enter the traditional system of filmmaking. So I started to analyze what had been produced in France, and what kind of aesthetics suit the problems I was trying to settle. It became obvious that I couldn't work with anyone else than Jean-Luc. It was a very risky way to get into production, because Jean-Luc had been concentrating entirely on himself and represented all the mystique of the auteur. At the beginning of ‘68 I was working in a factory after having been thrown out of the newspaper Le Monde where I had been a literary critic.

Jean-Luc wanted to do a film with all the various groups in which people tried to live in new ways: groups involved with politics, music, theatre, etc. It was going to be a 24-hour film called “Communications,” and he asked me to make the Maoist part of it. So I started writing a script called “A French Movie,” based on the experience I had had for two years organizing political groups. I gave the script to Jean-Luc. It was an attempt to put political points into an aesthetic form, and it was never filmed. But all the films we made after ‘68 are in some way a transformation of this original script: BRITISH SOUNDS, PRAVDA, TOUT VA BIEN, etc.. Jean-Luc brought a lot of reflections to the script and my own evolution with him also added things.

Q: So this script was really the start of the Dziga Vertov group?

A: Yes, but still Jean-Luc made the first films himself: A MOVIE LIKE ANY OTHER, BRITISH SOUNDS, PRAVDA. And afterwards they were credited by the Dziga Vertov group in order to point out that although the films are Jean-Luc’s work, they were also a result of the theoretical discussions between the two of us.

The name of the group was originally a joke, but at the same time it was, of course, a political act in aesthetics. If we want to produce a new kind of aesthetics which is going to suit the fact that we, in our own lives, are experimenting with new contents and new contradictions, we need to mark our work with something that does not exist for the moment: the real history of filmmaking. The history of filmmaking is still written on the same idealistic basis as the whole history of literature. When we took the Dziga Vertov name it was to say, well, although our situation is different, we want to focus on the first filmmaker of the Bolshevik revolution. We didn't want to find ourselves a father, because we are not Freudians, and we didn't want to say that now we are going to do what Dziga Vertov did. We are just saying that Vertov has a concrete experience out of which some problems can be worked out and used for our own purposes.

Q: But so has Eisenstein. What was the reason you chose Vertov?

A: Because Vertov was completely unknown at that time, his real role being completely overshadowed by Eisenstein, and because he was dealing with newsreel material and finally because of the incredible power of Vertov’s aesthetic and political writing. It was a way to oppose Eisenstein’s glory, and especially the way his glory had been reconstituted into the loose category of bourgeois aesthetics.

Both Eisenstein and Vertov faced a very easy situation, being linked to the political organization which was freeing all the power of the Russian people. This revolutionary power was passing through those two creative individuals. In Eisenstein’s writings, as opposed to Vertov’s, you see functioning completely different ways for one individual to think and project himself into history. Eisenstein was working as an auteur, and it’s obvious that his drive is a very traditional one. Of course Vertov was also an auteur, everyone is, and the problem is not the auteur theory versus another theory. The problem is how one individual thinks about his own individuality. And Vertov—more explicitly than Eisenstein—was dissolving his individuality into the forces of the revolution. The distinction we made between Vertov and Eisenstein doesn't exist in the final analysis. But it was tragic for the kind of aesthetics needed at that time, that Eisenstein and Vertov didn't understand that they were two ends of the same body. We have to study both of them. We have always acted as polemicists and never as academic authorities saying eternal truths when we preferred Vertov to Eisenstein. stein. We prefer them both!

The first film Jean-Luc and I actually did together was WIND FROM THE EAST and then came STRUGGLES IN ITALY and TOUT VA BIEN. Obviously the films couldn't have been made if Jean-Luc didn't have the name he had. And it was very funny to see how STRUGGLES IN ITALY was considered a mad masterpiece when I presented the script, and a genius masterpiece when exactly the same script was proposed by Jean-Luc. Everyone wonders how we work together ... who is responsible for what, and who says Action!” Well, Jean-Luc says “Ac” and I say “tion. “

Q: But looking at the last three films that you have been directly involved in, those films seem to be politically the most disciplined and clear. So, isn't it true that your main contribution is the clear political analysis of the material?

A: No, I think it’s exactly the contrary, because those last three films are the ones I mainly made. My main contribution was to the aesthetics of the films, and it is a complex contribution in the sense that I have always tried to work out something from the things I knew already. And what I knew was the revolutionary potential in the aesthetics that Jean-Luc brought to his previous films. Basically all I have done comes from Jean-Luc’s previous work, and that’s why some of our last films are considered highly Godardian, even though I made them. That is perfectly normal, because I had a need to go back into his early work and even discover some aspects of his work that he had not discovered himself. Jean-Luc has never taken any stands saying that his previous work was obsolete. He has been quoted as saying that, but it isn't true. I speak a lot with Jean-Luc about his earlier films like LES CARABINIERS, PIERROT LE FOU or TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER. It is obvious that Jean-Luc has been the only one in France to bring some kind of revolution into the field of aesthetics, and we don't start from nowhere. We start from there.

Q: Speaking of the references to Godard’s earlier films, there is a direct quotation in TOUT VA BIEN of the opening scene in CONTEMPT.

A: Yes, that was a mock scene, some kind of parody I wanted to put in. It’s exactly the same dialogue, but it is reversed because Jane Fonda says it in a rather ironic way, and then they agree: Well, if we start like that, we are going to make a zombie movie. However the point is not that I wanted to criticize CONTEMPT. It’s just a way of saying, well, he has said that already, now we are going to say this.

Q: The couple in TOUT VA BIEN doesn't seem to be a break with the couples in Godard’s earlier films right from BREATHLESS, but to be the politically conscious development of the earlier couples.

A: Yes, exactly. Our slogan when doing TOUT VA BIEN was that we are going to do the same old thing, but differently. The original title of TOUT VA BIEN was “Love Story.” We wanted to do an ironic and joyful film playing with the codes of the normal cinema, and that is why the development of the relationship between Jane Fonda and Yves Montand is so similar to other films. But when it is so much alike there is also the possibility of producing new elements. Maybe the trouble with TOUT VA BIEN is that we didn't succeed in doing the same old thing differently, because for the French audience the film is completely different. That’s why, maybe, that it is of no use any more to try to deal with the traditional codes at all. We really need to produce films that are breaking points—we need to produce new elements, new visuals, new sounds, and to re-think completely the notion of editing. That’s why Jean-Luc is getting into video. Video is a complete change in the conception of editing, because you edit while you are shooting. He is going to be ten years in advance, because it is a completely non-mastered technique promoted as aesthetics.

Q: In a way it seems similar to the old days, when he wrote the script while shooting the film.

A : Yes, that’s where he was really a revolutionary filmmaker. He had no problem with any kind of narrative or any kind of plot starting from one point. All his work is—as Joyce once put it—work in progress. He has never dealt with the problem of content, but with the transformation of form on a certain content. If you want to express a new thing, there is a contradiction in using old aesthetic forms. You need to work in the flesh and blood of the film.

Q: In principle I agree with you, but how do you solve the problem that when you say new things in a new form, then you don't have an audience?

A: It’s not true. You have the audience the film can have. I don't think movie theatres are made to be full. They are made to be half empty, or to have 20 people in them at a time. People interested in making political or progressive films are still caught in the old Hollywood notion that films should have large audiences. But we say very clearly in BRITISH SOUNDS that a million prints of a Marxist-Leninist film is GONE WITH THE WIND. We have been working for ten people with some of the films we have done, but tomorrow those ten people will be 1000 or more. It’s part of a historical process, and it’s also a matter of taking movies seriously. My next film, which I am going to do alone, will miss at least one-third of the points I want to make, because it is a completely unknown film.

Q: But your choice of Jane Fonda and Yves Montand for TOUT VA BIEN—wasn't that an attempt to reach a larger audience? to reach a larger audience?

A: Yes, we needed to do a film like that at the moment, because we were in a kind of ghetto, and we really wanted to go outside. That was both a matter of strategy and economy. And to do a film that would really intervene in the way people look at films, we had to deal with big stars, because stars are the basis of the film phenomenon. But of course we chose stars who were not only stars in the film world, but also stars by the position they had taken in the social and political field. At the same time our choice was determined by our will to go into perhaps the greatest problem we have: to direct actors in a new way, to break with the old Stanislavski system of acting.

Q: The choice of the stars was not forced upon you by the producer?

A: No, we went to Jane and Yves, because we wanted to work with them. We told them about the script and asked if they were willing to do it with us, and they agreed to do it on a percentage basis. Having the names of Jane, Yves, and Jean-Luc, we were able to get the money for the film.

Q: Was it difficult to work with big stars?

A: Yes, because they were put in a process completely different from the films they had been making before. Jane had been doing KLUTE and was going to shoot with Joseph Losey, and in between she was working with us. But it helped a lot that Jane was very interested in the film and also that she came from a school of acting that was completely different from Yves’. There is much more attitude in the American school of acting, while French actors are basically natures, and like Brecht we prefer attitude to nature. We honestly had big problems with the actors, and sometimes the whole thing seemed to get completely out of our hands. That’s why Jean-Luc doesn't like actors. He never did, but still the actors he used in his earlier films are the big stars of French cinema today: Belmondo, Piccoli, Anna Karma.

The interesting thing about TOUT VA BIEN is that the class struggle is also marked in the differences between the type of acting of the extras and the big stars. The workers in the film are played by people who don't have much experience, and the funny thing is that they discovered a certain tradition of acting that goes very far back in French cinema. They were not at all in the same line. You have a guy who plays like in a Jean Vigo film, and another who plays like in the old Gabin films, and one who plays like Arletty, and they were really enjoying themselves. It was a strange process, getting back to the roots, back to Renoir and the whole tradition of the 30’s, which is a political tradition of acting, because it came out of the Popular Front. Maybe the good thing about TOUT VA BIEN is the strong feeling you have of both individuality among the workers and at the same time some common will and spirit—individuality and mass consciousness at the same time. The two stars were really frightened in the factory sequence, because the whole thing seemed to get out of their hands. It is very difficult to deal with the problems of the actors when you are trying to produce non-psychological films or films where the psychology is completely different.

Q: But TOUT VA BIEN is still a psychological film, isn't it?

A: Yes, but the psychology is produced by the social events in this film. You can't get involved the way you get psychologically involved in other films. It is always a film that pushes you back, and it is a film with directions completely broken at times. You think you are getting once more into some normal process of identification, and then the whole thing explodes. It is not a history, it’s a film on history.

When you do a film,it’s a certain way to play with your own desire; it’s the way you project yourself into history. This political projection lies in the form of the film. Politics is not a matter of content, it’s a matter of form and expression, and when you are making a film, you are dealing with that. What is a film? Take the phenomenon of editing. Editing is exactly the process through which you disconnect a certain reality in order to reconnect it in another way. If you don't break completely with the notion that in films you have to produce realistic effects, then you get nowhere. There is a non-realistic way to be more realistic, and that is exactly what we are into.

Jean-Luc is obviously the first one to have made sound movies. There is the matter of the sound track in his films, and we need to go deeper into that. It is a basic problem to be able to hear the social music we are involved in. People say that our films lack music. Well, to me films like STRUGGLES IN ITALY and TOUT VA BIEN are highly musical films. I think we need more music and poetry in cinema, but when I say poetry, I am really referring to people who are struggling inside the language, and this is both an aesthetic and a political struggle. Everyone criticizes us for making the films we do. They consider them non-political. They also say that they are not even films, just like people said that Joyce’s novels were not novels.

Q: Usually films are defined as a means of mass communication, while you, as far as I can understand, consider a film to be just a film. But what will the social and political effect of your work be?

A: If you don't start from reality, if you don't start from the fact that a film is a film, then you are not going to produce any positive effects by the diffusion of your film in the social structure. You need to know that you are specific, and you need to deal with the aesthetic problems, because they are specific for the filmmaker. What the social effect of your film will be depends on your situation in the social structure, on your position in production, and on the way you try to fight a system that strangles you. If you do not have profound personal reasons to rebel against the system, you will achieve nothing.

The process of making a film is a process where you say:

“Well, I am surrounded by thousands of images and sounds. In the streets of Paris there is a normal code of sounds, and I know what that normality means and what effect it has on me. It is an effect of madness.”

So try to work on that as a filmmaker. Try to disconnect the elements of that reality and to reconnect them in another way.

You need to reach the point where you are not speaking as an ego, but where something is speaking through you. This is a process of complete dissolution of the ego. Something is speaking through me which is history, not only my own history, but centuries of history. It is some kind of really schizophrenic experience, and that’s what I am going to work at in my next film. Sometimes the heavy Marxist talk, the stiff political thinking, is only a way to preserve one’s individuality and attempt to master reality. Let’s instead try to break the individuality and have reality speaking through you. That’s exactly the point where you break the whole mystique of the auteur.

If you take films like WIND FROM THE EAST and STRUGGLES IN ITALY, they are reflections on the streams we were really affected by, which is the class struggle in France. There is a delirium of history in those films. We need to have in our western society a kind of speech which will really explain and intervene in the reality we are facing, which is the reality of imperialism. And imperialism is the reality that one country lives from the exploitation of the world outside it. European thinking is completely closed in itself. When we look at ourselves in mirrors, it’s really the perfect image of our will to enclose ourselves. It is our attempt to negate the fact that we are living in the state of imperialism. We are the civilization of mirrors; we are looking at our faces all the time, and that is a very European phenomenon. In China mirrors were only for dragons, because they said that the monster would be afraid to see his own face. We are monsters, knowing perfectly well that our white skin means death for the people we are oppressing.

Take what happened in China and its effect on us: it is like the opening of a crack. We are facing a continent which is really linking and mixing elements of Marxism into the reality and thinking of very ancient China. We also have to dig into the centuries of our culture instead of re-assuring ourselves in the name of Marxism and through Marxism trying to recuperate the voice of God, which has a total knowledge of history. The total knowledge is God, but we don't have any total knowledge. Today there is an urgent need for what people call politics, and which is, more generally, history. People rush to history books instead of fiction where history is written in a way so that the currency of our presence can be recuperated.

Q: Looking at Godard’s older films, they are, of course, political right from the first sequence in the first film, where the gangster shoots the policeman. But probably they are political in an almost subconscious way, without Godard really knowing it, don't you think?

A: It’s not a problem of conscious or unconscious—that’s what they are. And if you think our subconsciousness is not working in STRUGGLES IN ITALY, you're wrong. It’s working in a more effective way than in his previous films. PIERROT LE FOU had a very traditional narrative that could be understood by everybody, but go to a film like STRUGGLES IN ITALY, and you'll be really puzzled. You think it is a very self-conscious film, but it isn't. When you meet someone who has not had the opportunity or possibility to express himself as an individual, but who tries to build his own language through a trip into theory, when you meet someone who is cut from the roots of his own language, then the politically subconscious operates at a level you can't imagine.

There is no such film where only the subconsciousness plays, and no such film where only the self-consciousness plays. When you are making a film, something is speaking through you. This something is not an individual inner landscape, but a group phantasma or historical phantasma. People like Rimbaud and Artaud can only be understood if you see them as completely saturated with history, and the same goes for Jean-Luc. When you make a film you don't make it alone. You make it because you belong to a certain historical tradition. And Jean-Luc has obviously made a revolution the way he has appeared as an auteur. He is a very strange kind of auteur because he has never produced any personal type of speech. As an editor he has mainly worked on disconnections of the historical background. So Jean-Luc is not doing the films. The films of Jean-Luc are done through someone—who happens to be Jean-Luc. He places himself in the position of a loudspeaker.

Q: You attempted to do an historical film on the Palestinian situation. What happened with the film?

A: We've had this film on our backs for two years, and it has passed through four or five stages of cutting. One of the interesting things about the film is our impossibility to edit it, but I think we've found some kind of creative possibility to reflect on the impossibility of editing the material. We plan to make four or five films each lasting one and one-half hours out of the ten hours of material we have. They will be struggling films in the sense that we will honestly speak about the problems we have been facing in trying to film an historical process.

Q: So these films will really be about the impossibility of finishing the film

A: ... which is a possibility to finish the film, yes. It will be a break with the normal militant film made on foreign conflicts. For various historic reasons, the Palestine problem contains a lot of crossroads. What is Palestine if not the effect of the fall of the old British and French imperialism and the taking over by the new head of imperialism, the USA? What is Palestine if you don't go back to Czarist Russia and to Germany in between the World Wars? And what is Palestine if you don't go back into Arab history, which is completely unknown? Palestine is a basic problem of the days we are facing, and I think it is more interesting to see how these basic problems go back into our own lives here and now. It’s more interesting to try and make some experiments on the material we have been filming than to make a film that pretends to sum up in one continuity the incredible aspects of the problem.

Q: Does this mean that basically you find it impossible to make an historical film?

A: I find it very difficult. Another aspect is that I am afraid by the kind of success I could achieve by doing such a film. I am very cautious about the fact that referring to the theory of history, which is Marxism, I could deliver some kind of analysis, which will be quoted as a partial possibility to deal with history and which could be integrated in the way people normally see history. Maybe a Marxist film on history is possible, but I doubt it facing the problems we have been facing. I don't doubt that some kind of analysis could be produced, but I doubt that this analysis can transform itself into the form of a film. The problem, again, is not to do a Marxist film on history, but to do an historical film in a Marxist way. It’s obvious that we completely refuse the easy prestige of the reportage movie. We don't make a film where we can put a voice-over that would be God’s voice capturing all the aspects of a moving reality. We want to do something far more complex, which will produce a new kind of aesthetic and political approach to the problem.

Any film is political. Any film stands consciously or unconsciously for something, so the problem is: what kind of politics is working within a film? In a film, politics expresses itself in aesthetics, because a film is a matter of transforming a certain content into a certain form. Brecht has said:

“I am posing myself the problem of form, because I am posing myself problems of politics.”

What we are facing today is that the word “politics” is getting a wider sense each day. That explains the position we have taken toward so-called “political films,” which we define as “films on politics.” That means films where you have characters who, among other activities, also have political activities. This is the way the ruling class defines politics. And people are through with politics in that sense, which in the world we are living in is a highly political statement. Depending on the activity people have in the social structure, this can sometimes be very reactionary. But we also have examples that this way of refusing the coded politics of the ruling class has a revolutionary meaning and effect, and here comes the problems of aesthetics and of new cultural forms. That’s why we are not making films for a large audience, which is the Hollywood ideology. We don't believe that a film tells anything. A film is the telling. At a certain point in the film the transformation that you are focusing on should transform the film. Film history is full of films on madness, films on love, films on politics. But there is a considerable lack of mad films, love films, political films—where the subject of the film is being transformed into the flesh and blood of the film.

Take schizophrenic people: they are haunted by history, and so were Artaud and Bataille. They are driving back history on their own bodies. They are always in the process of tattooing history on their white skin, and when we make a film, the screen is only a white skin to tattoo. Schizophrenic people can travel through centuries, and what have we been doing in films like WIND FROM THE EAST and STRUGGLES IN ITALY? They are the perfect image of what was the militancy at that time, that incredible drive of madness which was inside it. They are affected by history, not on a theoretical level, but in the flesh and blood of the films. It’s a kind of experiment, where you reach yourself, and not as an ego, but as an incredible amount of mutual energy. Let’s just call it a poetic vision. But people who have built the theory of history were dealing with the same kind of poetry. You can't understand Marx if you don't see that this guy describing the capitalist machine was jerking off all the time. He loved putting all the elements together, and it’s very important to love what you're doing.

Many political people have self-conscious and proclaimed interests that they call revolutionary. But they also have unconscious interests that can be completely reactionary, even if they are linked to the revolutionary interests. There comes the point when I say:

“Man, blow your mind, try to dig into your own unconscious, try to find where your investment and your interest is.”

We are in a mad structure cut away from our roots by some cold monster which is ruling class ideology. We have to break with our own individualities and to stop referring to the working class as an abstraction. Our search must be for concrete bodies here and now. Che was right when saying that a true revolutionary has in himself a great feeling of love, and I am not being metaphysical saying that. I am being really materialistic. There is a point where in a certain state of mind the spirit gets back the overwhelming experience of matter. Then you are at a point where there is no such thing as good and bad, despair, and joy. You're beyond those contradictions, and everything is complete and total experience. In revolutionary moments, that’s what the masses are looking for. May 68 was a very total experience. People were talking and dancing in the streets and doing all sorts of crazy things. When you have passed through that, you want it to happen again and again.

McLuhan was basically wrong when he talked about the death of Gutenberg. In spite of the civilization of images and sounds, people don't see films, they read them, because they are marked by books. It’s not by chance that we lack completely the sense of seeing. It’s an historical phenomenon of imperialist society. If you take ancient culture in Mexico, you see that the relation between the medicine man and the young guy he is going to initiate is a complete reversal of the traditional relationship we have between a teacher and a pupil. It’s basically a risky relationship, and the medicine man is not delivering his knowledge—he is delivering the knowledge was delivered to him. The relationship is based on experience and not on literary knowledge. You see it in the wonderful books by Carlos Casteñeda about the teaching of Don Juan. They are the first books to contain a basic criticism of our occidental way of reasoning.

Sometimes I feel more like a very old Indian, and would like to speak Mexican. Marxism doesn't help me to live, and I don't want to call myself a Marxist. I'll leave that to people who are satisfied by calling themselves Marxists. You can be a teacher of Marxism. They don't bother anybody. They are just over there teaching, but where is life?