UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers

Black Panthers in the New Wave
Martha Merrill
Film Culture, No. 53-54-55, 1972, pp. 134-145.

Agnes Varda in UbuWeb Film
Film Culture in UbuWeb Papers
Presented in partnership with Anthology Film Archives

Jean-Luc Godard's film Sympathy for the Devil (original title One plus One) was on view for the first time two years ago at the London Film Festival. The Festival had been more sedate than usual—dull if you will. I no longer even paid attention to what I was supposed to see next, and therefore as I was lounging in th Members' Lounge with my "half of bitter," it was only a rapid view of tinted spectacles, heavy beard, and an unmistakable anaemic face that presaged something slightly more lively for the next two hours' entertainment. Jean-Luc Godard was on hand, and if his film promised excitement, he himself generally involves even more.

From the beginning the format is slightly altered. A mimeographed sheet is passed out, entitled "Who Is Eldridge Cleaver." No time to read it; the little master himself is already on stage with Richard Roud and a black gentleman, bearded Lumumba-style, instead of the usual pretty starlet. Roud ordinarily translates impeccably from French or Italian for those whose English is not up to stuffy tastes. Godard, however, wants to express himself, and he is gomg to bitter-end it in our language even if the audience has to wait all night. He clearly has something to communicate. He is, however, often incoherent.

He thinks that film festivals like this have become irrelevant. In coming in he has noted that people were queuing outside. He thinks that is very sad, because when people are standing in queues, it ordinarily means that they are starving. In this case they are starving for movies. Some people because of this situation have started a movement to show films in the streets, for free. He thinks this is good, and for this reason, he has given them his personal print of his film One plus One so that they can show it outside to the people who couldn' t get in. This is a film about language, he says, about the language of blacks and whites, because they don't use the same dictionaries.

He commends a short documentary made by his compatriot Agnes Varda that has just been presented. It showed how the trial and conviction of Huey Newton had galvanized the Black Panther movement, and goes on to argue that the Oakland police were a repressive fascist force, both more dangerous and much more violent than the Panthers. Godard repeats that he thinks Varda's film very fine, but that this evening he wants to go a little further, and that he has a proposition to make to us, the audience.

He reminds us that we had all paid ten shillings to get into the National Film Theatre. He says that our doing so was a political act, and that indeed, for him, everything is a political act. He bitterly criticized those who would sit and watch a film stupidly "like cretins in a church" without realizing the political aspect of their actions.

Two days ago, he says with emphasis, was a very important date. He explains that Eldridge Cleaver, whom we had seen in the Varda film, has been supposed to go back to jail and he hadn't done so. Only a few days before that, he Godard, had been in San Francisco making a film with Cleaver and at one point he had asked Cleaver's wife whether Eldridge was going to Cuba or back to jail. She answered that he wouldn't go to Cuba because he wouldn't leave his own country, but that he wasn't going to go back to jail either. He asked her whether, if her husband were caught by the police, he would shoot. Her answer was "only if they shoot first." As it happened, just two days ago Eldridge Cleaver had in fact disappeared. He emphasizes the significance of this date—it is, he explains, the first time an American black movement had gone underground.

He tells us that it is not very important to see a film. In this particular case, he says, you may not be able to see the right version because the producer wants to change the ending. But in any event, the message will not be lost. The case of Eldridge Cleaver is important, however, and that is why he has a proposition he wants to make to the audience. At this point, many people, thinking they have got the message, start reaching in their pockets and rattlin florins and half-crowns as a handy sum to contribute. But he keeps insisting on the fact that we have all paid ten shillings to get in, and he says he knows that there are some people in the audience for whom ten shillings represents quite a lot, and consequently his proposition was that instead of seeing this film everyone should go to the box office, demand a refund and send his ten shillings to the international committee to defend Eldridge Cleaver. His involvement and sincerity are evident, so much so that the audience becomes a bit uneasy.

At this point, there is a shout from the audience. "Can't we do both, see the film and send the money?" Godard says no, that if anyone is prepared to send the ten shillings without giving up the film, they should forego the film in any event and send twenty shillings to the defense fund. During the course of this exchange he takes out a check and tries to hand it to director Richard Roud but Roud smilingly keeps his hands to himself, so Godard puts the check on the stage floor. Presumably it is intended to reimburse the National Film Theatre for the refunds they will give patrons.

We felt it could go either one way or the other. It seemed only by chance that the tone at the outset was set against Godard.

"Do you want us to suffer or do you want to help Eldridge Cleaver?"

"If people are dying in the desert, we don't help them any if we ourselves don't drink water." (this from an African-accented voice)

Godard replies that that is just the standard liberal argument.

"If you are supposed to be a Communist, why are you bullying us?" Godard finally says he wants a show of hands for all of those who want to deprive themselves of the film and send their ten shillings to the Eldridge Cleaver Defense Fund. Very few hands go up. "That's just what I expected." The shouts from the audience become a well of noise after this. "Cut out the talk and get on with the show!" "I have a train to catch!" Godard breaks and runs for the exit, in passing rounding a healthy poke at a young face in the crowd that has hitherto taken no part in the events. As he disappears into the knot of people around the door, at stage left, he turns back. "You're all fascists!" he shouts.

During the couple of dazed minutes that follow I finish reading "Who is Eldridge Cleaver?" He is: "The first major American political figure to have gone underground rather than yield to a system of justice which had sworn to see that he would not remain free to fight for black liberation. . . . He is the first, but will not be the last, fighter against American imperialism abroad and repression of its citizenry, to choose clandestine activity rather than certain death."

A few people start leaving, but it is difficult to tell by their expressions whether they are leaving in sympathy or disgust with Godard. The young man who has been assaulted walks to stage center holding his mouth. He turns out to be a representative of the producers, Cupid Productions, and he says that he is not involved in Godard's Black Power discourse, but that he wants to say something about the film. He would seem to be about 25, has shoulder-length hair and is dressed in rather elegant what-passes-for-Hippie style: lace shirt, velvet suit. Through the tumult, directed at him, Godard, and nameless other individuals, he manages to communiate that Cupid Productions has given Godard everything he wanted to make the film, that it was a private financing arrangement, and that having put up the entire and indeed very large sum of money required to finance the picture, the company felt that it should have some right of control over its final content, which, he says, was in fact the legal arrangement which had been made with Godard.

Roud then comes back to stage center saying he wants one more vote to be sure what were the audience's wishes. With all stops out, the audience indicates quite vocally that it would like please goddammit to see film. Okay, says he, and incidentally it will be shown with both endings, first Godard's, then Cupid's.

In the meantime Godard is outside addressing a group of nonfascists assembled on the cold ground under Waterloo Bridge who are there to see a showing of his personal copy. His fans are of a mind to storm the Film Theatre, but he, apparently, is not, and he says in any case he isn't English, they don't need a star to help them, that they can do it on their own. Some days later he says that it is not a problem for him not to be of the same nationality in order to take an active part in politics. ("It' s a reflex that we have learned from the bourgeoisie or imperialism.") He stays only for a minute, and then glassy-eyed, begs off, saying that he has a plane to catch the next morning, and so departs for dinner with Bernardo Bertolucci and a few other luminaries.

The film opens in an automobile graveyard, a car dump, full of black men. The wrecks that we have tried to bury. The cast-oils of the white, industrial, capitalistic, consumer society—both blacks and cars. White women are brought in—in virginal white nightgowns. A black man in a Panther T-shirt says, "Is there anything so beautiful as a white woman's hair blowing in the wind?" Their white virginal nightgowns are bloodied. Another black intones paeans to love, patience, brotherhood and non-violence. The virginal whites are machine-gunned . These men are the old and new black men at once—we hear people say words that seem no longer to have any meaning, we see acts that do.

A title flashes on screen "alL abOut eVE." Pretty little white girl in a wood. In her modern Eden, Eve even has a telephone. She is calling people—like Lumumba. They don't answer. The white Eve no longer tempts the black man. White men come to interview her. She answers yes to a series of clichés and niceties . Example: "The lower classes have more sexual vitality than the upper classes." Answer: "Yes." She is the voice of liberal democracy.

Anglo-Saxon society (really America, for to Godard, England is a colony of America "that doesn't even have the force to be a real slave") is fascistic, violent and dirty-minded. It is symbolized by a bookstore where nothing but books of violence or pornography are sold—covers liberally illustrated with swastikas. Mein Kampf is intoned. Two bloody prisoners who cry for peace in Viet Nam are ritually slapped by all who enter the store, even a sweet-looking little girl. The commentary states that the Americans have just what they want—a bit of war and shooting, all covered by color television.

Titles give us many clues to the meaning—titles randomly painted on cars, walls or signboards by Godard's wife—"Sovietcong," "Cinemarxist."

It is the last two titles and the final scene that tells us what are really the central ideas of the film. One title is "Changes in a society" with the letters ONE emphasized. The other, "Under the stones, the beach," with URSS (French for USSR) and ONE emphasized. The second is a translation of one of the now-famous graffiti of the May-June 1968 "French Revolution." The moral to be had from their addition is that revolution will bring about Communism, but that to Communism must be added the continuing possibility to criticize that society. This is the one plus one of the Godard title. The message is reiterated in the very last scene as the body of a white girl, killed by black men, white gown spattered with her red blood, is lifted into the sky flanked by the solid black and solid red flags used together, among other places, in the French student revolution. They are the flags of anarchy and Communism. The first must temper the second, but the body of white liberal democracy (she is the same girl) must be offered up on the altar of the black revolution to add One Plus One.

The final irony in the Godard ending is that the screen goes black and the sound track fumbles and runs down and the Rolling Stones never finish the song entitled "Sympathy for the Devil" they have been singing as a sort of basso continuo throughout the film. For Godard the Revolution is not finished. It remains to be done, and he wants no facile endings. It is in fact not quite as simple as One Plus One. For him, we have not yet learned to add.

The producers have learned to add, because they deal in money. In their ending the Rolling Stones finish their song, and for American consumption the song's title becomes the film's title and the package is neatly tied. All the teeny-boppers who will pay money to hear the Stones want to hear the Stones. It adds up.

The producer, the ogre, the panderer to the public, the moneyman who massacres art and gets boffed on the chin. Who was he anyway? Answer: Iain Quarrier, Canadian, under 30. Leather jacket, mustard velveteen pants, paisley shirt, paisley tie. Floppy fedora-type plush hat of deeper mustard. Long, vaguely mustard-color curls. He never doffs the Fedora, no matter the surroundings. It is Wednesday. He has been in bed since Saturday. He says he got his discs reworked when falling into a piano after Godard's punch in the jaw. His jaw doesn't hurt, but his back does. He talks easily.

He is living with the black model Donyale Luna, and she comes along. On the few occasions when she does talk, she does not seem to, nor does she seem to move, no, though alive, even to live. She is not "photographic," at least not in the sense of photographic women who instinctively turn and play and pose, waiting for you to find the view of them which you want for yourself. She is sculptural, standing motionless in the round, still, ever so still. If you are to see her beauty, you must move around her, she will not move for you. She is proud but not vain.

Quarrier used to split the rent with Roman Polanski, but now that they've both made it, Polanski has a house across the street. He has played in two Polanski films, Cul de Sac and The Fearless Vampire Killers. He's been a stage manager and TV director , as well as an actor, and has tried his hand at writing. "Polanski has been my mentor and guider. He's why I'm where I'm at today."

"I only want to work with two kinds of people—the Godards, Tony Richardsons, the Nicholas Rays or the new directors. I'm responsible for this money. I've raised it and I want to be able to use it to encourage lesser known film-makers, those that aren't such hustlers."

The money comes from a friend, Michael Pearson, the son of an English lord. He inherited. He is only 23. "This guy has a half a million pounds that he has made available for films. We are willing to do without profit, which is pretty unusual, but we just want the money back to keep going. I disagree with my friend Godard. Films cost a lot of money to make, therefore they have to be related to things that aren't related to art. He talks of film like any art. The canvas of the painter costs practically nothing. The canvas of the cinema means money. If I don't get back my money from the Godard film, I can't give any to a new director who doesn't important as the director. Then that should include the producer as well, and so why all this controversy about the ending's being changed? I asked Godard why should films be free if bread is not free. He answered 'I'm not a baker.' "

"In my opinion, if culture is free you don't want it. The museums are free in England and they are less well attended than in France where they're not. After all Godard made the film for a commercial organization. But now that I think of it, he does have the idea that one can exploit capitalism."

He'll jump at anything, he is a beautiful man, he parodies democracy, he may not be honest with himself. I found Godard in Paris, in his study. He talked as if he weren't really there, as if what he said had nothing to do with him. I had to strain to catch the words, but the meaning I sometimes didn't.

Why had he made the film in England and not in America? "Because the money was there. Because it was in English, and England is a colony of the United States. I had tried to do it with Bobby Seale and he agreed, but it was awfully complicated because he had to be accompanied everywhere, he had to be paid, and they didn't want to pay him. Still the pornography scene would have been stronger in a shop on 42nd Street than elsewhere. Pornography and Nazism. It's striking. There are swastikas on all the pornography books. In New York, three-quarters of them: it's very connected. And the longer the War in Viet Nam goes on the more the women on the covers of pornographic magazines spread their legs. I really only know New York, the enormous garbage heap. They keep building, but it falls down so fast that one gets the impression that the leprosy of the cave grows at the same rate as renewal, that everything is getting filthy."

Why had he gotten involved with Cleaver and the Panthers? "Because it had become political. It's like the struggle of the FLN in Algeria, because there was racism there as well, worse even than for the blacks."

What did he think about an armed revolution by the blacks? "I think that there will come a moment when they will be too much oppressed and then they will. North Viet Nam did. Others have."

What's your opinion of violence? (Roud's book quotes Godard as saying that violence "threatens the happiness of us all.") To me he says "Like President Mao, I think it's necessary to attack by nonviolence and to defend oneself by violence, whereas imperialism attacks with violence and on the contrary defends itself by non-violence. To force television programs, trucks or advertising on people who don't want them—they don't call that violence. For them violence is shooting someone with a pistol, but there's a big part of the world for whom violence is the other thing. That's imperialism, but they say no, no, it's liberalism, we have to have order in the streets, it's nice and calm. It's the father who sends his sons off to bed because it's 8 o'clock and children ought to be in bed at eight. Children think of that as violence, but the father says, no I'm being very nice, I'm only seeking your well-being. That's imperialism for you."

Did he know personally any blacks in the United States? "Oh very few, very few. There is an oppression of the culture, of the language, of everything that has been completely stolen. They are quite right in acting as they do, just as the workers are right in fighting against the culture of the bosses. Perhaps theirs is a completely different world, and perhaps it's the white world that got the upper hand, but there's no particular reason for it. One could learn about George Washington because he lived in the United States, but there is no reason to teach an American black about the Queen of England or the Russian Czars. On the contrary, they ought to learn about Africa and that sort of thing, because they have been struck off the list. There is no reason to write them off because they know perhaps how to do some things that others don't know how to do—without being either inferior or superior. I think it's normal that in Algeria they say that one must learn Arabic, and that one must learn math in Arabic. After all, all math, arithmetic was born in the Arab culture, and they will perhaps find interesting things that the whites wouldn't find. And the blacks, it's exactly the same thing as far as music is concerned. Leroi Jones is quite correct. Whites stole black music and transformed it to suit their taste."

"Culture has to come from the bottom up rather than the top down. It must involve more those who are themselves involved in revolutionary action. Take myself, for example, I can't talk about blacks, but I can record their statements. Very few people do."

Yes, but aren't you still on the top of the culture pyramid ? "On top, yes, but one must stop being on top. Either by stopping completely and working in a drugstore or in a dimestore or waiting until things evolve and one is finally obliged to cut oneself off."

And at this point, would there still be films? "I don't know. Not many I think. If you are good at it, then you could do that. If not they'II find you something at which you are better."

Don't you think that this would simply recreate a system of classes in which those who are good at making films would again constitute an elite? "That's what mustn't happen, because everything will be better, they will be better criticized. One will be told, 'Your film is bad, so for a year you can't make any more films, someone else will.' Whereas now they say, 'Your film is bad,' and the director goes right on and makes another crummy film the next year."

And who will be the critics of these films? Will it be those who work in the factories? "No, but society will be better, so the problem won't be the same."

What would he give as a definition of fascistic culture? "The problem is that one can't give definitions just like that. One can give good examples. A film from the Hollywood of today. The New York Times is a lesser example of fascist culture."

Did he know Cleaver personally? "In a film that I was making in the United States, I asked to have an interview with him, a week before he disappeared . It's a film in 16 millimeter, a bit amateurish, called One American Movie. It's associated with people from Channel 13, who won't show it because they are like the New York Times. There's also an interview with Tom Hayden. The theory was to interview people and then afterwards have the interview done over by actors. People I chose arbitrarily. Well really it was to find, particularly at the beginning, someone who symbolized America, that is money and imperialism, Wall Street, and especially a woman rather than a man because that's in accordance with the American myth, where the woman has a rather important power, and then to show the people who are trying to struggle against it. Then after that musicians or beatniks who try to escape, who at least have a defense reaction, and then to show the blacks who have the most advanced position, and at the end to show a child, a black child, because he is the most oppressed. And each time to have it redone by an actor in order each time to show the relations between the supposed reality and the supposed art. One sees an interview for ten minut es and then one sees the text red one by an actor like he thinks it ought to be said. With Cleaver, for example, there is a white girl who redoes his text, a white actress walking down Fifth Avenue saying it to the passers-by."

"We went to that school Ocean-Hill, Brownsville, the one that caused everything to blow up. They were very nice, but everything was a flop, because the actor was so afraid. It was a white actor who redid the Wall Street woman. We had dressed him up in a Confederate uniform. It was his first political act, and he was so shaken up that it flopped. Except that all of a sudden he came up with something really funny. He had a sabre and he took an apple out of his pocket and stuck it up on the end of the sabre and said, 'That's capitalism.' The film is half color, half black and white. Very bad color. In America it's really the worst sort of capitalism. If you are broke they give. you bad film, so I use cheap stock on purpose, explaining that this is the film that is reserved for revolutionary artists and blacks."

What about his problems of financing? "If Truffaut gcts money from, say, MGM, it's because he does what MGM wants of him. That is to say, he doesn't know that MGM has gotten to him, but in fact that's the situation. He thinks he's doing his thing, but in fact MGM accepts it. As for me, I don't want to do things that MGM will accept. Hollywood can do a film on Che Guevara because he isn't in America , but the idea that they have of doing a film on Malcolm X with a script by Baldwin—that I don't think they can do. Because, even if they can do it, it won't be released. The only people who can do it are the Black Panthers or someone like them.

And the blacks here in France? "I think there's more of a problem of mtolerance than people admit."

What experience did he have of it or them? "None at all."

(Winter 1968 )

UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers