In his article “Godard and Counter-Cinema”, film theorist Peter Wollen argues that Jean-Luc Godard creates a new spectatorial position and destroys visual pleasure through undermining the conventions of traditional narrative cinema.
However, he seems to criticize Godard for not living up to the potential of counter-cinema to construct new forms of pleasure. Yet, perhaps Wollen’s focus on the binary of “pleasure v. unpleasure” in his examination of Godard’s work forces him to neglect the actual presence of a new intellectual and analytical pleasure in Godard’s notorious and challenging film, Weekend (1967).
Wollen defines pleasure as “entertainment aiming to satisfy the spectator” (Wollen, p.79), but does not explicitly state the necessary conditions for this pleasure. However, since Wollen associates this pleasure with traditional Hollywood cinema, which he juxtaposes to Godard’s counter-cinema, we can infer that the “values of old cinema” (Wollen, p.74) are responsible for the construction of a pleasurable spectatorial experience. According to Wollen, these values include narrative transitivity, identification, transparency, single diegesis, closure, and fiction. In general, these qualities seem to facilitate coherent narrative flow and a disavowal of the inherent artificiality of cinema. Thus, an attack on these conventions is necessarily an attack on Wollen’s concept of visual pleasure as well.
Godard’s multi-pronged assault against pleasure (as defined by Wollen) is evident in the traffic jam scene in Weekend. In this scene, identification is undermined as the camera totally breaks free of the characters and takes on a life of its own. The camera remains fixed at a distance away from the action (long shot), and moves at a relatively constant velocity down the side of the road regardless of what is depicted on screen. The camera movements often leave the main characters behind—forcing them to catch up to the camera in order to get back into the frame. Here, Godard seems to be constructing the antithesis to the Hollywood tracking shot. Instead of using camera movement to track a subject and facilitate identification, Godard uses it to distance the spectator from the characters, spatially and emotionally—a phenomenon that Wollen refers to as “estrangement” (Wollen, p.75). Godard also accomplishes this estrangement by placing the camera on the right side of the road in order to obscure Corrine and Roland (who are travelling on the left side of the road) behind a row of cars.
In addition, Wollen writes, “identification can only take place in a situation of suspended belief” (Wollen, 75). Here, Wollen is arguing that identification is only possible if the spectator believes in the fictional world of the film. Once again, Godard undermines this quality by calling attention to the cinematic apparatus and exposing it as inherently artificial. Wollen classifies this conflict as a dichotomy between “transparency” in Hollywood cinema and “foregrounding” in counter-cinema (Wollen, p.76). In addition to being freed from the characters, the camera in the traffic jam scene does several small pans that feel random and extraneous to any semblance of narrative. In traditional cinema, pans are used to reveal a new aspect of the filmic space important to the story. However, in Weekend, these movements are deceptive and serve the alternate purpose of making the audience aware of the camera, thereby fracturing transparency and rendering identification impossible.
Godard also accomplishes this foregrounding by attacking another value of old cinema described by Wollen as “narrative transitivity”, which he defines as “one thing following another” (Wollen, p.74). Godard breaks up the traffic jam shot with useless inter-titles of times (“13h40” and “14h10”) and the title of the movie (“Weekend”). Again, none of this information is narratively important and the quick return to the exact same long take of the traffic jam undermines the assertion that thirty minutes have passed between the “13h40” and “14h10” inter-titles. Furthermore, the excessive five minute length of the traffic jam sequence also brings narrative flow to a screeching halt. The spectator becomes bored and his/her attention may wander. Wollen classifies these oppositional practices as “narrative intransitivity” which he defines as “gaps and interruptions, episodic construction, undigested digression” (Wollen, p. 75).
He also claims that Godard uses narrative intransitivity as a tool to “disrupt the emotional spell of the narrative and force the spectator, by interrupting the narrative flow, to re-concentrate and re-focus his attention” (Wollen, 75). Thus, Wollen seems to argue that Godard’s subversion of transparency, identification and narrative transitivity leads to the formation of a new type of spectatorial experience and the destruction of visual pleasure (as described by Wollen as “entertainment”). This new position of spectatorship is linked to Wollen’s assertion that Godard is “suspicious of the power of the arts—and the cinema, above all—to ‘capture’ its audience without apparently making it think, or changing it” (Wollen, p.75). In contrast to the passive spectator of Hollywood cinema, Godard wants the spectator of counter-cinema to become an active participant in the construction and consumption of meaning. According to Wollen, for the spectator, Godard’s counter-cinema “raises directly the question, ‘What is this film for?’, superimposed on the orthodox narrative questions, ‘Why did this happen?’ and ‘What is going to happen next?’ ” (Wollen, p.76). Thus, a new, more analytical form of spectatorship is born. However, this spectator is forced to acknowledge the artificiality of cinema and is thus unable to achieve cinematic pleasure, for which transparency is a prerequisite.
Wollen seems conflicted about his opinion of Godard’s work. On one hand, he praises Godard as “the most important director working today [in the 70’s]” (Wollen, p.74) and says he “was right to break with Hollywood cinema and set up his counter-cinema” (Wollen, p.74). On the other hand, he criticizes Godard for abandoning fantasy and not living up to the potential of counter-cinema to create new forms of pleasure. Wollen argues that “desire, and its representation in fantasy, far from being necessary enemies of revolutionary politics –and its cinematic auxiliary—are necessary conditions” (Wollen, p.80) and claims that Godard appears to be suspicious of “the need for fantasy at all” (Wollen, p.80). Wollen also attacks Godard when he writes that unlike Godard, “Brecht was careful never to turn his back on entertainment and, indeed, he even quotes Horace in favor of pleasure as the purpose of the arts, combined, of course, with instruction” (Wollen, p.81). By supporting Brecht’s view of entertainment as the central purpose of the arts and condemning Godard’s works for their lack of pleasure, Wollen is essentially implying that Godard’s films are not art. This assertion stands in direct opposition to the rest of his article, which mostly praises Godard.
Wollen seems to want the best of both worlds – a counter-cinema that both challenges the dominant mode of filmic expression and is also pleasurable to watch. However, perhaps Godard’s film Weekend is closer to Wollen’s desired counter-cinema than he realizes. Wollen’s focus on the binary between pleasure (defined as “entertainment”) in Hollywood cinema and unpleasure in Godard’s work blinds him to the existence of more nuanced forms of pleasure.
In Weekend, traditional pleasure derived from narrative flow, identification, and transparency gives way to a more intellectual and analytical form of pleasure, which embraces the artificiality of cinema. The film becomes pleasurable on an intellectual level because it is so revolutionary in its opposition to the dominant mode of filmic expression. It is fascinating to watch Godard undermine almost every convention of Hollywood cinema over the course of Weekend. In doing so, he disassembles the machine of cinema and allows the spectator to glimpse its inner workings. Here, pleasure is disassociated from the narrative and focused instead on the formal construction of the film. Questions such as “what is Godard going to do next?” replace traditional questions like “what are the characters going to do next?”. Similarly, Individual shots and camera movements become interesting not because they reveal more of the story, but because they toy with and break our expectations as spectators. Thus, perhaps Godard might be best understood as redefining pleasure rather than destroying it in Weekend, and Wollen can have his cake and eat it too.
Peter Wollen, “Goddard and Counter Cinema,” Movies & Methods, Vol. 2, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)