Monday, May 19, 2014

Stones on Film Week Two: Sympathy for the Devil/1 + 1 (1968)

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Available on DVD and for rent

You are reading Stones on Film, a 13-part dialogue covering notable Rolling Stones documentary and concert films through a critical lens. Today is week two. Archive here.

NS: After opening credits and a primitive painted interstitial (“stonesrolling”), the film begins with Brian Jones and Mick Jagger on acoustic guitars, humming away at a chord progression that sounds familiar. It is “Sympathy for the Devil,” but in its larval stage. They are sitting in a large recording booth in front of a brightly-colored soundbooth, and there is a garish pink rug on the floor. Bill Wyman, revealed to be sitting behind the guitarists, wears a shirt with the same color of pink. Suddenly, Keith Richards cuts in from the left of the frame, muttering some instructions to the group. The music stops, and the camera pans right to Charlie Watts in the corner, bored and noodling at the drums.

This opening two minutes basically establish one of two distinct tonalities set by Jean-Luc Godard in Sympathy For the Devil (originally 1 + 1, but re-titled against Godard’s will). Half of the film showcases the five Stones banging out the song that will become “Sympathy for the Devil,” occasionally with session musicians and vaguely familiar faces (such as Nicky Hopkins on organ, last seen drinking and crooning Beatles tunes in Charlie is my Darling). The other half of the film is harder to describe, but it basically involves a lot of Black Panther iconography and radical sloganeering, as well as some comic book imagery and implied sexual violence. These scenes are linked to the Stones segments in that they involve Godard’s signature long takes, in which the camera begins with an image, then pans laterally until it rests upon another image, then returns in the opposite direction.

The tonal shifts between the two halves become apparent about eleven minutes into the film, when we break with the Stones and cut to a black man, sitting in a wheelbarrow in a junk yard. He is reading an excerpt from Blues People by Amiri Baraka. At first, it seems like Godard is making some sort of connection between the American black music the Stones appropriated and the rights struggles of African Americans in the 60s. This at least seems like a profound and salient point. But then that point sits there, and doesn’t really elaborate. It is one of many empty Marxist slogans aimed or shouted at the viewer, in increasingly inartful scenarios. Then it gets worse: another Black Panther in the junkyard reads Eldridge Cleaver’s ugly commentary on white women. While he reads this, caucasian females trussed in white rags are taken into empty cars and shot.

It soon becomes clear that Godard is using the Stones elements of the film as a vehicle for increasingly unsubtle and incomprehensible essays on Marxism. In the late 60s, the director was embarking on his “radical period,” films that were less films and more plotless, cynical anti-narratives. Any connection any of this has with the Stones sequences is lost about halfway through, and the other elements in the film (clearly the parts Godard favors) have a habit of annoyingly taking viewers out of the proceedings for no reason.

But what of the Stones themselves? If nothing else, Godard’s fingerprints are all over these scenes as well. He was reportedly angry with the studio producers’ decision to include the single version of “Sympathy of the Devil” at the end of the film, and threatened to disown the project. To him, the Stones were not particularly interesting. He does not seem intrigued at all by the recording process or the nature of pop songwriting or anything like that. He captures snippets of conversation with the Stones, but always seemingly at their least significant.

Do you see where Godard is coming from when he says airing “Sympathy for the Devil” at the end ruins the whole point of the movie? On one level, I see what he means. It would be a mistake to say this film captures the songwriting process at any depth: the film begins with the song already written, and does not include any moments such as when, for instance, the song changes from a slow-building organ anthem (like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” or “Like a Rolling Stone”) to its famous samba rhythm. On the other hand, this seems to demonstrate Godard at his most insufferable, and for all his innovations this film stands as a perfect reason why my mind shuts off when his characters start talking politics.

And what did you think of Brian Jones? Curious how yet again he is barely heard in these brief snippets of performance. He seems, like Godard, increasingly unconcerned with what is going on around him. Perhaps he, or Godard, chose to film his this way on purpose? Already we are seeing a pattern.

AM: I should say off the bat that I’ve never been a Godard fan. Breathless I’ve warmed to and the primary colors and studied cool of a film like Contempt are hard to deny. But for a Godard skeptic, or even a Stones skeptic, Sympathy for the Devil is just about the worst place to start.

1 + 1 is a decent title for the film, but its halves don’t add up. You’re right that the studio scenes and political stagings aren’t effectively integrated. We see the Stones at various moments in the creation of one of their finest songs, one we’ll discuss again in this series. And we see what the director imagines to be scenes from the class struggle in 1968. The audio occasionally spills over from one half to the other, but Godard doesn’t seek to weave them together.

You ask if Sympathy for the Devil, if left to the director’s devices, would have turned out better? I’m inclined to say no. The project is rotten at its core. I don’t think that hearing the song in full particularly affected my viewing experience--that’s a decision that might agonize an auteur, but doesn’t particularly change the film. The Stones get closer and closer to that final version as the film draws on. Why not let us hear where they arrived? How does that blunt all those comic shop seig hiels? (Don’t ask.)

It’s the missed connections between the studio scenes and Marxist plays that’s really frustrating. There’s not a dialectic here, where the halves are feeding off one another or lending meaning to the film even when they’re off-screen.

“Sympathy for the Devil” is a political song, but if you were going to choose one Beggar’s Banquet jam to build your 1968 film around, surely you’d choose “Street Fighting Man.” There’s a song that evokes May in Paris, the Black Power salute and the DNC riots. “Sympathy” just makes me think about Bolsheviks.

And the structure leads us in two very different directions, which never reconcile. Godard sits us inside Olympic Studios, with its period-appropriate oranges, yellows, reds, browns and greens. It’s an odd setting for a political film. No one in the room talks politics--mostly, the musicians look weary--and they’re in a fucking recording studio. These are places that exist to screen out reality, its noises and distractions. They’re isolation chambers. Which makes Godard’s interjections all the more annoying.

Now, I did think that the studio scenes were pretty interesting. We open with the Stones working on a barely recognizable version of “Sympathy.” There are three acoustics, and Jagger sounds Dylan-y, like he would on “Jigsaw Puzzle.” The take recalls “Tangled Up In Blue” as much as it does “Sympathy for the Devil,” and it’s nice, but it lacks the charge of the final version.

When we next see the Stones, on a different day, we’re molested by a graphic voiceover. One that’s poorly recorded as well--you’d think that Godard could have booked a little studio time for his voice actors. Once that subsides, we get Godard’s wandering camera tracking the Stones, starting with the back of Jones’ head. Jones is barely audible in the mix. Mick, his pink trousers matching his lips exactly, chews out Charlie for playing “a bit dead.” Wyman is playing percussion, and Richard is on bass.

Eventually--the film tracks several days worth of takes on the song--Sympathy gets more infernal, with each congo, maraca, and bongo taking us one circle lower. The “woo woos”--so natural in the final song--turn out to be seven dudes standing around one microphone. They sound weirdly flat. But we see and hear the Stones getting closer and closer, figuring out just what it is they have.

One of the best moments in the studio comes towards the end, as a purple-clad Richard plays some lost classic. The riff is alternatively twisted and anthemic, with the fierce electric energy he’d ultimately bring to the solos in “Sympathy.” Charlie pounds away at a weird groove. And then, out of nowhere, the final version of “Sympathy for the Devil” drops in over the same take. OK, maybe that wasn’t the best place for the song.

But you’re right--Godard doesn’t seem particularly interested in anything inside the studio. Not the songwriting, not the band dynamics, not the mechanics of recording. He brings more imagination to the film’s political moments. But all the people talking in ideology...It’s meaningless garbage, isn’t it? (“Do you think drugs are a spiritual form of gambling?”). It’s offensive to the audience, and it’s terrible cinema.

There’s an interesting moment, when the black revolutionary in the junkyard reads aloud on race and music. It’s germane to the Stones, and to what we’re hearing back in the studio. Godard is doing something that’s meaningful to both halves of the film. Samba and lyrics about satan did not originate with white Englishmen, after all. But the scene takes some tasteless and sexist turns, drags on forever, and loses whatever spark Amiri Baraka’s thoughts briefly gave it. For a film about art and revolution, the sparks fly very rarely.

Before I toss it back to you, let me make a request. Play devil’s advocate--what about this film might someone love? Am I too bourgeois to get it?

And another topic I haven’t gotten to--the Stones’ transformation in the years between Charlie is My Darling and Sympathy for the Devil. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?

NS: As a big fan of of Godard, I would be happy to play temporary advocate. The film does have its adherents--among them, Lee Ranaldo. Not even Ranaldo is inclined to pay much attention to the Marxist gobbledygook that you 100% accurately describe as “meaningless garbage.” However, as I mentioned a bit previously, I think Godard’s approach to long takes is both lovely and original, and in another world it would be an ideal means of panning around Olympic Studios and catching the Stones in various moments of creativity. To his credit, I think Godard’s camera does pack in a lot of visual information about the Stones, when he bothers to show them. Perhaps he would have been better-suited to a concert film than something like this.

I like the comic book imagery as well, but as with the Baraka recitation, there’s more the suggestion of an idea (something about pop art imagery in comics and radical politics) than any actual idea. Godard’s other experimental works during this period, like Le Gai Savoir and Tout va Bien, did similar things, but at least those films had striking and thoughtful imagery and editing juxtapositions that played with and challenged the Marxist agitprop--they were “dialectical” in a way this film obviously strives but fails to be.

When I first saw this film as a high schooler, I was more inclined to give Godard, a filmmaking hero, the benefit of my patience. I looked at the film as an experimental take on the concert film, and I felt the filmmaker was drawing some profound parallels between the Stones and their appropriation of African-American art. Now, I look at these same scenes and wonder how any Marxist could ever have taken them seriously. The dialogue in this film, when not plagiarized from other sources, is so bad it doesn’t even matter when intrusive, poorly-recorded voiceovers interrupt what people are saying.

Only two films into this series and the group is beginning to age rapidly, as you noted. The difference between the Stones here and in Charlie is My Darling remind me of the Beatles’ metamorphosis between A Hard Day’s Night and Magical Mystery Tour. In both cases, the two bands underwent extraordinary, unfathomable changes, both musical and cosmetic, within a 2-3 year window. Mick and Charlie’s hair is getting longer; Keith, even then, is starting to look a bit rough; Bill Wyman, bless him, is wearing hideous clothes. Among his peers, Brian Jones continues to look and act the same as he did in Charlie. Did you notice how often Godard films him from the back, like a faceless character in a dream? As we’ve argued before, there are portents and portents in these types of films if you choose to look for them.

One final question: what part of the Stones’ recording process were you most excited or intrigued to see as a fan? Was it the “woo-woo” backing vocals, Keith’s soloing (you can hear him biting Hendrix when he goofs off), Richards on bass, or something else? For me, it was about 45 minutes in, when the whole rhythm of the song completely changes to the saucy “Sympathy of the Devil” samba we know and love. Seeing Charlie Watts and assorted percussionists refine the beat is an absolute pleasure, no matter what else Godard surrounds this movie with. And it could have been a much better movie. -NS

AM: Thanks for sharing that Lee Ranaldo video. I think he does a good job of defending the film, which he calls a “complex viewing experience.” That’s fair, but it’s not always a worthwhile viewing experience. The agitprop scenes left even Lee stranded between the times and the tides.

Glad you brought up the cinematography--you’re right that many of the longs takes are quite lovely. As documentary, Godard isn’t able to stage the studio sections in takes as elegant as Touch of Evil. But as the camera roams around the studio, it does capture some great small moments. Like Keith and Brian lighting up, or Jones looking animated while he plays guitar. I didn’t get to your question about Jones in my last response. But those two moments were the ones that stood out to me, where I saw something of a spark. Otherwise, Brian’s a non-entity. He’s clearly no longer The Leader of the Rolling Stones, as he once believed himself to be. It’s no longer his band, and he doesn’t seem to be inserting himself or his ideas into the creative process.

I’m surprised, in fact, that he’s at the studio at all, much less for a recording session spread across several days. His appearances at sessions were pretty sporadic by this point. The moment where Richard tosses matches and cigarettes to Brian stood out to me, since Anita Pallenberg had already left Jones for Richard. That was pretty traumatic for Jones, who was in a Moroccan hospital when Anita made her decision.

The band members are all different people from the ones we saw in Charlie Is My Darling. We don’t hear from them in sit-down interviews, but we don’t need to. The clothes, hair and sound have all metamorphosed. In the sessions Godard captured, they’re sketching out the initial drafts of the sound they’d be exploring for the next decade. That’s reason enough to see their half of this film.

In the video with Lee Ranaldo (love that a copy of Goo is on the table), he mentions that Godard first considered making a film with the Beatles. That’s an interesting “what if?” A version of 1 + 1 based around “Helter Skelter” could be pretty killer--at least in the studio.

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