In conjunction with UW-Madison’s “Dante After Dante” symposium, UW Cinematheque presents two experimental films by Jean-Luc Godard and Stan Brakhage that riff on the “Divine Comedy” on April 30.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is an important enough piece of literature that entire wings of universities are devoted to it. The general outline, moving from Hell to Purgatory to Heaven, is an essential form that can be a container for all sorts of philosophical and aesthetic explorations of the painful and the sublime. UW-Madison’s “Dante After Dante” symposium gives an annual platform to interdisciplinary approaches to Dante, including film. UW Cinematheque’s concurrent program this year includes Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique (2004) and Stan Brakhage’s The Dante Quartet (1987), on Saturday, April 30, at 4 p.m.—two different experimental takes on Dante’s classic text, both screening on 35mm.
The 80-minute Notre Musique is the primary attraction of the program, which opens with a brief “Hell” section that collages war footage. Godard jumps quickly into the “Purgatory” section, which takes up most of the film’s runtime and details a conference in Sarajevo where the filmmaker (playing himself) is in attendance. The conference, also hosting Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish among scholars and journalists from Israel, is the perfect setting for Godard’s preferred style of discursive, subtext-as-text essays.
Here, Godard has become obsessed with the distinction between ideas and actions. Characters debate the value of Homer, considering he was someone who just recounted what other people did; others muse that any participation in war taints the soul, and that “humane people build libraries” (a bon mot by a minor character). Setting up this series of stress-test conversations, Godard pushes strenuously against strict existential identifications, often using symbolic red herrings and blurring distinctions between any and all axiomatic categories. (David Phelps puts it best, referring to Godard as a “linguistic pervert” in a piece on Godard’s later, similar Film Socialisme .) His main interest in the Israel-Palestine situation seems to stem from this, content as Godard is to avoid geopolitical discussion in favor of metaphysical observations about the loose nature of national identity and ethnicity.
A sort of irony is at play, then, in Godard employing such a strict and iconic structure as Dante’s in his film. But even this setting feels like an inside joke in support of Godard’s signifying trickery, drawing a grand binary between Heaven and Hell, then spending most of his time needling around the in-between space. In comparing Notre Musique with Brakhage’s Dante Quartet, the two take on drastically different approaches to the same complications of embodying a state-like Heaven or Hell.
Using his instantly recognizable paint-on-celluloid technique, Brakhage creates rapid abstract collages that reference Dante even more loosely to provide a jolting abstract flipside to Godard’s navel-gazing. Brakhage’s filmmaking philosophy and constant search for the “impossible images” that exist behind our eyelids provides a corrective to Godard’s. The films would make more sense if they were screened in the opposite order; Brakhage’s hellfire carries an ineffable quality that further ascends from Godard’s academic pure-thought to the realm of pure-feeling. The only thing uniting Brakhage’s realms is their indefinable quality.
On the other hand, Godard’s realms are distinguished by categorically not being each other; existence in one space precludes existence in the others When interviewed by an Israeli journalist, Darwish draws similar conclusions about Israel and Palestine, stating they’re now defined by each other. Palestine’s occupation and Israel’s violence have become essential qualities of the other’s national identity. “There will be total liberty when it’s the same to live or die. That is the goal,” states an Israeli student, further calling suicide the “last philosophical problem” due to its reliance on an impermeable boundary between life and death. Boundaries both geographic and corporeal are a kind of death to Godard’s characters. Which again brings us to the irony of Godard using such a well-understood classic form as a jumping-off point for discussing the suffocation of forms. But, taken together, these films are a good case-in-point for the relevance of UW-Madison’s Dante symposium. Even a text as studied as the Divine Comedy can still be expanded beyond classical familiarity to fit any number of modern thematic interests.