By 1968 Jean-Luc Godard had abandoned the commercial film industry completely, despite international notoriety and success making films that already pushed fiercely against the boundaries of what a commercial film could be. His last such film was the magnificently apocalyptic Weekend (1967), which I wrote about last week. Sympathy for the Devil (1968), also known as One Plus One (Godard’s original and preferred title), is probably Godard’s most famous work from this radicalized, little-seen period, the reason being that the Rolling Stones appear in roughly half the film, though they are not there to provide excitement in any conventional sense.
Godard documented the Stones in the studio in long, uninterrupted, ominously slow tracking shots. They were working on an especially difficult to apprehend new song. Godard isn't dismayed by the ordinary tedium of studio labour; he lets it all play out. ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ which would become one of the most distinctive, sinister, irresistible tunes in the Stones catalogue, chronicles the eponymous narrator’s diabolical accomplishments across two millennia, wearing many guises: “I stole many a man’s soul and face,” Mick Jagger sings. Jagger came in with lyrics and chords but the band had yet to summon the right groove. When they find it, turns out it’s samba, with Keith Richards on bass, Bill Wyman shaking maracas, and later, in the film’s best documentary moment, the whole band, sans Jagger, huddled around a microphone singing the woo woos, along with a thin woman in huge hat and huge pants who I presume to be Anita Pallenberg. Decades of domestication makes it easy to forget that there was a time when some really believed the Stones were in league with Mephistopheles. (For more on this moment in Stonesology see Zachary Lazar’s excellent 2008 novel Sway.) But the cultivation of rock mythology was very far from Godard’s agenda, as is evident in cutaways to people spray-painting slogans like SOVIETCONG and FREUDEMOCRACY on London’s walls, cars, sidewalks and bridges, and in the film’s many elaborate staged sequences.
In the first such sequence a black man reclines in a wheelbarrow, under a bridge, surrounded by piles of wrecked cars—just one year after Weekend and it’s the end of civilization all over!—reading aloud from a book about musical appropriation and the roots of blues. Another man enters the frame to hand the reader a rifle; the camera then follows him back into the labyrinth of this Battersea scrapyard, where still more men, all of them pretend Black Panthers, read from other texts into recording devices, texts about race war and black unity. Soon a red Mini arrives with captive white girls wearing white shifts. One of their captors reads from an ode to white women, how he loves to smell their drawers, and so on. Later a camera crew follows a pretty young woman through a wood, posing questions about drugs, culture, politics, Vietnam, to which she answers only “yes” or “no.” Later still there’s a bookstore crammed with pulp and girly mags, where another man reads aloud and captive Maoists sits miserably in one corner.
So what’s it all about? The film’s too cryptic to be didactic, too detached and adrift to be agitprop. Something forming in the studio, something forming in the streets. Something about rising up, violence, overturning order, but always with posterity in mind. In every scene something’s being enacted, recited, and, above all, recorded. The revolution will not be televised but it will be spoken into machines for future reference. Somewhere in all this, between takes, Jagger sings the title verse of ‘No Expectations.’ Sound advice for prospective viewers of this film.