Paris, 1967: fueled by Cold War fears, anti-authoritarian furor, and newfound status among the global filmmaking elite, French auteur Jean-Luc Godard writes and directs La Chinoise. The film itself, an experimental adaptation of The Possessed, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1872 "anti-nihilist" novel about a group of Russian revolutionaries who unsuccesffully plot to overthrow the then-current imperialist regime, features a group of students who intimate direct action from the safety and comfort of their bourgeois apartment.
A year later, when the violent tides of the May '68 student uprising run red the streets of Paris, Godard quotes his own screenplay. "Art is not the reflection of a reality, it is the reality of a reflection," he says, in an interview with Roger Corman, a statement all too familiar in the wake of an art-delimited but ultimately defeated Occupy Wall Street movement.
One filmmaker is bringing the classic story of unsuccessful, albeit impassioned youth revolution into the 21st Century, with his adaptation of La Chinoise for the modern screen. His name is Rhett Jones, and his apropos appropriation, The Villains, plays like the fictionalized diatribe of a generation too passionate not to protest, but too distracted for direct action. Featuring in-line search results datamoshed into an algorithmically-collected décollage (in other words, random videos selected from around the web), The Villains just might be the new millennium's answer to Godard.
For the premiere of The Villains new trailer (above), we spoke with Rhett Jones about La Chinoise, Corporate Personhood, and what it means to make your work into a SEGA:
The Creators Project: How did this project first come about?
Rhett Jones: It started as a project that was going to be straightforward appropriation. I really like editing. I just wanted some material to edit, so I planned on remaking Godard’s La Chinoise scene by scene, word for word. Then, it spiraled out into something altogether different. It became about the kind of anxiety I was feeling around the Arab Spring, Hacktivism, Clicktivism, etc.
I thought it was interesting to see political activism spreading after a long time of feeling it was sort of dormant. I was questioning why it was happening, or if it was actually happening at all. Are networks facilitating activism or just giving an illusion of activism?
With the Arab Spring, it seemed to be the former, but as we watch the subsequent fate of these revolutions we’re seeing that social networking may have just provided a tool to speed up the process, possibly as a detriment because there’s very little planning as far as what comes next. Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility”. I think that’s very relevant to the sunny outlook of innovation as a democratizing force. I guess in short it came about because we were going to just remake something, and a certain anxiety of the moment stepped in. Working through The Villains was my way of confronting that anxiety, and while I still feel ambivalence, I’m generally hopeful about technologies future in society.
What was the shooting process like?
Most of the film just takes place in a large apartment, which kind of kept the shoot simple. My friends have an apartment/venue in Bushwick they call, “Cheap Storage” and they let us take it over. The aesthetic of the film wavers between hi-fi/lo-fi, hd/sd, professional and amateur, so I was really open to accidents and mistakes. I compare it to a radio being tuned in and out.
All the technical aspects waver in quality so I really wanted to keep things fairly open and let the scenes come together however fate determined. “We’ll fix it in post” is sort of a filmmaking joke, in this case it was very much pre-determined that “We’ll find it in post”. Some of the nicer and clearer shots are pixelated in the edit just to roughen things up, and this follows a sort of aesthetic unwinding. A very rigorous post-production followed a very free for all shoot.
You were involved in Occupy during the editing of the film—how did this inform your cuts, and how did your editing practice inform your protest?
If anything Occupy just slowed down our edit because you never knew when an action would be going down and I was much more interested in Occupy as a series of actions with high media visibility, than as a political idea. I barely shot any video myself but the media coverage and DIY coverage was very effective at creating scenarios in which the powerful attack the powerless. One day, I was arrested, and the next day someone sends me video of it on Russia Today. I thought those scenarios were important. My editor, Alex Beninato, and I decided not to reference Occupy at all in the film because the sort of hubris that affected Occupy was already represented by our privileged characters.
As far as the editing informing protest, I’d say it simply kept us grounded when it was very easy to get caught up and drink the Kool-Aid. I was more than willing to put my body in harms way during protests because I liked the way the documentation was having an impact on people’s view of power, but when things came down to the nitty gritty of a political ideology it was depressing to say the least. I don’t think anyone who was there came away as the same person.
Tell me about the post-post production. Why make it search engine-generated?
It was important to me that The Villains could be experienced in a variety of ways.. This idea of Search Engine Generated Artwork (SEGA) is just one way of making the viewers experience unique. On a practical level I hope to refine it over time so that the film you watch might become dated but the associative footage playing with it stays fresh. I think the ideas in the film will stay relevant so in 20 years if we want to show footage of the President of the United States announcing the bombing of a country, we’ll show the latest POTUS announcing the latest bombing.
From a metaphorical standpoint I just like parallels of isolating the viewer. Maybe when you watch it the associative footage randomly generated some really profound thing at just the right time, every time, and you walk away with your mind blown. Then your friend watches it and the randomization just doesn’t go very well and he thinks it seems sort of scattered and unclear. When the two of you talk about it you’ll be talking about two different works in addition to subjective opinion. This might make you feel special or it might make you feel alone. The parallels to tech companies obsession with a unique user experience are obvious. I guess the question is whether a unique experience should just be taken for granted as a good thing, which it usually is.
How does SEGA work?
The means of revolution have changed tremendously since Godard's Paris, circa 1967—do you think the struggles have changed or stayed the same?
The struggles have changed in that the lines of divide are less clear. The verdict is just accepted as being in on practically every political ideology but capitalism. So the battle has become all of these fights over how to properly conduct capitalism.
Personhood vs Corporate Personhood is the latest phantom people have to fight. If you told the Maoist students of ‘68 that today we’d be arguing over whether a corporation should have the same rights as a human being they would probably think you’re crazy. It IS crazy to even entertain that argument. So the arguments become narrower, and people are corralled into a much more controllable environment. The struggles between the powerless and the powerful remain the same but the powerful seem to be holding a much better hand these days. The tools for organization that we have today are just as powerful for pacification.