If there is any sensible reason to travel to Europe solely for the purpose of watching movies, then the closest thing I’ve found in my three years coming to Cannes is the premiere of Spike Lee’s confounding new joint BlacKkKlansman from Tuesday night. I can think of no other screening I’ve attended that felt like ground zero for a film that—uneven and imperfect, to be certain—carried the weight of something more than a movie. Few films appear to emerge from such a profound place of sorrow and frustration, and even fewer channel those emotions into something as sober and reflective as this. Here is one for the future: not simply for the decades to come, where it will either stand or crumble over time, but also for the next few months, when the content and coherence of its politics will be put to the test of numerous close readings. A film primarily about rhetoric, BlacKkKlansman exists to frame conversations. Not satisfied with simply being about politics, it also wants to actively do them.
Just as many debated if Mookie from Do the Right Thing should have thrown the trash can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria, we might also consider the tactics of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black police officer to join the Colorado Springs Police Department and the ingenious schemer who uses his position to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan. Based on a book by the real Ron Stallworth, Lee’s film follows this “mission impossible” all the way from Ron’s cold call to the Klan to later stages in the investigation when Flip (Adam Driver), a Jew passing as a WASP, pretends to be Ron in the flesh, going undercover to leak the KKK’s plan for an upcoming terrorist attack.
With the Vietnam War raging on and a class of white males wanting to reassert their dominance, the Klan experiences a resurgence not seen since the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. These Klansman are doofuses, but no less dangerous for it. On the inside, they refer to themselves as the Organization, a politically correct euphemism for a group that talks openly about the inferiority of blacks, the myth of the Holocaust, and their desire to harass, assault, and murder. A racist, jingoistic, and homophobic supporter of the Confederacy, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) is a prime example of this. Convinced that the new recruit has something to hide, the proud southerner slings slurs Ron’s way, waiting to get a rise out of him. The leader of the local chapter, Walter (Ryan Eggold)—who takes kindly to white Ron and remains oblivious to the fact that the doppelgänger on the phone is black—is precisely the kind of dangerous white nationalist the film viciously assaults. Walter, like the upper ranks of the Klan, is well aware of the future stakes for the Organization. At heart, he’s a bureaucrat waiting to be elected into office.
The film’s most incisive passages are not those about racists cops but those focused on the KKK’s underground bureaucracy. The Klan, with its membership cards, head office, and strict protocols, is both ridiculous and meticulous. David Duke (Topher Grace), the man behind this rebranding, understands that discussions about lynching black folk is bad publicity, and so, to bring the white-nationalist gospel to the masses, he will adopt liberal language and hedge his bets on double meanings. If there’s any doubt as to what “white heritage”, “white lives matter”, and “make America great again” actually mean, Lee will define these terms for you in colourful turns of phrase, putting these loaded words in the mouths of characters who are shockingly frank about their intentions. Provocation, Lee’s specialty, is here put to productive ends as he weaponizes the language of the alt-right against them. The film says everything to be said; it leaves you speechless.
Having already bid adieu to language, Jean-Luc Godard also returns to Cannes in Competition with The Image Book, an essay film almost entirely made up of found materials that the nouvelle vague director warps, bends, and obscures. Many of the works cited in the film’s credits should be familiar, though the excerpts themselves are abstracted beyond the point of identification. Before arriving on-screen, these images have embarked on journeys of their own: some appearing with watermarks, others suffering from generational loss. Almost none of the excerpts are as their original creators intended.
About as challenging as one would expect from a late Godard film, The Image Book assumes we have a thorough understanding of poststructuralism, classical Hollywood, impressionist painting, and French puns. But whether one is familiar with this context or not, it’s almost impossible to read The Image Book from cover to cover. Somewhere along the way, whatever structure of meaning we, Godard, or the other narrators place over the top of the film will eventually rupture and give way to something else. Along with the three narrators who intermittently speak over the film, the viewer must decide what to privilege and delete from their memory as various clips and documentary footage is hurled at a breakneck pace. The body of knowledge we take to the film will help shape how we catalogue these found materials. Certain connections will come to the fore, but the images that break from a particular self-imposed pattern will get lost in the vortex.
If it is true that images and words are absorbed and sorted by those who receive them, and that the speaker or image-maker has no control over the meaning the spectator draws, then what is to remain of the artist after he is gone and his art remains? Here we find Godard wrestling with his mortality and the value of his labour, an aspect of The Image Book the director himself summed up in his 1994 self-portrait JLG/JLG:
“When we express ourselves we say more than we want to. We think we express the individual but we speak the universal. ‘I am cold.’ It is I who says I am cold, but it is not I who am heard. I disappear between these two moments of speech. All that remains of me is that man who is cold, and this man is everyone.”
The Image Book is not a film by Jean-Luc Godard. It is a film by and for everyone: the testament and revelation of a man receding into oblivion, the death of the artist in its purest form.