Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Bakhtinian Polyphony in Godard's King Lear

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Bakhtinian Polyphony in Godard's King Lear

Article excerpt

Mikhail Bakhtin's socio-linguistic theories can illuminate the orchestration of Jean-Luc Godard's contentious film King Lear. Shaping the polyphonic voices of Brecht, Kott, Beckett, Mailer, Welles, Allen, Kozintsev, and Woolf through counterpoint, the auteur refracts an elusive self-portrait and dialogically re-accentuates Shakespeare's tragedy.

Who is to say what meaning there is in anything? Who is to foretell the flight of a word? It is a balloon that sails over tree-tops.

--Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Described by Vincent Canby of the New York Times as "sad and embarrassing," Jean-Luc Godard's King Lear has been berated for its noise. Paradoxically, however, this film has occasioned critical responses (such as those of Peter S. Donaldson, Alan Walworth, and Anthony R. Guneratne) notable for their sustained coherence of analysis. For a tangle of linguistic, legal, financial, and technological reasons, Godard's movie has been largely unavailable to viewers: "Being an English-language film, [...] no French distributor bought rights to release it" (Brody 505), and its limited distribution until recently has been via an outmoded format, VHS tape. Its dissemination as a Region 2 DVD on the film's twenty-fifth anniversary and its current Internet presence on Veoh offer many more viewers a chance to see and, as importantly, to hear this controversial version of King Lear that Richard Brody describes as "one of Godard's greatest artistic achievements" (492). What this essay proposes to do--through Mikhail Bakhtin's interrelated concepts of dialogism, the carnivalesque, heteroglossia, the chronotope, co-authoring, polyglossia, inter-illumination, refraction, unfinalizability, and polyphony--is to show that Godard's autobiographical and densely fragmented re-creation of Shakespeare's King Lear is carefully shaped, meaningful, and, ultimately, compelling in its multi-voiced unity.

Godard's cinematic dialogism with Shakespeare is rhyzomatic and involves dozens of intermediary voices, both historical and contemporary, whose tones, ideologies, and angles of perception fuse and clash: "The word, directed toward its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group: and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers, may complicate its expression and influence its entire stylistic profile" (Bakhtin, Dialogic 276). Godard's retelling of King Lear creates a complex aesthetic that derives from a speech communion that is multiple. As Bakhtin notes, "Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another" (Speech 91). For example, Godard, in his cinematic co-authoring with Shakespeare of King Lear, dialogically engages with Bertolt Brecht, especially with respect to the latter's alienation theory concerning the theatre's mode and political function. By interpreting Shakespeare's play from a contemporary zone, Godard also dialogizes with Jan Kott's absurdist reading set out in "King Lear, or Endgame." Like Bakhtin, Godard assumes that "the word cannot be assigned to a single speaker" (Speech 121), and his film approximates the "so-called cento" where "texts were constructed like mosaics out of the texts of others" (Dialogic 69).

While cinematically transposing Shakespeare's dramatic utterance onto the screen, the director engages with filmmakers such as Orson Welles, Woody Allen, and Grigori Kozintsev, all of whom have previously treated Shakespeare's words dialogically. Complicating this dialogism about dialogism with fellow directors, Godard gives prominence to the utterances of Norman Mailer, the occasional filmmaker who suggests transposing the chronotope of Shakespeare's King Lear into a gangster flick. …

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