Still Image, Letter to Jane (1972)
In 1972 Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin made Letter to Jane, a film built largely around a single still image. If you’ve not had the pleasure, if pleasure’s the word, let me quote Pauline Kael’s review in its curt entirety:
A 45-minute-long lecture demonstration that is a movie only in a marginal sense. A single news photograph appears on the screen; it is of tall Jane Fonda towering above some Vietnamese, and on the [voiceover] track Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin discuss the implications of the photograph. Their talk is didactic, condescending, and offensively inhuman.
Even Godard said in 2005 that Letter to Jane “was not a very good movie.” He claimed that the film was an attempt to analyze the political work of Jane Fonda, not an attack on Fonda personally. Pas du tout! Godard and Gorin share voiceover duties in the film, firing off lines like these:
Godard/Gorin: The facial expression of the militant in this photograph is in fact that of a tragic actress, a tragic actress with a particular social and technological background, formed and deformed by the Hollywood school of show-biz and Stanislavski.
Letter to Jane is a lo-fi production with a harsh, uneven sound mix. Godard/Gorin mispronounce words and step over one another’s lines, lines that could have been written and recited by government fonctionnaires. Godard and Gorin were Maoists, and it was Brecht, not Stanislavski, who owned their aesthetic sympathies. Where Stanislavski might have Brando summon his inner demon to become the demon we marvel at, Brecht was happy to remind us that art is derived from artifice. Brecht felt that audiences were pacified by the spectacle of realism, their status reduced from co-creators to gawkers.
Supposedly Godard was royally pissed at Jane Fonda and sought to punish her. The previous summer the actress had committed to appear, without seeing a script, in Godard’s next film, Tout Va Bien (1972). In the interim before shooting, Fonda won the Oscar for her lead role in Klute (1971). The actress was becoming increasingly visible—and viable—as a feminist and anti-war activist. When Fonda finally saw Godard’s script, she hated it and tried, unsuccessfully, to pull out of the venture.
The tag-team aspect of Letter to Jane is hard to watch. Fonda has no voice here, only a body. It’s as if the film sets out to prove John Berger’s famous assertion in Ways of Seeing, released that same year: “A man's presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. By contrast, a woman's presence… defines what can and cannot be done to her.” Godard and Gorin address image-Fonda as if it were Fonda-in-the-Flesh, anticipating her responses and preemptively trying to neutralize them:
Godard/Gorin: And you are a woman…. As a woman you will undoubtedly be hurt a little, or a lot, by the fact that we are going to criticize a little, or a lot, your way of acting in this photograph. Because once again, as usual, men are finding ways to attack women.
It’s all very old-school and distressing. The standard précis on Letter to Jane is that it “raises questions” about the role of “artists and intellectuals” in “revolutionary politics,” and I think that language is so often invoked because Godard and Gorin claim that to be their subject in the voiceover. But that’s not their subject. The real subject of Letter to Jane is Godard and Gorin, two filmmakers incapable of making dull work, caught in the process of making a dull work.
All of which, perversely, makes Letter to Jane fascinating. This isn’t the only motion picture built around the static image—Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993) comes to mind, and Chris Marker employs sequential stills in La Jetée (1962) to construct a beautifully fluid narrative. What intrigues me about Letter is the degree to which the static visual weighs on the language. When Godard and Gorin claim that Fonda is really just performing in this photo, that her face could just as easily belong to “a hippie needing a fix, to a student in Eugene, Oregon, whose favorite runner, Prefontaine, just lost the Olympic five-thousand meters, to a young girl in love who has just been dropped by a boyfriend… and also to a militant in Vietnam,” I’m inclined to disagree on all counts. How often is the viewer of any film granted the luxury of disagreement? It’s hard to disagree with media. It’s always hurtling past, the next thing always yielding to the next, the cumulative effect of which can be to lull the viewer into a dream. Not an active dream, mind you, the way fiction invites readers into dreams of their own making, but an entertaining all-inclusive television dream that asks for nothing in return but time. What Godard and Gorin manage to do in Letter to Jane is pick a fight. They force me out of my chair to assess their work, their thinking, their approach to essay-making. Which is more or less how I read.
George Orwell writes in “Politics and the English Language” that, broadly, political writing is bad writing. “Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a party line.” Letter to Jane is, for richer and for poorer, engagé cinema, and could have profited from more of Godard/Gorin’s private opinions (more Brecht, less Mao). But one shouldn’t draw the wrong lesson from its failures. All art, whether it wishes to admit it or not, is political. And I can’t help but think certain visual forms—the essay film, the video essay—are ideally suited to our time because today’s political theater is oriented for the eye. In Letter to Jane, the writing and subsequent voiceover are cramped and robotic, but the image asserts a lasting power.
Also working against Godard and Gorin, I think, is a failed experiment I can’t help but applaud. They voice the film in tandem, switching roles rather neatly, rhythmically. Their delivery brings to mind the ‘70s-era Saturday Night Live sketch “Point/Counterpoint,” which turns on Dan Aykroyd’s catchphrase, directed at his co-host, “Jane, you ignorant slut!” Godard and Gorin don’t face off like Jane Curtin and Aykroyd, as their respective lines are rhetorically all of a piece, but the contrapuntal rhythm is sonically satisfying and brims with heat. To its credit, Letter to Jane presents an intriguing challenge for two or more artists to take up—a single video essay, severally voiced. Is it possible? In the end, this might prove to be Godard’s cinematic legacy. He’s the ideas guy. He builds cinematic concept cars to be refined by others down the road.
In this edition of TriQuarterly we attempt to pick up where Jane left off. Each of these four video essays is built upon a single still image. That image, whether locked down, panned, scanned or zoomed, is the sole visual element that houses the voice of the author. I’ve long been a fan of Bill Roorbach’s essays in print and video. His series of video essays I Used to Play in Bands (2012), which can be seen at his website, is deeply affecting and funny, as is “Starflower,” the video essay we proudly feature here. The writing of Angela Mears is just beginning to appear. She notes in her bio, with something like defiance, that she is twenty-four years old, but “You Are Here,” her ode to actress Sasha Grey, makes no apology—it’s a forceful, mature work. “The Lightning” by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, editor of The Volta, contributes a work of poetry that lingers just beyond the firelight—at least, until the slow reveal (you’ll see) demonstrates how language can enliven the image. And Joe Bonomo, author of Conversations With Greil Marcus, takes up an image from an old coffee table book in “Beatles Girl, Where Have You Gone?” Both the era and the image chime eerily with Godard, so maybe it’s no surprise that the real subject of “Beatles Girl” is not the girl so much as the boy who makes the man.
None of these works addresses Jane Fonda. That’s an oversight which I’d now like to correct. In preparation for this suite of essays, I watched Letter to Jane more times than my family might have liked. The more I watched, the more I began to think about her, how she found herself in Hanoi, in that photograph. To this day, you can purchase bumper stickers that say things like “Hanoi Jane is pro-abortion. Who’s the baby-killer now?” and “Hanoi Jane: Still a Traitor,” as well as the post-9/11 variant “Jihad Jane: Still a Traitor.” Last year, the shopping channel QVC scotched her book-promotion segment because they were deluged with calls protesting her appearance.
I think back to 1972, when Chuck Colson, special counsel to the president, meets with Nixon in the Oval Office to discuss the resumption of bombing missions over North Vietnam. Colson’s voice and the voice of the president are captured on one of hundreds of voice-activated open-reel tape recorders deployed within the White House.
Colson: People are beginning to sense that we’re doing pretty damn well, that American casualties are down. Which they are. Nineteen Americans killed last week. They’re used to hearing about twenty-five killed in automobiles in a weekend. The war is depersonalized. As long as the reporting continues as it is, you have total freedom on this issue.
Nixon: We want to decimate that goddamn place. North Vietnam is going to get reordered. It’s about time. It’s what we should have done years ago.
One month later, July 7, 1972, a Pan Am ticket agent at JFK scans a traveler’s passport and re-reads the inscribed name: Jane Fonda Plemiannikov. The Russian-sounding name is odd, but the real names of movie stars so often are. The real surprise? Gone are the bombshell locks of Barbarella and Barefoot in the Park. This lady’s got a blunt cut, hard-edged and dark. Traveling alone, without makeup. If not for that Swan Lake posture, you’d think she was mortal.
She’s flying to Paris first, then to Moscow, where she will board a jet to Laos and then Gia Lam, a little airport in Hanoi. Vietnam. A thin little slip of a country, recalls Jane Fonda in her 2005 memoir, much like the small, thin-boned people who inhabit her. She thinks of the country as a woman, her back nestled against Cambodia and Laos, her pregnant belly protruding into the South China Sea.
The flight to Paris arrived late, and now she’s running through Orly, desperate to make her connection to Moscow. She’s hefting a suitcase, her purse, a packet of mail from the families of American POWs, two cameras—one SLR and one 8mm—and a feeling she has always had, which is that nothing ever feels the way it’s supposed to feel.
As I round the corner, I slip on the polished floor and down I go. I know immediately that I have refractured the foot I broke the previous year. Bulimics have thin bones; I’ve had a lot of breaks.
She ices and elevates the blackening foot on the empty seat next to her. During the layover in Moscow she’s fitted with a cast and crutches, then boards an Aeroflot passenger jet to Laos, where, according to the FBI cable sent from the American embassy in Vientiane, the activist does not disembark. The plane continues on to Hanoi.
She wants to be taken seriously. Though she is aware of having undermined that cause from time to time.
Over the opening titles of Barbarella she performed the world’s first zero-G striptease. Her physical beauty in that scene, given the decades of binging and purging and ballet, is difficult for a male author of a certain wiring to be sane about. Even her hands, her fingers, are difficult to talk about without telling lies. The sequence was designed by Maurice Binder, who created the “gun barrel” opening of the Bond films, as well as their signature motif—weapons and typography projected onto the bodies of women. Fonda then makes an appearance in The Excessive Machine, a contraption that brings women to orgasm as it simultaneously robs them of life. She survives her orgasm and destroys the machine, overloading it with her own reciprocal hunger.
“Shame on you!” squawks Dr. Durand Durand, the machine’s creator. “You’ll pay for this!”
En route to Hanoi, Fonda experiences a wave of shame as she anticipates the need for medical attention upon arrival. A million Vietnamese dead and here comes the Oscar winner with a gimpy foot.
She needs that foot. She’s going to photograph the dikes. She’s going to document the damage reported by the French but not yet confirmed by American sources. America was, or was not, bombing the earthen dams that delivered fresh water to the fertile plains of the Red River Delta. America was, or was not, trying to starve North Vietnam into surrender. Nixon had certainly explored that option that spring with the secretary of state.
Nixon: See, the attack in the north that we have in mind—power plants, whatever’s left, petroleum, the docks. And I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?
Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.
Nixon: No, no, no. I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
Suddenly Fonda’s plane banks away from Hanoi. The pilot says landing will be delayed. A squadron of American planes—they count eight—is bombing the city. Fonda sees them. Phantoms. She counts their silhouettes. Counts the black craters on the green earth. She imagines Vietnam as a woman because in her experience women are destroyed.
When Jane was eleven, her father, Henry, asked her mother for a divorce, and he later took pains to note, in his authorized biography by Howard Teichmann, how agreeably she responded to the request. The following year, when Jane was twelve, her mother checked in to a sanatorium. On her forty-second birthday, Jane’s mother fatally cut her throat with a straight razor. Henry Fonda remarried within the year.
Jane would never be a victim like her mother. At least not until she got pregnant. Then she began to wonder.
A month or more into the pregnancy, I began to bleed and was told that I couldn’t leave my bed for at least a month if I wanted to prevent miscarriage. I was given DES (diethylstilbestrol) to prevent miscarriage, a drug subsequently linked to uterine cancer in daughters of mothers who’ve taken it. Then I came down with the mumps.
She lay in bed for three months, surrounded by the cool walls of a stone farmhouse near Saint-Ouen-Marchefroy, a village outside Paris. She’d restored the property with her husband, French filmmaker Roger Vadim. Vadim—full name Roger Vladimir Plemiannikov—directed Fonda in Barbarella and subsisted on an icon-only diet, first marrying eighteen-year-old Brigitte Bardot and then siring a child with nineteen-year-old Catherine Deneuve.
Jane passed the days watching TV, horrified, as American bombers released their payloads on villages and villagers. Maybe it was a different kind of horror on French TV, colored as it was by the fatalist shrug of those who’d already lost. She watched Americans bomb villages before dozing them flat. She was given a copy of The Village of Ben Suc, about the toll of the war on civilians and thought, “Why had I not paid more attention?”
I wanted to act on what I was learning and feeling but didn’t know what to do.
She grew stronger in the second trimester. As her belly swelled she began to feel, for the first time since she was a kid, that she was normal. Her body, instead of something observed by others from a distance and herself distantly, was right there with her, observing. As her body grew it seemed to extend itself to other women, living and dead. She heard Simone de Beauvoir speak at a rally in Paris. She felt embarrassed for her country.
Had she been French maybe that would be the end of it. But she was American, no less so than Tom Joad himself.
I'll be there in the way guys yell when they're mad.
Paris smelled like burning rubber. It was 1968. Students tore the cobblestones from Boulevard St. Michel and now the road was mud. Around the time rioters lit the stock market on fire, Jane was hoarding canned goods. She retreated south; rented a home by the sea. She read The Autobiography of Malcolm X while floating on an inflatable raft, her huge belly lit by the deep Mediterranean sun, the light of Matisse.
Malcolm had allowed me for the first time to have a glimpse into what racism feels like to a black man. What I was not ready to acknowledge was how the black women in his life were viewed as mostly irrelevant, voiceless, subservient.
She’d arranged for a natural birth. On the big day there was no buildup, no water break, just a killing pain. Vadim—the great seducer—drove her to the clinic but ran out of gas a half mile away. On the operating table someone strapped a gas mask to Jane’s head. She was unconscious when her daughter was born. She awoke, saw the baby in a bassinet, and felt herself falling back to wherever it is she was before.
Four years later, after landing at Gia Lam, Jane tries to exit the aircraft. The crutches make the steep stairway feel rigged. Her hosts offer flowers but she has no free hand to accept them. That night she awakes to air raid sirens. In the morning she is taken to the hospital for x-rays. Doctors remove the Soviet-made cast, replace it with a poultice made of chrysanthemum root.
She tours the Viet Duc hospital where they study birth defects from chemical defoliants. The stuff is raining down on soldiers and civilians in the millions of gallons. It smells like ripe guava. Babies born without arms, without legs, without eyes.
Her daughter, Vanessa, was perfect. Jane was not. She baked a birthday cake for her daughter, then dropped it on the floor. What a thing to see: exasperation on the face of a three-year-old. She drove Vanessa to preschool, ushered her through meals and bathtime, brushed her teeth, readied her for bed, sweated the details, managed to feel for all the world like she was never really there. She was tired. Bulimic. Vadim would swoop in at bedtime and tell Vanessa beautiful, soaring stories.
I felt I just couldn’t get anything right when it came to mothering.
She encounters so many bombs on this trip. Daisy cutters, guava bombs, pineapple bombs, spider bombs, pellet bombs, a three-thousand-pound "mother" bomb.
And she has this idea she’s been kicking around.
She tells her hosts, I want to speak on your radio. I want to try to tell U.S. pilots what I’m seeing here on the ground. She works without notes, broadcasting live via Radio Hanoi. Mostly she addresses the soldiers directly.
Fonda: All of you in the cockpits of your planes, on the aircraft carriers, those who are loading the bombs, those who are repairing the planes, those who are working on the 7th fleet, please think what you are doing. Are these people your enemy?
Fonda: I’m sure if you knew what was inside the shells that you’re dropping, you would ask yourself as, as I have been doing for the last few days since I have seen the victims: what do the men who work for Honeywell and the other companies in the United States that invent and, and, and make these weapons—what do they think in the morning, at breakfast? What do they dream about when they sleep at night?
Fonda: One of the worst things that has taken place in the United States, I believe, is that we are cut off from other peoples around the world. We are—we are made to—to lack respect for other peoples. Particularly people who are not white.
A former agent for the CIA would later testify before a House Committee on Internal Security that Fonda’s broadcast is so concise and professional a job that he doubted she wrote it herself. She had to have been working on it with the enemy. Her movements and utterances disclose skilled indoctrination—a brainwashed mind…. It was later decided that Fonda, happily, would not be tried for treason.