Looking as though it were finger-painted, the opening intertitle of Godard’s One + One/Sympathy for the Devil reads, “The Stones Rolling;” already Godard has begun to play with language. The letters E-O-N-E-O-N, or O-N-E-O-N-E in the correct ordering of the band’s name, are highlighted in red. One + One. For Godard here One + One is never unified into the end result, the final product. Instead, One + One is just that, one and one; two individual, separate pieces, together. In many ways, this will come to define the film, as Godard presents us with two worlds, two separate realities. The first is a world beyond Godard’s control, the world of the Rolling Stones, as he documents their process of writing and recording their song “Sympathy for the Devil.” The second is a world the filmmaker does control, the world of film, a sphere of fragmented narratives whose figures act as his ideological mouthpieces. He doesn’t present us with a single message, a unified ideological, social, or political critique. Instead, these sections are meant to conflict and clash, to raise more questions than they answer, and, ultimately, to alter and shape how we view the Stones at work.
In the opening shot, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones sit on the studio floor, guitars in hand, the camera hovering around them slowly (as it does throughout the film). The song has yet to take shape; it is the creative process in its beginning stage, in its rawest form. Following the rhythm of the guitar, Jagger sing-speaks variations of the same few words of jumbled, even baby-like, rambling. There are no words, just gibberish. Language is secondary here (at least at first); we are introduced, first, to sound; pure sound, before there is any meaning assigned to it. Whereas Godard has too much to say throughout the film, overwhelming us with multiple and conflicting voices and sounds that overlap one another into an incomprehensible noise, Jagger here speaks only gibberish.
Godard cuts from the studio to a London hotel room, where Wiazemsky (who plays Eve Democracy later on in the film) spray paints the words “Hilton” and “Stalin” onto the hotel window, crossing the two at the “t.” It is a mixing of terms and ideologies that we will see throughout the film. “Sovietcong.” “Cinemarxism.” “Freudemocracy.” All of them are One + One; conceptual and ideological combinations he never explores specifically, only mentioning them on the walls and streets in spray paint, inviting questions and provoking questions, but ultimately offering no answers. Over the image, the narrator begins telling us that he’s a Bolivian hiding in a London toilet to escape from the police. He reads from a pornographic novel (which he calls a “political novel”), replacing the names of the characters with political figures and cultural icons, mixing politics, pornography and pop culture into one philosophical mess. We are never fully sure what their connection is. “Raising the toilet lid I could see Elizabeth’s fat white behind on which Lyndon Johnson was projecting an Andy Warhol movie,” the narrator tells us. Like Jagger’s singing in the beginning, it is gibberish to us. The narration will continue throughout the film, running over the image of the Stones in the studio. What is their role in this political, cultural, and pornographic mess? Could we just as easily substitute Jagger’s name or Richard’s for Johnson’s and Warhol’s?
“Outside Black Novel” reads the second intertitle in red, the acronym “love” spelled out this time in black. A Black militant sits in a wheel barrel in a junkyard, reading to us about the history of the blues, its roots, its development, and ultimately its appropriation by young Whites and popular culture for White consumption. “Any group of middle class White boys who need a haircut and male hormones can be a pop group. That’s what pop means,” he tells us. We cannot help but think of the Stones in the studio from the scene before, and this is Godard’s intention. Originally starting as a skiffle band (a popular but now-neglected subgenre of music popular in Britain in the 1950s, combining blues, roots, and country), drawing on the styles of Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf, the Stones exemplify this appropriation of “Black music” by the White youth culture.
The camera is the unifying force in the film. It is what connects these fragmented sections together: the Stones, the Black militant group, Eve Democracy, and even the seedy fascist bookstore later on. It remains consistent in its style throughout, always slow and controlled in its movement, always moving laterally, always circulating back to where it started. We watch as it hovers throughout the studio, never intruding on the band as they work, drifting around them as an observer (embodying the perspective of the filmmaker himself), capturing the artist and the creative process at work. We watch as the song evolves from the simple strumming of Jones and primitive mumbling of Jagger into a complex and layered work. The lyrics begin to take shape, and the guitars from the beginning disappear and are replaced by maracas, congas, and a chorus group. We watch in real time as the band starts and stops repeatedly, tweaking different sections each time. The song is never the same twice; the instrumentation, rhythm, beat, speed, and Jagger’s lyrics and inflection change each time. What is significant here, though, is that unlike the other figures and scenes in the film, the Stones, their process and their output, are outside Godard’s control. The filmmaker here has no real power over them; they are not a mouthpiece for him to convey his ideological questions and theories, at least not directly. Nor is this necessarily his intention. Instead, he works to control everything around them, to place them within a context that he creates.
In filming the artist at work, the artist and his or her creative process come to serve different functions for this filmmaker. For Clouzot and Parreno and Gordon, the artist is a mystery to be unraveled, a hieroglyphic to be deciphered, and yet in filming them we inevitably realize we can’t ever fully know what drives them creatively. What, though, is Godard’s interest in capturing the Stones at work here? What does he hope to learn from filming them? The song itself would seemingly fit with Godard’s own political position; it is an anti-establishment statement that would come to define 60s youth, highlighting atrocities of the past and present (the Holocaust, the Kennedy assassinations, and the 100 years war) as a way to signify their own break with the generations before them. And yet Godard here is not interested in (or at least he’s not focused on) that. His interest instead lies in what the Stones represent and to what their creative process tends. This is a study in control: in its creation and its limits. The limit of creative control, Godard seems to suggest, is at base in its commerciality. Although “Sympathy for the Devil” became an anthem of the 1960s counterculture, it is also simultaneously a cultural product that is to be commodified and commercialized, bought and sold by record companies and corporations to the masses. By placing them in the context of the Black Panthers and Eve Democracy, juxtaposing scenes of the Stones in the studio with these other fragmented narratives, we are forced to understand The Stones in a different way. We must re-examine and re-contextualize them within a larger social, economic, and cultural frame; and in doing so, Godard is questioning not the art itself, not its content, but instead what the art and the artist are used for, how they are to be packaged and consumed. We come to view them less as artists and more as appropriators and as tools and products. And by placing them within this context, Godard ultimately exerts his authority as the filmmaker over the band, seizing control from them and placing it back into his hands.