Filmmakers turn the cameras on journalists

If you suspected ''Absence of Malice'' didn't exhaust journalism as a subject for movies, you were right. In fact, two provocative films about journalism have just arrived from Europe, bringing ideas and ambiguities as well as stories and characters.

''Comment ca va'' comes from the prolific camera of Jean-Luc Godard. Though he and Anne-Marie Mieville made it in 1977, it has just gotten around to its American pre-miere. The delay is easily explained: This is one of Godard's ponderous political pictures, in which radical views fight to escape the clutches of murky stories, endless dialogues, and static images. It's not the stuff hits are made of, but it's fascinating to watch, as all kinds of ideas - more than most movies dream of - struggle for clarity in the hazy half-light of Godard's constantly shifting ideology.

Oh, there's a plot. A man and woman decide to make a ''little video film'' about the Communist magazine they work for. They argue about the contents of their film and there's a lot of talk about cinema, politics, and the ills of society. In the end, the local Communist boss bans the film, and the main character is left as high and dry as we are.

It is to Godard's credit that he spent several years making films rather like this one -- devoted entirely to ideas, lacking any hint of commercial motivation. But it's even more to Godard's credit that he didn't languish in the isolation of such rarefied filmmaking. In his latest feature, ''Every Man for Himself,'' he combined intellect and ingenuity with communication and sheer entertainment. In this context, a militant fable like ''Comment ca va'' seems a relic from a laudable but limited past.

Its first-run engagement continues through next Tuesday at the James Agee Room of the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York as part of a welcome Godard retrospective including such classics as ''Breathless'' and ''Masculin/Feminin, '' as well as the rarely seen ''Ici et Ailleurs,'' a 1974 look at the relationship between filmmaking and the Palestinian problem. In organizing the series, the nonprofit Center for Public Cinema has earned hearty thanks for helping to keep the ever-provocative Godard before the eyes and ears of New York - and, given the influence of New York on film distribution patterns, the rest of the United States, as well.

Another new arrival combining journalism and politics is a West German drama called ''Circle of Deceit,'' directed by Volker Schlondorff. The popular actor Bruno Ganz plays a German newsman who travels to Lebanon to cover the civil war there -- partly from journalistic ambition and partly to escape difficulties in his own life.

The movie tilts between the strife in Lebanon and the reporter's personal problems, including a troubled marriage and a love affair that lead to a couple of unnecessarily explicit love scenes. The thrust of the film is on the complex interplay between objective and subjective, between the newsman's wish to report the ''facts'' and his difficulty in sorting these out from his own perceptions. It also explores his ambivalence about ''getting involved'' rather than merely observing.

Schlondorff is a leading West German director whose films include ''The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum'' and ''The Tin Drum.'' Discussing his latest work in a recent New York interview, he offered a number of ideas about ''Circle of Deceit'' that proved still more thought-provoking than the film itself. He considers this ''the least didactic and even the least rational'' of all his pictures. What he wanted to capture was ''the feeling of the situation,'' a core of meaning that goes beyond ideologies.

''There are lots of things in this picture I don't understand,'' Schlondorff says. ''I started with just the main character. He's like a filmmaker going on location in a strange place. He talks about himself all the time, not the conflict around him. He's trying to find his place in the world, his relation to his job and his life. It's a time of crisis for him. He needs more clarity, but he finds more confusion.''

Inevitably, filming ''Circle of Deceit'' in war-torn Lebanon was a physically harrowing experience, including some close shaves for Schlondorff and his crew. But the director prefers not to dwell on such ''veteran stories,'' which focus attention on the background of the picture rather than the picture itself. He was more interested in his protagonist than in his surroundings - a situation that plunged Schlondorff into the dilemma of fiction vs. reality, art vs. life.

''Working in Beirut, we were tempted to say our character and his romance were silly,'' the director admits. ''Haven't we all seen this story before? Shouldn't we turn the camera around and film what's going on right here? Our fiction had to struggle very hard to win over reality.

''But we decided a point comes when there is more truth in fiction than in news. Maybe information is too serious to leave to the papers. Literature and movies can also inform. Dostoyevsky's demons tell more about his period than all the documentary accounts. We found this comforting, at a time when many people doubt whether fiction is still useful and possible.''

Schlondorff found himself facing the question: ''How can we represent the world without betraying it - without the same deceit that marks journalism even at its best?'' Like the main character, he felt that ''news and information can't really give a true image of the world.'' The solution was to tell a story, avoiding a didactic approach, and also avoiding the alternative ''of going completely into interiority.'' The filmmakers looked for a middle route, between Bertolt Brecht and Peter Handke.

It wasn't easy. ''I like to take sides and be engaged,'' says Schlondorff. ''But in this film I felt it was more courageous not to take sides, not to make a militant picture. I wanted to show our own disarray, and also say that is no reason to give up. Just because we can't explain the world any more doesn't mean it stops existing or is beyond salvation.

''Maybe it's time to take a new look at the world. As a filmmaker, you can convey images, sounds, and atmospheres that are more true than analysis. That's why I tried to make the movie so pictorial. I wanted to turn reality into fiction, rather than the usual practice of making a fiction seem as real as possible.

''So you might call ''Circle of Deceit'' an exercise in artifice. ''I wanted to create something artificial, in the good sense,'' says the director. ''Not so we can deal with it, but so we can establish a different relationship to it and see where it leads.'' This ties in with the protagonist's conflict, which Schlondorff summarizes as: ''Now that we have all the explanations, we still don't understand the world. So maybe we have to search for new concepts, another way to look at things.

''The other messages of the film are ''compassion and showing that one can feel lost without resigning.'' Says the director, ''I don't see how the world can be saved or fixed, but nevertheless -- even more so -- I want to go on living. I wanted to emphasize life in this picture. We learned this lesson from the people of Beirut, who proved that life is worth living even in very difficult circumstances.

''This was a meaningful lesson for Schlondorff, who has often felt like his main character in the film. ''That character feels things are unreal where he is living,'' says the director. ''He feels reality must be somewhere else, and he'd like to see it. He seeks out places of war, and the farther he goes into such places, the more lost he becomes -- the more nightmarish and unreal this 'reality' becomes. He reveals himself in this turmoil; he finds that the battlefield outside reflects the way he feels inside. He feels a guilt that reflects how rich nations feel toward the third world, the normal guilt about being rich when others are poor.

''But he doesn't feel this guilt or angst when he's actually in Beirut, with his life in danger. There, danger becomes something concrete -- a street, a place with snipers -- a thing you can deal with. And when you get to a safe area , you suddenly feel life is very special. This doesn't mean we need war to appreciate peace. But it means something is basically wrong with the peace when it produces a feeling of guilt.

''None of this is explicit in the film, as Schlondorff readily points out. What he wants viewers to think when they leave the theater is, ''Let's live!''

Schlondorff dislikes most ''political films'' because ''with all their goodwill, they lack the inner dimension of man.'' He also dislikes very ''interior'' movies, since ''they don't see the world any more.'' The challenge of ''Circle of Deceit'' was to find a balance between those perspectives.

He doesn't feel it is a political film ''in the sense that a political film explains a struggle in terms of ideology and all that.'' But it is political, he says, ''on the level that it asks: Where is the link between my personal problems and the collective struggle we all face?'' The film doesn't answer that question, Schlondorff grants, but ''it's enough to define it.'' The result, he hopes, is ''more poetry than prose. . . .''

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