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Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godardby Richard Brody
"WE DO NOT THINK WE ARE THOUGHT"
In the second edition, dated June 1950, of a thin newspaper-like magazine published in Paris, La Gazette du cinéma, a nineteen-year-old writer made a modest debut. Jean-Luc Godard's article, simply titled "Joseph Mankiewicz," was a short and breezy overview of that director's career, though, as in the following reference to the director's recent film, A Letter to Three Wives, it was devoted less to his Films than to Mankiewicz himself: " 'One can judge a woman's past by her present,' Mankiewicz says somewhere: this letter to three married women is also three letters to the same woman, one whom the director probably loved."
In an eight-paragraph jaunt, the young writer lightly sketched a conception of the cinema that was as intensely personal as it was revolutionary: he suggested that films are one with the world offscreen. Casually, and without any theoretical fuss, he treated films as something more than creations that bore the mark of their makers; he considered them inseparable from the lives of their creators.
Godard's piece on the front page of the next issue of La Gazette, "For a Political Cinema," is as provocative now as it seemed at the time. In it, he put forth an aesthetic framework that daringly overrode basic ideological distinctions in the name of specifically cinematic values.
One afternoon, at the end of the Gaumont newsreel, we opened our eyes wide with pleasure: young German Communists were marching in a May Day celebration. Suddenly, space was only the lines of lips and bodies, time only the raising of fists in the air . . . By the sole force of propaganda that was animating them, these young people were beautiful.1
Godard compared these young people to St. Sebastian and to the youths in classical Greek sculpture: the state of possession, albeit an intellectual one, that resulted from the thrall of ideology seemed to him to resemble religious devotion and thus to confer on its subject a transcendent serenity. He added that in Soviet films, "the actor infallibly returns to what he originally was, a priest. The Fall of Berlin and The Battle of Stalingrad are coronation masses." Godard treated expressions of Communist and Christian faith as equivalent, and admired the similar power of Nazi propaganda films, which had so recently been pressed upon Parisian moviegoers by German occupiers:
We could not forget Hitler Youth Quex, certain passages of films by Leni Riefenstahl, several shocking newsreels from the Occupation, the maleficent ugliness of The Eternal Jew. It is not the first time that art is born of constraint.
Godard praised these films not for their political message but for their psychology: they depicted people under the influence, and it hardly mattered whether that influence was political or religious. He took all fanaticisms to be alike and to be equally beautiful. Without equating the far left and the far right politically, Godard equated them aesthetically.
The essay ends with an exhortation: "French filmmakers in search of scripts, how have you unfortunate souls not yet filmed the assessment of taxes, the death of Philippe Henriod [sic], the wonderful life of Danielle Casanova?" Henriot, the Minister of Information in the Vichy government and a frequent and familiar orator on French radio under occupation, was killed in 1944 by Resistance fighters. Casanova, the founder of a Communist youth newspaper in the 1930s, was a Resistance fighter who died at Auschwitz. Godard endorsed as equally cinematically fertile the actions of a collaborator, of a resister, and ordinary parliamentary infighters, and he took the adventures and anecdotes that arose in the course of contemporary and recent history to be the cinema's natural subject. The passions to which the characters in such films would bear witness were those that belonged to the real world, as verified by the reality from which they derived. The cinematic fictions that the young Godard dreamed of arose from the documentary impulse.
Moreover, his idealistic depiction of the young fanatic was a touching, if oblique, self-portrait. He was leading a life of singular and exalted purpose: his monomaniacal fervor was ignited by movies, and he gave remarkably definitive expression to it in the following issue of La Gazette.
The October 1950 edition featured a brief note by "H.L."Hans Lucas, "Jean-Luc" in German, a pseudonym that Godard occasionally adopted through 1955on a documentary film about Alexander Calder's mobiles. One mercurial sentence sums up with a self-revealing clarity the adolescent Godard's relation to the cinema: "At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought."2 This observation was less an avowal of passivity than of the will to self-transformation through movies. It indicates Godard's consuming submission to cinema and the extent to which he experienced it as a personal epiphany, indeed a transfiguration. Godard had reached the essence of the experience at once, and conveyed it in an unabashed confession. In a single aphorism, he broke down the barriers of aesthetic distance and contemplation that separate the cinema, its viewers, and its makers. At the earliest stage of his work, Godard's existence and that of the cinema were already fused.
These three articles delineate a coherent and comprehensive cinematic philosophy, one which Godard would realize and rework in a wide variety of forms in a filmmaking career that began in 1954 and continues to this day. The ideas that they sketch are the unity of the filmmaker with the film, the inseparability of both from the social world at large, the credence of a devout moviegoer in the reality of the world as presented in the cinema, and the aesthetic fecundity of this fanatical submission. The viewer who was "thought" at the cinema was Godard himself; the filmmaker who was one with his film would be Godard himself; and his films would be the seemingly infinite variations on the theme of his singular faith in the cinema and in its ability to preserve and to reflect both the reality of the filmmaker and of his times through the intersection of personal stories and political history.
But each of these principles came with a price tag. Godard's submission to the cinema risked alienation from life. Films conceived as the expression of fanatical devotion to the cinema risked becoming a closed circuit of self-satisfied self-reference to the exclusion of reality. The identification of the film and the filmmaker risked the creation of a cult of personality that would detract attention from the filmmaker's work. And the avidly omnivorous, ideologically indeterminate recording of political currents ran the risk of detachment and ambiguity. Over time, Godard would recognize all of these risks and, in his work and his life, would attempt to confront and to overcome them.
THE STORY OF Jean-Luc Godard's work is one of a conversion to the secular religion of art and, specifically, to the art of cinema. For this art form, for this sort of passion, the holy city was, and remains, Paris.
The movies started in France, with the work of the Lumière brothers,3 and the special relationship of Paris to the movies is in large part due to that city's central role in French civilization. For France, Paris is three things in one: it is the country's New York, Washington, D.C., and Hollywoodthe cultural, political, and cinematic capital. The three domains are much more strongly interconnected in France than in the United States, and activity in any one of the three fields is quickly reflected in the other two. As a result, in France the movie business has also been, all along, both a strain of high art and a sensitive political barometer.
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