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Godard the Obscure: What Happened to the Icon of ’68?

Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc GodardEverything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody

Reviewed by J. Hoberman
Harper's Magazine

Opening in New York forty years ago this fall, Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend appeared as one apocalyptic vision among many. The United States was at war abroad; at home, a tumultuous presidential election was heading into its final stretch. The naked provocateurs of Living Theater had returned from Europe to stage their millennial participation piece, Paradise Now. But Weekend was also something new.

For local cinephiles, this was the year of Godard. Nineteen sixty-eight began with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and Weekend was actually the third of his features to have a theatrical run that year, following his antiwar burlesque, Les Carabiniers (1963), and the uncannily prophetic La Chinoise (1967). The latter even seemed to be an intervention of sorts. There are still Godardians who credit his account of Maoist students with inspiring the student revolt at Columbia University, three weeks after the film's opening.

Godard's latest missive was clearly some sort of great movie, albeit too fresh and too original to be hailed as a masterpiece. "There is nothing like it at all," is how the recently converted Renata Adler ended her New York Times review. "It is hard to take." A comic horror film about the collapse of civil society, Weekend had attitude in abundance. Its tone was insolently objective; its mode was coolly stylized. Spectators were invited to laugh at cruelty throughout. The characters are greedy, self-absorbed, querulous, and violent. They seem to know that they are in a movie. A surprising number of them carry guns.

Speaking perhaps for the filmmaker, one of his cartoonish characters announces that "the horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome by more horror." Thus Weekend fills the French countryside with flaming car wrecks and artfully splayed corpses (stage blood ultimately giving way to the actual slaughter of animals). One of the movie's two celebrated set pieces is a stately lateral tracking shot, eight minutes in duration, of a traffic jam on a French road, its constituent parts increasingly baroque and scored to the incessant blasting of car horns. The other is a young woman's deadpan, ominous description of an orgy lifted from Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye.

To the degree that Weekend has a plot, it concerns an affluent young couple who conspire to kill the woman's parents -- and then each other. Fleeing the city for the Weekend (along with most of bourgeois Paris), they take a detour, their car is hijacked, and they are captured by a band of costumed hippies. Dramatizing homicidal intergenerational conflict in the context of inexplicable yet matter-of-fact social disaster, Weekend was an art-house analogue to George Romero's contemporary 42nd Street cheapster, Night of the Living Dead. As bystanders declaim the cliches of Third World revolution, the narrative goes deeper into regression -- rape, murder, butchery, cannibalism.

Godard's despair reminded Adler of Samuel Beckett's. (Indeed, after its New York Film Festival premiere, Weekend was released in theaters by Beckett's American publisher, Grove Press.) But Godard, she added, was not as austere as Beckett: Weekend was "rich, overloaded, really epic." Writing in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael compared the filmmaker to James Joyce: "It's possible to hate half or two-thirds of what Godard does -- or find it incomprehensible -- and still be shattered by his brilliance." Godard had remade the world; he "imposed his way of seeing on us." Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris took an even longer view. Godard was "the most elegant stylist and the most vulgar polemicist, the most remorseful classicist and the most relentless modernist, the man of the moment and the artist for the ages."

Introductory titles introduced Weekend as "a film adrift in the cosmos." The end-title amended end of story with end of cinema. This was the prolific filmmaker's fifteenth feature in eight years, the third he had released in 1967 alone. After filming, he told his crew that he would now have to catch his breath and stop making films for a while. Weekend, most critics would agree, was uneven. But as Kael intimated, Weekend was less an individual movie than the culmination of a particular process.

Not since D. W. Griffith was knocking out a weekly two-reeler at the Biograph studio on East 14th Street had there been anything to equal the run Godard began with his 1960 debut Breathless and ended, still accelerating, in the cataclysm of Weekend. (There are no analogies; the closest may be the six disparate and innovative novels Faulkner published between The Sound and the Fury in 1929 and The Wild Palms ten years later. Faulkner, however, was barely known at the time to anybody but the American literati; Godard was an international figure comparable to Andy Warhol or Bob Dylan.) In his hefty new biography, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Brody seconds the critics of '68 in calling his subject "an artist as dominant, as crucial, as protean, and as influential as Picasso."

And yet, Brody continues, Godard is "a Picasso who vanished from public consciousness... after the first heady flourish of Cubism." If, after completing Weekend, Godard had died in a motorcycle accident as Dylan nearly did in July 1966, or had he been killed by a deranged associate as Warhol nearly was in June 1968, the director would have been acclaimed (and remembered) as a thirty-seven-year-old genius who, prodigiously talented, astonishingly prolific, and utterly original, redefined cinema before being cut down at the height of his powers. But Godard lived.

He even continued making movies -- many and all sorts. Not one (or even all combined) would receive the initial attention lavished on Weekend. Which is what leads Brody to claim, with some exaggeration, that "Godard's name is no longer common currency in the film industry, or for that matter on the cultural radar." Although Godard remains a recognized figure and, approaching eighty, an active filmmaker, he is a figure and a filmmaker who doesn't seem dated so much as marginal. Why?

Even before Weekend opened in New York, Godard had recast himself as though he were a character in that movie, condemning his previous work to an auto-da-fe. Converted to the revolution by the events of May '68, he publicly repudiated his previous career -- not to mention the medium that nourished him.

Rimbaud abandoned poetry to run guns. So, too, Godard, although in his case it was as though he had abandoned poetry for the idea of running the idea of guns. Over the next four years, both on his own and working with a collaborator, erstwhile student activist Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard would dedicate himself to movies as a means of changing the world: "The problem is not to make political films but to make films politically."

To make films politically meant to assert and to question simultaneously a particular position, seemingly ad infinitum. Produced in 16mm or produced for television (in some cases, both), the Godard-Gorin films -- complete with such barricade-storming titles as Struggle in Italy and Wind From the East -- were more mind-numbing than mind-blowing, less engage than tendentious. Audiences found them unwatchable, as did militants. (Robespierre would have sent these droning, scolding harangues to the guillotine just to make them shut up.) Back then it was not unknown for pop stars to join a religious cult. But, the presence of sidekick Gorin notwithstanding, it was as though Godard had joined a cult in which he was the only member.

This hair-shirt fanaticism, as Brody points out, was not exactly a break with the past. In some ways, it was an attempt, hardly unique during the period, to come to terms with that past. Like those children of small-town bankers who became America's Weathermen, Godard was born to privilege. The son of a French-Swiss doctor and a mother from a distinguished Huguenot family, he had grown up pampered and secure. The family spent World War II in Switzerland. Godard has said that his parents, who worked for the Red Cross, were German sympathizers. His Vichy-supporting maternal grandparents were open anti-Semites.

Godard came to Paris as a fifteen-year-old student in 1946. Indifferent to his classes, he spent much of his time watching movies in the Cinematheque Francaise, absorbed past the point of devotion. Godard's surrender was total: "At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought." He dreamed of adapting to film The Myth of Sisyphus and imagined he might astonish the world as the new Cocteau. In the meantime, he began publishing hyper-opinionated, precociously brilliant reviews for various film journals, including the newly established Cahiers du cinema. Despite its subsequent swerve into Althusserian Marxism, Cahiers was then primarily a right-wing journal, particularly compared to its Surrealist rival, Positif. But the young men who wrote for it lived a cinephilia of unprecedented intensity. As Brody describes him, the young, apolitical Godard "took all fanaticisms to be alike and be equally beautiful. Without equating the far left and the far right politically, [he] equated them aesthetically."

Moving left during the Sixties, radicalized by Algeria and increasingly hostile to consumer capitalism, Godard would become the guiltiest of guilty liberals -- as well as the most self-absorbed. He sacrificed his genius, the capital of his reputation, and his love of movies on the pyre of revolution. In the spring of 1970, he dismissed his previous films as "dead corpses." Given this self-hatred, it's not surprising that the most compelling of his political tracts would be an attack on a fellow artist. Having just starred in Godard's first commercial film since Weekend, Tout va bien (1972), Jane Fonda -- then the most politically outspoken figure in Hollywood -- made an irresistible target.

Godard and Gorin's 1972 Letter to Jane is a fifty-two-minute politico-semiotic analysis of a single news photo of Fonda, taken during her recent trip to Hanoi, in which she appears to be listening to a Vietnamese peasant. Veering between brilliant and obtuse, the filmmakers' argument is so enamored of its own invective that Fonda is presented as the photograph's auteur, responsible even for the newspaper's caption that erroneously describes her as speaking. With a triumphant flourish, Godard and Gorin offer an alternative caption: "I am keeping my mouth shut because I have nothing to say" are the words assigned Fonda in the film's belligerent conclusion. Solipsistic as he was, Godard was talking to himself.

Whereas Godard's Sixties films overflowed with ideas and cinematic invention, his political tracts were chillingly lifeless. Perhaps his death wish was granted in June 1971, on the very day that he was to fly to New York for discussions with Paramount regarding Tout va bien. Before leaving for the airport, he wanted to pick up a book for his flight, and his film editor offered to give him a lift on her motorcycle. They skidded beneath a bus, and Godard fractured his skull and broke his pelvis, his femoral artery was severed, and he lost a testicle. He lay in a coma for a month; the mishap would have him intermittently hospitalized for the next two years. (It would also permit Gorin to direct Tout va bien more or less on his own as a credible, if mechanical, imitation of '60s Godard.)

Typically, Godard called his near-extinction "the logical end of '68." The long march continued -- albeit in a new direction, away from movies, toward television, and far from whatever American spotlight the filmmaker had previously enjoyed. In the mid-Seventies, Godard relocated to Grenoble, working with video in collaboration with the Swiss photographer Anne-Marie Mieville, who would become his life companion. Together, they produced Godard's strongest, most innovative film since Weekend.

Numero deux (1975) is set entirely inside the artist's studio and mostly plays out on a pair of TV monitors -- thus affording the artist a dozen new ways to split the screen or layer the image. Its title heralding the start of a second career, Numero deux moved from political hectoring to sociological poetry. Although it suggests an eccentric version of American sitcoms (The Honeymooners, for instance, or Married... With Children) in pondering the effect of modern capitalism on the sex life (sometimes startlingly graphic) of a young working-class couple in a high-rise housing project, Numero deux would not get a commercial release in the United States for six years.

Having made a bold use of video technology in what was essentially an avant-garde feature, Godard was even more radical in his next project, a bid for prime time. In 1976, Godard and Mieville made Six Times Two, a six-part series for French TV that, at once modest and self-aggrandizing, set out to explore the political economy of the media image and, like any self-respecting TV show, adhered to a strict formula. The six programs were each divided into two 50-minute segments: the first elaborating a specific field of inquiry (work, women, history); the second featuring an interview with a particular individual. The structure was standard; the content was anything but.

With Six Times Two, Godard joined such disparate types as video-artist Nam June Paik and TV comedian Ernie Kovacs (a video artist avant la letter) as an authentic televisionary. To paraphrase Brody on Breathless, this barrage of annotated commercials, inappropriate interviews, and punning word games had the effect of rendering all television instantly old- fashioned. But whereas Breathless transformed the cinematic landscape, Six Times Two was barely seen outside France. (It had no successors other than Godard and Mieville's own follow-up series, the twelve-part France/Tour/Detour/Two/Children (1979), which investigates the structure of the French nuclear family and the metaphysics of society through a series of improbable interviews with two young children.) One has the sense that Godard attached his career to another failed revolution.

Neither of Godard's televisual epics were shown in the United States until 1986, some years after he managed a return to something approximating commercial cinema, and then, as with Numero deux, under limited theatrical conditions. (None are available here on DVD.) While filming them, however, he conceived what would be his magnum opus, which he would not begin to realize for another decade: Histoire(s) du cinema. This was initially imagined as a commercial project: an eight-hour VHS history of cinema produced for the American college market. It was finally begun in 1985 under the auspices of French TV and -- produced entirely at Godard's new studio in Rolle, Switzerland -- completed thirteen years later.

With this vast, essentially solitary, undertaking -- an unimaginably complex analogue to the Hollywood compilation film That's Entertainment! -- Godard "wrote" his autobiography, his remembrance of films past, both as filmmaker and as viewer. Histoire(s) tracks the medium's formal development. In his recurring rapid-fire alternation between two separate pictures, Godard recalls the nineteenth-century thaumatrope, even as he uses twentieth-century video technology to overlay each image.

In Histoire(s), Godard samples movie history (and pre-history), revisiting his lifelong engagement with the medium, utterly in command of his particular visual vocabulary and unconcerned with copyrights. No one else could create so rhythmically complex and willfully impenetrable a construction; Histoire(s) is so dense as to be all but untranslatable. Yet, addressing the "history of movies" and the "movie of history," this masterpiece of applied cinephilia is also an argument. Brody, who describes Histoire(s) as a form of "self-psychoanalysis," believes that Godard was profoundly shaken by Claude Lanzmann's eight-hour documentary Shoah (1985).

Less a movie than a cinematic event, Shoah declared that the Holocaust was essentially unrepresentable. Lanzmann's refusal to use archival footage compelled the spectator to "see" the past in the present and restage history in the mind's eye. For a true believer like Godard, Shoah represented the failure of representation and even motion pictures. He concluded that European cinema perished during World War II, undermined by its failure to show the death camps and murder of European Jewry. It is in the light of genocide, according to Brody, that Godard recounts his lifelong devotion to what he condemns as a dying medium.

For me, Godard's elegiac tone has less to do with World War II than with the moment in which Histoire(s) appeared. Closing in on the 100th anniversary of the first motion pictures, the 1990s were cinema's melancholy fin-de-siècle, and Histoire(s) was addressed to a diminished audience. In his desire to commemorate a once-universal form, Godard created a monument that was essentially invisible.

The craziness of Histoire(s)' narrative, no less than its encyclopedic scope, attests to the totality of Godard's immersion in cinema. "Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads," F. Scott Fitzgerald noted on the first page of his unfinished Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon. Godard is surely one of them.

Indeed, this bristly curmudgeon is arguably the single most important individual produced by motion pictures from 1960 through the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan. Godard has had an impact on every mode of production (European art film, Hollywood feature, documentary avant-garde, and postcolonial cinema). He successfully assimilated video and television into his work; he has been central to successive modes of film-critical discourse, from auteurism through structuralism, cine-semiotics, Lacanian-feminism, the new historicity, and beyond. But after 1968, the larger audience never returned -- even when, after more than a decade of absence, Godard himself found his way back to commercial cinema and, having turned fifty, represented himself as an old master.

There's no mistaking the blatant aestheticism and cultural seriousness of Godard's mature features: Passion (1982), Nouvelle vague (1990), Helas pour moi (1993), and Eloge de l'amour (2001). Even the lesser ones -- First Name Carmen (1983), Hail Mary (1985), King Lear (1987), For Ever Mozart (1996) -- openly address the central myths of European culture. In America, where such movies are shown at film festivals (if at all), these obscure titles are treated with respect, albeit as the addendum to a legendary career. But whereas Godard once made movies that, though looking like nothing else, were seemingly authored by the recombination of all previous movies, he now produces ostentatiously beautiful, formalist "masterpieces." The paradox is that of an artist who has regressed from postmodern to modern.

As decades of movies by Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and their imitators can attest, the liberating energy with which the young Godard mixed genres and shifted modes of address -- from ironic to tragic to melodramatic to comic -- has long since been co-opted. And yet the original work remains fresh. However self-conscious they might have been, Godard's movies, unlike those of Tarantino et al., were never only about movies. He expanded the tradition of open-air production pioneered by Jean Renoir in the 1930s and the Italian neo-realists after World War II. Even when shooting in the studio, he contrived to direct his actors in the midst of life.

Godard arrived on the scene with the force of a revelation. Breathless, which to this day remains his greatest commercial success, was one of the dozen most influential movies ever made, in part because everyone got it -- or nearly everyone. When the movie opened in the United States a few weeks into the Kennedy administration, the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, hopelessly square, deemed it a nihilistic juvenile-delinquency film ("unrestrainedly vicious, completely devoid of moral tone") that was rendered with alarming "pictorial cacophony." Time's anonymous reviewer was far more sophisticated in his ability to grasp Godard's "cubistic thriller." By characterizing its director as an "obscure, 30-year-old film critic," Time seized on another aspect of Breathless's significance. Godard not only made a new kind of movie; he invented a new type of filmmaker -- the movie intellectual.

It was Godard who taught the movies to quote older movies and who proposed to criticize one film by making another. For him, as for no filmmaker since the Soviet montage theorist Sergei Eisenstein, cinema was a way of thinking. Like Eisenstein, Godard constructed cinematic arguments and "wrote" celluloid essays predicated on the basic principle of montage. In essence, Godard cubed the Soviet montage, splicing together B movies and Picasso, documentary and pulp fiction, film and video, Marx and Coca-Cola, and every conceivable juxtaposition of sound and image.

No less than Eisenstein, Godard exhibited an impressive cultural range. Breathless tosses off references to Auguste Renoir, Mozart, and Faulkner. But whereas Eisenstein found precursors for motion pictures in established arts -- linking D. W. Griffith's use of the close-up to Charles Dickens's novels or his own work to Japanese kabuki -- Godard had a more fully developed sense of the medium's evolution. He was the first filmmaker to recognize that cinema's classic period, with its seamless editing, straightforward narrative construction, and devoted mass audience, was over.

Godard took film history as a text and yet, when he made his first feature, he proceeded as if no one had ever made a movie before. Breathless was less directed than improvised in the moment. Brody reports that Godard habitually gave his cameraman "obscure, elliptical orders." Many have noted that, working without a script and improvising on the set, Godard took pleasure in confounding the production assistant charged with supervising the film's continuity -- not to mention the actors who were stymied in their attempt to create naturalistic characterizations. To a large extent Breathless is a documentary in which Jean Seberg and her co-star, Jean-Paul Belmondo, attempt to fathom their director: their performances are more elaborate versions of the spontaneity that Godard achieved by incorporating puzzled passersby into his street scenes.

As a refugee from Hollywood, Seberg was amused by Godard's disregard for movie professionalism. Belmondo, less secure, feared for his burgeoning career. According to Brody, the actor comforted himself with the notion that Godard would be unable to edit his footage and the movie would be unreleasable. But, as with everything else, Godard edited after his own fashion. Asked by the producer to cut Breathless by half an hour, he chose not to eliminate or tighten individual scenes; rather, he went through the footage and removed whatever he deemed boring, thus creating the abrupt, mismatched "jump cuts" that, along with the blithe eschewal of transitional and establishing shots, were the movie's most visually distinctive quality.

Having created this style, Godard never repeated it. And having directed the most original first feature since Citizen Kane, he never looked back. Every movie he directed in the seven years following Breathless raises comparable issues and takes comparable risks -- but never in the same way.

Brody has not chosen the title of his book lightly. Godard lived his movies. As detailed in Everything Is Cinema, he was more often than not in love with his leading lady -- Marina Vlady in Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), Anne Wiazemsky in La Chinoise, and of course Anna Karina, who graced seven of his first fifteen features. His debut studio film, A Woman Is a Woman (1961), was a movie about its own making; his first big-budget production, Contempt (1963), which was a vehicle for the French superstar Brigitte Bardot, concerned the impossibility of its making.

The characters in Band of Outsiders (1964) and Pierrot le Fou (1963) are living in a movie -- or failing to -- and they know it. Alphaville (1965) is an action drama of outer space, set in a familiar world of parking lots and highways, modern hotels with self-service elevators and the neon-lit corridors of deserted office buildings, but populated by characters lifted from serial movies and comic strips. Two or Three Things I Know About Her is Alphaville in reverse. Paris appears as a comic strip -- or a semiotic jungle -- inhabited by actual people. The youth films Masculine-Feminine (1966) and La Chinoise are neither drama nor documentary but fictions transparently imposed on reality, in which the filmmaker can be heard prompting and questioning his young performers.

Anticipated and argued about, these movies opened in commercial theaters and attracted crowds, not just in Paris but around the world. (And they still do. Last spring, New York's Film Forum mounted, and held over, a Sixties Godard retrospective, drawing an impressive number of people born long after the movies were made.) Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, the most thoughtful of recent movies addressing the Sixties as an era, is nearly as much a tribute to Godard as it is to its ostensible subject, Bob Dylan -- not least in that, in New Wave tradition, Haynes's characters are forever acting as though they are in a movie.

One might say that Godard's early films merged with life, his and ours. He began the Sixties tinkering with montage and rewiring genre. But as the decade progressed, he caught a wave -- not the nouvelle vague but the great swell of cultural revolution. Indeed, more than any artist or thinker of the time, Godard was that cultural revolution. There are American avant-garde film artists of his generation, notably Ken Jacobs and the late Stan Brakhage, who also rethought cinema and, reinventing its language, produced work that was no less radical. But neither of these men ever won a prize at Cannes, opened the New York Film Festival, or made a movie starring Brigitte Bardot.

Godard briefly abandoned filmmaking after Weekend. The revolution was over by the time he returned, and he has spent the past forty years attempting to extend that long lost historical moment. It's hardly surprising that, even in France, Godard's contemporary admirers are largely film intellectuals and other like-minded aesthetes. The first episodes of Histoire(s) du cinema were broadcast on Canal Plus in May 1989 for what a programming executive called "an audience too small to be measured." But how many members of Oprah's Book Club read William Gaddis? It is due to the cinema's past universality and present blockbuster mentality that mass appeal would seem to hold the measure of an artist's achievement. What is truly remarkable is that Godard ever had a public at all. Now, as always, he makes movies to suit himself.

J. Hoberman is the senior film critic of the Village Voice. He is currently working on a prequel to The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties.

Books mentioned in this post

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  5. The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and... Used Trade Paper $9.95

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