"The only film that I want to make, I will never make because it is impossible. It is a film on love, or of love, or with love. To speak in the mouth, to touch the breast, for women to imagine and to see the body, the sex of the man, a caress a shoulder, things as difficult to show and to intend as horror, and war, and sickness are. I do not understand why, and I suffer from it. What to do then, since I cannot make films simple and logical like Roberto’s humble and cynical like Bresson’s, austere and comic like Jerry Lewis’, lucid and calm like Hawks’, rigorous and tender like François’, hard and plaintive like the two Jacques’, courageous and sincere like Resnais’, pessimistic and American like Fuller’s romantic and Italian like Bertolucci’s, Polish and despairing like Skolimowski’s communist and crazy like Mme. Dovzhenko’s. Yes, what to do?"
[The following essay was written by Craig Keller in 2003 for Senses of Cinema. For full source notes, please visit original site.]
In discussing the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, one inevitably arrives at the question of where exactly to mark this artist's own “leaps forward” on the timeline of a long and prolific career; and in addressing that question, one first must decide how to make the distinction between “before” and “after,” and then how many times to make the distinction. Could one, for instance, find numerous points of departure through Godard's body of work, and cite as examples the liberated debut feature À Bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959), the serial video works of the 1970s, and, from the 1980s onward, the advent of the transcendental film-essays? On the contrary, could one plead the case for a single break that occurred when, in 1968, Godard dedicated himself to an expressly Marxist agenda, whereby the next several films stood as aggressively didactic, anti-bourgeois “blackboards”? The first instance grants a priori that Godard's body of work can be read as a movement that passes through many aesthetic phases but never fails to constitute an oeuvre that, examined from any point, yields a poetic and cinematic value consistent with or building upon those films that have come before. It is the second standpoint, however, that has been so consistently adopted by a number of prominent (that is, visible) film critics and historians. This flank, whose American roster includes but is not limited to Roger Ebert, Anthony Lane, Andrew Sarris, and David Thomson, have long confused the evolution of the artist Godard with some kind of fundamental betrayal. For this group, Godard is a filmmaker who will forever be associated with pop-art palettes, love-and-guns on the run, and the intellectual exuberance of a breezy pre-Vietnam '60s youth; but who will never be forgiven for discarding the earlier use of Hollywood reference points (which the filmmaker's latter-day antagonists had perceived in any case not as aesthetic critique but as blank cool cultural homage), exhibiting overtly political (even left-wing) tendencies, exploring in his two television series the possibilities of a different medium of transmission, and then settling on a mode of filmmaking that incorporates narrative cadenzas, historical scrutiny, visual poetry, literary citation, and a dominant mood of elegiac contemplativeness. In short, Godard has evolved from making films of great complexity and beauty to making films of even greater complexity that frequently approach the sublime. If Godard's crime isn't merely that for which he's been put to task in many of the mainstream U.S. publications that reviewed his recent Éloge de l'amour (Elegy for Love / In Praise of Love, 2001)—an expression of the belief that Steven Spielberg doesn't make very good films—then it is that which the impatient soul and the Philistine alike deem the greatest felony of all: that Godard is an artist of tremendous agency and authority within his medium, and through the uncompromised expression of his aesthetic and, therefore, moral convictions, demonstrates as little concern for the satiety of the “audience that might have been” as Beethoven, Joyce, or Renoir before him.
Incidentally, this idea of “what might have been” is not so far removed from an examination of Godard's work as one might assume. It does not, of course, exist within the context of placating a populist movie-going audience, but rather comes into focus in the first portion of this attempt to create a reasonable introduction to the work of Jean-Luc Godard—a body of work that begins not with À Bout de souffle, but with Godard's film criticism in La Gazette du cinéma, Arts, and, most famously, Cahiers du cinéma.
While attending the Sorbonne in pursuit of a degree in Ethnology, the 20-year-old Godard spent a great deal of his time frequenting the Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin, not to mention the cavernous Cinémathèque française. (2) There were enough ciné-clubs (or film-societies) in Paris at the time of Godard's schooling to lead Henri Langlois, director of the Cinémathèque, to proclaim the trend a “movement” in a written response to a solicitation for prints from a similarly young François Truffaut. (3) It would be at these ciné-clubs that Truffaut, Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer, among others, would make each other's early acquaintance and hold forth their views and passions in lively discussions on the subject of the cinema. By 1956, this circle of friends would cement their reputations in the pages of both Arts and the Cahiers as the “young turks” of film criticism, who espoused a loose hierarchy of critical values collectively referred to as la politique des auteurs, or “the auteur theory.” The auteur theory can be summarized most simply as an acknowledgement of the director as the primary and shaping force behind any film; those directors whose body of work tends to exhibit the features of any number of recurring themes that might reveal some personal vision or world-view are especially prized in the auteur-centric evaluation of cinema, for their work demonstrates an individual and authorial presence in spite of the outside influence of film-as-commodity production models or budgetary constraints. In gradually developing this doctrine, Godard and many of the other critics in the Arts and Cahiers group were among the first writers about film to make a case for actual artists existing within the Hollywood system, and it is to these “young turks” that we owe even today so much gratitude for the creation of an aesthetic discourse on directors such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray. (4) No point-for-point manifesto existed for the auteur theory, although a general sense of the politique's nuances would develop over time in pieces like Truffaut's famous attack on the stale and “literary” French production system (“Une Certaine Tendance du cinéma français” in Cahiers, 31 January 1954) and in the dialectic between the “turks'” jeremiads and the more impartial essays of Cahiers pater familias André Bazin. As such, the importance that we ascribe today to the Cahiers critics of the 1950s stems perhaps not so much from the cogency of some singular “auteur theory” as from the unabashedly polemical stance taken in the group's articles. As Godard stated in a 1962 Cahiers interview, “The thing that made Cahiers was its position in the front line of battle. There were two kinds of virtues: true and false. Cahiers came along saying that the true were false and the false were true.”
For Godard, the forums of Cahiers and Arts allowed the fleshing out of a conception of the cinema that was closer to an all-encompassing poetic rumination than the linear Cartesian logic and self-effaced objectivity that the majority of film criticism tends to require. If one acknowledges that cinema = life, then 1 + 2 + 3 = 4, therefore, is it not only natural that in speaking about the cinema, one might also acknowledge that the hodge-podge of ideas informing our own conceptions of the world must also apply to that most plastic of arts which, projected large, can at once both render and arrest? This was Godard's line of inquiry—one which grants, certainly, the existence of a metaphysics specific to the cinema (e.g., the power of the film-image and the edit, the ritual of spectacle, the temporality/ephemerality of the movie-watching experience), but which also seeks to develop and pursue a higher Truth that is no more immediately apprehensible in our lives and histories than it is in an even-tempered recounting of cinema's “highs and lows,” that is, an unscrutinized hierarchy of aesthetic mores and moments of supposed cinematic privilege. Thus, Godard's method of writing about films involves elliptical, round-about argument, the concatenation of seemingly unrelated disparities, and frequently coming down on the side of films deemed by critical establishmentarians as too vulgar or unpolished. A prime example of Godard's strategy can be found in the conclusion to his review of Frank Tashlin's Hollywood or Bust (1956):
To sum up. Frank Tashlin has not renovated the Hollywood comedy. He has done better. There is not a difference in degree between Hollywood or Bust and It Happened One Night, between The Girl Can't Help It and Design for Living, but a difference of kind. Tashlin, in other words, has not renewed but created. And henceforth, when you talk about a comedy, don't say “It's Chaplinesque”; say, loud and clear, “It's Tashlinesque.”
Although often singled out as the “theorist” of the Cahiers group, Godard's penchant for playful allusion and the poignant turn of phrase establish him more clearly as the journal's resident “poet-critic.” This role has served Godard, and the history of film criticism itself, rather well. For when we review the collective body of Godard's output as film critic, we find that through the practice of his uniquely rarefied, poetic approach, Godard was in effect carving out a new “assessment” of cinema that, while alternative, could essentially stand in for the mainstream or definitive history and conception of the medium. The cinema as put forth by Godard was therefore a “cinema that might have been,” a canon (or anti-canon) that existed only as an ideal, a series of groupings whose relation to each other could only be measured poetically, yet one whose separate and discrete films did, after all, exist. As a self-fulfilling prophecy for Godard's own cinema, and as an ontology (or idea for an ontology) that is inherently cinematographic, the “cinéma qu'il y aurait” deserves exploration.
The importance of this idea—based around the phrase “qu'il y aurait,” or “which might have been”—can perhaps best be understood when put into the context of the work in which it is made most explicit, more than thirty years on from Godard's time as a full-fledged critic; that is, his episodic and monumental video work, Histoire(s) du cinéma (History(s) of the Cinema, 1988-1998). Surely Godard's ample transubstantiation of the rhetorical into the real in the early writings accounts for the basis of this argument, but as “qu'il y aurait” is a conception couched primarily in the language of “hindsight” (projecting backwards into a memory of cinema/art/world to underscore and poeticize the associations between the films), we might do best to make that leap into the future, to those Histoire(s), to explain the concept appropriately suited to the medium that lays bare in the present a flickering, fleeted past.
The Histoire(s) implicitly present the argument that the cinema is both an art, and a history; the cinema records not only directorial mise-en-scène but also events. With that established, we might acknowledge the cinema as the only art-form in the history of the world to exist as a living ghost. In the Histoire(s) the connection is made that the cinema has indeed always been a record of mourning for that which has passed or that which has been lost. Human beauty and human suffering alike have thus been chronicled, captured on celluloid, but why then have these images—cinematographic evidence—done nothing to dissuade nationalistic tyranny or prevent genocide? Where lies the disconnect between audience spectatorship (ecstasy before the projected spectacle) and the ex post facto indifference and callousness of that same audience/world that once watched? Is the cinema only a dream after all? Or nothing more than “stories”? (The French “histoire” can be translated as both “history” and “story”; I employ the latter connotation here, in the same way a grandmother might proclaim on any weekday afternoon that it's time to watch her “stories.”) The rigorous examination of the cinema's role in world events forms the epicenter of the Histoire(s), but this same scrutinizing, this same reconstruction of the “pieces” so as to examine not only where the cinema went wrong but how it can possibly go right, propelled the critic Godard to wage his aesthetic battle in the 1950s against movie-Philistinism and for a “poetic heightening” that was missing in all accounts of the history of the cinema. An “attempt” at criticism, in a sense similar to Godard's frequent remarks that his films were “attempts at cinema”—but an attempt that acknowledges the medium as one that is only as “real” as we make it, or can believe its potential to be. In his preview of Claude Chabrol's Les Cousins (The Cousins, 1959), Godard writes:
Les Cousins, in short, will be an engaging film which will disengage you from worldly considerations, a false film which will offer its home truths, a deeply hollow and therefore profound film.
The cinema, which disengages us from worldly considerations while engaging us in its world, that is, our world, ontologically resides in a zone of paradox. Between action (engagement) and inaction (disengagement), Godard was to set out on the path of the former, even as the protagonist of his Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier, 1960) would be quick to express, in the film's opening lines: “The time for action is over; the time for reflection has just begun.” Godard's criticism posits that meditation upon and evaluation of the cinema will create the cinema—and (here hindsight crosses over to become premonition) in going on to make his own films, the poet-critic Godard would in effect be making an attempt to bridge the gap between an alternative cinematic history that “might have been” and the individual films that fit into that history; in short, he would create a body of work that was aware of the world, the entirety of the cinema, that same cinema's place in the world, and its own nature as cinema-and-nothing-more.
A success [Hot Blood (1956)] almost in spite of its director, I should add; or better, brought off by Nicholas Ray's innate sense of cinema: in an almost automatic manner, therefore, but less naively than that writing beloved by the early Surrealists. The whole cinema and nothing but the cinema, I was saying of Nicholas Ray. This eulogy entails a reservation. Nothing but cinema may not be the whole cinema.
In Godard's film Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964), the three main characters race through the whole of the Louvre in 9 minutes 46 seconds, thereby breaking the record previously held, we are told, by Jimmy Johnson of San Francisco, U.S.A. Any summary profile of Godard's work can't help but seem like the same kind of breakneck tour: the sprawling scope and voluminous nature of the oeuvre ensure that a number of grievous oversights and undesirable reductions will be made here. That most of Godard's individual works warrant and deserve their own book-length studies adds to the difficulty of the task, but, as long as we're willing to leave the slightings to this profile, and take an oath to watch and re-watch the films themselves, we might arrive at some conclusion that doesn't leave us, like Odile, Franz, and Arthur, completely out of breath.
In 1959, Jean-Luc Godard directed his first feature. Coming on the heels of the short films Charlotte et son Jules (Charlotte and Her Jules, 1958) and Une Histoire d'eau (A History of Water, 1958), À Bout de souffle completed the trifecta of films that heralded the arrival of a “New Wave” of young filmmakers on the French cinema scene. The début feature by Godard, along with Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge (The Handsome Serge, 1959) all had in common traits antithetical to the French film industry's “tradition of quality” that had been lambasted by these same former critics in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma. The New Wave's pictures dealt with contemporary life and youth culture, perceived from an unwavering and unsentimental perspective. They were shot quickly and on low budgets, but the lack of any overt “sheen” in these films only served to reinforce their directors' points that the form of a successful film should follow its subject matter; in Truffaut's film, the gritty day-to-day of a young man with an unhappy home life, and in Godard's, twenty-something romance mixed up in theft and murder—or, love-and-guns on the run. À Bout de souffle was notable in particular among the early New Wave features for its veritable parade of formal breakthroughs. As one example, a barrage of jump-cuts occur over and over again in the middle of several scenes in the film, adding to the off-the-cuff feel of the picture but also truncating and dislocating diegetic temporality. (Godard later explained that the random jump-cuts were an easy way of trimming the film's length without removing scenes outright.) Godard also explodes the “necessity” of the “180-degree rule” in À Bout de souffle when he places the camera on the opposite side of the road for one of the shots in the sequence portraying a police pursuit, and thus transforms a normal cinematic convention of continuity into poetic montage, as a shot of Jean-Paul Belmondo's auto speeding to the right of the frame cuts to a shot of the motorcycle cops speeding to the left of the frame, giving cheeky visual expression to the tête-à-tête conflict about to erupt. Furthermore, sidewalk tracking-shots were set up on a rigged wheelchair as a cheap alternative to a conventional dolly; their inclusion in the film comes replete with passers-by staring into the lens, lending a documentary realism to a picture that, after all, aspires to record life (although Godard would later repeat in many interviews his realization that À Bout de souffle was more akin to a fairy tale). The film was aware of its status as a movie as few films had been before: Belmondo's character gains a layer of depth (or, with his facile conscience, perhaps has one stripped away?) in his aping of Humphrey Bogart's tough-guy persona, right down to the thumb-on-lip gestures; Jean Seberg's character retains the pixie-cut worn by the actress in Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (1958). (Godard explains: “...The character played by Jean Seberg was a continuation of her role in Bonjour Tristesse. I could have taken the last shot of Preminger's film and started [À Bout de souffle] after dissolving to a title, 'Three Years Later'.”) À Bout de souffle's irreverent poise and frank characterizations act as testimonials to the life-force native to the American B-picture—a dedication to Monogram Pictures at the start of the film makes the connection explicit even before the first cut to a shot of Belmondo in his Bogart-fedora, while the appearances of one-sheets and marquees for Ten Seconds to Hell (Robert Aldrich, 1959) and Westbound (Budd Boetticher, 1958) show up in Godard's film as further nods to the tradition. But the scene to “borrow” most amusingly from modern American mythology occurs right at the beginning, when Belmondo hot-wires then drives away in the giant automobile vacated only moments before by its owner—the pipe-smoking spitting image of Douglas MacArthur. It's Godard's/Belmondo's way of saying, “Thanks for the goods. Now I'll put them to use.”
The director followed À Bout de souffle with a string of artistic (if not commercial) triumphs, turning out two, sometimes three films in the course of one year. Each of Godard's films of the 1960s represents a step further in the filmmaker's art and also in the art of filmmaking. Le Petit Soldat, banned for several years upon its release, presents Michel Subor as a young photographer for the French Information Bureau who becomes embroiled in the power-play between the French nationalists and Algerian independence movement. The film mirrors in its threadbare, elliptical narrative Subor's confusion and indecision over where exactly his own sympathies should lie in the struggle. (He informs the audience early on in voice-over, “Our antiterrorist group was financed by an ex-parliamentarian who had been pro-Vichy.”) The film's suggestion that both sides of the movement employed torture tactics contributed to the ban, along with the picture's inclusion of a candid, systematic bathroom torture sequence, shot with the rest of the film in the underexposed, off-hand manner of a tendentious underground reel. Le Petit soldat also marks the screen début of Anna Karina, the Danish model who would become Godard's muse and regular leading lady throughout the first half of the 1960s, not to mention the director's first wife. For many, Karina is the on-screen icon of the French New Wave—her performances in the films of Godard are by turns sympathetic, uninhibited, doleful, passionate, conniving, pensive, guileless—often within the same picture. Yet even in moments of great melancholy Karina's possession of a near boundless joie de vivre can always be discerned beyond the tears. Her role as a young woman calculating the days of the month on which she might be most fertile in the Cinemascope musical Une Femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961) gives way to that of another jeune fille who takes up the mantle of a star-crossed Parisian prostitute to make ends meet in Vivre sa vie (To Live One's Life / My Life to Live, 1962). “A Film in Twelve Tableaux,” Vivre sa vie builds a tragic momentum across a series of increasingly worldly episodes in exploration of the confusion of self and the commodification of the soul. The scene in which Karina attends a revival screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Jeanne of Arc, 1928) remains one of the great screen moments, as the cross-cutting between Falconetti's distracted expressions and Karina's own tear-streaked face creates an interplay between the two characters' pathetic search for deliverance, and foreshadows the latter's own doomed end.
The two films that followed stand on opposite ends of the visible spectrum. Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen, 1963) mixes newsreel footage and beat-up, intentionally grained black-and-white film-stock to chronicle the misadventures of two pig-headed mercenaries at war in an imaginary time and country. The film operates as a damning satire of all that goes on in war, and punctuates the narrative action with screen-tableaux that quote anonymous soldiers' actual letters home from the front, indicating an atmosphere of moral absurdity. Lurid primary colors fill Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), Jean-Luc Godard's first and final foray into “mainstream” American co-productions. At once a study of marital breakdown and the prostitution of the artist, Le Mépris remains a powerfully self-reflexive comment on Godard's relationship with his own backers for the film and with his wife/muse, Anna Karina. Although Brigitte Bardot stands in for Karina in the role of the film's wife, many of the episodes (particularly the extraordinarily tense middle sequence taking place in the film couple's Italian flat) are drawn from Godard's own domestic situation. The director himself appears in the film, as the 1st-AD to the great Fritz Lang (also appearing), whose struggles to adapt Homer's Odyssey to the screen provide the backdrop to the marital drama at the center of Le Mépris.
Anna Karina would return to Godard's feature films in Bande à part, a luminous “heist picture” wherein the three heroes dash through the Louvre, dance the Madison, and flirt with the English language (Claude Brasseur passes Karina a note during a Shakespeare lesson that reads, “tou bi or not tou bi, contre votre poitrine, it iz ze question.”) The director would continue his study of the modern domestic space in Une Femme mariée (A Married Woman, 1964), before once again casting his wife, this time opposite Eddie Constantine, in Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville, A Strange Case of Lemmy Caution, 1965). Although often lauded for setting the “standard” for sci-fi cult-film dystopia, Alphaville more importantly addresses the horrors of the tyrannous state and the eradication of the individual. The film grounds its critique in a future that has already come to pass (that the picture was shot on location around Paris with no sets constructed suggests this anaesthetizing rulership had sprung up over night, and no-one was looking), and explores the difficulties of communication in the midst of state—(and self)—imposed semiotic desensitization in the “society of the future.”
With Pierrot le fou (Pierrot the Mad, 1965), Godard embarked on the pursuit of a new film form that would blur the line between the cinematic narrative and the cinematic essay. In truth, the spontaneous plot developments and self-reflexive critiques that characterized Godard's earlier films also seem to lend those works to a “new category” of film—let us say, then, that if those pictures at least held up the pretense of plot, narrative considerations in Pierrot le fou and onward would be more overtly abandoned. The characters of Pierrot le fou address the audience directly, stage an improvisatory Brechtian production for a group of U.S. sailors on the subject of Hollywood and Vietnam (an intertitle designates Belmondo's and Karina's roles in the play as “the nephew of Uncle Sam versus the niece of Uncle Ho”), and share screen-time with static details of advertisements, paintings, and journal entries. Essentially, the films would also become more overtly political from this point on; Masculin féminin (Masculine Feminine, 1966), Made in U.S.A. (1966) (Karina's last picture with Godard before the couple's divorce of the same year), and Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1966) all announced the shift in Godard's methodology to a fundamentally Marxist social critique.
Throughout the rest of the 1960s, Godard displayed few reservations about engaging and sometimes implicating his audience by means of this newly didactic approach to filmmaking. On the eve of Dr. King's and the Black Panthers' galvanization of civil rights and the Black Power movement in America, of the incipient unrest among the French working-classes, and of the darkest and most horrific period of the war in Vietnam, Godard would release La Chinoise (1967), a Maoist teach-in set to film, followed by the work that would stand perhaps as his greatest triumph of the '60s and the culmination of all his films up to that moment: Week-End (1967).
“A film found on a scrap-heap,” Week-End ties together the themes of class struggle, environmentalism, body-politics, commercialization, and the very end of civilization itself into a tour de force evisceration of modern life that begins with another instance of a bourgeois couple on the run but ends with the lovers' “crossing over” with a band of cannibalist para-revolutionaries. The film's famous final title makes the declaration: “END OF CINEMA / END OF WORLD,” providing a brutal “last word” to what every viewer of Week-End has just witnessed, but also representing the period or artist's-signature on Godard's first era of commercial filmmaking.
Over the course of the next several years, Godard would direct a number of “blackboard” films whose leftist, polemical tones remain for some to this day nothing more than the yellowing political-tracts of a bygone epoch. Whether the films' attempts to elucidate and revolutionize an audience are now predominantly and condescendingly dismissed as exercises in socio-political naïveté, their formal audacity and forensic acumen (sometimes scientifically so—cf. the visual discourse on bomb-making in Le Vent d'est (Wind from the East, 1968)) should not be ignored. Nonetheless, matters of distribution make it is quite easy to do so: most of Godard's films of the period spanning 1968 to 1971 exist today only in very limited circulation (with the exception of Le Vent d'est and One Plus One , both available on Japanese Region 2 DVD), and rumor has it that Godard himself has in the last few years withheld the remaining prints of a few of the titles. While Godard accepted directorial credit for a handful of this era's films—Le Gai savoir (The Joy of Knowledge, 1968), One Plus One (1969) and British Sounds (See You at Mao) (1969, co-directed with Jean-Henri Roger)—the rest bore the collective authorial signature of the Dziga-Vertov Group (named after the Polish-born Soviet director of the Kino-Pravda shorts [Cinema-Truth, 1925] and Chelovek s kinoapparatom [The Man with the Movie Camera, 1929] and a father of the idea that cinema could instill mass revolutionary consciousness). Formed out of an ideological partnership between Godard and Maoist radical Jean-Pierre Gorin that counted among its members a number of other young revolutionaries, “the Dziga-Vertov Group,” a 1970 Grove Press statement explained, “is committed to producing more films and exhibiting more films differently (economically and aesthetically).” The press release, issued at the onset of an American university tour that Godard was to undertake, continues:
Their film theory rests on a perceived cultural and ideological exchange value in cinema. Each film is a continuation of the one before and the avant-garde of the one following, but the true reality of the cinema has, Godard feels, often been perverted in the past 50 years. Godard says: “Producing films at this moment means nothing else than: studying the changes undergone by the cinema from Lumière and Eisenstein to the present, and studying them in practice; that is to say, by making films about the world of today.
The Dziga-Vertov Group signature would appear on the following films—Un Film comme les autres (A Film Like the Others, 1968), Pravda (Truth, 1969), Le Vent d'est, Luttes en Italie (Struggles in Italy, 1969), and Vladimir et Rosa (Vladimir and Rosa, 1971)—however, in matters as basic as framing and editing, the formal aspects of the films can be unmistakably ascribed to Godard alone. Godard and Gorin would work together once more on a dual-project of sorts: Tout va bien (Everything's Going Fine, 1972) and Lettre à Jane (Letter to Jane, 1972). Tout va bien sees star-cum-revolutionary Jane Fonda in the role of a disenchanted American radio reporter stationed in Paris who attempts to reconcile both her occupation and relationship with Yves Montand with Marxist ideology. Lettre à Jane, on the other hand, documents a tag-team analysis between Godard and Gorin in voice-over of the notorious photo taken of Fonda commiserating with a group of Communist North Vietnamese. The film brings Fonda's activities and history into relief as, among other things, just another variety of bourgeois dilettantism; the same could be (and has been) argued of Lettre à Jane itself, although the strain of self-questioning that runs through both films signals perhaps a feeling within Godard (if not Gorin) that he had arrived at an ideological impasse, whereby the practice of “revolutionary” filmmaking itself might also be perceived as a form of opportunism.
And so Godard's “retreat” from film. By 1974, he and Gorin had parted ways; the one-time filmmaker would now partner with future life-companion Anne-Marie Miéville to create a series of video-works that were themselves as formally revolutionary as the films that had come before. The difficulties that Godard had experienced in finding for the Dziga-Vertov films an outlet of mass distribution uncompromised by capitalist control would now be circumvented by the creation of new works meant for broadcast on television. Indeed, Godard's Marxist proclivities had begun to cool off during this period. Yet he would still work (with Miéville) to incorporate footage from the unfinished Dziga-Vertov Group film Jusqu'à la victoire (Until Victory, 1970) into an exploration of the Palestinian liberation movement, Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere, 1974). Further preceded by Numéro deux (Number Two, 1975) (described by Godard as his “second first-film”) and Comment ça va? (How's It Going?, 1976), the Godard-Miéville television series are described in a 1980 interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum:
About five years ago, there was a six-part series, Six fois deux / Sur et sous la communication . The first part of each program was an hour-long interview with someone in a steady steady shot—a worker, mathematician, amateur filmmaker—and then another hour where we tried to do some research related to that. Then three years ago we did 12 half-hour programs, France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1977-78)... In the middle of each was a 15-minute steady shot, speaking with a girl of eight and a boy of nine, one after the other; the rest was introduction and commentary. (13)
In 1979, Godard would return to big-screen narrative cinema with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself). Although Sauve qui peut (la vie) revisits one of Godard's frequent themes (prostitution, here embodied by Isabelle Huppert), the director would proceed from this picture onward with a fresh approach that seemed more awake to the presence of cadence in life's fabric; there was a new attention to quietude here, supplemented by a certain sensuality to the film image that perhaps had not been seen before in Godard's films, one that limned the boundaries between soft radiance and rich shadow. If critics sometimes describe the films after Sauve qui peut (la vie) as belonging to Godard's “autumnal” phase, it is perhaps not simply out of a feeling that their maker has passed into the measured sagacity of old age, but because they are so softly and assuredly poetic—the distinctive position of the camera and the way the characters (peripatetic one and all) move in and out of frame; the ebb-and-flow, musical rhythms of the cuts; and the musical selections themselves that comprise the films' soundtracks, which in their idiosyncratic placement prove Godard's as one of the finest ears in cinema history. Each Godard feature of the 1980s comes not as plotted or even “elliptical” narratives, but as “narratives of revelation”: Passion (1981), Prénom Carmen (First Name Carmen, 1983), Je vous salue Marie (I Salute Thee Marie / Hail Mary, 1985), Détective (Detective, 1985), King Lear (1987), Soigne ta droite: une place sur la terre comme au ciel (Keep Your Right Up: A Place on the Earth as in Heaven, 1987), and Nouvelle vague (New Wave, 1990)—all are concerned in some way with desire, love, and the communion of the soul. Because such close-quarter groupings tend to belie the individual value of the separate works, it must be stressed that all of the '80s-features are in varying degrees masterpieces, with each film defying conventional “synopsis,” and eluding easy classification by any single or neatly concise subject matter.
Toward the end of the 1980s, Godard would devote much of his attention to the work whose completion would stretch into the late-'90s and would be considered by many (or at least many of those lucky enough to see it) to be the director's magnum opus: the Histoire(s) du cinéma. A mammoth work whose genesis can be traced to a series of lectures delivered by Godard in Montreal at the start of the decade (later compiled as Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma, or Introduction to a Veritable History of the Cinema), the Histoire(s) consist of eight episodes totaling over 260 minutes in length. Taking the entire history of film as their subject (or “one history”—as the inclusion of the “(s)” notifies, one might discern several histories that “could have been”), the Histoire(s) inhabit a purely video medium, with which Godard is able to juxtapose on-screen simultaneously a slew of cinematic fragments, a technique that would be prohibited on celluloid without the expenditure of a great deal of money and time for outside lab work. As one image fades into another, Godard further complicates the visual aspect of the Histoire(s)' segments by throwing quotations and puns on-screen in fractured supertitle. Additionally, the soundtrack of each episode supplies the aural corollary to the visual method: chamber music and film-score collide with dialogue from old films, before being joined by the voice of a disembodied narrator (usually Godard), hushed by a sudden caesura, or accelerated into the high-pitched whine of a rewinding tape-reel. The net effect is one of oceanic, almost overwhelming proportions. Jonathan Rosenbaum has on several occasions correctly drawn comparison of the Histoire(s) du cinéma to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, in part because the seemingly amorphous “Babel”-effect of both works tends initially to disorient their viewer or reader, but also because the intensely recondite nature of both the Histoire(s) and the Wake demand more “outside work” from their audience than almost anything else in cinema or literature respectively. Yet the authors of both have stressed that a viewer or reader should not worry about catching all of the references at play, suggesting of course that these are works which should be lived with or returned to over and over again across decades.
The two works also share the trait that, in their own way, their individual chapters or episodes contain pieces of or stand in for the whole. For Joyce, this structure lent itself to the Viconian theme of accumulated experience admist history's cyclical repetitions; but for Godard, one suspects the positioning and repositioning of images, sounds, and titles throughout the episodes supplements a thesis that the history of the cinema—how it failed to respond adequately to outside history, and instead how outside history projected back onto it, resulting in a cinematic Great Fall—must be reconstructed without the use of any easy historical fulcrum to enable a single “definite” perspective. Accordingly, a sense of investigation seems to run throughout the whole of the Histoire(s). In the work's first part, which is divided into two episodes entitled 1A: Toutes les Histoire(s) (1A: All the History(s), 1988) and 1B: Une Histoire seule (1B: A Single History, 1988), we apprehend a number of elements that will recur throughout the rest of the series: the sound of Godard's electric Brother typewriter banging out in rapid staccato measures the titles of old films; close-ups on the reel of an editing bay, through which hundreds of feet of film speed, and then halt; and the swift alternation between two clips of films, one fading into another and back in a kind of flicker effect. We might understand these components like such: In any attempt to elucidate a history of the cinema, we must find the associations between the films and investigate their middle ground; if the flicker-effect of projected film, moving at a rate of 24 frames per second, is what largely accounts for the ecstasy or elucidation of the spectator, then the flicker-effect created by fading rapidly in and out between two films via video technology will allow us to discover a similar Truth in the associations and connections making up an ostensible history of the cinema. The noise of the automated typewriter emphasizes the pursuit of a “hidden history” by reminding us at once of the material models behind production and global economics, of the rapid-fire machine-gun bursts of the noir or war film and war itself, and of a sewing machine that stitches together two separate elements to form a third “whole.” The lengths of film threaded through the editing reel underscore this notion of “stitching together” in an attempt to reconstitute a history of the cinema, with the entire investigatory element further suggested by the rewind's occasional cessation, so that we can scrutinize the individual frames on the celluloid—the primary “slides” in an assessment of evidence.
A deep concern over history and its relationship with collective and individual memory would permeate the films that followed those opening episodes of the Histoire(s) and indeed remains in place all the way up to the artist's most recent feature. Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, 1991) sees Cold War agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine revisiting his Alphaville role) roaming a newly reunified Germany to survey the transition from one epoch to another and discover his own role in the post-Communist climate. For Ever Mozart (1996) situates itself in the dialogue on the atrocities of Sarajevo and Bosnia, while the latest feature, Éloge de l'amour, affirms the “privilege” of memory as it portrays the negotiations of “Steven Spielberg and Associates” to co-opt the life story of aged participants in the French Resistance. Éloge de l'amour sets at its forefront the importance of attaching a name to an act, whether that act be benevolent or reprehensible. Godard proposes that moments of history categorizable by the latter must be committed to memory and their perpetrators in effect indicted; as Don DeLillo might remark, there is a power in this, the calling by name or citation by image of the figures behind historical atrocity, or even of atrocity itself. When Godard turns toward the camera near the close of JLG/JLG: Autoportrait de décembre (JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December, 1994), his gesture and outward gaze seem to suggest that we are all implicated to some degree in the turbulence of history—and that even on the scale of one's personal existence, we are still capable of making good on the covenant drawn between man and his world to live, with all good faith, “contre l'oubli”—that is, against oblivion.
“I said I love. That is the promise. Now, I have to sacrifice myself so that through me the word 'love' means something. As a reward, at the end of of this long undertaking, I will end up being he who loves. That is, I will merit the name I gave myself. A man, nothing but a man, no better than any other, but no other better than he.”
Jean-Luc Godard, JLG/JLG: Autoportrait de décembre
© Craig Keller, January 2003
"I make film to make time pass."
"I don't think you should FEEL about a movie. You should feel about a woman. You can't kiss a movie."
"Tracking shots are a question of morality."
[on Los Angeles] "It's a big garage."
"There is no point in having sharp images when you've fuzzy ideas."
"Every edit is a lie."
"Up to now -- since shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution -- most movie makers have been assuming that they know how to make movies. Just like a bad writer doesn't ask himself if he's really capable of writing a novel -- he thinks he knows. If movie makers were building airplanes, there would be an accident every time one took off. But in the movies, these accidents are called Oscars."
"What I want above all is to destroy the idea of culture. Culture is an alibi of imperialism. There is a Ministry of War. There is a Ministry of Culture. Therefore, culture is war."
"I write essays in the form of novels, or novels in the form of essays. I'm still as much of a critic as I ever was during the time of 'Cahiers du Cinema.' The only difference is that instead of writing criticism, I now film it."
"In a house there is the top floor and there is the cellar. The underground filmmakers live in the same house as Hollywood, but they work in the cellar. It's up to them if they like to live in the dark. The Hollywood filmmakers are more intelligent, because they have that sunny top floor."
"A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order."
"All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun."
Speaking at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival about filmmaker Michael Moore: "Post-war filmmakers gave us the documentary, Rob Reiner gave us the mockumentary and Moore initiated a third genre, the crockumentary."
It's over. There was a time maybe when cinema could have improved society, but that time was missed.
In the beginning I believed in Cannes, but now it's just for publicity. People come to Cannes just to advertise their films, not with a particular message. But the advantage is that if you go to the festival, you get so much press coverage in three days that it advertises the film for the rest of the year.
Who I'd like to meet:
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- Status: Divorced
- Hometown: Paris, France
- Height: 5' 7"
- Zodiac Sign: Sagittarius
- Smoke / Drink: Yes / Yes
- Occupation: filmmaker