Thursday, April 16, 2009


“He is not a man for small talk but he is a remarkably acute observer so one always feels a little bit on guard. He can be extremely funny but it is a mordant wit that keeps one constantly on guard… I always felt that he had the very highest comprehension of beauty and that he had made a lot of sacrifices to preserve the purity of his vision. And there was also a sense, which went with this, of a monastic anger. But above all there was a tremendous integrity: a total commitment to his art.”
Mary Lea Bandy, Curator of Film and Media at MoMA, on Godard

Is there any filmmaker who continues to capture the imagination of the cinephile in quite the same way as Godard? A figure who’s importance, longevity, intimidating body of work and breadth of knowledge continues to intrigue, anger, and above all, stimulate? A figure who has engendered continuous debate, reams of articles, appreciations both scholarly and colloquial, books upon books of sifting, collating, numbering, schematizing – a constant trying-to-make-sense-of? A figure who encapsulates several centuries worth of literature, history, philosophy, and at least one century worth of our preferred art form – the film. Who else has bent the medium to their own will - a mysterious, enigmatic will at that - in much the same way? Perhaps the elusive filmography of Welles comes closest, although even that entails more detective work and conjecture that an actual investigation of available evidence. By which I mean to say, is there any filmmaker who’s work we’ve yet to grasp in all its complexity even though, hypothetically, it is available? After all, we’re not talking about the elusive, presumed non-existent versions of Greed or Ambersons.
This month brings a bevy of Godard ephemera and controversy – I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way. Up first is the “JLG in USA” dvd that is included in the most recent issue of The Believer (one of those token annual issues where clever writers who don’t know much about film purport to teach us something about it – all while being, you know, personal and entertaining. It is one of the many branches of the McSweeney’s publishing tree). The disk includes a 40 min documentary by Mark Woodcock entitled “Two American Audiences”, a 50 min collage film called “Godard in America” (basically a pastiche of Godard’s style, with interview footage and scenes from La Chinoise chopped together), and an 8 min trip down nostalgia road called “A Weekend at the Beach With Jean-Luc Godard (notable mainly for glimpses of Jean Pierre Gorin’s killer back tattoo, a shirtless Godard sporting his trademark shades and funny straw hat and an awkward Wim Wenders arriving on the sand in long sleeved shirt, baggy slacks and suspenders, as well as director/narrator Ira Shneider admitting that he had seen some of Godard’s films and found them insufferable, therefore treating his video portrait with a certain level of sarcasm). The real find is two thirty minute episodes of The Dick Cavett Show, featuring Godard in conversation with the obviously perplexed and increasingly uncomfortable Mr. Cavett (Cavett’s brief introductory remarks are interesting only inasmuch as witnessing a complete square stumbling over some of the more notable achievements of the New Wave – witness his inarticulate mumblings on the “jump cut”, or his inquiry as to why the French like Jerry Lewis).
Cavett and Godard are speaking on the occasion of the New York release of Everyman for Himself, usually regarded as Godard’s return to commercial filmmaking after the lost Dziga Vertov period (anyone who has seen the film knows that it is, as usual, resolutely un-commercial). Cavett asks about the nature of his comeback, or if one can indeed call it a come back. Godard: “in a sense, because I never went away – maybe I was pushed away. To me, I’d rather say, what is the reverse of comeback? Come forth?”
Other bon mots – “It is hard work, like any kind of work today (on prostitution).”
“I think woman are more natural today than men – I think they have better ideas”
“The problem with the man (Jacques Dustronc in Everyman For Himself) is he has no speed – one of the women is going too fast, the other one too slow, and the man is just not moving. And then maybe this is the despair.” When Cavett asks about distance, presumably referencing the Brechtian influence that most critics speak of in relation to Godard, he replies “I think much less (distance) now, I’m coming much closer, less distance. To look at things, you have to go very far for the possibility of taking a look of it. If you go too close, it is like advertisement – you are so close to the products, you don’t see anymore, you just have to name it …maybe I was too close in the beginning, then I went too far, and now it is more, there is more justice.”
“To me there is no real difference between image and sound, they are just tools… you have to listen to the image and look at the sound.”
“In movies, you ask to movie a certain amount of things, that you never ask to poetry, painting, music. I wonder why?” Cavett answers, visibly confused – “I don’t know.”
“The audience has more responsibility in the making of the movie, much more responsibility than the making of tv.”
Cavett: “You use slow motion in a way I find, unusual.” Godard: “I’m glad. On the use of this unusual slow motion: to slow it down, just to have the time to look, to have a look. To take your time to look at what you are doing. Then you discover, this movement, whether it can be a jab or whether a caress. And then, well probably I was not capable enough of doing it completely. The shot is too long, maybe should be a change of angles or timing. But I kept it that way…. whether too sentimental or too violent, and it had to be both.”
Godard on Jerry Lewis: “It’s a good sign, when good people go, have to go into exile from their country, it means there is something good in them.”

I’m not going to transcribe the entire hour long interview – that would be tedious for us both, and besides, you should just track down the magazine for yourself. There are some great bits that I’ve left out where Godard praises Scorcese, denigrates Hall Ashby and Woody Allen on his use of black and white in Manhattan, and praises Charles Bukowski (!) for his help in subtitling his most recent feature. Godard also mentions his desire for Norman Mailer to “present” his films, rather than subjecting them to the subtitling process (as we know, Norman Mailer would be at the center of Godard’s King Lear project just a few years later)

My interest in this material is largely to illustrate Godard’s constant traversing of binaries – identified most simply, and earnestly, with his deceptively simplistic maxim: all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun - the first set of twos. He is obsessed with Hollywood, yet rails against it. Image/Sound, Words/Symbols, Film/Video (Numero Deux or, the history of film as a video, as in the Histoire(s) du Cinema), filmmaking/prostitution (Passion), suburbia/prostitution (2 or 3 Things I know About Her), filmmaking/political activism, past/present (as in In Praise of Love, where, ironically, the past is presented as video), filmmaking/television (as in France/Tour/Detour/Deux Enfants, The Dziga Vertov Group films), left hand/right hand (perhaps a nod to Truffaut’s dictum on Welles- “he made films with his right hand and films with his left hand. In the right handed films there is always snow, and in the left-handed ones there are always gunshots”; see also: Godard’s lecture on shot/reverse shot in Notre Musique, as he passes pictures of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell from his left hand to right hand and back again, which leads us to…), male/female (the mother/whore schema representing a duality within a binary opposition), and, inevitably, love/sex. (“the director is incapable of seeing the difference between a man and a woman”: Godard is probably describing Hawks, but is perhaps stating something that he himself strives for.) In a very real sense, Godard is a failed dialectician – he investigates dualities but cannot reconcile them (his own autobiographical film is called JLG/JLG, a repetition that is, in this context, highly suggestive). These dualities may be superimposed, a visual/philosophical technique that Godard has grown increasingly fond of, with the superimposition becoming a (advanced?) form of montage, and perhaps an attempt at forcefully obliterating these oppositions. After all, if we could, as in the above example, forget the differences between men and women, then there is hope in forgetting the differences between, say, Israel and Palestine or Modern/Developing/Third World countries. Is Godard the ultimate utopian pipe dreamer? Or a cynical, depressed old man who has grown weary of this world? Another duality, I’m afraid.

For further reading, check out Bill Krohn’s passionate defense of Godard in the most recent issue of Cinemascope. I haven’t read Richard Brody’s new book “Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard”, although I had planned to pick it up as soon as I could find a used copy and save a few bucks. But now I’m not sure – to read Krohn, Brody’s book is a hatchet job, painting the director as an anti-Semite based on mis-readings of his films and dubious research, what Krohn dubs “ideological simplifications and biographical reductivism”. Any biography attempting to grapple with such a legacy is bound to raise someone’s ire – I recall the mixed reviews and fierce arguments that sprung up around Colin MacCabe’s “Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy” upon its release several years ago (a book, I hasten to add, that I found pretty informative, if at times dense with needlessly academic jargon). The collection “Forever Godard” sidesteps most of the issues that plague traditional biographies by virtue of being a more selective grouping of critical essays – as a result, one learns less about the man, but more about the work. It’s all food for thought, and in fairness to Brody, Jonathan Rosenbaum gave the book a favorable review a few months back in the Village Voice, although it was, as I recall, not ecstatic in any way. Unfortunately, I can no longer find it online for verification. In any case, I’ll be heading to the library for a free peek before adding Brody’s book to my Godard shelf.