The last picture show
I had perhaps the least impressive introduction to Godard you can have: having read a piece on a now-long-gone site where an ordinary internet user just reviewed the movies he’d seen, I taped Éloge de l’Amour off BBC 2; possessing some vague understanding that the film reflected on the director’s own previous style, which I knew nothing of, I was baffled by the gnomic and unexposited dialogue scenes, the jerky sound editing and the grating colours of the second half. It would be another 5 years before I saw À Bout de Souffle, having made an attempt at Week-End in the meantime—I was impressed by the latter’s addresses to the viewer from black workers and its car-crash tracking shot, which only seems to get more inventive as it scrolls endlessly on. But even then it took another 7 or 8 years to fall under his spell. It was only then I watched the classic run of films from Le Petit Soldat to Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle—but the work that tipped me over was, oddly, 1994’s muted, baroque essay film JLG/JLG: Autoportrait de Décembre, with its translucent fragments from Godard’s childhood in the Swiss haute-bourgeoisie amid whorls of absurd skits with JLG playing himself as a crotchety, towel-swaddled reclusive executive, an addled Irving Thalberg or Howard Hughes. If the ‘I’ that speaks out of Autoportrait is the same that arranged the silken, bewildering constellations of the 1960s films—if the premise of artistic biography, that an evolving but continuous logic runs through an individual’s work, linked to the discoveries, shocks, terrors and blindness of everyday life, is valid in his case—then what did the judgements of my ‘I’ that treasured Godard as the filmmaker who meant the most to me have to do with the pimpled teen who’d stumbled backwards into his work? So much for autobiography.
Damascean encounters recur in the critical literature on him: again and again since the first young cine-club audiences of À Bout de Souffle, there has been, for film as an art form, a before and after Godard. His work was so much at the centre of the last 60 years of self-conscious art cinema—when people speak of the effect of the Nouvelle Vague in granting stylistic permission to untold individuals within genre film, the New Hollywood and what would become “world cinema”, they more or less mean him—that it seems at times everything that could be said about him was said, within the academy and what used to be the “public sphere”, though surprisingly little of it forms criticism of the first rank. Certainly very little in the obituaries, leaving aside as merely pitiable the wet-brained diagrams of the expected adjectives, contradicts it. And yet for all the words and all the fan-slavering, even the most overexamined of the major works is completely unexhausted. Nothing explains Godard, makes his body of films conform to the straight rule of critical theses or, still less, social media “film bro” demonologies. That fact alone confirms the extraordinary virulence of his creativity, which pushes artworks away from the conforming models and moulds his generation of intellectuals in France despised, like the classicist Académie des Beaux-Arts reborn.
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This is certainly a curious state of affairs if David Thomson’s diagnosis is correct that “the very thing his films lack is emotion… [h]e is the first director, the first great director, who does not seem to be a human being”. Why care about someone who never cared about us, whose work preserves what Thomson sees as a frightened distance from real life? It certainly rings more true than the “iconic” version of Godard beloved of Tumblr users and middle-aged male Film Studies academics alike: “the discovery that he loved Karina more in moving images than in life” is a facet that many men (and women) are quite happy not to admit to themselves even as they carry out the same acts—the aesthetic is one of the handiest props for selfishness or blindness. There’s certainly something irresponsible about the landmark 60s films: the riverine flow of recondite materials, beautiful faces, piercing speech and colour that “sings like an obsession” is heady in a way that pushes aside more mundane, reality-principle considerations (as Godard apparently often did to producers and actors on-set). Just as for Orson Welles on Kane, for the critic and haunter of Henri Langlois’s screenings at the Avenue de Messine the studio was the world’s best model train set. It’s addictive brews like this, Thomson implies, that lead otherwise sensible people to overlook the flaws in his oeuvre—particularly what he sees as the narcotising effect of political dogmatism after 1967. Everything after Pierrot Le Fou “is ‘interesting’ and valuable” but the substance of a “long downward slope”.
Aside from the fact that I don’t particularly see a pressing need to defend JLG from the accusation of being unemotional or inhuman—cinema is the art-form where humanity begins to merge with technology, and its intensities are often impersonal—there’s the extraordinary porousness of the films’ form: far from being defensive intellectual fortresses, the 65-67 films, in particular, seem to allow in the whole world of literature, jokes, politics, pop music and above all film in its least respectable guises. Moreover, the most productive responses to his example have taken it as a formal licence for intensity of feeling: Fassbinder is unthinkable without Godard; Chantal Akerman took Pierrot Le Fou as the starting-point—via a few weeks of film school—for Je Tu Il Elle and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. (Isiah Medina’s 88:88 (2015), perhaps the most exciting film of the last decade, likewise develops the resources in Godard’s disjointed, uneven late features like Film Socialisme and Notre Musique.) As Gina Telaroli put it in a moving post, “For me, he has only ever manifested in beginnings. In new ideas, new lives, new loves, new relationships, new forms, new juxtapositions, new colors, new words, and so on.” This is part of the strange relation he has to the “canon” of cinema, a notion and fact that he and the other Cahiers critics helped create. Personally I’d struggle to put a single Godard film in my hypothetical Sight And Sound top 10 poll. Even in those films of his I love the most—Pierrot, Le Mépris, Deux ou trois choses, JLG/JLG, Masculin-Féminin, Passion—there are things I find grating, dull, bewildering, long-winded, unjustified, perverse, pig-headed. (This is to say nothing of the placement of women in the films, which even at the point where the French women’s movement impinged most directly on them—Deux ou trois choses…, British Sounds, Numéro Deux—contain elements that can seem in the moment rather unsavoury.) Even those films that aspire most towards formal and narrative purity—Vivre Sa Vie or Alphaville, say—studiously avoid the “classic” as Nikolaus Pevsner saw it reaching its extinction in the International Style, “that rare balance of conflicting forces which marks the summit of any movement in art”. The classic era of cinema reappears in his movies like the ruins of Egypt and Rome in Romantic art. The Cahiers moment crystallised and dissolved that era as an historically bound body of art, defining its grandeur and fascination even as it pictures it imploding along with the late-bourgeois civilisation that inadvertantly spawned it. Godard’s 60s films fizz with the energy thrown off by that implosion, like the consumer goods going up in flames at the end of Deux ou trois choses…. If Godard knows he can never be Renoir or Ray or Mizoguchi or Hitchcock or Bresson or Ford or Hawks, the razzing or mournful tone that results—the girl-and-a-gun picaresque of Pierrot ending in a car chase into the sea, recapitulated 35 years later in the HDV conflagration of Éloge de L’Amour—represents a limit on his art, but it also represents a manic, uncontrollable strength, a flood of emotion through the films that is thought, constituting itself into antic forms in real time. The coincidence of the release of Le Mépris and Cleopatra in 1963 points up the distinction: while the latter takes the cinematic equivalent of history painting and updates its ruins with the latest in high-resolution illusionism, the former turns it, via Fritz Lang’s film-within-a-film, into a time-lapse of culture passing away before our eyes. In doing so, he, along with Antonioni and Welles, prepares cinema for its adventures in the post-war world, where it will begin to take leave of itself and become an unfixed “time-image”.
Telling a different, smaller story about Godard brings the critic up against the problem of politics. His politics—particularly those incarnated in the period of “militant” filmmaking—were hardly mentioned in the obituaries, except as an embarrassment, hypocrisy or idiosyncracy. The lover of Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan who despised the America of Robert Macnamara and Steven Spielberg; the Maoist convert who kept his much-younger wife in Chloé and Lanvin and whose propaganda films, as Yves Montand reminded him, wouldn’t be seen by the Renault workers in whose name he made them; the grouchy hermit of Rolle making (what appear to be) weepy Jeremiads like In The Darkness of Time. It’s an easy target. And yet how has it been forgotten so easily that for the most remarkable and creative film theorists and filmmakers of the 70s, Godard was the talismanic name? The series of essays that launched the Screen school of film theory—particularly those of Colin MacCabe and Peter Wollen—staked him as “the most important director working today”. The militant films they talked about may have aged rather worse than the alternatives of the period—structural film and the newly glossy art cinema that the European new waves aged into—but seeing them as just pieces of radical chic for the hypnotised waifs of 68—as Redoubtable, to name only the most expensive piece of revisionism, does—is as much a measure of how thoroughly the actuality of the 60s has been wiped from historical memory as it is an act of wilful condescension. His importance lay not just in the formal politics of his Brechtian alien-effects—Straub and Huillet’s work of the same period made more effective use of them—but in the gesture of the world’s hippest director giving up what remained of the wages of illusionism for peasants whose guerilla war against a nuclear superpower had illuminated what patterns of unequal development the trentes glorieuses originated in. In them, a shadow form of post-war art equal to the fundamental questions prompted by Vietnam takes shape: genuinely popular media articulating radical pedagogy as non-illusionist entertainment. The critical thought that saw Tout Va Bien or Le Gai Savoir as realising those ideas was wishful, but the need that prompted them—“the spectre of a world that could be free”—never went away, and indeed negatively shaped the following 50 years of cultural politics. Militancy is the restless spirit that haunts the self-reflexivity of Godard’s later “essay” works, from Ici et Ailleurs to Le Livre d’Image.
Sorry, I know how dull this is, how far from the flash and whisper of Karina’s Madison or the way Anne Wiazemsky holds her cigarettes. But one of the grimmer possibilities attending the end of Godard’s life-work is its settling into the kind of frozen image whose power his work sought to honour and shatter. The Nouvelle Vague, the magical unity of Paris and Hollywood, remains an Eden for Thomson and others to dream of, Karina the angel with the flaming sword expelling JLG for the sin of being emotionally unavailable. Politics is the fate that “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground”. Others, uncorrupted by hubris, are spared this destiny. Not just Varda, whose little-old-lady act let people adopt the mediocrity of her late films as a virtue. Marker is the most potent of Godard’s shadow-figures, now cast as the Gallant to his Goofus: perenially “underrated”, the one who went to Cuba, Siberia and Besançon, incarnated his politics in literary, elegant filmmaking, treated women well (until he didn’t) and whose editing combined virtuosity and a political inheritance from Eisenstein that didn’t jar or startle in practice. Most of all, he never ate the fruit of auteur theory: he was already a critic and filmmaker pre-Cahiers with quite established tastes; even in the cinema section of Immemory his choices of remembered movie are based on personal association rather than any idea of the directors’ mastery; he championed minor Soviet directors rather than Hollywood dirt; he refused directorial credit on his own films, and even on his summative political work adopted an arch, modest, undogmatic tone—catnip to the midwit “free spirits” of film culture. And yet, JLG is the great unacknowledged presence in Sans Soleil, Marker’s masterwork. Here montage, once the vehicle of a politicised estrangement of the world that classical Hollywood had made neutral and natural, has become a softened flicker or flow, like the film of flame over a grate in ‘Frost at Midnight’. It apprehends “the memory of the 60s” as an image bright and dissolute as the setting sun, fading entirely or becoming mere art, held forever like a myth—the eternal incandescence and simulated community of Rio Bravo, Johnny Guitar and My Darling Clementine—or becoming just another fragment of what passes for “popular culture” after the disappearance of “the people”. The world it chronicles, with the memory of the raw fragments of the Cine-Tracts (which Marker made with Godard, Philippe Garrel, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Alain Resnais and others) in mind, is no longer natural, but neither is it in any political sense real, bleeding at its edges into the distorted memory-simulation known as the Zone. It contemplates, with horror and admiration, the possibility of a single global field of the visible that Jean-Louis Comolli outlined, and that Godard took as the conditioning limit of Histoire(s) de Cinéma, the thing that would wash away “cinema” like a figure in the ocean sand. Even the choice of Vertigo as its fatal intertext feels like a tribute to the Cahiers moment: a story about the lure of returning to the past, recreating it in every detail, in its fullness, leading back to the tower, this time to die again for real. (Touts ces histoires…)
Contradiction, juxtaposition, agon, dissonance, fragmentation, sampling, the mock-epic form of the “stream of consciousness”: Godard’s modernist techniques are hard to parse now, and hard to excuse to a generation of viewers used, at best, to other varieties of modernism, at worst to the brain-smoothing torrent of Youtube and Netflix. More than that, Godard’s modernism was a reluctant one. À Bout de Souffle plays wistfully and sourly with the idea of a solid narrative, with the liberties and comforts of old Bogart movies—The Big Sleep’s plot whorls or the adventure drive of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Modernism had become an institutional style and filmic modernism exiled to the margins. Truffaut and Chabrol showed it was perfectly possible to just do the classics over again with a new colour scheme. That Godard didn’t just remake Le Mépris until the end of his career was a deliberate choice: the deepening investment in disruption and experiment—the astonishing trajectory from Pierrot Le Fou to Le Livre d’Image, one whose only parallel is perhaps the movement from Dubliners to Finnegans Wake—was an intutive response to a fatal eventuality, to “the experience of defeat”. The Fall of Thomson’s romance was really just a separation between moments in the dialectic. Cahier’s revaluation of values made these modernist techniques possible; revolutionary politics and its eclipse made them necessary. At a point where “auterism” means celebrating a middlebrow “tradition of quality” arisen, mouldering, from its tomb, and “politics” just means a sacrifice of critical thought on behalf of demographic tokenism, it’s hard to say goodbye to the plot—from the micro-beauty of the slowest gesture to the thorniest knots of the history of art—his films worked through. But “a memory held too long would burn like a frame of film before the gate”.
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