By Miriam Bale
[Editor's Note: This article, the first in a series of conversations, is being cross-published with The Nibbler.]
"Being in the neighborhood the other day, with nothing particular to do, I decided to call round to the New Yorker office to see if anything was up," Terry Southern wrote in the 1950's. He described the forced casual ambiance of that office that set him "all a-pique and impulsive," so that he asked to have the writer White fetched. When E.B. White appeared, Southern said simply, "J'accuse!" and then turned around to leave the building.
My meeting with New Yorker film editor and film listings writer Richard Brody involved no finger pointing. But Brody is the anomaly of current New Yorker film writing, which is, for the most part, more about the words used to describe the films than about the films themselves. Richard Brody writes, on the other hand, in service to cinema; his exciting writing style is a transcription of surrendering to the movie-going experience. In his succinct film summaries, he uses language emotionally to describe the experience of the film, not just how it looks when who does what where. "Rarely have love and madness seemed so fruitfully allied," he wrote of Preminger's Daisy Kenyon (setting off a domino-effect of reconsideration for that film in New York). I told him that I don't even know what that phrase means, exactly, but somehow it's exactly descriptive of that film's intensity. (I'm not sure I know either!" said Brody.)
But while personal flourishes shape his film listings, Brody's first book, a biography of Jean-Luc Godard called Everything is Cinema, is remarkable for its rhythmic and organized structure. (The book also differs notably from his listings in size: an epic 700 pages versus 200 word perfect summaries.) The biography seamlessly weaves a description of each of Godard's films into a description of the technical and collaborative process of making it, and then also reveals the personal and artistic inspirations behind its development. It reads like a novel, a tragic love story. And, while the tone of Brody's book is more anonymous than his listings, more objective, it is distinctly personal, the kind of book that only someone with a deep and complicated relationship with cinema could write.
As the last few days of the encore screenings of Made in the U.S.A and Two or Three Things I Know About Her at Film Forum mark the end of that theater's celebration of Sixties Godard, in what was The Year of Godard in New York, I looked back at my conversation with Richard Brody to look at what we can still learn from Godard's work of the 1960's.
MB: Since the book is so much about Godard's personal relationship with film, could you tell me a little bit about your personal relationship with Godard's films? How you came to do this project?
RB: Godard's films were how I became interested in film in the first place. I grew up without much interest in the cinema, although I certainly liked going to the to the movies on Saturday night to see whatever was new by Mel Brooks, or to see Rollerball or whatever was out there. And, in college, someone suggested that I see Breathless. Seeing it was like a religious conversion experience. I discovered, through Breathless, that movies could be simultaneously like jazz and like philosophy, and that could bring me the same intensity of intellectual and emotional experience that music, philosophy, and literature had given me up until that point.
MB: For me, personally, I got into his films as a teenager, and they ended up helping to form a worldview in some ways, not just a view of cinema. But the more that I return back to the same Godard films, having discovered new films and also the films that influenced his films, the more that relationship to that worldview changes. I'm interested in how your relationship to that initial discovery might have changed.
RB: Because I didn't know much about the movies altogether, when I saw Breathless I pretty much didn't know the American film noir on which it borrowed its conventions. By pure coincidence of me being a newly minted fanatic of Godard's films, I had the good fortune to find the book Godard on Godard, assuming that I would be reading his discussions of his own films, but what I, in fact, discovered was something even more useful, namely, the criticism from the 1950s, when he was writing for Cahiers du Cinema and other publications, where he discussed the films that were his formative experiences before he ever became a filmmaker. So I simply used his book as a guide for movie-watching, and went to see the classic cinema that inspired him. And then, having gotten something of a background in the cinema, then suddenly his films became an even richer experience.
MB: At this point, with your extensive film knowledge, is it almost an act of translating another language? Decoding all the film references? Do you find that distracting from the films themselves in any way?
RB: Well, watching a film by Godard is more or less like any other aesthetic experience, in that you're able to go back and forth, inside and outside, at the same time—watching/ thinking, thinking/watching. No, I don't really find it a distraction.
If you look at the history of the reception of Godard's films here, it wasn't until the mid-1960's, when American audiences began to appreciate classic American movies, in other words when the politique des auteurs began to take root among American intellectuals—through Andrew Sarris and Peter Bogdanovich as well as a few other people—that Godard's films were really fully appreciated. I don't think you need to watch them with footnotes in mind. I know that when an edition of Histoire(s) du Cinema, his video series from the eighties and nineties, was being put out along with a collection of references that he had taken clips from, he didn't think it was really necessary. He thought you should be able to sit down and watch it from beginning to end, without worrying about scurrying for the references you didn't know. And I think that, with these films, there are things you don't necessarily get unless you've got the lenses he provides for you through his web of references.
MB: How does he provide them? With the films themselves or with the outside materials, as well?
RB: I think with the outside materials as well. I think he's used some interviews over the years as a parallel screen of creation. From the very beginning of his career, he's always been a brilliant talker. He's made the reading of, or the watching of, or the listening to his interviews a noteworthy artistic experience. He makes them so rich that you can't help but take notice of what he's saying. And much of what he's saying is giving hints and clues and suggestions as to what he's trying to get at in his films. Not so much what he's trying to get at, but what his range of references is—almost mathematically—what's being projected in these films.
MB: So his interviews are very entertaining as well. He's very aware of a "putting on a show" in these interviews?
RB: It's an interesting question because I think he's simultaneously being quite natural, and he's being quite ingenuous and quite disingenuous. On the one hand, he was always well aware of the role of celebrity in the development of the persona of an artist, the role of the personal of the artist in the development of the art. I think you have plenty of examples of this; maybe one of the most prominent is Jean-Paul Sartre, who in post-war Paris managed to put his philosophy over through his personal celebrity, and who became, at the same time, a philosopher and a public speaker. And I think that Godard conceived of his own role as a filmmaker in the same way; I think he understood the need to generate a persona as well as a body of work.
But at the same time I don't think he was a mere publicity hound, anything like it. He is a brilliant verbal creator. He's a superb writer. He's a very eloquent, playful, poetic speaker and writer. So I think when he provided the interviews that people found absolutely irresistible, it's not a show; he's being absolutely himself. But I do think he was quite aware that essentially he needed to create a critical viewpoint in his viewers; he needed to create a critical viewpoint with which they would then watch his films. So that when people would say that his films were simultaneously films and criticism of film, I think that's true, but I think that his films are first and foremost criticism of his own films. In other words, his own films provide the lens with which to watch them.
MB: I'd like to bring up three myths of Godard, that I neither quite agree nor disagree with (or that I don't think are necessarily quite positive or negative: 1) His adolescent obsession, 2) His sexism. And the third, which I don't agree with at all, is that he's pretentious. But that's complicated. So let's focus on the first two.
RB: By adolescent obsession you mean his relationships with young women? In his later film he's, of course, very open about it. The relationship between older men and younger women is the subject of most of his later films. Back in the 1960's it was a different story.
His relationship with Anna Karina is a personal relationship as well as an artistic relationship. He explained subsequently that he thought of the director/actor relationship as a primal trope in the classic cinema: Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, Jean Renoir and Catherine Hessling.... And he thought maybe he would reproduce a similar personal and artistic collaboration in his relationship with Anna Karina. There was an age difference: Godard is ten years older than Anna Karina. But there was also a significant difference in interests. Godard was and is an intellectual. Anna Karina was not and is not an intellectual. He always said in interviews that one of the difficulties he had in their relationship is that he couldn't necessarily talk to her about movies the way he wished she could and would do. He also said that for her he felt the problem was that she wanted to go to Hollywood, and these kind of films weren't going to get her to Hollywood. That she had a more traditional view of what it is to be a movie star and an actress, but mainly a movie star.
MB: Hmmmm, actually by adolescent obsession I meant not so much being attracted to younger women, but that his own perspective seems to be one of constant renewal of an adolescent point-of-view. You get into that in your book as a sort of obsession with reliving his early days in Paris [much of which was spent at the Cinematheque with Truffaut and others who would become part of the New Wave.] Which is kind of fascinating because his films give you those adolescent eyes, that sense of discovering and understanding the world that happens in that transition from adolescence to adulthood.
RB: That brings up a very interesting question, mainly his relationship to his own past, to memory. The autobiographical impulse is one that most artists tend to yield to in one way or another. Artists tend to think about their lives and put the material of their lives into their work. But Godard has always taken a special and fascinating point of view on how to approach the past in cinema. When François Truffaut made The 400 Blows he was telling stories about his own childhood, by and large. He was telling stories that took place in the 1940's, but he set them in the day that he filmed them, late 1958 and early 1959. He updated the events, and transmuted the events, and turned them into a fiction being lived by characters other than himself; the character does not bear his name. When Godard works on history—and this is as true of his own personal history as it is of political history—when Godard works on the past in film, he does it from the point of view of the present day. So, when he makes a film that's autobiographical, when he wants to talk about his childhood, he doesn't film a character who looks like himself as a kid, doing the kinds of things that he did as a kid but doing it in contemporary Paris or Switzerland. And he doesn't set it in the 1930's or 1940's. Instead he films his own situation in a certain way, from his present day standpoint and his present day place, and he archaeologically excavates—by means of cinema—the elements of the past. In other words, he's always filming the ambiance of the past, the presence of the past, the latency of the past, the persistence of the past in the present.
MB: Explicitly a memory and not a flashback.
RB: Exactly right. And in the sixties it's a little less explicit and in his later films that's quite explicit.
I think in the 1960's he was making films about his own relationships ... with women, with Anna Karina, with Anne-Marie Miéville, with other women with whom he had interest with, with Marina Vlady of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, whom he had asked to marry him. And he airs out his problems, his difficulties and his complaints in these films. I think he's pretty up-front about the films being made from his point-of-view. I think that there's a certain element of self-pity, but the man doesn't always come out as the good guy. For as many flaws as Godard's female characters have, the male characters have plenty of their own. I don't think that they're in any way feminist. Although his later films, though, certainly do suggest that he was interested in feminism, but I think he never escaped his own point-of-view. He never escaped his point-of-view as a heterosexual male who is passionate about women but who is open about his needs, his demands, his desires, who expressed his frustration when these were not being satisfied.
MB: What are your favorites, if that question is possible, at this point, for you?
RB: Well, there are a few later films that are among my favorites, King Lear, Éloge de l'amour. Of the sixties films, well, I think for sentimental reasons, Masculine Feminine. I think that Vivre sa vie is a real high point in his work. A Married Woman is a favorite, partly because of its rarity but also partly because of its place in his work. Pierrot le Fou, because it's a film of rare agony. And then I keep going back to Breathless, which at first is a shock, and which then seems familiar, and then the more you go back to it begins to seem strange all over again.
MB: A Married Woman is interesting emotionally, specifically because of the placement of the eroticism in the film? There's something very anguished about that. So many of Godard's films feel like they're about his relationship with the world rather than with other people, but the relationship in that film feels very fated and sad, with the placement of the eroticism, in relationship to the signs and the laughtrack.... Do you think so?
RB: Mmmmm, but since you asked about sexism, here at the very least, you see that he's trying to situate his complaint sociologically. Which is to say that, whatever he complains about, about women, in A Married Woman what he's attempting to do is to show how Women, as he knows them, are in fact the brainwashed victims of advertising, of the mass media. He's absolving them; he's essentially saying it's the fault of men who are programming women to be what they want them to be.
MB: (deep inhale) But I find that more problematic, to say that women are the "brainwashed victims"? There's no sense of personality, or self, in the women; there's no sense of choice. There is in some of his movies, but that particular attitude that you're referring to I think comes out most in Masculine Feminine. As a woman viewer, there's no place for me—and I think this comes from the fact that it's so extremely from his point-of-view—that there's no room for identifying with the women in his films.
RB: I see exactly what you mean. For instance, this woman from Masculine Feminine is a very interesting character, Catherine; she's the one female intellectual in Godard's early films. She's a university student who is full of her books, and can't connect with the young worker, Robert, who is in love with her. She's in love with Paul, the young intellectual who is not in love with her but who is rather in love with the young pop singer. Look, Godard's telling us his difficult situation: Paul and Catherine are a natural pair, just as in real life Anne-Marie Miéville is an intellectual and they've been together for many, many years for good reason. They certainly have a lot to talk about. [But in Masculine Feminine] in effect, what he's telling is that for some reason he's not, in fact, attracted to the women who interest him.
MB: I also think that's a problem, of making women into these roles, these stereotypes on opposite poles, instead of having any shades of overlapping identities.
RB: The funny thing is that one of the things he said is that he knew nothing about life, that everything he knew about life as a young man, he said, he got from the movies. I think it's slightly rhetorical. Of course he had to know something about life. But he did spend so many hours in the cinema in the late 40s and 1950s, that he did center his worldview around the films he saw, many of which were classic Hollywood films, that it seems to make sense that his view of women would be patterned on the dichotomies that were represented in the classic Hollywood cinema. That he would have a far more traditional view of women's roles based on the viewing of Hollywood movies than could actually be found in real life in Paris in the 1960's. And that his own personal relations with women were conditioned by the view of women that he could identify in classical film.
MB: That's absolutely true. And I think that on some level he seems to be agonizing and aware about that in all his films. And that seems like the sub-theme of your book: repenting for the sins of the cinephile. That is who he is he, but he's also aware of his limitations because of that. The constant momentum of self-criticism in his work seems to come from that.
RB: I think that's absolutely right and I think in the later years that's even more explicit. I think Histoire(s) du Cinema is almost depicting itself out of the crisis of the cinema, [and he is depicting himself] as the person who's taken on the sins of the cinema, the sins of the cinephile.
Miriam Bale is a writer and filmmaker with interests in feminism and ephemera.