Someone recently told me that film and video artists produced 2.5 billion hours of viewing material last year. I sometimes think that Jean-Luc Godard has made that much by himself. Godard is not just one of the greatest directors, but also one of the most prolific: IMDB lists him as having directed 92 films, many of which can’t usually be seen in the States. This includes several of his best later films, after he gave up working with French stars like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Pierre Léaud. For every Breathless there’s a Número Deux, Contempt can’t compare with Nouvelle Vague, and to the proclamation title “End of Cinema” that closes 1967’s Weekend, one need only look to 1998’s exhaustive Histoire(s) du Cinéma as a response. The major works of this period are not even available on video, nor are all the works of his most famous period, the 15 feature-length cannon shots (and six shorts) made between 1959 and 1967. My Life to Live and Band of Outsiders, sure, but how many readers have seen Le Petit Soldat or Les Carabiniers? Godard’s been making films for 55 years, and we’re still in the process of discovering him (cf. Film Forum’s run of 1966’s Made in U.S.A last year, the film’s American theatrical debut). One reason Godard’s work thrills to this day is that finding it is such a treasure hunt (and the critical writing reflects this; a recent example is Richard Locke’s wonderful feature in the latest Threepenny Review). What, might we wonder, is the really rare stuff?
One answer came Saturday, as Bamcinématek programmer Jake Perlin took over Walter Reade for 90 minutes of Godardian ends. Perlin, who’s done a lot for Godard recently (hosting a BAM screening of the flawed, failed, fascinating American experiment One P.M., assembling a collection of Godard interviews for the magazine The Believer, striking a new print of Godard’s third-act reinvention Every Man for Himself that will debut later this year), screened shorts, interviews, and trailers.
It’s easy to tell when you’re watching a Godard film, though, regardless of genre. A man and a woman regard each other; the camera cuts back and forth between them quickly, though each shot is in slow-mo. We hear gunshots on the soundtrack, then classical music. A slogan flashes in red, white, and blue. A narrator (usually male) tells us what’s happening outside politically. The partners discuss the nature of love, then take turns quoting Fitzgerald, Dostoyevsky, and Proust.
From this angle, Il Nuovo Mundo was the program’s most typical Godard film. Godard made the 1963 short as part of an Italian omnibus film, Ro.Go.Pa.G. (the best-known segment of which is probably Pasolini’s La Ricotta, in which Orson Welles—natch—plays a tyrannical filmmaker). An opening title card tells us that “This absurd story described the consequences, both absurd and unpredictable, of an atomic future that had already begun.” A woman brushes her hair and glides through the streets, while her husband passes multiple TV monitors. “In spite of her sweetness, Alessandra failed to love me,” we learn in voiceover, then he opens the paper and reads, “Enormous atomic explosion 120,000 miles above Paris.” The impending threat of nuclear war ties itself to the death of the marriage. He asks her why she doesn’t love him, to which she says, “I ex-love you”; scenes like these alternate with headlines of disaster, and every time he opens the paper, we hear a wave of human screams.
The human parlor game feels taken from 1960’s L’Avventura (Antonioni’s lovers: “Tell me you love me”...“I love you”...“Tell me you don’t”...“I don’t love you”). But the paranoia and anxiety, the sense of sheer inability to prevent crumbling dissolution, is distinctly Godard’s. The hero’s problem over what to do in this new “world of freedom,” with its “death of curiosity,” is the most intriguing human piece of an aurally innovative (in addition to screams and strings, we also get radio frequency and airplane flights), narratively tedious film. The frustration also comes through in 1991’s Pour Thomas Wainggai, a three-minute film protesting an Indonesian man’s political imprisonment, and especially in 1982’s Lettre à Freddy Buache. As the film presents it, the head of the Swiss Cinémathèque approached Godard to make a film commemorating the 500th anniversary of the town of Lausanne (though he’s spent much of his life in France, Godard is Swiss by birth). Several shots of the townspeople walking ensue—confused, frightened, happy, oblivious—until Godard realizes that he can’t make a documentary: Through the very act of filming them, he’s turning the town and its residents into fiction. Rather than trying to “rediscover the beginning of fiction,” he refuses the assignment.
In a way, Godard’s having his croissant and eating it too, presenting a film about Lausanne that claims he can’t make a film about Lausanne. Espousing film’s uselessness on film is something he’s done a lot. In 1967’s Far from Vietnam (not in Perlin’s program), Godard says he can’t do anything to effect the war except continue making movies; in 1976’s Ici et Ailleurs (not on it either), a film about the Arab-Israeli conflict he made with Anne-Marie Miéville, he claims that he can’t do anything to help the conflict as a filmmaker because he is always distant from the fighters (he’s here, they’re there). His response in every instance has been to continue making movies, through whatever technology’s available (at first he called video the Cain to film’s Abel, but now video’s his stock of choice). Like Bob Dylan, another prolific artist best known for his ’60s work, Godard’s gone through wildly different, sometimes contradictory modes—from fictional narrative features, to a radical disavowal of them in favor of agitprop, to more intense, moody self-scrutiny, to melancholy reflection. Yet the impulse to work out his problems on film has remained. His films don’t just tell their own stories, but the stories of his struggles to make them; they make Charlie Kaufman’s problems look like bubble baths.
I like Godard best when he’s most intellectually active. These are also the times when he’s most difficult to keep up with, piling allusion upon association to make a new point. Jonathan Rosenbaum once called him “a combined museum, library, film archive, record shop, and department store” (think David Foster Wallace among American artists), and even Manny Farber wrote that Godard made him feel like a stupid ass. The complex intelligence isn’t developed yet in 1955’s Operation Concrete (back to the Perlin series), Godard’s very first film, a 17-minute journey around a Swiss dam. In contrast to Lettre à Freddy Buache’s later self-implication, the then-25-year-old Godard presents the film as a relatively straight documentary voyage of rocks being crushed along a conveyor belt, then carried up “bizarre little iron carts,” all part of a system his voiceover admiringly calls “a gigantic iron heart.”
Yet by presenting facts, he’s also making myth; as he proclaims at film’s end that one day the dam will be the highest in the world, it’s difficult not to think of Jean-Paul Belmondo staring admiringly at a poster of superman Humphrey Bogart in Breathless five years later. Years after that, Godard told an interviewer that he disowned Breathless because he believed it was fascist—as Orwell wrote, “People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it.” I’d argue that Breathless is more complicated than Godard believed (Belmondo’s suicide-by-cop certainly offers more than Operation Concrete’s unalloyed worship of the dam), but regardless, it’s key that when Godard made Número Deux (not in the series), the 1975 film he called Breathless’s remake, he opened it with a scene of himself handling film equipment. The movie shows many scenes of a family watching television, the scenes always framed overtly within a video screen. By exposing the machinery of the movie he’s making, Godard’s confronting his own desire to share in his characters’ dreams of escape.
As Godard’s career progressed, you might say he shifted from worshipping individual cinematic images (he called Breathless itself, the story of a petty wannabe hood, a remake of Hawks’s Scarface) to growing awed of cinema, while also fearing it, and recognizing its capacity to disappoint. At one point in Il Nuovo Mundo we see the big block letters CINE, and then the camera pulls back to reveal the full word PISCINE—French for “pool,” suggesting a movie can drown you. He recognizes both the agony and the ecstasy of this idea in the two interviews Perlin included. In the first, Godard 1980 (recorded after Godard had abandoned his most overtly Maoist films, and was moving back into fiction features), he quotes Marguerite Duras: “I am not strong enough to do anything but make films.” He admits that film is a business, and claims that he sees no distinction between making art and making money, but also says, “I want to be in the cinema because of the magic. Who doesn’t want to be a magician?”
It might be helpful to know that the film Godard was making at the time, Sauve qui Peut (La Vie) (a.k.a. Every Man for Himself) featured an actor playing a character named Jean-Luc Godard, an emotionally distant filmmaker who’s confronted with the power his images have on people; at one point a star-struck valet begs, “Fuck me, Monsieur Godard,” and the character drives away panicked. The moment’s especially loaded in comparison to the sex studding the rest of the movie, raising the possibility that (both the real and the fake) Godard fears his work is obscene, and is ashamed of it. The real Godard spouts some more cinema-is-magic stuff in the program’s other interview, a clip from Wim Wenders’s 1982 documentary Chambre 666 (at one point he says, “Films show the Incredible,” echoing William Blake’s holy notion of the Sublime), but he also says movies can be dangerous. Godard tells a story about how he told Henri Langlois, the great curator of the Cinémathèque Francaise (Perlin’s program began with a brief 1968 trailer in which Godard and New Wave cohort François Truffaut urged theater patrons to support Langlois for allowing them to see their favorite films), to throw all his films away and move, or else he, Langlois, would die. Godard says this while a TV broadcast of a soccer match plays behind him; Godard claims to hate and fear TV because, if anything, it’s more insidious than film (“TV is like the post office,” he says). An omnipresent image has the greater power to affect a viewer, and Godard says (maybe bullshitting), “Whoever has power has right on his side, I once said in a movie.”
When a person speaks primarily in pronouncements, it’s difficult to take much of what he says at face value. Godard’s satirizing himself as a propagandist, but anti-propaganda can be propaganda too. It’s fitting that the program included five trailers, themselves mini-propaganda films, and perhaps the most effective kind—the short format allows a filmmaker to state a one-line message most clearly and powerfully, sans complication. Yet what makes Godard an extraordinary trailer-cutter (watch the trailer he made for Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar if you don’t believe me—it’s on the film’s Criterion DVD) is precisely his ability to gum up the works. The trailer Godard made for Pierrot le Fou’s 1965 French release dazzles, not only because you’re floored by the sheer size and brightness of cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s screen, but because of the kookiness Godard crams within it. We hear several times that Pierrot is an adventure story, and at least once that it’s a love story, but we also see images of and references to Faulkner, Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Marianne Renoir, Robert Browning (“a poet named after a gun”), and the fall of Constantinople. It ends with your having no idea of what the film will be about, but fascinated by the spectacle.
This muddling effect—Godard smashes your senses to the point where you reassemble them—contrasts sharply with the two subsequent trailers Perlin included that U.S. distributors made to push Godard films onto an American crowd. The American trailer for Weekend marketed the 1967 film to the hippie contingent: The most prominent clip is a verbal attack on Lyndon Johnson, and the preview ends with the tagline, “Weekend clearly justifies the passion for Jean-Luc Godard in young America.” (The distributor’s effort to standardize nonconformity reminded me of Bob Dylan’s rejection of the American counterculture movement. He said the only way that the counterculture could succeed would be if every person on Earth disappeared). Reflecting the changes in American art house audiences (older, richer, more suburban, and heaven knows calmer), 2003’s In Praise of Love trailer pitched the film with soft piano music, gently crashing waves, lots of critical blurbs in the bright yellow New Yorker Films style, and a smothering air of maudlin crap.
The day’s best film, by contrast, nearly tore the lids off my eyes. In his Chambre 666 interview, Godard calls The Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa Steps sequence the first TV ad. Une Catastrophe, a one-minute trailer Godard made for the 2008 Vienna Film Festival (and critic Nathan Lee’s favorite movie that year), opens with this sequence, then follows it with images of soldiers fighting, tanks crawling, and a woman shoving her lover’s face in. In a way he’s repeating the love-is-war theme of Il Nuovo Mundo, with the twist that these are images from other peoples’ movies, which he is then making into his own. These images intercut with the title cards “C’est la première” (it’s the first), “Strophe d’un poème” (poem stanza), and “D’amour” (love), accompanied throughout by the sounds of a tennis match, then individual fighting, then the recitation of a love poem’s first verse. A catastrophe is the first strophe of a love poem: By condensing a plethora of son et image into his one-minute cinematic verse, Godard’s warning us about all the disastrous romances we might have with movies to come. (You can read a wonderful explication of the film here.)
Some of these movies could easily be his. Perlin’s program also included the four-minute trailer for Godard’s next (perhaps last) film, Socialisme. I’ve no idea what the movie is about, though the preview leads me to believe that it has politics, gold, Egypt, Palestine, puns (“Hellas” split into “Hell As,” connoting “hélas,” the French for “alas,” and alluding to Godard’s 1993 film Hélas Pour Moi), Alain Badiou, Patti Smith, kids, animals, clips from older films, shots of people holding video cameras, and even the Odessa Steps. IMDB lists the film as being in post-production. Godard’s films throw so many ideas around that you can’t help but form your own watching them. As with all the ones I haven’t seen (and even many of the ones I have), I’ll be thrilled to see what I discover.
Godard Rarities played on February 20 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series.