Putting Them in Context
When it comes to interpreting or evaluating a work of art, a common tendency is to consider it strictly on its own terms, as a work unto itself, without considering the personal or social circumstances surrounding the creation of that work. Arguably, it is easier to evaluate a work that way, because there is no extra baggage to consider. However, to look at it strictly from such a formalistic standpoint, and thus to neglect historical or social context, is to neglect not only important facets of how art is often created, but also of how we as audience members and art consumers receive and consider that work. Something inspires an artist to create a work, and while ultimately the interpretation of a finished work of art is in the eyes and minds of the viewers, an attempt at interpretation that disregards the surroundings in which the work was born makes for a rather superficial analysis of it.
An example of what I mean: whether or not you consider recent films-about-9/11 like Paul Greengrass’s United 93 or Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center to be genuine works of art or not, one cannot deny that, however universal both films aspire to be (and the controversial United 93, by blurring specifics and going for a strict docudrama approach, seems to aim for some kind of rather perverse universality), they derive at least some of their power from this troubled political and emotional environment in which we currently find ourselves. Same for the spate of political Hollywood films released last year, including films like George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, and Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Many interpreted Good Night, and Good Luck’s visual evocation of 1950s black-and-white television and verbal references to actual speeches delivered by Edward R. Murrow—“We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home,” he says in one of his famous broadcasts—as Clooney’s way of drawing a parallel between Senator Joseph McCarthy and President George W. Bush; likewise, Spielberg made comparisons to the war in Iraq inevitable in Munich when he concluded the film—which dealt with the efforts of an underground state-sponsored Israeli group to avenge the deaths of their fellow Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympic games at the hands of the Black September Palestinian terrorist group—with a shot of the Twin Towers in the landscape. What I am trying to suggest here is that, try as one might, one cannot, and should not, try to separate art from the historical or even personal contexts from which a particular work emerges.
This idea of the importance of context underlies my ultimate contention that Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino, as different as they are, are still, in some ways, essentially similar filmmakers who came out of very different circumstances, both personally and historically, and that those circumstances should be taken into consideration when comparing both of their works side-by-side.
Consider, briefly, Godard’s personal history. Born in Paris in 1930 into a fairly rich bourgeois family—his father, Paul, was a respected doctor, and his mother, Odile, came from one of France’s largest and most illustrious families, the Monods—Godard himself was well-educated, finishing his grade-school education at the Collège de Nyon in Switzerland in 1946, then attending the Lycée Buffon in Paris. He was also, however, quite a restless young man: at the Lycée Buffon, he found that mathematics did not interest him all that much (as he tells Colin MacCabe in MacCabe’s biography Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, “In the Collège I thought at one time I was good at mathematics but then I discovered in Paris that to be good at mathematics you have to work, and then it was over”). Because the Monods noticed that he was failing his classes, and because he was constantly getting into trouble with stealing from relatives, the Monods eventually expelled him from the family, leaving him to fend for himself financially. Eventually he decided to study anthropology when he entered the Sorbonne in 1949—a choice of study which explains quite a bit about the documentary-like thrust of many of his fiction features. Even in the Sorbonne, however, he was still getting more of an education in a different subject—cinema—at the Cinémathèque and at Parisian ciné-clubs. Paris was the prime place to be to get one’s fill of world cinema, past and present, and Godard was among a band of cinema enthusiasts (François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol were some of the others) who, in the 1950s, under the tutelage of trailblazing film critic and theorist André Bazin, formed the groundbreaking arts magazine Cahiers du cinéma in the spirit of elevating cinema—formerly considered at best a repository of elegant but insubstantial entertainment by many—to an art form worth taking seriously. From there, Godard and his fellow Cahiers writers decided to put their theories into practice by making films themselves.
The important thing to note here is that Godard was born and raised in a bourgeois society that prized a high level of education above all, and also one which espoused, at least in a few people, an idealism about the power of cinema that spilled over onto print and celluloid and eventually changed not only ways in which movies are made, but also ways in which we perceive movies. MacCabe sums up where Godard was coming from with his deconstructionist angle by emphasizing Godard’s study of anthropology, particularly the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who he says “was to demonstrate most effectively the claims of anthropology both to the other human science and to the more general culture.” MacCabe furthermore says:
“Over the next twenty years Lévi-Strauss’s thought was to affect fundamentally figures as diverse as Lacan, Barthes and Derrida and to give birth in the mid-sixties to “the structuralist revolution.” However, its most important claim, and the claim which generated such heat in the sixties and seventies was that Western culture, both in its contemporary reality and in its canonical works of art, needed to be analysed in just the same way and with just the same distance as any other culture.”
Perhaps, thus, one can see Godard’s films, broadly speaking, as cultural analyses of all sorts of cultures: political culture, French popular culture, and film culture. And, considering Godard’s popularity in France, one can surmise that the French take this kind of analysis in a film seriously—arguably more seriously than many American audiences do.
By contrast, let us consider Tarantino’s upbringing for a bit. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1963 to a 16-year-old single mother, he grew up in considerably less privileged circumstances than Godard’s in Los Angeles as his mother struggled to make a living on her own, especially after the father he grew up with, Curtis Arnold Zastoupil, divorced Connie when he was nine years old. According to Wensley Clarkson’s biography Quentin Tarantino: Shooting from the Hip, his mother was one of the greatest influences on Tarantino’s life: just as she often turned to television shows and comic books in order to escape the drudgeries of trying to make a living, Tarantino as a kid eventually picked up the same habits, becoming an avid consumer of movies, novels (his mother reportedly read classics like Moby Dick and Gulliver’s Travels to him as a young boy), comic books and television series. (As Clarkson writes, “He would sit up close to the small screen for hours on end, losing himself in whatever he was watching. Sometimes he wished he could climb inside that TV set and join his favourite characters.” ) At six or seven, his mother, according to Clarkson, was already taking him to see edgy adult fare like Carnal Knowledge, The Wild Bunch and Deliverance (the latter referenced with the sodomy sequence in Pulp Fiction).
But his love of art and trashy pop culture was arguably taking its toll on his education; in spite of his 160 IQ, he was failing most of his classes in school, showing little interest in anything except history (and that, Clarkson suggests, is only because Tarantino saw so many historical dramas at the movies). Eventually, because of his constant truancy, Tarantino, with his mother’s reluctant support, dropped out of the Narbonne High School in Harbor City, California at the age of 15. This, of course, left him free to focus almost entirely on his projected movie career. Thus, he enrolled into the James Best Acting School in Toluca Lake and tried to support himself with a variety of odd jobs—porno theater usher, aerospace-industry headhunter—before landing what he considered his most important job: a clerk at Video Archives, a video rental store in Harbor City. What ciné-clubs were to Godard in Paris, the Video Archives was to Tarantino in Los Angeles. As Clarkson writes in his biography of Tarantino, “Most people would have gone into it half-heartedly, planning to work there for a few months and then quit. But to Quentin this was a chance to work as an unofficial movie critic, get to see as many movies as was humanly possible and be paid in the process. What more could you ask?” Tarantino had always harbored dreams of making movies himself, but only after a short stint impersonating a journalist and interviewing big-name directors like Brian De Palma did he realize that he should try to raise his own money to try to make something of his own. That realization, combined with a few important contacts he gained thanks to acting school friends, led him on his rocky way to Hollywood stardom.
Tarantino’s biography is obviously quite different from Godard’s. But the differences are revealing considering their respective bodies of film work. Both directors evinced a fascination with the movies in their younger days, but while Godard balanced his love of cinema with an interest in sociology and politics, Tarantino, as a school student, apparently showed little interest in subjects other than pop culture, even with his high IQ and apparently hyperactive manner. And, of course, Godard finished high school and went to college (even if he was hardly the most responsible student at the Sorbonne), whereas Tarantino never even got past the tenth grade. I say that not in a spirit of judgment—plenty of popular modern filmmakers have become acclaimed and successful even though they never finished high school—but to suggest that their individual backgrounds are arguably quite evident in their respective movies. Tarantino’s films all display an infatuation with all things pop culture and film history to the extent that he often seems to shut out the outside world in order to allow his movie-influenced fantasies to flower. Many of Godard’s films, on the other hand, balance purely cinematic references and allusions with a palpable sense of underlying reality and an acute social critique: grounding Godard’s movie-influenced daydreams in a realistic setting, and creating a tension between genre fantasy and harsh reality.
If we consider strictly their personal biographies, Tarantino has almost nothing in common with Godard. Yet their movies do somewhat belie their backgrounds: in many ways, as I have tried to demonstrate throughout this essay, they are similar in that they are both working in the same self-reflexive postmodernist tradition, as well as in similar genres. Stylistically they are similar, but substantively they are quite different. Yet both were greeted with a great deal of critical and commercial success when they both hit it big; in fact, Pulp Fiction, as Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in his review of the film, probably sold many more tickets than Breathless ever did. So perhaps we should consider something else in addition to personal biographies in order to explain the substantive differences between Godard and Tarantino as artists. Perhaps we need to also take historical and social context into account.
In Godard’s case, historical and social context is particularly important because France in the 1960s was, politically, a startlingly tumultuous time, both in France and abroad. Obviously, the Vietnam War was affecting foreigners’ perceptions of America all over the world, and it seemed to affect Godard’s perceptions as well, as evidenced by his movies: his post-Pierrot le Fou work displays not only a break from working within Hollywood genres the way he did in his earlier films, but also showed a growing disenchantment with American pop culture (a disenchantment which has perhaps increased since then; witness the controversy surrounding his explicit anti-American sentiments in one of his more recent films In Praise of Love). However, there are other factors to consider. There is the 1966 Cultural Revolution in China, an event which had a distinctly local yet profound effect among many people in France, especially when Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser suggested that perhaps Marxism should be treated as a science, and that the class struggle should not be dependent on ideology, which Althusser believed was too dependent on time and place to be taken into account.
Such a theoretical approach to political change marks Godard’s critique in La Chinoise, and it led Godard to embrace Maoism wholesale. But one must also consider the government of the time: Charles de Gaulle’s authoritarian Fifth Republic regime, which espoused a repressiveness that encompassed state control of television news media, a constant police presence, strict film censorship and a lack of concern on the government’s part for reforming universities. Godard felt that strict film censorship many times in the 1960s. His second film, Le Petit soldat, for example, was suppressed and went unreleased for three years for its supposed Algerian sympathies; his 1964 film Une Femme mariée (A Married Woman) was ordered to have its original title, La Femme mariée, changed because the censors were afraid people might get the idea that its titular heroine was an embodiment of the typical French married woman. The last straw for Godard and many other film enthusiasts such as himself came when De Gaulle sacked Henri Langlois from his Cinémathèque directorship. All of this led Godard to join the ranks of the striking workers and students during the events of May 1968—an explosive month which ultimately did not lead to any great reforms, but which still stands as a generation-defining event.
Such a politically volatile historical backdrop is bound to affect a socially-conscious artist like Godard in some way, and one can sense that starting with Pierrot le Fou, in which Vietnam becomes one of its major themes, and all the way to Weekend, a vicious satire of French bourgeois society which flirts with Maoism in its own way.
Not that the 1990s didn’t have its share of political tumultuousness: the Cold War, for instance, had just ended in 1990, thus bringing an end to the fight between communism and capitalism and leading the way for globalization. But, compared to France in the 1960s, America in the 1990s was marked more by a general sense of political indifference and outright cynicism—witness the consistently low national voting turnouts during most political elections—as opposed to the burning political idealism among students and workers in France during Godard’s time. Perhaps it is no surprise that with such a decrease in political activism came an increase in the prominence of media in society, especially with the rise of the Internet. If the ’90s showed anything conclusively, it showed just how saturated media has become in our society, to the point that many people are learning to perceive the world almost entirely through the images media create. (That, of course, explains why the news media, for example, was able to convince Americans across the country that the American military was launching nonexistent “smart bombs” into the Middle East during Gulf War I—a conflict which was largely a media creation.) In addition, it is quite possible that most Americans have gradually become less politically inclined, preferring to delve into the world of entertainment as an escape from personal or political reality. Certainly escapism and entertainment are popular reasons moviegoers cite for frequenting local movie theaters, and movie studios certainly cater to that mindset. (I admittedly say all this not as someone who has done a great deal of research on the 1990s, but as an observer who lived through the decade and followed it fairly closely.)
One of the great popular appeals of Tarantino’s work is that it appeals to a distinctively-’90s mindset: the kind of modern media consumer that has absorbed a great deal of pop culture and thus become, in essence, media-savvy (to borrow a term Jonathan Rosenbaum used in his Pulp Fiction review in 1994). This kind of viewer can readily repeat movie dialogue, well known or obscure, and make random references to moments from popular television shows or films in regular conversation; this kind of viewer can also be said to follow popular culture and media very carefully, maybe in some cases much more carefully than they follow politics or any other field. When it comes to references, however, context—the reason for making that particular reference—sometimes doesn’t matter at all: a person may throw in a reference during normal conversation just to show people how smart they are. Rosenbaum calls this a “fashion-plate surface of knowingness” and adds that, as carefully planted as those kinds of references may be in movies like Pulp Fiction (and I would extend that to much popular conversation as well), “what’s actually known is obviously less important.”
Now, to be fair to Tarantino, even when he isn’t at the top of his artistic game, he, like Godard, is talented enough that he doesn’t put this kind of “spot-the-references” playfulness front and center in his films: Tarantino always provides us with some kind of plot or emotional context in which such references—and in Tarantino, they are legion—mean something to us other than the fact that they are referencing something. In other words, you don’t have to know a great deal about the martial arts genre to enjoy the sheer kinetic energy of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 any more than you have to know about the various crime thrillers Godard references in order to enjoy Breathless or Band of Outsiders. It might enhance one’s appreciation of those films more, but there’s more to them than just showing off how encyclopedic their movie knowledge is. In the end, however, Tarantino’s sensibility comes down to the typical American moviegoer’s “escapism” mindset taken to an extreme: although his movies sometimes make recognitions toward real-world hurt and pain (pain, for instance, figures quite potently and even at times disturbingly throughout Death Proof, both that of the victims and of the killer when potential victims turn the tables on him), they almost invariably take place in Tarantino’s movie-induced fantasy world, one that takes no part in political discourse and prefers instead to wallow in the detritus of popular culture and movie history—entertainment, in other words.
Does this mean, however, that Tarantino is less of an artist than Godard? That is not for me to determine here once and for all, although I will admit that I love much of Godard’s ’60s work and that I have a love/hate relationship with Tarantino’s comparably meager output for many of the reasons I have suggested above (although the unexpectedly brilliant and unsettling Death Proof suggests that Tarantino might finally be getting somewhere genuinely instructive with his mix of postmodern deconstruction, playfulness and emotional complication within his movie-based worldview). Certainly others have argued elsewhere the merits of both directors, either separately or comparatively. But that is strictly a matter of personal preference. I would like to suggest that both are similar artists in totally different historical contexts, with different personal and societal circumstances shaping their sensibilities, and that perhaps they could be considered within such contexts.
Obviously Godard’s films will not have exactly the same resonance to most Americans today than they did to many French people in the 1960s, but perhaps because most modern American audiences may prefer an artist who plays a similar reflexive game without the burden of having to understand political or social concerns beforehand. For that reason, a Tarantino film might be more their cup of tea. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Godard deserves to be taken more seriously as an artist than Tarantino. People can talk all they want about “timeless art”—the belief that all great art will stand the test of time regardless of the outside circumstances that both inspired the artist and inspired the acclaim or derision toward a particular work—and certainly great art potentially has universal qualities that will retain a certain power when a new generation of viewers look at it decades or even centuries from now. But the truth is: art is almost always borne out of a certain context, whether historical, political or personal. Something inspires an artist to do something; furthermore, something almost always shapes an artist into thinking a certain way. One cannot simply ignore context, even if one is trying to argue the superiority of one artist over another. Context, then, is what I have tried to provide in this section for an appreciation of both Godard and Tarantino—for an understanding not only of what their work is about, but also of the circumstances that spawned it.
As someone who was previously inclined to side with those critics who found Quentin Tarantino talented and undeniably passionate but ultimately an inconsequential and trivial postmodern artist (with perhaps the exception of Jackie Brown and parts of Kill Bill, Vol. 2) whose success spoke ill of popular taste, I was all set to make the case that Jean-Luc Godard—to whom he is often compared, especially when Pulp Fiction came out and made its dent on film culture in 1994—was a deeper, superior artist working in the same self-reflexive tradition simply because he fused his movie knowledge with a political and emotional awareness that made Tarantino’s self-reflexivity seem merely like an overenthusiastic fan throwing everything he likes into a movie without much thought given to morality or even meaning.
But as I reflected on the subject of Godard versus Tarantino further, I began to think more about the circumstances surrounding not only their personal lives, but also their era of greatest popularity—1960s France for Godard, 1990s-and-still-going America for Tarantino. These were very different times and very different societies. Perhaps it was easier for a playful yet socially aware artist like Godard to succeed in a France in which many of its students and workers were becoming just as politically active themselves. Likewise, perhaps it is easier for Tarantino to find a wide audience everywhere in America during a time in which political indifference sometimes seems to be the trend, and being media-hip sometimes seems to trump all. To put it simply, perhaps Godard and Tarantino are, in fact, similar artists who are very much a part of different contexts—different societies, different values. That, it seems to me, is something one should take into account even as that person passes personal judgment on one artist over another. Maybe one will still conclude, after all this, that Tarantino is a trivial, inconsequential artist whose work, in spite of certain moments of seriousness, are strictly pop objects that do not deserve to be taken as high art. But hopefully one will also realize that Tarantino is popular for a good reason: in his own unassuming way, he speaks to the shared consciousness of a media-savvy modern audience. That is surely something not to be dismissed out of hand.