“Le cinéma est la fraude la plus belle au monde.”
At the moment, ‘here’ is Rolle; a slightly overcast, sometimes dreary spec of a town celebrating the secluded just north of Lake Leman, 25 miles from Geneva, Switzerland. In an unremarkable apartment building of no apparent significance to the countryside surrounding it, French-Swiss actor, director, cinematographer, screenwriter, editor, producer and film critic Jean-Luc Godard lives and works.
“I think I’m proving by my existence that I am still very alive,” he told Scott Kraft from Cigar Aficionado magazine in a 1997 interview at this home. ‘Still here’ acknowledges a filmmaker with a career that spans half a century and includes 93 films, 78 screenplays, an incalculable number of writings, celluloid and videotape odds and ends, and on December 3rd Mr. Godard will celebrate his 80th birthday. And by the way, he also has two new films this year; a short called Tribute to Eric Rohmer (2010) and Film Socialisme (2010) a familiar return to Godard’s art film period, a provocative example of the auteur’s inexhaustible appetite for what critic Robin Wood calls, “an authentic modernist cinema in opposition to mainstream cinema.”
Godard arrived in Paris in 1948 where he immediately fell into the rich and rapidly increasing cinémathèques or cine-clubs scene (small movie houses specializing in avant-garde films) gaining prominence, especially in the Latin Quarter. It was within these clubs where Godard, among others discussed what they perceived as a failure by French cinema to change and adapt as society and world politics were in upheaval all around them. Inspired by Italian Neorealism (Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, among others associated with the Italian magazine Cinema) and Classic Hollywood cinema, namely the works of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles among others, the groundwork for the French Nouvelle Vague or, “New Wave” was set in motion by Andre Bazin and Jacques Donial-Valcroze, the editors of the famous Cahiers du Cinema magazine. Almost immediately Godard joined the magazine and later by his contemporaries, including Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rozier, and Jacques Demy who all started as critics before making their own films; the New Wave produced over 70 films under the auspices of what American film critic Andrew Sarris described as the auteur theory, or “La politique des auteurs”. Godard said of this time, “In the 1950s cinema was as important as bread – but it isn’t the case any more. We thought cinema would assert itself as an instrument of knowledge, a microscope … a telecope. …At the Cinematheque I discovered a world which nobody had spoken to me about. They’d told us about Goethe, but not Dryer. … We watched silent films in the era of talkies. We dreamed about film. We were like Christians in the catacombs.”
The New Wave introduced new techniques of storytelling, experimentation, and camera work that had never been seen before – long takes, a fluid and moving the camera, sometimes running with a character while filming in recognizable locations, the use of highly improvised scripts, popular culture references (often from America) and frequently but purposefully disjointed sound and image. The New Wave was a direct assault on traditional rules of narrative continuity and cinematography and became a subversion to the classic Hollywood system. Godard and others would consistently and intentionally interweave their films with relevant political, social commentary, and criticism of the world around them. Godard said that “Realism is the essence of cinema” and through the use of technical tricks, innovations and other techniques, he was able to instill in his films a specific intellectual and political underbelly that was very often perceived as a bombardment of the senses. His occasionally nonsensical dialogue and jumbled sub-titles served to remind the viewer that meaning was intended to be mined from more than just the overt. The resulting cinematic intertextuality, or shaping of the films meaning by other texts, images, films, music, and materials, transcends the medium itself to an experience that requires an audience’s full engagement to fully appreciate or understand in a meaningful way. This stylistic complexity and at times jarring expectations, suggests his films have been, and perhaps to a certain degree remain unavailable to some audiences.
There is little argument that Godard is most recognized as the face and attitude of the French Nouvelle Vague, though Truffaut and Bazin are similarly indispensable from any meaningful conversation regarding this era. The movement is generally defined as the period between the 1950s and 1960s, though some argue it lasted well into the 1970s with films by Rivette Celine, et Julie vont en bateau: Phantom Ladies over Paris (1974), Scenes del la vie parallele 2: Duelle (une guarantaine) (1976), and Claude Chabrol’s, Le Boucher (1970), La Rapture (1970), and Juste avant la nuit (1971) among others. While one of the lesser known members of the New Wave, Jacques Rozier made Du Cote D’Orouet/Dear Orouet (1971) and Les Naufrages de l’lle de la Tortue/The Castaways of Turtle Island (1976), and outsider Jacques Demy, perhaps least interested in Godard’s political currents and Alain Resnais’s experimentation , went on to create a handful of films including an original musical to which he is best known, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (the Umbrellas of Cherbourg) (1964). For certain, the New Wave had noticeably changed since the early days, softened in many respects during the 1970s, especially as Godard and others’ political and social interests, often referred to as Godard’s militant or radical period, took on a growing sentiment that often kept his friends from wider and wider audiences. It was also during this period that Godard began a relationship with a young Maoist student, Jean-Pierre Gorin with whom he would collaborate with for the next five years, producing five films with inherent Maoist messages. But in 1980s, Godard returned to more approachable works, specifically Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980) that began a series of more mainstream films that relied heavily upon his own life and experiences, often thought in part as autobiographical. But many have considered the 1990s his most significant creative period when he embarked on what would become a multi-part, multi-year series called Histoie(s) du cinema which was a compendium interweaving his various techniques, especially with video, and an engagement with issues of the twentieth century and the history of film.
Godard wields film history as if a rapier, sharp and exacting in his political ideologies through existential and Marxist philosophy. If one were to seek out a single point of entry into his work, with the intention of a satisfactory comprehension of his cinematic tendencies, his relationship with the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht would reveal much of what has driven Godard’s work throughout his career. He remains keenly interested in Brecht’s theory of epic theatre (Verfremdungseffekt) or the distancing effect or alienation theory which, “prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer.” Godard, exchanging Brecht’s theatre model for that of the cinema, consistently forces the viewer into a more engaged and therefore critical role in his films; the result allows a more intimate commitment to the deeper social and political statements woven through the fabric of the narrative.
Jean-Luc Godard is as much the beloved, curmudgeon grandfather character of cinema’s past commenting on the failures of films since, as he is the enigmatic, enthusiastic youngster holding a strip of celluloid or perhaps gazing at said strip displayed on an overly large cinema screen for inspection of every frame, examining and contemplating the next jump-cut or boisterous leading man with a hat to tip and the smug looks to go along with it. Godard’s career and success, his veracity and appetite cannot be contained in textbooks or lectures or any number of other means to get at the guts of film studies and film criticism. Filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Robert Altman, Oliver Stone, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarrantino have all cited Godard as a teacher and reference, as the craftsman who most gave them the fertile groundwork of possibility to then go running with into their own films and cinematic tooling. Others like Cassavetes and Arthur Penn, Wes Anderson and Steven Soderbergh have each in their own way professed admiration for Godard with Scorsese himself putting it best, “the French New Wave has influenced all filmmakers who have worked since, whether they saw the films or not. It submerged cinema like a tidal wave.” Orson Welles once said of Godard, “… his gifts as a director are enormous. I just can’t take him very seriously as a thinker — and that’s where we seem to differ, because he does. His message is what he cares about these days, and, like most movie messages, it could be written on the head of a pin. But what’s so admirable about him is his marvelous contempt for the machinery of movies and even movies themselves — a kind of anarchistic, nihilistic contempt for the medium — which, when he’s at his best and most vigorous, is very exciting.”
Godard remains decisively reclusive. In 1992 the New York Museum of Modern Art created a retrospective of his work and invited him to attend the opening ceremony but due to an apparent conflict with an existing filming schedule, he did not attend. He also was also absent from the 2007 European Film Awards honoring him with a lifetime achievement award. In his stead he offered a note that read, in part “I don’t have the impression that I have made a career.” According to Tom O’Neil of goldderby.latimes.com, among other sources, Jean-Luc was notified that he has been awarded an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards on November 14th. After considerable attempts to reach him for a response have failed, it is unlikely that he will attend.
“”I never understand why I am remembered, why I am still known,” he says in his 1997 interview with Scott Kraft. “I think only just because, at the beginning, I was doing something that people liked. I think I’m proving by my existence that I am still very alive, and that making a good picture is still possible. Maybe that’s why I still have a name. But I’ll always wonder why I’m known, because nobody sees my movies. Well, almost nobody.”