All You Need Is a Girl and a Gun
The young Godard was very smart, and at the age of 15 he went to Paris (really his first encounter with the city he has filmed as well as anyone) to study at the Lycée Buffon. But as he failed in his studies (out of laziness or arrogance), he started to frequent movie theaters--and to steal. MacCabe does not avoid this aspect of Godard's character, which made him something of an outsider in the group of young critics and would-be filmmakers that became the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd. It wasn't just because he preferred sitting alone, invariably in dark glasses and being cryptic, elusive or punning in conversation, that Godard failed to gain their trust.
Still, MacCabe is more interested in the way Jean-Luc became a follower of two extraordinary activists in film culture: Henri Langlois, the eccentric co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, the world's first scholar and collector of the new medium, and thus the theater manager who began to show the history of world film to anyone interested; and André Bazin, saint, teacher, writer, father figure, the man who died on the first day of filming of François Truffaut's 400 Blows, and to whom that picture is dedicated.
I'd surmise that MacCabe cherishes and identifies with Bazin even more than with Godard. Why not? It was when MacCabe worked for the British Film Institute that he launched the collection and publication of all of Bazin's writings on film. "All" means 17,000 pages from a man who lived to be only 40. (Unfortunately, this project was later axed.) To be brief, Bazin had a nearly religious notion that film was the essential new medium of the mass age--and the only form that might produce a saving, shared consciousness--in that it offered the ultimate rendering of reality (apart from reality itself, n'est-ce pas?). To that end, Bazin welcomed sound, deep focus and lengthy shots as providing the fullest possible sensation of being there in the picture. He was a great critic and a most generous man, and every one of the directors of Godard's era (from Truffaut, Rivette, Chabrol and Demy to others a little older, like Rohmer, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais) learned from him.
MacCabe--a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a film producer who has worked on some of Godard's later ventures--does a superb job at tracing the evolution of Godard's ideas. This is all the more important in that Godard always saw the passage from critic to filmmaker as a natural one--and that was because (maybe even before he understood it himself) he was on his way to becoming less a storyteller or a moviemaker than an ontologist steadily teaching us to study the seething interaction of the world seen and the process of observing and choosing. While Godard started out wanting to be Sam Fuller or Nicholas Ray, he has become a cousin to Roland Barthes, Noam Chomsky or John Berger (yet with a seasoning of Jerry Lewis and the best flavors of pulp--the girl and the gun have been eschewed, but they linger in his mind).
Godard is written more for the film-theory student than the enthusiast of biography, or even the filmgoer. It does give a vivid feeling for Godard at work--on Breathless, say, doing it all for about $48,000, with a quarter of that going to his American star, Jean Seberg, and then arriving at his legendary jump-cut because the film ran too long. But the great films are rather lumped together in MacCabe's discussion. In a way, that's correct, for the great run of 1959-65--Breathless, Le Petit Soldat, Une Femme est une Femme, Vivre sa Vie, Les Carabiniers, Le Mépris, Bande à Part, Une Femme Mariée, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou--can be seen as a single surge of radical energy, with American genres being deconstructed and turned into the collage materials for an inspiring course on how to see (and think) in the dark. Still, I longed for a closer account of how Godard lived in those few years, how he invented on the spur of the moment, how he exploited people and did tricks with money. The young thief turned into a man with very mixed feelings and rather ugly business habits not always in keeping with his high-minded critiques of capitalism. The life story, sooner or later, comes down to the discovery of, marriage to and severance from Anna Karina, the naïve Danish model who spoke not a word of French when she arrived in Paris but who became an actress as vital in a director's work as Lillian Gish was to D.W. Griffith or Marlene Dietrich to Josef von Sternberg.
Karina is one of the many friends and colleagues who have talked to MacCabe, but that reporting doesn't take away from an abiding awe for Godard that stifles biography. At one point MacCabe admits to identifying with the report by Bernardo Bertolucci that he felt like vomiting from nerves when he first met the great man. And though MacCabe makes clear Karina's feeling that Godard was the love of her life, the book doesn't treat them as equals. We get the nearly childlike romance, we infer the sex--though MacCabe's Godard remains a very cerebral guy--the miscarriage that left Karina barren, the jealousy (on his part) and even occasional violence. Still, you'd have to go to Pierrot le Fou again to appreciate the astonishing tension between a man who looks with ideas and a woman who looks with feeling. That is nearly a quote from the movie, and it is a testament to the harsh, sexist self-satisfaction with which Godard relied on intellectual superiority and nearly willed Karina into betraying him--as if to claim her as his fictional character.
MacCabe might say, along with Godard, that metaphor and model are everything: that theirs was a pattern of director and actress, of head and heart, doomed to failure. But there's more than a suspicion that Godard's life (and those of others near him) has been made the more difficult because of that premeditated intellectualization of experience and the archaic, bourgeois yearning that the essaylike nature of film might still contain sentimental stories.