All You Need Is a Girl and a Gun
That's why I stress the liveliness of those early films. Yes, they are like an unrestrained Picasso racing through the Louvre of movie history (there is a real Louvre sprint in Band of Outsiders), updating all the old masters in the attempt to redefine art history as an Althusserian path to enlightenment. But Godard was never simply that doctrinaire or that much of the professor--even his great computer, Alpha 60, is very emotional. Even granting that he was innately cold or shy, he still had expanses of vulnerability (which Karina opened up with a glance) and a youthful love of beauty. The early films are dazzling, funny, romantic, musical, passionate and impulsive. They never played to enormous audiences (they never needed to--they were so cheap). But they set fire to the screen and, all over the world, at the level of art-house cinema, they intimated that with your girlfriend (the gender direction went only one way in their minds), a borrowed camera (steal it if you have to) and a modest inheritance (a lot of New Wave films came from private money) you could be Bogart and Bacall. Godard and the directors he inspired were giddy with the great dream of being in a movie--the very thing, I'd guess, that helped the real Bogart and Bacall fall in love.
Perhaps the thing with Karina was infatuation, a mismatch or the helpless set-up for an open, pretty girl and a closed, austere man. By the end of the 1960s, Godard was notably down on love and moving toward complete immersion in allegedly revolutionary sociopolitical subject matter. That move was hurried by the events of May 1968, and MacCabe is not just good but exciting on that moment, when some very smart but overly protected students (supported by an age of full employment) reckoned to turn the world upside down.
Godard settled on an idea he had long nursed: that classical entertainment movies were dead and over--and that this change was inextricably tied in with the corruption of the United States and Hollywood. This is where we really need more from McCabe on the life to compensate for the inwardness and the stubborn intellectualization of the films. Godard has worked steadily since 1968--MacCabe gives a sense of a man who works, shoots or edits, or who tries, nearly every day. But, except for occasional returns to narrative (prompted by a need for money?), he has moved over from film to video, and from the stance of a European artist to a Swiss recluse who must be a genius.
After the breakup with Karina, Godard's films became far tougher on audiences (he could turn quite aggressive with those prepared to like him), earnestly Marxist or Maoist, and primly anti-American. MacCabe ties this to an assault on modern Hollywood cinema that is all too justified. And he covers himself on the inconsistency in Godard's later work:
I do know that in writing this book I committed myself to looking again and again at Godard's work. The life often became tiresome; we are all, like the dog returning to its vomit, condemned to repeat within a deadly limited repertory. But the work never failed to intrigue, to illuminate and to inform. Much of it is extremely difficult to obtain. Much of it requires repeated viewings before it begins to yield its treasure. Some of it is very uneven. But the worst is never less than intelligent, and the best is the best there is.
That's well said, and I hope this book will bring Godard back to American screens. In 2001 there was a retrospective at London's National Film Theatre that played to packed, young crowds. Still, I am wary, and wishing for more from this excellent book. How is Godard so lonely, yet so compelled to have female company? After Karina, he married the actress Anne Wiazemsky. After their marriage ended, he began to live with his current collaborator, Anne-Marie Miéville. And how do these ties relate to the chronic misogyny in his work, and the unending, rather cocksure use of prostitution as the metaphor for all relationships?
In the early 1970s a dire rift interrupted the old friendship between Truffaut and Godard. In haughty tones, Godard the thief accused Truffaut (with some justice) of settling for boulevard entertainment. Truffaut replied in a crushing letter: "Here you are...as fond as ever of making grand gestures and spectacular announcements, as arrogant and dogmatic as ever, secure on your pedestal, indifferent to others...." It's betrayal again (a common motif in Godard's narrative films), and though Godard is the greater artist, Truffaut's assessment of his character wasn't far off. "You've been acting like a shit," he told Jean-Luc.