Colin MacCabe’s new book is more a provocative polemic than a rounded biography, but it deserves the highest praise for being inspired by the belief that in the early 1960s Jean-Luc Godard grabbed hold of the medium known as movie, shook it, broke it apart and threw it up in the air, catching enough pieces to redefine “montage,” and decided that the young medium was so close to death that only radical surgery could save it–or us, its audience. In those heady years, to say “Godard” was enough. Everyone knew whom you meant, and thrilled at the shock waves that spread around him.
Today? There’s the question. But it’s bold of MacCabe and his publisher to say, simply, “Godard,” and trust that enough people still feel the shock and understand how Jean-Luc’s extraordinary “moment” has yielded to his solitude or obscurity. Only film festivals know what he is doing now, and only minds cursed with memory realize that he is still there. Or even here. By which I mean to say that Godard continues to discuss with himself whether there is life in such nostalgic combinations as film and audience. (In France in the 1960s, the new attitude to film made “audience” a synonym for society, or all of us.) What’s most stimulating about MacCabe’s book is his confidence that we need a new conversation about our moving pictures, as opposed to just scanning the ads, buying the tickets and the popcorn, and letting the silly sensations slip out of mind.
For once, a publisher’s blurb serves a book better than its title. So forget “portrait” and the calm of old age in some sweet Swiss village (though there is that Godard), and think about this: “An intimate portrait of the turmoil that spawned the New Wave in French Cinema, and the story of its greatest director.” I know, it’s hype, and in many ways the New Wave is now beside the point. But “turmoil” is right and useful, and it reminds one of that very Godardian instinct that film itself is a battleground where every modern decision may be dramatized.
In his brief cameo in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), in which he appeared as a tough little man stranded at a funereal party, wearing Godardian dark glasses as an assertion of imprisoned integrity, the Hollywood director Samuel Fuller announced that cinema was “like a battleground: Love… Hate… Action… Violence… Death… In one word, Emotion.” That recipe was the childhood Godard spent with American action films, and another way of delivering his deadpan come-on (full of promise, but loaded with warning) that all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun. But Pierrot was also filled with anguish at the loss of two loves: It was made as Godard and his actress wife, Anna Karina, were tearing themselves apart; and it was the clearest sign yet of Godard’s developing horror at the American culture that had done so much to make him.
More than MacCabe, I would say that those two “tragic” or necessary severings were absolutely typical of Godard’s determined intellectual isolation, his selfishness and even his delayed adulthood. But to say that plunges us straight into the life and the first and superior part of this book. For while MacCabe flinches intellectually from the authoritative assumptions and the narrative sedateness in biography, he has a natural talent for describing life–indeed, this may be the area in which he is least like the Godard he reveres.