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.
Jean-Luc Godard was born on December 3, 1930, in Paris. He was well-off from the start: His mother’s family, the Monods, were very comfortable, illustrious in their own achievements and their social circle, and Protestant; his father, also a Protestant, was a doctor who had studied in London as well as Paris. By the time Jean-Luc was 2, his father had moved the family to the vicinity of a clinic between Nyon and Rolle, in the canton of Vaud, in Switzerland. This was one of the few things Harry Lime didn’t know in Vienna in 1949, when he claimed that the only thing of value that Switzerland had ever produced was the cuckoo clock. For this young Turk in the making is in many ways Swiss–he has lived the past twenty years or so in Rolle.
Switzerland kept the family out of the war and–here’s a gem of research–it allowed the boy Godard to see not just American films but wartime newsreels, sometimes with French commentary, sometimes with German. There’s a fascinating seed of dialectic and Godardian method. It was a fairly strict, highly educated household, where the children had one chance to be heard at the dinner table–if they knew a relevant quotation from literature. There again, Godard is an artist who fills his own films not just with quotations (not always sourced) but with the act of writing itself.
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.
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.
There’s an attitude in Godard, despite the assertions of wanting to converse, that says, Don’t argue or cross me about such things. And this book does not alter the notion of his brilliant immaturity. The most fascinating point of all applies more broadly than to Godard; it reaches out to anyone who believes that film is more important than the world. Maybe film is not the great new language of engagement with the world that Bazin hoped it would be. Perhaps it is, instead, a vehicle more suited to dreaming, sensationalism and not wanting to grow up. Perhaps language–the construct of words–was always subtler, deeper and more humane.
Here’s a remarkable passage from Godard the young theorist, writing in 1956, trying to pin down the virtues of and the affinity between cinematography and montage:
If direction is a look, montage is a heartbeat. To foresee is the characteristic of both: but what one seeks to foresee in space, the other seeks in time. Suppose you notice a young girl in the street who attracts you. You hesitate to follow her. A quarter of a second. How to convey this hesitation? Mise-en-scène will answer the question ‘How shall I approach her?’ But in order to render explicit the other question ‘Am I going to love her?’ you are forced to bestow importance on the quarter of a second during which the two questions are born. It may be, therefore, that it will be for the montage rather than the mise-en-scène to express both exactly and clearly the life of an idea or its sudden emergence in the course of the story.
How odd that this furious analysis misses the clarity, the exact hesitation, with which words have evoked the moment. It reminds me of a scene in My Life to Live where the philosopher Brice Parain tells a story from Dumas’s Twenty Years After: how Porthos puts a bomb in a cellar, and as he walks away with head down, notices the movement of his own legs. How does that happen? he wonders. The mystery transfixes him, and he is killed in his own explosion. “In sum, the first time he thought, it killed him.”
There’s a lost writer in Godard, to be sure, and it’s never clearer than in those lovely and poignant places where he actually writes on film–the hand, the curling of the letters, the line of sense. Could it be the ultimate lesson in Godard’s career that plunging into the dark was a misreading of his map?