“I’m always surprised to see what I do,” Jean-Luc Godard admits at the beginning of a talk delivered, nearly four decades ago, at Concordia University in Montreal. Could the single most influential filmmaker of his generation, who is still a provocateur at age 84, possibly be as baffled as we?
Surprised or not, Godard has never been unwilling to explain his ideas, which are, after all, the subject of his deeply idiosyncratic films. In April 1978, the filmmaker took a pedagogical turn, embarking on a series of screenings in which his own work would be projected in the context of various classic movies and historical events, such as the Algerian War or May ‘68. These screenings were followed by improvised, at times wildly free-associational, talks with the audience that Godard would refer to as “public self-psychoanalysis.”
One result of this course in Godardian thought, organized and coordinated by Concordia professor (and founder of the newly established Montreal Film Festival) Serge Losique, would be the epic, eight-part, made-for-TV Histoire(s) du cinéma, an inimitable, often-impenetrable stroll through cinema’s first century—a project the filmmaker first imagined as a book in 1969, began developing as a series of video essays sixteen years later and completed more than a decade after that. Another was Godard’s return to something like commercial cinema with Sauve qui peut (la vie). A third was the transcript of Godard’s disquisitions. First published in France in 1980, these have now been newly transcribed and translated into English by Canadian film scholar Timothy Barnard, as Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television.
For English speakers, Richard Brody’s biography Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, first published in 2008, has been something of a Rosetta stone, explicating the filmmaker’s professional and romantic involvements, identifying his nationalist and even anti-Semitic forebears, and making clear his political evolution and the centrality of World War II and especially the Holocaust to his thinking. (Cinema’s great blind spot, to Godard, was its inability to document the mass murder of European Jews.) As dense and confusing as it can be, Introduction to a True History is another such chunk of clarification, beginning with the title, with the nature of truth and the representation of history being Godard’s overarching preoccupations.
The Concordia classes came at a particular time in Godard’s career. He was, in collaboration with his new partner, Anne-Marie Miéville, heavily involved in television, having produced two series, Six Times Two (1976), devoted to nothing less than the political economy of the media image, and was preparing an even longer follow-up, the never telecast France/Tour/Detour/Two/Children (1979), investigating the structure of the French nuclear family. Indeed, the Concordia lecture-screenings were initially conceived as the basis for another multipart TV series.
At the same time, Godard was then all but invisible in the United States. His last commercial release, the 1972 Jane Fonda–Yves Montand vehicle Tout va bien, was poorly received. All but his most devoted partisans had been terminally alienated by the recondite and abrasive films of his Maoist period. It was assumed that the filmmaker who personified the 1960s was washed up. Numéro deux, the extraordinary 1975 film with which Godard moved from political hectoring to sociological poetry, was ignored by the New York Film Festival and not shown in New York until 1981, some months after his critical resurrection with Sauve qui peut (la vie), released in the United States as Every Man for Himself.
But that mild comeback was two and a half years in the future. Eight sessions were held at Concordia during the spring of 1978, and another six the following autumn. The course ended abruptly because, according to Godard, Losique ran out of money. Kent Jones, the current director of the New York Film Festival, then a freshman at McGill, attended the fall sessions (which were entirely in French with occasional English-language questions). Losique maintains that the screenings, held in a 675-seat auditorium, were all nearly full or even overflowing. Jones, on whom the sessions made an indelible impression, recalls that those at which he was present were sparsely attended. Godard’s not-for-credit master class appears to have had an enrollment of fewer than ten, with perhaps three times as many regular auditors.
Approaching 50, Godard was in a reflective mood, open, and even vulnerable, if characteristically gnomic in his remarks. Indeed, he was frequently disarming: “Even today at 50 I sometimes think of myself as a young filmmaker,” he tells the audience in his very first session, following a double bill of Breathless and Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel, chosen because “that’s what I liked so much twenty, twenty-five years ago, that’s what I wanted to do, that was my model.”
Godard was prepared to speak of himself as a historical figure. He declared his allegiance to the long-ago nouvelle vague, a movement in which self-taught filmmakers such as Jacques Rivette, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and he “claimed the right to speak in the first person, perhaps me more than any of the others.” In its quest for truth and rejection of studio filmmaking, the nouvelle vague was, he suggests, “more neo-realist than neo-realism.” Onetime soul mate François Truffaut was, however, a sellout: “He let himself be taken in by cinema, he became everything he hated.”
Taken with cinema, but not taken in by it, the Godard who holds forth and fields questions in A True History is also the brother from another planet, at once straightforward and cryptic, an epistemologist of cinema, wondering why the film frame became a square and why lenses are round. “There is no opposite of an idea,” he remarks in the discussion that follows a screening of Fritz Lang’s M (1931), which he has chosen to pair, as the expression of a particular historical moment, with his second feature, the political meta-thriller Le petit soldat (1963). “So an idea goes everywhere.”
Godard’s political notions—to cite only one sphere of his ideas—are similarly free-range. During the course of his career, he has moved from the soft right to the hard left to being the devil’s advocate. Last spring, the former Maoist told Le Monde that he had hoped the National Front would prevail in the European elections and proposed that French President François Hollande nominate Marine Le Pen as prime minister; when asked why, he replied, “To shake things up, so that we make at least some moves towards changing things,” adding with a laugh, “It’s better than pretending to do nothing.” As if he could.
What to make of the Godardian mind? You might say that, as prolific as he is, Godard suffers from the attention-deficit disorder of genius, a condition Bob Dylan evoked repeatedly in his mid-’60s work, as when he wailed, “I need a dump truck, baby, to unload my head.” There are more ideas about more things in any five minutes of Godard’s latest opus, Goodbye to Language, than in the year’s five next most intelligent movies combined.
Largely devoted to startling stereoscopic effects, alternating sections labeled “Nature” and “Metaphor,” ultimately devolving to the quandary of a youngish couple, apparently played by two sets of actors, about whether to have a baby or get a dog, Goodbye to Language is neither a narrative film, nor a film essay, nor even a documentary, but an almost indescribable mélange of gorgeous images, slapstick interactions, unanswerable questions and strident assertions, including the playful observation, opening the movie, that “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality.” Godard is surely referring to himself. No filmmaker has ever been more interested in the fiction of the real—or crankier.
Peppered with questions during his Concordia talks, Godard routinely shoots from the hip. The most opinionated of cinephiles, as well as a former critic, he has no difficulty articulating his preferences. L’âge d’or aside, he doesn’t “much like” Luis Buñuel; he considers Steven Spielberg, whose most recent film at the time was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to be a cunning fraud, and Clint Eastwood, still a neophyte director, “a complete idiot.” In a discussion of political cinema, he declares John Wayne more courageous than Jane Fonda (who appeared in two of Godard’s movies, one of which, the brilliant and mean-spirited Letter to Jane, is devoted to the analysis of a news photo taken of the actress in North Vietnam) because he projects his actual personality: “You really see, in my opinion, the piece of garbage he is, his repulsiveness.” Here we get a notion of what Godard considers authentic acting.
The older filmmakers Godard acknowledges are Ingmar Bergman (“an enormous influence,” whom he takes credit for helping to promote in France with his critical writings), the pioneer ethnographic filmmaker and co-inventor of cinema verité Jean Rouch, and especially Roberto Rossellini, whom he respects for his “kind of somewhat scientific logic” and determination to keep making movies no matter what: “My very existence proves—this is Rossellini’s influence—to look elsewhere and not to be afraid sometimes to make films for very few people.”
As a cinephile, Godard reserves his greatest admiration for Alfred Hitchcock, singling out The Birds: “At times you’re struck, like with music, your mouth is left gaping. It’s incredibly powerful.” He has kind words for Marguerite Duras (noting with approval that “she needs to destroy in order to construct”) and “respect” for Chris Marker, as well as for one younger filmmaker: “I respect Fassbinder a little, because I think he has succeeded in achieving a certain power, or strength, which must not be easy.” He has somewhat fainter praise for two other filmmakers, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders, who could, like Fassbinder, be seen as disciples.
Over the course of his talks, Godard is equally critical—and at times dismissive—of his own oeuvre: “In seeing my films again regularly along with other people’s films what I’ve noticed is a fair bit of naïveté and a little stupidity.” This with regard to his first dozen or so features, a run many consider the most sustained and inventive in cinema history. Still, Breathless, which rivals Citizen Kane as the game-changing debut, is as much a source of amazement for its maker as for everyone else—which is to say, a movie created by circumstance and innocence. ”I wanted to shoot in a studio. The reason I shot outdoors was because we were forbidden from shooting in a studio.”
Godard takes pride in the film (one “with no rules”), which he claims as his only financial success, for its pragmatic editing and artful post-dubbing. He continues to remake Breathless—but not his subsequent movies—in his head, asserting for example that he now thinks Jean Seberg’s character was correct to call the police. Breathless was a sort of marvel even for the filmmaker. Truffaut, always more generous toward Godard than vice versa, has said “the miracle of Breathless is that it was made at a time in the life of a man in which he would not normally make a film. One doesn’t make a film when one is sad and destitute…the man who made it was almost a pauper.” The other movies are, for Godard, simply part of an ongoing process. “Pierrot le fou for me marks, not the end of an era but the beginning of my awareness of the cinema I made, which in the beginning was completely defined by chance.”
Masculine-Feminine, which Godard compares to the documentary-fiction People on Sunday, a film about the young Berliners of 1930, was significant mainly because he bought his first television while it was in production. He made Alphaville because a producer asked him to do a movie with Eddie Constantine, and La chinoise because he was in love with its young star, Anne Wiazemsky. Band of Outsiders is “very bad, very unskillful,” and Made in U.S.A.—another vehicle for Godard’s first wife, Anna Karina, featuring actors who are acting as if they were in a movie—is a dead end: “I had reached the point when I was practically going to place myself face to face with the fact that I no longer knew how to place one image after another.” Typically, he connects this to May ‘68, noting that both films were “complete and well-deserved flops.” What interests him in 1978 is locating his films “at a precise place in film history.”
Characteristically, Godard asserts his centrality while describing his cinema as “displaced.” His movies, he says, inspire “a true hatred, at times from technicians, at others from distributors, at others from critics.” Rejecting the notion that he might be an example for other filmmakers, he asserts, “I’m the model of the non-model, the person who can’t be categorized. But they categorize me as non-categorizable, which is the same thing in the end.”
In fact, Godard’s ideas about movies are not altogether exotic. For him, as for filmmaker Dziga Vertov and critic Walter Benjamin, cinema is a material means to know the world. Godard’s allegiance to documentary is constant: “I always shot a scene according to what I found, the true reality, and if that changed the film, well, that changed the film,” he declares in his second lecture.
For Godard, motion pictures are a revelation of the real, as they were for his erstwhile mentor André Bazin, as well as authentic portraits of their actors, pace John Wayne. Godard compares his A Married Woman to Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty’s classic documentary of the Canadian Inuit, and notes that he compelled Marina Vlady to walk to work every day as preparation for her role as a financially strapped housewife who turns to prostitution in Two or Three Things I Know About Her.
At the same time, Godard—like Sergei Eisenstein, his great precursor as a filmmaker-theorist—considers cinema both a mode of individual thinking and a form of mass hypnosis. “The star system came out of the close-up and then appeared in politics,” he declares. Further, cinema is also a form of historical prophecy (as imagined by Siegfried Kracauer) and, like his Concordia talks, a sort of auto-psychoanalysis: “I need to make films for myself, to say who I am and to have the right to ask others. I find images truly marvelous, because they make it possible to say everything, to express your faults, but you’re not embarrassed because they’re to the side of you.”
Godard’s fundamental idea, which places him in opposition to Bazin but in the tradition of Eisenstein, is that cinema (which he, at one point, defines as “painting that can be constructed like music”) is predicated on juxtaposition, the concurrence of one shot or one sound and another, especially the juxtaposition of things that may seem antithetical: “Editing is something different and unique to cinema.” The medium is defined by montage, a term that in French means to assemble or connect. This is the meaning of the title One Plus One, which he gave to the Rolling Stones movie that its producer renamed Sympathy for the Devil.
Such juxtapositions are characteristic of Godard’s speech. At once idealist and material, predicated on dialectical oppositions that are left for you to puzzle out, his notions are willfully contradictory. He is at once unafraid and deeply critical of technological advance. Both sound and television are destructive of cinema. Although a brilliant exponent of vertical montage (editing sound in counterpoint to image), Godard believes that, as silent film privileged vision, even mediocre silent films are more expressive than talkies: “Silent cinema was declared abnormal by literature.” He further suggests that silent cinema would have changed society were it not “dismantled” by sound. (He also associates talking pictures with the rise of Hitler, who, he would assert, “took power on the radio.”) Television, Godard argues, has rejected cinema in favor of journalism. Yet, in his last talk before the summer recess, he credits TV with giving him a feeling that he can exist “normally,” while video made it possible for him “to return to cinema normally,” by which he seems to mean cheaply and efficiently. He even goes so far as to say that whereas he earlier tried to mix documentary and fiction, he now mixes television and cinema—identifying television with “lived experience.”
Godard’s lectures ended before he could screen Numéro deux. It’s striking that, in mentioning the movie, he muses that he’s unable to think of any historical references for it. As its title suggests, Numéro deux—which represents Godard’s first real synthesis of film and video and was also his first collaboration with his life partner, Miéville—initiated explorations that would culminate in Histoire(s) du cinéma. Indeed, although he doesn’t mention it in Montreal, the new technology most relevant to Histoire(s) was the now obsolete VCR, which allowed him to replay and ransack the history of film to create what he would later call “the film of history.”
The Godard who emerges from A True History is a quintessential twentieth-century high modernist—the author of an ongoing, not yet completed project comparable in ambition to In Search of Lost Time or The Cantos, composed in an idiolect that, as with Joyce or Picasso or Gertrude Stein, effectively reinvented a medium.
The only other filmmaker who might be so characterized is the even more eccentric, inner-directed and marginal Stan Brakhage, who, like Godard, believes that the image precedes the word. “Without images you can’t talk,” Godard maintains during the course of a session devoted to political movies (Battleship Potemkin, L’âge d’or, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Z and La chinoise). But high modernist is only one way to characterize Godard. As the first filmmaker to fully recognize not only that the classic period of movies was over but also that pre-existing movies were a text that he was free to quote, rework and otherwise pillage, he may also be considered cinema’s first postmodernist and, despite his disclaimers, a model for postmodernists in other disciplines.
Both Godards are conjoined in Histoire(s) du cinema, which Michael Witt, the British film historian who provided a helpful introductory essay to A True History and co-edited the formidable scholarly anthology For Ever Godard, describes as the equivalent of Duchamp’s Box in a Valise: a “distilled summation of Godard’s art and thought since he began writing about and making films.” Others have compared Histoire(s) du cinéma to Benjamin’s Arcades Project or the MGM compilation That’s Entertainment.
Since completing Histoire(s), Godard has made four feature films: Éloge de l’amour (2001), released in the United States as In Praise of Love; Notre musique (2004); Film socialisme (2010); and Goodbye to Language, all of which could be said to brood upon the futility of political action, the collapse of European culture and, of course, the end of cinema—even while addressing cinema’s future incarnation. In Praise of Love made spectacular use of video distortions, Notre musique further developed the layering techniques of Histoire(s), Film socialisme employed material shot on a cellphone, and Goodbye to Language added the indestructible GoPro camera to Godard’s arsenal and was made in digital 3D.
Godard has indicated that Goodbye to Language would be his final movie (although now it seems that he’s at work on one more). The film’s title reinforces the pre-eminence of the visual in his work, and while Goodbye itself is thick with references to the writings of Faulkner, Rilke, Dostoyevsky and (for the first time?) the French philosopher of media Jacques Ellul, it may be the least literary movie in Godard’s oeuvre. But this is not to call it a-philological: no other film artist, not even Brakhage, has spoken the language of motion pictures more subjectively, which is to say with greater impenetrable eloquence or idiolectal distinction than Godard. With Goodbye to Language, he reminds us of the degree to which he has made that language his own.