“Godard didn’t make cinema. Godard was cinema.” So said some French dignitary (was it Macron or his tweeters?) when the news broke last Tuesday morning, September 13, that Jean-Luc Godard est mort.
How did Godard come to personify his medium? He was hardly there at the inception. Motion picture narrative was codified before World War I by the reactionary modernist D.W. Griffith, even as Charles Chaplin embodied movies as a universal medium. Nor was Godard the first to tamper with Griffith’s template. The rules had been reinvented by the Soviet montage theorists, by the enigmatic Oscar Micheaux, and by American underground filmmakers. But, compulsively watching movies in the Cinémathèque Française in the years after World War II, Godard had a realization.
Godard understood film history as a text to be referenced, criticized, and revised. Entering into the field with a fully developed sense of the medium’s evolution, he was the first filmmaker to recognize that cinema’s classic period, with its seamless editing, straightforward narrative construction, and devoted mass audience, was over and a new era of a new kind of movie and a new type of filmmaker had begun. Cinema needed the movie intellectual who exercised the capacity to rethink his medium with every new film. A cinephile before he was a critic and a hyper-opinionated critic before he was a filmmaker, Godard created this role and cast himself.
Godard’s career trajectory boggles the mind. The first and greatest of postmodern cineasts, he wound up the last of the mandarin, encyclopedic high modernists comparable to Joyce or Pound—albeit with a bizarre, short-lived swerve into the most recondite political cinema imaginable. Had Godard retired after making Breathless, he would still be revered for creating a knowingly pulverized, neorealist cum Cubist crime film. As it was, he invented a style, predicated on discontinuous “jump” cuts, that he would never again employ. (A barrage of three-second shots with voice-over captions, the trailer he created for Breathless is equally avant-garde.)
Having directed the most original and influential first feature since Citizen Kane, Godard never looked back. The 14 features he made between 1961 and 1967, often two or three a year, is the most astonishing run in cinema history. More than a few of these—Contempt, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and Weekend—were themselves landmarks. With the bourgeois apocalypse of Weekend, Godard declared the end of cinema. Yet even the pedantic films of the so-called Dziga Vertov Group (Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin) that followed are not without cinematic value.
By the mid 1970s, Godard had begun experimenting with television, video, and avant-garde sociology—notably in Numéro Deux, a work of relentless self-interrogation—before returning to relatively conventional cinema with a series of movies that, however opaque, could not be mistaken for anything other than Art. (Personally, I find this period to be Godard’s least interesting, even if his modern version of the annunciation, Hail Mary—denounced sight unseen by Cardinal John J. O’Connor the day before its first public screening—set off the greatest contretemps in the annals of the New York Film Festival.) Then, as cinema approached its centennial, Godard had a third rebirth, completing what might be his greatest single work, the eight-part Histoire(s) du cinéma.
This dense four-and-a-half-hour stroll through cinema’s first century, with the artist annotating, layering, and digitally manipulating at will—inimitable, eccentric, often impenetrable, but never less than brilliant—informed Godard’s subsequent 21st-century films. A series of career cappers, In Praise of Love, Notre musique, Film Socialisme, Goodbye to Language, and The Image Book were wildly experimental, using iPhone and GoPro cameras, video synthesizers, and 3-D, even while ransacking the archive for classic cinema images. Seldom seen outside of film festivals, these closed the circle of Godard’s great early work, not least for reintroducing critical content.
Godard was a prickly personality. His politics were complicated. The son of a French-Swiss doctor and a mother from a wealthy Huguenot family, he grew up pampered and secure. German sympathizers, the family spent World War II in Switzerland. Godard’s Vichy-supporting maternal grandparents were openly anti-Semitic.
This heritage was a burden. However much Godard may have once loved Hollywood movies, he was consistently and unpleasantly anti-American. Initially apolitical, or even right-wing, he embraced the Maoism he satirized in La Chinoise, but then, with the collapse of the French left, retreated to neutral Switzerland, taking a position that was both solipsistic and adversarial.
It would not be entirely unfair to observe that Godard had a certain disdain for his audience, although his intelligence was blindingly obvious from the onset, at least for intelligent critics. “No other film-maker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass,” Manny Farber wrote. While not lacking in self-confidence herself, Pauline Kael declared, “It’s possible to hate half or two-thirds of what Godard does—or find it incomprehensible—and still be shattered by his brilliance.”
But there is another way to understand the willfulness of his intelligence. Like the American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, Godard trusted in his genius, accepted its consequences, and embraced his marginality. To learn that his death was an assisted suicide is to appreciate that, up until the end, he did it his way.
In the late 1960s, when I was an undergraduate, Godard rivaled Bob Dylan as an oracular figure of towering hipness—and like Dylan, he was capable of zapping with a blank stare of withering contempt whoever dared to approach him. I met him only once, in October 1980 when his comeback film Every Man For Himself was set to open in New York.
I was the third-string movie reviewer for The Village Voice. A critic for another weekly publication invited me to come along as a wingman when he was chosen to interview the master at an intimate lunch of Chinese food organized by a prominent publicist at her Upper East Side apartment. I cringed with secret joy when, by way of breaking the ice, Godard’s designated interlocutor awkwardly told the filmmaker that he was his “culture hero” and was rewarded with the Stare.
The conversation then turned to Godard’s next project. He was hoping to secure Francis Coppola’s backing to make an American movie he called The Story about Bugsy Siegel, starring Robert DeNiro and Diane Keaton. The setting was Las Vegas. Seeing an opening, I piped up, asking Godard who he thought would have found Vegas more interesting, Marx or Freud. I will never forget the disdainful glance he gave me before turning back to his caramelized sesame chicken. It was, I guess, a trick question. But truly, what was there to say to the smartest person in the room, perhaps the single most important individual in the history of cinema?