Godard didnt make cinema. Godard was cinema. So said some French dignitary (was it Macron or his tweeters?) once the news broke last Tuesday morning, September 13, that Jean-Luc Godard est mort.
How did Godard arrived at personify his medium? He was hardly there at the inception. Film narrative was codified before World War I by the reactionary modernist D.W. Griffith, even while Charles Chaplin embodied movies as a universal medium. Nor was Godard the first ever to tamper with Griffiths template. The guidelines have been reinvented by the Soviet montage theorists, by the enigmatic Oscar Micheaux, and by American underground filmmakers. But, compulsively watching movies in the French Cinmathque in the years after World War II, Godard had a realization.
Godard understood film history as a text to be referenced, criticized, and revised. Getting into the field with a completely developed sense of the mediums evolution, he was the initial filmmaker to identify that cinemas classic period, using its seamless editing, straightforward narrative construction, and devoted mass audience, was over and a fresh era of a fresh sort of movie and a fresh kind of filmmaker had begun. Cinema needed the movie intellectual who exercised the ability 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.
Godards career trajectory boggles your brain. The initial and greatest of postmodern cineasts, he finished up the final of the mandarin, encyclopedic high modernists much like Joyce or Poundalbeit with a bizarre, short-lived swerve in to the most recondite political cinema imaginable. Had Godard retired after making Breathless, he’d be revered for developing a knowingly pulverized, neorealist cum Cubist crime film. Since it was, he invented a method, based on discontinuous jump cuts, he could not again employ. (A barrage of three-second shots with voice-over captions, the trailer he designed for Breathless is equally avant-garde.)
Having directed probably the most original and influential first feature since Citizen Kane, Godard never looked back. The 14 features he made between 1961 and 1967, often several a year, may be the most astonishing run in cinema history. Lots of of theContempt, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Several Things I UNDERSTAND About Her, and Weekendwere themselves landmarks. With the bourgeois apocalypse of Weekend, Godard declared the conclusion of cinema. Yet even the pedantic films of the so-called Dziga Vertov Group (Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin) that followed aren’t without cinematic value.
By the mid 1970s, Godard had begun tinkering with television, video, and avant-garde sociologynotably in Numro Deux, a work of relentless self-interrogationbefore time for relatively conventional cinema with some movies that, however opaque, cannot be recognised incorrectly as anything apart from Art. (Personally, I find this era to be Godards least interesting, even though his modern version of the annunciation, Hail Marydenounced sight unseen by Cardinal John J. OConnor your day before its first public screeningset off the best contretemps in the history of the brand new York Film Festival.) Then, as cinema approached its centennial, Godard had a third rebirth, completing what may be his greatest single work, the eight-part Histoire(s) du cinma.
This dense four-and-a-half-hour stroll through cinemas first century, with the artist annotating, layering, and digitally manipulating at willinimitable, eccentric, often impenetrable, but never significantly less than brilliantinformed Godards subsequent 21st-century films. A number 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, whilst ransacking the archive for classic cinema images. Seldom seen beyond film festivals, these closed the circle of Godards 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 the wealthy Huguenot family, he was raised pampered and secure. German sympathizers, the household spent World War II in Switzerland. Godards Vichy-supporting maternal grandparents were openly anti-Semitic.
This heritage was an encumbrance. However much Godard could have once loved Hollywood movies, he was consistently and unpleasantly anti-American. Initially apolitical, as well as right-wing, he embraced the Maoism he satirized in La Chinoise, but, with the collapse of the French left, retreated to neutral Switzerland, going for a position that has been both solipsistic and adversarial.
It could not be entirely unfair to see that Godard had a particular disdain for his audience, although his intelligence was blindingly obvious from the onset, at the very least for intelligent critics. No other film-maker has so consistently made me feel just like a stupid ass, Manny Farber wrote. Without without self-confidence herself, Pauline Kael declared, Its likely to hate half or two-thirds of what Godard doesor think it is incomprehensibleand be shattered by his brilliance.
But there’s another solution to understand the willfulness of his intelligence. Just like the American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, Godard trusted in his genius, accepted its consequences, and embraced his marginality. To discover that his death was an assisted suicide would be to appreciate that, until the finish, he achieved it his way.
In the late 1960s, when I was an undergraduate, Godard rivaled Bob Dylan being an oracular figure of towering hipnessand like Dylan, he was with the capacity of zapping with a blank stare of withering contempt whoever dared to approach him. I met him only one time, in October 1980 when his comeback film Every Man For Himself was set to open in NY.
I was the third-string movie reviewer for The Village Voice. A critic for another weekly publication invited me ahead along as a wingman when he was chosen to interview the master at a romantic lunch of Chinese food organized by way of a prominent publicist at her Upper East Side apartment. I cringed with secret joy when, through breaking the ice, Godards designated interlocutor awkwardly told the filmmaker he was his culture hero and was rewarded with the Stare.
The conversation then considered Godards next project. He was hoping to secure Francis Coppolas backing to create an American movie he called The Story about Bugsy Siegel, starring Robert DeNiro and Diane Keaton. The setting was NEVADA. Seeing an opening, I piped up, asking Godard who he thought could have found Vegas more interesting, Marx or Freud. I’ll remember the disdainful glance he gave me before turning back again to his caramelized sesame chicken. It had been, I assume, a trick question. But truly, that which was there to state to the smartest person in the area, possibly the single most significant individual in the annals of cinema?