Godard was at the cinema | The nation

godard did not make the cinema. Godard was cinema. So said a French dignitary (was it Macron or his tweeters?) when news broke last Tuesday morning, September 13, that Jean-Luc Godard is dead.

How did Godard come to personify his medium? He was barely there at first. Cinematic narrative was codified before World War I by the reactionary modernist DW Griffith, even as Charles Chaplin embodied cinema as a universal medium. Nor was Godard the first to alter Griffith’s model. The rules had been reinvented by Soviet editing theorists, by the enigmatic Oscar Micheaux and by American underground filmmakers. But, compulsively watching films at the French Cinematheque in the years following World War II, Godard had a realization.

Godard understood the history of cinema as a text to be referenced, criticized and revised. Entering the field with a fully developed sense of the evolution of the medium, he was the first filmmaker to recognize that the classic period of cinema, with its seamless editing, simple narrative construction and devoted mass audience, was over and a new era of a new kind. cinema and a new type of filmmaker had begun. Cinema needed the cinematic intellectual who exercised the ability to rethink his medium with each new film. A cinephile before being a critic and a hyper-obstinate critic before being a filmmaker, Godard created this role and chose himself.

gOdard’s career trajectory is breathtaking. The first and greatest of postmodern filmmakers, he liquidated the last of the great Mandarin and encyclopedic modernists comparable to Joyce or Pound – albeit with a bizarre, short-lived swerve into the most abstruse political cinema imaginable. Had Godard retired after doing Breathless, he would forever be revered for creating a knowingly pulverized, neo-realistic, cubist detective film. In fact, he invented a style, based on discontinuous “sautéed” cuts, that he would never use again. (A barrage of three-second shots with voice-over captions, the trailer he created for Breathless is just as avant-garde.)

Having made the most original and influential feature debut since Citizen Kane, Godard never looked back. The 14 feature films he made between 1961 and 1967, often two or three a year, constitute the most astonishing series in the history of cinema. More than a few of them—Contempt, Alphaville, Pierrot le fou, Two or three things I know about herand Weekend-were landmarks themselves. With the bourgeois apocalypse of Weekend, Godard declares 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 avant-garde television, video, and sociology, notably in Number two, a work of relentless self-interrogation – before returning to a relatively conventional cinema with a series of films which, although opaque, could not be confused with anything other than Art. (Personally, I find this period the least interesting of Godard, even if his modern version of the annunciation, I salute you marie– denounced on sight by Cardinal John J. O’Connor the day before its first public screening – triggered the greatest setback in the annals of the New York Film Festival.) Then, as the cinema approached its centenary, Godard experienced a third renaissance, completing what may be his greatest single work, the eight-part History(ies) of cinema.

This dense four-and-a-half-hour stroll through the first century of cinema, with the artist annotating, layering and digitally manipulating at will – inimitable, eccentric, often inscrutable, but never less than brilliant – informed Godard’s later films in the 21st century. . A series of career plugs, In praise of love, Our music, socialism movie, Farewell to the languageand The picture book were extremely experimental, using iPhone and GoPro cameras, video synthesizers and 3D, even digging through the archives for classic cinema footage. Rarely seen outside film festivals, these closed the loop of Godard’s great early work, in particular to reintroduce critical content.

godard was a piquant personality. His politics were complicated. The son of a Franco-Swiss doctor and a mother from a wealthy Huguenot family, he grew up pampered and safe. German sympathizers, the family spends the Second World War in Switzerland. Godard’s maternal grandparents, supporters of Vichy, were openly anti-Semitic.

This inheritance was a burden. Although Godard once loved Hollywood films, he was consistently and disagreeably anti-American. At first apolitical, even right-wing, he embraced Maoism, which he satirized The Chinesebut then, with the collapse of the French left, retreated to neutral Switzerland, adopting a position that was both solipsistic and contradictory.

It wouldn’t be entirely unfair to find that Godard had a certain disdain for his audience, even if his intelligence was blindingly obvious from the outset, at least to intelligent critics. “No other filmmaker has made me feel like a stupid ass so consistently,” wrote Manny Farber. Without lacking self-confidence herself, Pauline Kael declared: “It is possible to hate half or two-thirds of what Godard does – or to find it incomprehensible – and still be overwhelmed by his genius.

But there is another way to understand the will of his intelligence. Like the American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, Godard trusts his genius, accepts the consequences and embraces his marginality. To learn that his death was an assisted suicide is to understand that, until the end, he did it in his own way.

IIn the late 1960s, when I was a student, Godard rivaled Bob Dylan as an oracular figure of towering hips – and like Dylan, he was able to zap with an empty stare of withering contempt anyone who dared approach him. . I only met him once, in October 1980 when his comeback film Every man for himself was to open in New York.

I was the third channel film critic for The voice of the village. A reviewer from another weekly publication invited me to come as a wingman when he was chosen to interview the master at an intimate Chinese cuisine luncheon hosted by a top publicist at his apartment in the city. ‘Upper East Side. I quivered with secret joy when, to break the ice, Godard’s designated interlocutor clumsily told the filmmaker that he was his “cultural hero” and was rewarded with the Regard.

The conversation then turned to Godard’s next project. He hoped to gain support from Francis Coppola to make an American film which he called The story on Bugsy Siegel, with Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton. The setting was Las Vegas. Seeing an opening, I called out, asking Godard who he thought would have found Vegas more interesting, Marx or Freud. I’ll never forget the disdainful look he gave me before turning back to his caramelized sesame chicken. That was, I guess, a trick question. But really, what was there to say to the smartest person in the room, perhaps the most important person in the history of cinema?

Comments are closed.