By Christopher Sharrett.
One of the great innovators of the cinema…the supreme artist and intellectual engaged with his era.”
When I first encountered Godard decades ago, I thought he might be better off writing essays rather than making films, since he seemed interested in making philosophical points about the image rather than creating works of cinema. This was very stupid of me, caught up as I thoroughly was in the linear narratives of Hollywood and Europe, thinking Godard was simply bent on confusing the spectator. Of course my appreciation of him changed; I learned over the years that he was the supreme innovator of the cinematic image, and reformed also narratives owing much to standard-continuity cinema (Le Mepris, Alphaville). My blinkered view of Godard was affected also by Robin Wood’s essay on Weekend vs. Shame, in the first edition of Wood’s masterful Ingmar Bergman, since reissued by Wayne State University Press. Wood was a critic I discovered in the Sixties, whose work quickly won my admiration – he is still one of the few authentic critics who retains my respect.
In his discussion of these two apocalyptic films (both in their “stories” and what they revealed about the nature of cinema), Wood said: “Bergman is a great artist in the great European civilized tradition; Godard has aligned himself with the forces that have rejected that tradition and are now speeding its perhaps final disintegration.” Later, Wood wrote: “To me, (and, I suppose, to Bergman), most of the more “advanced” aspects of contemporary art – action painting, aleatory and electronic music, musique concrete, William Burroughs, are comprehensible only as evidence of disintegration.”
Wood was perhaps too much the student of F.R. Leavis here, with the insistent emphasis on “great European civilized tradition,” and what does or doesn’t constitute it (in the same essay, he notes how deeply committed Bergman is to the impulses and ideals of, for example, Mozart and Bach, while Godard’s uses of culture seem largely incidental (Wood mentions how the sympathetic male character of Masculin Feminin, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, the film’s representative of European culture, is killed off). To be fair, Wood at this writing was a young critic, and he would later revise his appraisal of Godard, as he would so much else, when he came out as gay, informed by Marxism and feminism.
Not to press the point too much, but Bergman and Godard shared more in common than Wood’s critical conservatism (in 1969) allowed. By the time of Bergman’s The Silence, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in fragmentary form, is the only remaining shard of humanism in a shattered world. By the time of Shame, classical culture is of even less help; a sensitive (one could say infantile) concert violinist (Max von Sydow) who recalls his performance of the Brandenburg Concertos, turns out to be a coward and sadist. The point is that Bergman, as much as Godard (who cites the intellectual achievements of the west about as much as Bergman), sees the “great intellectual civilized tradition” as having run its course, of dubious solace or utility to humankind given the state of things.
Godard was above all a great satirist, even when he co-created the Dziga Vertov Group with Jean-Pierre Gorin, and made the films ostensibly informed by French Maoism, which many in film culture found impossible to watch, and which were more a series of visual lectures in radical semiotics than involved in hideous actually-existing Maoism. One can’t look at the earlier La Chinoise without seeing Godard’s barbs at the young, even as he became committed to a radical transformation of society, perhaps more than most of us in the day.
Godard was keenly aware of the great European cultural tradition, and aware too of how it was easily appropriated by European fascism; it is a truism to adumbrate the Nazi leaders who could play the violin and sing in classical choruses; there is little need at this point to mention the orchestras playing Schubert in the death camps as people were marched to the gas chambers. If the great European cultural tradition has failed us, it is perhaps because of a failure in the tradition itself. Burroughs also sensed this in his savage (and funny) satires of modern America, and much of the avant-garde, like Warhol, knew that what is now before us, while at times hard to look at (I think of Anselm Kiefer), is the logical consequence of a capitalist civilization that produces nothing but the commercial and the horrendous – it makes sense that we allowed the lunatic clown Donald Trump to be the head of state – and may do so again.
In films like Le Gai Savoir, Made in USA, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Godard one-ups Warhol is his display of commodity culture and its impact on human sensibility. These films, with Un Femme Mariee (which cites Night and Fog, Resnais’s impossibly perceptive film [is “documentary” adequate?], make my point about the linkage of this past century’s genocides to the basic trajectory of our civilization, as they also speak to the nature of gender relations.
Like Warhol, Godard preferred, in his color films, gaudy, heavily-saturated primary and secondary colors so beloved of advertising. Films like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Le Gai Savoir, along with the Godard-Gorin films, insist on the close relationship between private economic interest and state power, and how popular culture is the spoonful of sugar that makes modern servitude palatable.
Godard is one of the great innovators of the cinema, standing alongside Renoir, Antonioni, Bergman, Ophuls, Ford, Welles, Sirk, Bunuel, Lang, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Ray (both), Bertolucci, Visconti, Kubrick, and a few others (I hesitate to put Hitchcock into this distinguished group, because I tire of the Hitchcock industry, and because this director remained trapped by the thriller genre and the Hollywood industry, forever wondering how to become Bunuel – but for Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds, I’ll allow him a seat). I have to say that Godard’s greatest contribution was to the cinema of the Sixties, with his extraordinary run of consistently compelling masterpieces, starting with Breathless. I don’t have a great deal of interest in Godard from the Eighties to the end, although Notre Musique, Goodbye to Language, The Image Book, The History of Cinema are of interest.
Godard was the supreme artist and intellectual engaged with his era. I see him as the central figure of the portmanteau Far from Vietnam, among the very few meaningful films about the U.S. destruction of Southeast Asia. His passing is upsetting for me, both because of the loss of this artist and, with it, the reminder that the film culture he represented is gone.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor Emeritus of film studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International and recently published a monograph on the TV series Breaking Bad.
2 thoughts on “For Jean-Luc Godard: 1930-2022”
An excellent and searching tribute especially in terms of the Dziga Vertov films that are a “more a serious of visual lectures in radical semiotics” though I would say they still have political implications that extend far beyond Mao as it was known then. It is important to remember that Godard was also a film critic whose writings informed many of his earlier films and would re-appear in changed depictions in his “Histoires du Cinema” series.
Yes, the film culture he represented is long gone and we can see this in the lack of criticism displayed in those commodities that spout “journalese” ( I refrain from “journalism” as it does have a respectable lineage from Jack London to John Pilger despite its contemporary misuse) as opposed to critical interrogation. One can imagine Godard’s reaction at items celebrating TOP GUN 2, the deterioration of Post sections into Twitter responses rather than informed critical discussions, suppression of comments relating to errors in hastily submitted articles that have not gone through any form of peer review,the butchery of fine articles by writers into banal journalese, and the suppression of anything that does not fit into trendy definitions of “mindless entertainment” despite its “diverse” masquerade.
In one of his films Godard spoke about a “Return to Zero”. That approach is certainly needed not just in the infantile world of blockbuster spectacles but also in the realm of film journals, many of which need to be demolished and a more critical replacement set up to take their place.
Respectful tribute to Godard; thought-provoking parallels between Bergman and Godard; I’m inspired to revisit both.