Essays (book reviews)
Everything is Cinema:
Age of Contempt
In 2003, Melbourne’s veteran independent filmmaker Nigel Buesst made a long video documentary called Carlton + Godard = Cinema. It was about a small band of filmmakers clustered around Melbourne University Film Society in the mid 1960s. Brave figures including Brian Davies and Bert Deling scraped together just enough money and resources to make a bunch of short films; their inspiration came primarily from the French Nouvelle Vague that had surged since 1960, and especially the work of Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Contempt, Alphaville).
Buesst’s screen memoir shows how this buzz of local film activity intersected with trends in theatre (La Mama), how it laid the ground for some striking feature films of the 1970s (Deling’s Pure Shit in 1975), and how it clashed with certain institutions of the time – in particular, the Melbourne Film Festival which, under the illustrious stewardship of Erwin Rado, sometimes studiously ignored the flagship example of Godard’s ever-changing work.
For Australians, this is a fascinating, long-buried piece of cultural history – one of those stories which shows our artists and thinkers in dialogue with trends from abroad, rather than gazing inwards at their nationalistic navels. But you will not read a word about it in Richard Brody’s 700 page biography of Godard, Everything is Cinema. Nor will you find much information about Godard’s vast influence over the development of independent filmmaking and cinema theory in Italy, Russia, Germany, Spain, UK, Taiwan …
Brody is a film critic for the New Yorker (not the official one, but he has become their regular film-blogger) – and Everything is Cinema is definitely a New Yorker’s view of Godard. On the one hand, the book springs from a peculiarly American projection of French society and culture: the France of Jean-Paul Sartre and Bernard-Henri Lévy (heavyweight intellectual celebrities), Brigitte Bardot, May ‘68, François Truffaut, and the wartime Resistance. On the other hand, it is at pains to document Godard’s impact on the USA, particularly on those revered critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael.
This dual focus is odd, and leads to many distortions. Godard is no longer a citizen of the world, no longer someone who interacted with fellow filmmakers such as Poland’s Jerzy Skolimowski, Italy’s Bernardo Bertolucci, Germany’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Georgia’s Sergei Parajanov. He mainly seems, in Brody’s account, to be on planes between France and the USA – at least until he relocated to Switzerland, where he is still based today. But the Switzerland of this book is just a picture postcard of lakes and restaurants, not a living, breathing, troubling society which Godard depicts in films including the magisterial Nouvelle Vague (1990).
This is the second biography of Godard to appear in English, after Colin MacCabe’s rather staid Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70 (2003). It is, in certain respects, an improvement: virtually everything Godard – or JLG, as he likes to style himself – has made since the ‘50s (long or short, film or video) is documented, and the often rocky course of his personal life is more or less detailed.
The most praiseworthy aspect of the book is undoubtedly its even-handed evaluation of Godard’s contribution to the Seventh Art: flying in the face of so many superficial accounts that cruelly cut off Godard’s career at 1967 (the spectacular auto-da-fé of Weekend), Brody follows it all the way. He seeks to enshrine late works such as 1987’s King Lear (a true film maudit, starring Norman Mailer and Molly Ringwald!), and the extraordinary Histoire(s) du cinéma series made between 1988 and 1998, a collage of treated clips best savoured on DVD.
The problem with the book is elsewhere. It is a commonplace wisdom to assert these days (MacCabe more or less does so) that biography is fiction – but Brody’s effort comes off as more fictional than most biographies. The book has a frightful coherence: it is as if, very early on in the process, Brody decided on his neat interpretation of Godard, and then set about researching only those facts which would prove it. Brody has interviewed a significant number of Godard’s associates – many more than MacCabe did, but still only a fraction of the hundreds who have passed through the director’s prolific career. One sometimes suspects that a different ledger of interviewees might have produced a quite different portrait – as indeed Alain Bergala’s far superior Godard au travail (even though it only deals with the 1960s) proves.
But Brody, alas, has an axe to grind. (1) Like John Fuegi in his seething The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht (1994), Brody has at some point switched from adoring fan to investigative reporter – not to mention, moral judge. The book tries to nail Godard, sensationally, on two counts.
The first count is anti-Semitism. The evidence for this charge is, in my view, particular only to a certain period of Godard’s life, and the book’s wholesale expansion of it into an almost magic biographical key is highly dubious. No public statement by Godard, and nothing explicit in any of his films, incontrovertibly backs up Brody’s claim. What do exist are several reported, anecdotal accounts of verbal racial slurs by Godard: in his Correspondence 1945-1984, Truffaut (in the midst of a historic 1973 angry exchange of letters between the two filmmakers) recalls that Godard once called producer Pierre Braunberger a “dirty Jew” when a deal between them fell through; and when Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard’s collaborator during the Maoist period of 1968-1972, asked for money due to him from their joint production company, Godard (according to Gorin) replied, “Ah, it’s always the same thing, the Jews come calling when they hear the cash register” – prompting a rift between the two friends that lasted several years.
Those are dreadful, damning details. But when Brody reaches for a handy quote from Lévy – who has had relatively little direct contact with Godard – that the filmmaker is, in his view, “an anti-Semite who is trying to be cured”, prone to the periodic “seizure of anti-Semitism”, reportage begins to shade into a rather suspect form of pop socio-psychoanalysis. Brody proceeds to weave a life-long web that ranges from the alleged Vichy sympathies of Godard’s family members during the Occupation, to references and allusions in his most recent productions such as Éloge de l’amour (2001).
How to defend JLG against this barrage? Does he need, or deserve, such a defence? In the latter half of the 1980s, Godard in his work begins to meditate deeply on issues arising from the Holocaust – and, on this matter, he is no revisionist historian who denies the existence of the event. His empathy for murdered Jews is palpable, and leads to the kind of fervent identification with Jewish traditions to which many non-Jewish artists have arrived. One aspect of this is the reverent way that Godard, over the past 15 years, has mined the writings of Jewish poets, mystics and theorists including Walter Benjamin and Hermann Broch. At the same time, and by the same token, Godard poses a critique of the politics of the Israeli state, and offers sympathy for the Palestinian cause, in films ranging from Ici et ailleurs (1976, initially made in collaboration with Gorin) to the sublime Nôtre musique (2005) – both of which also richly feature a great, Palestinan poet, Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008).
Can the balance of that ledger be toted up as anti-Semitism? There is a clear difference – and a laudable progression – between Godard’s racist jibes of the ‘60s and ‘70s and his actual work since the ‘80s. Brody shows himself to be a dab hand adut a certain style of forced misreading when he considers a scene from the autobiographical JLG/JLG (1995): Godard draws a zany diagram on a piece of paper, two triangles superimposed to form a Star of David, thus demonstrating the filmmaker’s view that nations ‘project’ an image or idea of other nations, “Germany which projected Israel, Israel which reflected that projection”. From this oddly conveyed but certainly even-handed schema, Brody draws the message that, for Godard, the Jews “inflict suffering” and perpetrate a pernicious ideology through their control of the media!
Likewise, Brody tracks a set of references – often merely vague, allusive or contestable – to the right-wing, flagrantly anti-Semitic collaborator Robert Brasillach in Godard’s life and work. The filmmaker’s family, it is asserted, mourned the writer’s death-by-execution in 1946; the phrase “our pre-war” included in JLG/JLG echoes a 1939 memoir by the writer; and the ‘testament’ letter Brasillach wrote in prison shortly before his execution is, in part, recited by a non-actor in Éloge de l’amour – a young man named Philippe Loyrette, whose personal tape of this recitation, mailed to Godard some years previously, compelled the filmmaker (according to Brody) to recompose his own ‘version’ of it in the little-seen short video Farewell to TNS (1996).
But Brody is confusing and mangling a lot here, in order to conjure a species of guilt-by-association. First, he displays little comprehension of Godard’s truly dialectical collage method (consistent throughout his career) of quoting deliberately clashing, contradictory texts from right across the political spectrum (as he once made perfectly clear, “I just quote them, I don’t own them”). Second, Farewell to TNS, which contains not a single word of Brasillach, is a tribute to the form, not the content of Loyrette’s performance. In fact, if this cryptic (and very moving) record of a recitation by Godard refers to anything specific, it is simultaneously the closure of a theatre school in Strasbourg, and the painful ending of an unrequited love.
Which brings us to Brody’s second, even more bizarre charge against Godard. The director has never been shy about admitting that he has fallen hard for a number of the women that appear in his films – that is, apart from the several he married – and that these relationships have sometimes been pretty one-sided. Brody hunts down a number of these women – for instance, Bérangère Allaux (who appeared in For Ever Mozart in 1996), whose persistent rejection of Godard leaves him, at a histrionic highpoint of the book, “wandering desperately through the streets” in search of her.
It is hardly a new situation in world cinema: the director’s passion (satisfied or otherwise) for his or her much younger, newly discovered ‘star’. But Brody is sniffing for something nastier, more perverse. And he finds it – to his satisfaction, at any rate – in the case of Camille Virolleaud, nine years old when Godard cast her in the experimental TV series France tour détour deux enfants (1977).
Virolleaud feels she was bullied and mistreated by Godard during the filming (she retrospectively describes its effect on her young self as “hyperviolent”), and disliked, when she saw the result on TV, how Godard showed her in a state of undress – although this was a fully professional, consensual production situation, endorsed and encouraged by Camille’s mother. (Australian readers will be cross-referencing at this point of the book to recurring media beat-ups about the photo-art of Bill Henson or Polixeni Papapetrou.)
What is the point of all this intimate muckracking in Everything is Cinema? Brody insinuates that, from the mid ‘70s on, when Godard hit his mid 40s, he was increasingly consumed by perverse desires towards young (even pre-pubescent) women, and that his behaviour toward them tended to the abusive. Again, there is scant evidence on the public record for this claim; and again, Brody casts every which way for clues, and engages in crazy misreadings of the films.
No feminist analysis of cinema has ever been as fanatically politically-correct as Brody is here: he takes virtually every scene in Godard that depicts men’s sexual exploitation of women – and there are plenty of them, from Vivre sa vie (1961) onwards – as proof not only of Godard’s darkest private intent, but also that the women before the camera were actually being “degraded”, rather than simulating it.
Yet the vast majority of women featured in Godard’s films (often on multiple occasions) have never voiced any such complaint – Isabelle Huppert, for instance, who gets to play some of the most apparently degrading situations in Sauve qui peut (1980) and Passion (1982), testifies to Brody himself that she found acting for Godard “artistically gratifying”.
In general, the book is, on all matters of sexuality beyond marital, hetero-normative monogamy, almost comically prudish: Brody rages from on high against the libertarian sexual politics of French intellectuals (such as Michel Foucault) in the 1970s, and the supposed destruction of decent, humanist values such carry-on entailed, to the point of wondering melodramatically whether the “shock effect” of Godard’s project on young Camille is “emblematic of what was left of 1968”!
This is one strand in which Brody’s forced Sartre-Godard parallel might have helped him, especially when he reaches the latter period of Godard’s life, and his fluid, long-term union with filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville: Sartre’s personal life likewise demands a less moralistic biographer.
Brody’s excesses on these points are reflected in the entire argumentative structure of the book. Brody bites off more than he can chew in attempting a ‘critical biography’, that is, an analysis and evaluation of the films in lock-step with the life story. The alarm bells went off for me by page 30, when an early piece of film criticism by Godard is interpreted as staking the future director’s commitment to “a traditional nineteenth-century-novelistic and naturalistic approach to character” – which makes it tough to grasp how he became, quite quickly, cinema’s arch-Modernist.
More damagingly and pervasively, Brody takes the interpenetration of art and life in Godard’s career as the sole way to understand and grade the work: if the film is a cryptic love (or hate) letter to his leading lady, it’s great; if it’s only about something as unromantic as global politics (as in the films co-directed with Gorin), it’s dead, inert, uninteresting. No wonder the Godard that emerges from these pages seems hermetic and solipsistic – when his actual films are anything but.
Here, as with the anti-Semitic and dirty/abusive old man broadsides, Brody’s cinematic interpretations usually rest on a numbingly literal parsing of the films’ bare plot situations. Just as select bits of what Godard quotes and collages in his work are mistaken as transparent declarations of authorial intent, the incredibly dynamic fragmentation of images from sounds, bodies from words and stories from events in every Godard work is damagingly re-set back into naturalistic conventions.
The artist biography has become a well-worn genre in recent years. It has frequently descended to gutter level, but the obligations of the form have also come into sharp relief. We have come to expect not only the life and times, and a comprehensive account of the artist’s works, but also an exploration of that artist’s reputation or legacy. This is where Everything is Cinema falls down on the job.
Brody likes to lament, especially in the latter stretches of his tome, that JLG is today a rather forgotten, misunderstood, under-appreciated artist. JLG forgotten? It is true that none of his movies have received arthouse cinema distribution in Australia since the mid ‘80s – but that is part of a wider, disturbing trend that has also seen most progressive cinema from Europe and Asia similarly shut out by the brokers and gatekeepers of film culture. Nonetheless, Godard is today an ubiquitous culture hero, thanks to DVD, the Internet, and an unending stream of books, articles and reviews in every language.
Is there any student, in any arts academy or filmmaking course in the world, who has not been initiated, to some degree, into the JLG cult? Brody overlooks the educational circuit, ignores all in-depth critical writing on his subject beyond the initial (and frequently vapid) first-release newspaper opinions, and seems not to realise how frequently Godard’s audiovisual work is screened, discussed, analysed and worshipped in places beyond the offices of The New Yorker.
Fortunately, despite the efforts of this latest biographical straitjacket, Godard still belongs to us all.
© Adrian Martin August 2008