Essays (book reviews)
Impressed and Expressed
In a entry titled ‘Painful Sight’ on her blog (miriamruthross.wordpress.com), the New Zealand-based scholar Miriam Ross, an expert in the history of 3D technology, finds much to praise in Jean-Luc Godard’s most recent feature, Farewell to Language (2014). She finds the film ‘both fascinating and almost completely unbearable’ in the way it manipulates and deliberately mangles the standard, industrial ways of using the three-dimensional image with its ‘parallax space’. For Ross, Godard – and virtually every commentator on this film seems to agree with her – is ‘ahead of his time with his experiments’. Which is not bad for an 83 year old guy who began making movies exactly 60 years ago.
However, Ross has one, central complaint to make. ‘He is still a director that came of age in post-war Europe and this is no more obvious than in his depictions of the female body … It is the woman whose body parts are continuously exposed to the cameras … Her male partner, with the appendage that is most likely to “poke the viewer in the eye,” so to speak, is more fully clothed or his nakedness is hidden amongst the recesses of positive parallax space.’
Ross’s lament is a familiar one within the contemporary critical tradition of ‘identity politics’. That is to say, Godard is here faulted for having an attitude toward women that is behind his time (while his aesthetic is ahead of it); it does not reflect the attitudes of gender equality or feminist critique that we could expect from any self-proclaimed radical. Godard does not give us an image – of women, in this case – that we can abide by, approve of, or bask in as enlightened viewers. Our mirror-relation to the movie is thus rudely broken – and not only by what Godard does to parallax vision.
Godard has been facing this type of sex-and-gender objection – alongside many others related to his presumed progressive, left politics – since at least the early 1970s. As becomes clear from the 470 lovingly transcribed, translated and edited pages of Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television (hereafter True History), he tends to always answer that charge in the same, unexpected and disconcerting way. Cinema, for him has nothing to do with balance, fairness or even accuracy of representation. It is about showing something, making something evident – just as (to refer to one of his favorite analogies) lawyers do in a courtroom.
And if what Godard manages to show, in this process of filmmaking, is that he is a man with a biased, sexist viewpoint; or that, at the time of making Le Petit Soldat (1960), he harboured certain, unconsciously Fascist leanings? Well, that is fine and dandy with him. Authentic political cinema, in his view, begins at another level: when a film offers a montage of clashing, dialectical positions (not necessarily resolved); or when a diverse set of films can be seen to be ‘answering’ each other, each laying down their inevitably partial ‘evidence’ of lived, social experience. This is the theory of cinema that Godard has substantially maintained to the present day.
True History is a book with has an unusual genesis, which the various introductory pieces by Serge Losique, Michael Witt and its translator-editor–publisher Timothy Barnard detail at length. Between April and October of 1978, Godard was invited by Losique to give a series of lectures – which, in the event, turned into rambling, improvisatory, Q&A sessions – in Montreal at the Conservatory of Cinematographic Art. Godard, we gather, was then (and remains today) no great fan of academic, university settings for the exchange of discourse; however, he seized upon the Canadian gig as an opportunity to lay the initial, research groundwork for what would later be formalised as his Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98) project.
So, the public format, as it swiftly evolved, was quite simple: films were projected – one of his own in full, alongside individual reels of other movies – and Godard reacted to them afterwards, plunging into what he called a ‘psychoanalysis of myself’ before an audience. Technology (as Witt elaborates) had yet to catch up with Godard’s desire to perform a more strictly audio-visual (and less verbal) comparison of the pieces of filmic evidence.
The initial, French-language book version of these talks (Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma) appeared in 1980; it is full of astonishingly sloppy errors (such as turning the Senegalese militant Omar Diop into Kiop) and, a little ruthlessly, it expunges any record of the questions asked of Godard, as well the many framing remarks and running contributions from Losique. This English-language version, superbly translated by Barnard, is something else again: returning to the original video recordings of the sessions, Barnard gives as complete a documentation of the original event as is possible on the page, everyone else’s lame jokes and angry interjections faithfully included – to the extent of reconstituting the jazz-like flow of Godard’s sometimes half-formed, abandoned sentences.
If this degree of editorial reverence toward the Godardhead can seem, at moments, overly fetishistic, that is merely an indication of the intensity of amorous obsession required to bring a book project like this into existence in the first place. All hardcore cinephile worshippers of Godard – and there are more than a few us dotted around the globe, by now – will welcome its availability.
Necessary caveat for potential readers beyond that hardcore: anyone who is new to Godard will not find much of a roadmap to his career in this True History. Although the book mostly covers the 1960s period (from Breathless to Weekend) that remains (however unjustly) the most generally beloved among filmgoers at large, there is little background detail or even reliable reminiscence pertaining to this offered by their maker. Godard appears to have forgotten far more than he remembers about these early works (like many directors, he rarely revisits his films once they are done); and, even more distressingly, his opinion of them is often surprisingly low: Bande à part (1964), for example, is dismissed in a sentence or two as ‘very bad, very unskilful’ and, like Made in USA (1966), a ‘complete and well-deserved flop’! Meanwhile, long chapters ostensibly devoted to Vivre sa vie (1962), Contempt (1963), A Married Woman (1964) or Alphaville (1965) contain little, concrete reference to anything that happens, at any level, in these works. Godard’s mind, clearly, is elsewhere.
But he sure can talk up a storm! In the late 1970s, Godard was at a particular – and particularly reflective – juncture in his wayward, constantly reinvented career. A world or two away from the merry Nouvelle Vague days, he had already passed through the Maoist/Althusserian Dziga Vertov Group adventure with Jean-Pierre Gorin (1969-1972) and various, large-scale experiments with video and television broadcasting. One prime result of this short but decisive historical distance is a self-critique of his status as auteur. Godard quickly tires of obsequious remarks from his Montreal fans hailing his ‘originality’, dismissing them with curt, withering, or droll retorts (‘every time someone uses my name, I try to take a percentage at least’).
Godard’s left politics are still upfront here – witness his remarks on education, military training or sexual misery – but, as Serge Daney once noted, there is a shift from utopian talk of revolution to a grounded (if still often paradoxical) investigation of how to reform the film/TV industry in order to find a satisfying place within it. So Godard, here, muses a lot on what it is to collaborate with a producer, provide a script, find an audience, or work regularly, day to day, on one’s cinematographic craft (as opposed to shooting for a few weeks, if one is lucky, every few years). Although forever the subversive iconoclast, Godard presents himself as someone who just wants to modestly ‘do his job’ – if only the system would let him.
True History presents the best and the worst of Godard as a public persona. Godard the dazzling cultural critic, musing on the cult of the all-powerful male hero in crime films and Westerns, or noting the ‘form’ (or what I’d call the social mise en scène) that regulates daily situations of dress, conduct and learning. Godard the self-serving autobiographer, recalling incidents in a selective way so as to place himself in the best light – for instance, while boasting of his stern letter to Truffaut concerning Day for Night (1973), he claims that the latter simply ‘didn’t reply’, which is not at all the case (Truffaut gave as good as he got). Godard who can instantly, deftly unmask what the French call the problématique (the underlying set of ideological assumptions and values) behind anything thrown at him verbally – such as his immortal response to an exasperated audience member: ‘Who said that a question calls for an answer?’. Godard the furious denouncer of purely written film criticism that does not make the leap into incorporating audiovisual materials. Godard the bluffer, denouncing his ex-friends (such as Jacques Rivette) without betraying any sign that he has actually seen their recent works. Godard the inspired punster and word-player, turning the distinction between impression and expression into an entire philosophical system. Godard the grump, in whose eyes no other filmmaker past or present, even those he grudgingly admits have ‘talent’, can manage more than a few good shots per film (Wenders, for example, ‘knows how to create one shot but he doesn’t know how to create two’).
Between most of these 1978 lectures, Godard was in the midst of hectically flying back and forth between various countries and potential projects, including his (finally rather fruitless) visits to Francis Ford Coppola at Zoetrope Studios. There is scarcely a word in True History to indicate that, only a year later, he would ‘return to fiction’ (and feature-length narrative production) by shooting Every Man for Himself. The period inaugurated by that work would reveal Godard plunging into some new waters (such as an interest in religion and spirituality) and going much more deeply, through Histoire(s) du cinéma and its many spin-offs in various media, into theories and methods of historical understanding. But this book constitutes, fortuitously, the richest intersection point in Godard’s still unfolding career: the point at which he stood still for a dozen hours or so and held forth on cinema, politics and life.
© Adrian Martin September 2014