Essays (book reviews)
Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70
forms of writing – especially those which intermingle fiction and non-fiction –
are all the rage these days. But hybrids, however attractive in theory, often
turn out to be monsters – unwieldy attempts to do too many things at once.
The critical biography is one such
literary hybrid. It is obvious why a growing number of arts critics and
scholars are turning to this form. It escapes the narrow niche market of a purely
academic commentary on an artist’s work, while opening up the possibility of a
comprehensive look at the socio-historical context which formed it.
to blend criticism and biography, however, often results in an awkward
juxtaposition of materials. Such awkwardness is foregrounded in Colin MacCabe’s
unsatisfying biography of France’s greatest living film director, that Nouvelle
Vague legend, Jean-Luc Godard.
the third line of the preface, MacCabe is already declaring his “dislike of
biography” and his doubts about the entire endeavour. 330 pages later, he winds
up the text with the dismal admission that his subject’s life “often became
tiresome” to him, adding sagely that “we are all, like the dog returning to its
vomit, condemned to repeat within a sadly limited repertory”!
between, MacCabe rarely shakes off a tone of acute discomfort. The book exudes
a peculiarly British form of embarrassment in the face of its subject’s
personal life. MacCabe’s language becomes hopelessly contorted and evasive
whenever it approaches anything remotely intimate. This account is virtually a
gossip-free zone: almost every salacious story I have heard or read about
Godard is missing, and its most entertaining anecdotes are apologetically
buried in the notes up the back.
MacCabe know more than he is letting on? In 1993, he published a short sketch
for this book (it appears in the mighty MoMA catalogue, Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image, 1974-1991) , which included the
information that Godard, in his youth, was briefly a gay hustler. The
publication of that text reportedly angered Godard. Perhaps as a result, this
incident no longer figures in MacCabe’s biography – and one wonders what else
has been excluded or toned down in order to avoid the filmmaker’s opprobrium.
(Researchers in this field are well aware, for instance, of Godard’s total
aversion to the reminiscences of his former wife, Anne Wiazemsky.)
presents his book as a “series of angles” that hopefully add up to a composite
portrait of Godard. Firstly, it is a family history, with MacCabe providing the
most original part of his research: a painstaking recreation of Godard’s
privileged, Protestant background.
up is intellectual history. MacCabe picks up Godard’s trail in the Paris of the
‘50s as he becomes involved with the intense, social scene around the magazine Cahiers du cinéma and its resident guru,
André Bazin. Much of this section listlessly recycles what is already available
in other, better books about the pre-history of the Nouvelle Vague.
we move on to film history – in particular, the peculiar industrial conditions
that sustained Nouvelle Vague mavericks like Godard, François Truffaut and
Jacques Rivette in the 1960s. Amazingly, MacCabe seems more interested in
innovations in filmmaking technology than the action-packed lifestyle upheavals
of that period – although he does offer extensive reminiscences from Godard’s
first wife and most iconic star, Anna Karina.
dourest section of the book deals with political history – Godard’s left turn
into militant filmmaking in 1968, working with his second wife Wiazemsky, and
the young radical, Jean-Pierre Gorin. It is here that MacCabe’s own past as a
leftist intellectual begins making its presence felt in an overly intrusive and
the final section of the book, concerning Godard’s return to narrative
filmmaking from the ‘80s to now, focuses disproportionately on MacCabe’s own,
relatively minor involvement as producer on three of Godard’s video projects.
Here the biographer almost succeeds in displacing the artist altogether.
slicing up of Godard’s life into this succession of starkly different histories
creates more problems than it solves. We are never able to follow any single
line all the way through. Odd gaps proliferate: people cease to exist once they
have exited Godard’s career, so one would not know from these pages that,
post-Godard, Karina found renewed fame as a pop singer, or that Wiazemsky
became an acclaimed novelist. And the list of Godard’s collaborators that
MacCabe consulted is highly selective – where, for example, are the male stars
such as Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Pierre Léaud?
repeatedly asserts that what really matters is Godard’s work, not his life. But
his book is even less substantial as a critical study than it is as biography.
Banalities and truisms abound: Godard the collage artist, Godard the mixer of
high and low culture, Godard the painter in cinematic images …
a scholar with such a materialist bent, MacCabe is often reduced to the bald
assertion that what makes Godard’s films great is their “incredible beauty”.
That much is certainly true, but it can only be a starting point for the book
that MacCabe has failed to write.
© Adrian Martin February 2004