Wednesday, May 18, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 1 - Jean-Luc Godard: The Political Years (1968 - 1979)


"In this introductory entry in a continuing reevaluation of cinema's standard bearers, film fans Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh dissect mid-period Godard, giving the French experimentalist and agent provocateur a long deserved defense of his post-'60s output."
Jordan Cronk: One of the reasons we wanted to embark on this series—and the reason we lifted the format of Counterbalance wholesale (thanks guys!)—is our mutual belief that the post-1968 work of Jean-Luc Godard is amongst the most vital cinema of the last 40 years or so, despite the general public and mainstream critical community’s near-complete disregard for it. An open dialogue between the two of us certainly isn’t going to change many minds already made up, but in most cases I believe that film fans aren’t even aware that Godard is still as prolific a filmmaker as he is. And, of course, you touched on this recently in your PopMatters essay on late-period Godard, which you aptly described as his “invisible cinema.” I’m curious to hear why you think this mindset has come to be the norm: Is it the simple fact that many of the films are not widely available, or is it - to be completely reductive- the fact that Godard moved from making his most accessible films to his most imposing and outwardly confrontational? I mean, the distance between Breathless and Film Socialisme is all but unmatched in modern cinema.

Calum Marsh: I think there are probably a lot of different factors at play here, and that those factors sort of play off of one another in a way which is depressingly cyclical. So you’re right that your average film fan probably isn’t even aware that Godard is still working, and that that lack of awareness is in large part due to his late-period work’s general unavailability, but then because people are unaware of it you’re never going to see it suddenly available—there’s no demand because there’s no supply and vice versa. I think what we tend to forget as film lovers is that we’re still primarily film consumers, and that our consumption is still an element of business; we’re talking about an industry which requires us to spend money, and if there’s no money to be made there’s unlikely to be product readily available for us to consume. The point being that as far as Godard’s current reputation is concerned, only the stuff that’s readily available on DVD—so essentially only his “first wave” work, spanning Breathless through to Two Or Three Things I Know About Her—is what counts to the people whose opinions form and then reify canons. Maybe the idea is that if it’s totally obscure or unavailable, it’s not worthwhile? That if it were good it would be around and easily watchable?

Cronk: Do you think, though, that a film like Every Man For Himself, where it available in some digital medium, could at least enter a conversation about Godard’s best work? And I mean amongst casual Godard fans, since most, for lack of a better word, “high brow” critics, tend to consider works such as this amongst his most important. We’ll be getting to his ‘80s period in our next column, but this title in particular seems like it could appeal fans of his mid-‘60s work.

Marsh:
Absolutely. I think that film is one of his strongest in general, but also as accessible in a lot of respects as anything he made pre-‘68 (which, just to clarify, is the sort of acknowledged breaking point in his career). But just speaking from personal experience, the fact that Every Man For Himself was until very recently unavailable in North America (it’s currently enjoying an extended theatrical tour across the States), and only obscurely available in Europe, had a big impact on my conception of it as a part of Godard’s career—it seemed like a remote, unimportant late work that wasn’t really a “classic” in the same way that, say, Vivre Sa Vie is, which has always been easy enough to find. So I think the casual fans are guided by what’s out there, not just on critics’ lists but what’s talked about, what’s shown in classrooms, what gets written up and mentioned in passing the most often. And you definitely do not hear about Every Man For Himself as much as, say, Band of Outsiders, even though I think it’s a much stronger and more sophisticated film.

Cronk: Agreed. But for our purposes today- namely, the ‘70s—you could say that this is what Godard wanted. His move to video in the mid-‘70s, and his restless creative spirit following early-1968 in general, helped produce work that was knowingly difficult. In his own words he was attempting to bring filmmaking back to the amateurs, and beginning directly after Weekend almost nothing he made until 1980 and Every Man For Himself could be considered accessible.

Marsh
: Far from it, in fact. Following the student riots in the late 1960s in France, Godard essentially abandoned every even remotely commercial or accessible filmmaking convention he’d used in films prior, in large part, as you say, because he wanted to tear filmmaking practice away from what he perceived to be a highly toxic American influence, but also because he himself had basically nose-dived into extreme Maoist politics, and he wanted his art to reflect his political beliefs. Which is why, nearing 1970, you get films like Pravda and British Sounds, which, though incredible interesting documents of political thought, are… well, they’re abrasive films, not at all what you’d call accessible or enjoyable in the normal sense. How do you respond to those films, Jordan?

Cronk: Now, I haven’t seen every Godard film (I don’t think anyone except the man himself could make that claim), but to my mind the major works of this period are Tout Va Bien, Numéro Deux, France/tour/détour/deux/enfants, Ici et Ailleurs, and Comment Ca Va? But what I think is interesting is that even the least successful films from this period- namely A Film Like the Others and Pravda—are still fascinating for what they tell us about Godard the man—who at this point was almost a walking series of contradictions, but was so passionate about his beliefs that I can personally find something to take away from everything I’ve seen of his. Even British Sounds, which is certainly abrasive (and purposefully so I might add), has so many standalone images that I won’t likely forget, that any shortcomings or potential repeat viewings (or lack thereof) are kind of meaningless to me.

Marsh: I think that speaks to just the wealth of ideas on display in any given Godard film from that period, even those which aren’t conventionally successful. I find British Sounds almost oppressively boring and tedious, but that’s of course very deliberate—he shows us, for instance, an inordinately long tracking shot of auto workers in a factory, and the point is that we’re forced to confront the fact that our sense of boredom in the face of just a few minutes of that scenario is nothing in comparison to the daily lives of the people which actually populate a place like that, who have to experience that tedium for hours a day for years of their lives. That might qualify as something of a gimmick, something that you can sort of “get” but not really enjoy, but it’s a bold gesture that I think has a lot of value. Plus, as you said, some of the images in the film are wonderful. The last shot, especially, is unforgettable. You’re right, though, that a big part of what’s significant with those films is what they say about Godard the person, the frame of mind he was in and the process of rediscovery he was going through at the time.

Cronk
: Exactly, a five minute shot of the female nether region isn’t exactly dynamic cinema, but there are ideas present in even the least developed of these films that are essential to understanding Godard and what he was attempting to accomplish during this run of films. And on the other side of the equation, there is a film like Numéro Deux, which says more about female sexuality than most people would likely expect, that are just thrilling utilizations of nascent filmic and editing techniques, regardless of subject matter. The question here then I guess would be do you (or does anyone) have “favorites” from this era, or do these works simply stand on the respect that we and select others hoist upon them?

Marsh: I think that Numero Deux is one of Godard’s best films, hands down. The rest is mostly very good, particularly Here And Elsewhere, but it’s Numero Deux that really stands apart for me.

Cronk: I second your high praise of Numéro Deux, and I’d throw France/tour/détour/deux enfants into the top tier of his work as well, so while the execution was sometimes muddled and the ideas not fully worked out or expressed, I find myself curious about this period of Godard’s career as much, if not more, than any other. And I think part of that has to do with his working methods and collaborators. It would be remiss of us, then, not to mention the influence of Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville, and in particular his with the Dziga Vertov group.

Marsh
: Absolutely. I think at the time, Gorin’s presence was maybe overstated, probably for the sake of excusing Godard’s diversion into overtly political and experimental cinema by blaming his new filmmaking collaborator, but in the forty-odd years since, weirdly, he’s been largely forgotten. As you’re no doubt aware, Gorin is credited as “co-director” of the 1972 film Tout Va Bien, which is the most widely available and narratively accessible film Godard worked on during the ‘70s—the film is now available through the Criterion Collection, which makes it (remarkably!) the most recent of Godard’s films to be ushered into Criterion’s ranks—but I don’t think most casual fans are aware just how strong Gorin’s influence on that film was. I was under the impression that it was a Godard work like all the others (pun most definitely intended), but as Richard Brody describes, in his absolutely essential Godard biography Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life Of Jean-Luc Godard, Gorin actually assumed the role of director for almost the entirety of that film’s shoot while Godard himself recovered from a car accident. It’s funny, actually, that the most famous Godard film of his most difficult and obscure period should be the one he was least responsible for producing…

Cronk: How do you reconcile that fact that visually Tout Va Bien is such a quintessentially Godard-like work, then?. I mean, the climatic supermarket tracking shot is pretty much a sister shot to the celebrated traffic jam sequence in Weekend. Was this Gorin emulating his colleague, or just him putting into practice what Godard had started and no doubt helped develop?

Marsh: That’s essentially what Brody posits, yeah—that much in the same way that the most overbearingly Kubrick-like shots in A.I. were likely the result of Spielberg attempting to imitate his elder, the most conspicuously “Godard-like” elements of Tout Va Bien are likely Gorin’s attempts to fill in authentically. I mean, by 1972 Godard was already way past the tricks he’d deployed in films like Weekend, and there’s very little reason to believe he’d want to retread that ground. It just doesn’t add up.

Cronk: That certainly makes sense, particularly since the film stands out so conspicuously amidst the period. I mean, Tout Va Bien could have been the follow-up to Weekend and I don’t think anyone would have been the wiser. To follow-up on what you said about Richard Brody, though, he recently commented to us via Twitter that Comment ça va? is a work “pregnant” with future films. This is not only a great description, but one that I think could extend to all of the films Godard produced during this twelve year period. I know you generally prefer he ‘80s work, and I’d be inclined to agree, but do you think that Godard developed a lot of the ideas from this period more fully in his later work?

Marsh: Definitely. And you can see this directly in the films: so many of the ideas and themes which dominate the more experimental work he produced across the ‘70s came to be reiterated throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, although I think he learned to articulate those ideas and themes in a much more sophisticated manner as his career progressed. We’ll get into this more when we discuss his ‘80s work in detail, but I think he eventually found a way to express his experimental, essayistic ideas through films which themselves feel more like cogent, cohesive wholes. Which isn’t to say he mellowed or regressed—his later work is definitely abstract and progressive—but I think that if Godard’s ‘80s work represents a mastery of film form and film theory, then his ‘70s work is just unchecked thought and free-form political expression. There’s very little regard for sophistication or togetherness, because what was important for him at that time, I think, was just the content of his ideas, rather than that content’s form. Do you see elements of Comment ca va? and Numero Deux in the later work?

Cronk
: I think so, though maybe not those two directly (though I’m sure if given time I could find parallels). Off the top of my head I think some of the ideas presented in Ici et Ailleurs crop up noticeably in, say, Notre Musique. I’m curious to hear where you think the influence of these ‘70s films currently lie in other people’s work? Predictably, I think you can see traces of a lot of this work across the spectrum of avant-garde cinema, but in particular a film like Pedro Costa’s Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? wouldn’t seem to be possible without something like Comment ça va? . Also, the tracking shots throughout the workplace in Tout va bien look eerily similar (though much more extreme) to Michael Snow’s Corpus Callosum, while British Sounds could almost pass for a James Benning film if one were to excise the voice-over. And obviously folks like Ken Jacobs owe ‘70s Godard a debt. Do you see other examples across modern cinema?

Marsh: Well, see, this is the thing—I’m sure there are loads of fringe examples, but I feel like the biggest problem with the widespread critical neglect of Godard’s late work is that we’re missing out on the degree to which those films should be influencing contemporary cinema. I mean, I think it’s fine that, like, Contempt and Vivre Sa Vie continue to be popular sources of inspiration, but I think the cinema really needs to get over its irksome fixation on the early New Wave. It’s become a source of romanticization, which is why you get stuff like The Dreamers, or anything by the Tarantino crew—movies which nod in the direction of early Godard as a sort of empty gesture, but which don’t understand that those are old tricks which Godard himself abandoned when they grew outdated. I wish there were more movies inspired by Numero Deux! That’d be terrific. But it doesn’t happen, partly because it’s obscure but also because it’s much more difficult to romanticize than Belmondo smoking a cigarette and Anna Karina’s Pandora’s Box haircut or whatever. You know, it’s like, hey, that stuff is old, and French, and oozes cool—but it’s not nearly as a progressive or, to me, as interesting as what he was doing in the 70s and beyond. And don’t get me started on the Delerue piece in Casino.

Cronk: I guess it’s just good to know that someone is watching these films and taking inspiration from them, even though, as we’ve already pointed out, they’ve thus far mostly facilitated more avant-garde work. Is it a lost cause, then? Is there no hope for these films to be widely appreciated? Or are they simply doomed to be appreciated by cult of what many people would call pretentious cinephiles? I know you mentioned in your recent essay that Film Socialsme isn’t going over well with the select mainstream audiences and film writers who have seen it, but it is once again highly acclaimed amongst (and here’s that word again) high brow critics. Is the cycle just inevitable? And should it matter? Godard said around the beginning of this post-‘68 period that “a film is nothing; it is what you make of it.”

Marsh: It’s interesting that you mention high-brow critics, though, because I think even among the critical establishment Godard is something of a divisive figure these days. Have you seen the kind of contempt and dismissiveness sent his way by everyone from Roger Ebert to A.O. Scott? It’s really depressing. These are the people who make or break foreign and arthouse releases, really—if they up and reject a movie that isn’t going to grab much of an audience to begin with, distributors are going to steer clear. And this isn’t exclusive to Film Socialisme, either; it’s been happening literally since 1968 (or a little later in the states, where his films were being released with a bit of delay). I know you’re a big fan of Nouvelle Vague, from 1990, and I’m sure we’ll cover this more later, but you know that film was totally panned here, right? Some very, very nasty and vitriolic words written about it, as though critics were angry at Godard for not being old Godard anymore. The ‘70s stuff, though, doesn’t even get mentioned anymore.

Cronk
: True. And I do love Nouvelle Vague—in fact, I think that is the single best film he made after 1968. Ebert in particular, though, has a tendency to just write-off entire periods of cinema. I can’t even express how sad it is that he has basically dismissed a filmmaker as vital as Abbas Kiarostami and a movement as singular as the Iranian New Wave (a topic I’m sure we’ll get to in this series very soon). But back to the topic, I don’t think his ‘70s work is going to undergo a major critical re-evaluation any time soon. I do think (and hope), however, his ‘80s work will. But again, that’s mostly because there are a handful of comparatively accessible films from that period.

Marsh
: You know, I think something that doesn’t get talked about much is the kind of… well, I don’t want to call it “responsibility”, exactly, because they’re just a business doing their thing, but let’s say the extremely powerful but also potentially problematic influence wielded by a company like the Criterion Collection. Because Criterion, as you know, haven’t released anything of Godard’s after Tout Va Bien, and from what I’ve heard they’ve got plans to release only the few ‘60s films of his, like Petit Soldat, that they haven’t already covered, I think that has a pretty large influence on the average film lover’s opinion of and maybe even conception of Godard’s career as a whole. Stuff that’s in the collection becomes de facto canon, there’s no denying it, and the implicit side effect there is that stuff that’s neglected from the collection almost gets denied canonical status, unless it’s just clearly owned by another company or is otherwise unavailable for some reason. I think that if there’s a chance for Godard’s ‘70s work to be re-embraced by the critical establishment at large, and if film fans everywhere are ever going to discover how great a bunch of this stuff is, Criterion will be the reason. Otherwise I think we’ve got to resign ourselves to seeing the stuff languish in obscurity forever, a source of enormous interest and fascination for the few who’ve bothered to track them down but just more stuff to dismiss for everyone else. Let’s hope something changes. [PM]

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