Thursday, June 2, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 2 - Jean-Luc Godard: The Second New Wave (1980 - 1989)


"In Part 2 of ReFramed's Godard discussion, Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh review the French filmmaker's "second first" phase as a director."
Jordan Cronk: Now, Jean-Luc Godard has been pretty kind to us and to a series such as this by segregating his career into convenient little movements, but after wandering for a good decade or more in the wilderness of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, he himself seemed to even acknowledge the need for a return to form. At the time of its release, Godard called Every Man for Himself his “second first film,” and as we mentioned in our last column, this was the first widely accessible (comparatively speaking of course) film he made in nearly twelve years. It was a return to narrative, a return to characterization, and a return to at least some modicum of coherency; it also kick-started a decade that seems ripe for rediscovery and reassessment. I know you in particular may even prefer this decade to his runs of ‘60s films. Beyond the obvious characteristics and general linearity in relation to what directly preceded them, what is it about these films that make them continue to standout in a late-career catalogue that at times can seem impenetrable to the common viewer?

Calum Marsh: Well, as we discussed a little bit the last time around, I think Godard’s ‘60s films, masterpieces though many of them are, have had their reputations bolstered as a result of their historical value and confirmed status within the larger cultural canon. The films Godard made during the ‘80s, on the other hand, aren’t lucky enough to have history supporting them so vehemently—they thus need to not only stand apart on their own but also apart from those ‘60s “classics”. That means they have a lot working against them. But what’s funny is that once you actually pass the invisible hurdle and actually get right into those films—assuming you can find any of them, because apart from three of the weaker films from mid-decade none of these films are available on DVD in North America—you realize just how accessible and wholly enjoyable they are. These films are still quite dense, mind you, and tend to posit more sophisticated ideas and arguments than did the films which preceded them, but the general and pervasive idea that Godard totally lost his way after Week End starts to seem a little odd after you watch a film like Every Man For Himself or First Name: Carmen, which are fairly coherent and entertaining.

Cronk: Yeah, it’s funny that Godard more or less attempted to return to the mainstream film industry in the ‘80s—at least as far as production and distribution was concerned—but only a very small segment of the mainstream cinema audience has even heard of these films. Which is doubly ironic when you have casts bolstered by the likes of Isabelle Huppert, Michel Piccoli, Julie Delpy, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliette Binoche, Burgess Meredith, and even Molly Ringwald (!). I know for me personally, some of my favorite Godard films come from this era: Every Man for Himself, Hail Mary, Passion, and King Lear in particular stand out. And speaking of King Lear, answer me one question: Is this your favorite Godard film? I get that impression and I’ve never asked.

Marsh: This statement may come back to haunt me some day, but: King Lear is my favorite film. Period. As in of all time.

Cronk: Wow, that’s a bold statement. King Lear kind of carries this reputation as a “bad” Godard film, which I think is unfair and which you obviously don’t agree with in any way. What is it about this film in particular that appeals to you?

Marsh: Okay, well, I think this is the point at which we should probably just explain what this movie even is, since beyond having a reputation with Godard fans as bad Godard it has literally zero reputation with 99% of film fans more generally. It’s never had a DVD release in this country and is only available, as far as I’m aware, as a weird Italian import or as a really old VHS release, and because it’s disliked even by Godard fans it almost never gets discussed or even mentioned anywhere, ever. So here’s the deal: King Lear is (obviously) a loose adaptation of the Shakespeare play written by Norman Mailer and starring Mailer, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Godard himself, and Woody Allen. It’s totally in English, is extremely abstract, and has an almost dadaish quality at times that most audience members take to mean that Godard is either insane or making fun of them. Both of which are reasonable assumptions, given how abrasive the film can be at times. The basic plot of the film is that all the world’s art and culture has been wiped out after a post-Chernobyl disaster, and one of Shakespeare’s ancestors, named William Shakespeare Junior The Fifth and played by theatre director Peter Sellars, is tasked with restoring his ancestor’s works by “rediscovering” them, which takes the form of him sort of stumbling upon materializations of his work in reality. Of course, this being Godard, and in particular this being Godard at his most abstract and conspicuously difficult, that plot is only really adhered to in the loosest way. Godard plays a man named “Professor Pluggy”, who has long dreadlocks made out of computer cables and electrical wiring, and who talks at length about the nature of “the image” and how cinema needs to be restored and reinvented from scratch. And the film overall is pretty much just that: it’s an attempt to rebuild cinema, which of course starts by tearing the cinema as we know it down, and it’s beautiful and moving and incredibly dense intellectually all at the same time. It’s hard to really do it justice in writing, actually, because it’s so essentially cinematic.

Cronk: My theory is that a few vocal dissenters stood up against the film, and it being so rare on home video, the reputation just sort of piled on from there. ‘Cause, well, it does kind of read like a mess on paper, but as far as wanting to actually sit down and watch an ‘80s Godard film, it stands beside Every Man and Detective as the most purely enjoyable film from this era I think, even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense at times. What I don’t think people give these films credit for, though, is their sense of humor. Godard himself stars in and plays a lot of goofy characters in these films, and after such a rigorous and ideologically staunch decade in the ‘70s, these films play as a kind of relief.

Marsh: Absolutely. It’s a pervasive misconception that “high-art” work should either be deadly serious or ironic and funny, but one of the most interesting things about Godard’s work during this period is that it so often manages to be both simultaneously. He of course has more purely “serious” films, like Passion, and he has more purely “comic” (though still quite dense) films, too, like the outrageous slapstick comedy Keep Your Right Up!, with which he closed the decade. And speaking of repute, would you agree that Hail Mary is the only film from that period with any standing critical reputation? Because it seems like it’s the only 80s Godard that people are still sort of aware of, and which hasn’t really been dismissed or rejected like the others.

Cronk: I think First Name: Carmen has a pretty decent reputation as far as these things go. It did win the Golden Lion at Venice that year (1983), though again, it’s almost like it all just gets swept up into this pile of negligible Godard films, which is completely ridiculous. I’m glad you brought up Passion, though: that one is always my default answer for the best Godard film from this era, even though I don’t find myself wanting to watch it as much as the others. I feel like it’s almost Godard’s Day for Night, a film he actually expressed interest in remaking after seeing the Truffaut original and more or less writing it off—which, turns out, was one of the final straws in the collapse of their relationship for good. How do you feel about that one, and do you think Godard’s reputation at this time as more or less a complete jerk was warranted?

Marsh: Passion is certainly a great film, though its greatness is amplified, I think, by the short film Godard made to accompany it, Scenario Du Film Passion, which is quite illuminating. Many of Godard’s films are followed by short works which expand upon the features, but I think Passion finds Godard not quite able to fully articulate his ideas, and although the film is still enormously moving and interesting and works really well as a whole, the themes it deals with are put forward a little more acutely in the short. But yes, it is sort of his Day For Night, which is a film that Godard hated because he felt it deceptive and untrue—there’s a rather famous quote from a letter Godard wrote to Truffaut about the film, in which he attacks Truffaut (who stars as the director of a fictional production) for being the only character who isn’t shown having sex. The implication I guess being that Truffaut was somehow afraid to show reality, his reality—which Godard then proceeded to do in his own film about the filmmaking process. Godard may have been a jerk during the ‘80s, but it says a lot about his humility and self-awareness that the director character in Passion, who is clearly his surrogate, is both weak-willed and duplicitous with women and completely unable to finish the film he’s struggling to make.

Cronk: Exactly. More than most any director I can think of, Godard films play like a very personal kinds of exorcism, like he’s working out his problems on screen—which obviously leads to indulgence and bouts of incoherency, but is fascinating to behold and is above all honest. Which kind of brings me to my next point: Godard’s relationship with sexuality. Besides politics and the cinema itself, sexuality—and in particular, female sexuality—is one of his great thematic concerns. How do you react to the nudity and sexuality of these ‘80s films, which in almost every case features copious amounts of nudity, some of which could be argued as misogynistic? I’m thinking particularly of Every Man for Himself, and to a slightly lesser degree, Hail Mary and First Name: Carmen.

Marsh: As you said in our discussion of his work during the ‘70s, Numero Deux is a remarkable exploration of female sexuality, and I think his work during the 1980s only builds on that exploration. There are moments that are so frank or blunt they’re almost shocking—there’s a pretty extreme shower rape sequence near the end of First Name: Carmen, for example, that’s a little difficult to watch—but it’s clear that Godard treats sexuality with the utmost candor exactly because he takes it seriously as a subject. It never feels like exploitation or needless spectacle; it always functions as part of a greater dialogue about what it means to have physical agency and a sexual identity. In Every Man For Himself that means interrogating the nature of desire and transgression, with a particular focus on incest and pedophilia that can be disarming and, on a gut level, repulsive—but we’re left to question what we’ve seen and our reactions to it, and if exploring transgression seriously means transgressing those boundaries visually, you know Godard’s doing it with good reason.

Of course when Godard attempted to explore the notion of divine sexuality in Hail Mary, which features what is essentially a sex sequence between Mary and God, you had a lot of people freaking out—even the Pope condemned the film. But calling Godard misogynistic isn’t very fair. Or at least calling these films misogynistic isn’t fair; again, it’s best to leave Godard’s personal life out of the discussion, because then we’re dragging the debate back down into the authorial muck. The point is that these films have a lot of very sophisticated things to say about human sexuality, some of which the average person doesn’t want to hear.

Cronk: Do you think these are images, sequences, and ideas that Godard would have liked to explore more thoroughly in the ‘60s? A number of his films from that period, particularly Vivre sa vie, Une femme marie, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, are dissections and interrogations of sexuality and prostitution. What I mean to say is there is a lot more, as you say, graphic sexuality in these ‘80s films—was this something you think Godard had to work toward—via, say, Numero deux and some of those ‘70s films—to arrive at these even more provocative themes, or was that more a product of the environment and Godard’s place in mainstream French film industry of the day? Because, if nothing else, everything on screen is there for a reason, and like you say, it’s there for good reason. Which is why I should also add that I don’t feel these films are misogynistic either, but those charges have been levied against Godard over the years and I feel it’s important to discuss it since we do have the forum here to do so.

Marsh: Hmm. I think that’s difficult to say, really, without an intimate understanding of the French film industry and what the restrictions were on things like that during that period. I’d wager though that while a more lax attitude toward frank depictions of nudity and sexuality was likely a factor in his work showcasing nudity and sexuality more forwardly in the 80s that it did during the ‘60s, a more significant factor in that shift was simply that Godard had developed more complex and substantial ideas about exactly that kind of sexuality. I think that A Married Woman is a great film, but I don’t think it has nearly as much to say about female sexuality as do any number of Godard’s later works, all of which, not coincidentally, brought the sex right to the forefront, often shockingly. What’s your take on that shift?

Cronk: I agree that Godard had developed as a free thinker and in essence was allowed to go a little further in his depictions of sexuality than before, but the through-line in his work is remarkably consistent. His themes have rarely changed over the years—they’ve just been refined and expanded upon in unique ways. And I personally can draw inspiration from either period, and I think there are arguments to be made over when and how he succeeded in these touchy showcases of sexuality. So besides sex, and distribution, and a number of movie stars, and general coherency, the ‘80s also marked Godard’s reengagement—at least on screen—with the history of cinema. Like we said in our last discussion, the ‘70s saw Godard attempting to break cinema down to its basest elements, where almost no influence could be traced to the finished product. From a film fans perspective, then, the ‘80s really do represent Godard’s “second wave,” where it feels like he is having fun again referencing and pillaging his heroes, many of which he verbally turned on in the ‘70s, along with a whole host of other things we spoke of previously. Which is one of the reasons I think we could see the ’80s rise in general estimation once Every Man and hopefully a few others get released on DVD in the future.

Marsh: That’s the hope, yeah. I can’t stress how crucial proper and widely available DVD releases would be for the bolstering of his 80s work’s reputation. As you said, if the average film fan—and again I’m operating under the assumption that the average film fan is pretty familiar with stuff like Breathless and Band Of Outsiders but much less so, if at all, with anything post-‘60s—were to just be exposed to this stuff, a whole lot of it would click. The closest we’ve come to that so far is a pretty bare-bones MGM compilation which brings together Passion, Detective, First Name: Carmen and one from the 90s, Oh Woe Is Me. It’s an essential set for Godard buffs, but it’s not exactly the glitzy, high-profile collector’s set Godard deserves. As I said last time, where the hell is Criterion on this front? Any speculation as to why the big names have kept away from these films? I can’t imagine it would be tough to secure the rights to any of these.

Cronk: I’m not sure myself. It’s curious indeed, particularly when the name Godard on a Criterion package would seem to all but guarantee an interest. I think it comes down to what we said before: the reputations of these films have been dragged through the proverbial mud for so long—not helped along by most mainstream critics, a couple of whom we named last time—that it may take a concerted effort by a Criterion to reestablish some of these films’ good names. Can an Eclipse set of some of these films really be that fiscally irresponsible? I feel like casual fans of ‘60s Godard would get kick out of something like Detective, which shows it’s hand in the closing credits by naming it’s influences: Clint Eastwood, John Cassavetes, Edgar G Ulmer—not exactly fringe personalities.

Marsh: And Detective, as much as I love it, is easily the worst of these films! But yeah, I’d even settle for an Eclipse set at this point, even though I yearn for so many of these pictures in the glorious high-definition transfers they obviously deserve. There’s a chance, though, that if respectable mainstream critics think Godard’s career after ‘68 is a total wash, so too do the Criterion executives and tastemakers; maybe they’ve just decided that they’re not going to lend his later career any of the Criterion credibility. Which would be a shame, of course, but not exactly surprising at this point.

Cronk: Which is why I have a region free player and continue to gain respect for foreign distribution companies who go out of their way to put most of these films on disc—next time, when we reach the ‘90s and ‘00s, my favorite post-’68 Godard era, the need for just such a device will hopefully prove a necessity to those curious about seeing a lot of these films for themselves. [PM]

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