' ' Cinema Romantico: Godard

Friday, September 16, 2022


I have long since chucked my myriad back issues of Creative Screenwriting Magazine but I swear there was one from the summer of 1997 in which Ed Solomon said that in an early draft of “Men in Black” he conceived an alien as being the post office. The alien wasn’t in the post office, mind you, no, the alien simply was the post office. The filmmakers, Solomon said, thought this was too unconventional and confusing for an audience, that people needed to see aliens as they had come to understand them, both in movies and the broader culture, and so the alien as the post office idea was jettisoned. The revolutionary, rule-breaking French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard never would have allowed such hand-holding; his movies, they were the post office.

Jean-Luc Godard died on Monday at the age of 91. Honoring his commitment to temporal displacement and his most famous quote, the one about every movie needing beginnings, middles, and ends but not necessarily in that order, The Onion published a headline that said “Jean-Luc Godard Dies At End Of Life In Uncharacteristically Linear Narrative Choice.” It was funny, of course, though as Godard’s legal council declared, the filmmaker died by assisted suicide in Rolle, Switzerland. If Godard’s death was linear, he still left the earth by putting a thumb in the eye of convention and polite culture. He was described as not being sick, “simply exhausted,” a brute honesty refreshingly free of the usual blinders we wear to prevent ourselves from looking death straight in the eye. “It is clear, astringent, unsentimental, abrupt,” Roger Ebert wrote of Godard’s “Vivre sa vie” (1962). “Then it is over.” It was Godard’s life to live...and to end. 

The business of writing about Godard should be left to film historians and scholars, frankly, not idiot bloggers like me, but I still wanted to sit down and contextualize Godard in my own mind. When I was a kid first watching movies, I remember – I honestly remember – thinking about when the people onscreen went to the bathroom. I thought this because movies, even as they changed scenes and locations, sought an illusory feeling of continuation. But Godard broke that illusion by deploying the verboten jump cut with a purpose and taking his camera where no camera had gone before. Brigitte Bardot didn’t go to the bathroom in “Contempt” (1963), per se, but she was still sitting on the toilet. To paraphrase Morty Seinfeld: they’ve got a movie camera in the john here!

If Godard’s run of influential films in the 60s raided the past they also pointed toward the future by concocting a radical new cinematic language that would have come across extra-terrestrial and alienating, deliberately alienating, to so many modern audiences. But if we are now in that future he pointed toward, where essentially every motion picture – every moving image – owes him a debt, his films have not calcified. No, they remain alive and invigorating, and to these modern audiences raised on narrative TV masquerading as movies his work is likely just as extra-terrestrial and alienating, deliberately alienating, as it was then. It’s like if Marty McFly had gotten up in front of the Enchantment Under the Sea sock-hoppers and eschewed “Johnny B. Goode” for “Bitches Brew”; I reckon some of us are still not ready for this. 

He pushed things so fast so far that by the end of 1967’s “Weekend,” that conclusion seeming to foreshadow humanity’s fate to revert back to the beginning of “2001” one year before “2001” was even released, he literally declared his own movie as the end of cinema. Oh, it effused Godard’s ego to the extreme, but it also demonstrated what he perceived as the inevitable limitations of the movie language he invented, then forsaking it for something else entirely, epitomized in the only one of his post-67 films I can say I’ve seen: “Goodbye to Language” (2014).

David Thomson didn’t feel so differently than Godard, writing that “Breathless” (1960) wasn’t so much a sign of what was to come as “a warning. It said...Watch out, this game, this entertainment is over. Movie is all used up, and if we repeat it it will turn camp—and I’ll prove it to you.” I think plenty of work in the years since have shown that movie is not all used up, yet Godard’s warning remains eternal. If “Weekend” was the end of cinema, it was only because so many films – then, now – failed to understand its opening title card better. 

Novels are on the page; plays are on the stage; music comes out of your speakers; Teevee’s on the TV; film, Godard understood and said as “Weekend” began, is adrift in the cosmos.

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