April 21, 2009
Four faces of Jean-Luc Godard, (L-R from 1968, 1970, 1979, and 1980) taken from the tantalizing DVD artifact “JLG in USA”, which accompanies the March/April edition of The Believer (Full Disclosure: Don’t hold it against it the magazine, but my wife and I wrote a brief article in the issue). Compiled by BAM programmer and Film Desk founder Jacob Perlin, it contains four short films of interviews, lectures, and home movies recorded at the cusp of Godard’s experimental video work in the early 70s with the Dziga Vertov Group and beyond, through his return to more personal art films with Every Man for Himself in 1980. This period is still the least understood in his career, and the few films I’ve seen from his seventies work, Ici et Ailleurs (1976) and Numero Deux (1975), are both extraordinary and demanding. For those like myself eager for further info into this part of his career, it’s a fascinating and surprisingly moving look at a man going through artistic and (one assumes) personal upheaval.
The disc begins with a D.A. Pennebaker/Ricky Leacock production, “Two American Audiences”, documenting a visit by Godard to NYU on April 4th, 1968 to discuss La Chinoise, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. As Pennebaker is quoted in the notes: “Of course, none of us in the room knew about that then.” A month later, Godard, along with Francois Truffaut, rushed the stage at the Cannes Palais des Festivals stage, urging solidarity with the striking students. A moment out of time. Godard takes questions from a variety of delightfully hairy film students and moderator Serge Losique. Losique asks if the Maoisms spouted by La Chinoise‘s callow youth are a simple reflection of the times, a mirror, or a political call to action. Godard, whose cinema lies in the space between either/or, who revels in contradiction, admits that there is movement between both. It is not static, “it’s a movie, a movement.”
He is openly sympathetic to Maoist thought, but his intellect is too searching to make a simple propaganda film. These sympathies are troubling, but his film work is often far more complex and nuanced than his stated political positions. He can’t help but let the artist introduce ambiguity and other complications. La Chinoise is both a parody and homage to the dreams of revolutionary youth, absurd and romantic. Godard bristles at a questioner who notes this humor, but his filmmaking gives the lie to this, with its playful digressions and in-jokes (one character’s defense of Johnny Guitar gets him expelled from the cell). His cinephilia is still in full bloom in this interview: “The average film of the silent era, or even the Hollywood film of thirty years ago – was much more subtle and intelligent than the average Hollywood film today”. He goes to oppose Gone With the Wind to Doctor Zhivago to prove his point.
The second film, Godard in America (1970), was shot by Ralph Thanhauser when Godard was deeply involved with the Dziga Vertov Project, his Marxist film cooperative that also included filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin. Questioned by Andrew Sarris about his new group, it’s clear his priorities have shifted the political above the aesthetic, his cinema become a tool for revolutionary thought. Or at least that’s what he claims. I have yet to see a Vertov project, although the material used in Ici et Ailleurs was footage abandoned by the group in 1970, and re-purposed by Godard to investigate the deceptive nature of filmic representation, how the images of these Palestinian fighters would have “added up to zero” since each new frame completely replaces the one before it. In the documentary, Godard and Gorin flip through their storyboards, laying out the structure that Godard would completely deconstruct six years later.
The third film, “A Weekend at the Beach with Jean-Luc Godard”, is an amusing curio shot by photographer Ira Schneider. Godard stayed at Schneider’s beach house for a weekend with Wim Wenders, Alice Waters, Jean-Pierre Gorin, among others. It’s strange seeing such an eccentric intellectual as Godard wearing a sun hat and joking with friends (I can see the US Weekly story now, “Godard: He’s just like us!”). Schneider, no fan of the obstreperous Frenchman, offers a short, drily funny voice-over in an attempt to de-mystify this object of film cult adoration. Nice try! But he still mystifies me.
The most incredible piece of footage on the disc is an interview with Dick Cavett from 1980, done for the release of Every Man for Himself. It was being received as a comeback of sorts, since it was a return to a form of narrative. Godard denies he ever left, that he was just “pushed away.” That much is true – he never stopped working, people just stopped watching. But with Isabelle Huppert, texts by Charles Bukowski (who Godard mischievously claims was unknown in the US at the time), and a plot revolving around prostitution, he got his name back in the papers. This two-part encounter with Cavett is combative, enlightening, and surprisingly touching. When Cavett quotes some critics as calling his films too “distant” (which I would call one his strengths), Godard responds that he thinks he’s getting closer, and that he’s possibly found a balance between the charismatic personality of his earlier works to the almost didactic form of his experimental work. He calls Every Man for Himself a second first film, comparing it to a return to childhood, except this time he went through the back door or a second floor window.
There’s also plenty of his film critical insights. He predicts that Scorsese’s next film would be “beautiful” (Raging Bull); that Woody Allen’s use of B&W in Manhattan was an empty gimmick; that Jerry Lewis was a painter who was a master with space and geometry, and that his infamous Day the Clown Cried project also sounded “beautiful”. Godard gamely responds to Cavett’s stylistic questions, his use of slow-motion to capture the intimacy of a fight scene, and the freedom necessary to his dynamic use of sound, which often runs independent of the image track. In an unexpected bit of emotion, Cavett recalls an old interview inquiring about Godard’s ambition, which, after a pause of 42 seconds, he responded, “I would like not to be so lonely.” Godard reiterated this statement, and went on to say that he would always like to feel that the door to his parents’ room was open at night, so as not to be afraid of the loneliness. He said he was no longer afraid.