By Robert Lort
For over 4 decades Jean-Luc Godard has been a consistent cinematic innovator at the forefront of modern cinema, consistently emerging from each new wave, to take a commanding position in the next. By ceaselessly leaping ahead at every corner, he now stands apart from the other Novelle Vague filmmakers he started out with (Truffaut, Rivette, Chabrol and Rohmer). To date he has made a staggering seventy plus short and feature length films. The oeuvre of Godard is an extensive, complex, vastly cross-referenced and multifarious labyrinth. Reactions to his films have been, as always notorious varied. For all his genius, he has been too often misunderstood. Both the political left and film critics have derided him as didactic, baffling and nonsensical. "He was good up to that point, but then I can't follow it any more," is a classic reaction, only indicating how Godard keeps changing course and remaking himself. The oeuvre of Godard is however remarkably categorisable into distinct periods. During the Novelle Vague period between 1960 to 1968, Godard's innovative use of the jump cut technique in Breathless (1960) and his following films, such as Contempt (1963) and Alphaville (1965) brought him international fame. Other films from this period, such as Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966), La Chinoise (1967) and Weekend (1967) were gathering pace with the growing ferment which cumulated in the May '68 riots. From 1969 to 1974 Godard, in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, as the Dziga Vertov Group, (after the Russian avant-gardist), made overtly political and revolutionary cinema, intensely radical and rebellious in structure and intension, motivated by Maoist thought, anti-consumerism and anti-Vietnam. From 1975 to 1976 his course changed again with his collaboration with Anne-Marie Mieville, which brought a softer approach, marking a move away from collective revolutionary politics of a molar kind, to the micro-politics of the political is personal and the tiny things that make up everyday life. From 1976 to 1987 marks perhaps the first stable period in his life, during this period his work dealt with postmodernist deconstruction and sexual politics, films included Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1979), Passion (1982), Prenom Carmen (1983) and Hail Mary (1985). From 1987 to the present is regarded as his phase of solitude which produced such densely layered masterpieces as Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989), Germany Nine Zero (1991) and Helas pour moi (1992).1
A pivotal text on Godard, is that by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, "Three Questions about "Six Fois Deux""2 dealing with a series of TV programs made by Godard in 1976 with Anne-Marie Mieville. Deleuze adjusted Godard's own formula, "not a correct image, just an image", by transposing it into his, "not a correct idea, just an idea."3 The sense being the opening out and experimentation of ideas in a way that does not normalise ideas according to dominant orders. To create a cinematic/philosophical surface where images/ideas are freely able to be experimented on in a non-judgemental, non-hierarchical and non-exclusionary framework. Godard's filmwork is also characteristic of the concept of the "Rhizome" developed by Deleuze and Guattari. Godard's use of short-term ideas, offshoots, disconnected spatial and temporal coordinates, sudden shifts between layers, degrees of speed and slowness, dérive, and the heterogenous use of structural elements is intensely rhizomatic in form and structure. Deleuze's text on Godard, points out how Godard's filmwork is essentially inbetween; between text and image, cinema and television, sound and vision, passion and politics. If we consider it, the very concept of montage is itself the meaning inbetween, the rupture between the two images, the fissure of intensity created by the juxtaposition. Deleuze goes on to describe this disaggregation as stammering. Which for Godard becomes a visual stammering, to stammer not in one's language, but in how one sees. Where the language of cinema is disassembled, taken down to its elements, to produce a molecular cinema, the twenty-four frames a second. As Godard himself says, it is, "admitting that you're stammering, that you're half blind, that you can read, but not write..." The question is always what is there to see? What is imperceptible? These are Godard's reasons for dissolving linear narrative and normative cinema conventions. The sequences of slow motion, fast forward, repetition, distortions, out of focus and scrambling attempt to deconstruct the viewers senses, to destabilise the perceptual plane. To slow the movement down to see what remains, to speed it up again to see what is revealed, what is lost and what is captured in each frame. It becomes a machinic cinema, brought about by the continual extrapolation and complexification that Godard submits his films to, as part of the editing process. Repeatedly throughout Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989) we see Godard labouring over his film editing machine, as if he were a worker in a factory. Throughout his career, Godard has been increasingly moving more and more towards smaller film crews, verging ever so slowly towards that unobtainable solitude. By reducing the size of film crews, Godard gives himself increased freedom to manipulate, focus and control the output, without the interference of stars, budgets and producers. The use of minimal film crews, is also an attempt to resolve the hierarchy implicit to the filmmaking process, plus it affords him a greater automaticism in the filmmaking process. This increasing verging towards solitude, is something that Deleuze described as "an extraordinarily populous solitude," meaning that this kind of solitude allows him to intensify the interconnectedness of his work, between a plethora of different filmmakers, writers, thinkers and musicians. The music in his films alone has stretched from Beethoven and Mozart to Stockhausen, to Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. What has emerged is an inbetween, between life and filmmaking, where the two begin to converge indiscernibly. What is created is an inbetween, which is a strange cluttered reality, discontinuous, fragmentary and decentred. In a short film by Armando Ceste, Two or Three Things, there is the inclusion of footage of Godard and his voice narrating over the images. Godard says, "Even today, its easier for me to make a film as it should be made... than live the life I would like to live... If I could live the life that I believe I have the right to live, I don't think I would make films or art," and elsewhere, "The cinema is life, and I would really love to live life as I do cinema." It is the sense that making a film, is simultaneously making reality and simultaneously making himself. The separation between the onscreen and the offscreen becomes blurred. As such, it is with irony that Godard, in Prenom Carmen, (1983) stars, somewhat mockingly as himself, as a washed up filmmaker in an institution. Throughout the film we see him in his own idiosyncratic style, wearing dark glasses, his hair tangled and scrunchy, his face stubbled, buried in cigar smoke, speaking in a muffled-wet voice and hugging a portable cassette player. Godard was in fact institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital by his father, in the 1950's after a spate of habitual petty theft. In Godard's self portrait film, JLG/JLG (1994) we glimpse more of his dulcet sombreness and melancholy, which strikes us by its richness and clarity, with it's uncommon intimacy and sensitivity.
As far back as in Masculine-Feminine (1966) Godard chose to point out that the word "masculin" was composed of the words "masque" (mask) and "cul" (ass). But from 1976 his analysis of sexuality and personal relationships reached increasing emphasis, most dominantly in Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980). Here Godard engenders his own individuated spin on sexual politics, an enigmatic and abstruse perception that remains decidedly indeterminate. His continued use of prostitution themes and gratuitous nudity however, compels most feminists to be suspicious of his intentions. Ambiguous and perverse sexuality also flicker repeatedly into the Godard mise en scene. Prying apart these dense abstract fragments, we see that for Godard, it is the women who always come out on top, while the men wallow in their emptiness and despair. It is the women who find a way out, a line of flight, while the male's remain blocked. The male characters are somehow always static and immobile compared to the flowing and fluxial movement of the women. Here the feminine is seemingly privileged above the masculine. The males become trapped within their own desires, cornered emotionally, frustrated at feminine difference - to which they respond with aggression and violence. For men the only escape is through femininity, but none of Godard's male characters have yet successfully made this transversal. Godard emphasises the incompatibility between the sexes, the ontological difference, the vast space of "no-mans" land inbetween the sexes. But while masculinity appears as immured and absolute, there is no indication that it can't be overcome, it's just a question of how. Paul Patton describes the three characters in Sauve qui peut (la vie) as "moving at three different speeds, Godard suggests: the relatively high speed of the intellectual, the middling speed of the prostitute and the near immobility of the male. Only the female characters are attempting to transform their dissatisfaction into a line of flight."4 Godard's films are themselves lines of flight out of the repetitive torment of Hollywood cinema.The radical political engagement of Godard with cinema is perhaps unrivalled. In the history of political cinema, Godard's Tout Va Bien (1972) aught stand an equal footing with Sergi Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. With 1966's Masculine-Feminine Godard began the emergence of his raw revolutionary cinema, divested of all commodification and commercialist appeal, staunchly anti-vietnam and anti-consumerist. It reached it's most militant and radical peak with films such as Le Gai Savoir (1968) and Vent d'est (1969). The extremism of the films made during the period from 1969 to 1974 were even at that time, alienating to many of his audience, the rupture of May '68 was for many no longer reverberating as intensely as it was for Godard. In a scene in Masculine-feminin, while the lead character chats inconsequently with a military officer in a car, his friend paints, "Peace in Vietnam" along the other side of the car. Godard's style of outright militant activism is no less in disfavour these days. Which is what makes these films essentially unmakable today. Notes
1. Following approximately the categories as delineated by Colin MacCabe, "Jean Luc Godard, A Life in Seven Episodes (to Date)", in Raymond Bellour and Mary Lea Bandy (Eds), Jean-Luc Godard, Son + Image 1974-1991, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1992,
2. Gilles Deleuze, "Three Questions About "Six Fois Deux,"" in Raymond Bellour and Mary Lea Bandy (Eds), Jean-Luc Godard, Son + Image 1974-1991.
4. Paul Patton "Godard/Deleuze: Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)" in "Frogger", no.20, 1986, available on line at http://www.mailbase.ac.uk/lists/film-philosophy/files/writings.html
Copyright © 1999 Robert Lort. All rights reserved