“The cinema gives us a substitute world which fits our desires.”
Andre Bazin (quoted at the beginning of Le Mepris, 1963.)
For many decades, Jean-Luc Godard has represented to some of us the past, present and future of cinema.
He was a true icon and a living presence of the Golden Age of filmmaking, yet also very much an artist of our times. A peerless auteur of the Age of Celluloid and the indelible memories it spawned. But, equally, his was a cinema about the shift to a different world and epoch – the new world we now live in as it was shaped and transmitted to us first by video technology, and then by the digital media. His films showed us glimpses of a tremulous and fleeting world but also its deeper ancestry and an inkling or prophecy of things to come.
Let me explain myself. Godard had a conscience and awareness that were linked not only to the ethical choices we must all make, but also a fearless understanding of our deep flaws and failures. To put it differently, he both loved and hated humankind. He loved it for its capacity for freedom and creativity and loathed it for its habit of forgetting and committing acts of senseless brutality.
The metaphor of prostitution – the springboard of so many of his films – was deeply significant to him. But one must remember that the women in his films were always shown as prostituted; they were not mere ‘prostitutes’. The recurring images of nubile and naked women in his films revealed the vulnerability of their existence and were not intended to exploit their physical charms.
Prostitution was for him a metaphor for humankind as a whole in the sense that we have prostituted ourselves to the twin forces of Authority and Capital. Or, as one of the ancient myths has it, to Moloch, which was shown so memorably in Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis. Here the world becomes something like the infamous biblical Babylon devoid of love, where flesh is neither sensuous nor voluptuous but objectified into an arid plaything or fetish.
His influence on contemporaries and subsequent generations of filmmakers was immense. Some merely imitated him and the result was a proliferation of tacky Brecht-style devices in scores of uninspired films. But those who grasped the true spirit of his work understood that what Godard really stood for was an all-encompassing and total liberty. Not only freedom in terms of cinematic form and practice or in the world of action and politics, but also within one’s inner self or what philosophers call ‘consciousness’.
His films were not just ‘about’ things and ideas, but also what we think and feel about them. This is perhaps the true distinction between great art and a mere imitation of it. For, as Nana discovers in Vivre sa Vie, one is always responsible…
Ultimately for Jean-Luc Godard, filmmaking is a question of why and what we live for, and how it can become a means of achieving freedom and understanding. The Godardian apotheosis perhaps came in the great five-hour video epic Histoire(s) du Cinema, which he made during the late 1980s and 90s. The history of cinema and its stories became a pretext for a meditation on history, life and beauty.
Each chapter developed and gave form to the underpinning ideas of late twentieth-century existence and the bleak future that lay ahead. Histoire(s) in turn celebrated the French Resistance, the spirit of Italian cinema and Alfred Hitchcock’s grandeur side by side with what Godard considered to be Cinema’s great betrayal and collaboration with Capitalism and Fascism – a betrayal which led to the distortions of the studio system, uncontrolled advertising and marketing mentality, and mass consumerism. No filmmaker has been so mercilessly critical of modern society, but also painfully aware of what has been lost and what we must strive to regain.
One cannot adequately pay tribute to Jean-Luc Godard without talking about his films with Anna Karina in the early part of their careers. Like in the stories of Svengali and Trilby or Pygmalion and Galatea, he wrested from Karina’s petite body and large glistening eyes a heartbreaking sense of just being born.
As their professional and personal relationship soured, Karina’s darting looks, the sublime moments of dawning awareness and the aching childlike confusion of her earlier performances (Vivre sa Vie and Alphaville) gave way to defiance and a near malevolent and violent streak in Pierrot le Fou and Made in U.S.A. Clearly the filmmaker had projected on the actress first his own innocence and naivete and then a crushing sense of disillusionment that is palpable and shocking to watch. These incandescent films add another chapter to the earlier great collaborations between a director and actress in the history of cinema – DW Griffith and Lillian Gish, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Kenji Mizoguchi and Kinuyo Tanaka, Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.
For the record, to my mind, Godard created some of the greatest films ever made – among them the afore-mentioned Vivre sa Vie, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou and Histoire(s) du Cinema. But also the matchless Breathless, A Woman is a Woman, Le Mepris, Band of Outsiders, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Week End, Sauve qui peut (la vie), Passion, Prenom Carmen, Hail Mary, Nouvelle Vague, For Ever Mozart, In Praise of Love and Goodbye to Language.
Goodbye to Jean-Luc Godard.
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