Jean-Luc Godard, December 3, 1930 – September 15, 2022
Bloviating by George Seminara
Jean-Luc Godard, rest in peace. Just don't overthink it.
I wasn't going to write about Godard at all. But I read a few obituaries and learned that he had assistance in leaving the planet. His reason was that he was tired. How freaking French is that? With a dismissive shrug and one last cigarette, one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th Century left us. His most famous film was Breathless. Not the Hollywood remake with the good-looking yet a little wooden Richard Gere. Another stupid Hollywood choice like the yearly announcement that some hot young director will remake, Cassavettes' Killing a Chinese Bookie. Like that should ever happen while humans still walk on the planet. Re-making Breathless in 1983 was like replacing Chocolate with sawdust. That's an idea! But that said, I decided I had a few things to add that were not being addressed by anyone else. Everyone calls Godard the father of the French New Wave.
I can't entirely agree, I see the point, but I don't buy it. I think of Godard as the eldest son of the French New Wave, The product of a mixed marriage of French director father Pierre Melville and American filmmakers Ruth Orkin and Morris Engle. (More on them later.) Both parents' work predates Godard by at least five years and mines the same gold from Hollywood films of the 1930s as Godard does. They respond to it in much the same way. Their movies are more homage than tribute. Their work was about how those films made them feel rather than what made they made them think.
Godard began his film work as a fan of film criticism rather than actual films. He was an ardent reader of film theory and criticism before consuming movies. He joined several of the film clubs that were popular in post-war Paris. It was inexpensive to re-release films from the 1930s in Europe because they were never shipped back to the studios in America after the invasion. Paris had a ready market for these films, and I'm sure the unemployment rate during the late 1940s and early 1950s helped their attendance. Movie theaters, desperate for customers, booked Hollywood films for that reason, and nightclubs also started hosting Cinema Clubs. The clubs had fancy-pants names like the Cinémathèque Française, Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin (where film and culture icon Josephine Baker would make IRL appearances), and the Work and Culture Ciné Club.
Lured by the writings of André Bazin and hooked by Eric Rhomer (under his real name, Maurice Schérer), Godard became passionate about American films. He was a huge fan of Howard Hawks and felt he was the cinema's greatest artist. He became a wunderkind of French film criticism, founding a fanzine, The Gazette, with Rhomer and Pierre Rivette. The Gazette came out bimonthly in 1950, and his writing led to his breakout in a 1951 Cahier du Cinema. The big time! He analyzed Hungarian filmmaker Rudolf Maté's No Sad Songs for Me. (Okay, Maté did almost all his film work in America, he was a great cinematographer as well, the point here is he was a furriner.) The film was a very average tearjerker with Margaret O'Brien (in her last screen appearance) as "poor" Mary Scott. How poor? Well, get ready. It's the kind of film only Hollywood could concoct. Though secretly dying of cancer, Mary picks a woman who will not only be a good wife to her husband and an excellent mother to her children. But she will even be an asset to her husband's business! Godard gets down to business, and the resulting article is considerably better than the film.
Hold it! Cahiers du Cinéma is the world's most influential periodical dedicated to film. Just like It Came From Hollywood. Which is just a little better than Sight and Sound, the UK's best magazine dedicated to film. The difference is that it's very sober and more than a bit hifalutin. (It's a real word- I looked it up!) These are serious people writing serious things about the highest art form. You just crack the spine and jump in. Have Google open because you will need it in the first paragraph. That said, it's like the guy at the video store that gave you a dirty look when you rented Beverly Hills Cop for the second time. You feel a little pedestrian when you are between their pages. But, if you want to deep-dive into every aspect of cinema, it's a one-stop shop. Warning: French newspaper, Le Monde, took over publication, and I'm not sure if they still publish in English. But it doesn't matter; you can purchase English language back issues on Amazon and eBay for a reasonable price.
In my opinion, Godard's writing is better than his films. But I'll explain that later. With Godard, his writing and thoughts on the film as art are excellent. You don't need to be familiar with the film or technique he is discussing to enjoy it. Nearly all filmmakers making up the "French New Wave" came from criticism. They rose from depths of study to embrace all of the film's possibilities. They began making films from an intellectual understanding of the art that few of today's filmmakers could claim. Who am I talking about specifically? Well, let's see now, the French New Wave. "La Nouvelle Vague" in French translates to The New Wave. (Low hanging fruit) The wave included Francoise Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, and Jacques Demi, there are a couple of others, but that's the main list. These are giants, folks!
If you aren't familiar with any of these guys, I'd head down to Blockbuster (that's a joke), the Criterion Channel, or TCM and check them out. Godard included an American couple to his list of New Wave filmmakers, Ruth Orkin and Morris Engle (told you!), whose 1954 classic, The Little Fugitive, Godard said was the spark that started the fire. The Little Fugitive, if you don't know, is more than just an inspiration to the French. It is a landmark film because of its naturalistic style, filmed like the viewer is a fly on the wall. Having seen it, it will instantly become akin to memory. There is something about its eccentricities, like post-sync sound and the cast. It feels like a personal experience and not a movie. And then there is the first appearance of Sesame Street's Mr. Hooper, who looked like an old man as a youngster.
The Little Fugitive's groundbreaking use of nonprofessional actors in lead roles has rarely succeeded again. Oh, it's been tried and failed. Recently, Chloe Zao elected to try it in her Best-picture Academy Award-winning, Nomadland. Starring Frances McDormand and a whole bunch of actual American nomads. It lent the film a gritty authenticity. The Little Fugitive got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (an award they don't give any longer-like best musical) and screened at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Silver Lion. The film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry at the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
One last thing about The Little Fugitive, it was filmed in black and white with a relatively unique camera rig that allowed the camera to be hidden from view. Bystanders, the kids, the bus driver, nobody would notice it. The passengers on the bus and in Coney Island never saw the camera. True Guerilla filmmaking. Not something we could do in today's litigious society. Stanley Kubrick was fascinated by the film and especially this technique. A similar rig was used on television in Candid Camera and may have inspired Garrett Brown's Steadicam. What's a Steadicam? Think back to the opening of Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is jogging through the woods, and the camera and the viewer are following her, which is very creepy. That's a Steadicam shot!
Why are you not watching The Little Fugitive? Don't worry about me, you watch- enjoy, and I'll wait here.
The French New Wave was not an isolated movement. In Italy, you had the Neo-Realists, who faced many of the same issues their younger French compatriots did. A love of movies, a technical appreciation for the form, and access to equipment. Their stories are also rooted in real life, but they rarely concede to the art as a whole. The neo-realist films are rooted in the lower classes. But without the style and the shabby glamour of the French relatives. The Italians are interested in ferreting out stories from tragedy, usually, one that is never explicitly discussed. They are filmed on location, in friends' homes, with non-actors, and with limited or no lighting. In other words, they were on the cheap. The directors had names like DeSica, Rosselini, and Visconti.
I believe the New Wave directors understood the shortcoming of working with non-actors. While, without adhering to a gross generalization, the Italians are culturally imbued with an emotional grand opera. Natural hambones, it was easy to conform their everyday lives into drama. Even Richie Andrusco, The Little Fugitive, is Italian. But the French elected to find the most non-actorly looking actors. And in starring roles! Look at the difference between Rock Hudson and Jean-Paul Belmondo. That's something. Those non-actorly actors attempt to capture fiction through the lens of real life.
To understand Godard is to realize that he was an intellectual. His approach is based on his love of cinema and politics. He is all about the much-derided "Book-Learnin'" His thoughts were foundationally Marxist, and he plied his art through that lens. He and his fellow New Waver-ers are very political, passionate, and argumentative. They bicker with each other in an attempt to reach a dialectic. If not the ideal dialectic, then detent. Marxism is different than the Communism that we Americans understand. This article isn't the place for a political discussion. It's not what you think, so don't jump to confusion. But his approach is based on political thought. He and his fellows represent a group of passionate cinephiles who have the nerve to grab the "tools of industry" and make their own cinema, which they did. They made an intellectual choice to explore the lower and criminal classes. If you didn't know that they all came from similar belief systems, you couldn't imagine they were an artistic movement. Beyond subject matter and attitude, the directors had no house style beyond the influence of French photographer Raymond Cauchetier. The directors thought of themselves as the New Wave. Each one had a louder voice than the previous one, especially if you lined them up that way.
I met Francois Truffaut at the Paris Theater in New York. There was an impromptu press conference in the lobby for the re-release of The Last Metro. Catherine Deneuve was also there, and the press focused on her. Standing on the side, Truffaut fielded a few reporters' questions. I saw my chance. I told him how great he was and all that blather. I told him that I couldn't believe the press wasn't all over him. And all that other fan-boy stuff I hadn't matured out of yet. He wondered why I wasn't. "Just look at her?!" He shrugged as if to say, suit yourself. I told him I had worked as P.A. for Néstor Almendros, who shot The Last Metro on a commercial.
"He is a great artist."
I agreed and asked him about the New Wave. Was there still a new wave?
He looked at me and said there was, but it was the next wave after him, and there would be other waves afterward.
And it wasn't just movie directors. The New Wave was an actual cultural movement encompassing graphic artists, musicians, photographers, and actors. Look at Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Alain Delon, Anou Aimee, Sami Frey, and the girl who created the archetype of a sexy, intellectual French girl in black, Bulle Ogier! They had style! Like Cagney and Bogart, like Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy, but they didn't look like them. The French stars were rough around the edges. Comparatively, the women had style and not much more. (Okay- Jean Seberg and Bridget Bardot are exceptions. Hubba, Hubba.) A Hollywood casting agent wouldn't look twice at most of the men. (Alain Delon is a handsome man.) But at this time, and in these films, they made a splash and changed what a movie star could be.
As a result, we have an exciting ten-year period where the films from France are all mind-blowing, from 1959-1967 - from Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon Amour and Truffaut's 400 Blows to Godard's Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou in 1965! These guys and Agnés Varda, whose film, Le Bonheur, won the audience prize at the 1965 Berlin Film Festival, are on a fantastic run. Their attempts to make a realistic and compelling cinema grounded in their beliefs and still be entertaining was getting harder. They were becoming professional filmmakers. Though armed with their deep understanding of technique, theory, politics, and comprehensive knowledge of the history of movies, the New Wave directors were faced with the problem of making a living. There is nothing like having to pay the rent to kill the passion.
After this, the whole movement changes. And Godard too, but not in the same way. He broadens his pallet and loses interest in the impressionistic approach of his previous movies. He founded the Dziga Vertov Group, a collective dedicated to pursuing movies based on Marxist thought. Named after the Russian Filmmaker whose whole deal was Kino Pravda - Film Truth. (His Man with a Movie Camera is magnificent and might be the first music video.) He and Truffaut led a protest that shut down the Cannes Film Festival! He protested Kodak over their chip chart that gave a color spectrum to shoot as a reference for color timing. It was based solely on white skin. And he worked with Hanoi Jane - Jane Fonda
As Truffaut starts leaning into more commercial subjects, Chabrol goes mainstream, and Godard goes the other way. He leans into experimentation with approach, technique, and subject matter. And yet he was being drawn into the commercial sphere. In 1972 he made Tout a Bien with Yves Montan and Jane Fonda. While making it, he and his closest collaborator, Jean -Pierre Gorin, produced another film, A Letter to Jane, a Dziga Vertov-ian study of a single image of Jane Fonda in Viet Nam with Gorin and Godard having a passionate discussion over the image. I don't know what happened, but A Letter to Jane broke their relationship. Godard had become a bit of a celebrity and stepped back, choosing projects besides his own where he would support the filmmakers without credit.
The first group of college educated American filmmakers, I mean Film Majors, like Scorsese, to start making films were particularly interested in Godard. Because of his publications, He was both accessible and easy to study. John Ford did not write about the art he was making or hoping to make, which is a pity.
This is where we come to Jean-Pierre Melville. I bet you thought I had forgotten about him. As Godard was getting ready to shoot Breathless, he sought the advice of the older filmmaker. Melville was a favorite of these young upstarts and was open to their questions. The Wavers saw Melville as the foundation on which they could build. He created his own world of crime and darkness as close to a 1930s Warner Brothers gangster film as the French were likely to get, without losing its innate Gallic vibe. Melville appears in a small part in Breathless. He became involved in the film's post-production at Godard's request. Legend has it that Melville suggested the innovative use of jump cuts that have become a hallmark of Godard's style. Melville felt that Godard should cut straight to the exciting bits. He should cut out the actor's pauses to speed up the action and make the final film shorter. In those days, the perfect running time for a film was between 70 and 90 minutes.
Breathless from fade up to the last title is a clean 90 minutes.
Godard continued to make films way into the 21st Century. His last released film is 2018's The Image Book. I feel that the ten films he made Between 1960, Breathless and 1965's Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou were the height of his creativity. Great films to be savored. After that, he started playing with techniques just because he hadn't tried them yet. He pushed the idea of storytelling into the esoteric and emotional without paying lip service to a plot. It wasn't for me, even if he put Patti Smith in a film. I started to feel his lionization had creatively damaged him. The word genius is dangerous. Particularly for former film critics. His constant attempts to blaze new paths in film production were his way of living up to the press, even if they distanced him from an audience.
In 2010 Jean-Luc Godard was awarded the lifetime achievement Oscar, from the Motion Picture Academy. He died on September 13th, 2022. According to his peeps, he left behind two films that have yet to be released. Here's hoping.
Godard on Godard, Translated by Tom Milne (who wrote a great book on American Director Rouben Mamoulian), and Jean-Luc Godard Interviews are just a couple of volumes to get a grip on this cinematic genius.