Cahiers du cinéma no. 473; November 1993.

Zodiac

During the filming of The Sign of Leo, I’d shouted at Éric Rohmer: “How is it that you, a Christian filmmaker, have suddenly become an apologist for this sham called astrology?”

I’ve realized in the past few years that Rohmer was right: astrology determines even the future of filmmakers.

It’s the American critic Manny Farber who showed me the way. According to him, filmmakers born under the sign of Pisces were concerned with the dialectic between cinema and theatre (Guitry, Pagnol, Rivette) or with another related dialectic: between reality and dream (Minnelli, Rivette). I think we must expand the empire of Pisces filmmakers a little: it could be said that their work is based foremost on actors. This is the case not just of Guitry, Pagnol and Rivette, but also of Téchiné and of Doillon, of Jerry Lewis and his accomplice Tashlin.

We can also note the Pisces taste for never-ending, pretty much unplayable spectacles so dear to Rivette as well as to Marlow or Hugo.

The presence of Biberman, Clément, Rocha or Walsh in this category clearly shows that the dominant feature of a sign is just that and has no general or exclusive value. These aren’t characteristics that we usually attribute to Pisces. Nevertheless, there is a very common trait that we find in certain filmmakers of the sign such as Buñuel or Rivette: the presence of conspiracy, secret and occultism and mysticism.

Aries, sign of pioneers and innovators, brings together experimental or avant-garde filmmakers: Tarkovsky, Duras, Garrel, Epstein, McLaren, who take over from great, more or less marginal poets: Lautréamont, Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Verlaine.

Tauruses are especially great actors (Cooper, Fonda, Stewart, Welles, Mason, Gabin, Fernandel). Powerful, obstinate. But we also find great filmmakers, most often focused on the theme of the mirror (Ophuls, Sirk), on the baroque and on awesome tracking shots (Ophuls, Welles), on melodrama and portraits of women (Ophuls, Sirk, Borzage, Vecchiali, Mizoguchi), women – often prostitutes – murdered by ordeals.

Geminis demonstrate an extreme attention to image composition and plastic qualities. They often end up with a certain mannerism. Between the 29th of May and the 5th of June, we meet Sternberg, the Left Bank trio Resnais/Varda/Demy, plus the king of filters, Fassbinder.

On the 7th and 8th of June, we find three Italian specialists of unhappy childhood, De Sica, Rossellini and Comencini.

Wilder, Mocky, Chabrol, Hawks and the Stiller of Erotikon: dark or sarcastic comedy is the prerogative of Cancers. We can also notice in them the art of the storyteller (Hawks, Chabrol, Breillat), a pull towards the fantastic, futurism, occultism and mystery (Cocteau, Browning, Paul Leni, and also Bergman, the Marker of La Jetée, the Astruc of The Crimson Curtain, the Mocky of Litan and The Big Scare, the Chabrol of Death Rite) which we also find in another Cancer, Franz Kafka. A sign, then, with multiple dominant traits.

There is, in Leos, only one real leitmotif quite in keeping with their general reputation: among them, born a day apart, are two of the most widely known filmmakers, DeMille and Hitchcock, classic moonlighters, the only ones to have married highest quality with the top priorities of the box-office. Kubrick and Huston, to a lesser degree, are of the same breed. Of course, we find here many filmmakers from the United States, where it’s difficult to make a career without commercial success. Curiously, there are a number of mavericks (off-beat independents) among the Leos: Fuller, Ray, Boetticher.

Leos have very long careers (Hitchcock, DeMille, Huston, Autant-Lara) with systematic gaps (Boetticher, Fuller, Ray, Riefenstahl, Carné) or prolonged silences (Kubrick, Pialat). One also notices a long life-span (Riefenstahl, Autant-Lara, Carné) or, at the very least, an abundance of work (Ruiz, DeMille). Sometimes sport serves as a substitute to cinema (bullfighting for Boetticher, diving for Riefenstahl, flying for DeMille, boxing and hunting for Huston).

In one way or another, though always unconventionally, some among them could be linked to a right-leaning behaviour (Autant-Lara, Riefenstahl, Fuller, Pialat, or a Christian variant: DeMille, Olmi, Hitchcock, Leenhardt) which is perhaps inextricably linked to commercial success.

Nature is one of the favourite motifs of Virgos (Renoir, Sjöström, Dovzhenko). For these bon vivants, the world is bountiful, often bitter (Renoir, Stroheim, Gene Kelly, Preston Sturges, Germi). Their emotional lives are sometimes complex (Sjöström, Germi, Kazan etc.). One notices the shared birthday of both the master (Renoir) and the pupil (Becker).

Libras express themselves very well through the comic: Keaton, Tati, McCarey, Groucho Marx were all born between the 2nd and the 8th of October, the second decan.

I’m cross with my mother: had she hurried up a little instead of giving birth on the 14th of October, I would’ve belonged to the second decan and would’ve made much funnier films.

The first decan is characterized by a pronounced individualism and asceticism (Bresson, Antonioni).

Scorpios disappoint: to be sure, they comprise of some high-profile names (Gance, Visconti). But it’s a neutral category, hard to discern a central line. Perhaps a certain academic art (Clouzot, Clair, Malle, Visconti) counterbalanced by the other extreme, the marginality of Hanoun, Biette, Muratova, Medvedkin, Rozier.

One can say the same of Capricons, where it’s impossible to determine a common factor, except a taste for working as a collective (Sennett, Vertov) or as a pair (Straub and, more episodically, Leone, Sembene, Murnau): the negation of the ego. Both signs reveal an almost complete American absence.

In Sagittarians, on the other hand, is often a hypertrophy of the Ego: Allen and Godard, who are actors of the same model, Eustache. This egocentrism is the synonym for a persistent angst. One can’t skip over the fact that the only two great filmmakers of the capitalistic world to have shot themselves are Sagittarians, Eustache and Linder, which we can relate to the origins of the two filmmakers, the French South-West often being the seat of an anxiety-ridden expression. Also notable is the frequent frailty of those born in winter: Poe, Chekov and Molière had short lives too.

Among them are also several travellers, emigrants: Lang, Preminger, Dassin, Max Linder.

It is astounding to note the supremacy of Aquarians – conceived in spring and born in winter – as much in their quantity as their quality: two or three times as many great filmmakers (or writers) than in any other sign. These are unquestionable classics, Eisenstein, Griffith, Dreyer, Lubitsch, Vidor, Ford, Flaherty, Truffaut, Mankiewicz, Fellini and also Cottafavi, who succeed Stendhal, Joyce, Dickens, Simenon, Brecht, Lewis Carroll, Marivaux, Conrad, Strindberg, Byron, Beaumarchais, Jules Verne and Virginia Woolf, not to mention Mozart.

As a side note, we notice in them a certain attraction towards water bodies and marshlands, solids that become liquids (see all of Vidor, Louisiana Story, Bitter Rice, Alexander Nevsky, Way Down East, admiral Ford’s Tobacco Road and recall that 400 Blows and La Dolce Vita end at the sea).

It’s with Aquarians that we find the finest argument against sceptics.

There must surely be others: I should’ve deepened my search. But it’s very difficult to know the ascendancy, lunar inclination, the precise time and place of birth of Mizoguchi, Kiarostami or Jasset.

The history of cinema has been written by country (Charles Ford), by period (Sadoul), by genre (Mitry). Why not by zodiac sign?

The discoveries we arrive at will surely have a diminished value given that we know little about the reasons for the dominant traits of a sign. But they can have a great practical use: according to the desires expressed in a cinematographic policy, we could favour one sign over another; I think one must think twice before funding filmmakers of a certain sign, I’m not going to say which one: I’m too afraid of getting my face bashed in the next time I show up at the Filmmakers Association. Filmmakers trying to find their way, either at the beginning or in the middle of their careers, could orient themselves better according to the dominant cinematic traits of their zodiac signs. Had Delluc devoted himself to comedies, David Lean to the underground and Disney to the diary, they would’ve turned out much better films.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

 

Essai d'Ouverture

As of today, my critical activity stretches over fifty-three years, with a gap between 1969 and 1982 that can be easily explained: Cahiers du cinema had suddenly converted to the cult of Marx. Oh, Karl was a nice guy with a bunch of good ideas, but I confess having trouble working in his sole dominion.

My first texts were pinched from Rivette and Truffaut: I devoured their prose on my way to high school on Wednesday mornings (the day the Arts weekly hit the stands) at the risk of getting run over. I learnt their writing by heart. This groupie mentality, coupled with an inferiority complex, didn’t sit well with me. That’s why I revolted. I frequently reproached Truffaut for some of his texts, something which irritated him. I don’t know if he understood the painful ambiguity of my status as a conformist. Today I regret having upbraided him at a time when not everything was going easy for him.

At the same time, I multiplied my oaths of loyalty to Truffaut. He had replaced the old guard and he thought that I and Straub were going to overtake him, just like Barbara Bates was to overtake Anne Baxter who replaced Bette Davis in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. And when chatting with Straub at the entrance of a theatre, I had to hide whenever I saw Truffaut coming, who suspected me of colluding with Straub…

My other favourite critic was Georges Sadoul; I wanted to become the Sadoul of Hitchcocko-Hawsians, a daring paradox if we think that Truffaut was diametrically opposed to Sadoul… I admired the clarity of his writing, his encyclopaedic mind, his kindness, even if the content of his texts often seemed odious to me. His adherence to communism, for which he was criticized, particularly expressed his wish to belong to one family or the other (there was the Surrealist family before this). In fact, he used to snore at the CP meetings.

I too felt the need for a family. Things were a little turbulent during my adolescence. There were families that I chose myself later, that at Cahiers, the Société des réalisateurs de films, les Films d’ici etc. It was the same situation with the others, such as Godard, who came to Cahiers because it was for him an oasis of civilization, a point of reference, essential for the morale, in face of adversity or stupidity.

Why was I accepted so easily at Cahiers at the age of eighteen?

Because, the perfect bookworm that I was, I was the most well-informed cinephile in Paris.

And then it was always nice to have fans at a time when the straight-shooters of Cahiers were broke and, moreover, highly contested.

Everyone at Cahiers sensed my passion for cinema, which appeared worthy of respect.

And I was the Naïf, the innocent one, the “blue-eyed boy of Cahiers” in Rohmer’s words, the fan incapable of dirty tricks (frequent in the milieu). I was even surprised the day Lydie Doniol-Valcroze handed me my first cheque. I would’ve paid to be able to write in the “yellow magazine”.

Most of all, I made people laugh because I spoke, because I wrote. When I used to bring my papers to Rohmer, I looked forward to the moment he would blush, the moment when tears of laughter would trickle down his right cheek. If you knew Rohmer, you’d know it wasn’t easy to get to this point. For me, it was the kicker. Also, when Daney admitted to me later that the first text he rushed to whenever he opened Cahiers was mine.  

I must confess that, on the 5th of November 1955, I almost fainted when I opened Truffaut’s letter where he told me that my article on Ulmer was accepted at Cahiers. At that second, my whole life was planned out, with several pitfalls to be avoided. The hardest part was done. Now that I had my foot on the stirrup, the passage to filmmaking was like dropping a letter at the post office: I’d written the first long and serious text on Godard, so Jean-Luc, that marvellous Pygmalion of French cinema, advised his producer (who was on his knees since the success of À bout de souffle) to produce my film.

In the beginning, my texts were a little too reverential towards Rivette and Truffaut. It was ridiculous to suck up to them: it was obvious that I took their side in all matters, no matter they wrote. There were also pointless gibes in my articles against overrated directors.

But soon I tried to be more poised and, especially, to be always comprehensible. The great fad at Cahiers then was to write unreadable texts. Demonsablon was a champion of this literature. There was a snobbism of hermeticism. If the reader didn’t understand a text printed on the fine, glazed paper of the magazine, it meant that the editor was superior to him. Even Bazin gave in at times to the sirens of obscurity.

My ingenuousness brought a breath of fresh air.

Godard pointed out to me that my strong point was the art of the catchphrase, the art of finding the right title, more than of getting lost in long sentences like Faulkner, my literary god at the time. And I tried to follow this advice.

My first texts were disorderly, strings of readymade sentences already read somewhere else, sweeping, gratuitous stylistic effects, pretty pirouettes and aggressive positions to get myself noticed (the very first articles by Truffaut, from the year 1953, and Godard were of the same kind), to the point that, in the beginning of 1957, Rohmer made me completely rewrite my text on Eisenstein. He explained to me that every sentence must have an internal coherence and that each one must be organically linked to the next. The ABCs, you’d think. But no professor told me that in the high school or the university. They were too square, always dedicated to teaching stupid rules (no “I”, introduction-thesis-antithesis-synthesis). In a word, it was Rohmer who taught me to write. And it was very kind of him to not have rejected my text outright.

Bazin, too, had blocked some of my writings at Cahiers or at the Éditions du Cerf. I’m grateful to him for that today for I would’ve found myself guilty of having produced many stupidities. Bazin considered me an irresponsible, mad, young dog of nineteen. That’s why I was so moved later when he complimented me for my review of Les Tricheurs.

I have thus chosen in this collection texts defended or praised by Rohmer (A Quiet American), by Godard (Men in War and the Tarzieff) etc. Rivette told me later that my text on Les Honneurs de la guerre, the first Jean Dewever film, had made him like the film. I’d never have thought of receiving such a tribute from a man from whom I’d stolen so much.

My texts try to resume Truffaut’s principle: start from the particular (the picturesque if possible) – a detail from the film – to veer into the General. Never the opposite, as in the worst kind of criticism which stopped at the General (especially in the years 58-69).

The golden rule: every good film engenders a specific critical approach.

To make the reader laugh, to interest him, was my first concern. I’d set down the list of possible word plays before writing a text. To help inspire me, Rohmer had offered me a copy of the latest Vermot almanac.

I tried to be simple (didn’t always succeed), to narrate the story of a film in a few lines, which still remains an excellent exercise.

Before writing on an important film, I’d read the original novel end to end or skim through it – something which few did. Even Bazin, who was a serious guy, had produced five pages in Cahiers on The Red Badge of Courage without having read the book, which was as famous in the USA as Le Grand Meaulnes is in France.

I shouldn’t tell you this, but I always made sure I made a negative remark when I wrote a lot of good things about a film. I also practiced the opposite. It gives the reader the (misleading) impression that the critic is objective.

Similarly, I’d gather technical information – number and duration of shots and shooting, budget, box office of the film etc. – which made subjective positions sound objective.

I’d manage to insert a shock sentence which could help advertise the film, thereby glorifying the film and myself. My greatest shortcoming when it came to a good film by a great director was to attribute everything that was good to my cherished auteur and everything that was bad to his collaborators. The truth is not so simple.

My first years as a critic (1959-1960) were the ones that brought me the most attention from readers, perhaps because people were then interested in criticism that was less tepid, less ecumenical and laudatory than today, perhaps also because I wrote in a flagship magazine which had all the good articles.

Texts today are more dispersed, and they get lost.

Nevertheless, my writings from that time are less pertinent than the ones I’ve written in the past few years, which are more level-headed, generally without controversy and very precise owing to my practical knowledge of filmmaking and, thanks to time, my deeper knowledge of the history of cinema: I must’ve seen eight thousand films in sixty-five years.

This manifestly positive evolution of the quality of my writing is at loggerheads with my career as a filmmaker. I don’t think my later films are any more successful than the earlier ones. My most appreciated productions belong to the midperiod of my career (from 1977, year of Genèse d’un repas, to Essai d’ouverture in 1988).

Here I want to note the similarity between criticism and documentary filmmaking: in both, one studies something which already exists, a projected film or a city, a place or a social fact.

The difference, at least for me: to be a film critic is to say good things about a film; to be a filmmaker is to say bad things about the society, about the absurdity of the world, about a city, about everything… the filmmaker criticizes, and the critic praises.

Today, as a critic, I have the advantage over other reviewers of not being dependent on current events. From 1957 to 1960, I lived on commissions as a critic and so I was subjected to weekly releases by my editors-in-chief. In 2009, I’m a freelancer and can allow myself to write on unknown filmmakers from the present or the past.

These are the days of video criticism. There’s not much difference in there for me who, in 1960, was practically doing video criticism before it even existed, with my chronometer and the light pen that Sadoul had found for me in Moscow and I used to see films twice consecutively in the theatre. But, with video, it’s nevertheless easier and it avoids silly mistakes. The essential thing, today as yesterday, is not to flit from one thing to another, but study one or two points of the film more attentively. I’ve written seven pages on James Stewart’s acting during one and a half minutes of film.

Almost all these texts were written very quickly.

This speed (which I find again during the drafting of the scripts of my films: two mornings for a short film, three to twenty-four days for a feature film) gives me the pleasure of observing the faces of my astonished sponsors when I hand them over my copy. One of them asked me for twelve pages on Bergman. It was complete three hours later, and Rivette even found it good.

This promptness is also a (completely relative) form of humility. You shouldn’t think that the Culture revolves around you.

It’s a question of personal discipline, of habit. You must be able to take the plunge, to abandon yourself. To me, it’s a question of honesty before the reader. I give him what I feel without calculation or detour.

You are deemed guiltier when you commit a crime with premeditation.

It should be the same for an article (or a script).

I think this practice stems from an opposition to my father. He used to write several letters (to Mitterrand, to Hitler and tutti quanti) which he’d start all over when he made a mistake. It’d to take him all day, a little like the hero of El. And I love doing the opposite. Many of my acts were accomplished against the father (even though, the diplomat that I am, I wasn’t on bad terms with him). My first girlfriend was Jewish while he was very anti-Semitic. And I specialized in eulogizing Jewish filmmakers (Lang, Preminger, Lubitsch, Ulmer, Gance, Truffaut, Fuller, DeMille). I made a corpse of my dad in my Billy the Kid.

I say I’m fast, but I’m boasting. My texts with writing quotations (on DeMille, Deleuze or Ellroy) took a lot of time. Moreover, what I write is the result of sixty years of cinematic experiments.  

Whenever it’s possible, I let these texts sleep in a drawer. I let them simmer for thirteen days in order to look at them with new eyes.  

It could be longer. The first version of my text on Bresson is fifteen years old. Re-reading after a long time, you correct everything very fast and with much fairness.

My articles sometimes contain a dense analysis, far too dense. They must always be aerated by humour. They fail otherwise.

What use writing on Renoir or Rossellini?

Besides, Truffaut would never have allowed me to do it: it was his private hunting ground. So, I prefer being THE FIRST. The first to extol a great filmmaker forgotten or unknown at the time: Baldi, Bava, Bernard-Deschamps, Compton, Cottafavi, Dewever, Ferroukhi, Fuller, Godard, Guiraudie, Hers, Itami, Jansco, Kumashiro, Oshima, Rudolph, Skolimowski, Ulmer, Valentin, Zurlini.

I’ve corrected certain articles (very little). For example, when I made a remark based on an wrong colour grading, or when I invoked an event from the era unknown to today’s reader, or when a piece of information turned out to be false, or when my editor in chief had changed the title, made typographical mistakes or didn’t notice that a line was skipped.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Histoire(s) Du Cinéma
(History Of Cinema)
1988-98

 

History of Cinema (1988-98)

History of Cinema (1988-98)

The candidate for this concluding part of the Godard marathon couldn’t be anything other than Godard’s magnum opus History of Cinema (1988-98) – a one-of-a-kind film that isn’t like anything seen before, even by Godard’s standards. In what I like to call “Stan Brakhage meets Sergei Eisenstein” kind of cinema, Godard completely does away with the need for a film camera as he employs loads and loads of footage from the most obscure corners of film history to express his ever-baffling, ever-revolutionary ideas and eventually reconstruct history – of art and of time itself. His editing prowess coupled with his oceanic knowledge of art and history result in a barrage of images, sounds and texts that anyone calling himself a Godard scholar, leave alone film scholar, would hesitate to come forward. Nevertheless, History of Cinema remains an immensely enriching experience for those who are game and those who earnestly try to get a whiff of what Godard is getting at.

Though the film as such is considered an eight part series that Godard gradually completed within a span of 10 years, the sharing of thematic and formal content among the film is so strong that any demarcation between the segments seems valid only for documenting purposes. Each film is as much tied to the others as it is singular – an idea that carries over to the commentary on cinema that Godard delivers – Cinema as an art that is as much connected to the preceding arts as it is unique. He regularly intersperses critical works of painting, sculpture, music and photography with entities of pure cinema as though suggesting that not only does cinema bear a definite relationship with them, but also that history repeats itself in one form or the other. As a result, the tracing of history of cinema necessitates a journey back not just to the year of the Lumiéres but much before.

History of Cinema (1988-98)
History of Cinema (1988-98)

If we had to single out Godard’s most favorite quote it has to be the misattributed Bazin one: “The cinema, substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires”. And this is where the series kicks off. Cinema as a substitute for our dreams – the dream factory. Godard explores the meaning of “dream” as interpreted by the two functioning extremes of cinema then. He presents the occident interpretation as one that had converted cinema into a portal offering an alternate reality, a second life, to the audience whose “dreams” were the fodder for the larger-than-life images that the films projected -one that continues till date. He crosscuts this with the adversarial position taken up by the Russian giants whose visions/dreams of the society after the 1917 revolution were the primary driving force that prompted the directors to make films that could make audience act and think, not get addicted to. Godard contrasts these notions and movements and laments the death of the latter while reconstructing fragments from pivotal moments of history and cinema.

In the centenary film Lumiére & Co. (1995), the filmmakers were asked a question: “Is cinema mortal?” If Godard had been asked the same thing he would have most probably said that cinema is already dead – killed almost as soon as it was born. In History of Cinema, Godard puts forth the idea, or rather the bitter truth, that cinema had infinitely more potential to influence history than any of its predecessors, but was ruthlessly narrowed down to a medium that tells “stories”. That, in an attempt to reproduce reality to utmost perfection, filmmakers have put on it a fake fabric of synthetic morals and eventually pulled over it a world of spectacle so as to mask the blunder. He argues that cinema could have prevented unfortunate tragedies and averted genocides rather than merely crying over damages dealt and observing helplessly the misery of its subjects.

History of Cinema (1988-98)
History of Cinema (1988-98)

And in resonance with this ideology, instead of bemoaning what is lost and what could have been, Godard anticipates the death of cinema (He apparently asked Henri Langlois to burn the archives). Death, so that it can rise again from the ashes. “Art is like fire. Born from what it burns.” says Godard and that is precisely what he desires – Cinema to go down with all its exploitations and restrictions and rise in its purest form. Back to infancy, so that it can learn everything out of free will, without rules and without vanity.

Having said that, Godard also calls for a preservation of cinema and hence a preservation of history, for cinema has recorded both beauty and atrocity with equal emotional bias, if not with justice. True that cinema has always been a runner-up to history, but at least it has mirrored history to some extent. But unlike traditional methods that document history as a direct function of time, Godard attempts to reconstruct history as seen in retrospect. He utilizes existing film fragments to fabricate various histories of film – the one that was and the ones that weren’t but could have been. He examines how cinema could have been made independent of historical accounts and even made to influence them. In essence, he projects history backwards to uncover the history of projection. Godard examines such dualities in a number of places in the film – Infancy of art and art of infancy, newness of history and history of news and reality of reflection and reflection of reality – employing a variety of footage ranging from newsreels to pornography.

Godard elucidates this servile relation that cinema bears to history using images of dictators and authoritarians. He highlights how the visual medium itself is being manipulated by a few people in power and how in turn, modern cinema manipulates the audience. Godard reproaches this moral policing and expresses his disapproval of the hypnosis that the TV-driven audience is subjected to. He appeals for a cinema that provokes but doesn’t direct, a cinema that gives you options but doesn’t select one, a cinema that makes you think and doesn’t think for you and a cinema that is only complete with its audience. As he quotes in one of the segments, “Cinema does not cry. Cinema does not comfort us. It is with us. It is us”.

History of Cinema (1988-98)
History of Cinema (1988-98)

There is an intriguing recurrence of the image of human hands in the film. Godard urges artists to think with their hands – their real tools that have the potency to both create and destroy, to beautify and to horrify, to document and to change. He argues that these are the instruments capable of changing and redefining history and it is the weakness of the mind that hinders the possibility. This motif is punctuated by quintessential Hitchcockian and Bressonian images of hands and their gestures that carry with them an air of graceful individuality. And amidst this theory, Godard expresses his deep admiration for Hitchcock and Rossellini (especially Rome, Open City (1948)).

It is naturally impossible to grab every reference and idea that Godard throws at us. Hence, History of Cinema becomes a film that one should watch multiple times with considerable spacing. Without doubt, uncovering each layer of its text, sound and image to see how Godard has constructed the history of cinema, just in order to rebuke it, is a progressive task that becomes possible only with much exposure to all the six arts that precede cinema. I, for one, am going to visit the film every year trying to gain something more out of every time and get a glimpse into the esoteric world that is Godard’s.

=========================FIN=============================

That brings me to the end of the series. This has been one heck of a ride for me – exploring a world that almost no one talks about. I must thank everyone who has been visiting the blog, especially Nitesh, Ed and Shubhajit who have presented some very interesting and illustrative facets of Godard’s ever-baffling works. And Godard himself, for I’ve never become so tired after watching a film. To get a measure of that, I spend around 3 hours watching an 80 minute film! His films extract so much out of you that following 1% of Godard is much more enlightening than absorbing 100% of the others. I do hope that I get my hands on more of his films some time in the future.

Of course, I have missed out on more than a dozen worthy Godard films and shorts including Here and Elsewhere (1976), the bizarre Keep Your Right Up (1987), the radical King Lear (1987), and the more recent Our Music (2004). I hope I can cover them in the Flashback series or elsewhere.

Till then, au revoir and a happy new year,
Le Petit Soldat

Éloge De L’amour
(In Praise Of Love)
2001

In In Praise of Love, Godard focuses on a single topic for discussion – that of preservation of history. He debates the validity of preserving history using media and the replacement of memory by technology. Additionally, he raises questions about Hollywood’s methods of representing history and argues that the industry manipulates history in order to make the audience sympathize or react but never to indict the guilty. There are also some hard-hitting statements made about the history of the United States that are readily controversial. And these questions in turn bring up the conflicts between image and reality, documentation and re-creation of history and proprietorship and openness of history.

In Praise Of Love (2001)

In Praise Of Love (2001)

The film is marked by extraordinary cinematography with the first half of the film taking up a neo-realistic character. Godard achieves complete distancing and passivity of vision that the Italian pioneers could never achieve. The second half of the film literally changes tone with its excessively saturated Wong Kar Wai-ish colour palette and expressionistic style. In some ways, In Praise of Love is Godard’s version of Wings of Desire (1987). He films the past in colour and the present in monochrome as if suggesting that the variegated experiences and stories of the past have now lost their colours and been demarcated by black and white regions – like what a child sees. This absence of an adult’s vision that plagued the very nature of revolution seems to have made history a matter of pop culture.

This creation of extraordinary out of the ordinary, refusal of cinema to act as a social mirror and one-dimensionality of perception about history, Godard suggests, is decidedly a result of the years of training of the audience’s minds by the films of the west. There is a fantastic sequence where we see a theatre that is screening both Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix (1999). Though both the films deal with the notions of fate, free will and existential imprisonment, the popular choice seems be the spiced up version.

For Ever Mozart
1996

For Ever Mozart is one of Godard’s most complex films. This is true of all his films that have a seemingly coherent narrative, but For Ever Mozart surpasses all its companions into a realm that only Godard has the access to. But by no means is it a self-indulgent film. While the whole world of filmmaking is crowding the narrow lane defined by the “rules of success”, Godard wallows alone in the vast unexplored stretches, taking his gigantic leaps and pondering on the barrenness of the field. Until someone gives him company and learns his language, I can just guess.

For Ever Mozart (1996)

For Ever Mozart (1996)

For Ever Mozart, on the outset shows us two threads the first of which follows a group of self-proclaimed theatre artists out in Yugoslavia to put up a play amidst the frustrating war situation around. The second thread, the more accessible one, involves a director with an urge to use filmmaking as an art (wanna guess who?!) against the wishes of his producer and audience. He believes the director to be the father and the actor to be the mother of any play and sure enough, after much labour by both the director and his actress, they deliver the film of their dreams. But what does the audience want? Terminator-4. This creates a tautology of sorts within the film between the two threads. One depicts the struggle of art to survive within the harsh realities of the world whereas the other portrays the battle of art with its own subverted form – Cinema among wars and war among cinemas.

There is a magical scene at the end of the film, perhaps Godard’s best. We see an anachronistic image of Mozart performing amidst an audience that is clad in jeans, chewing gum. The mute Mozart invites a layman to assist him in his concert. The director ascends to the hall with difficulty via a stairway (to heaven?) after which he retires. Is Godard suggesting that a time will come where art will be a commodity of the public and not just for the public? To steal from the film itself, “It’s almost nothing or… something I don’t know“.

JLG/JLG – Autoportrait De Décembre
(JLG By JLG)
1995

Godard’s influence of Van Gogh shows in his next film JLG by JLG: An Auto-portrait in December. Made largely inside his room, JLG/JLG looks like a home movie like some of his films of the late 80’s. The film seems to take place during the editing of Godard’s interesting reworking of the Greek legend – Oh Woe is Me (1993). Godard makes it clear that the film is only a self-portrait, not an autobiography – not an objective account of his psychological motivations, but an introspection that is subjective and only skin-deep.

JLG By JLG (1995)

JLG By JLG (1995)

The most interesting aspect of the film is that we get a glimpse into Godard’s daily life, which by itself is quite extraordinary. We see what he reads –  a huge private library which stores some of Godard’s most famous quotes that have enthralled audience through the decades. We see what he speaks – as we have seen before through his various quirky characters. We see what he watches – the films that find their way into almost all of his movies in the form of references and posters. And we see what he thinks – like the relationship he conjures up between stereo speaker system and the Star of David. His financial difficulties clearly show up as we even see an official raid into his shabby household. These claustrophobic images are intercut with paradisaical images of the winter that seem to bear a strong relationship with Godard’s own mental landscape during that period.

Although all this gives the feel of an honest documentary observing a day in the life of a filmmaker, it is, like most of Godard’s filmography, an essay that presents as many ideas as its predecessors and provides a commentary on larger issues hidden beneath the veneer of the quotidian events that we see. Godard begins with his favorite theme of individualism versus the community (crystal and smoke, according to him), moves on to the regular issues of truth, image and fate and finally takes up an elegiac tone that shows a clear yearning for the past carrying over from his previous films. And who wouldn’t be disarmed by a film whose closing quote reads “A man, nothing but a man, no better than any other, But no other better than him.

Les Enfants Jouent À La Russie
(The Kids Play Russian)
1993

The Kids Play Russian employs the same (lack of) structure as Germany Year 90 Nine Zero and forms the last part of what I would call Godard’s Elegy Trilogy (wow! that rhymes!). This time it’s Russia, the head of the family, the massive Redwood tree that has fallen. Godard suffers a one-two slap with the fall of the USSR and his angst shows. The impressionist images are replaced by the mesmerizing surrealism of Dovzhenko and literature replaces the music of Germany 90. However, he does go a step further and probes what should be the future course of the country, still crying out “We will not change”.

The Kids Play Russian (1993)

The Kids Play Russian (1993)

Godard calls Russia the birthplace of fiction and emphasizes that a history of Russia would most definitely reflect the history of fiction itself. And hence, fall of the USSR (rather communism) means the fall of fiction. He traces back the history of image projection as the first Franco-Russian alliance and calls his relation to Russia as the last one surviving. In that sense, Godard himself is the Lemmy Caution of activist cinema – once a visionary, now undone. He employs the fictional figures of Anna Karenina and Prince Andrei to represent Russia and its plight hereafter. He imagines what they would be doing if they were alive during the collapse of their motherland. But again like all three films of the series, the film is one that is built on hope and promises.

The final image of the film captures a borderline-wild Godard continuing to work in his recording room, lit partially by the harsh light. More than “The show must go on” attitude, what shows here is “And miles to go before I sleep” mentality that has kept Godard afloat amidst his larger-than-life troubles in both his personal and professional life. A sexagenarian with fractured relationships, doomed ideologies and whose only redemption is in Cinema, pushing forward with more vigour than ever – only a few images can be more moving than this. The Idiot will go on. So will Cinema.

Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro
(Germany Year 90 Nine Zero)
1991

And I thought Godard didn’t have a masterpiece. Once more after many years, Godard follows Lemmy Caution (remember Alphaville?), now the “world’s last spy”, after the collapse of communism in Germany and the breaking of the wall. If Alphaville was The Return of the Jedi, Germany 90 is the Revenge of the Sith.  In the first film, Lemmy was a virus eluding the clutches of the supposedly omnipotent Alpha 60 whereas here, he is a lone warrior meandering unharmed in the bigger Alphaville and the sole survivor of a species that would soon be extinct. Evidently a requiem for what Godard considers the death of Germany, Germany 90 is perhaps the best contender for the adjective “sublime”.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991)

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991)

Tinged with a slight green throughout, the film juxtaposes images of sincere yearning by a man whose raison d’être has been questioned with fleeting sequences from the classics from the early expressionist German cinema. Godard classifies music, love and poetry as belonging to socialism alone and as languages not understood by the new world. Though elegiac in tone, the film is uncharacteristically (for Godard) hopeful in actuality. There is a definite promise of restoration in the form of Dora, the symbol of Germany in the film, and the assurance of “music after life”. On a lighter note Lemmy comments “You have to admit, Marx did triumph. When an idea is born among masses, it becomes a material force. That’s one way of looking at it.

Lemmy Caution who represented all that is living and all that is human in Alphaville represents all that is lost and destroyed in Germany 90. The recurrent images of exile crucifixion and torture may be for the whole of socialism itself, whose pro-mass approach was nailed down by the elite bourgeoisie. Now as Lemmy walks alone through the remains of the now- nonextant world, we see what Godard is referring to by “solitude of history” – Lenin icon amidst Greek ruins, people moving towards the west in blue cars, machines resembling dragons almost swallowing Lemmy, history books being sold as souvenirs. The fugitive events that shook the world seem to have single-handedly made Godard’s political period a thing of arthouse circuits. It is more than solitude of history, it is solitude of Cinema.

Nouvelle Vague
(New Wave)
1990

Watching New Wave, it felt like a Tarkovsky film, especially Nostalghia (1983) at many places – may be because of the organic pace and camera work of the film, may be because of the very presence of Domiziana Giordano (and the horses!) or may be the hypnotizing locales of Italy, I don’t know. But the film surely echoes some of the elements of the Tarkovsky classic for Nouvelle Vague is essentially a yearning for the past and nostalgia of la dolce vita of yesteryear.

New Wave (1990)

New Wave (1990)

The basic premise of the film follows a rich couple Richard and Elena, visibly dissatisfied with their lives, attempting to search for that elusive object called happiness and hence trying to discover their place on earth. They assume roles of the dominating and the dominated in turns Yet again, Godard crafts a film that works on so many levels that it becomes intensely personal in more than one way. Richard and Elena may be representing the French New Wave and traditional cinema respectively as they try to find their own place and struggle to accept their mutual existence. So the film on one level becomes a superficial study of how the New Wave affected established cinema and vice-versa. With characters named de Sica, Mankiewicz and Aldrich, this argument seems plausible, but one shouldn’t restrict the film to a mere interpretational exercise, again a Tarkovskian trait of the film.

The regular intertitles read “Things, not words” and this is exactly what the film seems to be following. Godard bids adieu to his immensely talkative pair of periods, for the events around the world have made words completely futile. He places the images in the driver’s seat such that the basic feel of the film prompts one to classify it as elegiac. Coming soon after the twin collapse of East Germany and the USSR, Nouvelle Vague will be remembered as a befitting farewell to the most revolutionary ideology in the annals of mankind and the most subversive period of filmmaking in cinema history.

Détective
(Detective)
1985

Godard continues to play with the genre after a long time and this time it is the detective/thriller/crime genre. Loaded with quintessential elements like the omnipotent mafia head, the leaf of the tree who tries to make it big, a washed up pugilist, the disguises, the 666/999 room number gag and much more, Detective is a scribble-pad for Godard who floods it with a deluge of in-jokes, Shakespearean references and crossover lines. And as with all Godard films that have traces of a story line, it is the very narrative that makes one struggle to either cruise over the fragmented crust of the film or to penetrate into what is both demanding and enlightening.

Detective (1985)

Detective (1985)

Many feel that Detective is one of the weakest links in Godard’s filmography, but I found the film to be the most iconoclastic film by Godard since Breathless (1959). Till Detective, Godard had been objecting the conventions used for representation in the medium and attempted to concoct a genuinely independent form of expression and interaction whereas here, he objects the nature of the medium itself. He did meditate about the idea that the camera is a tool that always captures the past in his earlier films but in Detective, he breaks even that intuitive notion and “records the future”. The detectives are investigating a supposedly unsolved murder but the very murder happens as they are digging. What’s more baffling is that the audience is placed in the shoes of the detectives, they are made to see all that they see and hence are made to witness future – all this in the typically self-reflexive Godardian way.

And the effect isn’t just a perplexing one. Completely different from the Brechtian estrangement theory but achieving the same result true only to the seventh art, Godard appeals for a genuine detachment from the medium and a complete abandonment of belief on cinema and its images that we’ve grown to accept as truth (Le Petit Soldat?). At the end of the film one feels both dissatisfied for wasting such a great murder plot and disillusioned after having his/her perceptions shattered. And obviously, Godard’s intention is the latter.