Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (London: Faber and Faber, 701 pages, 2008)
The first time I was in Paris, around age 20, was the year after Jean-Luc Godard’s debut film, Breathless, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, opened in 1959. It was one of the films that launched the French “New Wave” movement in cinema, and its 29-year-old director made a splash that would change movies, if not forever, at least for a while.
I’m unable to remember now if I saw Godard’s American-inflected, fast-moving, existentialist portrait of criminal lowlife when it came out. If I did, I probably didn’t have a clue about what was going on artistically. But whenever it was that I saw Breathless, its images stayed in mind: Belmondo on the lam scampering along a gothic Paris roof at night, the pixie-ish Seberg selling newspapers to motorists in the middle of the traffic-clogged Champs Elyssee boulevard. Of course, images, like memory, play tricks on us. Examining those tricks of light (and life) is what makes for both a semblance of historical reality, and a cinematic biography.
My dual subject here is, first, what I have to call the revelation of New Yorker film critic Richard Brody’s superb (and superbly readable) biography of director Godard, Everything is Cinema. Concurrently, I find myself thinking of a remark by the Vancouver poet Robin Blaser: “Many people lived in the 20th century who didn’t live in the 20th century.”
What Blaser’s gnomic comment means is that although we live in a specific time, a specific century, we can be, even those of us who are nominally “educated,” so oblivious to the political and cultural context and events of our times, it’s almost as if we didn’t live at all, certainly not in our time.
What Brody’s biography of Godard reveals–or at least made me belatedly realize for the first time–is that not knowing who Godard is is like not having heard of Picasso, Samuel Beckett, or the major 20th century composers. If you lived in the recent last century and don’t have the images, words and sounds of those artists in your mind, you are left with a malnourished, deficient intellect. Such ignorance renders us less capable of responding to the world in which we exist. If nothing else, Brody’s book fills a gaping hole in my cultural knowledge of our times.
The other thing that Brody’s wide-ranging account of cinematic history does is to remind us that film is the great new art form of the 20th century. While television was the technological phenomenon and perhaps prime cultural influence of the last century, its aims were and still are entertainment, advertising and information–often a blurry, gooey mix of all three–and only rarely does it aspire to something more. Whereas film, while often entertaining, can become, in the hands and eyes of directors like Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, Altman, Bunuel or Godard, a work of art equivalent to the best productions of any other artistic genre. It may be hard to remember this in a season of summer blockbusters about “superheroes” and other cartoonish creations, when critical thought is mired in pondering whether The Dark Knight is dark enough. Everything is Cinema does much to re-focus our wandering attention.
This is a biography that provides one of those rare instances when a book’s sub-title–The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard–actually means something. The bulk of Everything is Cinema is a meticulous, but very lively, film-by-film, chronological account of how Godard conceived, organized and made his films, as well as a discussion of their impact upon viewers and critics. It derives its grittiness from the fact that Godard’s “working life” is, as often as not, a story of how he misconceived, blundered into, and nearly lost the shots he was after.
Along the way, Brody tells us everything we need to know about Godard’s frequently tempestuous personal life, and though sympathetic to his subject, he isn’t shy about revealing the man’s foibles, on set and off, nor does he back off from challenging Godard’s ideological views. What’s more, Brody sets both the films and the life in a rich context of history and contemporary cinema. Too many biographies of artists are, to my mind, rather upside-down, with the biographer over-focused on the private life in an attempt to show how biographical events gave birth to artistic works, leading to an inevitable reduction of art to mere psychology. Brody, it seems to me, gets the mix absolutely right, keeping his eye where it belongs, on the silver screen of Godard’s imagination.
Born in Paris in 1930 to upper-middle-class French parents, Godard was raised in Switzerland (where he eventually returned and lives today), but went back to Paris in the early 1950s for his education and, more importantly, to join a group of youthful film critics and future filmmakers, including Francois Truffault, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, at the now legendary magazine, Cahiers du Cinema.
A manifesto-like essay by Truffault in 1954 that called for a politique des auteurs (a “politics of author-directors”) proved to be one of the decisive moments in the birth of the New Wave, a phrase coined a couple of years later to denote the bubbling up of this new generation of directors.
Within five years, in film’s annus mirabilis of 1959, the critics-turned-directors were at the Cannes Film Festival showing off Truffault’s The 400 Blows, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour (with a script by New Wave literary counterpart Marguerite Duras) and Godard’s Breathless.
Brody calls Breathless “the cornerstone film of the French New Wave.” With it, “Godard achieved for the cinema, himself, and his movement what [Jean-Paul] Sartre had accomplished in the late 1940s for philosophy, himself, and existentialism: he made his movement the emblem of the times, defined his medium as the one of the moment, and personally became its exemplary figure.” Just as Sartre carried a post-war generation into the uncertainties and freedom of a new way of looking at the world, Godard did something similar for film and a generation that came of age in the 1960s.
In the following half-dozen years, the prolific Godard made more than a dozen films, chronicling what he called “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” in such works as A Married Woman, Masculine Feminine, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and Contempt. Gradually, Godard moved from a fascination for American pop genres dealing with lumpen-proletarian crime stories and the aridity of middle-class love affairs to a more socially-engaged, talkative, intellectual cinema that left behind his film models as well as many of his artistic contemporaries.
Increasingly in these films there’s a sort of Godard stand-in who makes explicit the director’s aesthetic and political contemplation. In The Little Soldier, for instance, a 1960 Godard film banned by the French government because it revealed practices of torture in the then-current Franco-Algerian war, the Godard-like figure, a photographer, declares, “Photography is truth, and the cinema is truth twenty-four times a second.” That aphorism immediately became the catchphrase that defined the cinematic art of the decade.
Brody’s portrait of the New Wave’s rise is satisfyingly vivid and, just as important, he’s astute about its internal debates, which eventually bitterly divided Truffault and Godard over political issues and the very question of what a film ought to be. Godard’s mid-1960s films, such as La Chinoise and Weekend, with their acerbic criticisms of modern consumerism and anticipation of would-be revolutionary politics, as well as their implicit critique of storytelling, also hinted at the arc of the filmmaker’s own development.
For those of us growing up in that tumultuous decade, the 60s–whose meaning is still controversial grist for today’s “culture wars”–even if we hadn’t seen Breathless during its first run, by mid-decade we had caught up with Godard’s films. We were even stuck with him in a spectacular 7-minute tracking shot (it seemed more like it went for a half-hour) of traffic gridlock in the French suburbs as affluent thoughtless weekenders sought to escape to the countryside, even as their society was coming apart at the seams. When the student and worker revolts of 1968 broke out (in Paris and around much of the Western world), Godard was seen as one of its prophets.
Then, just as we caught up with Godard, he disappeared. This is where the story of an artist of his times gets interesting, and where Brody’s book begins to plug the gap in our understanding of recent cultural history. The shorthand version is to simply say that Godard became a sort of Maoist and, like others, lost his artistic moorings for the next decade.
While there were few or no Godard movies to be seen in theatres for years, nonetheless, as Brody documents, Godard’s working life continued as he made both movies and explored the possibilities of television as a medium for visual essays. The new work was more political, more didactic, and for the diminishing number of viewers that it reached, less interesting than the initial breakthroughs. Like a character in Pier Pasolini’s Teorema lost in the desert, Godard wandered in an aesthetic wilderness.
But by the late 1970s, Godard began a “comeback,” a strange, obscurity-shrouded return to cinema that’s been in progress for more than a quarter-century now. There’s a Canadian connection to Godard’s circuitous resumption of his public life. He was invited to Montreal to teach students about his own films as well as those of others, and found the experience rejuvenating in some way. Soon afterwards, in 1980, Godard made Every Man for Himself, which Brody describes as Godard’s “second first film.” Though initially panned at the Cannes Festival, French critics, taking another look, proclaimed it a masterpiece.
Since then, Godard has made more than a half dozen full-length films, right up to the recent Our Music (2004), as well as an idiosyncratic History of Cinema in a multi-part video. The strange thing about this substantial body of later work is that, apart from audiences in France, festival-going film buffs and some sophisticated movie critics, very few people have seen any of it. Brody provides as meticulous a narrative of this stretch of Godard’s working life and his artistic concerns as he does of his earlier career. Whatever the quality of the later films, Brody argues that they’re intellectually interesting in their investigation of memory, history, old age and the process of representation itself.
Despite a perfectly readable account of “whatever happened to” Jean-Luc Godard, some critics of Brody’s book have bridled. Film reviewer Stephanie Zacharek, writing in The New York Times (“A Girl and A Gun,” July 13, 2008), complains about the “very long [second] half” of the book. While she praises Brody for doing “justice to the most fertile period of Godard’s career, an era of magnificence and innovation that few other filmmakers have matched,” she’s bored by Brody’s attempt “to energize us for the interminable home stretch,” meaning just about all of Godard’s work after 1967. “Nice try,” she sniffs, adding, “If only the movies were better.”
Perhaps Zacharek is correct in her judgment of Godard’s later films, but it is precisely Brody’s coming to grips with the whole oeuvre that makes his biography such an outstanding cultural history. It does for film something of what Brody’s New Yorker colleague, music critic Alex Ross, did last year for modern music in his National Book Critics Award-winning history of contemporary composers, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007).
Like most other moviegoers, I’ve seen almost none of Godard’s films after his early, now celebrated ones. That’s because, for most of us, Godard, through a combination of political and personal circumstances, disappeared from movie theatres. In an ironic sense, he’s a director whose films we’ve yet to see.
Godard was once asked by an interviewer how important immediate success was to him. At the time of the interview, a Vincent Van Gogh restrospective was the blockbuster art show of the season in Paris. Godard immodestly replied, “There are two million people waiting outside in the rain a hundred years later.” Perhaps we’ll just have to wait and see. Richard Brody’s book about Jean-Luc Godard persuasively invites us to take a look.
Vancouver, August 5, 2008. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in North Vancouver, B.C. His most recent book is Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education (2007).