Friday, December 03, 2010

Happy 80th Birthday, Jean-Luc Godard...


Jean-Luc Godard in the "Toutes le histoires" (1988) episode of his video-essay series Histoire(s) du cinéma

Technically, the first Godard feature I saw was, in fact, the director's first, Breathless (1960). Guided by Pauline Kael's review of the film, I found it interesting at my younger age less for its formal innovations than for its depiction of restless, amoral youth, which I found fascinating and even a bit attractive, for all its rawness and violence. But it was only with the second film of his I saw, Band of Outsiders (1964), that Godard truly became an important part of my movie-watching life. Finding myself thoroughly entranced by its movie-movie romanticism juxtaposed with its unsparing depiction of the sheer ordinariness of the lives of its three main characters, the film opened up a window of consciousness into a way of looking at both the world and the possibilities of movies, a consciousness that Godard would crystallize with those famous lines of dialogue in Masculine Feminine (1966):

We went to the movies often. The screen would light up, and we'd feel a thrill. But Madeleine and I were usually disappointed. The images were dated and jumpy. Marilyn Monroe had aged badly. We felt sad. It wasn't the movie of our dreams. It wasn't that total film we carried inside ourselves. That film we would have liked to make, or, more secretly, no doubt, the film we wanted to live.

As someone only beginning to dip his toes into hardcore cinephilia at the time, I felt a powerful sense of revelation at seeing and hearing these kinds of sentiments in a movie—in other words, seeing a film refer explicitly to other films, to the power of cinema, to the vast divide between what we hope for from the movies and what we settle for in our own daily lives. (Maybe it struck Todd Haynes the same way, too; he gave an explicit shout-out to some of those lines in his Bob Dylan bio-fantasia I'm Not There (2007).) Years ago, Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets had forever expanded my perception of cinema in regards to how closely it could approximate something like real life; miraculously, you can practically feel yourself amongst Charlie, Johnny Boy and the rest, living their up-and-down lives right alongside them. Many of Godard's films from the 1960s added the idea of self-reflexivity to my movie-going arsenal—the idea that a movie could be about movies in ways that were not just "fun" (like, say, Quentin Tarantino's films...though I don't necessarily mean that as denigration), but genuinely provocative and even beautiful.

Hanna Schygulla in Passion (1982)

Godard's postmodernist bent is far from the only entry point in getting a handle on his body of work, of course—especially as, in his later films, he's more or less shed that early Hollywood romanticism and has uncompromisingly explored some of the political and philosophical undercurrents of even his most approachable earlier work, sometimes to the point of obscurantism. I admit that I've seen less of his post-Weekend than I should, and that sometimes his later work just plain puzzles me (I remember especially coming up short upon first, and so far only, viewings of First Name: Carmen (1983) and Detective (1985), both available for contemplation via this Lionsgate three-DVD set). And yet, even at his most inscrutable, Godard, I still believe, has things to reveal to us about the world and about this great popular art form, the cinema. Even at his most challenging and problematic, he is one of those directors who I value enough to take whatever he does seriously (his latest, Film Socialism (2009), is no exception, "Navaho English" subtitles and all; it played at this year's New York Film Festival, and I took a stab at it here).

Besides, Godard was such a powerful influence during my college years that I even wrote my senior thesis about him! That eventually got published in four parts at The House Next Door! (Not to mention, his Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) was the first film I ever saw at Film I probably owe him that, too.)

No Honorary Oscar validation necessary, M. Godard; you have an honorary place in my movie-going heart, especially on this, your 80th birthday. Joyeux anniversaire!

Godard pretending to mentally ill in First Name: Carmen (1983)

P.S. I was originally going to post something about Godard's 1980 film Every Man for Himself—which I saw in a new 35mm print at Film Forum, and which I think is one of his finest, and most deeply moving, works—this week...but I guess I somehow spent all my blogging energy for the week on those four short posts Monday and Tuesday. Sorry about that, all you readers of mine who are only now coming to this blog from my recent inclusion in the Large Association of Movie Blogs; here's hoping next week will be a more substantive one, post-wise!

Besides, I spent the rest of the week basically thinking about another birthday: my own! More on this to come...


Adam Zanzie said...

Well, as you already know, Godard is still a begrudgingly acquired taste for me, but I keep reminding myself that I haven't seen enough of his films--or, perhaps more importantly, read all of the important pieces of film criticism inspired by them--that I'm not in much of a place to judge. Socialisme hasn't begun playing here in St. Louis yet. Not sure if it's ever going to, but I hope to catch it soon. Happy 80th!

Kenji Fujishima said... the very least, you know deep down if you enjoy Godard's films or not. Many people I respect and admire don't like his work. I certainly wouldn't discourage you from seeing more of his oeuvre, but in the end, if his films just don't click with you, then they just don't click with you. It's all good!