The Godard Renaissance: Impossible Work

Glen W. Norton, Cinema Scope Issue 6 (Winter 2001): 62-64.

The Films of Jean-Luc Godard
By W. Wheeler Dixon
State University of New York Press, 1997

Speaking About Godard
By Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki.
New York University Press, 1998

The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible
By David Sterritt
Cambridge University Press, 1999

Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou
Edited by David Wills
Cambridge University Press, 2000

For scholars interested in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, the late 90s was something of a renaissance. Since New York’s Museum of Modern Art published Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image in celebration of their 1992 retrospective there have been no less than six English-language books published on his work, yet not one was published during the bulk of the 80s. In spite of this recent revival, not much has changed: I keep reading the same treatment of Godard’s “brilliant” innovations, his same quixotic aphorisms, the same incarnations of his various “periods.” Yet for all this explication, rarely do I understand exactly what Godard was (and still is) up to. The disparity between the phenomenal act of watching his films and the response generated by them is wide; despite all our work, there remains only a preliminary critical understanding reflected in the collective consensus of canonization. “Perhaps it will be 50 years before we have the language” to say just what a work as enigmatic as Nouvelle Vague “is,” claims Harun Farocki in Speaking About Godard; perhaps this is true for Godard’s entire oeuvre. Undaunted, the work of mapping and comprehending goes on, as it must.

Godard’s output is so large (at present count over 75 films, videos and television programs) that critics are compelled to choose between works which, to the casual observer, perform the same “function.” Thus Alphaville is considered above Bande à part, Numero deux above Ici et ailleurs, etc. That choices have to be made at all may be something beyond the power of the critic to subvert; still, such an either/or stance reduces Godard to a pedantic whose work serves only a rhetorical function. In other words, he becomes a didactic “essayist” rather than an artist. Why can’t his profound and yet at times highly systematic work be both at once? Why not posit A bout de souffle AND Le petit soldat as equal progenitors of both the aesthetic and the political trends that have come to define his career? Why not canonize Histoire(s) du cinema AND Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro together as different ways to relate history in and through images? Why not cite both King Lear AND Soigne ta droit as examples of Godard’s turn toward self-mocking humour in the late 80s? Canonization, whether critics realize it or not, defines which works will be studied by future generations.

A central trend in present Godardian scholarship is the quest to either reaffirm or readjust the “first period” canon (late 50s-68), whether to reveal that “an awareness of Beat sensibility … provides important clues to the making of A bout de souffle” (Sterritt), to reclaim Le mépris after its Scorsese-sponsored revival in 1997 (Silverman and Farocki) or to single out Pierrot le fou as a “milestone in the history of cinema” (Wills). Dixon goes overboard in this regard, expunging from the canon films which most Godard scholars (myself included) hold in high esteem: Une femme mariée and Bande à part are relegated to “interesting footnotes to Godard’s career,” La Chinoise is designated as “a tedious exercise in formalist propaganda” and One Plus One is called “boring, didactic and commercially compromised.” Even Tout va bien, certainly a highpoint in Brechtian cinema, is deemed sub-par work chiefly because “Jane Fonda … keeps the entire project at a distance.” This last point is intended as a criticism, but surely Godard would take it as a complement.

Dixon’s flatfooted errors left me, frankly, with a bad taste in my mouth. His biggest gaff is claiming that Weekend “was Godard’s last collaboration with his long-time cinematographer Raoul Coutard,” even though Coutard shot Passion in 1982. Added to this is Dixon’s irresponsible attempt to legitimize his arguments by quoting without qualification or contextualization. Instead, he simply drops names from a cross-section of the postmodern gamut to “prove” various points, depending on which big name is sufficient for the task. A well-placed quote from critical theorists as diametrically opposed as Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida seems to be all the proof needed to illuminate, disparage or commend any particular film. Godard’s work deserves much more than such dubious methodology.

Another tendency in present Godardian scholarship is to amalgamate the approximately ten Dziga Vertov Group films (1968-72) into a continuous whole. Since Godard’s political bent during this period seems a given, criticism based on his Marxist/Maoist “agenda” always supercedes the individuality of the films themselves. Even when Godard himself calls this to attention, critics remain suspicious. “Disingenuous in the extreme” is the label Dixon uses to dismiss Godard’s claim never to have read Marx. The critical tendency is to dismiss, albeit wistfully, the Group’s “failed” efforts to radically mix art and politics.

Still, there are others who call for a change in this perspective. Sterritt claims Godard’s mix of the political and satirical “proves he is far from the party-line Marxist.” If this is the case, I think we should accept at least the spirit of Godard’s disavowal of Marx. By necessity, this would make one revisit the Dziga Vertov films without an a priori notion of their political “incorrectness”. When seen for themselves, in the context of Godard’s evolving collaborative career as a whole, they would cease to become anomalies subsequently corrected by the video experiments of the 70s – a notion both Dixon and to a lesser extent Silverman and Farocki espouse. Instead, they would directly inform this later work. Perhaps they are naïve, but they deserve to be seen individually before being condemned to the so-called failed epoch of May 68.

While present critics still subordinate the Group’s varying aesthetic agenda to counterrevolutionary aims, each Dziga Vertov film is in fact overdetermined by varying factors. For instance, Silverman and Farocki explicate the poetic function of Maoism in Godard’s work. The point is well taken, and has much in common with Godard’s tenuous and volatile relationship with the situationists and their notion of détournement, explored by Alan Williams’ essay “Pierrot in Context(s)” in Willis’ compendium. Silverman and Farocki however, like most everything else in their book, relegate the appeal of “untroubled” Maoist knowledge to “unconscious desire.”

Saying one should see the Dziga Vertov films before calling them a failure assumes one can see them, which for the most part is mistaken (I have only seen four, and not for lack of trying). Works like Une film comme les autres, Pravda and Lotte in Italia are, as far as I know, completely lost, while rough video transfers of others (British Sounds/See You at Mao, Vent d’est, Vladimir et Rosa) are hoarded by innovative cineastes and bartered like treasure over clandestine e-mail lists [since this review was written, the availability of said films has improved greatly]. In this same regard, the recent availability of Numéro deux on video (in 1994) has allowed it to be newly canonized by both Silverman and Farocki and Sterritt, each devoting a whole chapter to the film. In fact, the string of “official” video releases in the 90s becomes a determining factor for that decade’s rash of scholarly interest in Godard. Rarely were works such as Comment ca va? or Ici et ailleurs talked about until they had their release in 1994, while the reason for Wills’ compilation is in part based on Pierrot le fou’s relatively recent release on video and DVD.

Conversely, the neglect of other works produces a similar pattern: Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinema is not available except for those lucky few with a pirate copy; the interesting Soigne ta droite is rarely seen; important short works from the 80s and 90s such as Lettre à Freddy Buache, Meetin’ WA, Puissance de la parole and Le rapport Darty are hard to come by; and though both are available from Electronic Arts Intermix in New York, the sheer lengthiness of France/tour/détour/deux/enfants and Six fois deux puts them out of the price range of most. These films, then, are relegated to a canonical afterthought [again, with the advent of YouTube, availability is not problematic anymore].

Perhaps it is rather deterministic to qualify the work of canonization with availability. Still, one can see how easily canonization can become bogged in a vicious circle. Take the case of Nouvelle Vague, which many critics (myself included) now regard as a central figure in Godard’s work. It wasn’t always so. In fact, the race to canonize Godard’s 80s and early 90s work has been dominated by the need to “save” Nouvelle Vague from a less than welcoming initial response. Sterritt reveals just how important (for better or worse) critical reception to a film can be with an account of how New York Times critic Vincent Canby’s “savage” review all but destroyed the film’s reputation. Consequently it was given only a sparse theatrical release and is now extremely hard to find on video. Luckily enough, Nouvelle Vague is such a profound work that its relative unavailability hasn’t done much to hurt its subsequent reputation.

In retrospect, the initial negative reaction to the film is not so surprising; Nouvelle Vague is not easily categorized, a notion crucial to canonization. Even more recent work elevating its status is, to say the least, disparate: for Silverman and Farocki, the film represents a Hegelian master/slave dichotomy wrapped in Lacanian notions of desire; for Dixon, the film pits a certain morality against a “barren and corrupt” world; for Sterritt, Nouvelle Vague is a memory film, based in part on Godard’s “recollection of childhood idylls on the comfortable estate of his maternal grandparents.” Though consensus on the film is now congealing, critical debate still rages between camps. For example, Sterritt calls Dixon’s account of the film “completely unaware.” “Here is one critic,” he announces, “who appears to have found the movie’s manifest content too much to absorb, not to mention the meanings and implications of that content.” Harsh words, but fair ones. The inability to pin Nouvelle Vague down is what makes it one of Godard’s most intriguing films, but to miss one of its defining qualities is inexcusable.

Streamlining Godard’s body work into easily digestible chunks is delicate and impossible work. It presents an extreme challenge, one which established criticism is ill-equipped to handle. The four books under scrutiny here are at times remarkably enlightening; however, though each has a unique vision, their canonical similarity makes the need for examining Godard’s entire body of work that much more imperative. The task is now set — like his best films, success should be measured not by the final analysis, but in the attempt itself. Understanding Godard will always be a work in progress.

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