His Life to Live

Wrestling With the Legacy of Cinematic Colossus Jean-Luc Godard

Godard's irascible discontent should be a selling point to the malcontent consumer of high school tattoos and anti-corporate activism, Eminem and Howard Stern, Dave Eggers and Michael Moore. But it isn't—whatever their motive and m.o., his films represent a discombobulated, non-narrative experience even supposedly sophisticated audiences hesitate to absorb. Why this should be has something to do with the popular, acquired sense of cinema as an analgesic, a visual vacation, with formal cues that secure our distance and safety. This pre-modernist tendency doggedly endures into the new millennium, even though the indefinitely in-print Joyce and Eliot occupy shelf space in every Barnes & Noble, Stravinsky is still played and recorded, and Picasso posters remain available in Penn Station. But a mere fraction of Godard's output can be bought on video (see sidebar for a sampling).

Of course, Godard had his decade in the spotlight, along with Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Resnais, Buñuel, Kurosawa, Polanski, et al.; in retrospect, the '60s seem to be the furious peaking of both cinematic fecundity and viewers' lust for original movie experiences. Godard, owning the era's generational mojo as no other filmmaker did, had a run of some 15 masterpieces in that span, from Breathless to 1968's Le Gai Savoir, and including Contempt, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, Masculin-Feminin, and Weekend. The general impression that Godard is a cold, intellectually forbidding filmmaker is decimated by a second look at his '60s movies, which are quintessentially spontaneous, intimate, quirky, heartfelt, warmly realistic, and sometimes as messy as a fucked-in bed. These movies don't merely depict things, or present situations, or tell stories—they throb with life.

Which has always been Godard's primary point—a film is not (or should not be) a free-standing narrative experience that provides a temporary alternative to living, but is as much a factor in the throng of our daily existence as sex, food, work, friendship, illness, music, love. The ordinary visual syntax of movies has been molded since the first years of the last century to stifle this fascinating essence and limit our responses; as a result, almost all filmgoing has been concerned only with a smoothly told story and the stars' beauty. For Godard, that anesthetizing repression was always political, and from the first minutes of Breathless, when Jean-Paul Belmondo's non-protagonist turns to the camera to blather while driving, and the film jump-cuts itself into incompleteness, Godard was burning down the palace. Anything could happen here; in many ways, it could be called the first movie.

The reality of cinema is all there: the experience we have watching, the experience Godard and his team had filming, the passage of minutes, the affectionate distance between the actors and their roles, between the genre tropes and their erstwhile significance, between the camera itself and what it photographs—all of it happily naked to the eye and mind, none of it slickly masked by editing sleight-of-hand or plot. The film's ostensible subject at any given moment is never prioritized over the beauty of a morning landscape, a woman's watchful eyes, the political injustice currently burning in the filmmaker's conscience, or the fact that he's eating an apple. For Godard, it's all good. In a recent interview with Epok magazine (translated in Film Comment), he explained the enigmatic moment in Every Man for Himself in which Jacques Dutronc tells his class that the unseen Marguerite Duras is in the next room, by saying that she was in the next room—why shouldn't she be? Willfully disruptive—and at the same time masterfully observed and naturally captured—Godard's most emblematic films are as generous, affirmative, and embracing as cinema has ever been.

That's In Praise of Love in a nutshell, a ribbon of rumination and ardor that, because it's Godard's scrutiny of moral meaning and aged honor, is ours as well. Of course, the details of Godard's perspective have always been infinitely complex, dissectable, interpretable. After the revolution of May 1968, Godard's work became more didactic and less whimsical, and after 1979's Every Man for Himself he rediscovered an impish buoyancy that survives today (the tone of his films seems to be shaped by the fluctuating degree of his leftist disgust). All the while, he has made cinema in spades, and lived an extraordinarily examined life, which to him are one and the same practice. No one has ever been as committed to exploring the medium's eloquence and ambivalences, and the least we could do is watch.

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