A Necessarily Incomplete Guide to Godard

A to Z and Everything in between as Film Forum celebrates the living legend

Given that a mere six months ago, J. Hoberman wrote in these very pages, "From Breathless (1959) through Weekend (1968), [Jean-Luc] Godard reinvented cinema," what more is there to say about a retrospective devoted to precisely those 10 years from the work of the most analyzed, debated, effused-over, and influential filmmaker in the history of cinema? The short answer: Everything and nothing. Herewith, a hopefully handy index to Film Forum's five-week series, "Godard's '60s":

A is for Alphaville, that prescient sci-fi noir set in a world where emotion is a capital offense and technology is the new religion. In 1965, this may have seemed a fanciful work of knee-jerk anti-futurism. Today, it is close to documentary.

B is for Breathless—a title, but also a philosophy; it is the speed at which Godard moves through a film, and arguably through life, devouring art, cultural ephemera, philosophy, politics, sex, sport.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in Godard's Pierrot le Fou (see: C, K)
Film Forum/Janus Films
Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in Godard's Pierrot le Fou (see: C, K)

C is for . . . well, let this one be the reader's choice: It could be Cahiers (du Cinéma), where Godard first espoused his adoration for the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s; or Coutard (Raoul), the brilliant cameraman who shot all but three of the features in this series, from the black-and-white, catch-as-catch-can location work of Breathless, Le Petit Soldat, and Les Carabiniers to the snazzy Pop Art formalism of Pierrot le Fou, La Chinoise, and Weekend; or Contempt, the Godard movie cherished even by people who claim not to "get" Godard—the unmaking of a marriage set against the making of a movie, one inseparable from the other.

E is for everything—what Godard said a movie ought to include, and the partial title of a new "working biography" of the filmmaker, Everything Is Cinema, that will be on sale at Film Forum throughout the series. Another Godard book—just what we need, right? But this one, written by New Yorker critic Richard Brody, is enthralling, exhaustive, and, above all, unwilling to swallow the mass opiate that says Godard's post-1960s work is somehow less than what came before. Indeed, Brody argues, repeatedly and with great conviction, that Godard is still big; it's just the pictures that got smaller.

K is for Anna Karina, the Danish muse, the most enduring of the Nouvelle Vague's new women, whether shimmering like a rainbow lollipop amid the Technicolor glory of A Woman Is a Woman, blowing smoke as the laissez-faire moll in Band of Outsiders, or meeting her ineluctably tragic fate in Vivre Sa Vie (which Film Forum presents for a full week's run in a restored 35mm print).

L is for love, the most fragile commodity in Godard's films—and always the first casualty of greater causes.

M is for Masculin Féminin—this critic's personal favorite; a movie about "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola," but for anyone who has ever stirred with the restless fervor and fatal arrogance of youth.

P is for prostitution—not a bad way to make a living if you're une jeune fille in the new capitalism. Besides, the films imply, we're all selling ourselves one way or another.

R is for revolution—the cinematic one ignited by Breathless; the social one that swirls in the coffee cup of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and breaks out in an abandoned apartment in La Chinoise. R is also for red, the chosen color of revolutions, and of the blood spilled therein—or perhaps, as Godard himself once told an interviewer, just a color.

V is for violence—physical, intellectual, emotional; the chief cultural currency of the 20th century. Violence is everywhere in these films, even as Godard recoils from it. They are movies that seem to take place in the ever-narrower space between the "shooting" done with a camera and that done with a gun.

W is for Weekend—the end of the world (and, according to the final title card, of cinema) as one epic, epochal traffic jam. In fact, it was merely the end of the beginning, of a single period of a career that, like those of so many great artists, has been marked by constant reinvention.

Z is for zero—where the characters in the TV studio of Le Gai Savoir (and Godard himself) seek to return, and the starting point for the second phase of a career that has included the heavily Marxist films made in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, experiments in video and other new media, and an increasingly circumspect look at the buying and selling of history (in the late masterpieces In Praise of Love and Notre Musique). In those 40 years, Godard has rarely done what was expected of him, which has alienated some supporters, narrowed his audience, and continued to blaze new cinematic horizons.

The index is incomplete, but then so are the films, with their Brechtian interruptions, sonic dropouts, major events consigned to passages of on-screen text, and other tacit acknowledgements that, while everything is cinema and cinema should aspire to be everything, such ideals—like most in art and life—remain just out of reach.

 
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