Were Colin MacCabe’s Godard bio a movie, it wouldn’t be Pierrot le Fou or Le Mépris, but instead a solid, beautiful-mind-vs.-the-Establishment valentine. Heavy on backstory, Godard has enough bemusing “cinema addict” anecdotes and jolting asides to keep the sanctification process honest (like Truffaut replying to a bitter JLG denunciation by calling his erstwhile comrade “the Ursula Andress of militancy . . . trailing clouds of self-serving mystery”). Yet while enough jealous-prickly willfulness is uncovered here to suggest a Franco-Swiss The Bad and the Beautiful, MacCabe’s Godard is cast squarely in the prestigious intellectual-pioneer spirit of Freud (that Clift-dwelling Hollywood biopic subtitled The Secret Passion), a Jean-Luc of Arc for all seasons.
Or think Joyce with a movie camera. But if Godard does for film what Joyce did for the novel—ushering in the modernist era of self-conscious experimentation, form and language for their own sake, and radical revisions of their respective traditions—it is as a gnomic, inspired mis-matchmaker. (Miss Bardot, meet Mr. Brecht; Mr. Bresson, please allow me to introduce Frank “Son of Paleface” Tashlin.) MacCabe lingers over Godard’s family tree (the embodiment of Protestant respectability), though movies will be more of a mother to the enfant terrible; the book is stronger on Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française, illustrious critical forebear André Bazin, and the gang of film fanatics who started the influential Cahiers du Cinéma. Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette not only celebrated the auteur in theory, they turned their ideas into directorial praxis: the toad of criticism elevated into art, the moment of art inflected with its own critique.
As Godard’s barrier-smashing ’60s work gives way to the long post-Weekend hangover of structuralist agitprop and a gradual, uneasy return to a semblance of former brilliance, MacCabe puts the most sympathetic face on every Mau-Maoist folly, missed opportunity, and aesthetic dead end. There’s also a personal element here; MacCabe has worked with Godard on a few projects. Unacknowledged, however, is the new archetype Godard represents, where the classic identification with the movie hero has been raptly displaced onto the director himself.
Some reservations about JLG’s latter-day myopia creep in near the end—the hilariously problematic aspects of, say, making a postmodern-dress film of King Lear when “Godard, who had not read Shakespeare’s text, never seemed to be able to get past the first page.” (MacCabe reports that his “reading often stopped at the table of contents.”) At 70, ensconced in his gorgeously baleful hermitage of a sensibility, Godard now samples film history on video like a DJ Shadow of the moving image while periodically turning out interchangeable 90-minute pictures as if working for Plato’s Republic Studios: a genre unto himself.