"It would be a fool who thought they had all the necessary competences to comment fully on this extraordinarily rich oeuvre which is constitutively allusive," wrote Colin MacCabe in the preface to Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70, a preface in which he explains why commenting fully is precisely not what he's set out to do in his book. This is the year Jean-Luc Godard turns 80 and it seems we've spent much of it wrestling with that oeuvre and the man and with each other over what to make of both.
For his Portrait, MacCabe chose, as something like his Rosetta Stone, Histoire(s) du cinéma because it is "a history of his chosen art form which is also a history of his own life and a history of the cinema. It is difficult to find a comparison for this work, which certainly has no parallel within film or television, but perhaps the most apt is Dante's Divine Comedy which takes the elements of one life to provide a perspective on human history. Dante is also apt because it is the writing of the Divine Comedy in Italian which signals the beginning of a recognizable European culture; it is not an exaggeration to say that Histoire(s) du cinéma marks its end."
None of us will live long enough to see that claim judged as either on or off the mark, but it does bring us quite handily to Film Socialisme, which "is in large part a film about the state of Europe and the movement of money," as Michael Sicinski wrote for Cargo in September. "[T]he point with the 'broken' English subtitles is, Godard, I think, wants this to be an intra-European discussion, not so easily accessible to Anglo-American eyes and ears." Whether or not Godard believes "a recognizable European culture," then, is still salvageable, all these years after Histoire(s) is a question for another time. The point for the moment is that Film Socialisme was to become the most angrily debated film of 2010 — and this before Godard more or less ignored the Academy's honorary Oscar and before the revival and eventual batting down of charges of anti-Semitism. While a handful of critics consciously chose to reserve judgement for the time being, few of the first reviews immediately following the premiere at Cannes were not shot through with emotion of one sort or another and, to some eyes, there was a sense that many of the attacks and defenses could have been written well before the film was made, much less screened. Which is not to say, by any means, that JLG has become predictable — only that the tents were pitched in both camps years, if not decades ago.
Perspective, and maybe a little emotional distance, made the roundup of reviews during the New York Film Festival a calmer batch and Eric Hynes's for the Voice is a fine one to revisit on Godard's 80th: "Even as his art has evolved over the past half-century — yoking it to Maoist ideology; pursuing groundbreaking experiments in video and television; exploring classicism, nationalism, and digital editing — some preoccupations have long remained. The filmmaker's uniquely radical historical-political obsessions motivate Film Socialisme, as they did Notre musique (NYFF 2004), In Praise of Love, and most of his work since the late 1980s. But so did they inform his Algerian war thriller, Le petit soldat (1961), and the allegorical Les carabiniers (1963), his second and fifth films, respectively. And despite their reputation for being ponderous and pessimistic, the recent films are still the work of a wry, frisky mind, as bounteous as Breathless with visual and verbal puns. Far from having abandoned his aesthetic gifts, his later films, including Film Socialisme, are as visually accomplished as anything he's ever made. And most importantly, even as he enters his sixth decade behind the camera, Godard still shapes films as inquiries: Words say one thing, yet his pictures keep intimating something else. 'If anyone understands me,' a character says in Notre musique, 'then I wasn't clear.'"
The read of the day, though, has to be Ekkehard Knörer's collage-like record of a private retrospective he's been treating himself to and, unfortunately for most of you reading this, it's in German. Still, it must mentioned here — and recommended. Unsatisfied with any of the Godard biographies published so far, including MacCabe's, the Cargo co-editor has gathered the films he either hadn't seen for years or hadn't yet seen at all and, basically, taken notes as he fills in what had been up to now gaps in the oeuvre. With occasional clips (and here are a couple more) and musical interludes; plus, just now, a link to Christian Petzold discussing Godard on German radio. Ekkehard, by the way, has an appreciation in a more conventional format for today's taz.
So we need a read of the day in English, and that would have to be the translation at Landscape Suicide of Christian Jungen's interview with JLG for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung which ends, famously by now, with this Q and A: "Where do you see yourself in the history of cinema?" "Next door."
To wrap for now, the briefest of biographical sketches, a quick skim from Emma Charlton for the AFP marking the occasion — from which I'm simply going to extract the quotes from Jean-Michel Frodon, former editor of Cahiers du cinéma: "In the mid-60s, Godard was Picasso: they were the two most famous artists in the world. He was the star of his generation. And even today, you can't talk 20 minutes with David Lynch without him mentioning Godard. Or with David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch. In Brazil, Japan or China, filmmakers all say Godard helps them think about their own work. Pedro Almodóvar, for instance, told me how Godard was a sort of intellectual companion who helps him think when he is on a shoot. It helps him, just as it helps Lars von Trier." Charlton: "What exactly did Godard bring to filmmaking?" Frodon: "A new way of telling a story, the length of his shots, the rythmic use of editing. And a way of asking what it means to show a woman's face, her body. But more than anything, in each of Godard's shots there is an extraordinary beauty. He is without a doubt the director who best filmed the sky, the trees, nature — and women too, although in that area he had more competition." One more. From Frederic Maire of the Swiss cinematheque: "I get the sense he does not really want us to celebrate this moment in time. He thinks of the future, his last film is incredibly modern... when you look at his work, it seems he is 20 years old."
In the German-language press: Daniel Cohn-Bendit in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (see, too, Cohn-Bendit's conversation with Godard that Craig Keller translated in May), Gunnar Decke (Neues Deutschland), Tobias Kniebe (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Wolfgang Nierlin (filmgazette), Ulf Porschadt (Die Welt), Hanns Zischler (Tagesspiegel).
Update, 12/5: "25 great Godard gifts!" is another one of Catherine Grant's whopping roundups at Film Studies for Free.
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