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Histoire(s) du cinéma: Letters to Jean-Luc Godard

Seven reflections on Godard's memory from writers, artists, and filmmakers.
As 2022 came to a close, we asked seven writers and filmmakers to reflect on Jean-Luc Godard's memory. Starting from a single aspect of his filmmaking—a particular film, image, sound cue, or affecting experience with his work—their responses evoke the breadth of his revolutionary legacy. We're thankful they found the words.
The pieces below are written by Ephraim Asili, Richard Brody, A.S. Hamrah, Rachel Kushner, Miguel Marías, Andréa Picard, and Lucía Salas.

When I was in high school in the 1980s, I drove 50 miles with some friends to see Breathless at a student screening in a big auditorium at UConn. How did we know this screening was happening? How did we know how to get there? How did we even know anything was happening anywhere, ever? We saw listings in newspapers and paid attention to flyers. We had maps in our cars. But above all, it was unknown forces in our psyches that compelled us to seek these things out. We knew little about the French New Wave, just that it had happened twenty years before. Stills from those films looked so good in books. They were magnetic, they pulled us toward them. 
Jean-Luc Godard was as mysterious as the bands we would go to see only because we had heard their names or had heard maybe one song on college radio or read one review. He and the other Cahiers writers-turned-filmmakers had the same allure as new music did then, though they were not new and at that time were struggling as filmmakers in ways we did not know about and would not have understood. Breathless was like the song “Problems” by the Sex Pistols. Godard’s first film ended with an insult to Jean Seberg, whom the movie had just spent 80 minutes building up as hip, attractive, desirable. Johnny Rotten shouted “the problem is you!” in a song that advised against “living for the screen.” It was all coming together in some inchoate way, blocks of meaning falling into place in a way they only can for teenagers.
Without reliable prior knowledge, every screening, every event was a spin of the wheel. Things could prove scary or incomprehensible. Those were the best things. Breathless was just a warm-up. It was the next four Godard films I saw that turned me into the person I became. In this order: Masculin féminin, Weekend, Contempt, Vivre sa vie. A few years later, without realizing it, I found myself working as a pollster like Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in Masculin féminin, asking people about war in Iraq, as he does, and flipping cigarettes into my mouth. On a trip to New York a girl named Sabine and I recorded a song in a record booth at Macy’s, the way Paul records a monologue alone in the movie. Ours had a backing track, “Material Girl.” 
It was all a bit much. So what? There was something all-consuming about Godard that lasted far beyond those first five films I saw. Godard represents an ultimate in filmmaking for me in that he figured out how to take the money, resist all interference, and deliver the goods. I always think of what he said Roberto Rossellini said about A King in New York: “It is the film of a free man.”
A.S. Hamrah
It seemed to me that within minutes of the news of the death of Godard, everyone was meant to make their statement of who he was and what he meant to them. I was dumbfounded by this task. I did a word search on my computer and came up with 1,400 documents on my hard drive, drafts, lists, quotes, and essays, in which I’d mentioned him. 
Among what I found was a photograph that Telluride co-founder (and giant of twentieth-century film history) Tom Luddy had once sent to me, of himself and Godard at a Free Huey Newton rally in Oakland in 1967. The next year, 1968, Godard returned to California, while making One American Movie or One A.M., which was never finished (it was shot by Ricky Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, who later released their own footage of the film, calling it One P.M.). Tom, who was friends with the Black Panthers, arranged for Godard to interview Eldridge Cleaver for One A.M. In 1970, Godard returned to Berkeley a third time, on this occasion with Jean-Pierre Gorin, for a screening of Dziga Vertov Group films at the Berkeley Community Theater. Some of the Black Panthers attended the screening, and they brought along a French writer who was staying with them in Oakland. That writer was Jean Genet. Tom realized that Genet and Godard had never met and introduced them to each other that night in Berkeley.  
I learned all this while preparing to guest direct at Telluride, a program in which I included a Godard short called Une bonne à tout faire (An All Round Maid). I had not known this film until Tom sent it to me; it is a breathtaking eight minutes, in which lighting and timing and humor and music enfold into a miracle. Tom calls it “Godard’s only Hollywood film.” I was transfixed by it.
Une bonne à tout faire was shot in 1981, on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart, at Zoetrope Studios, which was, at the time, briefly located in Los Angeles. Godard wanted to shoot a test for his next film, Passion, on the elaborate set of Coppola’s film. One weekend, when One from the Heart took a day off, Godard and the cinematographer Ed Lachman shot on the vacant set with Coppola’s actors, crew, and extras. (The footage they shot was not intended to be part of Passion, though a few seconds did end up in a different film, 1982’s Scénario du film Passion.) Godard edited this footage from 1981 into Une bonne à tout faire in 2005, to be shown at his large exhibition at the Pompidou. According to Tom, he edited from a video transfer of 35mm dailies, as the original negative had been lost. Nevertheless, Une bonne à tout faire is one of Godard’s most beautiful films.
In the film, Godard recreates the Georges de LaTour painting, The Newborn, as if for an imaginary film production. An actress, dressed as Mary in an orange robe, sits with St. Anne on her left, “lighting the scene” with her candle. Mary holds a doll to complete the nativity, mindfully handing off her cigarette before the film inside the film, the still life of The Newborn, is meant to commence. The Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky happened to be in Los Angeles, and Tom had brought him to Zoetrope to play the director. Vittorio Storaro, from Coppola’s production, plays the in-film DP. Godard and the crew rehearsed the choreographed crane shot, lit and shot by Lachman, with Mozart’s Mass in C Minor on playback. When they finished the first take, “You could hear a pin drop,” Tom told me. “And then everyone on set, the crew, the actors, all the onlookers, all at once burst into applause, and some, like me, burst into tears, because they had nailed the scene so perfectly. The beauty and drama of it overwhelmed us.”
One could say that this little film is about the collapse of reality and representation. This is what Tom is also describing: film and reality, no different; the metaphor for a thing as potent as the thing itself; the light of a candle in a painting as wondrous as a candle’s actual illumination; a woman as beautiful as we might expect Mary to be; the doll, as quiet as we expect for this superbaby, Jesus himself; and the Mass, as sweeping and majestic for me—for you—as it was for those on set.
Rachel Kushner
En ce temps la…
In those years… love was a burden. The burden of the 20th century, the catastrophe. Those days, when were they? 1900, the end of the ’20s, September of 2001, 1950. Also 2000, when they called those days the lost century. Two years later, in 2002, they found that lost century in something much smaller, a painter who was real only for a moment.
To be new deep within that which is new. What is the real, then?
In this film, commissioned on the first day of the 21st century, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville look not at this entire history, but at a personal tale of someone who traversed the old century. Aimé Pache, who moved to Paris around 1900 (in the novel by Ramuz) and who came back to painting for a grand tableau for the Swiss National Expo (in the film by Godard-Miéville).
Representations, not images. 
It was not news anymore that there is no single history of cinema. Making a piece of fiction was a way to love the century. A man goes to Paris half a century before they do, but he is as inscribed in the history of cinema as they are, since to exist in the past doesn’t mean to cease existing in the present. 
Father, what is the right way to know if someone is a good man?—You have to ask him: what have you read? And if he answers: Homer, Shakespeare, Balzac, the man is not to be trusted. On the other hand, if he answers: what do you mean by reading?, then you have every right to hope.
A fiction like all the others: the fiction of concreteness, the fiction of abstraction. A fiction not at all devoid of truth, as it is the very material of its fabric. Something that can be seen or heard, but can we?
Three paces back, three paces forward. And the children appear out of the night.
The way to love the century was to write its story in infinite layers, each one as dense as the outside world, with lights and shadows, day and night. Liberté et Patrie is a portrait of their ways of doing, of being. 
And now that we have an idea of what has been, how do we begin again?
Lucía Salas
I first encountered the films of JLG at the age of 25 while enrolled as an undergraduate film student at Temple University in Philadelphia. The course was on European New Wave Cinema; I believe we watched Breathless at our first screening. I had never seen anything like it in terms of editing and pacing, but it was my second Godard film that really changed my perspective on filmmaking. 
After watching a clip from Masculin féminin in class, I rented the DVD from my local video rental store. Watching the film in its entirety was transformational, as I had never encountered a film that felt so alive with “chance” activity from the outside world, it was as if the plot may not be able to survive to the end of the film. As if the constant intrusions from or interactions with “extras” could derail the cute, yet disturbing, boy-meets-girl story unfolding onscreen. One such encounter in Masculin féminin that will always haunt me takes place about thirty minutes into the film. Paul, played beautifully by Jean-Pierre Léaud, is riding the train when he notices two Black men in an argument with a white woman. He seems both afraid and intrigued by their conversation. I vividly remember thinking to myself that the argument felt so familiar, like I had literally heard it before. I had. It turns out that the dialogue in the film was lifted from Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, which I had read in my time prior to studying film. In fact, the entire scene was sourced from Dutchman, which is also set on a subway train. It was my first interaction with the relationship between the French New Wave and the Black Arts Movement, territory that I continue to explore to this very day. It was years later that I found out that Masculin féminin’s Baraka-reciting “Man on the Metro” was played by the legendary Med Hondo.
To pause and unpack a Godard film can lead to endless yet fruitful research, and for that I am grateful. I’ve gleaned so many things from Jean-Luc Godard over the years, but the most important lesson that I have taken from the great master is the power of quotation, or what I might in musical terms call the power of sampling.
Ephraim Asili
Jean-Luc Godard died last September by assisted suicide. The end of his life is reflected in his art, because suicide is a prominent theme in Godard’s films. One of his supreme masterworks, Pierrot le fou, from 1965, a terminal film of conjoined cinematic and romantic crises, concludes with a modernistic self-annihilation that rises to exalted heights of absurdity and sublimity. With that gesture, he ended the Hollywood-centric time of his career. Two decades later, propelled again, without an iota of compromise, to the forefront of French cinema, Godard scrutinized his own cinematic mythology and artistic persona—and the politics of the time—from his new perspective in the center of it. He made a series of films that included Soigne ta droite (Keep Your Right Up), from 1987, a collage of tragicomic sketches and documentary portraiture which is built on the conjoined through-lines of a filmmaker’s desperate effort to make a movie and the many permutations of suicide.
Inspired by French electoral politics, Godard plays that filmmaker and brings to the role, and to the film, a blend of antic comedy and bleak philosophical whimsy. He alludes to the Jonestown disaster and other historical catastrophes and atrocities, and he contrasts a constructive romantic-artistic duo (the rock couple Catherine Ringer and Fred Chichin, known as Les Rita Mitsouko, whose collaboration he documents at length in their studio) with the built-in, self-sacrificing pathologies of filmmaking—as his search for a place on Earth is matched by the pathos of leaving this planet, as in a plane ride with a pilot who’s reading the real-life how-to book Suicide: A User’s Manual. Yet, for me, the heart of the movie—its most memorable moment and, in my experience, the most poignant, melancholy moment in Godard’s entire career, the one that has unfailingly brought tears to my eyes ever since my first viewing—is one that confronts suicide with a literary nobility rendered all the more moving for its matter-of-fact offhandedness. Two famous actors playing theatrically to type in a classy apartment—an august elder leading man (François Périer) and a younger comedian (Jacques Villeret)—calm down to share a passage from André Malraux’s diaries, in which the writer discusses the climactic scene of his novel La Condition Humaine (translated as Man’s Fate). The scene presents Malraux’s depiction of suicide as the very title of his book, taken out of quotation marks: the human condition, the life-or-death choice that constantly confronts us all.
Richard Brody
No filmmaker’s work has had such a tangible and serendipitous impact upon my life as that of Godard. The first film I saw at Cinematheque Ontario (now TIFF Cinematheque) where I have spent over half of my life working was Pierrot le fou. I was looking at paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario when a loudspeaker announced that the film was about to begin in the lower-level cinema. I was 17 years old, new to Toronto, and had no idea what the Cinematheque was, but after Anna Karina’s Marianne Renoir’s sun-soaked “Qu’est-ce que j’peux faire, je sais pas quoi faire” refrain and the film’s explosive sense of liberty—not to mention its colors and compositions, which reminded me of the paintings I had seen in the museum—I suddenly knew what to make of my evenings. So began a voracious cinephilia. I’ve also been known to lazily fall down on my bed with duvet in hand in order to make it, a lesson learned from Une femme est une femme (I am far from the Jeanne Dielman of bed-making!). Through my twenties, I wore a bandeau in my hair à la BB after seeing Le Mépris, a film which I fashionably disliked and which irked me until later, when I finally grasped its haunting (and death-haunted) devastating grace, its frontal clash of beauty and vulgarity hovering on the precipice of Malaparte’s grand seaside staircase. (Side note: TIFF’s rooftop, where I often find myself in September, is named Malaparte for the film’s famous villa in Capri, hélas its surroundings nowhere near as stunning).
But it was Cinematheque Ontario’s 2001 “For Ever Godard” retrospective mounted by James Quandt that affected me the most. As the sole French speaker at the office, I was tasked with attempting to create English soft-titles for the then-untranslated—and I would argue, untranslatable—Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard’s magnum opus video collage in 4x2 chapters and several languages, each of which included Godardian puns and double entendres aplenty. The philosophical dilemmas induced by the translation were crushing and I ultimately sought Godard’s advice over the telephone. Back then, people routinely called overseas and I, likely out of exhaustion, mustered the courage. We exchanged by phone and by onion-paper-thin faxes (his faves!), and while his cigar-gruff voice terrified me at first, he was also charming, playful and strangely familiar (given the obsessive task at hand). Out of the blue, he challenged me to a tennis match. And while the big duel ultimately never transpired, much to my chagrin, I nevertheless got the stylish vintage outfits and racquet, and soon realized that playing tennis allowed me to temper the constant flow of thoughts, freeing me from the anxiety that time’s passing induces. It remains the only sport that I play and follow, World Cup notwithstanding. 
I watched each film in the retrospective and detected a deep loneliness and melancholia, traces of a voracious mind that dove into cinema, painting, music, history, and (sometimes thorny) politics with scrapbook compulsion and a scarily prophetic sense of juxtaposition. Ici et ailleurs and Film Socialisme practically divine the future. Godard drew his self-portrait (in December, of course) over and over again, and laid bare his deepest vulnerabilities. “No Comment,” he liked to say (but also, au contraire), yet he had already said so much; maybe the most. There are too many images, sequences, swells of music, quotations, and textual interplay lodged in my memory to cite here, but one moment that never ceases to seize my heart occurs in 1995’s Soft and Hard. While Anne-Marie Miéville performs domestic chores, a bratty Godard, in a red striped T-shirt and camo shorts, feigns practicing his serve and forehand in their narrow hallway. It’s a comedic scene, but suddenly the voiceover asks: “Because I make images instead of making children, does it mean that I am not a human being?”
Andréa-Tavie Picard
Watching again, as a sort of tribute after Godard’s chosen death, a film I had first seen in a Paris theater in early 1995, JLG/JLG, autoportrait de décembre (1994), I finally understood why that first screening had left me so sad. I realized now that it was, rather than a self-portrait, an anticipated farewell. 
When Jean-Luc Godard filmed himself in December 1993, he had just turned 63 years old. He felt no more like one of the “young Turks” who wrote in Cahiers du Cinéma or Arts in the middle and late ’50s, nor one of the filmmakers hailed as the “New Wave” of French cinema. He was living in Rolle, canton of Vaud, Switzerland, instead of Paris, with his third “Ann” companion (filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville, after Anna Karina and Anne Wiazemsky), although in the film he looked very lonesome, clad in a black overcoat and a black hat, walking alone and very carefully over snowy paths in lonely landscapes near the shores of the lake of Geneva, whose windy, raging waves underline the silent emptiness of the winter countryside. 
Hanging on the walls of his office were posters for Nouvelle Vague (1990) and Hélas pour moi (1993), two of his greatest films of the ’90s, and he mentioned his own (yet in progress) Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1998) and Les Enfants jouent à la Russie (1993). No nostalgic remembrances of his early films of the ’60s; he was only focused on his most recent or ongoing production. Godard seemed to be looking at the present and to the future as he reflected about the difference between Culture (the rule) and Art (the exception), perhaps wondering about his own place in the history of cinema.
But as I walked on the rainy Parisian streets just after this rather short film had finished with something I then believed was a quotation from Ovid, I was overcome with a strong impression of sorrow. 
“A man, nothing but a man, no better than any other … but no other better than him.” It was expressed calmly, but with a hint of desperation or hopelessness. Godard’s words, together with his handwritten names of Roberto (Rossellini), Jacques (Becker, I suppose), Boris (Barnet), Nicholas (Ray), Jean Renoir, and Charles Spencer Chaplin, all of them already dead, along with a quotation of the most celebrated dialogue (“Lie to me…”) in Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954): I had the feeling that JLG/JLG was the equivalent of some sort of epitaph. 
An epitaph written in advance, almost 29 years before its time, which is now.
Miguel Marías


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