Dead People Rule
On Jean-Luc Godard (1930 – 2022)
Anyone who has done a decent amount of research on Jean-Luc Godard knows that it was not terribly hard to find him, despite his reputation as a recluse. You could look up his address online, and he appeared on Google Street View walking down the street. I never have much to say to giants. It was enough to know he was out there — smoking a cigar, whining, planning — while I was elsewhere doing those same things, only much worse. “He wasn’t sick, he was simply exhausted,” someone close to the family told the French newspaper Libération of his death. A condemnation of this world. Certain people have opened us up to such infinitude that they should be inexhaustible. Of course this is a selfish, childish thought. But in the early hours of the morning, as thunder pealed over Brooklyn and woke me from a humid, uneasy sleep, I looked at my phone, saw that he had died, and thought, as a kid might, But I loved him.
When I was young, my plan was to join the navy, and, after a career as a fighter pilot, design weapons — perhaps for the local employer, Northrop Grumman. Then, in the span of about a year, I directed Trojan Women, read The Brothers Karamazov, and saw Pierrot le fou. It would be nice to be able to say that my politics — my life — developed out of some collision between the facts of the world and rigorous study, perhaps with a mentor guiding me from California militarism to California communism. San Diego was, after all, home to Jean-Pierre Gorin, who taught at a school only fifteen minutes away from a base that hosted the yearly air show. But the truth is that when Anna Karina looked back over the convertible, when Jean-Paul Belmondo hurled cake at a party whose attendees could speak only in advertisements, when an explosion echoed out over the seaside cliffs, a different life was offered to me: one that made me as ashamed of the old one as I was ravenous for the new.
“Art today is Jean-Luc Godard,” the French poet Louis Aragon wrote in 1965. In Pierrot le fou, “red sings like an obsession.” It would again, decades later, in The Image Book. Godard was long one of the few who believed that color was not a given; it was a craft like any other. If his movies — the ones with Belmondo, with Gorin, with Anne-Marie Miéville — have staying power, it’s because he never completed his own search, for color or anything else. It is customary for any legendary artist to lapse into an academicism of the self: they have figured out how to do what they do and do so indefinitely. Godard wasn’t like that. Instead he always seemed to be asking What is a movie? What can it do? knowing that he would never find a satisfying answer, forever in pursuit of what was still beyond the grasp of his own prodigious powers. His later films didn’t feel like late films, because instead of retreading they opened up new terrain. If you showed someone Une femme coquette (1955), his first short, and then The Image Book (2018), his last feature, and asked them to detail how you get from one to the other, it might take a lifetime, just as it took him.
Loving Godard, for me, did not mean thinking he was a particularly good person. It only meant knowing that when I needed desperately to believe the world was more vast than the little circle of my own anguish, he could show it to me. I modeled myself on him, sometimes consciously, sometimes less so. He read Faulkner, so I read Faulkner (it didn’t stick). He read Marx, so I read Marx (it stuck). He had a penchant for aphorisms, whose very conviction was convincing enough. He was, above all, committed, and that is what I understood an artist had to be. Which isn’t to say he couldn’t be inflexible, that he didn’t turn on himself and others, or that he didn’t fail to meet his own standards. He lashed out against Truffaut; he made Agnès Varda cry. We try to copy brilliance, but the rest tags along, too, and probably more easily. This is the danger of influence.
All of Godard’s failures seem to indict the medium with which he became synonymous, and the depth of his talent made his own shortcomings all the more glaring. Even by generous accounts, his work was frequently misogynistic — and yet it somehow remains ahead of more well-meaning contemporary cinema in simply taking for granted that women can be characters, rather than puppets; that they can act on the world because of their desires. Godard seemed, at times, to fear a woman’s desire, but he knew that it contained real dramatic possibility. (This is a low bar, and most still can’t clear it.) On sets he was demanding and petulant, and probably, as the world’s preeminent auteur, led many others to believe that making great art meant subjecting everyone to a vortex of volatile emotions and poor producing. This has never been true. It is a mark of Godard’s genius that his films succeeded at all, given that he tended to put himself in dire psychological and financial straits for no particular reason. Pierrot le fou is brilliant. Still, I would never suggest to two recently divorced people that they make a film together about criminal lovers and their betrayals of each other. There are easier ways to spend eight weeks.
Seven years later, the Dziga Vertov Group, Godard and Gorin’s collective, embarked on the production of Tout va bien with the stars Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. Godard was broke and sick at the time, barely able to move around the set. Godard and Gorin thought that by casting international celebrities they could smuggle their left-wing tendencies into a pop hit. It is immediately evident to a viewer of the film that smuggle is the wrong word. Tout va bien opens with a view of the checks necessary to pay for the film you’re about to watch, and only becomes more devoted to class struggle from there. The leftist worker Pierre Overney was killed by a factory security guard two days after filming ended. The directors, along with Sartre, de Beauvoir, Montand, and thousands of others, attended his funeral — an event that was, in Godard’s mind, the swan song for a certain chapter of French leftism. “This film,” he wrote, “is intended for the one hundred thousand people who went to that burial.” Commercially, the movie was not a success, seen by some seventy-eight thousand viewers, well short of those Godard and Gorin had hoped to reach in their grief.
By all accounts the production itself was a disaster. The actors had no idea what was going on and they found the directing duo “dictatorial.” After a mid-production review of the dailies that nearly caused them to come to blows, Montand wrote a letter to his directors. He admitted to being flattered that even now, in his fifties, younger filmmakers wanted to work with him. He was not stupid, however, and knew that what he brought was commercial appeal and with it the possibility of “revolutionary contraband.” But Godard and Gorin’s behavior was unacceptable. “You feel guilty for not being workers,” Montand wrote. “You will not make me guilty for being an actor.” The letter sounds like it was written by a furious father, offering his children help but rebuking them all the same. Things were no longer as simple as mounting The Crucible to oppose Mc Carthyism: “Today, it’s less clear, but that does not give you the right to play dictator on the set in the name of the working class which will not go to see your film.” The line stings for being true and for revealing Godard’s real contribution. His was never really a working-class cinema. He made films for class traitors.
Through his many periods of innovation, Godard never forgot that in art, as in life, beauty persuades. There have always been some misgivings about his films being too shallow and preening, even if these criticisms are aimed mostly at his work in the early 1960s. Much of this has to do with his refusal to jettison cinema’s ability to produce desire, and left-leaning critics’ collective distrust of that refusal. Godard plunged into it headlong, seducing you into a world brimming with art and political struggle. He was once on the right, then he was a Marxist, a Maoist, a scourge, and all along he never forgot that if the light is right on two hands meeting or a man brushing his pouting lips with his thumb, you have gone a long way toward convincing your audience of anything that follows. He was vehemently anti-consumerist, but his pop art sensibilities and earnest love for a variety of commodities meant he tended to portray objects with a greater sense of aura than any advertiser could ever hope for. Cars appear in his work like the very incarnation of sex appeal, whether they’re speeding runaway lovers through the night or shuttling back and forth from a floundering film set in full ’80s boxiness. Godard was so good at seduction that you might get to the end of Le mépris (1963) and arrive at the conclusion that you, too, wanted to die, covered in red and wrapped in the wreckage of an Alfa Romeo.
The scene that has always stuck with me most on this count, certainly because of the age at which I watched it, appears in La chinoise (1967). The movie is difficult to describe because it is funny, sexy, based on Dostoevsky’s Demons, and spends most of its time with youthful Maoists reading political treatises. About halfway through, the lead couple, Véronique and Guillaume (Anne Wiazemsky and Jean-Pierre Léaud), sit at a table. He reads and she writes. Véronique is more committed to their planned campaign of radical terror than her boyfriend is. “I don’t understand how you can listen to music and write at the same time,” he tells her. She takes a drag on her cigarette, turns off the music, and tells him she doesn’t love him. Guillaume is stunned. “I no longer like your face, eyes, mouth, nor your sweaters. And you bore me terribly.” He cannot understand, but she promises he will. She puts the music back on. “Love is too difficult with you,” she continues. As the song keeps playing, she assures him, “You see, you can do two things at once. To understand you had to do it. Music and language. You must struggle on two fronts.” This is a brutal way to teach a lesson in leftist flexibility, one I wouldn’t wish on anybody. “But you really scared me,” Guillaume protests. “Me too, I’m often scared,” she says before brushing the hair out of her eyes and resting her fingers on her mouth.
I wanted to make work like this, but more than that, I wanted to live in this world. If my heart would have to be broken and mended, it would be best if I could look half this good along the way. Seeing that moment when I was younger made me think that communism and cinema were romances. This wasn’t exactly right, but as far as recruiting tactics go, one could do a lot worse than this parade of beautiful young people enthralled with revolution and one another.
In one of his most famous texts, Godard demanded that filmmakers turn away from making political films and toward making film politically. The final note says that to do so would mean “to be militant.” It is a good injunction at a time when more and more films seem concerned with making some kind of point, even as fewer and fewer of them possess a spine. Which filmmakers today would make a film like Far from Vietnam (1967), declaring solidarity with an enemy of the United States? Which distributor would show it?
Two cameras are necessary to produce 3D. The first time I saw Godard’s 2014 film Goodbye to Language, in a theater, I gasped when one of the cameras panned, causing the multidimensional image to collapse into a superimposition. Unlike so many who worshipped at the altar of cinema, Godard always kept one eye on the medium’s history and another looking forward. He leapt at working in Techniscope and in video. He came to 3D at a time when craft had been utterly devalued in mainstream cinema, when new technology sold not so much for any new formal possibilities it might present but as a marker of production value. Goodbye to Language was the first and only film I have seen in 3D that bothered to ask filmmaking’s most basic questions: What is an image? How is it made?
Godard’s stature was so large that he always overshadowed his collaborators. There is no such thing as Godard without Coutard, de Beauregard, Delerue, Gorin, Karina, Miéville, Truffaut, and Wiazemsky, and some criticisms of him can seem like a response to this state of affairs. There are others who were as adventurous, at times more so, whose politics were sharper, images more beautiful, lives less tortured, and who were kinder. The injustice of the situation — of the realities of production and distribution — still left us with this: nobody has had such reach, such longevity, and such popular appeal while maintaining such devotion to formal and political experimentation. There are few others in the pantheon who are simply, for large swathes of people, synonymous with cinema. Spielberg in some corners, perhaps Ford or Renoir in others; Marvel, now, in many. And then there is Godard, in his own huge corner, making crude jokes and galvanizing entire generations. I once thought that my conversion moment — watching Pierrot le fou on television in my living room late at night — was a unique occurrence. Only later, once I was safely one of the faithful, did I learn that this was also Akerman’s story, Garrel’s story, and countless others’. I was reassured. Others had also learned to look differently and so to think differently. You have either seen red sing obsessively or you have not, but once you have, you have to chase it forever, and find a way to remake the world until blues and purples and greens will sing your melody, too.
One night in college I was playing Frisbee with some friends. Sprinting full speed down a field, my head turned over my shoulder to track the disc and I suddenly found myself staring up at New York’s smudgy night sky with all the air forced out of my lungs. It was not so much pain that I felt as utter bewilderment about how I’d seemed to stand still while the world tilted around me. I had, my friends told me, run full force into a tree. The experience of Godard’s best work was often like that, leaving me thrilled and gasping. Here and Elsewhere (1976) remains a work of autocritique that contemporary documentary conversations about “subjects” and “collaboration” have not come close to matching. Le petit soldat (1963), Every Man for Himself (1980), Passion (1982), Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988–98) and Goodbye to Language (2014) would all be career-crowning works if they had not all come from the same artist.
The slogan One must confront vague ideas with clear images is written on a wall in La chinoise, and it is the first and last word in describing any cinema worth making. Actually doing so is a herculean undertaking. Godard’s sense of play, the lightness with which many of his films move, has always belied how extraordinarily dense they are. Even his misfires feel urgent, trying to speak all at once of the past, present, and future of this world, this medium. I bristle at comparing him to the greats of other media, because it always reeks of the cinephile’s attempt to justify the form. He was more than we could have hoped for. No, he was not our Shakespeare, our Picasso, or our Joyce — he was our Godard. In the words of his biographer Antoine de Baecque, “He is our contemporary.” It feels impossible to think of a cinema without him, or after him, only ever beside him, panting, trying to keep up.