He's Not There

A new biography takes on the ever-elusive Jean-Luc Godard
by B. Kite  posted June 4, 2008
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It's been a refrain in nearly every interview he's given over the past 20 years: Jean-Luc Godard wants to talk. He wants to bring his cast and crew into the creative process, to work out the film collectively, through analysis and debate. He wants his critics not to damn or even praise his films in vague generalities, but rather to tell him specifically what's wrong with them. He wants his interviewers to argue.

It rarely happens. His actors, most of them, are cowed by his authority, and regard his advice on how to prepare for a part (walk to work rather than taking a cab, visit museums, model your performance on Beethoven's late quartets) as whimsical and arbitrary. Meanwhile, his crew is more concerned with timely meal breaks than discussing strategies of representation. And the critics who speak with him, almost always admirers, rest content with praising his poetry rather than getting down to cases: Why this image rather than that one?

As Richard Brody writes in Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (Metropolitan Books), "His wishes were not ridiculous, harsh, unreasonable, or for that matter insincere, but they were unusual, and the people who worked with him hesitated to voice judgments on such matters in the presence of such an intellectually gifted—and critically peremptory—man, nor were they prepared to face his ridicule or his wrath in case of his dissatisfaction with their remarks."

Indeed, the Godardian train of thought is a deliberately eccentric engine, tending to sudden swerves and reversals and often making its connections covertly, through analogy and puns. If there is a foundational gesture in the Godard myth, it might lie in a famous anecdote concerning the shooting of his first feature, Breathless. As Brody recounts it, "Godard asked [cinematographer Raoul] Coutard where the 'best place' for the camera was, and then, after getting Coutard's response, ordered that the camera be placed elsewhere."

Taken on its own, the story may sound simply obnoxious, but it was in fact an early indication of a lifetime's commitment to oblique angles of approach, running counter to the currents of standard practice and received opinion. Godard begins in perversity. More superficial provocateurs such as von Trier may imitate the gesture, but only as an overlay of novelty on easily recognizable forms. For Godard, it's only a starting point, and the question remains, perpetually, "Where now?" The desire to "return to zero," so often cited in his late '60s films, was always there in effect, even in that early question to Coutard. But each return is predicated on the series that went before, each zero becomes a knothole into history and an endless recession of preceding beginnings, each laden with its own set of untapped possibilities and untraveled paths.

With so many beginnings behind him, it's perhaps understandable that Godard in later life should come to speak of endings, specifically the end of cinema (which is himself, which is history). He has positioned himself, in one of his guises, as Walter Benjamin's Angel of History:

His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong the angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly toward the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.

Benjamin's On the Concept of History is a constant point of reference in Godard's recent work, and this passage summarizes as well as anything the primary role he plays within the phantom cinematheque of his eight-part video series, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, sifting through and recombining the fragments of the 20th century, all equal now on the plane of image, searching for the image that will explain and redeem.

But another quote too has assumed prominent place in the Histoire(s) as well as in works such as Nouvelle Vague, this one from Faulkner: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." So he still wants to talk.

But which Godard is speaking? There are many to choose from: the Seer of Switzerland, muttering gnomic asides of eternal decline. The clown Prince and Idiot, smiling sweetly through another indignity. Smutty old Uncle Jean, who desires nothing more than to stick his finger up a pretty girl's ass and count to 33, slowly. The eternal agit-propagator, lighting fuses beneath perceived pieties. Professor Pluggy, with his patch-cord dreadlocks, clenching a cigar stub between his teeth while reinventing cinema with nothing more than a sparkler and a shoebox. Lonesome Luc the Isolate, looking at a childhood photo and observing even there a shadow of sadness: "I was already in mourning for myself." The Angel of History, assuming the burden of mourning for everything else.

Godard may stick to one role at a time in his films, but in interviews, the parts sometimes shift with alarming frequency. If Godard is the sum of his destabilizations, how will he/they react when an admirer shows up on the doorstep with the implicit claim: "I understand you"? We'll leave that as a cliffhanger.


Richard Brody set himself a hard target in setting out to write a biography of the great destabilizer. The book he produced is fluidly readable, dense with new material and anecdote, and quite obviously the product of a long and serious engagement with Godard's work. Above all, it is a critical biography that does justice to both halves of that term. Many biographies of artists reconfigure their subjects as frustrated autobiographers, who want nothing more than to confess their sins and recount their histories but are prevented from doing so by some inner quirk that forces them rather to bury such hints like raisins in the puddings of their work. But Brody loves many of Godard's films deeply and his discussion of his favorites is closely attuned to their nuances.

Indeed, one of the strongest aspects of the book is its particular attention to the aesthetic strategies of each film in the "early" and "late" periods, which helps to explode these larger categories (the wild and free '60s, the hermetic and/or transcendent post-1980 work) into a series of more engaging and illuminating micro-histories. On the other hand, the films and videos of the '70s interest him very little, so he reverts to the macro model for Godard's "political period."

This is one indication of a gap between Brody's Godard and the flock of Godards residing in Switzerland (and/or my own provisional JLG). While Brody does a good job in establishing historical context and also in shining a light on the dubious politics of some of Godard's literary touchstones, he demonstrates little interest in, or knowledge of, many of his points of philosophic inspiration. André Bazin, Jacques Lacan, and the Lettrists and Situationists are dealt with in terms that are simplistic at best, and at times actively misleading. Of Bazin: "As a critic, he relentlessly pushed an idea that he developed into a doctrine, hardened to a dogma, and uttered as a prejudice." The idea in question being, of course, his legendary advocacy for long takes and deep focus. One could frankly learn as much from a Wikipedia entry. Bazin's enthusiasm for, say, the post-Ambersons oeuvre of Orson Welles, films heavily dependent on editing and illusory spaces, is just one sign that he was a much more complicated writer than one could guess from Brody's dismissive summary. Indeed, Brody tends to pitch the debate between Godard and Bazin in such stark terms that he seems largely oblivious to Bazin's continued influence on Godard, who carries on the dialogue even in his recent work (Bazin as much as Benjamin seems to lie behind the elusive notion of the "redemptive image" that underpins the Histoire(s)).

The others fare even worse, with Lacan described as some peculiar Freudian fundamentalist and the Lettrists and Situationists written off as "an avant-garde of pure negativity." Brody goes on to say, "Godard's project, in its philosophical complexity and neoclassical grandeur . . . was endangered by his proximity to dilettantes and poseurs." That "neoclassical grandeur" gives us some notion of the Godard-construct we're dealing with here. Brody's Godard is above all a romantic and a "conservative revolutionary" (a phrase that comes in for re-use). The '60s films are primarily covert messages and warnings to paramour Anna Karina, who, it seems to me, gets rather a raw deal in Brody's hands. He devotes a couple of paragraphs to Godard's tendency to take off unannounced for weeks at a time during the early days of their marriage. Since one of these prolonged jaunts took place when Karina was in precarious health following a miscarriage, one tends to suspect that Godard was less than ideal as a life partner. Brody casts a kinder light, seeing the trips as evidence that his "domestication was somewhat incomplete," and instead places his emphasis on Karina's "betrayals" and the "wounds" they inflicted on Godard.

Overall, I find the notion of Godard as sometime lyric poet convincing, but find Brody pushes it too hard in some cases, to the detriment of other facets of the work. This penchant gets if anything more extreme in his discussion of Godard's later films. The bulk of the section on 1996's For Ever Mozart is devoted to Godard's infatuation with an actress who appears in the film for approximately 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero is held to be lacking due to its "lack of inner motive, of romantic adventure." In other words, because it does not conform to the Brody formula for the ideal Godard product, which is heavily laden with amorous exploration.

Because Brody does indeed have a notion of the perfected Godard lurking in the background. If Godard's multiple attempts to establish new beginnings reveal a view of history as neither necessary nor progressive but rather holding the potential for many alternate lines of development, the biographer's conception of the past tends most often toward the evolutionary model. Brody announces his own in the first chapter: "The story of Jean-Luc Godard's work is one of a secular conversion to art . . ." In other words, it's a pilgrim's progress toward such late "neoclassical" masterpieces as Nouvelle Vague, Helas Pour Moi, and Eloge de l'Amour. It's refreshing to find a writer who loves late Godard so much, since '60s nostalgia tends to dominate what little mainstream discourse there is on the subject, and I fully share his view that the best of these films and videos are at least the equal of anything that came before. But as a paradigm, it is weighted toward ends, not perpetual process, and so considerably at odds with its subject.

Toward the end of his book, Brody levels a direct charge of anti-Semitism against Godard. His evidence lies in a couple of comments made in moments of echt-assholery, a lifelong fondness for certain rightwing French authors, a questionable reading of certain sequences in his later films (such as the "invention of stereo" monologue from JLG/JLG), and the testimony of vacuous pop philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. Since the '70s, Godard has explicitly identified himself as "anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic." That's a distinction that doesn't really exist in America's mainstream political discourse, and it doesn't carry much weight for Brody either, which isn't too surprising given his apparent disinterest in radical politics and philosophy. It's true that in recent work Godard has been waging a polemic war against the word, and that he mentions Judaism in this context as a "culture of the Book" (complicating this considerably are his occasional assertions, as in his video short Meetin' WA, that he regards his own frequent use of text as imagistic rather than literary, also that one of the primary sources for his notion of image is Walter Benjamin). He also has a beef against the category of a chosen people or chosen nation—whether the term is used by Jews, Germans, or "the Americans of the North." However, it is also true that he views the Holocaust as the defining event, the central horror, of the corpse-ridden 20th century. The Histoire(s) mark it also as the moment of cinema's fall from grace, obsessively worrying at the question of how the medium could have failed to perceive it, whether a "true image" could have prevented the atrocity.

Godard's political and philosophic statements can be elusive, arrogant, profound, or silly, but they too are an attempt to find ways of speaking and showing outside the rigidities of dominant thought. They can and should be argued with, but labeling them simply anti-Semitic is hardly conducive to dialogue. It is what they call a conversation stopper.


So how did Godard greet his future biographer when they met in Switzerland in 2000? Quite amiably at first. Brody at that time was working on the New Yorker profile that served as the seed of his book. Godard said he liked the magazine's cartoons. They spent the day together, and Brody harvested a number of Godardian aperçus, including one that became the title of his book. They parted after dinner, with plans to resume discussion in the morning. But come the dawn:

I found the curtains drawn over the wall-sized window and the glass door, to which a note inscribed "Mr. Brody" was taped. Godard had written that he could not continue the interview because it was "not a real discussion" and was "flou"—out of focus, vague—but he wished me a better "game" with people I'd be seeing in Paris.

Ouch. Brody recounts much of his day with Godard at the beginning and end of his book, but omits its abrupt termination, which is odd but understandable. I bring it up now to illustrate a larger point: The critic's job is to confront difficulties and try to come to a personal and hard-won understanding, one which doesn't shave off the incommensurate angles that may stubbornly obtrude from our frames of reference. But best to remember that the figure formed in this understanding is a simulacrum, and one whose materials come largely from ourselves. And above all, don't expect the artist to receive it with gratitude, or to reciprocate the love that went into its construction.

Brody's biography is the product of such an understanding, and in many cases he has performed the critic's job with distinction. If I've emphasized the book's limitations in this article it's in part because his simulacrum is so compelling on its own terms. Such models sometimes have a staying power that may threaten to supplant the artwork itself, provided the image is convincing and the artwork both respected and challenging (meaning: largely ignored but accorded lip service). Brody has written a very interesting addition to English-language Godard studies. He has not written a definitive biography. There is, after all, that in Godard which hates the definitive. Perhaps also the narrative trajectory of biography. 


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Histoire(s) du Cinema
Photo Gallery: He's Not There


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B. Kite lives in Brooklyn. He has written on movies and books for publications including The Village Voice, The Believer, and Cinema Scope, as well as appearing in the anthology Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY, 2008).

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