Richard Brody – “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard” (2008)

September 30, 2011 at 9:38 pm (Cinema, French New Wave, Reviews & Articles)

Another review of this massive biography on the life of famed French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard — this time by Salon senior writer Stephanie Zacharek from The New York Times, July 13, 2008… 

A Girl and a Gun

Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard is a story of transformation, a painstaking account of a lifelong artistic journey. Now we know how one of the greatest of all filmmakers — the man who so radically changed cinema in 1959 with his debut feature, Breathless — became an intolerable gasbag. That probably wasn’t Brody’s aim in writing this exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, critical biography. As Brody, a film critic and editor at The New Yorker, makes clear in the preface, he still believes in Godard’s relevance, claiming that the resolutely not-retired filmmaker, who has lived in Rolle, Switzerland, for the past 30 years, continues to work “at an extraordinarily high level of artistic achievement.”

That’s a lovely, optimistic sentiment, but one that much of Godard’s post-1967 output doesn’t deserve: Empty shadowboxes like First Name: Carmen (1983) or Notre Musique (2004) seem designed to alienate viewers rather than draw them closer, which is what happens when any artist begins to live entirely inside his or her own head. It’s the artists we love best who are most capable of disappointing us, and anyone who has taken pleasure in the boldness of the movies Godard made from 1959 through 1967 — he produced an astonishing 15 full-length features in that period, beginning with Breathless and including Contempt, Pierrot le Fou and Weekend — would have to know that pain is part of love. If we didn’t, how carefully could we have been watching his movies in the first place?

In this serious-minded and meticulously detailed book, Brody is too forgiving of some of Godard’s later, lesser work, but his urge to assess it thoroughly seems to spring from a heartfelt desire to comprehend this complicated and, by most accounts, thoroughly disagreeable man. In examining the use of language in Godard’s 1965 Alphaville, Brody writes that “poetry and love are illogical. The leap of faith called love flies in the face of all logic.” Everything Is Cinema constitutes something of a leap itself: to love a stubbornly confounding filmmaker like Godard is surely madness. But to fail to take emotional or sensual pleasure in even just one of his pictures is to miss out on poetry.

Everything Is Cinema works its way methodically through Godard’s career, beginning with his days as a young cinephile in the early 1950s, writing for Parisian film journals like La Gazette du Cinéma and, later, the newly founded Cahiers du Cinéma. Brody explains that Godard’s entree into the French film industry, via writing criticism, was “revolutionary and didactic”: Godard and his contemporaries — among them future filmmakers of the nouvelle vague including François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Maurice Schérer (better known to filmgoers as Eric Rohmer) — educated themselves by making pilgrimages to screenings at the Cinémathèque and the Cine-Club du Quartier Latin, where they might see three or four films a day. Godard, who came from an affluent family, had more money than his contemporaries and found creative, if not especially ethical, ways to get more: in 1950, he helped Rivette finance a 16-millimeter film, partly by stealing and selling rare first editions from his grandfather’s library.

In Everything Is Cinema, Brody doesn’t shy away from exposing Godard’s flaws, although his approach nevertheless suggests deep sympathy for his subject. He writes about Godard’s turbulent relationship with his first wife, the actress Anna Karina, who would be the unforgettable face in seven of his movies. There’s a hint of sadness in Brody’s descriptions of how Godard degraded her, both onscreen and off — a way of acknowledging that no woman should have to suffer so much for some guy’s art, even if that guy is Godard.

But Brody does justice to the most fertile period of Godard’s career, an era of magnificence and innovation that few other filmmakers have matched. That eight-year period ended with La Chinoise, Godard’s tone poem about radical idealism among the young, and Weekend, the movie that, Brody tells us, Godard himself called “‘closer to a cry’ than to a movie.” (Its final title cards read “end of story” and “end of cinema.”) Both of these pictures appeared in France just before that all-important year, 1968, and they precipitated in Godard a “political and aesthetic breakdown.”

The second half of Everything Is Cinema covers the films Godard made after 1967, and it’s a very long half. Brody tries to energize us for this interminable home stretch. He acknowledges that post-1967, Godard, who at the time considered himself a Maoist, was trapped in an “ideological straitjacket,” but adds that the ideas behind that ideology “provided the foundation for a new, cooperative form of filmmaking” that would inform the rest of Godard’s career.

Nice try. If only the movies were better. Brody himself dislikes some of them (Notre Musique) and greatly admires others (Nouvelle Vague). But his enthusiasm for late Godard feels scholarly and tempered rather than passionate, and his extended clinical explications of these films (and the television work Godard did at the time) weigh the book down. When Brody speaks of that “cooperative form of filmmaking” adopted by Godard, he’s referring specifically to Godard’s collaborations first with his friend, the journalist and fellow Maoist Jean-Pierre Gorin, and later with his partner, the writer and filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville. Otherwise, though, the mode of filmmaking Brody describes in the last half of Everything Is Cinema is more like a dictatorship than a cooperative: Brody’s narrative is peppered with quotations from actors, cinematographers and others (among them Norman Mailer, who worked briefly with Godard on the 1987 King Lear) attesting to the director’s rudeness and willful refusal to communicate what he wanted from them. (There are other directors, like Godard’s nouvelle vague colleague Rivette, whose filmmaking methods are better examples of the collaborative ideal of the ’60s and early ’70s. To make his 12-hour-plus epic Out 1, Rivette gave his large cast of actors guidelines for creating their characters, and they wrote most of the movie’s dialogue themselves.)

Brody is hardly blind to his subject’s foibles: he calls Godard on his flimsier political ideas, particularly his devotion to Maoism (a trend among French intellectuals in the late ’60s that Brody identifies, rightly, as thinly veiled fascism) and, later, the anti-Semitism that repeatedly surfaced in his work. It’s also worth noting that Godard, the committed Maoist and spewer of anti-capitalist, anti-American rhetoric, made two commercials for Nike in the early 1990s. They were never broadcast, though presumably Godard cashed the checks.

Throughout his career, Godard’s political ideology has often amounted to little more than slogans, attention-grabbing sound bites. In 1969 he told a London journalist that opera houses should be burned as a means of remaking the culture. Then he amended the notion: “No, not burn them, just forget about them a bit. As Mao said, if we burn books we would not know how to criticize them.” Although Brody repeatedly challenges Godard’s limited ideology, he does buy a little too readily into the notion that a work of art informed by political ideas is inherently more meaningful or more interesting than one with, say, a great deal of aesthetic inventiveness or emotional depth.

Godard’s political ideas have never been the strongest elements of his movies. Unfortunately, after 1968, they often became their focal point. Brody is at his best when he’s describing how Godard’s technique — so dazzling, particularly in the early years — intensifies the charge of the stories he’s telling, opening us up to new ways of seeing. “Even now,” Brody writes, “ Breathless feels like a high-energy fusion of jazz and philosophy. After Breathless, most other new films seemed instantly old-fashioned.” He’s got that right. Breathless is Godard’s most readily comprehensible film, the access point for many future devotees. And its freshness never abates: to watch it, even today, is to feel present at the birth of something new. Beginning of story. Beginning of cinema. If Godard had given us nothing more, that would be enough.

Stephanie Zacharek


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