Tuesday, February 10, 2009

And all the rest is cinema - Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard - Part 1

Richard Brody’s Everything is Cinema is a monumental (600 pages plus notes) study of a figure whom, it must be said, is richly deserving of so detailed a study. Brody patiently goes through each of Godard’s films and even-handedly seeks to understand the whys and wherefores of their creation. It is to Brody’s credit that reading his book made me a) want to read it again, and again; b) go out and see all of Godard’s movies again (even the 1980s films like Passion and First Name: Carmen which have hitherto bored and frustrated me) and c) write an extremely long response. What follows is the latter.

Its difficult to know where to begin with so vast a study, so it might be useful to begin by comparing it to a similar study – specifically Colin MacCabe’s equally fantastic Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy. In some ways, the comparison is inept; MacCabe’s work is a “portrait” and provides details about Godard’s background, including his affluent Swiss Protestant childhood, his stormy if bookish adolescence, his weird kleptomania, his utterly appalling treatment of Anna Karina. As the title of Brody’s book suggests, this pre-working life detail is not within his remit, and so, referring interested readers to MacCabe’s work, Brody begins his analysis more or less with the publication of “For a Political Cinema.”

The major difference between the two Godard biographies resides in their representation of the constellation of Culture, Cinema, Politics, History and France in Godard. As this is not meant to be a doctoral thesis, I’m not going to go into extended detail here, but the impression is that MacCabe is far more sympathetic to the Maoist phase of Godard’s career than is Brody; certainly, Brody consistently de-emphasizes the centrality of Brecht to Godard’s films, often to the point of failing to register it at all.

So MacCabe’s “Godard” is a Bazinian-turned-Brechtian whose career trajectory moves from the representation of politics in cinema to the politics of cinematic representation. (This is, admittedly, a gross over-simplification.) What are the outlines of Brody’s “Godard”? The term that Brody will use several times throughout his study is “cultural revolutionary” which is useful if perhaps one with too much potential baggage.
[1] So what uses does Brody put this term to? In his preface, he paints a broad outline whose detail he will fill in later: the central premise to Godard in particular and the New Wave in general is, as the title suggests, “Everything is Cinema.” For Godard, this was as much a credo as it was an injunction; cinema not only could incorporate everything from the personal life of its creator(s) to the political, social, cultural and philosophical contexts of a particular film’s creation, but cinema had a duty to do so. As a result:

As the pace of social change outstripped his ability to invent new [cinematic] forms to engage it, Godard became increasingly hard on himself. Indeed, his pictures became public confessions and self-flagellations, but they were executed so effervescently, so inventively, so cleverly – with such a flamboyant and youthful sense of freedom – that they were often received by critics and viewers as virtuosic displays of experimental gamesmanship. …[Godard] spent the next few years [after Weekend] seemingly underground, working a frenzied yet sterile engagement with one of the doctrines of May 1968, a nominal Maoism. After years of intellectual woodshedding and a period of artistic and physical convalescence (following a serious motorcycle accident), he returned to the French film industry in 1979. (xviii)

One should pause here and note that Brody’s understanding of the postwar French intellectual scene as such bears the unmistakable imprint of Bernard-Henry Levy’s execrable Adventures on the Freedom Road.[2] Brody’s understanding of Godard’s commitment to Maoism is as unflattering as MacCabe’s is sympathetic.

But to return to Brody’s narrative outline:
…[N]o other director has striven so relentlessly to reflect in his work the great philosophical and political debates of the era: World War II and its political aftermath in France; the uses and abuses of existentialism in the postwar years; the structuralist revolution; the demise of Stalinism and the rise of the New Left; the growth of the modern consumer society and its political fallout in May 1968; the vast sea change and social heritage of the late 1960s; the hopes and disappointments of the Mitterand era; Holocaust consciousness and the recuperation of historical memory; new fronts of battle after the end of the Cold War; and the current era of big media and what might be called the American cultural occupation of Europe. But despite Godard’s ongoing attention to the crucial questions of the day, his approach to them has in recent years become so intricately interwoven with his advanced aesthetic methods, so rarified, Olympian and oblique, that many critics and viewers have instead rejected these last efforts outright, asserting that he has somehow grown detached from political reality.

In fact, Godard’s later work is marked by his obsession with living history. But this obsession has brought with it a set of idée fixes, notably regarding Jews and the United States. In recent years, Godard’s vast aesthetic embrace of the entire Western canon, from Greek mythology to New Testament prophesies to twentieth-century modernism, has gone hand in hand with his borrowing some of the prejudicial assumptions of that cultural aristocracy. Contemplating the contemporary world in light of lost traditions, Godard has adopted traditional attitudes as well, including several shared by some of the most discredited and dangerous ideologies of his times. (xiv)

Brody intends to argue that this sense of a lost cultural aristocracy is the core of Godard’s “analysis of the media, which is an integral part of his work…centred on what he considers their [sic] noxious effect on culture, on human relations, and particularly on the cinema” (xv). In effect, Godard engages in a series of manoeuvres: he identifies cinema as such with his own person and work by filtering its history through his personal life and vice versa. This cinema is then identified as being the highest of the high arts, being able to incorporate the histories of other visual arts (painting, sculpture), literature, music, history, politics and philosophy. From this “Olympian” perspective, Godard detaches “the cinema” as such from mass media, viewed as debased in its proximity to big business and big money as much by the an-aesthetic function of its entertainment value. The clear and unbridgeable distinction between “cinema” (standing as synecdoche for high cultural aspiration) and “media” (consumer culture culminating in television) is, Brody will argue, the source and effect of Godard’s “conservativism” that runs in contrast to the manifestly revolutionary aesthetics of his films.

More coming soon!!

[1]Anyone who lived in Ontario, Canada during the Mike Harris 1990s cringes at the memory of his “Conservative Revolution” which was basically part of the first wave of Market Stalinism in Canada after Ralph Klein’s intermittently sober regime in Alberta. A curse on both of them!

[2]A book which manages to be as nauseating as its title suggests, which is quite a feat, really. And indeed, Levy was interviewed a few times for this book. To be fair, Godard seems to have liked Levy for God(ard) knows what reasons.

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