Its Own Mechanism

Before and After, Jean-Luc Godar

by Michael Buening

6 May 2005

Few filmmakers have sought so relentlessly to break down our concepts of projected images and words.

For anyone who finds Jean-Luc Godard’s films dense, confusing, or impossible to understand, the prospect of a series of his more obscure features and shorts is daunting. Few filmmakers have sought so relentlessly to break down our concepts of projected images and words. In the face of such challenges, it’s hard not to fall into one of two camps, those who blindly worship his work and those who write him off as an over-praised, pretentious buffoon.

BAMcinématek’s recent series, “Before and After: Jean-Luc Godard,” has a slightly misleading title, as the films presented cover the entirety of his career, except for his most well-known period, from À bout de souffle to Weekend. The line-up contained a variety of interviews, shorts, features, and documentaries. Though Godard declared in a 1983 interview, “I find it useless to keep offering the public the ‘auteur’,” all the films bear his singular characteristics as an artist: discordant editing and sound, title cards, recurring self-reflection, and philosophical narration. They illustrate his evolution, the adoption and discarding of ideas, the solidifying of a complex personal outlook. All told, the films are a complicated mess that defies any easy criticism.

The first night of the series featured three shorts that served as both a prelude and a warning of the work to come. The first was a seven-minute video from 1984 called A Weekend At The Beach. Directed by Ira Schneider, it’s a home movie showing Godard, Wim Wenders, and others hanging out at a California beach house. The programmers seemed to be saying, “Remember: this is just a man, this is just a camera, take everything you’re about to see with a grain of salt.” The second short was an interview with Godard made by the British Film Institute. His most illuminating comment concerned his strongly pro-Communist films of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: “I’d prefer that you laugh at them.”

This set up the third film, his often ridiculous 1969 experimental documentary screed, British Sounds, a.k.a. See You at Mao. In the opening scene, a 10-minute tracking shot along an auto factory floor, a narrator reads from The Communist Manifesto. But the autoworkers are laughing and look happy, not oppressed. Another scene has young activists earnestly transposing communist propaganda to Beatles songs (“You say Nixon/I say Mao” to “Hello Goodbye”). It was hard to believe, with this scene in particular, that the movie wasn’t supposed to be a satire of radical movements. While the content is mostly crap, the documentary demonstrates Godard’s efforts to liberate image from sound, as in one sequence where a news commentator reads a pro-capitalist rant, which is repeatedly and abruptly cut off, to show workers who contradict his statements.

The second night’s feature, 1985’s Détective, is a nonsensical, sometimes captivating, sometimes maddening film noir homage. In a 1985 interview with Katherine Dieckmann, Godard said, “That’s why we went over budget with Hail Mary and had to stop and shoot Détective to make some money… I didn’t want to make Détective at all, though I don’t mind it now that I’ve done it.” The movie is rushed and careless in a manner corresponding to Godard’s confession, but it also has an energy and humor characteristic of his early work. (It reminded me of Howard Hawks’ explanation of the scattered-brained The Big Sleep: “The scenario took eight days to write, and all we were hoping to do was make every scene entertain.”) The plot, such as it is, has a hotel detective, his undercover nephew (a goofy high energy Jean-Pierre Léaud), and his girlfriend investigating a murder. The hotel is filled with a variety of stock characters, including Johnny Halliday as a heavily indebted boxing manager; his boxer Tiger Jones (Stéphane Ferrara), who shadowboxes while yelling “I will KO Tiger Jones”; Nathalie Baye as his former lover; mobsters and their children. The narrative is impossible to follow, mirroring the mindset of the characters and the detectives, fumbling towards a cockeyed concept of truth.

King Lear (1987) marks a shift from the opaqueness of Godard’s late ‘70s/early ‘80s work to his more accessible recent films, which balance the intensely personal with despair over the political. A re-imagining of themes from Shakespeare’s play in a “post-Chernobyl” world, the primary thread has William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth (Peter Sellars) trying to recreate his ancestor’s plays as a base for a new artistic culture and runs into a modern incarnation of Cordelia (Molly Ringwald) and Lear (Mafia Don Learo played by Burgess Meredith). Godard’s use of repeating titles (“no thing,” a play on Cordelia’s response to her father’s queries on her love), the interweaving of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and candle-lit shots of Renaissance paintings creates a stark portrait of the close of the 20th century.

I have no idea what the four demons following Shakespeare around symbolize, or the boy gathering sticks or Woody Allen’s appearance as “Mr. Alien.” Yet the picture works: the disconnect between Learo and Cordelia, the limitations of language, the need to make sense of disasters, to make art in the face of human cruelty, even the disconcerting thought that art might not have a place here—all these ideas were powerfully and clearly conveyed.

The last day’s screening was the most enjoyable, highlighted by three of the five shorts Godard made in collaboration with his Cahiers du Cinema cohorts before his first feature film. Charlotte et Véronique, a.k.a. Tous les garcons s’appellent Patrick, was written by Eric Rohmer and is a slight, charming story about two girlfriends seduced by the same Parisian lothario. Godard’s early love of youthful frivolity and referential film geekery are in abundant evidence, along with early uses of visual and audio jump cuts.

Une histoire d’eau, co-written with François Truffaut, the most accomplished of these three films, focuses on a girl trying to get to Paris through a flood turns into a celebration of intelligent fun. The structure, the narration, the striking visual style make it a precursor to Bande à part. In Charlotte et son Jules, Jean-Paul Belmondo delivers a comic monologue to his just-returned girlfriend about what’s wrong with her and how he knew she would come back. The short is too long for the expected and lackluster ending; however, the characters anticipate Michel and Patricia of À bout de souffle, made shortly afterwards.

The series ended with the moving elegy, Dans le noir de temps, from the 2002 shorts collection Ten Minutes Older: The Cello. Godard uses stock footage and clips from his other films, evoking favorite subjects like fear and cinema. The use of stock footage was replicated in last year’s Notre Musique, but most importantly, it’s a somber reflection on film and humanity in the last half of the 20th century. The film denotes hope, regret, exasperation at the limits of art, the art in which Godard has invested so much. Dans le noir concludes with an acknowledgement of cinema’s capabilities that reminded me of a line from Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire: “The world might change, but the camera—impersonal and soulless, the prisoner of its own mechanism—could finally say one thing. It told what a camera was.”

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