Cronk: And he was working on Histoire(s) du Cinema for decades! By the time the full series was completed in 1998, you just knew the passion behind a project such as this would yield impressive—but yes, challenging—results. I’m glad you mentioned the beauty of his early-to-mid-‘90s work though: from a purely aesthetic view, these films really are some of the most beautiful works in modern cinema—Nouvelle Vagueand Oh, Woe Is Me are seriously staggering in their compostional acumen. But also, from a thematic standpoint, these films are fascinating. Godard was always self-reflexive and referential, but films like Histoire(s) and particularly JLG/JLG are perhaps the closest we will ever come to understanding the ideas facilitated by Godard’s process, which, like I mentioned earlier, was at this point totally natural, even when he’s seemingly working it out on screen.
Marsh: It’s weird: JLG/JLG isn’t held in very high regard by even Godard fans, as it’s called solipsistic and indulgent, but I find it so… I don’t know, generous, maybe? There’s something very honest and open about it. Which I think can be said for all of his work, however difficult or oblique it may initially seem. And In Praise of Love, from 2001, is the very picture of artistic warmth and openness, and as a result it’s one of his best films. And yet, once again, people reviled it. I think Ebert gave that one star, too…
Cronk: You’re perhaps more knowledgeable about the reception of some of these works at the time, since I’ve always been under the impression that JLG/JLG was considered a major work. I guess, like I implied earlier, I’ve just looked more often towards the opinions of those I truly respect. To that end—and if I’m not mistaken—JLG/JLG was Amy Taubin’s #1 film of the decade. And In Praise of Love, certainly amongst his strongest works, was handily touted as one of the great artistic statements of the aughts… by art-house critics and audiences mind you, but why not fully consider a film that consistently reveals new depths and changes meaning and grows richer with each successive viewing and with each passing year. Godard certainly doesn’t maintain the work rate he once did, but his last three films—In Praise of Love, Notre musique, and Film Socialisme—are dense and, to steal one of your phrases here, generous enough to reward multiple viewings and facilitate many interpretations. And that’s one of the key things that I don’t think many mainstream critics consider when viewing a new Godard work a single time before writing it off as incomprehensible dreck.
Marsh: Those criticisms are quite often predicated on some really problematic ideas about what movies should be like, with the end results often saying little more than that the films are “pretentious” or “impenetrable”, neither of which terms really mean anything. Which isn’t to say that Godard’s work is critically unassailable, mind you; but the tone of the attacks against his late-period work doesn’t tend to be very compelling. If you contrast Ebert’s indignant response to In Praise of Love or his aloof rejection of Film Socialisme to, say, Richard Brody’s disappointed exegesis of Notre Musique, you can plainly see the quantitative difference—it’s the difference, essentially, between a willingness to fairly explore a film and an ardent lack of same. Which is why I think Godard’s work deserves wider recognition and a larger audience, because even if you think Godard’s ideas are problematic, the volume and complexity of those ideas are worth digesting.
Cronk: Exactly. And I’ve read more compelling and stimulating discourse on Film Socialisme this year than any film other than The Tree of Life, one of the years other major accomplishments, but one that is roundly and ironically given a pass for it’s perceived pretentiousness. I’m fine with criticisms of the finished work—like you said, Godard isn’t beyond reproach—but there needs to be some sort of base from which one levies their argument. I mean, if you’re like Ebert and you’ve panned literally every film someone has made for the past 43 years, why should we take your opinion of their new work seriously? I knew a one-star review was coming—in fact, I was salivating for it for our purposes today—and in a sense its been more fun to just sit back and watch reactions of those holding out some hope that he would take a more considered look at this film. And it’s also somewhat ironic that Ebert’s new At the Movies hosts, Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, would split so decisively on Film Socialisme, since the latter comes from an arena similar to the one we’d probably consider ourselves a part of—let’s call it the Mubi generation—while the former can come across as something of an Ebert surrogate.
Marsh: I totally agree with you, but what’s funny is that a comment like would probably be labeled “elitist” by the same people who call a film like Film Socialisme elitist. But really, could there be a more elitist approach to film criticism than the outright rejection of anything that doesn’t play into the traditional rules of cinematic practice? And if we want to bring the nasty word “pretentious” into this, the only real pretense at work in discussions like these is the idea that movies should look and act a certain way. That’s really toxic thinking.
Cronk: I agree completely. And I’m fine with the label of “elitist”, since I see nothing wrong with aspiring to and holding yourself to the highest possible standard. But anyway, Ebert is just kind of a mainstream representation of a problem which reaches far and wide across mainstream criticism. And one of the reasons we wanted to start this series off with a look at the career of Jean-Luc Godard was his current status as an example of a subset of artists who are continually under-documented and passed over in favor of the latest blockbuster or what have you. There are hundreds of filmmakers that deserve this kind of consideration, and I’m hoping we can do our small part to illuminate the quality of many of these artists.