ReFramed No.1: Jean-Luc Godard - The Political Years (1968 - 1979)
In this introductory entry in a continuing reevaluation of cinema's standard bearers, film fans Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh dissect mid-period Godard, giving the French experimentalist and agent provocateur a long deserved defense of his post-'60s output.
Jordan Cronk: One of the reasons we wanted to embark on this series -- and the reason we lifted the format of Counterbalance wholesale (thanks guys!) -- is our mutual belief that the post-1968 work of Jean-Luc Godard is amongst the most vital cinema of the last 40 years or so, despite the general public and mainstream critical community's near-complete disregard for it. An open dialogue between the two of us certainly isn't going to change many minds already made up, but in most cases I believe that film fans aren't even aware that Godard is still as prolific a filmmaker as he is. And, of course, you touched on this recently in your PopMatters essay on late-period Godard, which you aptly described as his "invisible cinema." I'm curious to hear why you think this mindset has come to be the norm: Is it the simple fact that many of the films are not widely available, or is it - to be completely reductive- the fact that Godard moved from making his most accessible films to his most imposing and outwardly confrontational? I mean, the distance between Breathless and Film Socialisme is all but unmatched in modern cinema.
Calum Marsh: I think there are probably a lot of different factors at play here, and that those factors sort of play off of one another in a way which is depressingly cyclical. So you're right that your average film fan probably isn't even aware that Godard is still working, and that that lack of awareness is in large part due to his late-period work's general unavailability, but then because people are unaware of it you're never going to see it suddenly available -- there's no demand because there's no supply and vice versa. I think what we tend to forget as film lovers is that we're still primarily film consumers, and that our consumption is still an element of business; we're talking about an industry which requires us to spend money, and if there's no money to be made there's unlikely to be product readily available for us to consume. The point being that as far as Godard's current reputation is concerned, only the stuff that's readily available on DVD -- so essentially only his "first wave" work, spanning Breathless through to Two Or Three Things I Know About Her -- is what counts to the people whose opinions form and then reify canons. Maybe the idea is that if it's totally obscure or unavailable, it's not worthwhile? That if it were good it would be around and easily watchable?
Cronk: Do you think, though, that a film like Every Man For Himself, where it available in some digital medium, could at least enter a conversation about Godard's best work? And I mean amongst casual Godard fans, since most, for lack of a better word, "high brow" critics, tend to consider works such as this amongst his most important. We'll be getting to his '80s period in our next column, but this title in particular seems like it could appeal fans of his mid-'60s work.
Marsh: Absolutely. I think that film is one of his strongest in general, but also as accessible in a lot of respects as anything he made pre-'68 (which, just to clarify, is the sort of acknowledged breaking point in his career). But just speaking from personal experience, the fact that Every Man For Himself was until very recently unavailable in North America (it’s currently enjoying an extended theatrical tour across the States), and only obscurely available in Europe, had a big impact on my conception of it as a part of Godard's career -- it seemed like a remote, unimportant late work that wasn't really a "classic" in the same way that, say, Vivre Sa Vie is, which has always been easy enough to find. So I think the casual fans are guided by what's out there, not just on critics' lists but what's talked about, what's shown in classrooms, what gets written up and mentioned in passing the most often. And you definitely do not hear about Every Man For Himself as much as, say, Band of Outsiders, even though I think it's a much stronger and more sophisticated film.
Cronk: Agreed. But for our purposes today- namely, the '70s -- you could say that this is what Godard wanted. His move to video in the mid-'70s, and his restless creative spirit following early-1968 in general, helped produced work that was knowingly difficult. In his own words he was attempting to bring filmmaking back to the amateurs, and beginning directly after Weekend almost nothing he made until 1980 and Every Man For Himself could be considered accessible.
Marsh: Far from it, in fact. Following the student riots in the late 1960s in France, Godard essentially abandoned every even remotely commercial or accessible filmmaking convention he'd used in films prior, in large part, as you say, because he wanted to tear filmmaking practice away from what he perceived to be a highly toxic American influence, but also because he himself had basically nose-dived into extreme Maoist politics, and he wanted his art to reflect his political beliefs. Which is why, nearing 1970, you get films like Pravda and British Sounds, which, though incredible interesting documents of political thought, are... well, they're abrasive films, not at all what you'd call accessible or enjoyable in the normal sense. How do you respond to those films, Jordan?
Cronk: Now, I haven't seen every Godard film (I don't think anyone except the man himself could make that claim), but to my mind the major works of this period are Tout Va Bien, Numéro Deux, France/tour/détour/deux/enfants, Ici et Ailleurs, and Comment Ca Va? But what I think is interesting is that even the least successful films from this period- namely A Film Like the Others and Pravda -- are still fascinating for what they tell us about Godard the man -- who at this point was almost a walking series of contradictions, but was so passionate about his beliefs that I can personally find something to take away from everything I've seen of his. Even British Sounds, which is certainly abrasive (and purposefully so I might add), has so many standalone images that I won't likely forget, that any shortcomings or potential repeat viewings (or lack thereof) are kind of meaningless to me.
Marsh: I think that speaks to just the wealth of ideas on display in any given Godard film from that period, even those which aren't conventionally successful. I find British Sounds almost oppressively boring and tedious, but that's of course very deliberate -- he shows us, for instance, an inordinately long tracking shot out auto workers in a factory, and the point is that we're forced to confront the fact that our sense of boredom in the face of just a few minutes of that scenario is nothing in comparison to the daily lives of the people which actual populate a place like that, who have to experience that tedium for hours a day for years of their lives. That might qualify as something of a gimmick, something that you can sort of "get" but not really enjoy, but it's a bold gesture that I think has a lot of value. Plus, as you said, some of the images in the film are wonderful. The last shot, especially, is unforgettable. You're right, though, that a big part of what's significant with those films is what they say about Godard the person, the frame of mind he was in and the process of rediscovery he was going through at the time.