ReFramed No. 2: Jean-Luc Godard - The Second New Wave (1980-1989)
In Part 2 of ReFramed's Godard discussion, Cronk and Marsh review the French filmmaker's "second first" phase as a director.
Jordan Cronk: Now, Jean-Luc Godard has been pretty kind to us and to a series such as this by segregating his career into convenient little movements, but after wandering for a good decade or more in the wilderness of the late '60s and '70s, he himself seemed to even acknowledge the need for a return to form. At the time of its release, Godard called Every Man for Himself his "second first film," and as we mentioned in our last column, this was the first widely accessible (comparatively speaking of course) film he made in nearly twelve years. It was a return to narrative, a return to characterization, and a return to at least some modicum of coherency; it also kick-started a decade that seems ripe for rediscovery and reassessment. I know you in particular may even prefer this decade to his runs of '60s films. Beyond the obvious characteristics and general linearity in relation to what directly preceded them, what is it about these films that make them continue to standout in a late-career catalogue that at times can seem impenetrable to the common viewer?
Calum Marsh: Well, as we discussed a little bit the last time around, I think Godard's '60s films, masterpieces though many of them are, have had their reputations bolstered as a result of their historical value and confirmed status within the larger cultural canon. The films Godard made during the '80s, on the other hand, aren't lucky enough to have history supporting them so vehemently—they thus need to not only stand apart on their own but alsoapart from those '60s "classics". That means they have a lot working against them. But what's funny is that once you actually pass the invisible hurdle and actually get right into those films—assuming you can find any of them, because apart from three of the weaker films from mid-decade none of these films are available on DVD in North America—you realize just how accessible and wholly enjoyable they are. These films are still quite dense, mind you, and tendto posit mo re sophisticated ideas and arguments than did the films which preceded them, but the general and pervasive idea that Godard totally lost his way after Week End starts to seem a little odd after you watch a film like Every Man For Himself or First Name: Carmen, which are fairly coherent and entertaining.
Cronk: Yeah, it’s funny that Godard more or less attempted to return to the mainstream film industry in the '80s—at least as far as production and distribution was concerned—but only a very small segment of the mainstream cinema audience has even heard of these films. Which is doubly ironic when you have casts bolstered by the likes of Isabelle Huppert, Michel Piccoli, Julie Delpy, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliette Binoche, Burgess Meredith, and even Molly Ringwald (!). I know for me personally, some of my favorite Godard films come from this era: Every Man for Himself, Hail Mary, Passion, and King Lear in particular stand out. And speaking of King Lear, answer me one question: Is this your favorite Godard film? I get that impression and I’ve never asked.
Marsh: This statement may come back to haunt me some day, but: King Lear is my favorite film. Period. As in of all time.
Cronk: Wow, that’s a bold statement. King Lear kind of carries this reputation as a “bad” Godard film, which I think is unfair and which you obviously don’t agree with in any way. What is it about this film in particular that appeals to you?
Marsh: Okay, well, I think this is the point at which we should probably just explain what this movie even is, since beyond having a reputation with Godard fans as bad Godard it has literally zero reputation with 99% of film fans more generally. It's never had a DVD release in this country and is only available, as far as I'm aware, as a weird Italian import or as a really old VHS release, and because it's disliked even by Godard fans it almost never gets discussed or even mentioned anywhere, ever. So here's the deal: King Lear is (obviously) a loose adaptation of the Shakespeare play written by Norman Mailer and starring Mailer, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Godard himself, and Woody Allen. It's totally in English, is extremely abstract, and has an almost dadaish quality at times that most audience members take to mean that Godard is either insane or making fun of them. Both of which are reasonable assumptions, given how abrasive the film can be at times.
The basic plot of the film is that all the world's art and culture has been wiped out after a post-Chernobyl disaster, and one of Shakespeare's ancestors, named William Shakespeare Junior The Fifth and played by theatre director Peter Sellars, is tasked with restoring his ancestor's works by "rediscovering" them, which takes the form of him sort of stumbling upon materializations of his work in reality. Of course, this being Godard, and in particular this being Godard at his most abstract and conspicuously difficult, that plot is only really adhered to in the loosest way. Godard plays a man named "Professor Pluggy", who has long dreadlocks made out of computer cables and electrical wiring, and who talks at length about the nature of "the image" and how cinema needs to be restored and reinvented from scratch. And the film overall is pretty much just that: it's an attempt to rebuild cinema, which of course startsby tearing the cinema as we know it down, and it's beautiful and moving and incredibly dense intellectually all at the same time. It's hard to really do it justice in writing, actually, because it's so essentially cinematic.
Cronk: My theory is that a few vocal dissenters stood up against the film, and it being so rare on home video, the reputation just sort of piled on from there. ‘Cause, well, it does kind of read like a mess on paper, but as far as wanting to actually sit down and watch an ‘80s Godard film, it stands beside Every Man and Detective as the most purely enjoyable film from this era I think, even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense at times. What I don’t think people give these films credit for, though, is their sense of humor. Godard himself stars in and plays a lot of goofy characters in these films, and after such a rigorous and ideologically staunch decade in the ‘70s, these films play as a kind of relief.
Marsh: Absolutely. It's a pervasive misconception that "high-art" work should either be deadly serious or ironic and funny, but one of the most interesting things about Godard's work during this period is that it so often manages to be both simultaneously. He of course has more purely "serious" films, like Passion, and he has more purely "comic" (though still quite dense) films, too, like the outrageous slapstick comedy Keep Your Right Up!, with which he closed the decade. And speaking of repute, would you agree that Hail Mary is the only film from that period with any standing critical reputation? Because it seems like it's the only 80s Godard that people are still sort of aware of, and which hasn't really been dismissed or rejected like the others.