ReFramed No. 2: Jean-Luc Godard - The Second New Wave (1980-1989)

Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

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.

Next Page

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.