ReFramed No. 3: Jean-Luc Godard - The Lost Later Years (1990-2011)

Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

In this final installment in ReFramed's dissection of Godard, Cronk and Marsh consider age, attitude, and the angst of misplaced elitism.

Calum Marsh: Now that Film Socialisme has been fortunate enough to finally receive a formal (if very limited) American theatrical release, the mainstream reviews are pouring in, and the results have been...well, not exactly effusive. What are your thoughts on how the film's been generally received, Jordan?

Jordan Cronk: It's funny in a sense. Coming out of the festival circuit last year, the film was pretty hotly tipped by critics and publications that I would consider authoritative: Johnathan Rosenbaum, Amy Taubin, Cinema Scope, etc. Hell, it sat at Number Two on Film Comment's best unreleased films of 2010 list. And now predictably, with mainstream critics getting a look at the film, the film is being construed as an affront not just to the senses, but to the cinema itself. Which is ironic, since this film, along with most of Godard's '90s and 2000s work, is so obviously in love with the process of creation and the art form as a whole. I know this bothers you, as it does me, but is it fair to hold these opinions to the standard we do for some of the folks mentioned earlier? And does it even matter at this point, forty some odd years after general audiences stopped caring about Godard?

Marsh: I'd like to think that its reception is totally irrelevant and that the greatness of the work can speak for itself, but it's a sad fact of the industry -- even, or perhaps especially, for fringe releases like this -- that critical acclaim helps not only to draw audiences but also, crucially, to secure further distribution in smaller theatrical markets and on home video. Movies that don't boast luxuries like star power or massive advertising budgets come to rely pretty heavily on the praise lauded upon them by the standard (and, ahem, mainstream) arbiters of taste, which is why with foreign and arthouse releases it's usually only the safe bets that attract much notice -- not because they're any more bankable as releases, but because they're more likely to please the largest number of "respectable" mainstream critics.

Of course I personally prefer reading what somebody like Jonathan Rosenbaum has to say about a film than I do somebody like, say, Leonard Maltin. But obviously it's the big names that are going to have influence, so you're kind of fucked if Roger Ebert basically vetoes your potential for popularity with an entirely flippant one star review.

Cronk: The beauty of the images in Film Socialisme alone are worthy of more than a single star I'd say, to say nothing of the detailed and elaborate sound design, and, of course, the thematic and political ideas and implications. Kind of what we've been discussing for the past few columns then, I guess, but like you imply, no less disheartening for the reality which is the mainstream movie industry.

Marsh: Michael Sicinski wrote something pretty interesting the other day on Twitter about how he thought nobody was supposed to just see Film Socialisme once, and that the bootleg version online--the one with "proper" English subtitles supplanting the broken, noun-based "Navajo" subtitles included for the theatrical release--represented just one more part of the whole point of the movie. I think that's a pretty brilliant contextual reading, but what's amusing is how great a role film piracy plays in Godard's late career, and in particular his work during the '90s and 2000s. As we mentioned last time, there at least exists in North American a DVD compiling high-quality prints of three of his films from the '80s, and "Keep Your Right Up!" is available on DVD separately as well.

But with the exception of 1992's Helas Pour Moi, which is available as a part of that same 80s collection, none of Godard's '90s features can be found anywhere in North America. You literally can't see these films unless you download them--and as a result, thankfully, they're pretty easy to hunt down online.

Cronk: Which is particularly sad in my view, since the '90s and 2000s is my favorite post-'68 period for Godard, which I think is partly due to the fact that these films -- beginning with Nouvelle vague in 1990 -- feel almost like a continuation of the style and aesthetics Godard pioneered in the late '60s with Two or Three Things I Know About Her, probably still his single best film in my opinion. I think also -- and this is just my reading of this period -- that the '90s represent the first time that Godard wasn't actively reacting to something -- whether that be the nascent political turmoil of 1968 France, or the general reception of his '70s work, which led him to attempt a reconciliation with the French film industry in the '80s. The '90s, therefore, feel to me like Godard working completely intuitively, and the results are pretty uniformly strong. In fact, the half dozen or so films from Nouvelle vague up to Histoire(s) du Cinema -- which include such impressive works as Germany Year 90 Nine Zero and JLG/JLG -- may be oneof the single best runs of his career. I know I find myself considering these works as often as anything else in his catalogue, and I know you love his '80s work, but what's your take on this modern high he's currently still operating at?

Marsh: I think that's pretty fair. What's interesting about his '90s phase is that many of the films feel, for the first time in Godard's career, like definitively late works -- many of them have a stately, graceful style, which stands in high contrast to his slapdash pop-art '60s, his rough and essay-like '70s, and his passionate and artistically reinvigorated '80s periods. Nouvelle Vague, in particular, unfolds in such a strikingly sleek and finely calibrated manner, and its long tracking shots represent some of the most straight-forwardly beautiful camera work in Godard's filmography. Helas Pour Moi and Forever Mozart, the two other "major" feature films from that period, share that same basic aesthetic. Godard's single most important production during the '90s, though, the eight episode pseudo-miniseries Histoire(s) Du Cinema, is almost the exact opposite, stylistically -- it's loose, ragged, collage-like, and though both dense and meticulously crafted it seems at first glance like the rough draft of something that never fully came together.

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