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

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.


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.