Archive for September, 2022

Cinema has lost one of its Michelangelos. You can’t exaggerate about the influence Jean-Luc Godard has had on movies. He reinvented the way we watch them, first through his influence in France in the 1960s, then on the American cinema of the 1970s and around the world ever after. Godard was a destroyer of cinematic conventions, showing the audience that his camera was a spying device, reminding viewers that they were accomplices in a game of false objectivity.

He was so obsessed with environment and the psychology of location that he figured you might as well turn the camera away from the actors and shoot the film crew sometimes. He let technical imperfections in a piece of celluloid or sound show his artist’s hand, the way a drip painter might. He could leave one actor and follow a new one just to see if she were doing something interesting. He could stop a petty crime story and have two lovers sit in bed and talk about their feelings for an hour. He turned up his nose at things first year film students learn–like continuity between one action and another.

He taught us new rhythms not only in where he cut the film but in how he paced the drama of two people talking. My guess is that if you could tap your foot to a movie, he gave us the time signature that was the cinema of the 1970s, including “The Godfather” and “Taxi Driver.”

Godard was a beautiful interpreter of Hegel and shortly thereafter a profoundly stupid Marxist (a trap a lot of intellectuals fall into) who liked to turn housewives into prostitutes and rock bands into revolutionaries in increasingly tedious ways. He didn’t think you could capture things like the Holocaust on film without creating it through false aesthetics, therefore he rejected films like “Schindler’s List” on artistic grounds that very often sounded like moral ones. (I think of him when I remember Atom Egoyan’s misbegotten attempt to handle the Armenian genocide by not handling it).

Godard was also the Israel critic who didn’t mind himself when his comments seeped into anti-Semitism. His obsession with what was fake and what wasn’t led him early on to recreate our film language–and later in life led him to artistic dead ends. He was often, like the late Christopher Hitchens, an occasionally insufferable blustering blowhard–whom for some reason you couldn’t live without.

My favorite Godard film is “Contempt,” in which you watch a marriage disintegrate in front of your very eyes over semantics and ennui and the crushing weight of minutes. He made it early in his career when he was still curious about how humans interacted and his amazing style still didn’t allow doctrine to be inflicted so much on his characters. After that, there’s plenty to love: “Breathless,” “My Life To Live,” “Alphaville,” “Pierrot le Fou,” “Two or Three Things I Know About Her.” Others can fill out my list.

There are probably going to be some nasty things written about him today, just as there were about the queen. So I’ll say something I hope Jean-Luc would have appreciated: “You were the shit we couldn’t live without.”

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