Jean-Luc Godard’s name has always inspired both love and hate. Some shout hurrah and some shout humbug, but almost no one disagrees that at a crucial point in film history, he forced audiences to consider that film might, just might, actually be an important art form. (And not necessarily the one they thought it was.) In “Everything Is Cinema,” Richard Brody reopens the arguments, lifting Mr. Godard out of the 1960s and placing him where he rightfully belongs: ahead of the game.
In his first feature, “À Bout de Souffle” (released in the United States in 1961 as “Breathless”), Mr. Godard threw away the rule book. Appearing suddenly on screen, he identifies the criminal hero (Jean-Paul Belmondo) through a newspaper photo and points him out to the police, who follow Mr. Belmondo as he drives away. After a cinematic iris-out on himself, Mr. Godard then disappears. He has entered his own film to see what no one else in the movie sees, show us what we need to see and make the definitive move that changes everything. He is director, character, self, commentator and the hand of fate. With “Breathless,” Mr. Godard became the bad boy of ’60s cinema, turning the concept of postmodernism into date talk.
Mr. Godard’s primary preoccupation was always with cinema itself. He made leaps in time, mixed genres, ignored story logic and refused to satisfy viewer expectations. Watching a Godard film was often the cinematic equivalent to being thrown off a cliff. “Made in U.S.A.” (1966) begins with an image of the actress Anna Karina (later his wife) and an inexplicable subtitle: “Happiness, for instance ...” What? Not to mention where, when, who or why. “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” (1967) presents Marina Vlady sitting by a window. Mr. Godard’s voice whispers: “She is Marina Vlady. She is an actress. She’s wearing a sweater with yellow stripes.” In the next shot, with the same actress at the same window but from a different angle, he says: “She is Juliette Janson. She lives here. She is wearing a sweater with blue stripes.” (If Mr. Godard were not a genius, he would be a college sophomore. One of Mr. Brody’s bigger challenges — which he gracefully handles — is how to clarify Mr. Godard’s enigmatic style without making him sound silly.)
“Everything Is Cinema” is admirably Godardian. Mr. Brody, a film critic and editor at The New Yorker, is essentially demystifying Mr. Godard’s legend in order to elucidate his life, his times and his work, but he never sets himself up as the brain behind the brain; he allows a reader to think.
Mr. Brody defines Mr. Godard as a revolutionary technical innovator, a cogent film scholar and a True Artist challenged by a world of budgets and profits. He writes as much about Mr. Godard’s motives as about his results, believing that by learning what Mr. Godard is, we can learn what formulaic entertainers (as brilliant as they can be) are not.
Mr. Godard’s personal journey is interwoven with his artistic development. Born in 1930 “to a prosperous and cultured family,” he was an “eager reader” who was “not a frequent moviegoer in childhood.” By 1946 he had begun to “watch an endless number of movies,” and by 1949 he was being cultivated by the famous film omnivore Henri Langlois, curator of the Paris Cinémathèque. Along with his fellow acolytes Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut, Mr. Godard began living at the movies, “learning how to make films by watching films.” By 1950 his knowledge of movies had progressed to where he could write: “At the cinema, we do not think. We are thought.”
Mr. Brody’s main focus is an in-depth analysis of Mr. Godard’s work, but he thoroughly covers Mr. Godard’s life: the French New Wave, the influence of auteurism, his shifting politics, his fights with Truffaut, his stormy affairs with women. Mr. Brody is particularly astute in dealing with Mr. Godard’s more recent years, when his work has not had its earlier influence or critical reception. Mr. Brody laments this lack of attention and respect. He feels that Mr. Godard “has become almost forgotten.”
In whose universe? The world of commercial cinema or the multiplex was never his territory, yet Madonna was quoted in Vanity Fair in May as claiming that her new iTunes film “was seriously influenced by Godard.” Surely this means there’s still some meaning to his name, even if the quoters might not be sure what it is. And as Mr. Brody himself points out, Mr. Godard is the subject of many academic conferences and college courses. If he had never made a movie, his writings on American film — Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, et al. — could keep Mr. Godard alive.
Mr. Godard himself is conscious of age and change. He once told the director John Boorman: “You have to be young and foolish to make a film. If you know as much as we do, it’s impossible.” It’s a melancholy remark by an enfant terrible who’s no longer an enfant. Today, living in “self-imposed exile” in Switzerland, Mr. Godard told Mr. Brody that young filmmakers “don’t know the past” and that “with digital, there is no past, not even technically,” because looking at a previous shot “doesn’t take any time to get there. ... There’s an entire time that no longer exists.”
“Everything Is Cinema” is important because it is an honest, intelligent and often eloquent treatment of a major motion picture artist. Sometimes reading it is a bit like riding a train that is chugging dutifully up a hill; at other times it’s a roller coaster of exciting ideas. Either way, like a Godard film, the journey turns out to be worth it.
EVERYTHING IS CINEMA
The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard
By Richard Brody
Illustrated. 701 pages. Metropolitan Books. $40
Da The New York Times, 23 Luglio 2008