Less Talk, More Smokeby David N. Meyer
Godard’s ’60s, The Film Forum, May 2-June 5
Godard was always smarter than everybody else. That was his blessing and his curse. Nobody could talk him out of a bad idea, including himself. Happily, in the ‘60s, during Godard’s incomprehensibly creative ferment, during his pre-Maoist, pre-I’m-going-to-stand-in-a-French-corner- and-hold-my-breath-until-the-revolution-comes-or-I-turn-blue phase, Godard had damn few of them. Bad ideas, I mean. And if the relentless modernity of his pictures might argue that JLG thought too much and felt not enough, his characters usually suffer the opposite dilemma.
Godard’s oxymoronic, all right: cinema’s most self-conscious intellectual and heart-wrenching romantic; its most innovative technician and compassionate charter of the heart; its most deadly political thinker and smartest gag-writer. Godard invented the second half of cinema’s first century. And for all of his technical, visual, structural and narrative innovations, a seldom-mentioned reason for his work standing up so well is an entirely different sort of wild intelligence, a wild intelligence JLG never got sufficient credit for: chic.
Godard himself was not a bad dresser,. His style was monochromatic and snappy: tight pants, tweed jacket, dark glasses, five o’clock shadow and, for a while, that tiny fedora. But the women in his films! Like the movies themselves, they never seem dated. They seem cooler, better dressed, more indifferent to their beauty and to-the-moment style than any women characters in film. Their self-distance and distance from their own iconography makes them even cooler, more chic. Godard wields their chic as character development, as eye candy, as beauty for beauty’s sake (thus using primality to confound/transcend the uber-rationality of his constantly reinvented cinematic structure) and as demonstration that there can be no cinema without the most hypnotizing of the movie star’s gifts: glamour.
The short version: if you have the time, see every film in the series. If not, here you go:
1) Two or Three Things I Know About Her
Godard presents the soul-rotting suburbs surrounding Paris in a quiet riot of screaming Cinemascope and too-cool Eggleston-like barely moving frames. When his heroine—a housewife who turns tricks to pay for a color TV—appears, Godard asks us in a whisper: “Is her hair auburn? Does it matter?” The heartache here lies not in his characters’ fate, but in Godard finding a transcendent, wrenching beauty in the most desolate (sub)urban scapes. The fragmented moments of music mirror the disconnected, episodic lives that Godard barely depicts, but perfectly evokes.
Jack Palance in the performance of his career as the bluntest American blunt object of all time: a Hollywood big-studio producer who quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book. Red is everywhere: a red bike leaning on a wall, Jack’s lethal red convertible, the gleaming pink of Casa Malaparte, Capri’s deranged architectural masterpiece that Godard somehow turns into a symbol of unattainable beauty and the heartbreak that accompanies it. Bardot, too, gives the performance of her life, and shows a range no one had any reason to expect she possessed. Godard opens with an unforgettable scene—unbearably intimate, suspended in time, true—that shows even a sex goddess could yearn for love.
This opening scene is simply the deadpan funniest, as one of Godard’s prototypical distanced French beauties demonstrates for us the gap between action and narration. Then, we’re off to cinema’s greatest traffic jam, as forlorn and unironically funny as Godard ever got. JLG proves a master of expressed greed like Scorcese’s a master of fuming rage. He shows us rich folks with their hostility turned up a couple notches past the then-socially acceptable. Back then, they were the height of barbarity, a parody, an exaggeration. Now—with their lovely clothes and whining frustration—they seem all too current and real.
4) Masculine Feminin
Godard’s one pop culture confection that expressed his disdain and great affection for pop. Casting a yé-yé singer (Chantal Goya, a pop confection herself) as the ever-elusive love interest for Jean-Pierre Leaud’s classically bumbling, yet stubborn suitor, JLG seems to leave humans-as-metaphors behind in favor, shockingly, of humans as human beings. The story—despite a few narrative-wrecking interruptions—is remarkably sincere. Godard proves his theory that language is the least effective weapon for laying siege to a heart, and demonstrates his surprisingly Rohmer-like view that in romance, women hold the cards, and men seldom have a clue.
5) Pierrot le Fou
Leaud plays the bumbler—he thinks and talks himself and everyone else into paralysis. With Jean-Paul Belmondo, there’s more smoke and less talk. Nobody in cinema history could wield a Galois with the cool Belmondo barely notices he possesses. He teams up with Anna Karina and they play at being Bonnie & Clyde in the blinding sunshine of the south of France. One unforgettable pop-art shot of a boat’s blue cabin and white hull against a blue sea and a bluer sky will show just how much emotion can be expressed by the incantory capturing of pure color. The story makes no sense: the characters run amok in their own movie, and we fall helplessly in love with them for it.
6) Vivre Sa Vie
Godard was mad for Anna Karina until he wasn’t, until he came to understand he loved her more through the lens than in life. But while he adored her, he changed the rules of narrative forever. Karina plays a dispassionate shopgirl who drifts into prostitution. Godard never tells the story straight up; he hints, he shows one-tenth of a conversation that we have to finish, he lets locations take the place of dialogue. This is cinema of mood, of evocation, of achingly beautiful black and white. It’s a social tragedy without a message, and all the more moving as a result.
7) Band of Outsiders
As Godard groped his way around a two-guys-one-girl romance that’s also a caper movie, he chose an languid narrative style, chucking the usual norms of tension so the director could amuse himself. This might make it a tougher sit-through for the uninitiated, and a great delight for those not quite so hung up on pacing. Do The Madison—JLG’s two-minute homage to the great Hollywood dance numbers condenses enough sweetness, Brechtian storytelling and pure movie-star allure to more than make up for any narrative sloth.
8) A Woman Is A Woman
Here’s that two-guys-one-girl thing again, in Godard’s first color and Cinemascope frames. He revels in both, staging dance and bicycle sequences in studio apartments, and putting Karina in one post-Aubrey Hepburn eye-popping Pop outfit after another. In all these films, JLG demonstrates what cinema might be capable of, how expansive and embracing the shattering of (while always remaining in love with) the old norms could be.
In frigid perpetually nighttime Paris, under the blistering glare of fluorescence and the all-seeing eye of a totalitarian future, seamed-face B-movie icon Eddie Constantine arrives from the ’40s to bring amour back to France. Featuring the funniest chase sequence and chicest executions ever filmed, Godard lays his heart on his sleeve in high-contrast black and white, finding the secret engine of all noir (and little science fiction): love.
10) Sympathy For the Devil
Chic? Try the Rolling Stones painstakingly building their song verse by verse, failed attempt by failed attempt, take by take. Or endless shots of the back of Brian Jones’ blonde head or looping mad circles around the studio or Bill Wyman’s ridiculous purple outfit. Intercut this with black radicals passing rifles back and forth in auto-graveyards while reading aloud from Soul On Ice. What does it mean? What does ‘meaning’ mean? While steadfastly having no idea, I can tell you just as steadfastly that the closing sequence, which is as free of meaning as any in Godard, will make you weep. Ominously, Anne Wiazemsky runs all around London putting up agit-prop graffiti, foreshadowing Godard’s leaving the ’60s and narrative, way behind.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.