Monday, June 16, 2008

Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard

If for Jean-Luc Godard, everything is, in fact, cinema - that is, the dividing line between personal life and on-camera expression, between documentary and fiction, is hopelessly blurred - then Richard Brody's approach to his subject in his new critical biography makes plenty of sense. Organized around the individual films in the director's oeuvre, Brody's book provides biographical information only in so much as it relates to what we see on screen - it's as if he's giving us a set of biographical footnotes to his readings of the films. And while this approach is largely refreshing in its resisting the cult of personality surrounding the legendary auteur that has completely overshadowed his actual cinematic output in recent years, it also gives Brody license to offer the occasional overly reductive (if nonetheless fascinating) reading of one or another of Godard's works. (In particular Brody reads most of the director's 1960s films principally as expressions of his troubled relationship with Anna Karina).

The primary narrative arc that Brody traces, though, is one of a complex negotiation between artist and medium, a story of all-consuming passion followed by disillusionment and finally a re-establishment of relationship on a new set of terms. From Godard's early cinephile days with the Cahiers group (when he extolled the virtues of Hawks and Hitchcock), Brody charts a growing dissatisfaction with standard cinematic forms which pushed the filmmaker in search of new modes of expression throughout the '60s. But he also traces Godard's growing political conscience which led him to reject his beloved Hollywood models as emblematic of an oppressive imperialist program at the very moment when all of France seemed to be convulsed with revolutionary fervor. Following the May '68 uprising, Godard began to question the primacy of the cinematic image, stripping his films down to an aesthetically drab, text-driven model which hammered home its didactic points with (in Brody's reading) little artistic interest. The book's long final section - and Brody, as a corrective to the dominant assessment of Godard's oeuvre, devotes more than half of his book to the filmmaker's '80s and '90s work - tracks the artist's slow rediscovery of the medium - assisted by his partner, the filmmaker Anne-Marie MiƩville - a period filled with fascinating reflections on historical memory and the artist's role within the corporate mechanism as well as exhibiting a new-found lyricism, inspired by Godard's withdrawal from Paris and relocation to the relative purity of rural Switzerland.

One of the most fascinating threads running through Brody's book is the author's assertion of Godard's essentially conservative worldview, a way of looking at things that finds some rather odd and troubling expressions in the filmmaker's work. The common view of Godard may be of a confirmed leftist, but his was a slow-developing political consciousness and, even as he moved toward a more committed stance throughout the '60s - mirrored in his increasingly radical formal breakthroughs - he espoused an inarguably conservative conception of the patriarchal order, which presented the monogamous, subservient wife as its central figure. Later, after the filmmaker's radical period, this conservatism resurfaced, taking the form of an embrace of classical culture (including its more questionable assumptions) and a rejection of the plurality of urban modernity in favor of the supposedly purer virtues of an idealized nature.

But oddest of all are the expressions of anti-Semitism that crop up in Godard's work and in particular the filmmaker's reading of the Holocaust in relation to the history of cinema. According to Godard, 1945 represented the turning point - the authentic death - of the medium, and the industry's failure to provide images of the concentration camps during the war signaled the end of the medium's viability. From there, Jewish-dominated Hollywood, committed to a program of historical amnesia, consolidated its control of the world market and the art form began to die a slow death - all great films made since the end of the war being essentially laments for a defunct golden age. But Godard goes further in making explicit links between Nazi persecution of the Jews and the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although Godard insists he's an anti-Zionist and not an anti-Semite, Brody cites a handful of genuinely anti-Semitic flowerings in Godard's recent work, even if the filmmaker's attitudes toward Judaism are more complex than the reductivist understanding usually signaled by that term.

This tracing of a single motif across the director's life and (especially) work is typical of Brody's approach, a strategy reflective of the author's reserved admiration for his subject and carried out with a typically probing intelligence. If at times, this approach borders on the schematic - a forcing of details to fit a seemingly pre-determined conclusion - it nonetheless deepens our understanding of the filmmaker's work. And by positing Godard's recent output as the culmination of his art, Brody forces us to reconsider our entire conception of a massive body of work that few people know in its entirety. This last achievement may, in the final analysis, prove to be the book's singular contribution to the body of cinematic literature.

1 comment:

Ed Howard said...

Brody's book has inspired a lot of discourse so far. Everything I've read seems to point to him being somewhat off in his readings of a lot of things relating to Godard. That said, I've posted my own response to Stephanie Zacharek's recent NY Times review of the book, which I felt really needed some challenging.