Daily | “Jean-Luc Godard – The Spirit of the Forms”

Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard

This is big. Let’s begin with J. Hoberman in the New York Times: “No filmmaker was more identified with the New York Film Festival’s first decade than Jean-Luc Godard; now entering its second half-century with a new programming director, Kent Jones, the festival is poised to begin New York’s first comprehensive retrospective devoted to… Jean-Luc Godard. The most extensive previous American survey of Mr. Godard’s oeuvre, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in 1992, included only his post-1974 work. At the New York festival, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is showing almost everything: the epochal ’60s films, the all-but-unwatchable political tracts, the hauntingly beautiful late art films, and Mr. Godard’s rarely screened television series—even a program of original trailers that he created for his own films…. Why Mr. Godard? Why now? It’s been 53 years since Breathless turned the movies inside out, but there are cineastes and cinephiles (myself among them) who consider this irascible French-Swiss filmmaker, ailing but still active at 82, still the single most influential artist to take cinema as his medium…. Mr. Godard invented a new type of filmmaker: the movie intellectual. For him, cinema is a living culture, as well as a way of thinking. Entering production with a fully developed sense of the medium’s evolution, he was the first filmmaker to recognize that the classic period was over and cinema was ripe for reinvention.”

Jean-Luc Godard – The Spirit of the Forms opens today and runs through October 31, and I’m hoping there’ll be many dispatches and fresh thoughts to point to from this entry over the next few weeks. I suppose the last JLG roundup I did was way back in 2010, when he turned 80. For now, note that Film Comment has posted Gavin Smith‘s lengthy conversation with Godard for the March/April 1996 issue, and that, in Paris, the series Numerous Godard, Retourner un Film runs through November 8 at the Cinémathèque Français. Meantime, Godard is, of course, still at work on Adieu au langage, and Daniel Ludwig‘s report from the set this summer is delightful.

Hail Mary (1985) screens this evening at 6 and again on Saturday. Reporting for Film International, Gary M. Kramer notes that it screens with Anne-Marie Miéville’s The Book of Mary (Le Livre de Marie), presenting “domestic dispute between a couple (Bruno Cremer and Aurore Clément) while their daughter Marie (Rebecca Hampton) shuttles back and forth between them,” and Godard’s own Notes on Hail Mary (Petites Notes à propos du film Je vous salue Marie). “In this video, the filmmaker announces, ‘People think [films] all come from the camera but there are other things.’ He shows actress Myriem Roussel, who plays Marie in Hail Mary, rehearsing, and superimposes an image of Michelangelo’s Pieta over her face… He instructs Roussel to study Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s La Strada to find the clownish side to Marie. There is music by Bach and scenes of Roussel ironing. Godard explains that his purpose in making Hail Mary was to create ‘a film people are not used to seeing.’ Adding that ‘a couple like Joseph and Mary are an ideal couple.’ The filmmaker then plays with a toy helicopter and asks for money.”

From French Culture: “No matter how many times you’ve seen Vivre sa vie or France/tour/detour/deux enfants or Nouvelle vague, you can never know them completely: their beauties run as deep as their mysteries, their disturbances and disjunctions are as numerous as their revelations. Whenever they appear to settle into a fixed rhythm, they upend and reconfigure themselves in order to arrive at another rhythm pitched at a higher level. Godard’s work, whether it’s on film, video or HD, unfolds like no one else’s, and shocks the viewer into a new relationship with the world and with images.”

Updates, 10/11: The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody has posted an annotated list of must-sees in this retrospective: “Though every devotee of Godard’s films has her own passions and anticipations, I felt compelled to respond on the basis of my own pleasures and emphases, as well as on the grounds of scarcity—many of Godard’s most important works are unavailable on DVD or streaming.”

“Never has the body been more at the center of a Godard film than in Hail Mary (1985), in which he stages a crypto-melodrama between the body and the soul to tell the story of the Virgin Mary,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. And “despite the tempestuousness of Mary and Joseph’s body-soul struggle, Godard’s filmmaking is calm and eloquent, nearly untroubled in an era of troublesome productions. Whether we see Mary’s soul or not is undoubtedly up to the viewer, but the tender sympathy of this resolutely materialist filmmaker remains resplendent in its beauty and voluptuous in its polyphony of cinematic records—in ways that all but immediately reveal the pulsing meaning and power within the images’ forms.”

Hail Mary stars Myriem Roussel, the subject of Mark Lukenbill‘s entry at Criticwire. She’d been “an extra on the set of Godard’s Passion in 1981 when she was swiftly promoted to a minor role due to her classical dance experience… Their next collaboration was in 1983’s First Name: Carmen (playing at the retrospective on October 15th). Written by Godard’s partner Anne-Marie Mieville and shot by Raoul Coutard, Godard’s constant 60s cinematographer, the film is remarkably lucid and often kind of hilarious: a slapstick, faux-philosophical take on a heist movie that has essentially nothing to do with Bizet’s titular opera.”

Update, 10/13: Calum Marsh for the L on Every Man for Himself (1980): “Sauve qui peut (la vie), Godard’s self-described ‘second first film,’ announced the reclusive auteur’s long-anticipated return to narrative filmmaking following more than a decade’s sojourn into the trenches of the political avant-garde. The result was reinvigorating, a heady blend of aesthetic experimentation and deeply felt autocritique.”

Updates, 10/16: “From April to October of 1978, Jean-Luc Godard made seven trips to Montreal’s Concordia University, delivering two lectures on each occasion,” wrote Phil Coldiron for Cinema Scope some time back. “These lectures followed a simple format: the morning was devoted to showing excerpts from classic films, as well as works from the first decade of Godard’s career in their entirety; the afternoon to public discussions moderated by Serge Losique, head of Montreal’s World Film Festival and a Cinema Studies professor at Concordia. Their stated purpose was to begin research toward a video series offering a true history of cinema, a project finally realized two decades later as Histoire(s) du cinema.”

In 1980, these talks were collected in a volume in France that is now appearing this month from the Montreal-based publishing house caboose as Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, translated by Timothy Barnard. It is, writes Coldiron, “not so much a book as the direct impression of an experience, a present-tense record of an ongoing conversation in search of true methods for thinking of, and communicating about, the cinema.”

The book features an accompanying essay by Michael Witt, whose own book, Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian, a study of Histoire(s), will be released on November 5. From Indiana University Press: “Witt explores Godard’s landmark work as both a specimen of an artist’s vision and a philosophical statement on the history of film. Witt contextualizes Godard’s theories and approaches to historiography and provides a guide to the wide-ranging cinematic, aesthetic, and cultural forces that shaped Godard’s groundbreaking ideas on the history of cinema.”

Updates, 10/18: Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1968 on Jean-Luc Godard: A Critical Anthology: “For most people interested in Godard, Toby Mussman’s collection of writing on his films is bound to be useful. For this reader, it manages to be both indispensable and exasperating.”

At the L, Paul D’Agostino recommends catching A Woman Is a Woman (1961) when you can.

Update, 10/19: NYFF Critics Academy members Diana Drumm, Shelley Farmer, Mark E. Lukenbill, and Gus Reed discuss their favorite films by JLG.

Update, 10/21: At FilmLinc Daily, Don Boyd, a producer who worked with Godard on Armide, one of ten segments of the omnibus film Aria (1987), recalls seeing JLG in London for the first time in 1968. Godard was fielding journalists’ questions about One Plus One aka Sympathy for the Devil: “One stupid tabloid hack asked him why he thought that his films deserved so much public attention and contemporary cultural validity. Godard paused and with absolutely no irony at all said, and I paraphrase from memory: ‘I will give you £50: Go downstairs and buy ten 8mm movie cameras, and ten rolls of film. Take them into the street and stop the first ten people you meet there. Give them a camera each and a roll of film and ask them to make a film. Their film will have as much validity as mine, and certainly more than the article that you will write about me.'”

Update, 10/23:‘s David Ehrlich posts an excerpt from Graham Fuller’s interview with Anna Karina, published in Projections 13: Women Filmmakers on Filmmaking (2005), in which she recalls the night she fell for JLG.

Update, 10/26: Glenn Kenny: “In Godard’s 1991 film Allemagne annee 90 neuf zero (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero), the Los-Angeles-born actor Eddie Constantine plays Lemmy Caution—the ‘authentic’ hard-boiled protagonist he played seven times in ‘authentic’ French B-thrillers before putting the character through Godardization in 1965’s Alphaville—here, in just-post-Cold-War Germany, re-imagined by Godard as ‘the last spy,’ trying to find his way back to ‘the West.’ … As his trench-coated self wanders a wintry German landscape, Eddie/Lemmy/Jean-Luc observes, in English, ‘Christmas with all its ancient horrors is on us again.’ The phrase sounded familiar to me.” Glenn eventually finds the source, but before he does, he sees “Godard’s 1986 Grandeur and Decadence, a television project Godard made under the pretext of a commission to adapt a serie noire… What Godard produced instead was a tortured (albeit hardly humorless) work about a small film company (Albatross Films, naturally) that goes horrifically under while trying to initiate such an adaptation…. The director that so many critics take as a somewhat imperious, hermetic, willfully esoteric trickster is here revealed as a man utterly unsure of where life and art are taking him, and very nearly succumbing to despair.”

Update, 10/30: “What does this retrospective accomplish?” asks Michael Blum at Hyperallergic. “Godard’s status today is precariously suspended between two conflicting fates: overblown iconicity and an almost abyssal and closed anonymity. The former is a result of the canonization of his precocious (to say the least) first decade of making feature films…. On the other hand, Godard’s second fate, determined by his post-’68 production, establishes him as little more than a fetish or flashpoint of debate for academics, critics, and cultural theorists…. A retrospective today has the opportunity to publicly exhume these two separated sides of Godard (the heart and the head, if you’ll excuse the crude metaphor) and unite them as a whole. This unification is further enabled by programming decisions: rather than screen the films with an uncritical abeyance to chronology, Jones and [co-curator Jake] Perlin have woven them together, mixing early and late works in a medley that helps erode the polarity in Godard’s oeuvre. Highlighting the continuities and consistencies between his projects pre- and post-’68, Jones and Perlin don’t attempt to elide the heterogeneous periods of Godard’s production; they do, however, make one pause before consigning whole decades of his work to the garbage bin.”

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