ArtSunday: Godard says everything is cinema – except when it's politics, perhaps…

Jean Luc Godard’s 1968 epic WeekEnd closes with the following end title:


Leonard Lopate of WNYC has a terrific interview with Richard Brody, film critic for The New Yorker and author of a new book on the cinema icon – Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean Luc Godard. You can hear the interview below.

As Lopate archly notes and Brody diplomatically tries to refute, for the vast majority of cinema aficionados, Godard’s end title was prophetic.

After WeekEnd, Godard chose politics over film making – and while he’s occasionally been provocative and interesting, he’s never been relevant in the way he was during his artistic peak in the 1960’s.

When Godard burst upon world cinema in 1959 with his breakthrough film À Bout de Souffle (Breathless), his appearance completed the emergence of the triumvirate of France’s Nouvelle Vague in film making: Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, and Godard. While both Chabrol and Truffaut went on to have careers that eventually led them into French mainstream cinema (and earned Godard’s scorn as a result even as they raised the quality of that cinema considerably), Godard stayed his radical course throughout his career, delivering masterpiece after masterpiece throughout the 1960’s – A Woman is a Woman, Contempt, Les Carabiniers, Masculin/Feminin, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, and, to me, his magnum opus, WeekEnd. It is an amazing, varied and impressive series of films. If he had stopped making films after WeekEnd, his place in the pantheon of great film makers would be secure.

But he didn’t.

Instead Godard, once a political conservative who gradually became enamored of Marxism, became a radical Maoist. And that political conversion, as it came to dominate his film making aesthetic, had a deleterious effect on Godard’s work. One might liken Godard’s imposing on himself the same sort of repression and restriction of his artistic impulses in service of a political imperative to Stalin’s meddling with the work of Sergei Eisenstein. In Eisenstein’s case, that the Russian director could produce great cinema such as Battleship Potemkin, October, and Ivan IV (Part 1) is a testament to his ability to use his genius to overcome the double thinking required in a political climate like Stalinist Russia. That Godard chose to impose such a mental burden on himself, while it may speak positively to his commitment to his political ideals, it speaks also to an artistic misstep from which Jean Luc Cinema Godard, as he once proclaimed himself, was never to recover.

Godard’s work has always carried political messages – Masculin/Feminin explores the awkwardness of men and women trying to fit both political and cultural ideals; Les Carabiniers is an indictment of war’s pointlessness and false promises to its soldiers; WeekEnd is Godard’s brilliant evisceration of a society that even in 1967 seemed to him to be amusing itself to death with consumerism and bourgeois conventionality. But after his avowed conversion to Maoism, his film making – which had always been more liberated – and liberating – from cinematic convention than perhaps any other major director, became more and more polemic in the worst sort of way: the cinematic art was too often subordinated to political diatribe. Even the best works after his post-sixties peak – Tout Va Bien, Je Vous Salue, Marie (Hail Mary) – have been discussed more for their political statements than for their cinematic innovations.

Artists always face danger when they allow any element – even the most sincere political conviction – to circumscribe or change their creative visions. Godard’s commitment to Maoism led him down a path that took him from the most vital, provocative, admirable film maker in the cinema to the isolated, embittered old man he seems to be now. As Godard proved in his work from the sixties, an artist can make powerful political statements while at the same time maintaining his art as his first priority. It is only when one’s art is (consciously or unconsciously) subsumed by other passions that the art suffers.

Godard’s most recent work is elegiac in content – JLG/JLG Autoportrait de Décembre and Histoire(s) du Cinéma both represent Godard’s best efforts to understand and perhaps explain what happened to cinema – and to Jean Luc Cinema Godard – over the last half of the 20th century. Even as thoughtful and insightful as these works are, one must wonder if Godard is haunted by his own words:

Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.

3 replies »

  1. Really interesting piece, Jim. I’m not well-versed in cinema history, so this was pretty thought-provoking.

  2. I’ve always been leery of political art because more often than not it winds up being bad art and questionable politics. Not always true, of course, and it’s probably easier to get it right in film than it is in, say, poetry. Of course, the flip side of this argument is that ALL art is inherently political.

    There’s probably something deeper in here for me to be thinking about. In any case, great analysis.