I have a friend who jokes, whenever another early Godard film is playing at Film Forum, “When is that series going to be over?”—as if Film Forum were running one continuous series of Godard films from the 60s. They basically have been; a quick search shows that in the past few years Film Forum has had runs of Vivre Sa Vie, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Made in USA, Band of Outsiders, Contempt, Masculine Feminine, A Woman is a Woman, La Chinoise, plus the longer programs Godard’s 60s and The Films of Godard—the latter also focusing on movies from the 1960s—and now the 50th anniversary restoration of Breathless. And each time the films play they greet rapturous critics and eager audiences, or audiences eager to come, if not necessarily to stay—I noticed more than a few walkouts at screenings of Two or Three Things and Masculine Feminine.
In a way, all this is great.
Few artists in any medium at any point in time have had as fascinating a creative sprint as Godard did from 1959’s Breathless through, at least, 1968’s Sympathy for the Devil. And undoubtedly this is one of the most influential bodies of work in the latter half of the 20th century, with an influence that extends beyond film into literature and the visual and performing arts. You’d be hard pressed to find a serious artist anywhere who wasn’t schooled in 60s Godard. And you can add to all this the dubious distinction of brand-name recognition: Film Forum keeps playing these films, after all, because they put people in the seats.
But why, exactly, do these films have so much appeal to contemporary audiences? What, in other words, does an early Godard film mean in 2010?
The question may be a bogus; it’s possible there is no such thing as “an early Godard film,” only Breathless, Le Petit Soldat, Les Caribiniers, etc., each one singular and bearing only a faint family resemblance to the others. But if I might be allowed to generalize and note some common conditions they all share, I would first point that Godard’s early films are impeccably stylish—not only formally, but in regards to the main characters’ fashion sense. And unlike many films of the era, their sense of fashion seems to age remarkably well: the bobbed haircuts and baggy sweaters only seem to have more appeal the older these films get. It might also be apposite to point out that the Godard films from this period in which fashion is least noticeable, Le Petit Soldat and Les Caribiniers, have gotten little play at Film Forum or other repertory venues. They are also the most self-serious movies of Godard’s early period.
Another reason the films play so well to audiences today is that Godard, as much as Bruce Conner or Arthur Lipsett, is a progenitor of remix culture; while Conner and Lipsett paved the way formally, Godard did so ideologically. In his early films there’s a sense that all of culture is up for grabs, to be rewritten and rearranged according to the will of the artist. And Godard re-writes and re-arranges with a contagious sense of glee; no other artist, not even Andy Warhol, has taken such immediately apprehensible pleasure in the mix-and-match of high and low, new and obsolete, trendy and obscure.
And in being so densely referential, Godard’s films tend to flatter the attentive viewer. It’s possible that all great art inevitably does this, but Godard’s films particularly so. Unlike, say, Eliot or Joyce, Godard never makes you feel left out if you miss a reference, but he certainly makes you feel included if you catch one. So you can catch that the Grand Guignol psychotherapy session in Weekend is a riff on George Bataille’s Story of the Eye and easily miss the Minnelli-baiting later in the film, and never feel shut out. It’s more important to catch that something is being referenced, regardless of what that something really is; if you miss one nod, you’ll catch another soon enough.
And in the midst of all this culture, there’s the feeling that that’s all there is: culture, its objects, and no real people. The joke in Breathless, after all, is that the main characters lack all the essentials of character; their character-defining decisions (Belmondo’s to kill, Seberg’s to turn him in) are formally elided using the tersest cinematic means—these people don’t act, they just do. Anna Karina’s Nana may be doomed in Vivre Sa Vie, but we understand that her fate is not a result of the actions she takes as a fully embodied self, but results from the fact that she never actually developed a sense of self. (Hence the Montaigne epigraph that binds the film together.) At their best, these films transmute ostentatious style into something like the Pop Sublime; at their worst, they seem to suggest that the Platonic form of all beings is a pulpy archetype ripped from its yellowed page and set swirling about in an eddy of late 19th and early 20th century philosophy.
There’s even something, I would argue, regressive about this taste for early Godard: a desire to enjoy their stylish surfaces, vibe on their cultural savvy, and, most importantly, a desire to fight old battles instead of dealing with newer, stranger-seeming, more immediate problems.
Sure, Masculine Feminine might actually still seem like an accurate depiction of youth, be it the youth of the 1960s or the youth of 2010 (and that’s no small feat); and Weekend might still have something to say about bourgeois complacency; and Contempt probably still speaks volumes about the nature of contemporary romance, not to mention the strange path of tradition, the nature of how eras come to a close, etc. All of these films are towering achievements, and their value is still being reckoned with. But there is a way in which Godard’s 60s output strikes me as irrelevant to the contemporary world, and it has to do with the issue of rebellion, how it relates to the 60s, and how we, in 2010, make sense of it.
As much as action painting, Godard’s early cinema was about the liberation of artistic gestures from all previous formal determinants. What we get when we watch these films is an overpowering sense of liberation: liberation from the French “cinema of quality,” liberation from Hollywood, liberation from all previous regimes of art-making. And this, I would argue, is what accounts for their massive popularity today. We love rebellion, and we love rebellion that has heft, so naturally, we’re drawn back ceaselessly to the 1960s. The reason is that rebellion, within the context of contemporary urban cosmopolitanism, doesn’t mean too much: we’re not as much suffering from a surfeit of rules as we are suffering from a complete lack of any sort of guidance whatsoever. Many contemporary intellectuals are obsessed with the moment at which freedom overcomes tradition, the moment at which all the rules are broken; so is it any wonder that intellectual culture has become increasingly retrospective? The 1960s were the last time in which this type of rule breaking mattered because it was the last moment at which the rules themselves actually mattered. The problem we face today is a lack of meaning-making, not constrictive parameters for making meaning. It was glorious fun tipping over the apple cart, it really was; now, where do we buy apples? And it is this problem that early Godard films do not address, are unable to address from within their bubble of ecstatic freedom.
The irony is that plenty of post-60s movies address this problem, and Jean-Luc Godard made many of them! In Histoire(s) du Cinema, we’re faced with Godard, not dancing on the ruins he once loved, but rather, looking boldly into what’s left over, trying to piece it together into some new order, some contemporary language with which the past can speak to the present. The saddest thing about the vogue for early Godard is not only that it seems to (senselessly) come at the cost of ignoring Truffaut, Resnais, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette (to say nothing of Malle, Varda, Moullet, Garrel, and a host of others), but that it seems also to come at the cost of ignoring Godard’s later work, which is often more complex, more tender, more beautiful than his early work. I wish Histoire(s) du Cinema would finally get an American premiere, instead of this re-hashing of Breathless. Or I wish Film Forum would daringly give us Godard’s 90s, or Godard’s 80s; the man contains multitudes, he deserves a few extra decades. We deserve a few extra decades; we’re starving for them.