“An image is born from drawing together two distant realities,” Jean-Luc Godard lectures in JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December, which plays tonight at BAM. “The more the ties between these two realities are distant and right, the stronger the image will be.” As we hear his narration, we view an image of Godard alone in a dark room, staring at two duplicate images—one on a video display right in front of him, the second projected onto a screen behind it. The images are various clips from TV shows and movies. “An image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic, he continues, “but because the association of its ideas is distant.” A pause. “Distant, and right.” Cut to a panorama: a snow-covered, tree-lined field in Godard’s hometown of Rolle, Switzerland. Beautiful, despairing. Equally beautiful, equally despairing classical music plays, as it does during most of JLG/JLG, the film that, thematically speaking, belongs as the closing work in his oeuvre.
Not an autobiography but a cinematic “self-portrait,” JLG/JLG (also known in French as JLG Par JLG—”JLG by JLG”) is one of Godard’s most emotionally affecting and personal works. Filmed largely in Godard’s own home, with vast Swiss landscapes interspersed throughout, the essay-film follows Godard as he watches videos, reads, tries to do some writing, receives some sort of bureaucratic film-ministry officials, lectures his housekeeper, and plays tennis. (As the ball sails by the sixty-four-year-old, he quips, “I am happy to be passed.” Then, as we cut to a landscape shot, comes the requisite kicker—a quote supplied by Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It hasn’t even passed.”) The film is primarily a vehicle for Godard’s personal observations and musings, reflections on a life lived as “the exception to the rule,” a phrasing he is fond of here. (“Culture is the rule—art is the exception.”) It’s an hour spent visiting with the master, alone.
Godard’s loneliness comes across in pronounced fashion. JLG/JLG could be quite similar to Godard’s other home-movie masterpiece, Soft and Hard, were it not for the fact that his longtime partner Anne Marie-Mieville, a force of nature in that film, is absent here. In order for Godard to accurately convey what it feels like to be him, one imagines, some home-life liberties must be taken. So it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch when, after declaring that an image is two realities, distant yet tied together, we cut from Godard by himself to a deserted snowy field. Is this what has happened to cinema’s enfant terrible, the man who had the greatest run (1959-1967), arguably, of not only any filmmaker but any artist in the 20th century? Well, yeah. Godard in the 60s and Godard in 1995 are two realities that couldn’t be any more distant from one another, and yet they are powerfully tied together, almost logically so; hence, the strength of the image.
But JLG/JLG is not just a cine-essay about the old master’s perceived isolation (which, some might argue, is in no small part self-inflicted—”Greek problems?”). In many ways JLG/JLG is a distillation of the theorizing elements of his 60s work—the quips, the references, the gorgeous cinematic moments where everything seems to blend together, as in this film’s sublime denouement. When unnamed workers from (presumably) some bureaucratic agency look through Godard’s films, and discuss how many “shelves” different countries will get for their films, (France doesn’t fare too well, naturally) Godard quips, “Europe has memories. America has t-shirts.” In the 60s, such bits of philosophizing and audience-testing were weaved into larger tapestries of pseudo-narratives and semi-developed characters who became iconic archetypes due to their lack of depth. But now Godard has stripped everything away, leaving us with nothing but the stray thoughts, the ideas and references, the little crumbs and traces that pepper his culture-mulcher mind, a brain trying to consume everything. (It’s a well-known piece of folklore that in his youth, apparently, Godard would run through 40 or 50 books in a few hours, reading only the first and last pages of each.) Is the tossing around of one-liners and stray thoughts, perhaps, how his filmmaking process begins?
One of the most poignant moments in the film comes as Godard tries to write, and revise, some text that (presumably) he will use for the very film we’re watching. “No one speaks the exception,” he says as he writes. “Everyone speaks the rule. No one speaks the exception. Culture is the rule. Art is the exception.” He then proceeds to name some artists who have expressed the “exception”—a list of Godard’s favorites. Antonioni and Vigo get the nod for cinema. He notes that above all the arts is the art of living. “It is the European rule of culture to organize the death of the art of living.” He pulls out a gorgeous piece of poetry—Louis Aragon’s Le Creve-Coeur, a book of poetry about living in Nazi-occupied France — and reads: “When it is time to close the book / I will have no regrets. / I’ve seen so many live so poorly, / and seen so many die so well.” (In French, it rhymes beautifully, and just about breaks your heart.)
One of the many questions permeating the air throughout the film is, how has Godard done? Has he lived and/or died well? The thrust of the film—no accident that it is a self-portrait in December—seems to indicate that Godard believes he has “died,” cinematically speaking, but is nevertheless doing his best to make it a good death. JLG/JLG is the kind of film that will only serve to further polarize the mass of cinephiles who distinctly lean one way or another on Godard, especially his all-too-often unfortunately, maddeningly misunderstood later work. As it is the cinematic distillation, the essence, of Godard’s own personality, his intimate views and puns and whims being shared with us, this is as it should be. And yet, this emphasis on self is ultimately tempered by modesty of a sort, as Godard relays in the film’s close: “A man, nothing but a man, no better than any other, but no other any better than he.”