Foolhardy is the critic who would ascribe an entire decade to one director, but allow me to play (Pierrot) the fool: the 60s belonged to Jean-Luc Godard. That explosive era may have featured more consistently successful and thematically subtle filmmakers, but nobody took such enormous risks as the French New Wave enfant terrible in joining the jagged rhythms of pop with free-floating cinematic and philosophical detritus, and in the process reinventing the medium more radically than, well, anybody in the last 50 years.
Film Forum’s “Godard’s 60s” series, now in progress, begins at obvious starting point Breathless, the 1959 watershed noir send-up that introduced the world to JLG’s ennui-suffering masculin martyrs and consistently investigated féminin betrayers, gender battling in lay-about bed sessions punctuated by nearly unprecedented narrative and stylistic disruptions (here, one-off jump-cut binges). As the decade moved on, each subsequent Godard effort saw the initially politically uncommitted modernist align himself more closely with building leftist outrage while dissolving distinctions between cinema as sociological documentation and as funhouse genre collage. Through it all a singular passion is manifest: the full-fledged, self-righteous Marxist Godard of revolutionary-screed-cum-Rolling-Stones-project One Plus One (’68) is as evident in early Brechtian prostitution tragedy Vivre sa vie (‘62) and abrasive Jarry-inspired anti-war satire Les Carabiniers (’67), as the romantic prankster nihilist of Band of Outsiders (’64) is evident in later student terrorist playtime La Chinoise (’67) and hardcore upper-middle class-slaughter apocalypse Weekend (’67).
Masculin Féminin (’66) famously dubbed its lost generation “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” but filmmakers working in the wake of Godard’s momentous influence, whether likeminded contemporaries or unofficial protégés, could rightly be called his artistic offspring, with the upheaval and strife of May-June 1968 in France and related demonstrations worldwide galvanizing them into a loose contingent of artistic and political comrades. Walter Reade’s “1968: An International Perspective” series, also now in progress, proves Godard’s fingerprints to be all over the cinematic responses to that defining, tumultuous year: Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (’69), a media critique and fictional intrusion into the real unfolding violence of the ’68 Democratic convention; Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (’71), a gonzo documentary about/enactment of the sexual revolution preached by Wilhelm Reich; and notorious Michelangelo Antonioni flop Zabriskie Point (’70), a major studio-financed, countercultural Death Valley romp that brazenly flipped the bird to American consumerism and corporatism.
The blurred delineations in these films between uncontrolled event and stylized depiction, mainstream aspiration and anarchic sensibility, professional actors and the People on the street, informed experience and a search for new, resistant forms of expression can be traced back to Godard, of course, but such creative reassessment was also in the spirit of the times. That may sound vaguely nostalgic (and it certainly doesn’t completely account for militantly focused films like Emile de Antonio’s definitive Vietnam War doc In the Year of the Pig [’69] or Paul Sharits’ avant-garde assault T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G [‘68]), but it’s appropriate that much of the program takes a look back at the era in both utopian longing and bitter disillusionment: Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (’76), A Grin Without a Cat (’78), The War at Home (’79), Regular Lovers (’05). Confident that the politics of ’68 were fundamentally correct, these ex post facto films ask questions less about the issues than the practical and moral applications of protest: not “Where did we go wrong?” but “Why didn’t we prevail?”