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« Short Stuff 3 | Main | New Godard Redux »

September 26, 2002

New Godard

Herr Doktor Friedrich

Thanks for nagging me into catching the new Godard, “In Praise of Love.” I had two completely different reactions to it. One was to vague out, doze, feel annoyed, and marvel that anyone should be expected to care (although I doubt Godard does expect anyone to care). The other was, here and there, to feel touched, moved and heartbroken.

Most of the time, it’s hard to imagine who’d be interested these days, apart from a handful of graying old ‘60s-relic film buffs. The film is divided (in a very fancy way) into two parts -- no “three-act structure” for Jean-Luc. The first half, mostly a snooze, is in a very sumptuous, solemn black and white akin to Bill Brandt’s sooty views of London. (Though this was Godard’s first time filming in Paris in 30 years, he certainly wasn’t feeling joyful about it.)


There’s an estheticized melancholy everywhere Godard takes you. He turns the actors away from the camera most of the time -- I wouldn’t recognize the actor who played the main character if he stood before me now. This main character seems to have a project of some sort in mind, though he doesn’t know what he wants it to be: a cantata? A novel? In any case, he’s interviewing actors and is very taken by one young woman who has an odd kind of beauty. There are scenes by the river, among train tracks, in cafes. It’s all jumbled up. Noises cut in for presumably nihilistic/modernistic reasons. White-on-black intertitles interrupt the flow. There’s a kind of placid acceptance of sadness. My attention wandered, and I dozed off. When I woke up, the girl the lead character was fascinated by had committed suicide.

Cut to the second part of the film, shot on video. This part has its share of annoyingnesses, but it also has more beauty and poetry. It takes place a couple of years before the opening section. In it, the main (Jean-Luc-ish) character seems to be doing research for a project. He’s in Brittany, meeting with old members of the French Resistance. Their granddaughter (or grandniece, or some such) shows up, and darned if it isn’t the young woman who committed suicide in the first part of the film.

Aha: Conceptual hijinks! The second section’s in the past, but it’s in color, which feels more present, but video’s of the future, so everything feels flipped, or maybe like a sock being pulled inside out. A nostalgia-for-the-dream-of-a-future-that-may-never-be kind of effect. Je suis sorta impressed, M. Godard.

in praise of love 1.gif

As I’m not the first to observe, Godard’s a rarity in this sense: while he seems to have lost all his verve and much of his interest in life and movies, his moviemaking technique has become, if anything, more delicate and refined than ever.

But as a moviemaker, he’s also become something of an empty shell, prone to dwelling on the empty-shellness of it all. No surprise, really; he may have burned up everything he had to give back in the ‘60s. I’m just guessing, but I suspect that he cracked up around the time of “Weekend.” There were rumors he tried homosexuality (in that politicized way people had of trying homosexuality in the early ‘70s); he’s rumored to have lost a testicle in his famous motorcycle accident; he submitted himself to some kind of Marxist cell; he tried making “Maoist” movies. Later in the ‘70s, he seemed to pull himself together. He moved back to Switzerland, set himself up with his own little-tiny movie company, and re-emerged in the theatrical-film world with “Every Man for Himself” in 1979. He’s been dabbling away (as far as I can tell, for the money and to amuse himself) ever since.

(I wonder, not for the first time: Was Godard on drugs in the ‘60s? I read one account of his behavior from that era -- I think an interview with Raoul Coutard -- that made me think so. In it, Godard was so wired and fast, and making such bizarre connections, that he sounded like a speed freak. And I wonder more generally: how dependent have movies been as an art form on the drugs that people have taken in order to be able to get their work done? It’s such an unwieldy art form, it seems an inhuman expectation that anyone should be able to get it up creatively, day after day, year after year.)

Have you seen any or many of the films he’s made since 1979? I was reasonably interested for a while, saw a bunch, got what he was up to, then lost interest. They’re sometimes rather beautiful in a rueful way, sometimes amusing in a condescending and facetious way. None of them have anything like the excitement or wired-up drive of the earlier films. He’s become emotionally and physically withdrawn; the retreat to Switzerland seems to have been a way of taking refuge. Everything he makes these days feels backed-off-from.

With “In Praise of Love,” he’s up to more of the same: basically, making pictures of his rueful, out-of-it state of mind. It’s as static as any full-length movie I’ve ever seen. A question: Minus drive, minus an interest in anything but classical art and his own emotional state, from what does he compose a movie? He never seems to have learned anything about storytelling; he’d probably have ideological objections to telling a story anyway. He has no interest in the current world, so he can’t draw on observation, sociology or journalism. So he’s dependent on his thoughts, his moods, and his bag of modernist tricks to fill the screen and the time.

in praise of love 2.gif

It’s too bad he remains as drawn as ever to leftist ideas; his thought processes have evidently been on idle for a few decades now, and the stale ideas add to the dismalness of the movies.

What’s going on in the film, so far as I was awake enough (and smart enough) to catch on was: he’s playing with ideas of history and resistance. History because: “Histoire” in French means both “story” and “history,” and....

Honestly, I get depressed even thinking about spelling out in detail what he’s doing. Generally, he’s griping that Hollywood tends to turn true history (by which he seems to mean “life as it’s actually lived”) into story -- ie., the industry soups lived experience up and falsifies it. Why not just gaze at the wonder of what’s before us?

“Resistance” because he sees the function of art as resisting such pressures -- hence the parallel to the French Resistance. He takes this quite seriously. (Irreverence is not his forte any more.) Spielberg and “Schindler’s List” are his main targets: how can anyone take something like the Holocaust and turn it into a potboiler? (Me, I took “Schindler’s List” as a transcendent melodrama rather like some of D.W. Griffith’s, and loved it.) There’s a bit of an implicit jab at the Jews here: they suffer the Holocaust, they run Hollywood, and look what they do with their own suffering.

That's his argument, and that's what's meant to draw you through the film. Remember the wordplay and free-associative games in his early movies? (As the Wife pointed out, Godard’s films have their blog-like qualities.) There’s a lot of that here, minus whatever there once was of surprise and humor. (Which makes me reflect: he really was a wiseacre back then, wasn’t he? What would those movies have been like without his humor and jokes?) These days he wants his mental games to be taken as genuine heavyweight thought; they, ahem, don't quite make it into that league. (Godard is certainly an intellectual, but it's hard not to wonder how smart he is.) His thinking is pretty darn trite, though I’d imagine that its Frenchy denseness, interwovenness and anti-Americanism would still pack a wallop for the lefty and the impressionable.

Still, and I’m not sure why, I didn’t mind the ponderous Euro-intellectualizing. (Though the Wife sure did; she had a good 15 minutes of indignant sounding-off to do after the film before she could talk about anything else. “He owes everything to Hollywood!” etc.) It’s annoying and offensive, but, for me, carrying on like that is just part of what these people do, and if you’re going to enjoy what’s good about them (food, style, art), it seems you have to endure what’s bad about them too. Maybe this isn’t really true, but I didn’t find the bargain too hard to accept.

The esthetic payoff to this joyless, spunk-less wheelspinning isn’t huge in the first section. The somberness is sometimes impressive. Everything’s so damn dismal and hopeless, everything’s so weighed down by something-or-other (presumably having to do with capitalism) ... Then there’s an intertitle, and then maybe some beautifully-recorded chamber music strikes up; then someone, seen from behind, is in a cheap restaurant after closing hours. Then maybe we’re back in the room where the main character is working with his potential actors, and there’s a so-melancholy-it’s-heavenly shot of the lead girl, and then dialogue gets repeated for no realistic reason ... All very gnomic and emotionally masked, if affectingly moody.

In the second section, when Godard monkeys with video, the pleasures come a little faster and stab a little deeper. Maybe that’s because what really keeps the film going more than the overt political-intellectual nonsense is an esthetic gripe: He’s complaining that movies aren’t a chamber or studio art, and that they aren’t as pure and abstract as music.

My quick reaction is: tough, dude, no one forced you to take up moviemaking instead of composing or poetry or painting. But then some beautiful image or passage would come along, and I’d feel pierced by feelings of yearning, loss, nostalgia. Possibly because with video and computers, he's halfway to where he wants to be: Once you’ve gone to the trouble of collecting your images on video and have fed them into a computer, by gosh you do have yourself a studio art; you can treat your footage as abstractly as you please.

in praise of love 3.gif

Even the notion of resistance pays off some: Godard seems to take it as a cue to treat video-on-a-movie-screen differently than it’s usually treated. Video imagery is much more flat on the screen than film imagery; celluloid imagery suggests a window you’re looking through, where video projected on a movie screen sits right up there like paint on a canvas. Because of that, and because it’s also less dense than celluloid imagery, most filmmakers who use video soup things up and move more quickly. Pump pump; cut cut.

What Godard does is slow things way, way down. He pumps the colors subtly, then watches the patterns and interactions. Even when what’s being shown is banal (waves on the shore, traffic through a car’s rainy windshield at night), the effect is rather moving. As the Wife would say, “Exquisite!” (To be pronounced as though in French: Ex-kwee-zeet!) Just as he set out to, Godard has got us gazing at the wonder of what's before us.

Video for Godard -- handling it, presenting it -- seems to fill him with sorrow and tenderness. (Though nothing as acute or highstrung as what was in “Pierrot le Fou”; this feels more like resignation, loss, an acknowledgment of what’s done and gone.) Computers and video are realizations in technology of the kind of revolution in art and society he once thought he was fighting for. Utopia’s arrived -- but he’s too old for it, and he's got his misgivings because it isn’t really the utopia he was hoping for anyway, but still, it’s all he's got left to hold onto...

Somehow he gets that mixture of sad-old-left-behind-revolutionary feelings into some of the video passages. The film’s title in French is “Eloge d’Amour,” and at times the film really does have the feeling of an elegy. It's as though he's serenely alone with a dream that he loves, yet all too conscious of the rush of time passing by.

As a film, "In Praise of Love" is DOA. But as an oddball kind of woebegone poetry, it’s sometimes lovely.

Jonathan Romney of The Guardian talks to Godard here.
J. Hoberman of the Village Voice writes an eloquent rave about the movie here.
Glen Norton runs an amazing website devoted to Godard and his movies here.



posted by Michael at September 26, 2002


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