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Everything Is Cinema
The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard
By Richard Brody
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2008 Richard Brody
All rights reserved.
"WE DO NOT THINK, WE ARE THOUGHT"
IN THE SECOND EDITION, DATED JUNE 1950, OF A THIN newspaper-like magazine published in Paris, La Gazette du cinéma, a nineteen-year-old writer made a modest debut. Jean-Luc Godard's article, simply titled "Joseph Mankiewicz," was a short and breezy overview of that director's career, though, as in the following reference to the director's recent film, A Letter to Three Wives, it was devoted less to his films than to Mankiewicz himself: "'One can judge a woman's past by her present,' Mankiewicz says somewhere: this letter to three married women is also three letters to the same woman, one whom the director probably loved."
In an eight-paragraph jaunt, the young writer lightly sketched a conception of the cinema that was as intensely personal as it was revolutionary: he suggested that films are one with the world offscreen. Casually, and without any theoretical fuss, he treated films as something more than creations that bore the mark of their makers; he considered them inseparable from the lives of their creators.
Godard's piece on the front page of the next issue of La Gazette, "For a Political Cinema," is as provocative now as it seemed at the time. In it, he put forth an aesthetic framework that daringly overrode basic ideological distinctions in the name of specifically cinematic values.
One afternoon, at the end of the Gaumont newsreel, we opened our eyes wide with pleasure: young German Communists were marching in a May Day celebration. Suddenly, space was only the lines of lips and bodies, time only the raising of fists in the air ... By the sole force of propaganda that was animating them, these young people were beautiful.
Godard compared these young people to St. Sebastian and to the youths in classical Greek sculpture: the state of possession, albeit an intellectual one, that resulted from the thrall of ideology seemed to him to resemble religious devotion and thus to confer on its subject a transcendent serenity. He added that in Soviet films, "the actor infallibly returns to what he originally was, a priest. The Fall of Berlin and The Battle of Stalingrad are coronation masses." Godard treated expressions of Communist and Christian faith as equivalent, and admired the similar power of Nazi propaganda films, which had so recently been pressed upon Parisian moviegoers by German occupiers:
We could not forget Hitler Youth Quex, certain passages of films by Leni Riefenstahl, several shocking newsreels from the Occupation, the maleficent ugliness of The Eternal Jew. It is not the first time that art is born of constraint.
Godard praised these films not for their political message but for their psychology: they depicted people under the influence, and it hardly mattered whether that influence was political or religious. He took all fanaticisms to be alike and to be equally beautiful. Without equating the far left and the far right politically, Godard equated them aesthetically.
The essay ends with an exhortation: "French filmmakers in search of scripts, how have you unfortunate souls not yet filmed the assessment of taxes, the death of Philippe Henriod [sic], the wonderful life of Danielle Casanova?" Henriot, the Minister of Information in the Vichy government and a frequent and familiar orator on French radio under occupation, was killed in 1944 by Resistance fighters. Casanova, the founder of a Communist youth newspaper in the 1930s, was a Resistance fighter who died at Auschwitz. Godard endorsed as equally cinematically fertile the actions of a collaborator, of a resister, and ordinary parliamentary infighters, and he took the adventures and anecdotes that arose in the course of contemporary and recent history to be the cinema's natural subject. The passions to which the characters in such films would bear witness were those that belonged to the real world, as verified by the reality from which they derived. The cinematic fictions that the young Godard dreamed of arose from the documentary impulse.
Moreover, his idealistic depiction of the young fanatic was a touching, if oblique, self-portrait. He was leading a life of singular and exalted purpose: his monomaniacal fervor was ignited by movies, and he gave remarkably definitive expression to it in the following issue of La Gazette.
The October 1950 edition featured a brief note by "H.L." — Hans Lucas, "Jean-Luc" in German, a pseudonym that Godard occasionally adopted through 1955 — on a documentary film about Alexander Calder's mobiles. One mercurial sentence sums up with a self-revealing clarity the adolescent Godard's relation to the cinema: "At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought." This observation was less an avowal of passivity than of the will to self-transformation through movies. It indicates Godard's consuming submission to cinema and the extent to which he experienced it as a personal epiphany, indeed a transfiguration. Godard had reached the essence of the experience at once, and conveyed it in an unabashed confession. In a single aphorism, he broke down the barriers of aesthetic distance and contemplation that separate the cinema, its viewers, and its makers. At the earliest stage of his work, Godard's existence and that of the cinema were already fused.
These three articles delineate a coherent and comprehensive cinematic philosophy, one which Godard would realize and rework in a wide variety of forms in a filmmaking career that began in 1954 and continues to this day. The ideas that they sketch are the unity of the filmmaker with the film, the inseparability of both from the social world at large, the credence of a devout moviegoer in the reality of the world as presented in the cinema, and the aesthetic fecundity of this fanatical submission. The viewer who was "thought" at the cinema was Godard himself; the filmmaker who was one with his film would be Godard himself; and his films would be the seemingly infinite variations on the theme of his singular faith in the cinema and in its ability to preserve and to reflect both the reality of the filmmaker and of his times through the intersection of personal stories and political history.
But each of these principles came with a price tag. Godard's submission to the cinema risked alienation from life. Films conceived as the expression of fanatical devotion to the cinema risked becoming a closed circuit of self-satisfied self-reference to the exclusion of reality. The identification of the film and the filmmaker risked the creation of a cult of personality that would detract attention from the filmmaker's work. And the avidly omnivorous, ideologically indeterminate recording of political currents ran the risk of detachment and ambiguity. Over time, Godard would recognize all of these risks and, in his work and his life, would attempt to confront and to overcome them.
The story of Jean-Luc Godard's work is one of a conversion to the secular religion of art and, specifically, to the art of cinema. For this art form, for this sort of passion, the holy city was, and remains, Paris.
The movies started in France, with the work of the Lumière brothers, and the special relationship of Paris to the movies is in large part due to that city's central role in French civilization. For France, Paris is three things in one: it is the country's New York, Washington, D.C., and Hollywood — the cultural, political, and cinematic capital. The three domains are much more strongly interconnected in France than in the United States, and activity in any one of the three fields is quickly reflected in the other two. As a result, in France the movie business has also been, all along, both a strain of high art and a sensitive political barometer.
French filmmakers participated in, and often emerged from, literary circles, and Parisian artists took a serious interest in the movies almost from their inception. It was the French critic Ricciotto Canudo who called the cinema the "sixth art" in a 1911 essay (and the "seventh art" in 1919). Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith were French cultural heroes as early as 1916, and artists of all sorts, especially the surrealists, took the cinema very seriously. Jean Cocteau made a film in 1930; Salvador Dali collaborated with Luis Buñuel on Un Chien andalou and L'Age d'or; the film director Sacha Guitry was first a famous playwright; the greatest French prewar filmmaker, Jean Renoir, who made his first film in 1925, was the son of Auguste Renoir, the artist. Unlike American writers, for whom working on movies usually meant going to Hollywood and setting literature aside, such French writers as Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, Jean Giraudoux, and Jacques Prévert were active in the cinema without having to distance themselves, geographically or practically, from the literary scene.
Postwar Paris was teeming with movies, especially American movies. Having been deprived of Hollywood productions under the German occupation, moviegoers were hungry to see those that had been made during World War II as well as the latest ones, and they flooded the screens. These films too were taken seriously, and nowhere more so than in a magazine called La Revue du cinéma, which was published by France's most prestigious literary publisher, Gallimard. When the fifteen-year-old Jean-Luc Godard came to Paris in 1946 to attend the prestigious Lycée Buffon, he entered a lively and burgeoning cinematic scene, one that was energized both by the quantity of films available and by the quality of thought in circulation regarding the "seventh art." It was enriched by contact with the literary, artistic, and intellectual elite that embraced it, and was riven by political controversies that mirrored the political divisions of postwar France — some of which were aroused by the cinema itself.
Godard was born on December 3, 1930, in the elegant seventh arrondissement of Paris. His father, Paul Godard, a doctor, moved the family to Switzerland four years later. His mother, Odile, née Monod, was the daughter of one of the most prominent bankers in France, Julien Monod, a founder of the Banque Paribas. Monod was also an extremely literate man, a close friend of the writer Paul Valéry and, after Valéry's death in 1945, his literary executor.
Family documents include a letter that Valéry wrote to Odile Monod in April 1928, on the occasion of her engagement to Paul Godard. She was eighteen years old at the time; her fiancé was twenty-seven. Her parents opposed the marriage; Paul Godard, though Protestant like the Monods, was not of their social station. Nonetheless, the couple married in 1928. They settled temporarily in Paris, and their first child, Rachel, was born on January 1, 1930. (Valéry's letter to the newborn, dated January 6, 1930, is published in the collection Lettres à quelquesuns.) Godard also has two younger siblings, a brother, Claude, born in 1933, and a sister, Véronique, born in 1937.
The most comprehensive research on the subject of Godard's family and youth has been done by Colin MacCabe, who was, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Godard's authorized biographer; the results of his research were published in 2003, in his Portrait of the Artist at Seventy. Paul Godard worked at a private medical clinic, La Lignière, near Gland, on the shore of Lake Geneva, between Geneva and Lausanne, and ultimately opened a clinic of his own, near Lausanne. Broken plaster in a wall there was said in family lore to have been made by young Jean-Luc's head during a transport of rage. To see a photograph of the wall is to fear for any child whose head might have done it. His mother wrote of the toddler Godard's furious temper, calling him a grand éclabousseur (a great spatterer).
The family was prosperous and cultured. Reading aloud from literature was a common form of domestic entertainment and ritual. Godard's grandfather, Julien Monod, enforced humanistic rules, including the requirement that youngsters recite literature at the dinner table. Each year, on his maternal grandparents' wedding anniversary, young Jean-Luc was expected to recite Valéry's poem "Le Cimetière marin" (The Seaside Cemetery). (Moreover, Godard recalled receiving Latin lessons from Valéry.) Religion was part of the family's cultural heritage as well, and Godard recalled attending Protestant "temple" regularly though without doctrinaire devotion: he considered it a casual habit ("I went, the same way I played soccer or did gymnastics") and, with his grandfather Monod, debated the minister's sermons.
When World War II started, nine-year-old Jean-Luc Godard was in Brittany on vacation with relatives, and it was only with some difficulty that he could return to Switzerland. Godard spent most of the war in Switzerland, though he and members of his family habitually crossed Lake Geneva in a small boat to make clandestine visits to their grandfather's estate on the French side of the lake.
During the war, Godard's parents worked with the Red Cross and, Godard came to believe, had knowledge of the concentration camps established by Nazi Germany. MacCabe emphasizes the pro-English sympathies of Paul Godard (who had studied in London and, during the war, sheltered an English prisoner of war), yet Godard often spoke instead of his father's pro-German sympathies, and, following his family's lead, he was rooting for the Germans. He followed the course of the war on a map, with pins representing the movement of the opposing armies as reported in newspapers; he cheered on the advances of the German army and lamented its reversals, and later recalled, "When Rommel lost at El Alamein, I was deeply affected, a little as if my favorite soccer team had lost a game."
Godard's maternal grandparents were supporters of Vichy. Godard later described his maternal grandfather as "anti-Jew" and an "anti-Semite," and remembered hearing Julien Monod refer to his doctor as a youpin (kike). At home, the family listened to Vichy-run radio, where Jean-Luc grew accustomed to the rhetoric of pro-German politicians and commentators and remembered, decades later, the rapt attention when speeches by Philippe Henriot were broadcast. The days of Henriot's assassination (in 1944) and of the execution of Robert Brasillach, the right-wing critic and novelist and anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi propagandist (in 1945), were days of mourning in the Godard house.
Godard recalled spending about a year and a half, from the ages of twelve and thirteen, in wartime Vichy, where his maternal grandfather "knew some people." Godard recalled that he always had an "affinity" for Julien Monod, whose sympathies were clearly suggested by the reading that he shared with his grandson Jean-Luc, as Godard later recalled: "I read Les Décombres, by Lucien Rebatet, because my grandfather was ultra-literary ... At night, we read aloud. We read Rebatet's novel." Rebatet, who was convicted of collaboration in 1946 and spent six years in prison, was a vehement anti-Semite and actively endorsed France's pro-Nazi regime. Les Décombres (The Ruins), his lengthy screed about the decline of France — in his view, due largely to French Jewry and reversible by collaboration with Germany — was said to be "for the little Parisian collaborationist world, the great politico-literary event of 1942."
The young Godard was an eager reader; his preferred fare was the children's adventure novel, such as Le Voyage d'Edgar, by Edouard Peisson, whose work was popular at the time. His mother was an avid reader of French classics; on his fourteenth birthday, she presented him with a copy of André Gide's Les Nourritures terrestres; his exalted experience with it converted him from his boyish taste for adventure writing to the literary novel. He was particularly fond of Gide's Les Faux-Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters), and the novels of Georges Bernanos, Jacques Chardonne, Marcel Jouhandeau, Julien Green, and André Malraux. From his father, Godard acquired a taste for German romanticism, and as an adolescent, read works by Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann, and Robert Musil.
Godard was not a frequent moviegoer in childhood (except during his stay in Vichy, where, he remembered, he often attended popular movies of the day) nor was he particularly attracted to the medium, except as casual entertainment. He attributed his introduction to the cinema as an art form to reading — first from André Malraux's essay, "Outline of a Psychology of Cinema," which was originally published in Verve magazine in 1940, a copy of which his mother had saved and which he found by chance; and then La Revue du cinéma, which (after its first run of publication from 1928 to 1931) was relaunched in 1946, and which Godard read avidly despite being unable to see most of the films it discussed.
In 1946, Godard went to study at the Lycée Buffon in Paris, where he intended to prepare for specialized mathematics exams to enter engineering school. Instead, he began to watch an endless number of movies, and several of his relatives recalled that he had already begun to write screenplays. His mother was able to arrange an introduction for young Godard to one of the editors of La Revue du cinéma, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, who was the son of one of her childhood friends, though at the time nothing practical came of it. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Everything Is Cinema by Richard Brody. Copyright © 2008 Richard Brody. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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