The Godard Connection

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Louis Garrel as Jean-Luc Godard in Godard Mon Amour by Michel Hazanavicius, a Cohen Media Group release.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the ongoing internal debates I have about why movies matter, why I write about film, why I make films, etc., etc. Just a few days after writing that post I was offered a screener of the new film by Michel Hazanavicius, Godard Mon Amour (a.k.a. Redoubtable). The film is based on the 2015 book Un an Après  Anne Wiazemsky wrote about her love affair with and subsequent marriage to one of France’s most famous directors and general provocateurs, Jean-Luc Godard. Their relationship came about in the late 1960s, and the focus of the film is the political upheaval in Paris in May of 1968, leading to the cancellation of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in response to student and worker protests in Paris. It struck me as incredibly serendipitous for me to come across this film at this particular moment, as what emerges through the story is a Godard undergoing a reevaluation of his life, his work, and the meaning (or lack thereof) inherent in making, talking about, writing about, and seeing films.

The film begins with a huge title saying “Wolfgang Amadeus Godard,” cluing us into the geni


The real Jean-Luc Godard

us of Godard in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Louis Garrel (son of French New Wave director Philip Garrel) plays Godard as arrogant, self-centered, and rather obnoxious, but at the same time he reveals a deeply committed artist who, like the rest of us, is uncertain about his relevance in the world, vulnerable, and awkward. As he walks in solidarity with student protestors vastly younger than him, he is supportive of them politically and philosophically, but at the same time reluctant to pass the torch. His relationship with Anne (Stacy Martin) is passionate, but at the same time Godard doesn’t really see her for who she is. It is in this context that Godard goes to Cannes at his wife’s urging, although he feels it is ridiculous to go to a film festival when there is violence in the streets, and a revolution is in the making. He goes, but along with several notable directors, shuts down screenings and convinces the jury to officially end the festival several days earlier than planned in the name of solidarity with protestors and, in a sense, an acknowledgement that the festivities do not align with the important debates and issues going on in contemporary French culture.

Hazanavicious, whom I interviewed for Cineaste several years ago in regard to his modern-day silent film The Artist, has a knack for bringing cinematic history to life using a clever interplay between form and subject matter. In The Artist, he told the story of silent actors on the cusp of obsolescence as the Sound Era arrives, and he did so in a silent (except for one part) black-and-white movie. With Godard Mon Amour, again Hazanavicius connects story and cinematic form by creating a movie about Godard that follows the  style, idiosyncrasies, and self-referential nature of Godard’s own best known films from that period. For example, in a scene in which Godard and Anne  discuss whether or not the nudity in a script she’s reading is justified or simply gratuitous, the two walk around stark naked. It is this kind of self-reflexivity in Godard’s films that really made his work so uniquely “a Godard film.”

Godard Mon Amour feels particularly relevant now in this country even as it is about something that happened 50 years ago on another continent. As we see our own, albeit less dominating, student revolt and watch the astounding responses to it, any thinking artist is wondering about the role of art and cinema in divisive times. With every day bringing forth another horror from somewhere around the globe, another reason to question our work and our futures, Jean-Luc Godard’s concerns have never seemed more relatable than they do here. It’s not only  his existential angst that resonates, but also the enfant-terrible arrogance invites some thought about separating great artists from their personalities and whether or not that’s possible.

But contemporary sociopolitical dialogues aside, Godard Mon Amour also succeeds in reminding us what was so endearing about Godard’s work and about the French New Wave itself. There’s humor to it. It’s not all theoretical cinephilia, even as that serves as a basis for much of his work. At the end of Godard Mon Amour I immediately yearned to watch Godard’s films again. Although I adored the last film I saw by Godard, his 3-D Goodbye to Language, it is those earlier, daring films I saw in film school that I craved most. Doing so did wonders for my cinematic soul, and I hope you’ll revisit them as well, especially Masculin Feminin, Pierrot le fou, Alphaville, and of course, Breathless.

Godard Mon Amour opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 20, and will open at the Kendall Square Theater in Cambridge, Mass., shortly thereafter.


Documentary as/is Art

I’ve just returned from a great cinematic adventure in New York City. When it comes to the movies, I don’t think there is any other place in the world (except perhaps Paris) that cares as much about film on such a large scale, or that has as much to offer in terms of cinema.

I was there primarily to attend the Codes and Modes Documentary Film Conference at Hunter College, but I also managed to take in some seminal Nam June Paik video art nearby, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film Goodbye to Language (in 3-D, by the way!), and one program of the Other Israel Film Festival at NYU, as well as spending about an hour at MoMA. Although I am always focused on movies for a Cape Cod audience, I am going to pull together a post here that is more philosophical than directly linked to a local film or something in theaters here at present. Although all of my adventures were distinct, I found on the train ride home that there were in fact many sites of intersection along the way, leading me to think about how films, documentaries in particular, are valued.

Early documentarist John Grierson, (who coined the term “documentary” in reference to Robert Flaherty’s 1926 film Moana), defined documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Somewhere over the past couple of decades, with the explosion in popularity of documentaries, the first part of that equation has been minimized to the point where the definition is almost changed to “the political treatment of actuality.” Over the course of my weekend in New York, I started thinking more and more about why this is, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it has its roots in two thins: 1- the lack of appreciation for art in general, and 2- the historical role of films, first as novelties, then as  mass entertainment and escape, and finally, as spectacle.

It makes sense that in a society that doesn’t value the arts enough to support them the way other countries do or to support arts education, all art must serve some other purpose before it is considered valuable. The masses of people who crowd into MoMA to take their picture in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Dali’s Persistence of Memory, aren’t there to be provoked by the work on the walls; they are there for the celebrity of these particular images. It is the same impulse that gets people excited when they see a celebrity on the street and get their picture taken with them. It has nothing to do with that person or even really with their creative accomplishments (about which the “fan” may not even be particularly knowledgeable). It’s all about commodifying that person, or in this case, the artwork. Take a picture with it and now you will own it in some way, rather than actually experiencing it. The image itself has lost its meaning, no longer provoking thought, only to become a consumer product inducing momentary pleasure.

Since the beginning of cinema, movies have been spectacles, first of scientific innovation and technology, and later of entertainment and escape. Documentary has developed under the shadow of fiction films in this regard, with Hollywood entertainment providing greater spectacle than nonfiction films can or should offer. This combined with the desire to justify appreciation of art by giving it some other purpose that is more concrete gives us a situation now where documentaries are not appreciated for their value as art. We now see the most popular documentaries being those that are perceived do something to directly shift an audience’s views toward a specific conclusion that leads to a specific action. Where is the art in that?

Throughout documentary film history, filmmakers have continually revisited the problems of 1-defining what a documentary is or can be, and 2- how best to represent truth. This work is done in a variety of ways, including selection of subject matter and ethical considerations, but also through a huge array of choices the filmmaker makes with regard to approach and form. These are primarily aesthetic choices that influence how the maker’s ideas are expressed, just as they do in other types of movies. So when audiences, funders, and even film critics (who should certainly know better) consider documentaries only along the lines of their content, they’ve missed at least half of what the value of the films are!

Documentary filmmakers are not journalists, as a general rule. Our professional associations and networks generally come out of film, not journalism. Our business is making compelling films that express what we have personally found to be a truth, not objective reality, not necessarily “fair and balanced reporting,” and yet still truthful. A whole separate post could be written with regard to the changing nature of journalism and the different types of journalism that exist, but it isn’t relevant here. Documentary films need to be understood as movies. The best in the field experiment with form and style and advance the aesthetics of documentary; they select the best approach for their subject matter each and every time they make a film and don’t rely on standard narrative structure or tried and true methods unless those are the best for the job. They expand on the developments over the course of the past 120 years of documentary film and try to continue the ongoing process of building a documentary film language that has impact and reaches audiences in more diffuse ways that cannot be measured by ridiculous outcome studies. How do you determine the effect of a work of art on all who witness it?

When I make a documentary, I don’t know what my audience is going to do with that experience. All I can do is put out there the most honest, truthful portrayal of what I experienced in making the film. I don’t make films to force my ideas upon people; I make them to open them up to ideas, and if they are especially interested in my subject matter, I hope they will see other films on the same topic. The idea is to foster awareness about the world around us, as opposed to forcing people’s views into one preconceived hole. Other documentarians do want to force people’s views  and simplify problems in to right and wrong.  I think, even when we agree with the views expressed in such films, it is important to call those films out for what they are: propaganda.

I think there is value in art, their is value in presenting complex ideas and issues in complex, interesting ways, and critical thinking is what comes from engaging with art in a meaningful way. I don’t think that can be measured, but we all know it when it happens to us, when we have that incredible cinematic experience and it opens our eyes and asks us to think, not simply absorb.