Saturday 8 April 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Part 6(12) - of Bruce Hodsdon's new series on the history of art cinema - France Part 4 - GODARD: VISIONARY AND REBEL

Peter Wollen reflected (Writings pp.87-92) on Fredric Jameson's observation that Godard began the 60s as a premature post-modernist avant la lettre.  The claim is based on Godard's lifelong penchant for citation and recycling and his view that cinema should be a form of journalism or, perhaps instant ethnography seeking to grasp what is happening at the time of production. This he presented in a kind of visual mosaic - but ending up two decades later, “the ultimate survivor of the modern as such”, always swimming against the current of the age. The futurist visionary and rebel eventually turned into the disenchanted historian [of Histoire(s) du Cinema] in search of transcendence”. 

Wollen further commented on what Godard saw as the debasement of public life in post oil-shock society he “came to distrust spectacle more and more […] without abandoning his fundamental cinephilia.” His disenchantment sprang from what he saw as the cinema's inability to respond to its times. “He became convinced that cinema was indeed a doomed art (Michael Witt quoted Wollen 90), that it had lost the will to live.” “Cinema will disappear,” he predicted in 1996, “when it is no longer projected in the dark, when the beam of light has gone.” Television, on the other hand “is ephemeral...domesticated and insulated,” concludes Wollen who sees Godard's own work in television “as a form of resistance against a symbolic but real occupation, a way of infiltrating enemy-held territory in order to maintain the memory of cinema, to keep a desire for true cinema somehow flickeringly alive in the new millennium.” (ibid)  

In addition to his 'postmodern penchant' already mentioned, Wollen notes a strain of life-style modernism in films of Godard's first phase, “a journalistic sense of the topical, a more sociologically oriented mode of investigation and an attachment to 'the critique of everyday life'... that made him seem both a cultural 'barometer' and an emergent political critic,”  Wollen adding that this strain owed a great deal to the films of Jean Rouch (ibid 77-8). 

Marina Vlady, Two or Three Things I Know about Her

A second strain was Godard's “profound and paradoxical attachment to the idea of art which simultaneously required both the re-inscription and the destruction of that heritage,” his films showing  “a contradictory reverence for the art of the past and a delinquent refusal to obey any of its rules.” At the same time “Godard often seemed to oscillate between a critique of consumerism and mass culture and a delighted fascination with it” (77-8 ibid).  As Nowell-Smith points out, he was still some distance from the radical anti-capitalist and quasi-Marxist position taken up in Two or Three Things...The thinking is more humanist than determinist as the heroine Nana in Vivre sa vie makes an existential choice to be a prostitute. The story, in Godard's words, of the 'last romantic couple' in Pierrot le fou (1965) signified in his “last romantic film and the last for some time in which the search behind appearances is conducted in humanist and existentialist terms.” (N-S 193)  

In 1985, in Narration in the Fiction Film, Bordwell found the films from 1959-67 offered the occasion to test many of the narrational concepts Bordwell had explored and proposed in the rest of the book in which, as previously outlined in part 4 of this series of essays, he formulates four different narrative modes including Classical narrative (the Hollywood model) and Art-cinema narration. He concludes with a chapter on Godard and narration. Bordwell emphasises that his main intention was analytical rather than evaluative, the modes being “full of internal harmonies and disharmonies ...[of which] the work of Jean-Luc Godard affords vivid examples of such heterogeneity” (155). 

Bordwell started at the point where he found that films of Godard's first phase 1959-67 resisted narrative comprehension not simply as a problem of interpretation that arises in response to the narrative's ambiguity or profundity but at the level of what is being denoted sequence by sequence - what is actually happening on the screen in the telling of the story so leaving the field open to randomly itemising themes.  “Godard's films invite interpretations but discourage, even defy analysis” (311). 

Colliding narratives

Although Godard’s work embodies the mixing of narrational modes in disorienting ways, they remain fundamentally narratives in this phase organised around cause and effect, inviting the viewer to sort out plot and story and treat intertextual material as digressions. Godard employs both recognisable goal-oriented narratives of classical cinema and the psychological uncertainty and ambiguity of art cinema. He invokes norms of classical Hollywood cinema but rather than synthesise them with art cinema norms, Godard lets them collide which led some critics at the time to see him as a cineaste of the isolated moment rather than meeting the demands of a higher order of meaning. “Much of Godard's film practice,” writes Bordwell,”leads to perpetual and cognitive overload” exacerbated by inter-textuality [also called hypertextuality], “the derivation of one text from another by transformation (satire, parody) or imitation (pastiche, remake)” (ibid 312). 

Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Contempt

Amidst this disorientating disruption of cinematic unity with “the violation in his films of nearly every tenet of correct continuity,” as Bordwell notes (327), are the potential explanatory factors: the employment of the concept of “collage” in referring to Godard's disorienting style, what Bordwell sees as  Godard's working towards “spatialization” of narration. This involves the use of paradigmatic form (typically deploying a recurring visual pattern) in a film which, after quoting Godard's detailed  explanation of the treatment of a montage sequence in La Chinoise  Bordwell admits “will seem about as comprehensible as ballet on the radio” (321). He describes at some length the extent of Godard's discarding of the rules of continuity, editing which stems from his routine of shooting a scene in a single take camera set-up. Bordwell quotes Luc Moullet in 1960 as “asserting the only thing that held a Godard film together was his personality” (324). As noted above Godard explained this break down by claiming to think of himself as an essayist.  

Narrator’s role

Despite the problems presented by his films Bordwell acknowledges that “reflexivity,” i.e., the process of self-conscious narration, is organised by Godard “with a thoroughness seldom attained elsewhere in the cinema.” In his films from the beginning the narrator is present to a greater degree than is the case with self-conscious narration in art cinema whose role would be to stress a point or introduce ambiguity as an intrusion into the fictional world which remains intact, continuous and independent. He further points out that “Godard's work could have been created only in the era of art cinema, [ as with the New Wave] with its valorization of an authorial presence hovering over the text, its drift towards confusing narrator and creator” (332).

In 1966 there was within Godard what Nowell-Smith terms “an epistemological shift” which Robin Wood also identifies although, as N-S points out, references to these elements can be found in Godard's previous films: revolution in Les Carabiniers (1963), Brechtian theatre in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) and quoted by Fritz Lang in Le Mépris/Contempt (1963). Beginning in Masculin-Féminin (1967) references to revolution and adoption of principles of Brechtian theatre become more central. “The targets are structures of power and of commodity production as analysed by Marx. Hollywood now tends to be referenced as dangerous rather than seductive (N-S, Waves 194).” Deployment of sound/image dialectic in relation to the content of the message is subtly heightened to become more challenging.  

Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series

Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more

Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

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