Praise be to Godard

<strong>Everything Is Cinema: the Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard</strong>

Richard Brody


Truffaut once observed that the ordinary man in the street had two jobs, his own and that of film critic. Nowadays, a film critic is also expected to have two jobs, his own and that of ordinary man in the street. Where the cinema is concerned, erudition, formerly the touchstone of all criticism, has become practically a lost cause. Increasingly, the sole means for a critic to survive the inexorable advance of the bloggers is by writing about film in exactly the way that his readers would write about it if they knew how to write.

Am I an elitist? Very well, I am an elitist. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, I don't contain multitudes. And it is as an elitist that I now make the (for all genuine cinéphiles) unexceptionable statement that, if you are unfamiliar with the work of Jean-Luc Godard, then you have forfeited not the right, certainly, but the authority to pass judgement on the contemporary cinema. After all, no one admitting to an ignorance of Picasso's work would for an instant be regarded as worth listening to on the subject of con temporary fine art. And the currently overwhelming critical bias in favour of the medium's populist output notwithstanding - a bias that was pioneered, ironically, by Godard himself and by his fellow Hollywoodophiles François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, when all five of them were writing polemical essays and reviews for the journal Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s - the same applies to the cinema.

Richard Brody's "working life" of Godard is definitely and even defiantly a work of erudition. It covers the director's filmography from À bout de souffle in 1959 to Notre musique in 2004, not excluding shorts, television series, and even the odd glossy if typically idiosyncratic commercial he was forced to make when on his uppers. And although there is a cluster of juicy biographical anecdotes, mostly relating to Godard's on-off-on relationships with his actresses, these are inclu ded only insofar as they steer the reader towards a deeper understanding of the films' own auto biographical strata. Passionate admirer though he is, Brody doesn't shy away from his subject's frequently monstrous personal conduct - his odious condescension to his "inferiors", his (to put it mildly) casual attitude to other people's money, his subtle but, alas, well-documented anti-Semitism. Nor does he slavishly accept Godard's own lofty, Olympian self-estimation, though he never discounts it, either, as many have done, as the narcissistic delirium of a once-great artist who has long since retreated into near-autistic rarefaction. He regards the man as perhaps the supreme creator of his generation in any of the art forms, and pretty much expects the reader to do likewise.

It could even be argued that Godard, in some respects, is a more important artist than Picasso. Picasso transformed art; Godard transformed not just the cinema, but the world. Look at any pre-Godard film: good, bad, a masterpiece or an atrocity, it's securely locked into both the history of the cinema and, by extension, history itself. Now take a look at any Godard film from the 1960s - Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle, say, or Week-End - and you realise with a shock that it already belongs to the same world, Jean Baudrillard's "universe of persuasion", as we do. Directly or indirectly traceable back to his innovations are modern billboard designs, storefront window displays, the typography of trademarks and logos, newspaper and magazine layouts, even the evolution of computer graphics. The internet, for example, is totally Godardian.

As for the cinema proper, it was Godard who first conceived of editing as the art of disconti nuity rather than continuity. Godard who paid retrospective homage to the neglected icons of popular culture. Godard who proposed that the filmic image had to be flattened out for the sake of its own autonomy. And Godard who foresaw that that image was ultimately destined to dethrone the word as the irreducible unit of communication. Marshall McLuhan, another major theorist of such a revolutionary semantic displacement, continued to have recourse to words to describe the end of the word, whereas Godard used images and, if words, then words as images.

Brody's is a good, scholarly life, of interest not only to a charmed circle of initiates, and its lapses are fairly minor ones of judgement (he mystifyingly dismisses Bande à part, one of the most puckishly magical films ever made, while praising the almost unwatchable King Lear as being among Godard's finest achievements) and tone (the book is utterly devoid of irony, something that cannot be said about its subject's films). If you're in need of comic relief, however, I do recommend the preposterously gushy acknowledgements, all four pages of them. They're an absolute hoot.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood