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My First Ufo (unindentified Film Object)

To mark the 50th anniversary of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, and on the occasion of a major retrospective of the director's work at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Film Department at the Cultural Services is delighted to present Godard & Me, a blog dedicated to the iconic French filmmaker. Throughout the fall, we will post thoughts and reflections on Godard and his work from film critics, scholars, students and fans.

To me, Jean Luc Godard existed as a symbol long before he every existed as a filmmaker. He wasn’t even a name but an idea that floated in some space inside my mind reserved for things I had yet to figure out how to qualify. I couldn’t connect the word with any images, or find any relation to it in my everyday life, but it kept hovering, like some unidentifiable mass; something about the three words refusing to be forgotten.

I grew up going to movies with my parents nearly every weekend. Like most children, I wasn’t concerned with what people considered the important films or influential filmmakers; I just wanted a movie that could hold my attention for two hours or make me laugh. I was drawn to the big budget mysticism of Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” or “E.T.” I was captivated by the fantastical storytelling nature of Rob Reiner’s “The Princess Bride,” was brought to tears by Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump,” and was shocked by Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects.” Although my parents has travelled the world and welcomed all kinds of artistic expression with open arms, there was only a very faint trace of foreign language film in my childhood.  Looking back, it seems as though movies for me were simply a way to escape and enter a world more fabulous than I could ever imagine.

By the time I entered high school I began to appreciate film as an art form and not just a means of entertainment. That was when I can remember the word “Godard,” begin to fill my subconscious. I tried to ingest as much “quality” cinema as possible. Watching “Shawshank Redemption,” “The Godfather,” “Citizen Kane,” “Raging Bull.” Up until that point, simply watching movies that were made before I was born was a tall order, but I kept coming away from each film rewarded and intrigued. I scanned more lists for recommendations but kept skimming over the words that didn’t immediately register in my brain. Words like “Bergman” and “Fellini” and, of course, “Godard.”

Seeing his name over and over again, I had come to understand Godard in some vague sense. His name brought up images of black and white celluloid, of men in stylish sunglasses, women with sultry eyes, and the unintelligible exuberance of European culture. These were fractions of an image that I had not yet fit into a cohesive whole. I knew that he was talented. I knew that he was critically lauded. I knew that he was important and that I would one day come face-to-face with something that he had created. I just wasn’t sure when it would be.

In hindsight, I’m glad it took me so long to finally lay my eyes on something that he had created. I’m not convinced that I would have been ready to truly appreciate the audacity of his work when I was younger. Godard isn’t necessarily something you can squeeze in between viewings of “Home Alone” and “Jurassic Park.” I was still learning the vast power of cinema and the multitude of forms it was capable of taking. Once I thought I understood the possibilities, it was time for Godard to come along and shatter my expectations once more.

Just as my early indoctrination into Hollywood classics had broadened my understanding of the storytelling diversity in film, my exposure to Godard chipped away at the restrictive barriers that I had placed around cinematic form. My first experience with a Jean Luc Godard film (“Breathless,” shocking, I know) was unlike anything that I had experienced before. I can still remember sitting in my bed, trying to figure out what the heck was happening on the screen in front of me. Nobody was speaking, and there seemed to be no clear connection between the images that flashed on the screen in front of me. Then the car started driving.

Suddenly, I was seeing the car as if I was driving it myself. A mix of French and Spanish words floated over the images as the protagonist turned to me and spoke. I had no idea where we were going, or what he was saying, but I had a clear knowledge that this was not a trip I had been on before. Sound effects, voiceovers, cutaway shots seemed to appear and disappear on a whim, without any plan or sequence. As the movie progressed, things didn’t get much clearer. There was still no traditional plot, no clear moments where the protagonist had to overcome some obstacle, and I was never fully confident that I grasped what was going on. But I could never look away.

For me, watching that first Godard film has always stuck out in my head as the moment that I realized film could change shape, color, and sound to the point of being nearly unidentifiable. That initial Godard experience wasn’t just analyzing metaphors and character archetypes; it was taking another look at the way images were put together. Cinema didn’t need to clearly connect all the dots; a series of images could create expression simply by forcing a reaction from the viewer. Film no longer seemed like something that needed to be a comforting experience to be enjoyed. I began to see how a filmmaker could deviate from a path, making the viewer uncomfortable, yet creating images that were so compelling that the viewer felt forced to come along.  Film could capture an idea or a thought process that forced the viewer to really work to wrap his/her head around what had just flashed across the screen.

Even more important part was the power that lay in the gaps of understanding. In a lesser filmmaker’s hands, the jump cuts and fractured narrative may have felt disjointed, but with Godard, the parts that were left out seemed to speak almost as loudly as what had made its way into the film. My mind began to fill in the spaces between the gaps, working with him to construct the images, thoughts, and emotions of the characters. I had become an active participant in the storytelling process and not even known it.

However, the lesson that I have always taken from my experience with Godard was the simple idea that cinema could always be about something. I know that crediting Godard with this notion is simplistic and uninformed, but to me, he was the medium through with this lesson came to fruition. Before Godard, the movies I watched were about a given theme or message, but I had never so clearly viewed them as a commentary on the world I was in. To me, cinema was immersive; I left my world behind and joined the one on the screen in front of me. I never thought about the reverse, bringing the images I saw into my world and allowing them to shape the things that I saw on a daily basis.

Bubbling underneath the surface of a Godard film, there is the kernel of an idea or a thought. It wasn’t always a fully fleshed out treatise on society, but just an inking or a discussion to put out into the world. He had an idea about the world we lived in and wanted his film to be the vessel that carried it; he created films as conversations. He let you put your guard down, entering a fictional world where we’ve always felt safer, and then took our openness and acceptance and forced us to think about the world we were taking a break from.

Now, as I enter my second year teaching cinema, and begin preparations for directing my third short film, I carry with me the lessons I learned from Godard. I may sometimes forget they’re there, but I know that they continue to float around in the space I’ve had carved out for him long before I knew what he was actually capable of.

About the author

Eric Samulski is Secondary English teacher at the Lycée Français of New York.

What's your Godard experience: Are you a big fan or an ardent detractor? Have you seen all of his movies? Do you feel like a young Brigitte Bardot in Contempt sometimes? Do you feel like all one needs to make a movie is “a girl and a gun”? Let the comment box gathers your Godard’s outpourings and share with us what makes him such a buzz.