"This guy puts everything, I mean everything in his movies.”

November 27, 2013 | By Film Department (New York)

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.

I came to Godard a bit late. In Dallas, where I grew up in the 1960s, foreign films played regularly. But, to be honest, the local selection slanted more toward A Man and a Woman than to Masculine Feminine. My undergraduate professors of French preferred the humanist tradition of Renoir and Truffaut. But when I arrived at the University of Chicago for graduate school in the 1970s Godard seemed to be everywhere in discussions of cinema.This, of course, was the great era of film theory, the ascent of Barthes, Lacan, Metz, and others into godlike status. And there was my problem. I had balked at the absolutist claims of Protestant evangelism in my native Texas. I was no less skeptical of the secular idols who now ruled advanced thought about film … and Godard.

My awakening to the greatness of Godard came from a strange source, my friend Jack, a fellow doubter in front of the theory crazed converts. Jack and I are friends because we disagree as much as we agree. Henry James, for instance, is a shared point of agreement for us: a great writer. Then Jack re-reads Jane Austin while I sample a new short story writer from Shanghai. He listens to the Pollini recordings of the Beethoven sonatas while I swing to the polyrhythms of Cuban timba. Yet he’s the one who said to me “You must see Godard.”

“Why?” I asked. “Because he’s hilarious!” Jack then went on to describe in vibrant detail several scenes from Alphaville. It’s not that he was reducing Godard to being a comedian. Just the opposite: he was criticizing Godard’s academic apostles for the narrow, self-serving version of his work that they promoted. “You can’t imagine! This guy puts everything, I mean everything in his movies.” That was the tipping point. For the first time in my perception, Godard escaped the prison house of academic theory. He was restored to being a filmmaker of the broadest vision, an artist fearless in appropriating any subject, technique, idea, or material in his endlessly renewed exploration of life.

I’ve now spent thirty years watching and teaching his films. The pleasure of seeing his reinventions of himself is immense. Nobody deconstructs Godard better than Godard. And nobody in cinema has ever mixed formal pleasure in the medium, analytical discourse, shaggy stories, and slapstick comedy to such profound effect.

Let me illustrate the point. I owe one of my strangest but most rewarding classroom experiences to Godard. Many years ago I screened Weekend in a course on post World War II European films. One young man became very agitated by the film. He threatened to report me to the Dean and have me fired for making him sit through such a movie. He seemed on the brink of physically confronting me. And then I was saved. The miracle happened. Hands went up. I started calling on students. Everyone defended Godard but did so from many angles. The angry young man recognized defeat and slumped back in his seat. As Jack said, “This guy puts everything, I mean everything in his movies.” Thanks for doing so, Jean Luc.

About the author :
Jerry W. Carlson is professor at The City College & Graduate Center CUNY and also producer and host of the City Cinematheque.

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.

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