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Jean-luc Godard – An Art 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.

Although I had met him a few times before I organized his 1992 MoMA retrospective, “Jean-Luc Godard Son+Image, 1974 to 1990”, an exhibition of his films and videos from “Ici d’Ailleurs” through the complete “Histories(s) du cinema” whose various chapters had premiered earlier at the museum, I was eager to spend time with Godard, a brilliant conversationalist, when he came to open his retrospective. His audience and I were disappointedt when Godard cancelled his appearance hours before his retrospective with an explanatory 16-page fax. However, with the encouragement and under the arm of Nicolas Seydoux, then President of Gaumont, the motion picture company that financed many of Godard’s theatrical (film) and non-theatrical (video) endeavors in the 80’s and 90’s, Godard did attend the American premiere of JLG/JLG  in 1995 at MoMA. I finally had the chance to speak briefly with him about cinema as an art, an appropriate subject for a curator at MoMA and a filmmaker of such ferocious originality and radical expressiveness that he transformed the way moving-images are considered. Godard was the first director who was a popular arthouse filmmaker to talk to me of film as an art object.

He told me he wished for the day a wealthy collector of fine arts would commission a piece of cinema from him. He would be given funds to make a work which would become the property of the collector. Whether Godard spent the collector’s money on the making of the film or reserve it for personal use would be immaterial. He, Godard, would be free to practice his art independent of the usual protocols of industry – finding a producer, meeting the producer’s demands of cast and audience expectations, being continually concerned about turning a profit for the producer, and so on. The collector in turn would receive a unique work signed by the artist, Godard. And the work would be unique because, although film is eminently duplicable, what the collector would receive would be the ‘master’ material itself, the negative and an exhibition copy. If the collector wanted to keep the work in a vault and show it only rarely to himself or herself so be it. The collector would have a Godard much as he or she would have a Rauschenberg or a Matisse and take pleasure from knowing the work belonged to the collector.

I said it would be a pity if any film, particularly his, would be denied public screenings because it was owned by one person, and Godard reminded me that this was the model in the art world. We began to talk about copyright, a subject that remained open because of its complexity, and because of the critical difference in French and American law where an author’s moral rights are not recognized. Would the collector be able make copies from the negative to donate to museums, to sell to film distributors, or to make VHS dupes? The collector would own the physical property that was the negative itself but would the collector have the right without the permission of the artist to make copies? Would the artist maintain that right, and if the artist did, how would the artist gain access to the original in the collector’s vaults? Also, and most importantly wouldn’t the making of copies diminish the value of the original for the collector making him or her wary of commissioning another piece by Godard thereby sending the artist back to the traditional mode of financing?    

Almost twenty-five years later the art world has adopted a practice vis-à-vis moving-image works that is similar to Godard’s prescient vision. In the simplest terms, gallerists edition films and videos, and sell a very limited number of an artist’s work to collectors who own the property but not the copyright. The galleries and artists might organize public presentations in special venues such as museums and art fairs which may enhance the value of the piece.

Between the time of my conversation with Godard and 2013, MoMA, in 1999, aware of Godard’s vision, and wanting a Godard of its own in its estimable collection, offered him a commission for the new millennium, giving him a sum of money to make a feature-length 35mm film about modern art that would in some way recognize MoMA’s position in the field. Colin MacCabe, one of the producers of the commission, and I delivered the contract to Godard in Rolle, Switzeland where he lived part-time and where he maintained his studio. Over lunch he said he and Anne-Marie Mieville, his collaborator, would study the contract in Paris where I could pick up the signed papers a few days hence. He then invited us to his studio, an invitation we were both happy to receive. It was in his atelier that it was evident Godard was working as a solitary artist in his own space with his own tools.

What extraordinary tools they were! Godard’s studio in Rolle was one of the most technologically advanced media spaces I had ever seen. The state of the art equipment included recorders, monitors, a large screen, and an elaborate and sophisticated control panel where the artist sat and maniplulated the recorded image harvested from thousands of videotapes in his library, layering images and tracks to evolve a final image densely rich in picture, text and sound. I thought how interesting that Godard transformed the usually very social experience of filmmaking into one of the passionate artist working virtually alone.  Now I could better understand the dream he had for himself four years earlier in New York.

A week after visiting Godard in Rolle l picked up the contract in Paris, and in 2000 the commission, “The Old Place” by Godard and Mieville, arrived at MoMA. The forty-seven minute work pleased the very generous trustee who made the commission possible, and “The Old Place” first screened at MoMA, months after its world premiere at the Cinematheque francaise, in early February 2001 to critical applause. A few years later it appeared, to our surprise, on a DVD of rare Godard films published in Switzerland. But, except to say that Godard continues to be ahead of the curve, that is another story.

About the author

Laurence Kardish worked on many Godard screenings and exhibitions during his 44 years as a film curator at MoMA, and even before that programmed Godard films at the film society he founded in 1965 at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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.