Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Man Who Dared

By Chris Herrington

APRIL 5, 1999:  There’s this parlor game a friend and I have been playing recently: With the recent deaths of Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick, who’s the greatest living filmmaker? The list of reasonable candidates is impressive, but in a rare moment of agreement, my friend and I settled on the same name: Jean-Luc Godard.

This week the Brooks Film Series becomes a sort of unwitting accomplice in our belly-button-gazing pastime, embarking on a month-long series, “Five Films of the French New Wave,” which features four works from Godard: his ground-breaking first feature, Breathless; two little-seen works from the early ’80s, Every Man For Himself and First Name: Carmen; and For Ever Mozart, his most recent feature. (The fifth film in the series is Jacques Tati’s Playtime [1967], which is most certainly French but arguably not New Wave. It is a mind-blower of a film, however – an unprecedented and unequalled visual achievement that Entertainment Weekly accurately described as a sort of live-action “Where’s Waldo?”)

But let’s get back to that parlor game for a moment. It isn’t a slam-dunk. Indeed, you may be asking, “Godard? He’s still alive?” It may seem an odd choice considering his films haven’t been widely shown, at least in the U.S., for the last 30 years. He surely hasn’t achieved the popular stature of any of his competitors for the title “greatest living filmmaker.” But you can have Ingmar Bergman and his “cinema of Nordic pity” as my friend calls it. Take Woody Allen, as increasingly problematic as prolific, while you’re at it. Yes, Billy Wilder is really old, but his Hollywood hit (Double Indemnity) or miss (Stalag 17) is a guilt-free elimination. And don’t even start with Spielberg. Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese are stronger contenders, but I’ll still take Jean-Luc Godard, warts and all.

For formal innovation, influence on today’s cinema, and size and quality of a body of work (not to mention potential for more of the same), it’s gotta be Godard. One of the most daringly original filmmakers of any era, Jean-Luc Godard made 15 films between 1959 and 1968 – from Breathless to Weekend, arguably his two best films – and during that period gave birth to much of the cinematic world we now call home, whether Oscar knows it or not. Godard’s influence is paramount in the work of many of today’s very best directors: in the chattiness and references of Quentin Tarantino; in the idea-driven coldness of David Cronenberg; and, perhaps most of all, in the relentless editing and improvisational energy of Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express, Happy Together).

Of course, there’s a reason why Godard’s significance so far outweighs his popularity. For filmgoers weaned on narrative cinema, which is all of us, Godard is an acquired taste. Like his colleagues in the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, Godard began as a critic, for the influential journal Cahiers du Cinema. But unlike his contemporaries, he remained a critic, merely exchanging tools – the camera for the pen. Godard’s films were (are) a form of criticism. They’re essays, and they communicate as a written essay might. The films often speak directly to the audience, whether through an actor, a voice-over, or even with statements written across the screen. Some scenes are parenthetical. There is little regard for the narrative flow of most feature films. Employing distancing ideas from German Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, Godard’s films seek to close the gap between fiction and documentary, character and actor, narrative film and experimental film. Instead of a process to be consumed, he tailors his films as dialogues to be engaged in, encouraging the viewer to analyze rather than get lost in story. This is not the way we are used to watching, and for the viewer unwilling (or unable) to approach his films in this manner, Godard can be tough going.

Breathless is a little different. The one Godard film people are most likely to be familiar with, it is the quintessential New Wave film. Both a gangster film and film about gangster films, Breathless embodied all of the possibilities and paradoxes of New Wave: It expressed a deep affection for Hollywood cinema (“B” movies and Bogart) while at the same time reacting against the seamless artificiality of Hollywood – employing jump cuts and other editing tricks to jar the viewer. At a time when most films were shot on soundstages, Breathless was shot on location in the streets of Paris, using natural light and cheap equipment. Though it’s hard to grasp how radical Breathless must have seemed at the time, the film has surely lost none of its vitality. Indeed, it has the feel of the medium being invented before our eyes. In short, mandatory viewing.

Breathless is a no-brainer, but the other Godard films being shown in this series are odd, but intriguing, choices. Surprisingly bypassing Godard’s ’60s watersheds, and unsurprisingly skipping his Marxist experimental films of the ’70s, the Brooks series picks up with his return to more accessible work. Every Man for Himself has, as near as I can tell, never been released on video. Godard labeled the 1979 film his “second first film” and it was widely hailed as a return to the quasi-narrative style of his ’60s work after a decade of Marxist formal experiments. Set in a nameless Swiss city, Every Man for Himself centers on a typical Godard brew of prostitution as a metaphor for capitalism and a love triangle as an avenue for exploring sexual politics. By most accounts the film is an aesthetic triumph, but perhaps his most nihilistic film.

First Name: Carmen (1983) is an interesting film that harks back to much of his ’60s work, featuring typical Godardian protagonists: attractive young people who engage in political terrorism and filmmaking (“The children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” he famously dubbed his subjects). In this film Godard plays himself as the uncle of the title character, who is reluctant to help with a film project that is really a front for terrorist activity. In near self-parody, First Name: Carmen has Godard spouting some very Godardian lines: “What is the nature of the current crisis? Our fucked-up economics that produce waste. The goal of classic capitalism was to produce the best goods possible. … Machines have started to produce goods no one needs, from atomic bombs to plastic cups.”

If Every Man for Himself and First Name: Carmen document Godard’s return to what for him is more straightforward filmmaking, then For Ever Mozart (1997) shows where Godard is today. For Ever Mozart hasn’t been released on video and didn’t play Memphis during its limited theatrical run, so this is a rare opportunity to see what is Godard’s latest film, not counting Histoire(s) du cinema, his ongoing (and yet to be released in the U.S.) video series on film history. For Ever Mozart is a four-part film about the Bosnian War that presents theatre as war and war as bad theatre. Depending on which usually reliable critic you chose to believe, For Ever Mozart is either Godard’s most straightforward and moving commentary on war (Amy Taubin, The Village Voice) or a minor work where Godard’s awkward staging of Bosnian conflict on his grandparents’ Swiss estate serves to underline his isolation from the world he purports to comment on (Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader).

Jean-Luc Godard isn’t likely to be memorialized in death to the degree that other, more conventional, great filmmakers have been. But he’s altered the vocabulary of film in a way few others have, and may well be one of the most important artists of our times. He’s our greatest living filmmaker, and here’s an opportunity to appreciate him while he’s still around.

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