The current Jean-Luc Godard retrospective in New York, admirably entitled The Spirit of Forms, reintroduces the French auteur’s films to familiar territory: namely, the New York Film Festival (NYFF) at Lincoln Center, where his work has made many memorable as well as infamous North American debuts. Incidents such as the uproar surrounding the 1985 screening of Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary) — antagonistic pamphlets, defensive prayer circles, alleged shoe throwing — remind us that, to our considerable relief, the general populace does indeed care about the arts.
Screening as a part of the NYFF and co-curated by Kent Jones and Jake Perlin, the Godard retrospective is comprised of virtually everything the filmmaker has released. All of the by-now familiar titles from the 1960s are in attendance, as well as the obscure but seriously outstanding titles from the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, including Lettre à Freddie Bauche, Allemagne anné 90 neuf zero (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero), and De l’origine du XXIe siècle (Origin of the 20th Century). But what may be most unique about the retrospective is its timing — its screening at this highly equivocal moment in film history, or rather in the history of the ways in which we access and appreciate films.
In his superb essay commissioned for a 2004 monograph on Godard, critic and curator James Quandt writes, “to organize a comprehensive Godard retrospective is an act of resurrection.” A sound remark when published a decade ago, Quandt’s statement is due for a reassessment in light of contemporary circumstances surrounding not only Godard’s filmography but also the scene of cinema at large.
The purported “very real rarity” (Quandt again) of Godard’s works in North America in 2004, upon which the ostensible “resurrection” of his cinematic corpus depended, has undergone a sea change in the last decade. This is due to dutifully maintained (though not always legal) online archives as well as fantastic, niche home digital releases of erstwhile impossible-to-find titles. A good deal of Godard’s films are available for home viewing today, as are those of his variegated cinematic references: works by Ophüls and Cocteau, Rossellini and Mizoguchi, Sam Fuller, and Robert Aldrich, Fassbinder and Pasolini, to name just a few. Whereas formerly only a handful of these works might have been available on a New Yorker Films VHS or showing on TCM at odd hours of the morning (if you were lucky!), today countless are now within reach in the comfort of one’s own space, be it through Criterion’s masterful restorations, FACETS, Olive Films, Lorber, Hulu, or Amazon Instant. The formerly spectral quality of Godard’s work has, in many ways, been vanquished by the recent proliferation of its material presence on the market (or its virtual presence in archives). The need for a “resurrection” of Godard’s work has in part been exorcised away by the dramatic increase in home-viewing possibilities — and this trend of restoration and mass dissemination shows no signs of letting up. How long will it be before his entire corpus is downloadable in 720p, to be buried deep in the form of .mov or .mkv files on any interested consumer’s hard drive?
If Godard’s films — as well as the general reservoir of low-profile, art-house, and foreign cinema — are no longer in the state of dereliction, then surely this must have appreciable implications for what it means to hold a retrospective of the work today. What is at stake in a contemporary, comprehensive showing of Godard — beyond the opportunity to chance upon some of the scarcer titles that are truly unavailable, even on the aforementioned channels? What does this retrospective accomplish?
Godard’s status today is precariously suspended between two conflicting fates: overblown iconicity and an almost abyssal and closed anonymity. The former is a result of the canonization of his precocious (to say the least) first decade of making feature films, from the surprise triumph of À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) to the final gunshots of his sprawling critique of bourgeois inanity, Weekend (1967). This canonization has been accomplished by almost the entirety of Western culture, regardless of whether or not certain people have actually paid any attention to Godard’s films. He is irreverently invoked as the exemplar-ambassador of that elusive, elitist category “art-house film” by even the most intellectually and culturally threadbare sources. He’s also unreservedly appreciated, and rightly so, for his films from the ’60s. By marrying some of his diverse cinematic obsessions in a rebellious, almost rude, novel form, Godard changed the history of cinema forever. A whole generation of cultural relevance and cool could be expressed in a montage of the miens of Anna Karina and Anne Wiazemsky, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Godard’s influence in this respect isn’t dead, and won’t die.
On the other hand, Godard’s second fate, determined by his post-’68 production, establishes him as little more than a fetish or flashpoint of debate for academics, critics, and cultural theorists who may or may not have something new to say about one of his lesser-known works. This other Godard is the one silently accused of committing a counterrevolution entirely inimical to the vitality, the jouissance, and the critical yet still delightful relationship the director’s films of the ’60s had with the times they depict. Case in point: In a review of Godard’s beautiful, elegiac Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001), A.O. Scott of the New York Times noted that with this latest film, the French auteur had finally completed his journey from being “one of cinema’s great radicals to one of its crankiest reactionaries.” As the story goes, the Godard of late installs a reign of infinite difficulty: his later films demand theoretical freight, with their unnavigable referentiality and the suggestiveness of their aphoristic dialogue that verges on meaninglessness or sheer insanity. Godard often plays with this reputation, casting himself in such roles as the fool in Changer d’image (Change of Image) and Soigne ta droite (Raise Your Right), in which exceptional work is demanded of a bumbling, imbecilic version of himself, or an institutionalized lunatic in Prénom Carmen, in which his character is shut off from the world, accessible only to analysts, professionals, and the occasional visitor.
A retrospective today has the opportunity to publically exhume these two separated sides of Godard (the heart and the head, if you’ll excuse the crude metaphor) and unite them as a whole. This unification is further enabled by programming decisions: rather than screen the films with an uncritical abeyance to chronology, Jones and Perlin have woven them together, mixing early and late works in a medley that helps erode the polarity in Godard’s oeuvre. Highlighting the continuities and consistencies between his projects pre- and post-’68, Jones and Perlin don’t attempt to elide the heterogeneous periods of Godard’s production; they do, however, make one pause before consigning whole decades of his work to the garbage bin.
The second point this retrospective broaches is format specificity. In five years all of Godard’s films may be accessible in pristine digital copies via some kind of subscription-based streaming service. But what will never be available on the cloud, or offered by Criterion et al in stores, is the experience of seeing the 35mm or 16mm film projected on a large screen in a dark theater.
The impulse to promote format specificity isn’t just some kind of antiquarian delight in analogue or aging technology. And the dedication to film (celluloid) does not necessarily entail a conviction that it ought be the authoritative format of moving-picture arts forever. Several of Godard’s finest films (notably Histoire(s) du cinéma, parts of Numéro Deux, half of Éloge de l’amour) make extensive or exclusive use of video, to stunning effect.
That said, there undeniably exists a qualitative, even essential difference between film, magnetic tape, and ethereal data; between photographic grain, video static, and digital pixels. And we have good reason to defend film from its sibling formats, now more than ever, since the internecine struggle between the three seems to have run its course, dealing celluloid a fatal blow in the process. Celluloid is now, without doubt, a seriously embattled format, as DCP (Digital Cinema Package) is clearly taking over, soon to become (if not already) the standard for theaters both large and small.
To Jones and Perlin’s considerable credit, they secured 35mm or 16mm prints of almost all the films that Godard intended to be shown in these formats. The results are beautiful. The Coca-Cola reds and cartoon yellows and blues shine brilliantly in the’60s films. The later, more mature blue lakes, green forests, and grey skies of the Swiss countryside in Sauve qui peut, Nouvelle Vague, and others are revelatory. In a culture of ritual digitization, a retrospective like this serves as a kind of bulwark against the intractable drumbeat of technological progress in the arts.
Makes for an exceptionally pretty sight, too.
Jean-Luc Godard — The Spirit of the Forms continues at the Francesca Beale Theater at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (144 West 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through today.
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