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Jean-Luc Godard – a portrait

Jean-Luc Godard – a portrait

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Published by: Gil Vicente on Apr 08, 2013
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Jean-Luc Godard – a portrait

http://podacademy.org/podcasts/jean-luc-godard-a-portrait/ Posted on: November 4, 2012 This is the third of our Huston Film Lectures, a series of lectures given to students at the National University of Ireland’s Huston School of Film and Digital Media in Galway. The lecture series features leading film directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and academics. This lecture is given by Colin MacCabe, a British writer, film producer and University professor. In his lecture, MacCabe provides an insightful portrait of an almost mythical figure of cinema, Jean-Luc Godard. Colin MacCable: To rehearse what presumably is very familiar to you, the Cahiers du Cinéma came up with their theory of the author in the mid fifties and they came up with it, as Godard says, so that we could say that Hitchcock or Ford were as great an artist as Aragon or Picasso. And the theory of the author that the Cahiers’ critics developed was a theory of the author, above all, at the service of a theory of the cinema which was against writing. Classic French cinema traditionally took a great literary text, adapted it, and the director and indeed the writer of the screenplay were held to be at the service of this literary masterpiece. Truffaut, Godard and the others wanted nothing to do with that. They were not interested in the writer, they were interested in the director, they were not particularly interested in the script, they were interested in the lighting, in the shot sequence, the performances, they were interested the themes that repeated across films. There are two things that you can say about it: the first thing is that the Cahiers du Cinéma is the first theory of the author, or at the least the first theory of the author, that I am ware of, to be produced from the position of the audience. It is not a theory produced from the side of the author, the side of the subject, it’s a theory of the author produced from the side of the audience. And the second thing to say about it, it is that was above all a way of categorising the cinema, it was above all a way of taking a huge archive of a particularly commercial American cinema and saying “here there are certain ways in which you can divide up the archive. Here there are certain ways in which you can decide what it is that it is worth seeing”. That actually the concept of the author is a way of dividing up, of regulating this history and producing a canon which actually we are now deeply familiar with, because it’s a canon we all learn from, but a canon which was not, in those initial years, available. So as a theory of the author it has the interesting features that it is from the side of the audience and it is related to the archive or the corpus. In that sense is very very different from traditional, romantic theories of the author, though it does have most of most traditional, romantic theories in with it. If one is coming to the cinema from outside, if you are coming to a film set on which large numbers of people mill around, expensive equipment is moved about and those delicate things called actors place themselves in front of the camera, you become fairly quickly aware of the fact that if there is not someone orchestrating this huge assemble the whole thing is likely to fall apart. So, in other words, if you look at a film set it seems quite 1

as well as theoretical. but we have a middle section which shows us a student at the University. A second version. the author as the individual set aside from society who finds in nature and art a truth which she communicates and a truth to which she has privileged access to. all of the directors who came out of the Cahiers du Cinémawriting in the fifties – we all know their names (Rohmer.clear that there has to be someone in charge of it. And it seemed to me that the way to avoid the problem of unified author was indeed to take my lessons from the modernists texts which in fact had inspired both Barthes and Foucault. literature and thinking of the twenties and thirties. particularly in this room. as you know. theoretically. In the first book. with the exception I think of Chabrol and even I am not sure he’s an exception – they all wrote as well as directed. is an aside. And I took as my model that well-known Irish writer James Joyce. as a matter of fact. Truffaut). fifty times cleverer than all his 2 . the notion that Hawks isn’t originating the scripts is extremely doubtful. If we want to avoid the problems of that view of the author we are nonetheless faced with the same arguments which makes it difficult. The first. Arguments both practical. Because the whole of the Parisian theory of the sixties is in fact the kind of repetitional rerun of the modernists experiments in art. Joyce tries to write a continuous narrative account of the birth of the artistic consciousness. So although. that Hitchcock never put pen to paper. we know that Joyce had two very different stabs at writing an autobiographical novel. on the other hand. if you read the accounts of how Hitchcock would get some original material. that is. particularly in the cinema. as I say. with which we are I assume. again. It is true. it is not at all clear that Hitchcock did not at some level write his own scripts. But leaving that more general question aside. So this is not the topic of my lecture but it seems to me than when one is talking about the author in cinema that the role of the writer is absolutely not to be underestimated. the author perhaps above all of romantic theory. to get round the author. they had been in favour of the director against the writer and although they had been absolutely determined to stress features of the cinema which were not to do with the writing. Hitchcock and Hawks. and it is also quite clear that someone is most evidently be the director. he throw in the fire and small fragments of it were retained and published after his death as “Stephen Hero”. If we are now faced with a series of arguments against the author. Rivette. Chabrol Godard. well…it can be argued that Joyce did nothing but write autobiographies. they were interested in them as great directors who didn’t write. Joyce. get the writer and decamp to a hotel room in which he would sit with the writer until the script was finished. all familiar. of which apparently there was over a thousand pages of manuscript. but if we look at the time he spends improvising with his actors and the way that that improvisation gets turned into the scenes that we watch. If we just take the filmmakers whom the Cahiers were most interested in. And. it is nonetheless of some importance that they actually all wrote their own scripts. with a very different method of work. Actually. Now I should just as a parenthesis say that actually I have a great number of doubts about the auteur theory in its pure form. And if we look at Hawks. which was published in 1916. But actually film history of the last thirty years has rather altered the picture of those directors. But that is. “A portrait of the artist as a young man”. as form as we know. And those are in some sense the difficulties that I found myself confronting when I decided to write the biography of Godard. “Stephen Hero”. We don’t have the beginning and we don’t have the end. a series of arguments above all against a notion of the unified and controlling author.

What does Joyce do. a birth of exactly this controlling and omniscient consciousness exactly in control of his world. a tremendous prig.contemporaries. the author at all because I think that Cahiers are right. it was that “I must never use any sentence of the form of the sentence: ‘he must have thought. which you don’t have to explain by a all-knowing. he must have felt’”. certain kinds of emphasis. in some very deep sense. regular consciousness but which you probably do have to explain by the specific way in which an individual body traverses a whole set of institutions and histories and which. each section is written in a subtly different register and voice. The book that he did publish. he turns to confession and communion with the Church. a sentence of that type and had to go back and start again. In other words. if not every day certainly every other day. without at any point attempting to produce an overall coherent view. “A portrait of the artist as a young man”. and which. but because the lie of that particular formulation goes much deeper. And if there was a rule I had pasted to my word-processor as I wrote it. how does anyone who’s living a life know what they think and feel as they live it? And I tell you. and then another erupt break and we find ourselves in the kitchen of the impoverished Dedaluses having breakfast before he sets off for his lecture and again no attempt is made to produce an overarching account of how one moment relates to another. both religious and political. at the end of the very famous third section. comes in five sections. fifty times more artistically endowed and. it’s much more difficult to avoid sentences of that structure than you may think. the break then to the next section. Joyce uses a montage as his crucial tool in providing what. for example. when having been promised all the fires of hell. according to the purposes of this lecture. which is exactly written within a continuous progression towards ever greater knowledge. There is no attempt to link together these five episodes. it’s not a unified individuality. the vision of the artistic triumph. we should call “Snap shots of the artist as a young man”. So what it was important to do. Not simply because of how on earth could I know how he must have thought or he must have felt. And then it is explained even less it is the break between the end of that fourth section. when he throws this away as worthless and starts again? He completely gives up that continuous narrative thread. without at any point attempting to produce an understanding of subjectivity. That is to say. to give a coherent account of consciousness. suitable to the particular stage of which the extract is a representation. that you find certain kinds of repetition. in which he’s lapsed again. rather than “A portrait of the artist as a young man”. that ever greater knowledge is always already at the author’s hand in order for him to pour scorn and derision on the stupidity of his student fellows and their pathetic aspirations. was to try and find a set of angles on Godard which would provide a way in talking about some of the important elements of the experience of the director. makes us all really individual. So that. And it’s interesting that priggishness is entirely built into the structure of “Stephen Hero”. I must have produced. And that individuality is not the individuality of the romantics. all-unified. One can see in that “Stephen Hero” exactly the attempt to produce an account of the birth of the romantic author. even with that injunction as it were to myself that was constantly there. it has to be said. And I think that Cahiers are right not only in the realm of cinema but in the realm of literature. Why the author at all? Well. it’s an individuality which 3 . is not greatly explained. when he sees the vision of the young woman in the beach.

4 . on the banks of Lake Geneva. And the other thing. are saved. I think. And I think if you look at Godard’s work. If you could go back two. And his life has been a back-and-forth between these two places. three. of course. a small Swiss town called Nyon. they seem to me suggestive. the city which from the seventeenth century until the 1960s was the intellectual capital not just of Europe but of the world. between a setting where his religion was the norm and a setting within France where protestantism is a tiny percentage of the population. two cultures. What was interesting was that I discovered that his family’s life had been a back-and-forth between these two places. the great metropolitan city of Europe. if not illuminating. a protestant faith. four generations and discover this passage between these two countries. And something else. some thirty miles from Geneva. which I found very interesting and suggestive. is. but were forced to follow publicly the Catholic faith. hosts and hosts of protestant clergymen. And. The first was the family. no more than 2%. I wouldn’t say without any precedent in the history of the cinema. So I chose a series of such traverses. in quite a strong sense. the notion of the elect. A time when not only they were forbidden to practise their own faith. And it must be said that one of the moments that I find most striking was when his brother told me about the long tradition of protestant pastors within the family and then said “of course. The first thing. where very often on a Sunday they would not go to church but would have the protestant services at home. above all. on the one hand. he is not simply a French protestant but. a faith for Godard it’s above all a faith in the cinema. and a passage between being. which have known a tremendous history of suffering and prosecution throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century. is that French protestants talk of the seventeenth century as their time of the desert. coming from Geneva. And I discovered that this practice had continued in Godard’s own family. And one of the interesting things about Godard is that he is a French protestant. Jean-Luc himself is a protestant pastor”.who include Nobel prize winners. And it strikes me again as illuminating and suggestive of Godard that the way in which. the Monods. is that Godard has spent almost his entirely life travelling between two towns. And one finds in this protestantism at least two things which. that Godard as it were practises his faith at home could in some ways be seen in relation to this religious tradition. And in which all performances of protestant services had to be performed within the family home. you can see that this tremendous sense of the importance of faith. but without much precedent in the history of the cinema.perhaps might be even better written in true Joycean style in “-dividual” in which the emphasis is much on the dividual nature of the body that traverses these histories and institutions as on its unity. at its centre. whatever their actions. in the canton of Vaud. both his films and his writings. on the other hand. Paris. an image I haven’t since been able to get out of my mind. he’s a member of one of the most famous French protestant family of France. perhaps even more interesting that I discovered. And something I didn’t know before I embarked on the book. without in any way wanting to read directly from religious structures to practice of an individual. above all. that this protestantism has is the the tremendous notion of justification by faith and. a faith that one must preserve against all misadventures and doubts. Jacques Chirac’s right-hand man in the last presidential campaign and. through his mother’s side. those who. the protestant capital of Europe. Between.

that particular Cold War opposition is untenable. 5 . Of course you had national cinemas before sound but you are really doing national cinemas now. there is a man called Roger Lienhard. Furthermore. And secondly. And if the Cold War has broken out and you’re on the Russian side. And. A publication which is very deliberately broken away both from the University but also from the Communist Party.Godard comes from this dual situation. So if you are interested in the cinema. I want to welcome the advent of sound. immediately you get national cinemas in a way you didn’t have beforehand. And Bazin. And intellectuals drop cinema. There is one exception. One of the great great attractions of cinema for intellectuals was that it was an universal art. from throughout the twenties and thirties. It’s broken away from the University for fairly obvious reasons. First of all. that would transcend nationalities. as he says “it is true of course that Hollywood has heroes like this but Tarzan at least has the justification that the audience want to go and see it. it was that people thought about cinema. very gentle and very wonderful man. the budgets go through the roof because actually the cost of shooting the sound affectively consolidates Hollywood stories. And it is in Paris where you find the first beginnings of those people who were saying “here it’s a new great democratic art. Bang! Along comes sound and two things happen when you get sound. It was not just that cinema was made. He develops the notion of educating the public and combines it with the publication of Cahiers du Cinéma. the project of cinema is above all a realist project. In 1945. Here was an art that would transcend national languages. here is an art which challenges the basis of the ways in which we thought about art”. here was the universal art. in which he goes through contemporary Soviet films and shows how the new Soviet films are not like the old Soviet films trying to show historical elements at work but everything is at the service of one all-knowing hero called Stalin. the Cold War has broken out. And it’s broken away from the Communist Party because. and in exactly the position where Godard is as a young man. in post-war France. At that point. And that was a particular attraction in the years after the First Wold War. who writes for a Catholic magazine called Esprit in the thirties. Paris had been the capital of cinema since the Lumière brothers and it had also been. having been in Switzerland for three years continuously. but this dual situation was interrupted and interrupted very very severely by two things: it was interrupted by the war and it was interrupted by the breakdown of his parents’ marriage. then you are completely correct to understand it. Its most attentive reader is man called André Bazin. whereas Stalin doesn’t even have that”. finally has enough. so that the spectator.” If you understand that at that moment the whole of the Cahiers project began. he came to Paris to continue his studies at the lycée and he came to a situation in which I don’t think there’s ever been anywhere more intense reflection on the cinema. sound arrived. then you’re meant to loathe Hollywood and that means to praise the glories of communist Stalin. here’s an art which transforms everything since the Renaissance. because that is it exactly. and he writes an hilarious article called “The myth of Stalin”. there was always a relatively small number of people who have been interested in cinema and most of them dropped with the advent of sound. can begin to understand how the film is put together and understand it better. the capital of the reflection on the cinema. and he says “no. the person who is looking at the cinema. I’m going to write a handbook for the spectator. the advent of sound means the cinema can be more realistic. of course.

Now exactly how they did it’s very complicated and now I want to speed it up a bit. The name Dziga Vertov being chosen both for the innovation of documentary style. Godard makes “À Bout de Souffle”. At one level. have seen “Le Mépris” – people have seen “Le Mépris”? – would know that he isn’t very happy with the cinema. So. The first reason was a new generation of technology: they got a new generation of cameras and sound recorders. in fact he gives up his name completely. which meant they were able to shoot on the street. at the end of a project… the project is to improve public taste.So Bazin has split himself from both the traditional intellectuals and the traditional left. Godard included. is now suddenly the clear oppressor. would be blissfully happy with the cinema. So funnily enough. was in charge of the cinema was desperate to find some new life. against the representative of Soviet orthodoxy. despite the fact that he is one of the best known names in the cinema. breaking through these institutions. the New Wave is there. And suddenly they are “the New Wave” and the New Wave literally goes around the world with imitators in Italy. he’d found Anna Karina and he’d married her. but also as against Eisenstein. And secondly. there’s the Vietnam War. But any of you who. I think it’s 1957… In 1958 he wins the best prize as director for “Les Quatre Cents Coups”. was becoming directors so that they’d have their stars – their Marlene Dietrichs. in very much the terms that the marriage in “Le Mépris” breaks up. where one of the things all these young delinquent boys had dreamt about. because you may think that sounds a bit stupid. a month when a student riot and a general strike have General de Gaulle helicoptering 6 . you name it. you might think. write and develop their theories. for example. But very crudely put. we find Truffaut. And also. But also. institution: those are the three ways of looking at it. the state institution which looked after. That experiment that Godard undertakes is really unthinkable without understanding the moment of 1968. The late fifties having the impact of the divestment of their exhibition chains and the impact of television means that Hollywood goes through a catastrophic period. could not find work. although you might have an image of them struggling against the establishment – they were certainly struggling against the establishment of directors. And thus to find them. family. He sets up a magazine in which all these young people. From the most personal. so to enable them to make the films for an improved cinema. their Rita Hayworths. Chabrol makes his films. in a way that nobody had before. there was a historical paradox that their praise of Hollywood came exactly at the moment that the Hollywood they were praising was dying. And he isn’t very happy with the cinema for a whole series of reasons. And Godard had indeed found a star. But write and develop their theories. And Godard’s work reflects this in the mid sixties. There is America. politics. and in an extraordinary moment. There’s a tremendous lack of… a failure of faith in what’s happened them. Godard. the Nicholas Rays and the Sam Fullers. which had been the liberation of Europe in 1944-1945. he starts making films as the Dziga Vertov Group. He stops making films as Godard. And it ends with him quitting the cinema completely. And remarkably. etc – but the bureaucrats behind those directors and producers were actually looking for a new generation of film-makers. which meant they were able to capture Paris on the run and at a very low cost. who has been specifically and by name banned from the Cannes film festival. And all their favourite directors. an unimportant hiccup in the development of the consumer state. producers. He leaves the institutions of cinema. But finally. that’s what they did. But the marriage was breaking up. Brazil. so to improve cinema. they did it for two reasons. intellectual context.

you need the resources to clear the copyright on those films. he just puts it on. of course. is amongst them as he sets out on a series of political experiments which. First of all. May is over by May 31st. And includes. the other is Langlois. I don’t have the technological means to talk to you about the cinema because I need the cinema to talk about the cinema”. Godard didn’t 7 . I certainly can’t describe. with a richness of image and sound for which I know no parallel. but they are also a history of the twentieth century and they are also an autobiography. you need the material conditions where you can put your hand on any film that you want. In effect. he leaves Paris. the developments of video enable him to do just that. But at one level of society there’s a huge number of young people that believe that a new dawn is at hand. His name is enough to bring in sufficient commissions and he continues a remarkably productive life. Something which. from 1988 to 1998. is make an extraordinary series of films or videos. Back home a young Jacques Chirac puts a pistol in his pocket as he sets up to negotiate with the unions and successfully buys them off.out of Paris to the armies on the Rhine to make sure they’d be loyal in face of the impending revolution. there’s a moment with two workers in a factory and they’re talking in Czech to each other. what I think it’s a new form. for example. on his own terms. the entire range of Hawks’s work is for the first time watchable in Paris immediately after the war. And Godard then not only leaves the cinema. both Western and comedy. Just to give you again the merest fragment of the moment. in Langlois’ Cinémathèque… if Bazin is one of his godfathers. both silent and talkie. new ways of working must be invented. and which I can’t imagine – and here is where I’ll end – I can’t imagine any rivals in the immediate future. And Godard. much older. which effectively presents a picture of France four years after ’68 and shows the various impasses in which everybody is stuck. And Godard in 1978 goes to Montreal after Langlois’s death and gives a series of lectures on the history of the cinema in which he says every other page “the real trouble is. with his own equipment and he claims to be (and I think he probable is) the only film-maker who can shoot film 365 days a year without asking anybody’s by-your-leave. Langlois in the Cinémathèque in Paris showing the whole Hawks’s work as it were. Because Godard is all in the Cinémathèque. for the last thirty years. They are a history of the cinema. you expect the translation to come up in the soundtrack but instead what comes is the junction “if you don’t know Czech. Thus. And. But secondly and much more importantly. I don’t know which one you want to call them. are films which are completely unwatchable. And he has. that are called “Histories of Cinema”. The reason we’ll never see it again or at least we’ll never see anything like it in the near future. He first moved to Grenoble and then to a very very small village called Rolle. made his films from there. they set out to Czechoslovakia to film what’s happen in Czechoslovakia but the whole film is devoted to showing that you can’t go and film somewhere and find out what’s happening. And these three things are mixed together in a way which I can only evoke. is that Godard takes from the whole history of cinema and what he wants to be seen. So what he does. of course. you’d better learn it fast”. although of continuing interest. So a huge kind of way of showing you how difficult… or at least the presuppositions within traditional documentary but the context for those experiments was an active revolutionary movement which had simply disappeared by the time that they returned to the cinema and made a film called “Tout Va Bien”. difficult enough.

did bother to do for him. Notes Colin MacCabe’s biography of Godard was first published in 2003 under the title “Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy”. 8 . which is a quotation from Borges. what’s to be said? I was that man”. because of course one of the ways that Joyce manages to avoid an unified subjectivity is that he starts his book in the third person but ends it in the first person with a set of diary entries by Stephen Dedalus. which is a quotation from Coleridge and. see such a work again. And as I say I doubt whether one will ever. So I was able to end the book in the first person because Godard himself ends the “Histoire(s) du cinéma” with a long personal passage about. and the cinema he’s lived in.bother to do but Gaumont. or not in the near future. his great patron. And he ends with this thought: “If a man travelled across paradise in a dream and received a flower as proof of his passage and on awakening he found that flower in his hands. how much he appreciates the fact that he’s been allowed to film. no matter how terrible the world he’s lived in. And if also offered an end to my book. Godard knew that. but what I found out is that even Coleridge’s is a quotation from the young thinker John Paul. And he ends with this quotation.

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