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

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

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

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

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

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

made his films from there. new ways of working must be invented. In effect. are films which are completely unwatchable. which effectively presents a picture of France four years after ’68 and shows the various impasses in which everybody is stuck. Thus. you expect the translation to come up in the soundtrack but instead what comes is the junction “if you don’t know Czech. And. the developments of video enable him to do just that. 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. that are called “Histories of Cinema”. you need the resources to clear the copyright on those films. the other is Langlois. His name is enough to bring in sufficient commissions and he continues a remarkably productive life. But at one level of society there’s a huge number of young people that believe that a new dawn is at hand. Godard didn’t 7 . with a richness of image and sound for which I know no parallel. Something which. He first moved to Grenoble and then to a very very small village called Rolle. May is over by May 31st. there’s a moment with two workers in a factory and they’re talking in Czech to each other. and which I can’t imagine – and here is where I’ll end – I can’t imagine any rivals in the immediate future. what I think it’s a new form. And Godard then not only leaves the cinema. 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. the entire range of Hawks’s work is for the first time watchable in Paris immediately after the war. is that Godard takes from the whole history of cinema and what he wants to be seen. for the last thirty years. both silent and talkie. but they are also a history of the twentieth century and they are also an autobiography. 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. of course. 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. And Godard. much older. for example. is amongst them as he sets out on a series of political experiments which. The reason we’ll never see it again or at least we’ll never see anything like it in the near future. I certainly can’t describe. in Langlois’ Cinémathèque… if Bazin is one of his godfathers. is make an extraordinary series of films or videos. Langlois in the Cinémathèque in Paris showing the whole Hawks’s work as it were. They are a history of the cinema. Because Godard is all in the Cinémathèque. he just puts it on. difficult enough. 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”. from 1988 to 1998. First of all. And includes. although of continuing interest. both Western and comedy. And these three things are mixed together in a way which I can only evoke. I don’t have the technological means to talk to you about the cinema because I need the cinema to talk about the cinema”. So what he does.out of Paris to the armies on the Rhine to make sure they’d be loyal in face of the impending revolution. And he has. But secondly and much more importantly. he leaves Paris. you’d better learn it fast”. on his own terms. Just to give you again the merest fragment of the moment. I don’t know which one you want to call them. of course. you need the material conditions where you can put your hand on any film that you want.

see such a work again. And as I say I doubt whether one will ever. Godard knew that.bother to do but Gaumont. 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. 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. And he ends with this quotation. which is a quotation from Borges. 8 . or not in the near future. And if also offered an end to my book. how much he appreciates the fact that he’s been allowed to film. 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. which is a quotation from Coleridge and. Notes Colin MacCabe’s biography of Godard was first published in 2003 under the title “Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy”. his great patron. no matter how terrible the world he’s lived in. but what I found out is that even Coleridge’s is a quotation from the young thinker John Paul. did bother to do for him. what’s to be said? I was that man”. and the cinema he’s lived in.

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