FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Vol. 4 No. 6, March 2000

 

 

Martha P. Nochimson

A Modest Employee of the Cinema vs The Big Garage

 

 

 

_Jean-Luc Godard Interviews_

David Sterritt, Editor

Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998

ISBN 1-57806-080-X Hb

ISBN 1-57806-081-8 Pb

203 pp.

 

The latest publication in the Conversations With Filmmakers Series of the University Press of Mississippi, _Jean-Luc Godard Interviews_, is a collection of 14 previously published interviews culled by editor David Sterritt from the vast array of Godard's publicly recorded conversations with colleagues, critics, and journalists between 1962 and 1996. For reasons involving copyright issues and the large amount of available material, Sterritt has limited his choices to sources printed in English. The interviews are complemented by a helpful apparatus: a detailed chronology, a complete filmography, and a well-articulated index. Such a project may at first seem modest, even pedestrian compared with more theoretical ventures; yet traversing the years with Godard in this manner has its substantial fascinations.

 

First, the focus of this collection is a difficult, abrasive, yearning, always evolving filmmaker, whose ideas continue to challenge and illuminate our understanding of cinema. Second, Sterritt has so artfully chosen this assortment of Godard's public statements in a variety of public venues that with a minimum of repetition he gives us a Godard from as many perspectives as Godard likes to present his characters, a hologram that says as much about Godard watchers as it does about the man himself. In this way, _Jean-Luc Godard Interviews_ differs crucially from projects like Chris Rodley's _Lynch on Lynch_, or Truffaut's _Hitchcock_, which aim for a comparatively conventional deep probing of the ideas and beliefs of an indisputably spellbinding subject at one time and place, through the filter of one attentive intelligence. It differs equally from the use critics make of direct contact with a director purely for the purpose of interpreting specific films, a use that I made of my own five years of interviews with David Lynch. No, _Jean-Luc Godard Interviews_ is a matter of fragments in time, provoking questions about the role of public discourse in the circulation of ideas. Sterritt's compilation does bear on interpretation but also rises beyond it into meta-realms, inspiring examination of the social construction of the artist, and exactly what use *can* be made of direct statements by a filmmaker about his own work.

 

The collection, as might be expected, gives access to Godard on Godard in the heat of an ahistorical eternal present in which, though he has assumed different identities over the years -- the young cineaste filmmaker, an auteur revisioning Hollywood genre, a revolutionary mounting an attack on the ideology imprinted in narrative film, or, most recently, a spiritual voyager in the filmic representation of the invisible -- he is always speaking from the emphatic stance of a regnant commitment. Under prompting from his various interviewers, Godard addresses the kinds of questions (with one major exception) that we expect him to be asked: about improvisation, the role of politics in his work, and the relationship between words and images in the cinematic making of meaning. The one major exception is the strange dearth of wide-ranging questions from his interlocutors (especially strange in the most recent interviews) regarding the roles of women in his work. The absence of feminist questions does not stem from the choices made by the editor; there are, apparently, no published interviews in English that feature feminist inquiry; for that one would go to Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki's _Speaking about Godard_ and David Sterritt's _The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible_.

 

Paradoxically, though, at the same time that the collection evokes an eternal present, a simultaneous effect of the confluence of multiple sources for Godard's statements is the placement of Godard's stream of consciousness into the flood of history, filtering his four recognizable stages of development through the cubistic prism of public discourse with its disparate, incommensurable facets. Placed side by side, the transformations forced by each different publication, each with its mode of constructing reality, are readily noticeable. As this is a collection in which Godard's voice is heard directly, some will pick it up searching for a simplifying key to Godard's opaque mythologies, but will find that it is rather an adventure in the dissonances among multiple representations of Godard, as well as of his work.

 

Thus, though each interview is documentary in intent, together they form a found poetry; indeed, one is hard put to imagine a more poetically felicitous mode of simultaneously portraying both Godard's expression of his most passionate beliefs about reality and its depiction in the cinema, and the refraction of those ideas through channels of cultural reception.

 

Information is not the goal of these filmmaker interviews. In none of the interviews singly, nor in any cluster of interviews considered together by the reader, will one find specific answers about specific films. Anyone who searches Godard's words to find out about the antecedent of the word 'her' in _Two or Three Things I Know About Her_ (1966), or whether Roger and Richard Lennox are the same man or brothers in _Nouvelle Vague_ (1990), will be turned in another direction, toward the core of paradox and ambiguity at the center of Godard's work. Sterritt makes a point in his compact introduction to the interviews of the contradictions that define Godard and his films alike. The chronology at the beginning of the book situates the interviews in Godard's patchwork life of shifting national boundaries, French to Swiss; slippage from a comfortable bourgeois life into the existence of a confrontational revolutionary; and veering perceptional distances: onlooking film critic to engaged director. The contradictions in the ensuing interviews reflect the inconsistencies in Godard's biography. He presents both himself and his films as impervious to the absolutism of labels while at the same time he embraces words. He announces his epic intentions to change the world through film, while at the same time denominating himself as a modest employee of the cinema -- was ever the word 'modest' used more idiosyncratically! Any brief acquaintance with Godard's films reveals the degree to which they are based on the principle of contrasts and disjunctions; indeed, in the interviews Godard claims to live 'on the border'. Yet he consistently rejects received notions of polarities: there is, he says, no difference between the abstract and the concrete, movies and life, and intelligence and sensibility. These contradictory aspects of the man and the films are augmented by those of the variety of formats in the collection.

 

Some of the interviews are presented in dialogue form between a single interviewer and Godard. Some are presented in dialogue form among members of a panel including Godard. Some are presented in essay form in which Godard is an object of contemplation in a critical perspective that situates him in conjunction with the points of reference of the organizing mind behind the essay. In those exchanges that more directly represent Godard, his Emersonian aesthetic of self-contradiction emerges in all its ambiguity. The more filtered accounts tend to assimilate him into an unthreatening image for wider public acquaintance and dramatically illustrate the many mysterious and disquieting aspects of the process by which we culturally attempt to digest our artists.

 

The interviews that record Godard in his own voice present an opportunity for an experiential encounter with Godard's complex network of defenses against being defined. Whether as individual subject of an interview or as member of a panel, Godard incarnates his abstract definition of humanity as always 'between two places. It's the movement that's important not remaining in one place' (91). And remain in one place he will not do. By and large, in his own voice, Godard appears as a man attempting to outrun his last statement. Thus his ideal interlocutor is not necessarily the film critic, whose entire training leads him/her to reach for formulated truth, but may be an articulate compadre in the making of movies who lives, along with Godard, the mysteries of the oblique search for contingent truths. The contrasts among Godard's rapports, or failure of the same, with his interviewers speaks as eloquently as his concise formulations of his antagonism towards the more rigidifying use of language in the making of meaning. Arguably, the drama of Godard making meaning is most thrillingly available when his own performance of his sensibility illustrates his abstract statements. In that vein, his two most intriguing performances are his dialogues with Pauline Kael (1981) and Jean Pierre Beauviala (1985), both published in _Camera Obscura_. Parallel editing of the two of them could well be a Godard film in itself.

 

Kael is a target in his interchange with her. But the attraction of

Godard's hostile debate with Kael is not purely the fun of the intellectual violence, though that cruel pleasure cannot be totally denied. The more enduring attraction of their battle is its dramatization of the conflict between Martin Buber's two perceptual categories: I/Thou (human address to an other as a fellow subject), and I/it (human address to an other as an object). Vis-a-vis Kael, Godard performs his lifelong cinematic struggle to represent the act of engagement as a mutual dance of subjects, his militant 'I-Thou' stance, through his adversarial refusal of Kael's ingrained 'I-it' stance. The shape of Godard's sly attack on Kael draws her unwittingly into a philosophical improvisation in which he plays out an eloquent defense of his statement: 'The observer and the universe are part of the same universe' (192). To put it bluntly, Godard seems impelled to gaslight Kael, in the spirit of a wish to unhinge her bourgeois values and her public persona which smacks of years of immersion in the journalistic discourse of mediaspeak such as he disrupts in his films. From the very first word of the transcript of Godard's debate with Kael in 1981, Godard is 'in her face'. 'All right, you want me to begin?' he asks her (107), continuing to delay the beginning of the conversation with the kind of nitpicking that quite clearly leaves Kael desperately wondering whether his evasiveness is founded on some lack of regard for her work as a critic. Spending the beginning of the debate trying to sound out his position while at the same time attempting to ensure that he won't say anything that will embarrass her, she becomes his creation, a spectacle of false consciousness thrown by Godard into the maelstrom of words that slip, slide and will not stay in place, as his exhibit A of the untenability of the 'I-it' mode of perception. Tottering on the slippery ground of his many sudden reversals of position, she complains ineffectively that he is shifting ground, and then flings herself out the escape hatch of the completely bewildered: 'In that case it's a paradox and I guess we just accept it' (112). Godard makes his point obliquely on this occasion by turning Kael, despite her best efforts, into a study in the detrimental effect of constructed opinions misperceived as truth.

 

By contrast, the conversation between Godard and Jean-Pierre Beauviala, in the transcript of a discussion held in 1983 and originally published in _Cahiers du Cinema_, while suffused by contentions, is collegial in nature. It is an unpremeditated, living gloss on Godard's words about the nature of true consciousness: observer and universe avowedly a part of the same universe. In this interchange, Godard and Beauviala furiously relive their conflict about Godard's request that Beauviala manufacture a camera to his specifications. At times it is little more than a literate screaming match contesting the story of the very small 8mm camera Godard ordered, saying that he wanted Beauviala to design one so small that he could keep it in the glove compartment of his car and spontaneously use it to capture moments that would be gone before he could summon a conventional crew to the spot. Apparently, Godard had permitted Beauviala to spend a substantial amount on the test model, but never actually used the camera, nor was anyone else interested in it, and then Godard protested when Beauviala modified the design so that he could recoup his investment with a marketable product.

 

For all the heat, there is also light in this discussion, and none of the almost vicious contempt registered by Godard in his discussion with Kael. Both men are anchored in the materiality of the cameras they are discussing and in the materiality of the process of filmmaking in which the cameras are used. It is a passionate interchange, but of two rooted points of view, and, despite the utter disregard of the two men for the niceties of polite conversation, they wind up achieving some productive understanding, although it is impossible to say at what point in the conversation they began to move in a direction that had not been possible before they began to speak. Words appear to be simply one of the textures of conversation among the more important subtextual passions that find a way of being worked through as the words fly. As Janet Bergstrom notes in her introduction to the transcript, the Godard/Beauviala conversation is 'one of the most unusual exchanges on the relationship between aesthetics and technology' that has been made public (140). There is the sense that one is learning 'what the pitcher says to the catcher' during those mysterious huddles on the pitcher's mound (in American baseball), as one reads interchanges of the following nature:

 

JLG: Yes, but wait a minute. What I meant was shots for film. I don't say to my mechanic: I want a car that can go 100 meters . . .

 

JPB: You'll only find cars that go 50 million.

 

JLG: The mechanic says to me, 'you hadn't told me you wanted to go 100 meters several times over'. I say, 'That's my problem if I want to go 100 meters several times in a car that can only go 100 meters!'

 

JPB: No because when he build the car, he won't give you the same gas tank if you tell him, 'I want to go 100 meters' or if you tell him, 'I want to make a round trip to Paris'.

 

JLG: I want to get little shots like that. You say that if they're little shots, they're not films. Therefore you haven an idea of what films are.

 

JPB: Don't put words in my mouth. I never said little shots aren't films. (146)

 

Yet by the end of the discussion, when the dust has cleared, Beauviala has come to a new understanding of how he needs to modify the camera.

 

The relationship between words and materiality in this conversation is a striking instanciation of the relationship between them that Godard strives to show in his films. This interchange manifests for us something happening in a process before it can be named, displaying for us what Godard meant when he said to Gideon Bachman in an interview in 1983: 'I, as a modest employee of the cinema, have an interest to speak of things before words and names take over, to speak of the child before daddy and mummy give it a name' (129). Kael's determination to name, a la journalistic discourse, and Beauviala and Godard's mutual determination to simply throw words against each other without resorting to the rigidifying naming properties of words is why the enigmatic exchange between Godard and Beauviala has movement and direction, while the interchange between Godard and Kael is constipated. These conversations remind us anew of the crucial importance of _Camera Obscura_ and journals like it willing and able to let creative artists like Godard emerge with rough spots comparatively intact.

 

In contrast, cultural discourse smoothes Godard out to varying extents in the four interviews composed as essays, by Andrew Sarris, Penelope Gilliatt, Annette Insdorf, and David Sterritt, where, in order to reach the wider audiences of more generally circulated publications, critics must do less showing and more telling, guiding the reader who is used to more guidance. The effect of these essays, because of their proximity to each other and to the more dramatic transcripts, is to triangulate the distances on the ideological map among Godard, the learned journals, and the different varieties of mass media press. Sarris's 1970 interview for the _Village Voice_, a publication oriented toward the American political left, but nevertheless more inclusively circulated than _Camera Obscura_, was conducted in the thick of Godard's period of extreme political activity. In keeping with the stage of Godard's development, it is appropriately politicized. But it is more about the discomfort felt about Godard by the American left than about Godard as we have seen him in action. In his interview format, Sarris foregrounds his struggle with his distaste for Godard's affinity with the Palestinians, which Sarris rejects as anti-Semitism, while unwilling to reject Godard as a cinematic genius. Here, Godard is a character in Sarris's New York intellectual drama. Moving six years in the future, and into another universe, in Gilliatt's 1976 interview for _ The New Yorker_ Godard is dehistoricized, a stylish character with interesting opinions to entertain sophisticated readers: 'Jean-Luc Godard gave me a red plastic chair to sit on, facing him across a clean white Formica desk. I looked to the left at an agreeably dilapidated olive-green-corduroy armchair' (69). She elicits from him one of the most fascinating responses in the collection: 'Conversation between intimates: a leakage between two channels' (73). Yet it takes some against the grain reading to pick out this and other interesting statements; its framing in the interview demotes it to a clever line of dialogue, possibly during a ping-pong game.

 

Annette Insdorf and Sterritt, both academics as well as journalists, present us with the post-Dizga Vertov Godard -- for the _New York Times_ (1980) and _Christian Science Monitor_ (1994) respectively -- and also with their attempts to push the envelope of the mass media press. Each article domesticates the wayward director simply by including him as a fit subject for such mainstream publications, while at the same time both Insdorf and Sterritt attempt to widen the horizons of their readerships. Sterritt, for example, ends his interview with a provocative quotation from Godard that points the general reader toward thoughts that Hollywood discourages, about the role of sound in a film. Godard is overheard by the entertainment oriented moviegoer speaking about why he likes to create oppositions between image and sound: 'which is the exact opposite of what the Americans do. They want to surround you, to make a 'surrounding effect' so you are lost; I don't want people to be lost! I think they should find things about themselves' (178).

 

In sum, the collection of interviews identifies a number of Godards in time and perspective. But all those Godards, whether sitting on plastic chairs or fulminating about a 'simple' request for a usable camera, implore us to cast a cold eye toward 'the big garage', as Godard identifies Los Angeles, and by extension the Hollywood industry, against whom he has defined himself (25). Clearly never one to reject Hollywood's *movies* in toto, he emerges in the collection (unsurprisingly) on a trajectory toward increasing pessimism about the repressive implications of the methods of the Hollywood-influenced media, which he holds responsible for a downward spiral in the quality of available film. Interestingly, he has also become less shrill, suggesting a simultaneous mellowing of the man, and worsening of the situation to the point that screaming no longer seems a possible strategy for change. In a 1962 interview for _Sight and Sound_, Godard only implicitly distinguished himself from Hollywood production values, as he spoke about his distinctly un-Hollywoodish directorial choices that are not dictated by the narrative: 'You see a bouquet of flowers on a table, does it mean something? It doesn't prove anything about anything. I simply hoped it would give pleasure' (6). By 1968, the beginning of his connection with the politically radical Dziga Vertov group of filmmakers initiated by him in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, in a transcript of a panel discussion with Agnes Varda and Charles Lippincott, during a conference at the University of California, he is angry and explicitly critical of the American movie establishment. In answer to Lippincott's question about the Americanization of film, Godard blames Hollywood for ruining his friends: Polanski, Demy, Lang, and Renoir. Moreover, he acidly disavows his former film heroes -- Hitchcock, Wilder, and Hawks -- whom he says, 'no longer care what they do; they just make museum movies' (12). During another panel discussion on a subsequent day at the same conference, however, he complicates the picture, like the Godard we grow to know, by confessing some of the personal elements in his hostility when he describes Arthur Penn's _Bonnie and Clyde_ as a dead movie, having already mentioned that he was initially supposed to direct it, but was cut out of the project by producers who were afraid to work with him.

 

By 1996, the lack of care and timidity has become a lack of competence. In a critique of Steven Spielberg that is likely to warm the heart of many a cineaste, Godard calmly swats Hollywood as one would a mosquito: 'He's not capable. Hollywood isn't capable' (182). Godard is no longer indignant; it is with surprise and sorrow that he notes a backward slide in Hollywood from what competency it once had. Comparing what he calls the 'regular' Hollywood director (not auteur geniuses) of then and now, he notes the capacity of Wyler to make an honest film like _The Best Years of our Lives_ fifty years ago, and Spielberg's inability to do the same now: 'he's honest to himself, but he's not very intelligent . . . Cinema as a whole has greater potential than the Wyler picture, but he was 100 percent his potential. Today, that has disappeared' (182).

 

The appeal, both of what Godard says about making movies, and of observing how his thoughts are filtered in print, calls attention to the valid reasons for the current popularity of books that create public access to directors speaking about their work. Death-of-the-author theories have been, to paraphrase John Mills's line from _The Wrong Box_ (1966), a little too quick pulling up the sheet. If with one side of our heads we insist that films are spoken by culture, with another we intuit the special place of the artist in the creation and we want to know more about that place, as well as the perspective from that place on the state of movie making as a whole. Godard's commentaries, in particular, suspend objections to those desires, because he is so far from claiming for himself the directive control once customarily ascribed to the artist by the individualist theoretician, albeit rarely by the artist himself, prompting a critical backlash against the possibility of control in a world so dominated by cultural constructs. Godard is part of a counter-revolution in thinking that suggests that it is the artist after all who knows, but that that knowledge is about the process, a knowledge that tutors sensibility and paves the way for interpretation, which is between the viewer and the work. If we reflect on what even Hollywood directors have said, we will realize that even they never claimed anything else; most directors being at a loss to speak of much more than the technical process of making the movie.

 

Godard gives the old directorial perspective a meta-critical makeover. He will not talk as much about what his films mean as about how they mean. 'Art is not only a mirror. There is not only the reality and then the mirror-camera. I mean, I thought it was like that when I made _Breathless_, but later I discovered you can't separate the mirror from the reality. You can't distinguish them so clearly. I think the movie is not a thing which is taken by the camera; the movie is the reality of the movie moving from reality to the camera. It's between them' (29). He insists that the film is what happens between the observer and the material universe as subjects encountering each other, not perceiver and perceived in a dominance/submission mode of subject/object relationship. I have never spoken to a working director (as opposed to a student director) who didn't, on his own terms, think this, but neither have I spoken with one as articulate or eloquent on the subject, and with only one other, David Lynch, bold enough to act fearlessly on the implications of this experiential vision.

 

Godard's conception of the encounter of organic human perception with the organic materiality of the universe is a powerful statement about the complex relationship between cultural constructions in general and art as a special instance. The artist's special place that Godard speaks of in his interviews is the necessity that the filmmaker be as free as possible of the coercions of cultural constructs while attending to them precisely, to be between them and perception of them in the living flow of the materials by which expression takes place. Positing Hollywood as the extreme instance of forcing the movie to become a thing fabricated by a master, arguably a master spoken by cultural discourse, Godard envisions himself as being involved in the process of freeing himself and his work from such bondage -- death, as he might call it. Shall we take him seriously? There is ample evidence that we should. David Sterritt's assembly of the fragments of commentary in the collection create a space in history for Godard's rebuttal against those who would, seeing the power of the cultural construct, relegate the artist to little more than its factotum, thereby dismissing the human imagination as little more than a grandiose hallucination of the misguided individualist.

 

Mercy College, New York, USA

 

 

Bibliography

 

Chris Rodley, _Lynch on Lynch_ (London: Faber and Faber, 1997).

 

Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki, _Speaking about Godard_ (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

 

David Sterritt, _The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

 

Francois Truffaut, _Hitchcock_ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

Martha P. Nochimson, 'A Modest Employee of the Cinema vs The Big Garage', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 6, March 2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n6nochimson>.

 

  

 

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