Godard for Beginners



I used to introduce Godard on my course on avant-garde cinema  (see file) as a radical critic of French society who used cinema to launch a critique and a cultural politics. He was unhappy about the commercialisation of France, the commodification of culture, the ways in which advertisements, TV and popular cinema were turning us all into objects or commodities. The theme was continued into specific anxieties about Americanisation and its effects on French culture. One of its best examples concerned the ways in which women became (sex) objects in terms of common media images of women or in terms of the way the sex industry employed them. The cinema was one of the main ways in which these trends could be spread – but, with any luck, radical cinema people could also use it to resist these trends and help counter them.

This sort of critical interest is shared with some of the British radicals, like Potter or Greenaway, but unlike them, Godard was much more interested in social theory to deepen his insights and to launch a properly grounded alternative practice. In Britain, artists are often separated from theory and have only their ‘feelings’ or their ‘artistic intuition’ to rely on – but not in France. (NB The surrealists had good solid theory too). Theory helps you to break radically with old ideas and ideologies – and the Brits never really did (Potter remained rather nostalgic for a past era, had very conventional views about women, and fell into a familiar role, as does Greenaway now and then, of middle-class auteur opposing technology and modernity).

Godard was a follower of a number of French intellectual fashions including Marxism, feminism and structuralism. We must be careful not to simply read his films as simple reflections of these concerns though – Godard was influenced by other films (there is so much hommage you can’t miss it) and by the new technology (lightweight kit and later video).

The best books are :
Monaco J The New Wave
MaCabe C & Mulvey L (eds) Godard: Sound, Images, Politics
 (and see other booklist)

EXTRA EXTRA EXTRA    I haven't looked at this for a long long time, but the big new stuff is of course Deleuze's work. There is a really good bit on the French avant-garde in his second book on cinema, including a discussion of Godard,  and a short essay on Six Fois Deux here. The other news (for me) is that lots of bits of Godard can be found on You Tube. There is also a full length copy of Pravda  and several other major works (under Jean-Luc Godard and Dziga Vertov) on the superb Ubuweb -- FREE!!

1. French marxism itself took a number of different routes, and different marxist themes appear in Godard films according to when they were made and what was fashionable at the time – so

·  A Bout de Souffle was made in 1960 when marxism was being merged with philososphical and Christian concerns for the individual and her/his fate when faced with the increasing commercialism and Americanisation of French culture. One key term here is the notion of alienation, found in the writings of the young Marx (recently translated) – being powerless, expressed in the feeling of not belonging to society, of fearing the power of the system to dehumanise people) The film features two people struggling to maintain their individuality who have to make difficult existential choices – Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character chooses a life of crime and murder almost by accident, while Jean Seburg’s character decides to inform on her gangster boyfriend almost as a statement (and after a long discussion of the meaning of individuality, choice and existence etc) Pierrot Le Fou (1964) is along similar lines as we follow a couple on a journey away from convention towards self-discovery.
· Official marxism underwent a crisis after the events of 1968 (which seemed revolutionary but also happened outside of any official guidance or theory offered by the French Communist Party). One reaction, associated with the name of Althusser, was to reform official marxism as an anti-individual, anti-humanist ‘scientific’ doctrine, nothing to do with the juvenile concerns with alienation, but centring far more on ideology and its apparatuses (including the cinema) (see file)  The film Pravda is a good example, shot in Czechoslovakia after their soft revolution of 1968, and generally mocking the nature of the new Czechoslovakia that emerged (briefly , before the Russian Army ended it all). This is quite the opposite perspective from the usual one in the West, which hailed the gallant little Czechs throwing off the iron rule of communism etc. The new human face of socialism looked rather like American colonisation to Godard. Maoism seemed a much purer route to Godard and to many other French marxist intellectuals at the time – hence all the jolly Chinese singing at the end of the film. The strange commentary in Pravda also tells us all about the new marxist methodology for the new marxist science (but you’d have to be a real fan of marxism to pick that up --it's the methodological Introduction from Marx's Grundrisse, which was also newly-translated then). Pravda also marks the high point of Godard’s marxist commitments – he became disillusioned, as they all did in the 1970s and 1980s, partly because of the serious intellectual challenges to marxism offered by various ‘posts’, including postmodernism. He later described Pravda as 'a marxist-leninist garbage movie', says Monaco.

· Godard flirts briefly with the sort of cultural politics demonstrated in the events of 68, most notably with his fantasies about urban guerrillas occupying parts of France in Weekend. This may be a sign of approval for the work of Regis Debray, a writer who fought with Castro in Cuba and proclaimed that new third world marxism would embrace ‘people’s struggle’ (Vietnam seemed another example). The fashionably-dressed guerrillas shoot people and kidnap straights (while living off their picnic baskets), they embrace a kind of general politics (including third-world politics), they play drums (badly), practise cannibalism, and sexually assault a captured woman with a fish – but mostly they try to expose the hypocrisy, consumerism, callousness and ruthlessness of the bourgeois couple who star in the film.


2.  French structuralism seemed to offer intellectual answers to a classic intellectuals’ problem – how can we take ‘bourgeois’ forms like cinema, which are steeped in ideology, and use them to put over politically radical message? Media students will know the dangers of ignoring this problem – using conventional cinema to tell radical stories will run the risk of the viewers not even noticing the radical bits but reading the film quite conventionally as a left-wing soap opera or whatever (see MacCabe on the dangers of ‘progressive realism’). A critical cinema should have its own critical style, for Godard and others. He experimented a good deal with style as a result, intending to convey radical messages to the viewers in unmistakably radical ways – to wake them from their passivity, to get them active and thinking about politics, to make them work out for themselves what is going on rather than relying on the cinema to tell them.

· A Bout de Souffle developed a fresh style that had all the critics raving. The lightweight camera (sometimes held in a wheelchair) roved around the sets and the characters in a new free way, giving nice swirly takes years before anyone invented steadicam. Towards the end of the film, for example, the camera describes two fluent backward circles as the characters pace around the hideout flat deciding what to do. It was shot outside, it was clearly low-budget, and it had jump-cuts, which were revolutionary. They were designed both to remind you that you were watching a film (whereas conventional ‘realist’ cutting tried to do the opposite), and they are used in a rather clever way to indicate time has passed – the characters argue on the way to the airport in the car but the jump cuts compress the (familiar) argument, or Jean Seberg is being chatted up in a restaurant, and the chat is jump-cut (because it is so conventional –we’ve heard and seen it all already). The sound flows across the jumpy images though.

·  Pravda, a propagandist piece in many ways, is also radical in style. It is an anti-documentary, taking all the conventions of documentary which convince the viewer they are seeing the truth – and breaking them. We have a clash between sound and image, for example (a favourite technique) rather than a seamless editing, and the off-screen commentators make mistakes in reading their scripts and go back to try again! Much of the script is readings from marxist or Maoist texts, and it is delivered in a flat tone, quite unlike the usual ways in which voice-overs create interest (and sincerity). Unless you are a marxist, there is much which will puzzle you – who the hell is Stakhanov, for example, and why is he teamed with Taylor on the commentary as we gaze at two fat Czech manual labourers? (If you must know, Stakhanov was an industrial reformer and productivity expert, rather like the American time-and-motion enthusiast ‘Speedy’ Taylor, and Lenin used both of them to try and raise productivity in the new Soviet Union – he should have inaugurated a completely new era of work instead of trying to exploit workers as efficiently as they do in the USA). People are interviewed and answer, naturally enough, in Czech – but instead of the familiar translation appearing as a subtitle, we are told we had better learn Czech fast (and then not to bother because a Czech worker sounds just like an American worker anyway). There is also the famous long shot of the bloke on the lathe (in the Skoda factory I think) –the camera just stays put for minutes, until the audience knows what it is like to work on that machine in the noise for an 8-hour shift (the same kind of literal realism is found in the long takes in Weekend). Far from leaving the audience thinking that they now understand all there is to understand about the events in Czechoslovakia, Pravda does the opposite – you leave feeling puzzled or even annoyed (and you are supposed to go off to the Library to look up Stakhanov, or to engage in debate with the local communist party).

·  Tout va Bien is usually seen as a Brechtian piece, using the same sort of techniques to wake up the audience and refuse the chance to doze off and enjoy the film in that passive state. The film opens with lots of cheques being signed and a cynical commentary about the need to get big stars. Then we visit a very stagey factory which has just been occupied, and we hear the different views of the boss and the worker militants. Amidst all this, we hear Montand and Fonda discussing the events of 68, the duties of the media in covering radical events, and sexuality. This gives the film perhaps its major impact on the current audience – Jane Fonda holding a picture of an erect penis while she discusses sexuality. We also see her earlier demonstrating the conventions of radio as she repeatedly tries for a successful take. The piece ends with an obvious criticism of commercialism, shot in a supermarket as people shop peaceably until urban guerillas raid the joint and start handing out food for free. The camera shoots the ensuing riot in an amazing long take, travelling behind the tills in a straight line, and then rising oddly.

· Weekend (1967) is much less organised as a ‘teaching piece’, offering a strange sequence of events based loosely around a couple’s car journey through contemporary France. The piece begins with a strange fantasy narrated by a young lightly-clad woman sitting on a desk. The camera wanders a little as she talks so she is not always in a conventional frame. The weird background music rises to blot out the speech at times, and there are brief titles flashed on to the screen, which may have something to do with psychoanalysis. We are not sure if this is her fantasy or someone else’s (one student said it was Bataille’s) which she is relating to her psychoanalyst, or to her lover. The scene just finishes and we look through a window to see a (very stylish) fight between neighbours. We see a marvellously French traffic jam in the famous 7-minute (is it?) ‘realist’ panning shot as the camera moves along a track parallel to the road on which the vehicles are jammed, and when we do get to the front and see the dead, we are just pleased it is over (so we’re as cynical as they are). The journey takes in various cameos, including a young woman attacking a tractor driver while a grinning loony looks on – maybe he symbolises the audience for a Godard film. Odd characters appear from literature and debate the reality of truth and fiction, and there are references to Bunuel films. Surly dustmen from different countries of origin discuss oppression – they speak for each other though. (This might be to distance the viewer from the usual stereotypes and make them listen to the words as an ‘objective’ account, instead of as a typical black person whingeing or whatever). In all this there is a musical interlude in a farmyard and a famous double 360 pan (actually an oval one) to show all the other odds and sods that you would normally not see in a conventionally framed shot. The designer-guerillas end the film with their strange culinary habits.

· There are apparently weirder and more ‘experimental’ pieces too, although I have never seen them. Le Gai Savoir  apparently takes up Barthes’s idea that we must do a ‘new semiology’ by deliberately smashing signs together, breaking them and letting them clash randomly (‘semioclasm’): according to Monaco, the film is based on a TV interview with intellectuals who take it in turn to be characters and narrators, film-makers and audience – I must get to see it. Made in the USA also looks challenging (see below). Another must for me, following Tarantino’s hommage (in Pulp Fiction), is Bande A Parte (1964). Monaco says it is a gangster, showing some nostalgia for the genre, not too ‘political’, although with much commentary about the differences and similarities between film and real life, and much blurring of the two as characters act out their lives in a cinematic way

· It is also fair to say there are much more conventional Godard pieces too, usually the later ones made in the 1980s. So, briefly,  Passion is about the actual work of a photographer? film-maker? who recreates tableaux that look like classic paintings (so there is some sort of comment on representation, I suppose). It has a few experimental bits (one jump cut at least as I recall, and some addresses to camera by striking workers I recall  – I’m a bit hazy). Hail Mary still upsets Catholics since it is about the story of the nativity played in modern dress with a reluctant Joseph who refuses to believe Mary’s story about the father of her child (until the Angel Gabriel beats him up). Mary is shot rather revealingly at times too via the usual 'lascivious pan'. The film is really rather beautifully and conventionally shot, apart from these little playful and blasphemous bits. I also like and admire Detective, a curious but mostly conventional piece about detectives who are trying to solve a crime. They do surveillance with a security video (so offering more commentary on image and reality) and are just about to find out who dunnit – when the film changes tack entirely and goes off and follows some other bloke who happens to walk in frame. Then it ends. Finally, I used to show bits of Godard’s TV series (with Matthieu) called France: Tour deTour, especially the marvellous one where he asks all sorts of philosophical questions, off camera,  to French kids – about illusion, image, reality and so on – and they answer him, very sensibly!! (This shocks British trainee teachers who think young kids are into whimsy, talking frogs and Big Friendly Giants). Finally finally…Godard made a documentary on the cinema which involved him being interviewed by some worthy from the BFI, and the piece demonstrates all the Godard tricks – wandering camera, obscured sound, unframed visuals and so on, as a kind of anti-South Bank Show, or as a much nicer Pravda for film buffs. The commentary, I recall, was all about the neglected heroes of early cinema and why they had been neglected –and you realised, as usual with Godard, that (a) you didn’t know half as much about the cinema as you thought you did, because (b) you had read only the usual textbooks which had, of course, omitted many people in the guise of offering you some sort of historical narrative.

3. French feminism also influenced the great man, for a number of reasons. It had become central to cultural politics (as in Britain), and it had some marvellous heavyweight theorists developing out of Lacan’s work on the gendered nature of culture at a very early stage. One implication which was especially happy was that theorists like Kristeva believed that we had to retreat to the forms of expression of very early infancy, before the mirror phase, to find ungendered culture, unaffected by the male-dominated systems of language or representation. French feminists and the avant-garde experimentalists seemed drawn to each other. Even the early pieces showed an acute awareness of the ways in which conventional cinema depicted women as sex objects, however.

Godard set out to show the limits of these shallow representations in a number of ways:
· He does not frame women in the conventional way (see above). Women in his films are often explicitly compared to the images of women in the mass media.

· He does not tell conventional stories about women – he experiments with letting them tell their own stories, via diaries, say, or via episodes from their lives. Vivre sa Vie), shows a (rather adorable) French woman applying for a number of jobs and getting rejected, before embarking on life as a prostitute (a common tale in Godard movies).She drifts into crime with her boyfriend/pimp and ends up getting casually shot in the street. The film features definite episodes in the woman’s life, introduced with little summaries and a hushed ‘factual’ commentary. The camera is also very mobile and it swings around people as they talk, or even goes behind them (a look borrowed by Tarantino in the opening of Reservoir Dogs).

· A later effort Deux ou Trois Choses… (1964—5)operates with a similarly unconventional narrative. Slices of life or episodes are introduced, prefaced with a quote from a famous Sociology text (18 Lectures on Industrial Society) by a famous French professor (R Aron). There is the same hushed, almost whispered commentary. The very title suggests that we will never get the whole story about this woman – only ‘two or three things’ about her. The women in the film discuss sex and politics, including cultural politics as they address the camera directly and deliver little speeches about what it is like to be a woman. The backdrop is the city of Paris (also a woman, of course) which is being redeveloped and modernised (mostly by having roads built all over it). We are obviously supposed to think of any connections between the urbanisation of  Paris and the fate of this woman – but it is up to us to do the work. I especially liked the bit where the woman dumps her kid in the nursery section of a brothel (!) , and an old chap tries to read the kid a story as it howls throughout. Monaco says that Godard made a companion piece to this film at the same time – Made in the USA (which I haven’t seen) — which is also about the images of women, focusing on the face of Mme Godard, complaining about Americanism and French politics. However, it looks as if the piece is very experimental indeed, involving a complete rejection of narrative and a deliberate attempt to deconstruct or ‘break’ signs ( as in ‘semioclasm’ --see above). The result, even for Monaco, is that the film is ‘all but unintelligible’.

· More generally, Godard makes many points about the cultural oppression of women in his other films, some of which we have mentioned. Thus in Weekend, ‘Corinne’ is assailed by ‘Josef Balsamo’ on her journey, who asks her what is her name. She gives her married name and he points out that this is her husband’s name. She replies with her maiden name to be scornfully reminded that this is her father’s name: so women do not even have names until men give them to them. ‘Balsamo’ (who is apparently a character in an A. Dumas novel) uses the term ‘hailing’, as I recall, which is a direct reference to Althusser’ s  famous work on ideology. He also jeers at them with odd French insults – ‘You are the sort of people who would not even touch the body of Andre Breton’ (very Monty Python I thought). The fantasy scene in that film can also be seen as echoing Foucault’s point that psychoanalysis is a form of power which men enjoy over women - they have to divulge their innermost secrets and sexual yearnings to an apparently unaroused ‘scientific’ observing man. Of course, the work on the  ‘male gaze’ picks up this power/sex relation too.

4. Criticisms of Godard are typical of criticisms of the avant-garde more generally. Whatever his intentions, and no matter how well they are based in theory, films are always ambiguous and must be. In his work, the audience is likely to find his work:
· Obscure and irrelevant (especially in Britain) where we don’t like theory and we don’t know much about film or literature, and we can’t remember the 60s (some of us can). The films do offer a challenge with an almost ‘private language’ at times (always the trouble with experimental work), so even real fans like Monaco struggle. Those who hold to the ‘popular aesthetic’ (in Bourdieu’s work) will find Godard’s films annoyingly incomprehensible – unfortunately, many of them may be the people he wants ultimately to reach. Of course, our British humanism gets in the way here – French marxists often had no illusions about the working class, and believed it was pointless to involve them directly in politics. The Party would tell them what to believe, in nice simple terms and slogans, while the intellectuals got on with the analysis.

· Elitist and preachy – always telling us we should read Marx or Barthes, or spend our lives in the library, always challenging us to think, and always demanding we discuss our politics and treat women better. In some quarters these days, no doubt, the mode of address would be seen as ‘bullying’ or ‘harassing’.
· Sexy and titillating. Mulvey worries about this too. Women in Godard’s films are treated pretty well, compare to mainstream stuff, but they are still used to depict qualities like ‘nature’ or ‘sexuality’, and they are often quite fetching Frenchwomen who seem to take their clothes off a lot while the camera travels lovingly over their taut little….

· Preaching to the converted. The French Communist Party cadres quite liked Pravda, no doubt – they spotted the marxist theory (and it is better than reading Althusser – just). Intellectuals like Godard as they spot all the references and feel superior, and French intellectuals would all feel at home with Marx or Foucault. This is the final irony really – the very people who are the enemy, the educated bourgeoisie, are the real fans. They feel deliciously guilty about the images of women, they are the ones who like experimentation and detachment in their art (just as Bourdieu says). They can handle films which are puzzling. They can even laugh at them (there is an excellent Monty Python parody of Godard, where stage Frenchmen in stripy jerseys and berets wander across rubbish dumps and occasionally explode, while two earnest critics in the foreground discuss the meaning of meaning). These people are good at doing cultural politics – but you need the masses on your side (or at least a vanguard of them) to do real politics, and they are put off by all this arty-farty stuff.