Godard forever: a jean-luc godard retrospective Season One, October 26-December 6, Cinematheque Ontario (Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas West). 416-968-FILM. For schedule, see Rep Cinemas, page 132. Rating: NNNN
i suspect that if cinematheque Ontario programmer James Quandt had his way, the Godard Forever title would come true -- literally -- at the Cinematheque. I don't say this with any disapproval at all. I'd not for a second argue with Quandt's assertion that Godard is the most important living filmmaker. Thirty-odd years after his 60s films were made, some of them are still ahead of their time.
Which brings me to the one real drawback of a series like Godard Forever.
The Cinematheque functions as a kind of cinema museum, and showing Godard's work whole -- which seems to be the plan here, with Season One covering everything from his short films of the 50s (tonight, Thursday, October 25, 8:45 pm) to 1967's apocalyptic Weekend (November 11, 1 pm) -- means that we see Godard in the context of Godard. This can lead to some confusion, simply because no other filmmaker is so context-dependent.
He may have been making masterpieces in the 60s, though Godard himself would probably reject not only the term but the concept, but he was also working with such speed --15 features in the nine years from Breathless (Friday, October 26, 6:30 pm; Saturday, October 27, 8:45 pm) to Weekend, and seven shorts in the same period -- that he's using the cinema as a notepad. He started shooting on Pierrot Le Fou (November 6, 6:30 pm) just five months after he began filming Alphaville (November 5, 6:30 pm).
Come to Godard expecting masterpieces in the style of David Lean or Bernardo Bertolucci and you're in for disappointment. What you're getting instead is the furious thought process of someone trying to make films while simultaneously undoing the whole concept of what film should be.
Godard was a critic in the 50s, and he was engaged with Andre Bazin and Jacques Rivette and others in an extended argument about the essential nature of the cinema.
In his 1975 book on the French New Wave, James Monaco made the interesting observation that Truffaut's films had such obvious charm and passion that they obscured his intellectual rigour, while Godard has exactly the opposite problem -- his intellectual rigour is so apparent that it hides his charm and passion.
Isolating Godard means that we don't get to see what he was arguing about.
With the exception of certain films that fit a masterpiece mould, like Her Life To Live (Tuesday, October 30, 6:30 pm), Godard's films are an expression of romantic obsession, a flood of strange digressions and an argument about the relationship between image and reality.
Les Carabiniers (Wednesday, October 31, 8:45 pm) is a black comedy about war, but also the first film about semiotics. Pierrot Le Fou is the study of a collapsing marriage -- Godard's own marriage was falling apart at the time -- but it's also about the way light looks in the south of France. But this doesn't mean that one film is more "personal" than the other.
Godard's films are full of weird jokes, like the disjointed soundtrack of A Woman Is A Woman (Sunday, October 28, 1 pm), and the strange subtitles in half a dozen films. He describes Weekend as "a film adrift in the cosmos." La Chinoise (November 10, 6:30 pm) is "a film in the process of making itself." There are the strange comic scenes in the English class in Band Of Outsiders (November 2, 6:30 pm).
Godard's jokes -- his sense of humour is extremely French, and, yes, he liked Jerry Lewis -- are a reminder of Freud's observation that we are never more serious than when we are joking.
Godard never for a second tries to smooth out his own contradictions; he's a serious, almost frighteningly intellectual artist who is perfectly capable of saying, as he did at Cannes this year, that given the choice between seeing a new movie from Kazakhstan and a new movie starring Bruce Willis, he'd choose the Willis, and he doesn't know why.
Those are the contradictions being detonated throughout Godard's 60s films. His later films, which will be coming in the second and third seasons of this ongoing retrospective, tend to have different concerns, as Godard more or less rejected the commercial cinema almost entirely as an area of interest. I do hope, though, that they plan to show the surreal King Lear he made in 1987, starring Norman Mailer and Molly Ringwald.
This series is essential because of the current film distribution situation. Much of Godard's output, even from the period of his best-known and most popular work, is simply unavailable in any reasonable video transfer, unless you're willing to go out and buy a multi-region VCR or DVD player and then start importing from Europe (and the French vids of Godard do not come with subtitles).
With certain films in this series, this is the only opportunity to see a good print.
the best of godard
Whenever people say, "X is pretty good for a first film," I want to direct them to Godard's feature debut, a key work in the birth of the French New Wave and in the development of post-1960s cinema: the urban setting, the petty crime, the doomed romanticism still in evidence 30 years later when Tarantino wrote True Romance. Belmondo staring at the poster of Humphrey Bogart. Jean Seberg selling the Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysées. All anyone could talk about at the time was Godard's use of jump cuts, yet it was a formal innovation he never used again. (Friday, October 26, 6:30 pm; Saturday, October 27, 8:45 pm)
BAND of outsiders (1963)
Two guys, a girl, a gun and a little dance sequence in a nightclub that was cited by Pulp Fiction and lifted almost directly into Simple Men by Hal Hartley, who also copped the final shootout for The Amateur. It may lack the semiotic oomph of Les Carabiniers and the formal rigour of Her Life To Live, but it does have charm. (November 2, 6:30 pm; November 3, 8:45 pm; November 4, 3 pm)
PIERROT LE FOU (1965)
The last gasp of Godard's intense romanticism and the end of his marriage to star Anna Karina, whose character flees gangsters to the south of France with Jean-Paul Belmondo, who flees his marriage only to find an obsession in the guise of this maddening girl. Pierrot Le Fou also functions as a deconstructive look at the "doomed couple on the run" genre and allows cinematographer Raoul Coutard to define forever the way light looks on the Mediterranean. The voice-over is Godard himself. (November 6, 6:30 pm.)
LA CHINOISE (1967)
Godard's take on leftist youth culture during the Cultural Revolution, when a group of radical students get together to form a revolutionary cell, complete with humourless self-criticism. Godard is far too smart to take fashionable Maoism at face value, and his characters persistently undercut their aims through their actions. Startling in the way Godard uses the visual style of Chinese revolutionary poster art to underline his themes, and one of the few films about youthful 60s radicals that doesn't romanticize them. (November 10, 6:30 pm)