Godard Taught Me How to Watch Cinema, Even as He Kept Reinventing It

I wasn’t prepared for Jean-Luc Godard; I doubt anyone ever did. And now that he’s gone, it seems impossible to express the tremendous impact of his influence on cinema, an art he transformed more than most. His influence was profound, so much so that even after his work fell from favor and was knee-jerkly dismissed by the lazy, and even as he himself faded (he died by assisted suicide on Tuesday at the age of 91), traces of this annoying giant , the cool guy with the dark sunglasses and the cigar stayed. He was a phantom of cinema long before he died, and he will haunt us.

When we speak of adored artists, we often think of the first encounter with their work, a tendency reminiscent of first love. I was in college when I saw my first Godard film, Each For Himself (1980), which was widely viewed as a return to form. I can’t remember now what I thought of it back then. I only remember the sensations it evoked as I staggered out of Bleecker Street Cinema and headed home groggy in the fog. I thought I understood movies, but I didn’t understand this one. What I also didn’t understand was that I had just seen a different way of making – and seeing – films.

Hollywood made it easy for us to make films early on. It taught us to understand its sense of time and space, and it turned images and sounds into stories. It invited us in with a smile and instructed us to enjoy the show and then come back the next week to see more of it. Godard didn’t make it easy for himself, or not always. He insisted that we come to him, that we navigate the densities of his thought, decipher his epigrams, and learn a new language: his. If we couldn’t or didn’t want to, that’s a pity – for us. We were the ones who weren’t impoverished See that cinema can be more than laughter and tears, dollars and awards.

The fact that films can be more than money machines, anything but corporate brands, sounds strange in the age of Marvel – terribly old-fashioned, naive. It’s striking and instructive that now, when a new film comes out that really gets people excited, there can be some chatter about how it’s being portrayed and whether it conforms to established notions of correct politics and entertainment. The biggest focus, however, will invariably be on the box office potential and the Oscar chances that come with it. Turning movies into commodities is the other way Hollywood has made it easy for us.

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It could be so much more, as Godard has shown decade after decade. Cinema is art – or it can be – and it is political, as he also pointed out. That was clear from the beginning of his film life, first as a critic and then as an artist. But there was so much joy and youthful romance in the earlier works that it was easier to bask in their joys than grapple with their complexities. The reason I fell in love with his 1966 film Masculin Féminin when I first saw it was not because he described his characters as “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” — I fell in love because I was young too and it was beautiful and broke my heart.

Over time, I learned how to take care of Godard, although I believe he actually taught me how to take care. Early contact with avant-garde cinema helped me because I already knew that films don’t necessarily have to be obvious when I first started studying Godard’s work. Sometimes you had to puzzle them out; sometimes you have to get lost. There is immense pleasure in getting lost in movies, being overwhelmed by the sometimes exhilarating, bewildering unknown, letting the sights and sounds soak into your body while your mind tries to comprehend what is happening.

And since his first feature film Breathless (1960), Godard has invited us to open our minds and hearts as he pushes cinema beyond its industrial parameters, stretching narrative, exploring realism and navigating the space between classicism and modernity. He threw copious amounts of text into his work, added babble of voices, stopped and started the flow, flooded the soundtrack with music, flooded the screen with color. As he pushed and pulled, he would challenge and occasionally attack viewers. Trying to explain his latest offering—let alone writing a concise synopsis of it—became more difficult, one reason I think many critics expressed hostility toward him.

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He certainly returned the hostility in both interviews and his films. As time went on, he made boring, annoying, aggressive anti-pleasure polemics, and his language became more closed off, private, and cryptic. He became a gnostic voice of cinema and a pariah, at least in mainstream circles. He has repeatedly insulted the United States, repeatedly raised the Holocaust, and repeatedly criticized Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, sometimes to the point of uneasiness and, for some observers, to the point of outright anti-Semitism. I think that he often, sometimes awkwardly and awkwardly, grappled with history, memory and civilization.

One of the things I find most moving about Godard is that even as films changed, he did the same. He worked in television before it was acceptable to serious filmmakers, and as films went digital he also discovered new and shocking beauty with it. He smeared colors and made them pop, toying with his new media toolkit with the dizzying inventiveness of someone just discovering their own brilliance. In his 2014 film Goodbye to Language, he dabbled in 3D and showed me images I had never seen before and haven’t seen since. Seeing it in Cannes, where the audience cheered and almost fell out of their seats, remains one of the great experiences of my cinematic life.

Godard was shamefully marginalized, relegated to festivals and negligible theatrical releases. And unlike his longtime compatriot Agnès Varda, who became increasingly celebrated as she got older, he withdrew from the public eye. Their relationship features in Varda’s 2017 essay film Faces Places, a walk through history and memory she did with artist JR. At the end of the film, Varda and JR show up at Godard’s house in Rolle in Switzerland. It’s been years since she’s seen him, but Godard refuses to come to the door or even acknowledge her presence, causing her to cry.

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I always thought the real reason Godard didn’t welcome Varda was because he didn’t like or respect JR. JR has helped Varda tremendously, but his work is not on the same level as hers or Godard’s. Still, the old man could have come out to say hello to his friend. He could have whispered a simple one Bon jour through the door in its distinctive gravel. But Godard clearly wasn’t interested, and unlike Varda, who charmed admirers who too often thought of her as a sweet old lady, he didn’t play the game.

He didn’t have to. Varda was a woman in a man’s world, and she was learning how to operate the room, a habit – and burden – that for Godard, the one-time enfant terrible, the cinema’s former bad-boy genius, faded into a caricature of , needless to say, was itself almost Lear-like: “A poor, infirm, feeble, and despised old man.” Godard toyed with this image of the gruff, cranky, cigar-chomping guru of cinema’s past, when in reality he was a prophet of his unrealized future remained. Despite his reputation and all the scandals, the cynical aperçus and the biting pessimism, he was an amazing optimist.

A few years ago a friend sent me some google map coordinates and excitedly told me that if you clicked on it you could see Godard walking down some streets of Rolle with Anne-Marie Miéville, his third wife and frequent collaborator. I excitedly clicked the link and there he was, caught mid-step, his face blurred but clear and recognizable in the bright, sun-drenched images. He was dressed in dark clothing and was carrying a light-colored plastic bag. At one point they appear next to a red car and I’ve flashed all the cars and colors in his films. It was so ordinary and yet so extraordinary. I like to think that he and Miéville just went shopping. I hoped they were happy. In a way I had found Godard, but my search will never end.

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