He barely makes it onto the screen. While most of the frame is taken up with an office setting--a desk, a lamp, some chairs and shelves--the world famous filmmaker intrudes only so far as the screen's left edge, and provisionally at that. A hand darts in and out of view, flicking a cigarette toward the ashtray on the desk. On the soundtrack, you hear the familiar baritone, pebbly in texture, speaking in monotone bursts. The year is 1976; the place is Grenoble. Jean-Luc Godard is sneaking into view. During his New Wave period, Godard had preferred to let the likes of Jean-Paul Belmondo stand in for him on screen. During the Maoist period of the Dziga Vertov Group (roughly 1968-72), he'd allowed himself to address the audience more directly; but still he hadn't shown himself. At most he'd spoken through a persona, as someone who assumed the authority to lecture other people.
Then came the return to order in France and the demise of the Vertov group (really just Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin). The revolution went splat; so did Godard, in a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him.
Fortunately, he found a new collaborator (and sometime lover) to help with his recoveries, physical, political and spiritual alike--Anne-Marie Mieville. After a couple years of her influence, a new figure became visible in his work. Gone was the Godard who'd imagined himself as Belmondo imagining himself as Bogart. Gone was the Godard who'd hid behind a badge, as chief image-inspector of the revolutionary thought-police. In their place stood a small, middle-aged man, perpetually blue-chinned and rumpled, who answered to the name Jean-Luc. He wasn't necessarily a nice man--at times, he showed himself to be overbearing, lecherous, even sadistic--but he was out in the open as never before, searching, questioning, revising. This is the Jean-Luc Godard who keeps disturbing the edge of the frame in the first part of Six fois deux, his 1976 collaboration with Mieville for French television. It's the Godard to whom the Museum of Modern Art has dedicated an invaluable retrospective, "Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image," on view through November 30.
The MoMA series performs the great service of integrating Godard's post-1972 films with his videos from the same period. In some cases, that allows for indirect comparison. You can see the film Hail Mary (1985), then watch Godard play with some of the same images and themes in an elliptical, non-narrative fashion in the videotape Puissance de la parole (1988). But there are direct matchups as well. For example, the 1982 film Passion comes accompanied by a videotape from the same year, Scenario du film Passion, which is a bit more intellectually engaging than the movie (because it's coherent) and also more entertaining (but I repeat myself).
Sitting at an editing table before a blank screen, Godard calls up images from Passion, all the while talking about the choices involved in making the film and about everything else as well: the genesis of writing, the history of film, the relationship between love and labor, the falsity of TV newscasts. What ties this material together, apart from Godard himself?. A desire to see; a conviction that seeing might yet be possible; an impatience with everything that dissuades us from seeing.
"I didn't want to write a script," Godard says of Passion, "but to see it." Cinema, he insists, came from an encounter with life--as when Mack Sennett took his crew into streets and parks and shot whatever passed before his eyes. Writing, on the other hand, came from merchants' lists: "Bookkeeping gave rise to the script." What would happen if film were to recover the primacy of the visible? Godard shows us a detail of hands from a painting by Tintoretto; he shows us documentary footage of a factory worker's hands. The motions are similar. "So there's proof," he concludes. "Tintoretto's gesture of love is linked with the laborer's gesture. It's …