Recognizing a Film Renegade A Museum Retrospective Promises to Spur a New Era in Jean-Luc Godard Appreciation

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IT says a lot about today's moviegoing habits that Jean-Luc Godard is no longer the familiar figure he once was - almost a household name in some circles - among American cinema buffs. His approach to film is apparently too mercurial and challenging for some viewers to handle comfortably.

Fortunately, he remains an artist of such stature and fascination that serious filmgoers are refusing to let his recent works go unheralded.

A major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) here, "Jean-Luc Godard: Son+Image, 1974-1991," has lined up more than 30 of his film and video productions from the last 18 years. Accompanied by an extraordinarily well-produced catalog of commentaries, analyses, and ruminations, it promises to inaugurate a healthy new era in Godard appreciation.

Mr. Godard's impact was felt first in 1959, when his modernist crime drama "Breathless" reshuffled storytelling conventions in ways that both celebrated and exploded Hollywood patterns that had dominated film narrative for decades.

Such outstanding pictures as "My Life to Live" and "The Married Woman" followed, propelling France's innovative New Wave movement and influencing cinema around the globe.

In the second half of the 1960s, however, Godard's preoccupations turned in radically new directions. These testified to the continuing vigor of his creativity and to his fierce insistence on marching to the drumbeat of his own ideas, however this might affect him as a "commercially viable" filmmaker.

"Two or Three Things I Know About Her," produced in 1966, was less a dramatic story about a Parisian prostitute than a radical analysis of commodity culture, aimed at deconstructing the languages of both economics and cinema. Subsequent pictures like "La Chinoise" and "Le Gai savoir" were even more extreme in their political explorations and sociocultural critiques.

Godard and his colleague Jean-Pierre Gorin then formed the Dziga-Vertov Group, named after a pioneer Soviet filmmaker and devoted to cinematics of the most abstract and cerebral sort. Godard's dwindling audience shrank even further.

It rebounded when he moved back to narrative in "Sauve qui peut (la vie)" in 1979, however, and he stayed in the international-film news with such controversial 1980s works as "First Name: Carmen," a reworking of the operatic "Carmen" story; "Hail Mary," a modern-day version of Jesus' nativity; and "King Lear," a Shakespearean spinoff with a cast ranging from Peter Sellars and Burgess Meredith to Molly Ringwald and Woody Allen.

What has remained constant during the continual rethinking and repositioning of Godard's career is his steady fascination with cinema as a close relation to writing and painting. He sees the value of moviemaking not in the high-tech entertainment possibilities that Hollywood exploits, but in the opportunities film offers for deeply personal expression through hands-on creative work. …