"The Ultimate Doomed Victims of the Romantic Dream": Jean-Luc Godard/Peter Whitehead

Article excerpt

"And what about you? What are you looking for?"

René Daumal, Mont Analogue (1939)

An exploration of the relationship between the work of Peter Whitehead and Jean- Luc Godard allows us to open a new chapter in the history of comparative arts. Godard's artistic initiatives have never ceased to inspire filmmakers, visual artists, and musicians. But what other artist has founded a publishing house in order to transcribe and publish Godard's cinematic work, as Peter Whitehead did in 1966 with Lorrimer Books? What other artist has had the courage to declare, through the intermediary of one of his fictional characters, that he is in love with him? ("As is all beauty. Even your own. Poor Godard. I'm sure if I met him I'd fall in love with him!")1 In Peter Whitehead's case, his admiration for Godard's films does not come down only to being happily inspired by Godard's categorical freedom, or even to generating a profound reflection on the forms and power of the images; they are a motif throughout his own work, an obsession, a foundational myth. In Peter Whitehead's pantheon we find Gaïa, Isis, Horus, Hathor, Freud, the CIA- and Jean- Luc Godard.

The Fable as Fact

In the following interview, Peter Whitehead talks about and analyzes the details of his meetings with the creator of Les Carabiniers, his awareness of the ways in which such work has influenced his own, and the development of these relationships. In his novels, Whitehead credits Godard with his shiftfrom documentaries to fiction. In the novel Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, a character writes to the protagonist- an alter ego of Whitehead- explaining that "seeing Pierrot le Fou made me realize you must write fictional stories. Give up all this documentary stuff. Like Godard, just write, anything, make it crazy and wild and unexpected, but not real. Surreal. About consciousness, not perception."2 Whitehead's admiration and emulation, however obvious and thematic, derives not from a direct borrowing but from shared influences and passions between the two filmmakers, starting with the work of Ingmar Bergman, whom Godard wrote about in a memorable article ("Bergmanorama," Cahiers du Cinéma 83) and to which Whitehead has made numerous references in his novels. Lorrimer Books also published the shooting script of Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) in 1970. Structuralism, situational thought, the nouveau roman, Marxism- Leninism, Jacques Lacan, fundamental anarchism, a passionate return to our classical and modern heritage (Mozart, Goya, Joyce, and so on)- the cultural foundations of the Eu ro pe an intellectual landscape pervade the speculative choices of both Godard and Whitehead. Sometimes Whitehead's propositions anticipate Godard's initiatives: for instance, the play of the subtitles in the 1963 short Jeanette Cochrane, a film that anticipates Godard's work on Une femme mariée in 1964. The issue here is not to identify the trailblazer but rather to demonstrate how active, creative, and fertilizing Whitehead's understanding of Godard's work is. One of the most striking symptoms of this is undoubtedly the following quote from the novel Tonite Let's All Make Love in London: "I also saw Pierrot le Fou . . . Godard really is a hopeless romantic. Is the artist not always a Dostoyevskian idiot?"3- that is to say, the very same figure by which Godard portrayed himself as a prince/idiot in Soigne la droite in 1987, a film that Peter Whitehead had not yet seen at the time of writing.

Romantic Ideals and Civil Poetry

What Peter Whitehead recognizes in Jean- Luc Godard about himself, and what he interprets from a privileged perspective, is the romantic principle. This theory, expounded by Friedrich Schiller and subsequently reconsidered around 1800 in Iena by members of the Athaneum, concerns the necessary connection between aesthetic and po liti cal revolution.4 Born from this is the impossibility of dissociating art from politics, theory, and poetry, and an essayist conception of disciplines, an absolute liberty of structure of which the film essays of Godard and Whitehead- as well as those of Chris Marker- constitute the major illustrative works of the twentieth century. …