Godard's "Cruel Muse"

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Dixon, Wheeler Winston. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard. Albany: SUNY Press, 1997. 290 p. $56.50 hardcover $18.95 paperback.

The cinema is a cruel muse. Many of its leading artists have been washed up, finished, abandoned by the film companies and the public, long before their creative years were over. The list includes Georges M*lies, Erich von Stroheim, D. W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein (abandoned by the Soviet bureaucracy), Buster Keaton, and to some extent Orson Welles. Jean-Luc Godard does not exactly fit this pattern. He is still around, still actively producing film and video at the age of 67. And yet Godard is also in a sense retired, retired from commercial filmmaking and retired from the cosmopolitanism of world cinema. He works now in a small village in Switzerland, and his films are experimental, philosophical, and contemplative, values far removed from the cinematic mainstream. Much of his recent production is intended for television, and even his 35mm work of the 1980s and 1990s has received little distribution outside of France. With some effort, one can see Godard films on video today. But he has dropped out of the limelight. If Godard's career had consisted of only the fifteen feature films he directed between Breathless (1959) and Weekend (1968), he would still be considered one of the key figures of film history. These films bristle with cinematic ideas: the jump cut, reflexivity, homage and allusion, mixture of genres, collage effects, documentary and fiction, and so on. They establish a dialogue between the commercial cinema of the day (represented within the films by stars such as Brigitte Bardot and Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Godard's artistic and social concerns. They are creative work and criticism, fiction and essay, all in one powerful package. This group of films has influenced generations of European and American filmmakers, including such notable figures as Bernardo Bertolucci and Quentin Tarantino.

However, Godard soon tired of the formulas involved in working within the commercial system of production. His seemingly most commercial project, Contempt ( 1963), with Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance, turned out to be a devastating critique of international film production. By 1967, with La Chinoise, he was moving away from commercial narrative and toward a cinema of political engagement. The films of his Dziga Vertov period (19691972), made in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, address a small audience of political activists and film theorists. And then Godard dropped further out of sight, at least from an American perspective. Over the last twenty-five years, he has done considerable work for European television, some projects sponsored by industry, some highly personal cinema histories, and a surprising number of feature films. Most of the features are fragmented antinarratives, difficult to "read." Only Hail, Mary (1985), of the late Godards I have seen, seems relatively open to the viewer's understanding and enjoyment.

The great virtue of Wheeler Winston Dixon's The Films of Jean-Luc Godard is that it covers all of Godard's film and video work, from 1954 to 1995. All of the shorts and features are at least briefly discussed, and more space is reserved for such important films as Breathless, Contempt, Alphaville, La Chinoise, Hail, Mary. and Allemagne annee 90 neuf zero. Further, Dixon has usefully periodized Godard's work; this is a true career study, not a list. To my knowledge, no other up-to-date career summary exists in English. Dixon has also compiled an excellent bibliography, and a detailed filmography. The bibliography includes such choice recent items as Godard interviews conducted by Andrew Sarris (Interview 24.7, July 1994) and Hal Hartley (Filmmaker 3.1, 1994). There are a couple of compromises inherent in this kind of study. First, it is highly unlikely that any American scholar will be able to see every single work of a prolific foreign filmmaker (Dixon's filmography for Godard lists 76 items! …