Ideas, Not Plots, Inspire Jean-Luc Godard His Latest Three Works Are Touring US in Celebration of France's Gaumont Studio
David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
JEAN-LUC GODARD has an obligatory place on any list of Europe's greatest filmmakers.
A founding member of the New Wave movement in France, where he directed such groundbreaking classics as "Breathless" and "Alphaville," he sparked radical new views of narrative form, film editing, and even movie criticism during the 1960s and '70s.
Today he still marches to a drummer very much his own, directing such unconventional works as "JLG by JLG," a cinematic self-portrait, and "Histoire(s) du Cinema," an expressionistic video series on the history of world film.
Once a familiar face on the international film-festival circuit, Mr. Godard has become a somewhat elusive figure of late, keeping a low profile even when his visually stunning "Nouvelle Vague" was featured at the New York filmfest a few seasons ago.
He continues to generate a good deal of film and video work, however. His three latest productions are included in a touring program celebrating France's venerable Gaumont studio. To support this, he dropped into Manhattan recently for a few interviews with interested critics. I took advantage of his visit to renew acquaintance after a long gap, and found him as modest, thoughtful, and passionate about cinema as the first time we met nearly 15 years ago.
A key characteristic of many Godard films is their great complexity, as if he were trying to pack entire worlds of thought, feeling, and imagination into every scene. I began our talk by asking if he expects moviegoers to grasp everything in a single viewing, or if he wants us to view the films repeatedly and gradually tease out their meanings.
"Most of the films won't be seen more than once," he answered ruefully, "because the distribution system doesn't make them available. So people miss half the things that are there. But it's like music: You don't understand all the notes, yet there is still enough to make it worthwhile."
Musing further about the density of his style, Godard says his works are "complex in a scientific sense." A century ago, he notes, "scientists believed the atom was the ultimate matter. Then they discovered that in one atom there are many things, and in one of those there are many more things, and so forth.... In films, we are trained by the American way of moviemaking to think we must understand and `get' everything right away. But this is not possible. When you eat a potato, you don't understand each atom of the potato!"
Few critics would think of a Godard film as a potato, but sometimes it's difficult to put a precise label on his extremely innovative approach to style and content. While he often seems interested in constructing a sort of cinematic essay, he rarely leaves storytelling completely behind, merging his innovative formal experiments with the traditional devices of narrative fiction.
Asked for his comments on this, Godard answers thoughtfully. "I think I am making more-or-less documentaries," he says in lightly accented English, "but I don't see much difference between these categories. Maybe it's my education. I'm very classical in a sense. I'm a great admirer of the novel, mainly of the 19th century.... There can be different kinds of narrative - in a novel, or a painting, or a piece of music."
Motion pictures, he continues, "were invented to look, tell, and study things. They were mainly a scientific tool ... for seeing life in a different way. To be only spectacular should be 5 or 10 percent of cinema. …