The title of Colin MacCabe's Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy is, as it turns out, somewhat misleading. At long last, are we going to learn what makes the hero of modern cinema tick? Not yet. The enigmatic edifice that is Godard's interplanetary personality, such as it is, remains intact.
The promise of biography more or less peters out after the opening section, in which we get a breezy recounting of Godard's near-idyllic childhood in Switzerland, his precocious adolescence, his lifelong bond with his sister Rachel, his brief stay at a mental clinic, his penchant for kleptomania, his break with his family, and his move to Paris in his late teens. It comes as something of a shock that Godard, who has always been cagey about facts in general and about his origins in particular, the better to bypass commonplace notions of causality, was subject to all the standard stuff. He's one of us after all.
Once the Legendary Years begin with the move to Paris, the book takes on a more reverential tone, and biography gives way to critical appreciation. Godard aficionados may be struck by the many episodes MacCabe has chosen to leave out: the epochal fight with first wife Anna Karina that, legend has it, provided the inspiration for Jacques Rivette's 1968 psychodrama L'Amour fou; the very public fracas over Hail Mary (1985); the fact that he is now seriously ill. In the end, a kind of portrait does emerge, punctuated with interesting historical digressions on the history of Switzerland, European Protestantism, Althusserian Marxism, and the inner workings of the Ecole Normale Supérieure. In other words, a Godardian portrait, without a Rosebud in sight.
Essentially, MacCabe is giving us the Legend of Godard. Anyone who developed an interest in cinema during the period stretching from the '60s through the mid-'80s knows it all by heartóthe early brush with the great critic and Cahiers du Cinéma cofounder André Bazin, from which idolization was followed by critique; the explosion onto the international scene with Breathless (1960); the problematic Maoist period and the violent break with François Truffaut; the retreat to Switzerland. It must be said that the superlative quotient is high, a little too high for comfort. We keep reading that Godard has revolutionized, and continues to revolutionize, everything around him, the implication being that he makes all other filmmakers appear retrograde by comparison. He is smarter, more forward-looking, more tuned in to contemporary reality, more self-sufficient, more knowledgeable about film production, more self-critical than anyone, anytime, anywhere. He is even unsurpassed at photographing Hanna Schygulla, as if Fassbinder had never existed. At one point, MacCabe recounts the time he proposed to a speechless Philippe Sollers that Godard was the greatest French poet of the twentieth century "after Valéry"óso much for Apollinaire, Eluard, Michaux, Desnos, and Breton. Such is the level of unqualified praise Godard silently elicits from his admirers, through some bizarre form of postmodern telepathy. MacCabe serves it all up with devotional fervor.
MacCabe, former head of research of the BFI, erratically brilliant critic and theorist, and onetime Godard collaborator, does manage to keep his appreciation one small step away from hagiography. He's sharp on the Maoist period and on the Olympian remove and underachieved quality of the recent films. He is even better at laying the cultural/political groundwork for every period of Godard's career. Yet the motoring idea behind this book is not historical but polemical. By MacCabe's lights, Godard should be recognized as a giant, breathing the same rarefied air as Proust, Goethe, and the Gospels writers. Which raises the question: How great isGodard? Is Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998), his mammoth meditation on the cinema, really, like Finnegans Wake, "the story of us all"? Does Godard actually qualify for some form of secular, "Lacanian" sainthood, as MacCabe proposes?
Let us take a Godardian tack and shift the terms of the questionófrom "How great is Godard?" to "How is Godard great?" The question goes largely unanswered in MacCabe's book. MacCabe does nail two aspects of Godard's output that will keep it forever fresh: the complete absence of the shot-countershot structure that has been a staple of narrative cinema since the '20s and his utterly unique approach to color, light, and space, rethought in their organizational and expressive properties on a project-by- project basis. (He is less expansive on the third of Godard's great gifts, his singular approach to sound.) Yet to my way of thinking, MacCabe never gets close to the actual sensation of watching a Godard film. Godard always arranges image and sound so that the viewer arrives at moments, some of whichóthe pristine snowscape deep in the woods in JLG/JLG: Autoportrait de décembre (1995), the hand held up against a tree in Nouvelle vague (1990)óachieve a level of beauty that feels primordial, if not essential, in the Platonic sense. In effect, Godard has given form to the sensation of revelation. Which is no small thing. As an artist, this has been his greatest contributionóto ground the cinema in the sense of discovery that marked its beginnings.
Yet I'm not sure that there exists in Godard's oeuvre a single film or video work that has the fearsome unity of an Ordet, a Voyage to Italy, a Fanny and Alexander, a Barry Lyndon, a Faces, or a Raging Bull. Fans would argue that concepts such as "unity" and, by implication, "narrative" are non-Godardian and thus beside the point. I would counter that unity and narrative hold more than usual significance for Godard himself, since he has spent the bulk of his life as an artist defining himself against them. Every film, from Breathless onward, is excitingly positioned in relation to the movies and the popular culture around it, yet in the end, I find that they speak less through a form of their own than through their relationship to other formsóthe later films in particular, which tend to run out of gas in the last third. What is always wonderful in Godard is the excitement of finding alternative means of representing experience. How do you film a conversation between two people sitting across a table? How do you represent a prostitute at work, a couple in the process of separating, or the spectacle of war? Godard dislodges them from their customary narrative and formal frameworks and makes them thrillingly immediate.
On the other hand, he's rarely had the patience to create a fully elaborated experienceóneither within the terms of narrative convention, like Bresson and Renoir, nor outside them, like Resnais and Marker. Apropos the ravishingly beautiful but historically challenged 2001 film In Praise of Love (Godard always makes an impressionistic stew of history), MacCabe quotes an interview in which the master jokes about his inability to do a "normal picture." It is impossible to imagine Resnais, Bergman, Tarkovsky, or any number of other filmmakers joking about their inability to produce a certain kind of objectóonly Godard, as curious about humanity as he is remote from it, is so haunted by the specter of normalcy.
In the end, it's not the individual films that have made Godard so influential, the jump-cutting in Breathless aside. In essence, I think it has to do with the way he has cultivated his identity as the grand demiurge of the moment when he came of age. In one way or another, his films all revolve around the high drama, poignance, and considerable charisma of postwar Paris, when the flood of American movies suppressed by the Germans and a moribund French film industry dovetailed with the crisis of representation brought on by the Holocaust to create a form of spontaneous combustionófrom which emerged a pack of angry, talented, morally self- conscious young men ready to raise the roof off the French film world. Godard has never left that moment and its love/hate relationship with American cinema.
When all is said and done, I think his greatest period was the early '70s, when he began his collaboration with Anne-Marie MiévilleóNuméro deux (1975), Ici et ailleurs (1976), Comment ça va? (1978), and the undervalued TV series Six fois deux (1976) and France tour détour deux enfants (1979) remain extraordinary achievements. For a brief moment, Godard was possessed by neither an ardent love for nor a virulent hatred of cinema and allowed himself to concentrate on people. As for the Histoire(s), his magnum years-in-the-making opus, it's quite a ride. But as a friend of mine, a great admirer of Godard's work, put it, "It's easy to be a prophet of the past." The scale is as vast as MacCabe suggests, and it does convey a powerful sense of massive human erroróin terms of women and how they've been represented (and misrepresented) in the cinema and in culture, and in relation to the Holocaust and its memory. It also surges through the history of Western art in a probingly fluid manner I would never have thought possible. But I'm not convinced that the Histoire(s) amounts to the originary myth MacCabe claims it to be, as much as it is a chain of fleeting sensations, intuitions, feelings, and memories, rooted in that bygone world of the '50s and '60s. In the end, all Godard's work comes under the umbrella of his greatest creation, on which he has lavished the most attention, compared with which Histoire(s) runs a distant second: Godard.
The proposal of secular sainthood in MacCabe's book was begging to be made on behalf of the man who has always been worshipped for his apartness, his aloneness, his unprecedented success at staying dislodged from the rest of us. It's easy to see why Godard was a superhero of what Richard Rorty has called the "spectatorial left." He has been the genius of critical spectatorship, and he has played no small part in helping to make it a spiritual vocation.
Kent Jones is editor-at-large of Film Comment.