Appreciation: Jean-Luc Godard changed cinema forever

Of all the endlessly quotable maxims and aphorisms that have poured out of the mouth and films of Jean-Luc Godard – ‘All it takes to make a film is a girl and a gun’, ‘Cinema is truth at 24 frames per second, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, although not necessarily in that order” – one that particularly comes to mind today is this: “He who jumps into the void is No explanation owed to those who stand and watch. ”

It seems appropriate to consider those words this week and also the emptiness. Godard, filmmaker, critic, essayist, polemicist, weirdo, disruptor, legend and one of the most important artists of all media of the last century, passed away today at the age of 91 after dying by assisted suicide at his home in Rolle, Switzerland . The film medium he’s studied, revered, mastered, mocked, deconstructed, and struggled with for decades feels instantly and infinitely poorer. Does it even feel like the “end of cinema,” to quote the kicker of his 1967 apocalyptic freakout Week-end? I hope not, but it’s hard to think for even a moment what Godard means to cinema, an art form he revolutionized like no other, and not feel like something has changed permanently.

The loss is incalculable. The tributes will be as vast and scholarly as his work, and they will not mark the end of a collective memory, but a beginning. The practice of honoring our artistic giants thrives on analysis, although as less of a scholar than a lay admirer of Godard’s work, I’m not particularly keen on explanations myself at the moment. What feels more appropriate, at this still early moment of reckoning, is an amalgamation of observations, associations and stubborn memories of a cinematic life long enriched by this supreme artist and fearless iconoclast.

From the moment he stormed onto the stage of world cinema, Godard acted with both a cool, cavalier defiance of cinema’s entrenched rules and traditions and a refusal to unwrap its meanings for easy consumption. On the other hand, with a first feature as exhilarating as Breathless, really little explanation was needed. Viewers stumbling out of a movie theater in 1960 may not have grasped the full meaning of what they had just seen, but the film’s playfulness and boldness swept them away. To hurl Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg into a Lovers-on-the-Run crime story that couldn’t have been more factual, it was comic and tragic, dizzying and haphazard, fragmented and fully developed, America and Paris, a jerk and a masterpiece. Above all, it was the work of a filmmaker who knew and loved the beats of classic cinema so much that there was little choice but to throw them out the window and start over.

In the film, a man rests his chin on a young woman's shoulder "Breathless."

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

(Rialto Pictures / StudioCanal)

In the first seven years of his career, which took him to the forefront of French new wave and the pinnacle of international cinema stardom, Godard produced an astounding series of 15 feature films. From “Breathless” to “Week-end” (1967) they remain unparalleled in their stylistic inventiveness and energy, their blend of unkempt dynamism and impossible glamour. If you watch them – and they’re holding up beautifully – you can almost feel a medium racing to keep up with a culturally and politically turbulent moment that was changing and fragmenting faster than anyone, except perhaps Godard, could keep track could pull.

Many of his most popular films emerged from this ’60s heyday, and they bonded and endured audiences in part because their irreverent play on the medium was so clearly a form of love. Breathless and Band of Outsiders (1964) were romantic gangster films in much the same way that A Woman Is a Woman (1961) was a musical or Alphaville (1965) was a piece of science fiction. They treated the genre as a beloved and worn-out toy, something to play with a bit and eventually toss aside in favor of something more interesting. In doing so, they broke through the seamlessness and artificiality, the illusion of coherence that film audiences were used to. Godard’s films knew they were films and saw no point in pretending otherwise.

Godard unleashed a wild palette of cinematic techniques—jump cuts, copious amounts of text, flashy primaries (but also gaudy black-and-white), verbal and visual nonsequiturs, startling disjunctions between sound and image—and liberated the medium from its past allegiances to older art forms like literature and theatre. At the same time, he exuded a magpie’s delight in bringing cinema into conflict with every other arena of the moment. He mixed pop and classic and was graphically inspired by glossy advertisements and film posters. He took a pickaxe at every critical and commercial assumption about what films could and should be, cracked them wide open, and stitched the fragments together into something radically strange and new.

Appreciating his work aesthetically requires a willingness to see – or learn to see – the beauty in all these fractures and fragmentations, in states of confusion and sometimes insane incoherence. Confronting them intellectually means wrestling with issues ranging from the pitfalls of consumerism and mass culture, issues he criticizes with elegance and emotion in Masculin Féminin (1965), to the temptations and contradictions that the characters knit into “La Chinoise”. (1967), his alternately satirical and tender portrait of young Maoist radicals. It means struggling with his Steven Spielberg and Hollywood sackings in In Praise of Love (2001), the beautiful and bilious work that heralded a major artistic comeback for many, and also acknowledging his despair at anti-Arab violence and to appreciate conflict in Notre Musique (2004) and The Image Book (2018), his last released feature film.

But to overemphasize Godard’s challenge—quite apart from the fact that difficulty in itself can be a very pleasant thing—risks underestimating the sheer beauty and sometimes delicacy of his work. Film lovers have long cherished the images of Anna Karina, Godard’s former wife and longtime muse, speeding through the Louvre with her male friends in Band of Outsiders and in Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) . You’ve swooned over the insane technicolor collision of men and women, color and style in the sublime Pierrot le Fou (1965) and the moody erotic languor of Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in Contempt (1963), for many Godard’s supreme masterpiece and most emotional work, in which he grapples with the end of his marriage and also that of the Hollywood cinema he grew up with.

The visual beauty of his work lingered and perhaps even deepened long after his storied days in the ’60s, the decades that saw Godard morph from a bespectacled, cigar-wielding new wave icon into something that challenged many . For his most dedicated followers, he discovered ever more freewheeling and exciting tributaries of cinematic meaning with films like First Name: Carmen (1983), Detective (1985) and Nouvelle Vague (1990), which branched out en route into collaborative filmmaking projects and embrace the possibilities of digital video. For others, these decades were not a time of progress, but of retreat into increasingly bewildering and even punishing realms of the unfathomable.

I would hardly be the first person to admit that I found my share of late Godard films bewildering, which doesn’t mean I’ve given up on them, especially since I also find my share of them deeply enjoyable, generous, and at times indescribably beautiful. One of his most critically acclaimed works of the past decade is Goodbye to Language (2014), a 69-minute amazement of sight and sound that resembled some of his earlier work in its snappy innuendos, outbursts of lyrics and beautiful women—but also , thanks to his dazzling experiments with 3-D, resembled nothing he’d ever done before.

“Godard forever,” exclaimed one viewer as the lights dimmed at the first screening of Goodbye to Language in Cannes (some 46 years after the festival’s 1968 edition, which he and several other self-proclaimed cine revolutionaries slammed on the brakes) . A few months later, Goodbye to Language was named the best film of 2014 by the National Society of Film Critics – a decision that pleased many little pockets of the cinema-loving world and drew all-too-predictable accusations of pretentiousness and elitism from some who had hardly heard of it, let alone seen it.

Heaven knows Godard didn’t make films to win awards, let alone break box office records. But it was immensely satisfying to know that this inexplicably large and inventive artist, then 84 and on the twilight of a career that changed cinema and the world, was still able to turn on the right people. Long may he continue. god forever. Appreciation: Jean-Luc Godard changed cinema forever

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