You knew this was coming, right? Like, if you’ve ever heard me unload on him (except why would you?) over the past 30-odd years, you’d realize there’s no love lost between us. I’m referring, of course, to Jean-Luc Godard, great cinematic pooh-bah and critical monstre sacre, whose every work I pretty well loathe, the whole damn filmography, and maybe, for all I know, even the putative “genius” behind the lens. Not that he hasn’t earned it royally, that personalized dissing, or at least the endemic irritation–self-infatuated, arrogant, an absurdly pontifical piehole who’s forever getting acolytes’ credit for being what they’d call “inventive,” “creative,” “deconstructive,” “an endless source of cinematic ingenuity,” and so on and so forth, even as he’s ritually haranguing you half to death, spewing contemptuous bile for at least the 50,000th time, in what’s probably the cinematic equivalent of waterboarding at Guantanamo. Though actually it’s not you he’s hectoring and harassing but (thank god for it) them, millions upon millions of not yous, aka the great cinematic unwashed, a crass Weekend menagerie of contemptibles and out-of-its who simply can’t (or, more likely, won’t) admit to the master’s genius, who’d probably rather watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation than endure yet another of his knee-jerking public rants. But who cares, since the objects of his scorn aren’t actually the people he’s condescending to address: just another case of “Good for thee but not for me,” an utter lack of complicity with the target oafs and churls. Talk about needles stuck in grooves … so what’s Johnny Guitar been up to lately?
Though in fact the overall landscape’s not quite as dismal as this–at least a few coruscating gems in the mix that even radical nonbelievers can admire, like In Praise of Love (though authorized fawners prefer to backpedal from this one–too accessible, I guess, the better to praise some logorrheic excrescence like Helas Pour Moi, which’d get you an automatic F from your analytic philosophy prof if you dropped it on his desk in college: so what say we sic Wittgenstein on this guy?)–a perfect proscenium artifact, cold, elegant, opaque: there’s you and then there’s it, floating ineffably in the cinematic empyrean … Or La Chinoise, which in late-60s agitprop terms simply can’t be bettered, the whole placard aesthetic brought to unlikely fruition, cardboard philosophizing that, in spite of it all, stays exquisitely en pointe. Though from the early 80s on we’ve been witness to the very public embarrassment (except when is Godard ever embarrassed?: obviously he’s beyond it) of Jean-Luc’s “rediscovering” Western civ, the whole cultural apparatus he’d furiously disowned through 20 years preceding: mirabile dictu, there’s sin! there’s Pascal! tres esquisse!–gee thanks, pal, but most of us have been there for a while, maybe a lifetime even. And actually it’s just historical Geneva that’s being channeled through him, the whole Swiss Calvinist ancestral heritage package–except when anyone else does it, replicates his/her formative antecedents and cultural experiences in utterly undigested ways, well, guess who’s first in line to dump? But I suppose we’re meant not to notice.
Probably my favorite Godard moment, which, not coincidentally, is also among the most revealing, comes in First Name: Carmen, wherein we’re granted the privilege of admiring our hero as antinomian sage: unshaven, impossibly disheveled, matted hair framing dead guru eyes, just about the perfect existential wreck. Only it’s actually “genius” in humble-pie disguise–“The only thing I know is that I know nothing,” that cut of New Age salami–and just another proof of his intellectual finesse, successfully one-upping all the acolytes again: “Ah Jean-Luc, who knows enough to know that actually he doesn’t!–what raw profundity, what rarefied perception!” What shameless ego-tripping’s more my jaundiced take on it, never more fraudulent than when pleading the honest seeker … Like, transparency my ass.
On the other hand, let’s give credit where it’s due: for a close, probing analysis of what I can only describe as my “Godard problem,” perhaps nothing remotely compares with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1988 Reader review (registration may be required) of the mountebank’s King Lear, his “unforgettable” (put whatever construction on it you choose) free-form riffing on the Bard. As it happens I agree with Jonathan almost 100 percent on just about every critical point he raises: obviously we’ve seen the same movie (which is good for starters; doesn’t always work out that way), and I recognize myself as the perennially resisting, problematic viewer he so thoroughly dissects. Yet when it comes to the foursquare meat-and-potatoes issue of, to put it baldly, “Is the film any ‘good’?,” then abruptly we part company: three smooching stars from Jonathan, whereas I’d have given it ZERO. And probably still would … assuming I’d ever see it again … which a pack of wild horses probably couldn’t get me to do.
Which strikes me as pretty amazing, actually, that you can go so far with someone and still not share the critical terrain in any meaningful way. Or maybe it’s just plain scary …