• Roxy the Dog in Goodbye to Language

Next Friday Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3-D receives its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center, two months after it opened in New York and eight months after its world premiere at the Cannes film festival, where it shared the special jury prize. That would be good news regardless, but it’s especially heartening since the movie almost didn’t come to Chicago at all. Neither of the city’s commercial art houses, the Music Box and the Landmark Century, are equipped to show movies in 3-D, and since Godard has refused to prepare a non-3-D version of the film, they can’t show it any other way. And until this week, after local projectionist extraordinaire James Bond finished outfitting their main theater, the Siskel Center didn’t have 3-D capabilities either.

The River East ran the 3-D art films Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pina a few years ago, though it’s unlikely that AMC Theatres would take a chance on Language. It’s a demanding, nonnarrative movie that contemplates the legacy of totalitarianism in contemporary culture, the average first-world citizen’s relationship to the state, and other topics you wouldn’t expect to encounter at a multiplex. (Then again, Godard’s latest also contains poop jokes, a talking dog, and a naked woman. Surely the right ad executive could find a way to market it to Adam Sandler fans.)

As far as U.S. art house owners are concerned, Language is a financial risk twice over. Tom Brueggemann, writing for Indiewire in October about American distributor Kino Lorber’s challenges in bringing the movie to theaters, pointed out that “though Godard is arguably one of the most respected living filmmakers . . . it has been decades since his films have managed to make a significant dent in the U.S. market. The top gross of any of his released features in the last 20 years, In Praise of Love, topped out at just over $250,000.”

One can imagine Godard chuckling at the part about his films failing to “make a significant dent in the U.S. market.” Since Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966), the director’s films have been openly critical of consumer society in general and the practices of U.S.-based multinationals in particular. After the political upheaval of 1968 (the same year that Godard embarked on a speaking tour of U.S. college campuses, inspiring controversy wherever he went), Godard avoided commercial filmmaking for a decade, devoting several years to a filmmaking collective called the Dziga Vertov Group. The group created such works of agitprop as Vladimir and Rosa (1971), about the Chicago 8 trial, and British Sounds (aka See You at Mao, 1970), a Marxist critique of industrial society. Since he returned to commercial filmmaking with Every Man for Himself (1979), Godard has maintained his critical view, but he’s couched his politics in a dense, poetic style that combines literary quotations, personal reflections, layered sounds and images, and only hints of narrative. These films are radical on a formal level—they can’t be easily consumed.

  • Histoire(s) du cinéma

There’s a downside, of course, to making art that isn’t easily consumed—fewer people want to consume it. Godard has acknowledged as much, often joking that his recent films and videos were made for a few thousand friends scattered around the world. Such prominent U.S. critics as Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy routinely bashed post-70s Godard as incomprehensible gibberish (one senses in their reviews a lingering outrage at Godard’s politically radical period, if not embarrassment with the failed revolutionary movements of the late 60s and early 70s), but the majority of American moviegoers simply became indifferent to his work. For a while, U.S. distributors didn’t want to bother with him—the major features Nouvelle Vague (1990) and Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991) were never released here commercially, and it took over a decade before the eight-part video series Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98), the greatest work of Godard’s late period, received an official Region 1 DVD release. Many of the director’s post-70s shorts and video work (of which there are dozens) remain unavailable here.

Instead of asking why it took so long for Goodbye to Language to reach Chicago, perhaps we should ask how it got here so soon. Again the answer has a lot to do with Godard’s use of 3-D. The director does some unprecedented things with the format—the movie might be as difficult to decode as any of his recent work, but it’s also a one-of-a-kind visual spectacle. And since 3-D is more popular now than ever, Language has generated much curiosity for how it responds to the trend. I doubt this means Godard will reattain the U.S. popularity he enjoyed in the 60s. But he still seems to be a lot more popular here now than he has been in decades.