This year Chicagoans have the rare opportunity to discover lost or suppressed works by a number of major filmmakers. In May the Gene Siskel Film Center presented the local premieres of Philippe Garrel’s L’Enfant Secret (1979) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (1972-’73); in July the Music Box hosted an ultrarare screening of Jean Grémillon’s silent masterpiece The Lighthouse Keepers (1929); and next month the Chicago International Film Festival will screen The Other Side of the Wind, an Orson Welles feature that was begun in the early 1970s and completed only recently.
This week the Film Center screens a restoration of Jean-Luc Godard’s The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company, which was broadcast on French television in 1986 and has rarely been revived since. The feature comes from one of the most exciting periods of the groundbreaking Swiss director’s career, a phenomenal three-year stretch that also saw the release of Hail Mary, Détective, the featurette Soft and Hard (codirected by his life partner, Anne-Marie Miéville), King Lear, and Keep Your Right Up. Taken together, these film and video works constitute a rich self-analysis on Godard’s part, with the director assessing what it means to create moving images at a time when TV and video threatened (and ultimately succeeded) to overtake cinema as the form of moving-image delivery that audiences engaged with the most. Rise and Fall reflects Godard’s deep ambivalence about this historic moment, presenting the business of television skeptically while reveling in the newfound creative possibilities of video. It’s also characteristic of his work from the late 70s and onward in that it’s at once deliberately opaque and astonishingly beautiful—fans of the director will find plenty to puzzle and swoon over.
Much like Godard’s first international coproduction, Contempt (1964), was about the making of an international coproduction, the shot-on-video TV movie Rise and Fall considers the making of a shot-on-video TV movie. Gaspard (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a film director who’s agreed to shoot an adaptation of a James Hadley Chase murder mystery for French television. He doesn’t realize that his producer, Jean (Jean-Pierre Mocky), is financing the project with stolen money, nor does he realize that he’s way behind schedule on the production. Gaspard gets consumed by casting the movie, looking at one potential actor after another. Eventually he becomes interested in casting Jean’s wife, Eurydice (Marie Valera), believing that she shares his concept of visual beauty, but by this time he’s exhausted the movie’s budget.
As usual with Godard’s post-70s movies, the plot of Rise and Fall is basically a loose framework for the director to work through his perennial concerns of cinema, video, history, love, beauty, and freedom. These themes are always interconnected for Godard, who sees the creation of moving images as a means of engaging with history and experiencing beauty, love, and freedom. He emphasizes this interconnectedness by layering sounds and images, with music, dialogue, and multiple, superimposed shots often competing for the viewer’s attention. Given this, the spectator of a late Godard piece must disentangle meaning from the morass of words, music, pictures, and movements—effectively working with the director to find significance amidst the cultural pileup.
The unifying message of Godard’s movies from 1985-’87 may be that this collaborative work couldn’t be more urgent. As he explains in the nakedly autobiographical Soft and Hard, Godard felt (and probably still feels) that cinema is a medium that allows filmmakers to project themselves onto viewers, whereas television—which increasingly determines how people see the world—is a medium that projects viewers onto advertisers. Even worse, television obscures the beauty of moving images, which the cinema magnifies and exalts. At the end of Soft and Hard (arguably the Rosetta stone of his late period), Godard tells Miéville that he wants to resist the power of television by fostering relationships between viewers and video images that are not too direct. With Rise and Fall, he shows how he might go about doing that.
“When reading his part, the actor should challenge it thoroughly!,” reads Gaspard from an unidentified book in the movie’s opening scene, thereby introducing the theme of artistic resistance. If the director serves as a representation of Godard’s creative side, then the business-oriented Jean represents Godard’s obsession with commerce. Jean might believe in the power of cinematic art, but he recognizes pragmatically that art needs to get financed somehow. (Tellingly, one of the visual motifs of Rise and Fall is of Jean’s accountant working an adding machine.) For much of the movie, the producer is distraught and morose, frequently complaining about not getting enough money to create the projects he wants and about having to shoot on video rather than film. Jean is so downbeat, in fact, that Godard needs to show up two-thirds of the way into Rise and Fall to cheer up his own alter ego. He sagaciously tells Jean that the cheapness of video may be a good thing, as one can make ten movies on video for the cost of shooting one movie on film.
As a moviemaker, Godard demonstrates that there are plenty of other good things about shooting on video. Rise and Fall finds beauty in all aspects of analog video imagery, from the blur of paused shots to the ghostly look of one shot superimposed upon another. With imagination and gumption, Godard argues, one can even connect video images to the beauty of the classics. One of the most moving scenes of Rise and Fall depicts Gaspard and Eurydice looking through a book of Renaissance paintings and considering what the images have to tell them about creating characters today. (In typical Godardian fashion, however, Gaspard phrases this consideration in the form of riddles.) In the movie’s longest scene, Gaspard watches a lineup of auditioning actors as they recite, one after another, fragments of sentences he’s prepared for them. Each performer appears in front of the camera just long enough to make a vivid impression; the beauty of the faces hearkens back to classical portraiture.
In Every Man for Himself (1979), generally regarded as the first film of Godard’s late period, a character named Paul Godard likens the relationship between film and video to that of Cain and Abel. This would seem to contradict the director’s later comments about the deleterious effects of video imagery on audiences, but in fact it dovetails into his grand argument. Within the director’s philosophy of moving images, moviemakers and spectators might have approached video as a wholly new medium, but instead they remained in thrall to memories of cinematic images, and as result video images became pale imitations of cinematic ones. Rise and Fall suggests a more constructive approach to video, with Gaspard representing a half-mad prophet of the medium’s potential. Since video allows filmmakers to work quickly and cheaply, Godard asserts, it increases the possibility that they may discover classical beauty through their work. It’s certainly a possibility worth exploring. As Janis Joplin sang in “Me and Bobby McGee” (one of Rise and Fall‘s creative reference points), freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. v