Glimpsing Godard among the layers of anecdote

Dana Polan, a professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television, is the author of "Pulp Fiction" in the British Film Institute's Modern Film Classics series.

Toward the end of his biography of the famous -- infamous, to some -- film director Jean-Luc Godard, Colin MacCabe offers a telling anecdote, revealing an artist devoted so intransigently to personal vision that he makes realization of that vision impossible. Godard had begun a new feature, “Every Man for Himself,” that was to augur his return to accessible filmmaking after the intensely difficult, politicized “film-tracts” of his Maoist period. He suddenly had an idea for a great shot. In an early scene, some villagers were to play soccer in a countryside field bordered by train tracks. He wanted to include a train rushing by. In a film that was to be so much about the effects of large-scale capitalist processes on the everyday lives of his characters, showing the train and soccer game together would, he felt, serve as a political metaphor about linkage: Village life is dependent on larger processes of modernity symbolized by the train rushing to town. His staff got a schedule to see when a train would pass. It all seemed so simple.

But, as MacCabe explains throughout his volume, Godard has always matched his modernist concern for experimentation and manipulation of reality -- here the train and countryside juxtaposed in deep symbolism -- with a rigorous commitment to what he sees as higher truth. Modernist experimentation is not random game playing, not about getting away from reality but about declaring profound devotion to it.

And so, out on the soccer field with the light of day fading, Godard suddenly declared that to rely on train schedules and to plan the shot in advance would be to betray reality. He could not impose the juxtaposition of train-as-modernity and of countryside-as-everydayness on the scene but had to capture it spontaneously. The soccer players were told to go about their business and the crew had to hope that their ramblings around the field would coincide with the train’s arrival to produce a nicely composed juxtaposition. It didn’t, and the film’s final cut has no shot like the one Godard desired but refused to orchestrate.

MacCabe recounts this story only in passing, but in many ways it is symptomatic of the artistic spirit of this director’s director, who, despite his influence on generations of filmmakers, has never been honored with an Academy Award. Godard emerges from this biography -- the first on this elusive artist -- as a character of intense, single-minded devotion to personal vision even to the point of destructiveness (including self-destructiveness). He is rendered as a figure who accepts no compromise, whose life is littered with abandoned lovers, ruined business associations and broken friendships. (Upon hearing that his onetime New Wave buddy Francois Truffaut had a fatal brain tumor, he reportedly said, “That’s what happens if you read so many bad books!”) Above all, Godard’s deepest, most difficult relationship has been with his audience, whom he has mercilessly challenged to keep up with his experiments. His manipulations of cinematic structures of time and space have seemed increasingly to derive from a private language to which few have access. One example, “Pravda,” a film from the late ‘60s period of his most politicized, audience-alienating works, has a long sequence of factory workers speaking Czech without subtitles or translation: After the scene has gone on interminably, the narrator explains that they were speaking “the international language of labor” and that it is up to the audience to learn this language to understand class struggle.


Yet Godard’s importance in film history is indisputable. From such New Wave classics of crime and doomed love as “Breathless” and “Pierrot Le Fou” to such Bertolt Brecht-inspired dissections of contemporary consumer society as “Two or Three Things I Know About Her,” he defined the cutting edge of avant-garde experimentation in film, even if his venture into new dimensions of the screen image made him a solitary figure, separated from possible viewers. He has long believed that if he doesn’t move into the ever more shadowy territory of image exploration, mainstream forces will overtake him.

Most recently, Godard has revitalized his career and his investigation of the plasticity of images by turning to video production. Ensconced in a veritable laboratory of media technologies that he has constructed in the small Swiss town where he lives, Godard sits behind vast banks of digital editing machines and creates visual poems that layer images over images with tonal variations made by manipulating grain, color and contrast.

MacCabe, a professor of English and film at the University of Pittsburgh, produced some of Godard’s films and videos in the 1980s and ‘90s. The latter part of his book is as much autobiography as biography. He too has experienced the filmmaker’s difficult side: Godard withdrew his support of this biography after giving initial encouragement. But MacCabe is also fascinated by Godard’s single-minded commitment to the pursuit of his vision. In his first book, MacCabe studied James Joyce via French structuralist and semiotic theory. Like Joyce, MacCabe writes, Godard experiments with artistic language, using ambiguity, juxtaposition, dense historical reference, allusiveness and elusiveness to, in his case, tear images from their literal reference and grant them multiple levels of meaning. The Joycean comparison matters insofar as it clarifies the obsessiveness in private universe-building that characterizes much modernist experimentation: MacCabe even goes so far as to call Godard “the great French poet of the Twentieth Century” (much to the astonishment, he admits, of a famous French intellectual on whom he tested the idea). At the same time, inspired by Dante’s search for a new language of the vernacular, MacCabe wonders if visual arts like cinema and video might not be the appropriate communication form for our age. Godard’s paradox, in a sense, is that he weaves Joycean complications into a mass art, thereby extending cinema’s (and video’s) potential and making public acceptance of that potential something that can be postponed only into an indefinite future.

The subtitle clearly refers to Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” and MacCabe is as interested as Joyce was in recounting how certain figures come to consecrate the artistic life as an all-consuming passion. (“Passion” is the name of his favorite Godard film, an effort very much about the cinematic re-creation of great works from the history of fine arts.) But where Stephen Daedalus’ choice of art at the end of Joyce’s novel appeared to require total commitment to aesthetic inquiry at the expense of other life experiences, MacCabe offers glimpses of Godard widening his. In Switzerland, Godard has settled into a relationship with his film and video collaborator Anne-Marie Mieville, and this appears to have taught him the beauties of life as well as of technically produced images. Ironically, for all his deconstruction of Hollywood storytelling, the Godard portrait painted here falls into an all too conventional American film narrative: Boy meets girls (his previous wives, the actresses in his films), boy loses girls, boy gets girl. This story also conforms to that commonplace social narrative: Wandering bohemian passes through phases of contestation, anarchic challenge and political commitment, then settles down in the privatized refuge of a bourgeois domesticity committed to the cultivation of art and romance and surrounded by technological gadgets that turn home space into home theater.

Perhaps because this portrait is itself so devoted to Godard’s own devotion to his personal vision and to an insistent way of living his life (“My Life to Live” is the title of one of his films), there’s a somewhat disconnected quality to MacCabe’s biography. Given that his truest allegiance is to his own sense of self and mission, Godard appears to glide through contemporary European history, as if never really participating deeply in any of its primary events. Having lived through some of the cultural upheavals of the period, MacCabe is very good at outlining their resonances; many parts of his book serve as a veritable intellectual history of modern Europe. But his Godard seems fundamentally apart from his time, a historically disembodied figure disconnected from a society he disdains as a degradation of the aesthetic vocation. This Godard ultimately fits the famous definition of the artistic vocation offered in Joyce’s “Portrait”: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”