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Talking a good movie

Richard Schickel is the author of many books, including "Film on Paper" and "Elia Kazan: A Biography." His forthcoming book, "You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story," will be published to coincide with his five-hour documentary about the studio that will air in September on PBS.

Deeply researched, conscientiously written, careful to contextualize its subject both in his field and in the larger culture that shaped his work, “Everything Is Cinema” is in almost every respect an admirable biography, exactly the sort of scrupulous and passionate work significant movie figures deserve and almost never receive. I am in awe of Richard Brody’s accomplishment. Yet I have rarely been so glad to come to the end of an admirable book.

That’s because his subject is Jean-Luc Godard, who may be the most chilling and annoying figure in the history of the movies -- a director whose films and theories about the cinema endlessly flirt with revolutionary ideas about the medium only to abandon them to solipsism, flight and contempt -- for his colleagues, his backers and, most significantly, for his audience, which has dwindled to a cult more interested in what movies might be than in what they, perhaps ineluctably, are.

Godard was born in Paris in comfortable bourgeois circumstances, did poorly in school (a defect he compensated for by being a manic autodidact) and after the war went on to make a name for himself in this film-mad city as an abrupt, interesting reviewer with a special interest in American genre films. These imports were, of course, terribly influential on the early work of “la nouvelle vague” (the New Wave); Godard’s first feature, the perky little crime drama “Breathless,” along with Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” helped to define that cinematic movement, which in the late 1950s set itself in useful opposition to the highly conventionalized French “tradition of quality” as well as the ponderousness and self-importance of the postwar American cinema, which had lost faith in the “naive realism” that had been its glory in the 1930s and 1940s.

There’s no question that the movies needed a restorative jump-start (or a jump-cut) and Godard was a useful motormouth, constantly granting interviews to journals large and small, in which he tried to redefine the nature of cinema. A lot of this talk, as Brody recounts it, consists of a bright guy popping off, turning himself into a celebrity at least as well known for his conversations as for his cinema. Take, for instance, the dictum from which this book’s title derives. What Godard seems to have meant is that film has significant documentary roots and that some sort of interpenetration between reality and fiction might be achieved in generally released movies, which, indeed, he went on to attempt. In a sense, this position is inarguable. There is perhaps no theoretical reason why movies must, as they forever have, cling to the storytelling conventions of 19th century theatrical melodrama. But note that “perhaps.” There is an emotional, kinetic immediacy to this kind of filmmaking that a director trifles with at his peril.

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Godard’s films frequently start out with a good melodramatic idea, something that would support intellectually interesting variants on its themes (“Le Petit Soldat,” “A Woman Is a Woman,” “Contempt” and “Alphaville” among many others) only to lose their way. They become essayistic or didactic or, occasionally, too personal in ways we cannot fathom. To a degree that Brody seems not quite to understand, their failures derive from Godard’s methods. He tended to work from brief outlines, which he would flesh out by writing a page or two of script on the day he was shooting. If inspiration failed him, he would simply send the company home. Sometimes he would intervene in the process, interviewing his actors or having them interview one another on the general topic the sequence was taking up. Very often he would not deliver the film he had promised his backers or talked up in interviews.

He remained capable of more conventional movie- making, and his “Bande a part” in 1964 is a lively, tossed-off, black comedy about a murderous group of slackers that says more about the fecklessness of 1960s youth culture than any other film I know. To me, it’s his best film, though Brody rather dismisses it, and Godard soon moved on to his disastrous Maoist phase, then to his passionate embrace of video production, which to this day he pursues in Swiss exile, interrupted occasionally by forays into something like mainstream production. Godard’s a cranky hermit; one of his theories is that World War II represented a decisive break in film history. As he sees it, the Nazis and the Americans unconsciously conspired to destroy European culture, the former with the Holocaust, the latter with their imperial economic designs. He appears to equate these two depredations morally, which says a lot about the limits of being an autodidact.

Looking at this career through Brody’s lens, one cannot help thinking that Godard is perhaps the victim of attention-deficit disorder. Much of the time whatever pops into his head while he’s making a movie -- a book, a public event, a personal crisis -- arrests his attention and gets jammed into the film. Since he does not have a script, that’s easy for him to do, and since narrative coherence is not a value for him, these interpolations can be made to seem acts of high daring, even genius, and sold as such to gaga cinephiles who are more interested in cinematic theory than emotional coherence.

I’m not arguing that traditional melodrama is the only worthwhile model for moviemaking. Rather the opposite. The current bankruptcy of the medium -- the American craze for special effects, the rest of the world’s reversion to, yes, “the tradition of quality” -- is a direct result of caution and uninteresting calculation. But good movies, movies that leave a permanent mark on our imaginations, are not made in the Godard mode. They are made by obsessives, by directors who shut out the distractions of the outside world and fret endlessly over every aspect of their films. The best of these directors eventually achieve thematic and stylistic coherence -- whether they are Hitchcock or Bergman, Hawks or Kubrick -- and, for better or worse, auteur status. They are aesthetic conservatives, people who find their ground and work it until it is overgrazed: Then, they sit back to watch others imitating them. Unlike Godard, they show almost no interest in advancing the cause of cinema in general, of finding new topics for it to take up, new methods of expressing themselves on the screen. Implicit in their work is the notion that everything is not cinema, that there are matters better suited to other forms -- essays, painting, music, even pulp fiction.

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Director Stanley Donen once disputed in my presence the Godardian notion that movies “are the truth 24 times a second.” They are, he cheerfully noted, “lies 24 times a second.” To think otherwise is to impose on the medium an unsustainable burden and, eventually, on a figure like Godard, the sullen silence of the unheeded exile. In 1987, he conceived the notion of doing a kind of gloss on “King Lear.” There is some evidence that he never read the play, but he nevertheless recruited some notable figures to the enterprise, among them Norman Mailer and Woody Allen. The former left in high, justifiable outrage. The latter, however, stayed on to shoot his single scene; he is discovered in his editing room stitching together a film with needle and thread. Of the experience Allen later said, “I had the impression that I was being directed by Rufus T. Firefly.” It’s possible to argue, at the end of Brody’s earnest devotions, that he has done no more than trap a furious, impotently winking firefly of another sort in his commodious bottle. *


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