FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Vol. 4 No. 8, March 2000

 


 

David Sterritt

Speaking and Writing about Godard

A Response to Nochimson and Sutton

 


 

 

 

Martha P. Nochimson

A Modest Employee of the Cinema vs The Big Garage

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 6, March 2000

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n6nochimson

 

Paul Sutton

More Histoire(s) du Cinema?

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 7, March 2000

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n7sutton

 

One clear message of the present book reviews, and the volumes they discuss, is that Jean-Luc Godard is having a comeback. One of my reasons for deciding to focus intensively on Godard in recent years [1] was the extraordinary neglect he and his films had been suffering from critics and scholars; yet, during the period when I worked on my book _The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible_, two other full-length studies appeared: one by Wheeler Winston Dixon, which arrived shortly before I finished my manuscript, and the other by Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki, which arrived shortly after my book was completed. [2] More evidence of Godard's resurgence has come directly to the movie screen. A revival of _Le Mepris_ in American theaters in 1997 was greeted with an ecstatic critical response that contrasted markedly with the grudging, grumpy reviews that prevailed during its original United States run in the 1960s. Now two new movies by latter-day auteurs are paying earnest homage to Godard's early work: _Beau Travail_, a very loose adaptation of Herman Melville's great _Billy Budd_, by French filmmaker Claire Denis, resurrects the protagonist Bruno Forestier from Godard's second feature, _Le Petit soldat_, as one of its key characters; and _Emporte-moi_, by Canadian director Lea Pool, refers movingly to Godard's sublime _Vivre sa vie_ when its teenage heroine goes to the movies and weeps while watching Anna Karina weep while watching Falconetti weep in Carl Dreyer's classic _The Passion of Joan of Arc_. Films within films, themes within themes, adventurous old traditions within adventurous new traditions.

 

I read _Speaking about Godard_ with great curiosity as to whether Silverman and Farocki had chosen to emphasize any of the same critical and scholarly approaches that I had employed in _Seeing the Invisible_, or whether their different backgrounds -- different from mine and (since they're a theorist and a filmmaker) from each other's -- had led them in different directions. I found a certain amount of common ground, in areas ranging from our love for certain films (who could omit _Weekend_ or _Nouvelle Vague_ from such a project?) to our shared interest in the *abject* and other psychoanalytically related concepts. The largest single difference is, of course, their decision to structure their book literally as a dialogue -- a methodology that seems eminently Godardian at first, but would be more persuasive if the conversations read more like lively, interactive exchanges, and less like alternating blocks of self-contained insight and opinion.

 

Such interactivity would certainly be present if the dialogues between Silverman and Farocki had been transcribed directly from their actual conversations, and although he doesn't directly say so, Paul Sutton appears to indicate such a preference when he criticizes _Speaking about Godard_ as 'a book that should have been a film'. I assume that what he has in mind is something like Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville's own _Soft and Hard (A Soft Conversation Between Two Friends on a Hard Subject)_, and I agree that such an audiovisual project would be fascinating to observe, for its fresh contribution to Godard studies, as well as its additional clues to the intellectual relationship between Silverman and Farocki as academic theorist and practicing filmmaker. It's also true that such a work could include film clips, obviating Sutton's complaint that the stills in _Speaking about Godard_ serve 'simply to demonstrate the impossibility of [the book's] project'.

 

This said, I emphatically disagree with Sutton's implication that books of academic film criticism and analysis are inevitably dogged by the 'impossibility' and 'futility' of 'attempting to re-write or re-narrate' the cinematic texts they take as their objects of study. For that matter, I find it hard to grasp Sutton's underlying view of what film criticism is or should be. The problem starts in his first sentence, when he states that the book under review 'appears . . . to have no immediately identifiable thesis beyond the obvious proposition that Jean-Luc Godard is, or rather his films are, a worthy object of speech'. To be sure, there are other motivations that may spur authors to produce works of film criticism and analysis, such as the wish to explicate or disseminate particular philosophical, theoretical, or political ideas. But qualities that Sutton himself identifies in the Silverman-Farocki book -- a fascination with 'recurring themes', a pervading 'love for the cinema', and so forth -- seem to me more than enough reason to write (or read) such a work, even if the experience is inevitably different from what we'd see and hear if we sat in on the original conversations, or attended a retrospective of Godard's movies and videos. (Sutton doesn't reduce the confusion by stating in his first sentence that the book's thesis is 'somewhat [unusual] for an academic book', only to state in his second sentence that 'many academic texts suffer . . . from just such an occurrence'!)

 

The key point here is that virtually all film-related books are 'dependent on . . . description', in Nick Roddick's words, [3] and on the stills (if any) that supplement the verbal text. Sutton may be right that Silverman and Farocki attempt to construct a 'descriptive narrative [that] strives to visualise specific sequences'. But surely these longtime cineastes were aware of their project's ontological nature, and any inherent limitations thereto, just as a descriptive poet is aware of appealing to the mind's eye rather than the optical eye; surely their 'recourse to stills' is not a measure of ultimate 'failure' to transmute words on a page into pictures on a screen through some sort of semiological alchemy; and surely their intention wasn't to 'demonstrate' the impossibility of their own project by the odd device of conscientiously carrying it out.

 

Turning to Sutton's comments on Godard himself, he doesn't tell us exactly when the filmmaker became 'a ponderous intellectual', a description that many would vigorously contest. But the assertion that the 'humour that remains in his later films is often directed unflatteringly at intellectuals themselves', with Godard himself 'increasingly blind to the ambiguity of his own position', suggests a perilously incomplete view of the filmmaker whose uproariously *self*-deflating humour has led him to satirize his own image (sometimes via surrogates, sometimes via personal appearances) in a long list of films, ranging from _Sauve qui peut (la vie)_ and _Prenom: Carmen_, to _King Lear_ and _Soigne ta droite_, among others. Godard is rarely blind to any ambiguity, it seems to me -- indeed, a passion for ambiguity is a bedrock quality of his entire aesthetic project -- and he has taken remarkable care to make sure 'his own position' doesn't constitute an exception.

 

I must add a word about _Le Mepris_, in which Sutton finds a 'portentousness' and 'pseudointellectuality' that place it into the 'purposefully inaccessible' and 'unpleasurable' category of Godard's work -- and so self-evidently that not one specific argument is adduced against the film. Critics are obviously entitled to their opinions, and I've been known to embrace some ornery ones myself; but specific arguments would have helped the credibility of Sutton's position vis-a-vis a film which many commentators find one of Godard's key masterpieces, and which in any case stands with the 'early, well-known' and 'popular' works (certainly today if not in the '60s -- see above) that he criticizes Silverman and Farocki for short-changing!

 

Specifics are a problem for Sutton's review, beyond its discussion of _Le Mepris_. Just what are the 'later, more politically self-aware films' that 'wear their concerns so visibly' as to make analysis automatically anal? And even if a film is 'self-reflexive' in the extreme, why does this make writing about it 'a more or less pointless exercise'? Missing from this review is a basic realization that all film criticism operates as paratext to the filmic material upon which it comments. To write about films instead of projecting them -- or to read about films as well as viewing them -- is not to 'fail' on some ontological or epistemological level. Laura Marks is hardly the first observer to note that 'one might 'write' about film filmically, by making films/film essays', [4] but that is clearly not the only way of writing about films. Another way is with words and sentences and paragraphs and stills. And that way (as Godard himself recognizes to this day) still serves a legitimate, illuminating purpose.

 

On the subject of my own book of interviews with Godard, spanning his filmmaking career from 1962 to 1996, I'm pleased that Martha P. Nochimson finds much of value in it. In some respects such a volume (here I refer to the interview-book genre, not just my contribution to it) does give access to its subject 'in the heat of an ahistorical eternal present', or rather an intermittent series of such presents. I see more importance, however, in the fact that an 'effect of the confluence of multiple sources for [the subject's] statements is the placement of [the subject's] stream of consciousness into the flood of history', as Nochimson puts it. Indeed, as I note in my introduction, the periodicals from which my interviews are derived themselves 'represent an interesting cross-section of English-language venues open to serious cultural discussion', [5] and their heterogeneity is of course a factor in producing the 'adventure in . . . dissonances among multiple representations of Godard [and] his work' that Nochimson observes. She is completely on target when she notes that the interviews most directly representing Godard allow his 'aesthetic of self-contradiction [to emerge] in all its ambiguity', whereas the 'more filtered accounts tend to assimilate him into an unthreatening image for wider public acquaintance' and thereby illustrate the complex process by which we 'culturally attempt to digest our artists'.

 

She is also right to emphasize the fact that Godard steadily 'rejects received notions of polarities', and that he often 'appears as a man attempting to outrun his last statement'. From the beginning of his career, Godard has been a radically intuitive artist down to his bones, bent on evading predetermined patterns of cinematic (and other) convention through techniques conducive to spontaneity (he prefers 'last-minute focusing' to extensive preparation) and practices designed to render filmmaking a fundamental part of his life's daily ebb and flow -- so that he works on his movies 'not only when I'm shooting but as I dream, eat, read, talk to you', as he said in a 1967 essay. [6] I have argued elsewhere that the improvisatory impulse in post-war art -- from the spontaneous flights of modern jazz to the Beat Generation's affection for 'spontaneous bop prosody', as Jack Kerouac dubbed it -- reflects a desire to restore what Walter Benjamin calls the 'auratic' quality of art as a way of combating tendencies towards depersonalization in twentieth-century culture. [7] Godard accepts the mechanical reproducibility of motion pictures as a defining characteristic of the medium, but he also feels that the film industry's demand for indiscriminate mass distribution has drowned modern cinema in a sea of commercialization and commodification. He has therefore set out to revitalize film's potential by discombobulating film-industrial norms through the cultivation of improvisational methods meant to produce (in Jonathan Rosenbaum's well-chosen words) an 'ungraspable, intractable, unconsumable' form of cinema. [8] In terms of his statements regarding film, this helps explain his predilection for romanticized rhetoric about individuality and eccentricity as pathways to originality and uniqueness, and also his fondness for deliberately slippery and unwieldy wordplay. 'I think the movie is not a thing which is taken by the camera', he said with regard to his 1967 film _La Chinoise, ou Plutot a la chinoise_, arguing that 'the movie is the reality of the movie moving from reality to the camera'. [9] This is an excellent example of Godard's penchant for murky clarifications, but his insertion of an ineffable gap between the film and its means of realization points to his frankly idealistic desire for a discourse of auratic artistry that seeks to replace the demands of commercially driven cinema (and of his own socially constructed ego) with what Benjamin terms the 'unique existence' and 'essentially distant . . . unapproachable' [10] quality that only an art created profoundly *in* and *of* its moment can attain. Nochimson recognizes Godard's appropriation of the interview format itself as a means of asserting an ever-changing form of personal 'distance' and 'uniqueness' and 'authenticity' that takes on its own artistic-aesthetic life even as it supplements and underscores the ambitions he strives to realize in cinematic works per se. His enterprise may be imperfect and frustrating and even insufferable at times. But so are his movies, and they're no less stimulating for all that.

 

This returns me to the basic point, worth stressing once again, that Nochimson goes beyond the volume she's reviewing to consider issues raised by the type of book it represents, building a creatively reasoned, persuasively stated case that stimulates productive consideration of the genus as a whole. And finally, her treatment of critical issues deserves a nod. Only a genuinely imaginative critic would think of mobilizing Martin Buber's perceptual categories to cast light on Godard's feisty interchange with Pauline Kael, and only a truly articulate one could zero-in on Kael's notoriously self-righteous style with a phrase like 'constructed opinions misperceived as truth', an intellectual zinger that cuts to the heart of Kael's critical shortcomings. Felicitously, another of Nochimson's most perceptive observations has to do with Kael's former colleague, Penelope Gilliatt, whose New Yorker profile indeed gives us what Nochimson labels a 'stylish Godard with interesting opinions to entertain sophisticated readers'. Has anyone ever summed up Gilliatt, or the New Yorker style she represents, with more subtly sardonic accuracy?

 

Also strong is Nochimson's pithy assessment of death-of-the-author theory (it's true, something is lustily twitching under that shroud), and of 'the complex relationship between cultural constructions in general and art as a special instance'. I agree with her that the 'documentary . . . intent' of individual interviews in my book (and in other such volumes dealing with first-rate artists) gives way to a 'found poetry' when they are taken together -- a perception which reminds us that Godard is an artist, and a mighty poetic one at that, at least as much as he's a sociopolitical analyst, an agitprop activist, or an object of dissection by critics and scholars. These are exactly the sorts of issues that should be discussed when books on artists and artistry are at hand, and it's not surprising to find Nochimson raising them so effectively, given the incisive work she has done on David Lynch, another impossible-to-pin-down filmmaker whose work presents hugely complicated cultural/critical challenges. [11] Godard is indeed an aesthetic adventurer who 'lives . . . the mysteries of the oblique search for contingent truths', and I am gratified that Nochimson has put her impressive intellectual resources into such a judicious assessment of the ways in which a dialogic collection of cinema-centered conversations can help to illuminate aspects of that quest.

 

Long Island University, C.W. Post Campus

New York, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Chiefly in my books _The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and _Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews_ (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998).

 

2. Wheeler Winston Dixon, _The Films of Jean-Luc Godard_ (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997); and Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki, _Speaking about Godard_ (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

 

3. As quoted in Sutton's review: Nick Roddick, Review of _Speaking about Godard_, _Sight and Sound_, vol. 9 no. 5, May 1999, p. 31.

 

4. Sutton is refering to comments made by Laura Marks at the 1998 Screen Conference.

 

5. _Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews_, p. xiii.

 

6. 'One Should Put Everything into a Film', _L'Avant-Scene du Cinema_ 70, May 1967; reprinted in Jean Narboni and Tom Milne, eds, _Godard on Godard_ (New York: Da Capo Press, 1986), pp. 238-239, cited at p. 238.

 

7. See David Sterritt, 'Revision, Prevision, and the Aura of Improvisatory Art', _The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism_, vol. 58 no. 2, Spring 2000 (forthcoming).

 

8. Jonathan Rosenbaum, 'The Importance of Being Perverse: Godard's _King Lear_', _Chicago Reader_, 8 April 1988; reprinted in Rosenbaum, _Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 184-189, cited at p. 189.

 

9. Quoted by Gene Youngblood in 'Jean-Luc Godard: No Difference between Life and Cinema', _Los Angeles Free Press_, 15 March 1968; reprinted in Sterritt, _Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews_, pp. 9-49, cited at p. 29.

 

10. Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', in _Illuminations_ (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), pp. 217-251, cited at pp. 221 and 243.

 

11. Martha P. Nochimson, _The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood_ (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).

 

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

David Sterritt, 'Speaking and Writing about Godard: A Response to Nochimson and Sutton', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 8, March 2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n8sterritt>.

 

  

 

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