Monday, March 30, 2015

Uncle Jean returns: portrait of the artist as an old comedian

Godard likes nothing better than to provoke. The filmmaker who is the cinema's finest visual poet can also be something of a ham. He has shown this side only sporadically, sometimes in other filmmakers' works but to best effect in his own films.

He created his comic alter-ego in one of the best, most entertaining, and entrancing films of his “comeback” period in the early Eighties, Prenom Carmen (aka First Name: Carmen, 1983). In that film he played the supporting role of “Uncle Jean,” an off-kilter version of himself that found him embracing and mocking the things that had been said about him over the years by critics who didn't like his work. It's a tight-wire act he pulls off very well (and in case you weren't clued in, his character carries around a coffee table book about Buster Keaton):

“Uncle Jean” showed up again, this time as the lead (called “the Prince,” taking a leaf from Dostoyevsky), in the episodic feature Soigne Ta Droite (Keep Up Your Right Up, 1987). Again, his character is a demented filmmaker who is prone to saying odd things at odd moments.

Godard has been far more serious in his onscreen appearances in recent years – in his epic Histoire(s) du Cinema, JLG by JLG, and Notre Musique. But Uncle Jean still lurks within the heart of Godard, and so his comic side emerges again in his latest video, a little number with the rather unwieldy title Prix Suisse, remerciements, mort ou vif (Prix suisse, my thanks, dead or alive).

Godard has made it a practice not to show up at any awards ceremonies or film festivals in the last few years. Instead he sends really wonderful short videos to serve as an acknowledgement and thank-you note. These videos will, of course, last a lot longer than any speech he might've made at the ceremonies.

It's important to remember in this instance that, although Godard is one of the greatest French filmmakers, he was raised in Switzerland and is half Swiss (on his father's side). The particulars of the award presentation are as follows (and I must thank Craig Keller for his English-language account on the Mubi site). The “Prix d’honneur du cinéma suisse” was given to Godard earlier this month for his body of work. The prize brought with it an award of 30,000 francs, which Godard reportedly divided in four parts between himself and three charities. His cinematographer Fabrice Aragno accepted the award on Godard's behalf.

The most notable thing about the short video he sent along to the award ceremony is that it represents the “return” of Godard's Uncle Jean character – one presumes that talking about his native land (where he has also lived and worked for several decades) brought back his eccentric comic side. Here he takes a fall — not exactly a common thing among 84-year-old filmmakers — and plays the role of the crazy intellectual old man.

Keller's piece about the award does much to “decode” the many references in Godard's recitation here. As with all of Godard's work, it's probably best to watch the video — which is quite short (under five minutes) — then read the explanations provided in Keller's piece (and the very informative comments below the piece) and watch it again.

Suffice it to say that the poetry-speak that Godard indulges in here finds him stitching together a verbal collage of Swiss references – place names, quotes from a famous Swiss novelist's text for Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, and references to a work he identifies with remembering one's childhood (a Pasolini poem).

As I have said before on the Funhouse TV show and in these pages, we are very lucky to live at a time when there are still new Godard creations coming out on a regular basis.

Thanks to friend Paul for supplying this subtitled copy of the video.

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