Friday, April 9, 2021

Snow is on the water (but a good cigar is a smoke): The pandemic interviews of Godard

The world’s greatest living filmmaker still has some ideas he’d like to impart. He’s now 90 (offering an excuse for his crankiness, which, admittedly, he’s displayed for the 60 years he's been making films), his voice trembles, and he’s clearly not in peak condition. But he still smokes fat cigars, is amenable to being interviewed at length every few months, and has some things to say.

The gent in question, Jean-Luc Godard, speaks in a decisive, declarative fashion, but he often travels circuitously around a topic he’s been asked about, only to give an answer that is related to the question but also introduces a second, related idea. He speaks conceptually yet also poetically — making his answers to questions seem like prepared notions or aphorisms while they are really just the products of a very unique method of thinking.

It is that unique approach to ideas and poetry that has made his films so important in the six decades since A Bout de Souffle. He remains one of the most influential filmmakers currently working while still also offering new ideas, striking imagery, and playful audio collages. We can count ourselves lucky to still be able to see new work by him in this most confused and chaotic of centuries.

Two lengthy interviews have been conducted with Godard (hereupon referred to sporadically as “Uncle Jean,” his farcical alter-ego from some of his Eighties “comeback” fiction features) since the onset of the pandemic. In the more recent one he is seen to be less healthy, more fragile, yet still engaged and opinionated. Much was made of the fact that the second interview contains his declaration that he will retire for good after making two more features. Given his current condition, we would be very lucky to see two more features come from him. After that, he certainly deserves a rest.

The first of the two interviews was conducted for students of the ECAL, Ecole Cantonale d’art de Lausanne, on April 7, 2020. Although Godard has noted that he felt Swiss in France and French in Switzerland, he does have a strong connection to his homeland — since that’s where he came back to, to focus his energies on film- and video-making, and to just live. (Of course, to be the true-blue contrarian he has always been, he notes “I may have a Swiss passport, but I’m French.”)

He tells the interviewer, Lionel Baier, that he can have as much time as he wants, but Baier sticks to his own questions and doesn’t ask the ones that were supplied by students. He, like the later interviewer, is obviously a great student of Godard’s work, and so his questions are mostly about the themes that JLG has been obsessed about for the last few decades.

The discussion starts with Godard mentioning a project he thought about but never went through with — showing the life of a cable-news anchor. In classic poetic JLG-speak, he notes this about his inability to get a real news anchor to allow their professional and personal life to be seen on-camera for his film: “They were willing to die for the news, but not willing to live it.”

The interviewer asks him how he takes in news these days, and Godard says he reads three newspapers (Liberation, Charlie Hebdo, Le Canard Enchaîné) and watches TV news (the kind without commercials) twice a day.

The first major topic tackled is, of course, the pandemic. Godard immediately goes into metaphorical mode, noting that “the virus is a form of communication… It needs to latch onto a host like certain birds.” In reference to the rapid progression of COVID, he notes “Yes, that’s capitalism for you. It’s all about growth.”

He speaks in metaphor and poetic likenings throughout. He posits at one point that the American attack on Iraq could be viewed as an attack on the area where language began (Chaldea). He then notes that, of course, George W. Bush and his cohorts wouldn’t know at all what was meant by that, but he then launches into a characteristically brilliant riff on how the best writers and artists tried to go “beyond, besides, and below language.” He quotes the poet Boileau-Despreaux, who said [JLG’s phrasing] “Review your work 20 times, and polish and re-polish it constantly.”

A great portrait of JLG, taken in July 2020
by the terrific photographer Hedi Slimane.
All the shots in this series
 can be viewed here
 or on Slimane's site.

This returns to a theme I’ve talked about on the Funhouse TV show in the past few months — how non-American filmmakers, especially those brought up in Europe, are very knowledgeable about the other arts besides cinema. We’re lucky if American filmmakers know the history of cinema, whereas the masters of the medium have always been familiar with literature, painting, classical music, and other foundational work that one can then veer away from (while still being aware of what the seminal works are in other media).

It’s been noted about Godard by some who knew him that the books that he’s quoted from in his films have not actually been read by the filmmaker. He has himself admitted that he has looked for the best quotes in certain works of fiction and poetry. In the ECAL interview, he notes he currently prefers reading non-fiction (and detective stories in the world of fiction — the names Jean-Patrick Manchette and David Goodis are singled out for praise). He notes he remains interested in the scientific method and the work of scientists (thus, his interest in the virus). 

At the point the ECAL talk was done he was working on a project, but would only say it was on the topic of (and he says this phrase in English) “fake news.” He said the notion was to pit the “news virus” one gets at home with simply living one’s life. (And he acknowledges that one of his best-known films is titled Vivre Sa Vie). Another project he was interested in doing in 2020 was an opera, with music to be provided by the jazz-experimental record label ECM (which has released the full soundtracks — dialogue and sound effects included — of some of JLG’s films). 

He talks about Anne-Marie Melville, with whom he’s been involved as a filmmaking partner and as a real-life partner since the 1970s. He notes that their devotion to the cause of Palestine brought them together — and in the second interview, discussed below, he refers to her several times as “my wife.” (But the two have never legally married — unless they’ve hidden that fact away from the public and press — and haven’t lived together for years.)

Then the real contrarian impulse kicks in, since he’s talking with a film scholar and being viewed by cinephiles — Uncle Jean starts bitching about living and dead filmmakers by saying that “three-quarters of them are not auteurs.” Of course, the buffs will love this, thinking he’s bitching about mainstream directors who make crappy action movies, crappy comedies, and crappy dramas. But, in a characteristically cranky mode, he wants to redefine who was in and out of the Nouvelle Vague, and who of the critically vaunted directors really was an auteur and who wasn’t.

Ben and Benedict
Thus, he orphans Claude Chabrol by saying he was not truly a New Wave filmmaker — “he was never an auteur. He was different. There was Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette, and me. And three or four lesser-knowns, such as Claude Nedjar’s wife, Paula Delsol, who made a good little film [Ben et Bénédict, 1977], which I consider to be better than Agnes Varda. At the beginning Agnes made a few good films, two or three….”

He then admits that a few other names could be included in the New Wave. He, of course, leaves out the Left Bank, except for Varda whom he demotes — Resnais, Marker, and other directors of the same age group and similar disposition — Demy, Malle, and a few others. He basically has a problem with the term “filmmaker” as well as auteur/author. To him, auteur “is a status,” not a marker of quality.

He also downgrades two of the greatest cult heroes of the critic/filmmakers of the Fifties/Sixties: Sam Fuller and Nick Ray. The great Fuller acted for Godard in Pierrot Le Fou and his shots are mimicked in a bunch of JLG films, including A Bout de Souffle; the rebel-icon Ray was habitually mentioned in the Sixties Godard films and his work was included in later video essays like Histoire(s) du cinema. They are now, according to older, crankier, Uncle Jean “auteurs moyens” (middling authors).

Possibly the most surprising “demotion” for lovers of great French cinema is his current day takedown of Jacques Becker — after he himself wrote one of the finest-ever reviews of an admittedly lesser Becker film, which I quote in this blog post.

Casque d'or (1952), one of
Becker's many masterpieces.

“We [at Cahiers] even defended authors of bad films. In my opinion, there’s only one film in which Becker was really the author, and that was Touchez Pas au Grisbi. None of the other films…. were [as good]. I wrote a review that upset him. I said, it’s because it was bad that he dared to do it badly.” JLG never clarifies which film he’s talking about, but again I direct you to his rave review of Montparnasse 19, which I mentioned in my posts about Becker.

Bresson, however, has lost none of his luster for Godard — he notes the reverence the New Wavers had for Bresson’s little book Notes on Cinematography. He also later in the ECAL chat oddly also underscores that the now-“rediscovered” (by cinephiles like the recently departed Bertrand Tavernier, whose list of favorites seemed to be comprised mostly of those directors “demoted” by the Cahiers group back in the Fifties) Claude Sautet. Godard praises Sautet’s films as “tight.” An odd combination, that — Bresson and Sautet….

At one point the interviewer does touch an emotional cord by asking if Godard misses his old New Wave colleagues. “Yes, I miss them a lot. Because we talked a lot, but now we hardly ever do. We talk about films when there’s a film to make, but apart from that it’s different.”

Young French filmmakers in 1959.
Front row, left: Truffaut. Back row:
Chabrol (glasses), JLG (shades).

Keep in mind, of course, that when he recorded this interview, even Varda had died, so the core of the Nouvelle Vague *and* the “Left Bank” brilliant innovators had all died. So, one assumes he’s speaking in the present tense about the past – or simply implying that he used to talk with more collaborators (as when he had the same cinematographer for several years — Raoul Coutard — and when he had a filmmaking partner other than Ms. Mieville — Jean-Pierre Gorin).

In closing, he is asked to provide the usual “advice” to young filmmakers. With typical circuitous elan, he simply says, “They should check what they’re doing.” (We return to the Boileau-Despreaux quote above.)

And the interviewer does “break character” to add in, while the tape is still running, “You mean a lot to us.” Uncle Jean’s unsentimental but still jovial response? “Yes, I’m aware of that. … So far, so good….” 



A year can make a lot of difference in a senior’s life. In the second lengthy interview video, which was uploaded to YouTube on March 2 of this year, Godard seems shakier, more tired, and more uncertain. The last, however, comes from the fact that this interview came off poorly, not for its content but because of persistent technical troubles and difficulties in understanding between the interviewer and Godard.

The talk was tied in to the fact that Godard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Film Festival of Kerala in India. Godard was seen briefly via his cellphone at the ceremony where he was awarded the honor but, luckily for the festival, he agreed to be interviewed at another time. Unluckily for the festival, the chat was conducted on the Net and was conducted in English, a language that Godard admittedly doesn’t remember all that well. (A translator was standing by online, but she also had technical problems and had to render quick translations of what Uncle Jean had said, which is not an easy task under the best of circumstances.)

So, this is a more jarring and saddening viewing experience, but if you view this interview video first (as I did), it’s a lot less jarring (minus the obvious increasing tremor in JLG’s voice). The difficulties encountered in the discussion are quite daunting, though. Godard’s circuitous, conceptual, and poetic language is very hard to translate and make sense of. (One would have to paraphrase or rethink the wording in the second language.)

Here, both speakers are operating with verbal impediments. The interviewer, C.S. Venkiteswaran, is clearly a brilliant, sharp thinker, who speaks with an Indian accent; Godard, on the other hand, has his classic speech impediment (which was quite well approximated by Louis Garrel in the rather awful Le Redoubtable, aka “Godard, Mon Amour,” 2017).

One adds onto those trouble-causing elements for a bilingual conversation the fact that the Net connection between the two suffered glitches and lags, and the fact that both gentlemen are clearly very set in their ways: Godard is always going to answer in his characteristically circuitous fashion, and Venkiteswaran continued to ask rather lengthy questions, even when it was obvious that shorter queries would’ve worked better, given all the difficulties. (As someone who has many lengthy questions in interviews, I sympathize.)

Again, Uncle Jean smokes a BIG cigar with much relish and again, he starts off likening cinema to the coronavirus. When called “one of the youngest filmmakers” currently working, he admits “I’m still at the beginning” and then affirms that his main concern is “movies and reality — what reality is and what is the [best] way to catch reality.”

The central metaphor he latches on to here — and this seems to reflect on the commodification of “content” on the Net and the consumer society in general — is that “production” should be what people are concerned about, and instead “distribution” becomes the main obsession. In the case of cinema, he notes that “distribution has choked production to be at the service of the viewer.”

On the shoot for the 3-D film
 Adieu au langage (2014).

He continues with this metaphor for a while and revives the idea throughout the interview. He notes that commercials should be longer — one assumes, since he craves sheer honesty, and if commercials stopped pretending they were just mere interruptions, the viewer would be clearer about what they are and what they’re conveying. At this point a period of dead silence ensues, the first of a bunch in the video.

Godard takes this little sejour from the conversation to reflect on silence. He asks the interviewer if he could describe “an image of silence.” When Venkiteswaran says he can’t, JLG provides what might be the most profound and beautiful moment in the talk when he says, “I look out my window and there is snow. The [18th-century French] writer Jules Renard said silence is snowing on the water.” He then adds, “In doing that we are still making cinema.”

At this point one is happy to realize that Godard’s mind is as nimble as ever, with tangents that might only completely work if translated into and out of Japanese. (The above Renard quote has the distinct feeling of a Japanese epigram.)

Venkiteswaran’s best question for Godard produces another one of these tangents — in this case it is unfortunate, because the question is indeed so good. To wit, with surveillance cameras and webcams everywhere, the state is currently the biggest mass producer of images; add to that the wild profusion of images uploaded by consumers onto the Internet. With these two new sources for millions and millions of images, where does the contemporary filmmaker fit in?

Godard’s answer to this is refer to history — in this case “archeology” done on family history that he has done over the years. He refers to the human memory as being finite and emphasizes that our memory of our family can only be traced back a few generations (“a few grandmothers – I don’t count in centuries, but in grandmothers,” he notes).

Another shot of Godard in July 2020,
taken by the great Hedi Slimane.

At this point there is more silence, and so Godard goes into another reverie. Again, the meat of the conversation is a tangent. He meditates on the fact that in film “a few seconds after saying ‘Action,’ we say, ‘Silence!.’ The difficulty of today’s cinema is that it only thinks Action and does not think Silence. However, it says both while shooting!”

The next two topics are again extended metaphors by Uncle Jean — the first involves a discussion of his favorite topic, language. (He notes that “Today there is only speech, only words, only alphabet.”) The second returns to the theme of virus as communication. He mentions that he once appeared on TV with his cousin Jacques Monod, who “discovered DNA.” (Per Monod’s Wiki, he is “widely regarded as one of the founders of molecular biology.”)

Godard maintains he asked Monod in which direction DNA could go — his cousin maintained that it only proceeded in one direction, but the contrarian filmmaker says he still inquired about it going in the opposite direction… prefiguring the RNA molecule. (This is how he puts it — at these points, one assumes that his ideas are sound, but his method of conveying them is, again, roundabout and possessing a degree of Wellesian self-aggrandizement.) This retrovirus, he notes, brings us something that “we try to destroy,” instead of trying to understand it.

After another metaphorical tangent, in which he discusses how most filmmakers frame images (from the outside in) and how he likes to frame (from the center outward), he takes out his latest “script,” which is in fact an accordion-pleated succession of cardboard cards that have images and handwritten sentences on them. (His handwriting is a sight familiar to those who’ve seen any of JLG’s films from Pierrot Le Fou onward.)

At this point he makes the announcement that became the most-repeated item from this interview. He states that he has two scripts assembled, called “Scenario” and “Droles du guerres” (Funny Wars). “I’m finishing my movie life by doing two scripts, and after that I will say goodbye to cinema.” One hopes he can get both films made, or even one of them, since he does indeed seem shaky. (But infinitely determined, which is what has clearly kept him alive until the age of 90.)

Toward the end of the chat Godard speaks about the nationality of he and his “wife,” the filmmaker Anne-Marie Mieville. He notes that they are expatriates in both Switzerland and France — “The Swiss authority doesn’t consider us as good Swiss people, and the French authority has completely forgotten us as French citizens.”

At the end, Venkiteswaran asks Godard why India, the world’s leading producer (and, as Uncle Jean notes, the leading distributor!) of films, wasn’t included in his epic video project Histoire(s) du Cinema. JLG confesses that he knows nothing of Indian cinema outside of Satyajit Ray, because Indian films were very hard to see in France. When quizzed by the host of the event at the very end as to why he has never traveled to India, the always-circuitous Godard instead recounts a tale of how he was rejected from traveling to Vietnam when the war was on.

The end of the interview reminds us that Uncle Jean is indeed an old gent who is only passingly familiar with modern devices, even though he has several times in the last decade sworn fidelity to his iPhone. He wants to show an illustration of what he believes himself to be to the hosts, and thus he searches around for quite a while to find it. With the help of his cinematographer-producer-researcher Fabrice Aragno, he finally comes up with the image in his iPhone gallery — it’s a drawing of a fisherman casting his line, waiting to see what he will catch.