Friday, October 7, 2022

Media Funhouse guests speak about Godard

It’s been a few weeks since Uncle Jean (aka Jean-Luc Godard) died, and I do plan on writing something about his life and work for this blog. But in the meantime, I wanted to post what I initially thought of as “the end” of the piece, namely a collection of eight videos in which Media Funhouse interview subjects spoke about Godard. Two of the guests were admirers who happened to meet Godard as their indie filmmaking careers flourished; two were performers in his 1980s films (commonly thought of as his “comeback” films, although he never really left — he just stopped and then restarted making fiction films); three were collaborators behind the camera; and one wrote the first (and still best) biography of Godard in English.

I should explain that these interviews were done under various conditions. In some, I spoke to the guest under very tight time constraints, so my Godard-related questions were slipped in “under the wire.” In others we had ample time with the guest and so they could go on at length about their admiration for, or work with, Godard. The interviews were shot in conference rooms, hotel rooms, a Lincoln Center office, and one artist’s kitchen. I was very happy to get these responses about a filmmaker that clearly fascinated the interview subjects as much as he fascinated all of his diehard fans for the last six decades-plus, and I’m now happy to share them all in one package. 


As an “appetizer,” two clips from different interviews with Hal Hartley, where I asked him about Godard and his influences. He had interviewed Godard for a U.S. filmmaking magazine and had the great experience of telling Uncle Jean that he went to one of Godard’s recent films with his actor-friend Martin Donovan, who “laughed at the wrong part” of the film. Godard’s answer? “There are no wrong parts.”

I used that as a springboard for an earlier question to Hartley in the ’96 interview and then slipped in a query about Godard before the end of the chat. In ’06 Hartley answered the question in a broader sense, discussing how important it is for filmmakers to have influences and to openly copy them, on the way to developing one’s own style. 


Leos Carax is one of the most talented directors around, but few know about his acting career. There hasn’t been much to it (six supporting roles of various size in films directed by others) — then again, his filmmaking career has consisted of only six (splendid) features so far. 

He made his acting debut on film (minus a bit as an extra in one of his own pictures) in Godard’s KING LEAR (1987). I asked him about his appearance in that film and also about his being influenced by the French New Wave.


Next up is Jane Birkin. Ms. Birkin acted only once for Godard, in SOIGNE TA DROITE (Keep Your Right Up, 1987). She had a small part, but I thought it was still important to ask her what that time spent with JLG was like, and she came up with a lovely portrait of a cranky, laser-focused man with a bad cold. (None of which should surprise a diehard Uncle Jean fan.)


Independent filmmaker Amos Poe discussed his paean to Godard, UNMADE BEDS (1976), in my interview with him. That film revolves around a guy in ’76 NYC who believes he’s living in a French New Wave movie at the turn of the Sixties.

That part of our chat was interesting, but an even juicier morsel came out later in our lengthy interview: Amos had been ripped off money-wise by Uncle Jean! Watch the clip for details, but the story involves Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Robert Fripp, and a proposed remake of ALPHAVILLE.


The filmmaker Claude Miller served a long and fruitful apprenticeship assisting other directors in the 1960s. He was as an assistant director or production manager for Bresson, Truffaut, Demy, and Godard. I got reflections from him on three of those four, and here is his remembrance of time working with Godard on 2 or 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER (production manager, and he’s also seen as an actor behind a pile of books on a table in one sequence), LA CHINOISE (no official credit, but he said he worked on the film to me), and WEEKEND (assistant director).

He had fond memories of working with JLG, and he certainly was present at a great moment in Godard’s career — when he was making his “last” fiction films, before he went fully political (and non-fictional) for a decade.


D.A. Pennebaker was a consummate documentarian who shared quite a lot in my discussion with him, reviewing his older films while also promoting his more recent ones with his partner/wife Chris Hegedus. His time with Godard was spent making (with his partner Richard Leacock and Uncle Jean) a Godard project called 1 A.M. (ONE AMERICAN MOVIE). It was to be a sort of panorama of America on the brink of revolution, but Godard left the project after most of the footage was shot and abandoned the whole thing.

What Pennebaker edited together, called ONE P.M., does play like one of Godard’s “pitch” storyboards (drawn so he could get a notion of what he wanted, but also to cajole money out of producers). It’s a series of unrelated episodes, some documentary, some fiction: Rip Torn acts up a storm around NYC, Eldridge Cleaver is seen being wary of the filmmakers’ cameras, Tom Hayden gives lengthy speeches, and the Jefferson Airplane beat the Beatles to the punch by having a rooftop concert months before LET IT BE. (And getting chased off by the cops.)

In the meantime, we see Pennebaker’s footage of Godard staging and shooting some of the scenes — it’s by far one of the closest studies of Godard at work in the Sixties. Even though he’s not making a classic film, you can still see his imagination (and budding interest in radical politics) radiating all around him.


The last two interviews featured here gave me the most information about Godard as an artist (and as a person, although Birkin’s remarks can always be kept in mind). Cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who worked with JLG for a number of years on every project he did, from fiction features to video essays, provided some excellent insights about his working methods. Here we talk about her first film with him, SOIGNE TA DROITE, where she was behind the camera filming Godard as an actor (playing his “Uncle Jean” character – this time called “The Prince”).

She also rebuffs the notion that he was a master of lighting and instead calls him a “master of framing,” detailing how his very specific methods of framing an image made his visuals so distinct and readily recognizable.


And finally: The only full-length interview I did that was entirely concerned with Godard was with film critic and historian Colin MacCabe, whose biography “Godard: Portrait of the Artist at Seventy” had just been published. (The first biography in English and, as I said above, still the best one in this language.) When I spoke to him in early 2004, a lot of Godard’s “late period” films had yet to come out on DVD (and there was no such thing as the “underside of the Internet” where rare foreign films with English subs were lurking, ready to be grabbed and watched).

I had seen Godard’s film and video work of that time at select screenings at rep houses and (mostly) MoMA, so I was able to talk about it with Mr. MacCabe, but I wasn’t sure if my viewership had, so I spoke with him here about Godard’s perception of his audience and how one should watch his brilliant eight-part sensory overload, HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA (made from 1988-98). 

Mr. MacCabe, who had not only interviewed Godard many times and wrote the biography but also produced three of his video essays, was quite generous with his knowledge of his subject and gave me some very valuable answers about how to take in the essays, which are indeed the masterworks of the last three decades of Godard’s career (along with a few of the final fiction films). This is part of a longer chat.