We have just learned that Jean-Luc Godard has passed away. The method was assisted suicide and why not? It was, to bastardize the title of one of his movies, “His Life to Live”. As it happens, the day he chose is the 150th anniversary of the launch of another French institution, the Folies Bergère. I doubt he planned it that way, but the two entertainment machines taken together and in chronological sequence make a nice illustration of the principles of dialectics — capitalist decadence followed by Brechtian didacticism.
The event disproves the sentiment frequently expressed in our house that Godard would never die. After all, he was 91, and was making films until just a couple of years ago. He was so prolific I never even attempted to see ALL of his films, although I have at least one crazy friend who has. Of his 45 or so features I have seen about a third of them, almost all of them from his New Wave period (1955-1967, including his early shorts). Unsurprisingly, Breathless (1960) was my first, when I was quite young, and I saw Masculin Feminin (1966) when I was at NYU…then most of the rest of the early films over the past dozen years, usually at the instigation of my wife. A few of those movies I have now consumed several times. I have seen none of his work more recent than Tout va bien (1972, with Jane Fonda!)
But even those who have seen none of Godard’s work have experienced his influence. He and his French New Wave colleagues refreshed and rejuvenated cinematic grammar in a thousand different ways and the lively effects they pioneered made their way all the way to Hollywood, although usually in an ameliorated and defanged form. New Hollywood aped his aesthetics but only briefly, and it was rare though not unknown for something resembling his left wing political views to find their way into American movies. Some of his flashier techniques remain part of the modern director’s bag of tricks, but for the most part American cinema has remained a confectionary industry, a distributor of what Aldous Huxley called soma.
But that may change. It’s not accidental that my wife and I have been watching Godard’s films a lot these last few years, as the moral bankruptcy of contemporary American culture has demonstrated its danger to the future of humanity with terrifying clarity. During these last few insane years his films and the views he expresses in them have seemed less extreme than prescient and prescriptive. American audiences have been fattening themselves for slaughter ever since there’s been a Hollywood. And now more than ever they require movies that slap them awake.
And on that very topic, as it happens another French director of Godard’s generation passed away on September 10, William Klein. My tribute to him is here.