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Eight Obstacles to the Appreciation of Godard in the United States
From Jean-Luc Godard: Son-Image 1974-1991 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992). -– J.R.

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"Jean-Luc cultists," complains Judith Crist in the World Journal Tribune. God bless them! They constitute a line of defense against every manipulative insult the entertainment business throws out, there are more of them each year, and they may even be winning.

– Roger Greenspun (1)

Greenspun's rallying cry of a quarter of a century ago testifies to the passion and debate that used to be stirred up in the United States when Godard's name was mentioned. The gradual phasing out of that debate and the depletion of that passion cannot be explained simply, and to understand it at all requires some careful thought about how American culture as a whole has itself changed in the interim. For a director still closely identified with the sixties in American film criticism, Godard is regarded today with much of the same fear, skepticism, suspicion, and impatience that greet many other contemporary responses to that decade. And his status as an intellectual with a taste for abstraction may make him seem even more out of place in a mass culture that currently has little truck with movie experiences that can't be reduced to sound bites. (One might add that he has still fared somewhat better in this respect than Antonioni, whose American reputation has suffered an almost total eclipse.)

Roughly speaking, Godard's career as a critic spans sixteen years, from an auteurist appreciation of Joseph Mankiewicz, published in the second issue ofGazette du Cinéma in 1950, to "3000 heures de cinéma," published in the 184th issue ofCahiers du Cinéma (November 1966). His career as a director of features has lasted almost twice as long and reveals a comparable ambivalence toward the U.S., with both a love of William Faulkner and Robert Aldrich and a mockery of American power and influence extending all the way from Breathless toNouvelle Vague. But in contrast to this sustained love-hatred that, through all its vicissitudes, has never ceased to be both pursuit and flight, embrace and recoil, the relationship of the U.S. to Godard has, broadly speaking, been one of increasing fascination (roughly 1961 to 1973), followed by decreasing interest (roughly 1974 to 1992). It should be recalled, however, that, even at the height of his popularity as an arthouse director, Godard was always something of a minority taste among critics and audiences alike. While the American critics and institutions that were originally most supportive of his work — Richard Roud, Susan Sontag, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, and Vincent Canby, among the former; the New York Film Festival, The Museum of Modern Art, and New Yorker Films, among the latter — have been highly influential, mainstream resistance to Godard's work has remained constant over the past three decades, becoming increasingly decisive over the second half of this period. The remarks that follow will attempt to pinpoint some of the sources of that resistance.

Without pretending in any way to be exhaustive, I think that the principal obstacles to the American appreciation of Godard that have existed — and, in many cases, continue to exist – point toward a complex of cultural attitudes that ultimately have bearing on much more than Godard's work. Nevertheless, insofar as Godard's name has remained both a symbol and a rallying point for a certain kind of cinema since the beginning of his career, it seems useful to delve here, however incompletely, into the question of what that kind of cinema has meant, and continues to mean, in an American context.

While much of my emphasis will be on the American reception of Godard's work since I974, it is important to bear in mind that Godard's American reputation prior to this period, beginning in 1961 with the release in the United States of his first feature, Breathless, affected his subsequent reputation in two largely antithetical ways. That is, part of the resistance to Godard in this country since I974 can be construed as a backlash to the former centrality of Godard's name and work in certain circles, while another part of that resistance is due to a lack of awareness of his former centrality, especially among younger viewers. (Two significant instances of this latter situation, both dating from the early eighties, are worth citing here. By his own account, Jim McBride was able to finance his American remake of Breathless only because most producers he approached had heard of the film but had never seen it; and when Godard's Passion received an uncharacteristically wide American release a year or so later, it was most often billed — in ads, on marquees, and even in recorded phone messages at theaters – as "Francis Coppola'sPassion".)

Although many of the topics addressed below represent ongoing problems of reception rather than obstacles posed in a particular period, and some of these are overlapping rather than sequential, I have given these topics in a very rough chronological order, from problems associated with Godard during the sixties, to the recent present.

1. The Nouvelle Vague context. Clearly, the fact that Breathless was originally perceived as part of a larger artistic movement helped immeasurably in providing Godard's first American audiences with a loose context in which to understand his work.

Breathless opened in New York the same year as Claude Chabrol's The Cousins, after Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, and Louis Malle's The Lovers already appeared, and while information about "the Nouvelle Vague" in the American press tended to be somewhat vague and confused — characteristically, both Resnais and Malle were often assumed to be Cahiers du Cinéma critics along with Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol — the sense of Godard being part of a larger movement was already fairly pronounced. While the Nouvelle Vague continued to be regarded as a viable journalistic hook by American critics throughout most of the sixties, subdivisions and discriminations became more apparent as more films and information became available. It was eventually understood that directors who had started out as critics onCahiers du Cinéma — Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer –represented a particular core group in the Nouvelle Vague, identifiable by their eccentric taste for American genre films, their low-budget methods of shooting, and their relatively freewheeling styles. (Regarding the latter, it was widely believed that most or all of these directors depended a great deal on improvisation. The appearance of John Cassavetes' Shadows around the same time as Breathless led some reviewers to make certain connections between the two, without discriminating between the actor's [alleged] improvisations in Shadows and Godard's practice on Breathless of working without a complete shooting script; some time passed before it was understood that Jean-Paul Belmondo's asides and rambling monologues at the beginning ofBreathless weren't the actor's own inventions.) Many other popular French films of this period, such as Marcel Camus's Black Orpheus, Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, Malle's Zazie, and the early films of Jacques Demy and Philippe de Broca, were often labeled "Nouvelle Vague" as well, and it was a while before the efforts of the better-informed critics made it apparent that some of these films, like those of Resnais and Demy, were more related to the tastes and methods of the core group than certain others, like those of Camus and de Broca.

The eventual dissolution of the original concept of "Nouvelle Vague"– with reference both to the core group and to its wider applications — was gradual, and largely came about when the ideological, temperamental, and stylistic differences between members of the core group became too glaring to overlook. Godard's increasing move toward Leftist politics articulated one of the most striking of these differences (see #5, below), and if one draws certain approximate parallels between the dissolution of the Cahiers core group and the breakup of the Beatles (which occurred during the following decade), it is clear that Godard was the John Lennon of the group. (Following the same rough parallel, Truffaut was the Paul McCartney and Rivette was the George Harrison, although one clearly couldn't postulate either Chabrol or Rohmer as an equivalent to Ringo Starr.) By the time that "Nouvelle Vague" became appropriated as "New Wave" to refer to a kind of rock music, the original meaning of the term had passed out of the working vocabulary of the American mainstream — so much so that contemporary American academics who teach Nouvelle Vague films generally feel obliged to speak of the "French New Wave" in order to avoid confusion. One final comment regarding the original Cahiers core group is worth stressing. As many of the eccentric film tastes of these critic-directors gradually passed into the American mainstream — so that it eventually became less shocking to regard Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks as serious and important directors — the polemical force of Cahiers du Cinéma's position regarding American cinema was largely dissipated, thanks in large measure to the early critical efforts of Andrew Sarris, terms like "auteur" and "mise en scène" (the latter with hyphens added) entered the language, and the notion of treating popular American mainstream and genre directors as serious artists became not only acceptable but firmly entrenched, eventually lent even more credence by the expanded role played by promotion (and the promotion of certain directors) in the reception of big-studio Hollywood features. Broadly speaking, the attention once accorded to figures like Godard and Truffaut (and other foreign directors like Bergman and Fellini) as"artists" is lavished today on directors such as Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. Meanwhile, current American interest in Cahiers du Cinéma is so slight that a respected writer for the New York Times could recently state that the magazine "is no longer fascinated by Hollywood" — a remark nearly fifteen years out of date. (2)

2. Release patterns. According to the filmography in Richard Roud'sGodard (3), the first book about Godard in English, Godard's early features opened commercially in the United States in the following order and years:Breathless (1961), Vivre sa vie (1963), Contempt (1964), A Woman is a Woman(1964), The Married Woman (1965), Alphaville (1965), Band of Outsiders(1966), Masculine Feminine (1966), La Chinoise (1968), Les Carabiniers(1968), Weekend (1968). During the same period, his other early features made their first U.S. appearances at the New York Film Festival: Le Petit Soldat(1965), Pierrot le fou (1966), Made in U.S.A. (1967), 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1968), Le Gai Savoir (1969); the rarely shown May 1968 documentary Un Film comme les autres had its first screening in the United States on the premises shared by the New York Film Festival, Philharmonic Hall, early in 1969. Putting these lists together and noting specific dates, one can say that Godard's first features appeared in the U.S. in the following sequence: 1, 4, 6, 3, 8, 2, 9, 7, 10, 11, 12, 5, 14, 13, 15, 17, 16. This almost continuous disruption of what might be regarded as the logical development of Godard's work from one feature to the next was bound to lead to certain confusions. (In France, by contrast, the sequence was broken only by the initial banning of Le Petit Soldat, Godard's second feature, which opened in Paris the year after Vivre sa vie, his fourth.)Haphazard programming patterns also tended to obscure certain linkages that enhanced and clarified many of the films in question; for example, Made in U.S.A. and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, made concurrently in 1965, premiered at the New York FiIm Festival a year apart, in 1967 and 1968, respectively. The latter film was eventually released in 1970; the former, due to legal problems involving the Richard Stark novel that was the film's putative source, has never been released in the United States at all.

 


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