Everything Is Cinema
The career of Jean-Luc Godard has been a fascinating, tempestuous, and often controversial journey that featured engagements with charged social and political issues as well as an idiosyncratic approach to the process of filmmaking. His first feature film, À bout de souffle (1960), better known by its English title, Breathless, appeared at a seminal point in the history of the nouvelle vague, or New Wave, a movement that revolutionized the French cinema and continues to be influential throughout the world. His flirtation with Maoism and the radical left, dramatized in La Chinoise (1967), alienated him from the film industry’s traditional sources of funding as well as from many fans of his previous films. His return to less overtly politicized filmmaking in 1979 inaugurated a series of unusual projects, in particular the six-hour documentary Histoire du cinéma (1989-1998), that have sharply divided both critical opinion and the reactions of theater audiences. There is no question that Godard, whether praised or scorned, has created a body of work that must be taken into account in any history of world cinema.
In Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Brody provides an account of his subject’s life and films, focusing particularly on the complex relationship between the two. It is Brody’s hypothesis that Godard typically, and perhaps to some extent obsessively, used his life experiences as the source of the thematic content of his films, with the latter being best understood as a kind of self-analysis in progress that reveals what their director feels and thinks.
This overt linkage between life events and what has been produced as art is an obvious temptation to a biographer, not least because one would be surprised if there were no relationship whatsoever between the experiences of the creator and what has subsequently been created. The dangers of such a potentially reductive approach, however, in which it is assumed that experience is automatically transformed into artistic content, must also be acknowledged, not least because this leaves little room for an individual’s imagination and technical craft to operate. As a result, although Everything Is Cinema is in many respects a valuable contribution to the history of contemporary filmmaking, it does at times make facile and problematic assumptions about the one-to-one correspondence between Godard’s life and his films.
Brody begins his narrative of Godard’s career with a brief consideration of his family background and childhood. Born into a prosperous upper-middle-class milieu in 1930, the young Godard was just old enough to experience France’s crushing defeat by Germany at the beginning of World War II, after which a collaborationist regime at Vichy was established that attracted the support of several members of his family. This early fascination with political power and its expression through violenceas a child Godard rooted for the success of the German army and marked its advances with pins on a mapprefigures his adult attraction to left-wing militancy, interestingly reversing the conventional arc from youthful rebellion to adult conformity. It is also indicative of the intimate and often surprising details of his background, long familiar to French readers of his as yet untranslated autobiographical writings, that Brody has now made available to English-language enthusiasts of Godard and his work.
After the war, Godard enrolled in a school of engineering in Paris, but in a pattern that would be repeated several times before he finally committed to the cinema as a career, he soon found himself spending more time watching films than studying for his courses. Several subsequent encounters with formal education suffered the same fate, and by the mid-1950’s he had become one of a group of young filmmakers-to-be, including François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer, all of whom would go on to have distinguished careers as directors. This nouvelle vague or New Wave of filmmakers, as it was soon christened by the Parisian media, was steeped in the aesthetic of postwar American films, and utilized improvised scripts and a kinetic visual styleboth necessitated by the need to keep production costs lowin films that seemed fresh and innovative compared to the quest for formal perfection characteristic of classic French cinema.
Here as elsewhere, Brody provides evocative descriptions of this milieu and of the conception and realization of Godard’s feature films. For this alone Everything Is...
(The entire section is 1881 words.)