Jean Luc Godard, who died this week at 91, was without question the single most important director this side of Orson Welles. In other words, from the second half of the 20th Century. I’m not saying Godard was the best film director, or even necessarily the most influential, but he was the most important. His shadow looms over every single aspect of modern cinema to a degree that it is impossible to escape. Young filmmakers might not realize they’ve been influenced by his work, but they have been. They can’t not be. Just as a modern artist can’t possibly escape the reach of Andy Warhol. He’s literally that big a giant. But more than that, he’s that big an artist.
Godard first came to recognition as a French film critic working at the Cahiers Du Cinema, watching approximately 1,000 films a year. That’s about three films a day in the 1950s, when they didn’t even have videotapes yet, let alone DVDs or streaming services—which meant he actually had to go to the cinematheque and rent out the 35mm film reels and project them. Three times a day. And still have time to write a tomb’s worth of film criticism, famously insulting every French director not named Renoir, while elevating the likes of Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock to the pedestal of artists (which they rightly deserved to sit on).
Not content with just watching and writing about films, Godard soon pursued filmmaking himself, following fellow film critics—most notably Francois Truffaut—with the release of his 1960 masterpiece Breathless. And so the ’60s were born. Never before or since has a narrative feature film taken the very language of cinema and turned it on its head, inside out and upside down, and my God, what did we just watch? The release of Breathless is one of those 20th century artistic shocks that sits right alongside The Rite of Spring, Guernica, and Marlon Brando entering stage left at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in A Streetcar Named Desire. There’s before Breathless and there’s after Breathless. And yes, plenty of films from the auteur giants of that period are better (as are, frankly, plenty of Godard’s own films), but none of them had the impact that this little gangster picture had.
Godard and his fellow ex-critic-now-filmmakers would become collectively known as The French New Wave. The audacity of their filmmaking would leave an indelible mark on the Hollywood cinema of the late 1960s and ‘70s, and would pave the way for the American “auteurs” who would dominate American film for the next 30 to 40 years. Yet none of the French New Wave had the spontaneity, excitement and sheer sense of fun that Godard’s films had, nor did they churn them out at the prodigious rate he managed to.
In just seven years, from 1960-1967, Godard turned out 15 films, all of them brilliant to varying degrees, and at least half of them considered masterpieces. These included A Woman is a Woman, My Life to Live, Contempt, Alphaville, Band of Outsiders, Pierrot le Fou, Masculine Feminine and Weekend, which ends with the famous credit “fin du cinema” – end of cinema. No one, not even the extremely prolific workaholic Ingmar Bergman, has put out such a high number of important films in a row in such a short amount of time.
Godard was the king. He was everyone’s favorite filmmaker. He’d invented the jump cut, shown the world that one didn’t need to use a script, stolen sequences without permission, played with form and technique, subverted genres (including the musical), told the world that every film needed “a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” and made the world fall in love with the sheer joy of cinema. Then he did what only Godard could do. He said, fuck this, and went in a completely different direction, alienating most of his fans and financiers—which bothered him about as much as a fly landing on shit bothers the shit.
In 1968, Godard formed the Dziga Vertov Group and focused on making political films. A statement which rings slightly false in that Godard would’ve said that all his films were political and that, in fact, the very essence of film IS political, you cannot separate the two. And perhaps he was right. But with Dziga Vertov, he started hammering his points home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer being used to wake you up in the morning while a church bell tolls in your bedroom. From there, he pivoted again, and continued to make “narrative” feature films to varying degrees of success—1980’s Every Man for Himself being hailed as a return to form, which I’m sure made Godard wince.
And then he discovered video.
While anyone familiar with the name Godard immediately thinks of his extremely impressive 1960s output, and while this would be more than enough to secure him a place as a giant of cinema just as Citizen Kane is enough to secure Welles, it is in this latter period that Godard truly comes into his own in a way that is impossible to copy. Every film student who discovers the French New Wave (i.e., every film student in the world) can copy or has copied scenes from Breathless and any number of his New Wave films. The dancing in Band of Outsiders, as an example, inspired the dancing in Pulp Fiction; the coffee zoom in Two or Three Things I Know About Her was later copied with alka-seltzer in Taxi Driver. But nobody can copy the work he did with video. The multi-layering of images and music – juxtaposing ideas, paintings, literature, Marxism, cinema, and the holocaust – culminated with his greatest achievement and possibly the greatest masterwork to close out the 20th Century in any medium: his 7-part opus, Histoire(s) du Cinema. If 20th Century art truly began with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, then it ended with Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema in 1998.
Godard had always strived to show us that cinema didn’t need to be conventional. That film really could work as an art form. A true art form, and not just something that exists to entertain us. Something that could inspire intellectual discourse. Something difficult to understand, perhaps even impossible. Like a great painting from Jackson Pollock or de Kooning, maybe you’re not meant to understand it all, you’re only meant to experience it. And with his last and final period, Godard kept proving to the world that cinema could be so much more than anyone had ever imagined. And when 3D became all the rage, and everyone from Scorsese to Spielberg tried their hands at it, Godard came in and surprised those lucky enough to have caught a rare screening just how far one could push the 3D barrier with his masterpiece Goodbye to Language, which The New York Times film critic, Manohla Dargis, called one of the great experiences of her moviegoing life.
Godard always had the ability to surprise and nearly always did, now even in death. He chose to go out on his own terms and only his. Godard never answered to anyone, so why would anyone expect him to answer to life, God, or illness in any kind of conventional manner? Godard broke every cinematic rule because he never imagined the rules to exist in the first place. He saw no difference between life and film. For him, it was all one, and he lived it right to the last. Godard was cinema. Godard is dead.
Fin du Cinema.
15 ESSENTIAL GODARD FILMS
A Woman is a Woman (1961)
Vivre Sa Vie (1962)
Band of Outsiders (1964)
Pierrot le Fou (1965)
La Chinoise (1967)
One Plus One (1967)
Tout Va Bien (1972)
Every Man For Himself (1980)
Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998)
Goodbye to Language (2014)
The Image Book (2016)