Monday, September 13, 2010

Hollywood + Modernism = Godard

Godard’s critical writings of the 1950s share a number of similarities with the criticism of the other “Young Turks” at Cahiers du cinéma. These young critics – Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut – were staunch defenders of both Hollywood cinema (at least, a certain kind of Hollywood cinema) and of the idea of the auteur: the filmmaker-as-author or the filmmaker-as-artist. We see both tendencies already in the first article included in Godard on Godard: an essay from 1950 (written when Godard was twenty-years-old) on the American filmmaker Joseph Mankiewicz whom Godard compares to the contemporary Italian novelist Alberto Moravia (whose novel Contempt Godard would make into a film thirteen years later). As the young critic states, “I have no hesitation in placing [Mankiewicz] on the same level of importance as that held by Alberto Moravia in European literature” (Godard on Godard 13). In a similar vein, he evokes such literary masters as Goethe, Kleist and Dostoevsky while reviewing Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1952). (Let's not forget here that it was the "Young Turks" who first took Hitchcock seriously. It was the "Young Turks" who insisted on Hitchcock's status as an auteur. In 1957, the first monograph on the director's work was co-authored by Rohmer and Chabrol. Five years later, Truffaut began conducting a mammoth series of interviews with the filmmaker that would result in Hitchcock Truffaut, which has never been out of print since its original English publication in 1967.)

Our picture of Godard-as-critic would be incomplete though if we were only to focus on cataloging the Hollywood auteurs he most admires, such as Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and Anthony Mann, and their use of classical découpage. Alongside this group of classical filmmakers we must also consider his enthusiasm for the work of European modernists, such as Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, and Roberto Rossellini. Godard explores this dual interest in his wonderful article "Bergmanorama" (published in Cahiers in 1958). There are, he says, two kinds of filmmakers: those who are primarily concerned with form and those who are primarily concerned with life. On the one hand, he mentions Hitchcock, Lang and Visconti; on the other, Bergman, Rossellini and Welles. Godard states his preference, in the end, for the latter group. “What is difficult,” he writes, “is to advance into unknown lands, to be aware of the danger, to take risks, to be afraid” (Godard on Godard 80). Whilst Hitchcock, Lang and Visconti demonstrate a formal control over their material which Godard greatly admires, he finds that he prefers the willingness of Bergman, Renoir and Welles to give up control for the purposes of exploration; opening themselves up to life in all its messiness and with its myriad of imperfections. As Godard says, in his review of Summer with Monika, “[Ingmar] Bergman is the film-maker of the instant. His camera seeks only one thing: to seize the present moment at its most fugitive, and to delve deep into it so as to give it the quality of eternity” (Godard on Godard 85). It is not eternity, as the universal or general, that is imposed on the present, but the reverse: the singular and transitory is given the weight of eternity. (Here is Godard at his most Nietzschean.)

What is so remarkable about Breathless is the way Godard combines his love of both types of film and filmmakers. For while it is clearly a homage, at one level, to Hollywood b-movies (with their brashness and energy), it is done in a style that would, at the same time, make Bergman, Renoir, and Rossellini proud. 


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