Jean-Luc Godard: An Introduction
Jean Luc Godard does things the way he wants them. He’s his own man. Nobody, not even his loyal audience sway him. He makes movies his way, no other way. Cinema meant so much to Godard, he viewed the course with which it would take with horror and derision. This is the guy who debunked Spielberg as “not very good”. An early apostle to the cine clubs that proliferated Paris in the fifties, he made contact with fellow devotees Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. It was they that espoused the auteur theory – the film was the director’s, it was their vision, films were not collaborations – the cast and crew did what the director directed and it was the director’s job to do just that – direct.
Godard’s first feature came in 1959. “Breathless” (A Bout de Souffle), formed part of the New Wave movement, which was characterised by shooting quickly and on low budgets, dealing with contemporary life and youth culture and perceived in an unsentimental manner. Godard broke with all conventions of filming, delighting in smashing axiomatic rules and conventions. Godard’s output following “Breathless” was prolific, producing two or three films every year. His next feature “The Little Soldier” (Un Petit Soldat) in 1960, cast Anna Karina, the Danish model who would become Godard’s muse and regular leading lady throughout the first half of the 1960s. With “Crazy Pete” (Pierrot le fou, 1965) Jean-Luc Godard embarked on a new film form that blurred the demarcation between cinematic narrative and cinematic essay.
Whatever conventions Jean-Luc Godard had abided by through the early 60s were completely abandoned by his 1967 movie “Week End”. In addition, from this point on, Godard’s work would become more politicised. Throughout the remainder of the sixties, Godard’s work expressed a fundamentally Marxist social critique and challenged, engaged, and even lectured his audience. Week End was a powerful indictment of living the bourgeois dream in modern France. However, he followed Week End with a series of films that were overly didactic, perhaps with a view to stirring a revolutionary consciousness in the cinema going masses. Godard returned to more conventional cinema in 1979 with his “Sauve qui peut la vie” which perhaps revealed the beginning of Godard’s maturity, dealing as it did more with sensuality and poetry.
He would continue in this vein throughout the eighties producing fantastic works that included Passion (1981), Prénom Carmen (First Name Carmen, 1983), Je vous salue Marie (I Salute Thee Marie / Hail Mary, 1985), Détective (Detective, 1985), King Lear (1987), Soigne ta droite: une place sur la terre comme au ciel (Keep Your Right Up: A Place on the Earth as in Heaven, 1987), and Nouvelle vague (New Wave, 1990). During the 1990s, he worked on the mammoth eight part series Histoire(s) du cinema which combined all the innovations of his video work and engagement in twentieth century issue and the history of film itself. Godard continues to work, his latest feature being drama Socialisme starring Patti Smith.
The 1965 film Alphaville and Important Political Implications
Jean Luc-Goddard’s masterpiece Alphaville is a classic of French New Wave cinema. Though at its surface, Alphaville is nothing more than a hard-boiled detective film about computers that run society, the power and importance of the film takes clearer shape as one probes deeper. It’s an intoxicating concoction of science fiction, film noir, and radical philosophy. Goddard crafted Alphaville into a harrowing and timeless vision that will haunt the minds of generations. And this is a good thing! Seeing, understanding, and remembering Alphaville is essential because of its warnings of the inevitability of machine-dominated society, how this can lead to fascism, and how it can also lead to the eventual acceptance of human abuse.
The threat of a reduction of human influence and control in society becomes ever greater as our daily lives become more and more integrated with automated devices and machinery. Alphaville highlights some of the devastating ramifications of machine-supported life, and it’s not hard to visualize the ways in which our society is approaching a similar state. In Alphaville, a double agent from another civilization can easily infiltrate their technology dominated world, because the citizens themselves have no connection to law and enforcement. Thus, if an intruder can satisfy the blind eyes of a machine, no matter how sophisticated that machine, they can escape the bounds of any societal structure. This can be seen today with criminals who manage to create new identities in the virtual world of computer information. Another dangerous concern threatened in Alphaville is the formation of computer-controlled fascism.
When the scandal for excessive and illegal government wire-tapping of private citizens occurred, President Bush said it was imperative that the public trust them. This is a far cry from the original roots of democracy, wherein the entire point was that government is not to be completely trusted. But in an information and technology based society, the government can gain power of vast amounts of intelligence without physically breaking into or disrupting peoples lives. This technological disconnect makes governmental power grabs invisible, just as the Alphaville super computers control every facet of society with an unseen (and nonexistent) hand.
Alphaville features two ingenious absurdities: celebrated public executions and automaton-like prostitutes. The public executions take place at a swimming pool surrounded by fancily dressed spectators who applaud every shooting. There has always been gruesome execution in human society, but what Goddard was pointing to in Alphaville was the sickening distance between members of high society and those who don’t fit in and therefore must be executed. Those who don’t fit in with the machine-dominated world become machines themselves that simply must be destroyed. The other people who become machines are the ubiquitous prostitutes whose approaches to seduction are as tantalizing as reading a tax form.
These absurdities have not yet been realized in today’s society to this degree, but the warnings of Alphaville are ever more significant. The fascist takeover is only aided by a debased, pseudo-cyborg civilization where the government can more easily seize power and the human element has been reduced. If people just want to watch Alphaville for its splendid entertainment value and creative, iconoclastic filmmaking techniques, that’s completely understandable. But hopefully everyone will see the film and heed the warnings about where society may be heading.
1. Breathless (1960) “A Bout de Souffle”
2. Band of Outsiders (1964) “Bande à Part”
3. Week End (1967)
4. Pierrot le Fou (1965) “Crazy Pete” / “Pierrot Goes Wild”
5. My Life to Live (1962) “Vivre sa Vie”
6. Alphaville (1965)
7. Contempt (1963) “Le Mépris”
8. Made in U.S.A. (1966)
9. A Married Woman (1964) “Une Femme Mariée”
10. Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) “Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d’Elle”
Contributors: Russell Shortt is a travel consultant with Exploring Ireland, the leading specialists in customised, private escorted tours, escorted coach tours and independent self drive tours of Ireland. Please visit Russell’s website: http://www.exploringireland.net
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Tim Bushnell is a creative writer sifting through a sea of old classic films and educational videos with the historical film company Quality Information Publishers. Their historic film and video library is available for viewing at http://www.qualityinformationpublishers.com
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