Just about the most highbrow Q&A you’ll ever read, this book should have been titled “Conversations With Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour.” This back-and-forth between the influential film director (and former critic) and an esteemed French intellectual is chockfull of pithy aphorisms and aesthetic jabs about movies, life and the 20th century.
It’s a little book, but then so was Aristotle’s “Poetics.”
Admittedly, some bits are a slog, like chapter 6, “How Video Made the History of Cinema Possible.” And you might not buy into all of its ideas, such as the suggestion that America used movies to dominate the world and Europe has accepted this. It is provocative, though.
It’s also frustrating to know you’ll most likely never see Godard’s four-hour “Histoires(s) du Cinema,” shot on video for television, which is the occasion for and frequent referent of this book.
Think Boswell and Johnson (although on occasion it could have used a little less Boswell, i.e. Ishaghpour, particularly in the last essay, which goes on and on about Baudelaire).
Still, Godard — as full of unafraid proclamations as ever — has cut with customary lethal precision to what is wonderful and terrible about movies these days.
Even if you don’t believe, as does one of the founders of the New Wave, that movies and history are aesthetically and thematically linked, it’s an uplifting change from current kinky psychobiography to read real criticism.
For instance, what made Hitchcock great: He made us “shiver” because he “controlled with images.” In case we forget, Ishaghpour reminds us: “It was you [Godard] and your ‘Cahiers’ friends who transformed Hollywood into great art.” (Without them, no auteur theory. And without Godard, no wild and wooly jump-cut editing.)
That’s pretty much all over now, believes Godard, who sees the end of the 20th century simultaneous with the demise of film, the great art of that century.
Maybe. Though one does get tired of the “it’s all over now” stance.
On the journeyman level, it’s a giggle to know the renowned director has his complaints, like every working filmmaker. His most recent distributor, Gaumont, did a bad job, Godard says. He acerbically declares that only the French make real critics because they’re so argumentative.
The book has numerous quotable insights reminiscent of Andre Bazin, the great critic who nurtured Godard’s sensibility, such as the cinema being stories of sex and death, or that “video is the natural child of cinema.”
But maybe the best thing to take away from “Cinema” is its subtext: the push-pull between the need for money and the often opposing desire to make the film you want.
As his interviewer reminds us, Godard always managed both somehow. He did it his way, then and now.