Earlier this month, Salon writer Stephanie Zacharek published a review of Richard Brody's new 700-page opus about Godard, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. I haven't yet read the book, which has been receiving mixed but mostly positive-leaning notices, but my outrage over Zacharek's article has been steadily growing over the weeks since I first read it. Every once in a while I stumble across another reference to it and am reminded anew how a major critic for one of the major cultural purveyors of our time published, in the most prestigious newspaper in the country, an utterly misconceived and poorly argued piece about how one of the great living directors has become an "intolerable gasbag." This, apparently, is what passes for cultural criticism these days. The breaking point was a must-read post by Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity, who briefly mentions Zacharek's anti-intellectual Godard takedown in the midst of his passionate advocacy of leftism. I decided that Zacharek's melange of unchallenged assertions and snide insinuations deserved some of the close critical examination that she so steadfastly refused to extend to either Godard's films or Brody's biography. I'll start with her opening paragraphs:
Richard Brody's Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard is a story of transformation, a painstaking account of a lifelong artistic journey. Now we know how one of the greatest of all filmmakers the man who so radically changed cinema in 1959 with his debut feature, Breathless became an intolerable gasbag. That probably wasn't Brody's aim in writing this exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, critical biography. As Brody, a film critic and editor at The New Yorker, makes clear in the preface, he still believes in Godard's relevance, claiming that the resolutely not-retired filmmaker... continues to work "at an extraordinarily high level of artistic achievement."
That's a lovely, optimistic sentiment, but one that much of Godard’s post-1967 output doesn't deserve: Empty shadowboxes like First Name: Carmen (1983) or Notre musique (2004) seem designed to alienate viewers rather than draw them closer, which is what happens when any artist begins to live entirely inside his or her own head.
Pay attention to that offhand Breathless reference, the first of many; Zacharek really loves that film. Now you might think I'm being uncharitable here by cutting off the article when I do, that I'm trimming out Zacharek's next few sentences, which presumably explain just why the later films she mentions are "empty," or why for that matter it's a bad thing when a filmmaker decides to "alienate viewers." For the sake of completeness, and assuaging such fears of bad faith, I'll quote her next few sentences as well:
It's the artists we love best who are most capable of disappointing us, and anyone who has taken pleasure in the boldness of the movies Godard made from 1959 through 1967 he produced an astonishing 15 full-length features in that period, beginning with Breathless and including Contempt, Pierrot le fou and Weekend would have to know that pain is part of love. If we didn't, how carefully could we have been watching his movies in the first place?
To paraphrase Zacharek on Brody, that's a lovely sentiment, but what exactly does it have to do with anything? She establishes, fairly quickly, her approach to argumentation: make an assertion, and then move on. So far, she's laid down, through this inarguably efficient method of rhetoric, a few points that she then takes as givens for the rest of the piece, so it is worthwhile to point out just what these assumptions are, and discuss why they shouldn't be assumed with such cavalier inattention. 1) Godard's films became worse after the arbitrary cutoff point of 1967, over 40 years ago. 2) Godard's post-1967 films "alienate viewers" instead of inviting them in. 3) It's a bad thing for art to alienate and challenge viewers. Each of these assumptions merits some further questioning.
Zacharek's first assumption is that Godard's films went downhill after 1967. I'll be blunt here: Zacharek musters absolutely no defense or evidence for this position. In the course of the article, she mentions by name four Godard films made after 1967 (in addition to the two cited above, King Lear and Nouvelle Vague), but doesn't deign to actually discuss the content of any of these films. Granted, she is reviewing Brody's book and not Godard's oeuvre, but since she's apparently decided that broad pronouncements about the subject's films were appropriate in this context, then surely some critical discussion of the films in question might've been shoehorned in as well. This omission becomes even more galling when juxtaposed against the things that Zacharek does choose to criticize: Godard's working relationships with collaborators, his political beliefs, and his integrity. She doesn't have room for a sentence about what makes First Name: Carmen "empty," but she does recount that Norman Mailer found Godard rude, and that in the early 90s Godard made commercials for Nike. I'll address these inane asides later; the point for now is that Zacharek makes a broad contention about the last 40 years of Godard's filmmaking, and then does nothing to support it.
I'll be charitable for the moment and assume that she could actually support it if she wanted to, that she's not merely repeating the critical consensus that seems to have calcified around Godard in many circles. The question then becomes, why doesn't she want to? Is it that she doesn't think she needs to? Certainly, what Zacharek is offering in this piece is nothing startlingly original, and I'm sure she realizes that she isn't exactly taking down a sacred cow by dissing late Godard. The piece as a whole has a tone of smug back-patting, as though Zacharek and her audience have collectively seen through Godard. It's clearly targeted at readers who will feel flattered by the article's confirmation of what they've probably read elsewhere about Godard: that his later films are difficult, and that they needn't bother as long as they've seen the fun genre pictures he made in the 60s. Zacharek doesn't defend her assertions about Godard because, for too many people, they don't really need defending. Anti-intellectualism seldom does; its adherents are legion. The standard narrative of Godard's career, the narrative that Zacharek accepts so readily, is that he descended into entirely inaccessible, joyless polemics after 1967, and that he never really recovered.
One of the chief problems with this narrative is that it ignores the profound divisions in Godard's career within the rather large timespan covered by the phrase "after 1967." The very phrase implies halving, as though Godard's career was being divided into two parts, one good and one bad. They're very unequal halves, of course, what with one covering not even a decade and the other so far stretching to over 40 years. And within those 40 years, Godard's films have gone through some prodigious changes. The heavily politicized, experimental films of the late 60s and early 70s were followed by a long period of retreat from cinema for the rest of the 70s. During this time, he experimented with TV productions, collaborated with Anne-Marie Miéville, and made his first videos. Taken together, the work he made between 1967 and 1979 represents a period of prolonged experimentation, time spent rethinking his approach to cinema, first in terms of content and politics, and then in terms of form and medium. His return to the cinema in 1980 with Sauve qui peut (la vie) was informed by this period of experimentation, and the result in his 80s films is a newly reconsidered approach to narrative, character, politics, and genre. Any account of Godard's post-60s career is further complicated by his mammoth video project Histoire(s) du cinema and its ancillary video essays, undertaken between 1988 and 1998. This project, Godard's highly personal attempt to grapple with the political and cinematic history of the previous century, is a glaring omission from Zacharek's tossed-off dismissal of the director's later work.
But then again, it's doubtful that Zachrek was really thinking about the complexity and variety of Godard's post-1967 career. The films he made immediately after 1967 seem to be the films that have made the greatest impression for those critics dismissing Godard's later work. In the aftermath of the protests and political upheavals of that time, Godard's filmmaking was intensely politicized, in dialectical films like Le gai savoir and One Plus One, and later in the films made with the Dziga Vertov Group, experimental works intended as attempts to create a new, revolutionary form of filmmaking. Godard's films from this period are undeniably challenging, and also undeniably not fully successful. They could justifiably be called failures by those less sympathetic to their aims, and Godard himself might have deemed them well-meaning failures as well. This is without a doubt the most experimental phase of his career, in the most literal sense of the word; these films are works in progress in which political and ethical debates are worked out right there on the screen. And yet, their polemical content is countered by their profound humor and visual playfulness. Zacharek obliquely criticizes these films for their lack of "emotional depth," but apparently can't see that emotion can exist as deeply in a passionate young couple discussing politics as in a passionate young couple discussing love.
It's also important to note that these films are not polemics. Zacharek criticizes Godard for his Maoism and says, in her conclusion, "Godard's political ideas have never been the strongest elements of his movies. Unfortunately, after 1968, they often became their focal point." In fact, Zacharek misses a subtle distinction here. Political ideas undoubtedly became the focal point of Godard's films between, roughly speaking, 1966 and 1972. But not necessarily Godard's political ideas. Many of Godard's films from this period are structured as dialectics or dialogues, conversations between two conflicting political ideas which are allowed to interact and argue against one another. Zacharek seems to have little problem with the very radical La Chinoise, presumably because it's still part of Godard's 60s oeuvre, but it's structured in a very similar way, in terms of a dialogue between peaceful and violent methods of revolutionary action, with neither quite coming out on top. A similar tension between talk and action exists at the core of Le gai savoir, and it's questionable to what extent Godard actually believes in any of the mutually contradictory polemical texts that are read aloud in One Plus One. The material may be polemical, but its presentation is not; the juxtaposition of all these un-reconcilable texts and ideas encourages critical thought and audience engagement, the enemies of propaganda.
This brings me to Zacharek's second and third assumptions about Godard, which I'll discuss together. She asserts that Godard's post-Weekend films "alienate viewers" (as if Weekend itself didn't?) and implies that the films are bad because of this. To start with, it's somewhat debatable whether these films are actually alienating or not. They're challenging, no doubt about it, and they'll certainly turn off the average cinemagoer who's just looking to be entertained by a good movie. But then again, Band of Outsiders would probably alienate the average cinemagoer as well, and that's Godard's most straightforward and fun 60s genre flick. In some ways, Zacharek is posing a false dichotomy between the emotional engagement of Godard's genre deconstructions and the more distanced approach to narrative he increasingly took in his later films. Zacharek doesn't come right out and say it, but the obvious subtext of her review is a yearning for characters and stories she can relate to and be emotionally engaged by. Godard's later films are increasingly uninterested in such things, but does this mean that his films are unengaging, that they don't draw viewers in? Or is Zacharek actually admitting that she feels engaged by emotions but not by ideas?
The other aspect of this point that warrants examination is Zacharek's contention that late Godard fails because it alienates the audience. If alienation is essentially Zacharek's coded complaint about the films' challenging aesthetics and lack of narrative grounding, then the question remains: why is this a bad thing? It's a question that the critic, as usual, does not even attempt to answer. Once more, she seems to think that her readers will agree wholeheartedly. Her tone is indignant: how dare this director force me out of my comfort zone? Her language is telling, as she laments that Godard's films no longer "draw [viewers] closer." Implied in this criticism is the assumption that a good film is one that does the work for the viewer, whereas Godard's later films ask viewers to bring their own thoughts and critical facilities to the table. I would hope that Zacharek is not advocating for moviegoing audiences even more passive and mindless than they already are, but what other conclusion can be drawn from her phrasing? It's a defense of escapism, tucked into an offhand denunciation of Godard's entire way of making films.
The problems with Zacharek's article begin with the assumptions outlined above, but unfortunately they don't end there. More broadly, she seems to have an issue with the very idea of applying serious criticism to Godard's films:
The second half of Everything Is Cinema covers the films Godard made after 1967, and it's a very long half. Brody tries to energize us for this interminable home stretch. He acknowledges that post-1967, Godard, who at the time considered himself a Maoist, was trapped in an "ideological straitjacket," but adds that the ideas behind that ideology "provided the foundation for a new, cooperative form of filmmaking" that would inform the rest of Godard’s career.
Nice try. If only the movies were better. Brody himself dislikes some of them (Notre Musique) and greatly admires others (Nouvelle Vague). But his enthusiasm for late Godard feels scholarly and tempered rather than passionate, and his extended clinical explications of these films (and the television work Godard did at the time) weigh the book down.
What comes through most strongly in this passage is Zacharek's contempt for Brody's "scholarly" discussion of Godard, for the in-depth analyses that fill Brody's book and which are entirely absent from the critic's own discussion of these films. One can imagine the impatience she must have felt at seeing films she so easily dismissed subjected to rigorous and considered analysis, presumably including a discussion of themes, ideas, and aesthetics. In other cultures, and at other times in our own culture's history, this kind of thing has usually been called "criticism." Zacharek will have none of it; she doesn't care that Brody essentially agrees with her on Notre Musique while disagreeing on other films. What annoys her is not so much the author's opinions as the very fact that he expends so much time and so many pages on discussing these films at all. She moans that Godard's post-1967 output constitutes "a very long half" of the book, but is it really so unusual that a biography should devote so much space to a period of time lasting 40 years? Zacharek's assumption that later Godard is not worth exploring is mirrored in her cavalier dismissal of the parts of Brody's book corresponding to these worthless films. This is not, to say the least, a critical mindset.
So if Zacharek does not have much to say about Godard's late films, and wishes that Brody didn't have so much to say either, what exactly does she want to talk about? For one thing, she wants to personally impugn Godard and his working methods:
When Brody speaks of that "cooperative form of filmmaking" adopted by Godard, he's referring specifically to Godard's collaborations first with his friend, the journalist and fellow Maoist Jean-Pierre Gorin, and later with his partner, the writer and filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville. Otherwise, though, the mode of filmmaking Brody describes in the last half of Everything Is Cinema is more like a dictatorship than a cooperative: Brody's narrative is peppered with quotations from actors, cinematographers and others (among them Norman Mailer, who worked briefly with Godard on the 1987 King Lear) attesting to the director's rudeness and willful refusal to communicate what he wanted from them.
The observant reader will doubtless have noticed that the above passage turns on a rather bold usage of the word "otherwise," which makes the following point about Godard: The filmmaker has had two prolonged and very intense collaborative relationships, one of which has lasted for over 30 years and is still going strong today, but otherwise he is not much of a collaborator. It's an odd turn of phrase that mentions Godard's two sustained collaborations only to pivot completely into talking about what a horrible dictator he is. But Gorin and Miéville are not so easily dismissed, even if they represent inconvenient truths for Zacharek's argument. For one thing, one need only watch the fascinating video essay Soft and Hard to get a glimpse of just how intimate and reciprocal a working relationship Godard has with his long-time partner Miéville. This film, a collaboration between the two filmmakers, consists mostly of them sitting together at home, talking about philosophy, language, and filmmaking itself. It's a genuinely collaborative discussion, with each of them contributing and bouncing off one another's ideas. One gets a sense from this video, not of a dictatorial director imposing his will, but of two genuinely curious and quick-witted minds enjoying a dialogue as equals. This interplay is carried through in the duo's other video essays together, in which their often overlapping voiceovers play off one another and the images in similar ways.
Godard's working relationship with Gorin was briefer, confined to a few years during the former's most politically radicalized period, but it was every bit as much a collaborative venture. This is especially obvious in the duo's final film together, the relatively minor Letter to Jane, which is a fairly ugly and misogynist film that nevertheless demonstrates the interplay of the Godard/Gorin collaborations. As the two of them trade ideas in voiceover, the images riff on a famous photo of actress Jane Fonda in Vietnam; the film is structured by the conversation the two filmmakers are having. Godard may have been less accommodating towards his actors, as evidenced by his rather shabby treatment of Fonda, but then this is not a particularly uncommon phenomenon amongst directors. Hitchcock famously compared actors to cattle, and treated them accordingly. It's a viewpoint that Godard seems to share, for better or worse, but of what relevance is Godard's "rudeness" to the quality of his films? Zacharek brings up Jacques Rivette's openness to improvisation as a contrast to Godard's more controlled methods, and it certainly is a different way of doing things. But as usual she can't come up with any compelling reasons why a more acting-friendly approach should be intrinsically better; she merely states it as a self-evident fact.
Brody is hardly blind to his subject's foibles: he calls Godard on his flimsier political ideas, particularly his devotion to Maoism (a trend among French intellectuals in the late 60s that Brody identifies, rightly, as thinly veiled fascism) and, later, the anti-Semitism that repeatedly surfaced in his work. It's also worth noting that Godard, the committed Maoist and spewer of anti-capitalist, anti-American rhetoric, made two commercials for Nike in the early 1990s. They were never broadcast, though presumably Godard cashed the checks.
Now we get to the meat of some of Zacharek's most offensive and poorly developed swipes at Godard. The reviewer who, earlier in the piece, devotes only the most dismissive of phrases to Godard's actual films and Brody's evaluations of them, here slows down to repeat some of Brody's most questionable assertions about the director. What is the net effect of a review that, in the space of two sentences, calls an artist a Maoist, a fascist, an anti-Semite, and a hypocrite? In this context, it amounts to a cheap smear tactic, especially since Zacharek never expands on any of this any more than she did with her negative assessments of individual films. It's undeniable that Godard's fascination with Maoism was problematic and overly naïve, but what Zacharek doesn't mention is that this was also a very brief phase for a man who has been continually thinking about political questions. Moreover, even at his most committed, Godard's Maoism probably wouldn't have earned much praise from Mao himself La Chinoise is a deeply ambivalent and ambiguous film that never really settles the question of what to do about societal problems and how to achieve change. His most political films, including his Maoist films, always contain both point and counterpoint within the same structure, encouraging free thought and political engagement in ways that go beyond one particular political identification. Godard's Maoism is an unfortunate phase, an admitted mistake, but it's probably important to keep in mind that it was a mistake shared by many among the 1960s French youth, who saw in Maoism not the atrocities committed by Mao himself, but the idealist philosophy of the movement.
Zacharek's other contentions are equally lacking in context or supporting references. Where is the anti-Semitism in Godard's work? It's certainly not in the deeply moving examinations of the Holocaust that weave through Histoire(s) du cinema, nor can it be found in Éloge de l'amour, in which Godard criticizes Hollywood-slick presentations of the Holocaust and advocates for more genuine attempts at understanding this atrocity. B. Kite, in an excellent review of the Brody book, quotes Godard self-identifying as "anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic." It's a distinction that should be preserved, especially in light of Godard's continuing sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people in films like Ici et ailleurs and Notre musique. As Kite notes, one could certainly make a nominal case for Godard's anti-Semitism by cherry-picking quotes from his late films, but it would require a willful blindness to other quotes and ideas that lead to the opposite impression. And what of Godard's supposed fascism? Is he guilty by association with Mao, despite his distance and abstraction from the events going on in Red China? Godard's Maoism seems less dictatorial and more utopian, based on a hopeful confidence in youth's potential to effect social change and promote equality. This certainly makes Godard an idealist, as well as somewhat unrealistic and ignorant, but the idea that his political beliefs were ever fascist is, frankly, difficult to reconcile with any of the man's actual films. Of course, the films themselves are exactly the one topic relating to Godard that Zacharek has little interest in. She'd much rather cast doubt on his ethics by bringing up his commercial work, as though he was the only artist to ever bankroll his personal and obscure art by cashing a corporate check.
Zacharek's conclusion provides more evidence of her selective interest in what Brody has to say:
Brody is at his best when he's describing how Godard's technique so dazzling, particularly in the early years intensifies the charge of the stories he's telling, opening us up to new ways of seeing. "Even now," Brody writes, "Breathless feels like a high-energy fusion of jazz and philosophy. After Breathless, most other new films seemed instantly old-fashioned." He's got that right. Breathless is Godard's most readily comprehensible film, the access point for many future devotees. And its freshness never abates: to watch it, even today, is to feel present at the birth of something new. Beginning of story. Beginning of cinema. If Godard had given us nothing more, that would be enough.
What Zacharek cherishes in Godard, what she looks for, is "dazzling" technique that "intensifies the charge of the stories he's telling." It's no surprise, then, that the critic would lose interest in Godard at precisely the point when he himself began to lose interest in stories or at least, in telling those stories directly. There's no shame in holding a particular set of aesthetic principles, and Zacharek clearly believes that film is a narrative medium, and that a great portion of what she sees as failure in Godard's later films is a result of his tendency to move away from storytelling. Why then, does she never come right out and say this? Why is it necessary to infer the critic's perspective from her phrasing, rather than simply read her straightforward pronouncements? To some degree, it must certainly be because she wishes to appear objective, to present her dismissals of Godard with a forceful authority. It would not have the same kick to admit that Godard's aesthetics thrill her when they intensify his stories, and bore her when they intensify his ideas.
This perspective, with its pronounced biases, informs Zacharek's response to both Godard and Brody. In the case of the latter, the critic seems to be approaching his unfortunate book exclusively for confirmation of her own viewpoint. Where she finds something she agrees with, she praises the author's insight and discusses it at length. Where she runs into material she's disinterested by, she makes snide remarks about Brody's slavishness to his subject. She thus cites him liberally when he's providing material unfavorable to Godard, praising the rare moments when the biographer sees the light and questions the director. She seems positively gleeful at the high praise he heaps on Breathless, a film that's brought up so often in this review you'd think it was the only film Godard ever made, or the only one that mattered, anyway. Zacharek is quite content to limit Godard's legacy to his first film, something she feels so strongly she even makes it the final thought of her article: "that would be enough."
Quite frankly, it's not enough, and neither is Zacharek's anti-intellectual pandering. Her article, like much of the discourse surrounding Brody's book so far, amounts to a self-satisfied smirk at Godard's decline from the public eye. It's an endorsement of ignorance, an ill-considered swipe at films that have, as it is, been rarely screened or seen in the past few decades. Zacharek brings her blinkered perspective on Godard, and her painfully limited conception of criticism, to Brody's book and turns the occasion of a book review into an opportunity for a polemic on what irritates her about Godard. It has the angry, disappointed tone of a jilted lover, a reference that Zacharek even explicitly makes when she says that Godard's early films posited the idea that "pain is part of love." Godard's films of the last few decades comprise one of the most remarkable and consistently challenging bodies of work in the cinema, stretching from the poignant spiritual twists on his 60s genre pictures in First Name: Carmen and Hail Mary, to the historical and political collages of Histoire(s) du cinema and Notre Musique. These films deserve attention, and careful analysis, and intelligent debate. They don't deserve the kind of mindless dismissal they receive here.