Jean-Luc Godard: Low-Altitude Narcissism
A CINEMATIC VIEW
Ed. Note: With this issue, we introduce a new column on films — A Cinematic View — which we expect to appear in every, or almost every, issue. Our regular film reviewer is the Rev. Robert E. Lauder, professor of Philosophy at Cathedral College in Douglaston, New York. He is the author of Loneliness Is for Loving and The Priest as Person, and his writings have appeared in various periodicals, from The New York Times to Commonweal and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.
The ex-enfant terrible of French cinema has done it again: Jean-Luc Godard has created a film that will draw strong reactions. First Name: Carmen will be hailed by loyal enthusiasts of the director’s work as another jewel in a marvelous mosaic of movies that Godard has turned out since 1959. But by those who find Godard an impossible-to-acquire taste, the film will be damned as Godard’s latest exercise in narcissistic filmmaking.
Critics have long been strongly divided in their appraisal of Godard’s work. Richard Roud, in addition to suggesting that Godard is the greatest contemporary director, has described him as one of the most important artists of our time. Pauline Kael has characterized Godard as “the most exciting director working in movies today.” However, as perceptive a cineaste as Stanley Kaufman has portrayed Godard as “a magician who makes elaborate uninspired gestures and then pulls out of the hat precisely nothing.”
What critics do seem to agree on is that Godard has been the most influential of contemporary directors. Probably the most original technician of the cinema since Orson Welles, Godard — with his jump cuts, sound overlaps, and conversations with the camera — has spawned a generation of imitators. Whether one is exulted or exasperated by Godard’s cinematic techniques, no one will deny that Godard is innovative. Prior to Godard no director would dream of cutting from the back of an actress’s head to the back of the same head. In Godard’s first feature length film, Breathless (1959), he did it 18 times.
Though the conventional wisdom is that cameras are supposed to record rather than call attention to themselves, Godard’s camera in an important scene in My Life to Live (1962) swings back and forth like a pendulum. These startling techniques and tricks are among the key reasons why viewers either love or hate a Godard film. Even those who find Godard’s unique style and technique arbitrary and distracting recognize the power of some of his scenes. I think of the traffic jam in Weekend (1968) and the display of the warriors’ loot at the end of the pacifist fable Les Carabiniers (1963).
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