Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard
by David Sterritt
by Richard Brody. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008. 701 pp., illus. Hardcover: $40.00.
Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, the first book by New Yorker writer Richard Brody, contains many revealing anecdotes about its eponymous main character. This is fitting, since Jean-Luc Godard is arguably film’s most anecdote-friendly director; many of his films consist of anecdotes and vignettes strung together with greater or lesser amounts of narrative adhesive, and he himself is the protagonist of more famous behind-the-scenes yarns than any other French New Wave auteur. One story related by Brody strikes me as particularly emblematic. Working on the science-fiction allegory Alphaville in 1965, Godard decided to shoot at night with a new kind of high-sensitivity film and virtually no artificial lighting, so that a shroud of semiobscurity would enhance the sense of a dystopian future already imminent in our own imperfect present. This didn’t sit well with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who warned that the footage would turn out totally obscure, whereas the same effect could be safely achieved by using lights and stopping down the lens. Godard refused, citing the primacy of “the real” that he’d absorbed from Roberto Rossellini and other mentors. The result was three thousand meters of unusable film, but this didn’t stop Godard from sticking with his technique until the real intruded in another way: the crew went on strike over receiving daytime wages for nighttime work, forcing him to shoot before dark in rooms with blacked-out windows. Godard moaned that he was being “sabotaged,” but Coutard saw this as just another instance of his continual complaint that working with other people cramped his creativity. “He’d like to swallow the film,” Coutard said at the time, “and process it out his ass—that way he wouldn’t need anyone.”
This tale sums up a great deal about Godard and his esthetic drives: his desire to capture personal visions as precisely as film allows, his need to blur the boundaries between fiction and documentary, his readiness to gamble on risky techniques, his willingness to stand by his instincts even when trusted associates tell him he is wrong, wrong, wrong. And it vividly conveys Godard’s tendency to disrupt his own shoots with stubborn demands and grievances. Godard sabotaged his productions a lot more often than his coworkers did, and Brody’s book records so many quarrels, disputes, snap decisions, abrupt reversals, and time-wasting vacillations—some of them fleeting, others destructive of projects, collaborations, and friendships—that it’s a wonder he has sustained a career at all, much less completed ninety features, shorts, and videos as of this writing.
So much originality, eccentricity, public commotion, private doubt, commercial failure, and artistic attainment have attended Godard’s career that any biographer—including an unconventional one like Brody, who seeks to cast as much light on the creations as on the creator—faces an enormous and complicated task. Brody’s great accomplishment is to shape Godard’s working life into a lucid and coherent narrative, considerably longer and more detailed than Colin MacCabe’s estimable 2003 biography Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, yet eminently readable and admirably informative. After two chapters on Godard’s early life and beginnings as a film critic, all but three of the twenty-seven subsequent chapters are named after the film or video productions that dominated the corresponding years of the director’s life; although some chapters digress at length about secondary matters—works by Jean Giraudoux and Jean Cocteau that figure in Breathless, for instance, or the vicissitudes of Maoist thought at the École normale supérieure—the chronological structure and straightforward style make for a compelling and sometimes spellbinding read.
Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine in Godard's Sci-Fi metaphor Alphaville
Ironically, however, the book’s crisp narrative through-line gives rise to its main weakness—too much emphasis on romance as a motivating power—as well as many of its strengths. I have long believed that an understanding of the women in Godard’s life provides a key to the inner reaches of his artistry, so replete are his films with reflections, inflections, and allusions drawn from profoundly private sources within his mind and heart. Sometimes the links between public expression and private rumination are obvious, as when the credits of My Life to Live (1962) announce the film as a conflicted love-portrait of Anna Karina, who was then Godard’s wife, or when Brigitte Bardot puts on a brunette Karina wig in Contempt, made in 1963 when his relationship with Karina was in trouble. At other times the private-public connections are veiled or cryptic; according to Brody, some of Godard’s voice-overs in the 1967 film Two or Three Things I Know About Her are commentaries on his inability to get Marina Vlady, the movie’s star, to marry him—a fascinating point that lends new meaning to the film’s fabled meditation on a cup of swirling espresso, when Godard whispers on the soundtrack, “Since each event transforms my daily life, since I endlessly fail to communicate…to understand, to love, to make myself be loved….”
Such linkages are valuable aids in grasping and interpreting the full range of Godard’s referential world. But in the first half of the book, Brody relies on them too much and carries them too far, as if entire continents of that referential world rest firmly on the current state of Jean-Luc’s love life. In the musical A Woman Is a Woman, for example, Brody writes that the “conjured reality that evokes emotion is…the off-camera story of Godard and Karina….” In the sardonic sociological drama A Married Woman, made in the year when the couple divorced, Godard served up a “moralizing and puritanical critique of…a world in which it was plausible for Anna Karina to leave him.” The most notorious line that Godard had Karina speak in Pierrot le fou, “Fuck me,” is an eruption of “wish-fulfillment” straight from the filmmaker’s id. And so on, until the book arrives at Godard’s final break with Karina, whereupon his new romance with Anne Wiazemsky takes over as Brody’s structuring agent.
After analyzing Weekend, a culminating work in which the “betrayals dramatized by Godard since the start of his career…took on their most bitter and evil form,” Brody eases up on this device, perhaps because the next few years found Godard working more intensely with male collaborators (Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jean-Henri Roger) than with female ones. But not until Brody gets to Godard’s long-lasting relationship with Anne-Marie Miéville, who has been more of an equal artistic partner for him than the others, do we lose the sense of a biographer straining to follow a predetermined scheme.
Godard on the set of First Name: Carmen
Godard’s personal and professional alliance with Miéville, which began in earnest with the 1975 political drama Numéro Deux, ushered in a stage of his career that continues to the present and contains some of his most brilliant and challenging works. It has also brought out aspects of his creative personality that, Brody vigorously contends, are more scandalous and disturbing than anything in his earlier films. Brody’s most incriminating charge is that of anti-Semitism, not only in connection with Godard’s longtime support of the Palestinian cause but as a matter of generalized prejudice rooted in everything from his childhood absorption of ambient French bigotry to his feud with Claude Lanzmann over the latter’s refusal to use archival footage in the Holocaust documentary Shoah. Brody musters a fair amount of evidence, such as a 1985 remark that invokes the stereotyped slur of Jewish usury: in the history of cinema, Godard said, the ”real producer” is “the image of the Central European Jew” because “[m]aking a film [involves] visibly producing debts.” Brody locates the heart of Godard’s anti-Jewish bias in his conviction—aired most expansively in Histoire(s) du cinéma, his 1998 video series—that true cinema died in the middle Forties as a result of its failure to document the Holocaust, a failure that Godard attributes to money-minded Jewish studio heads. More broadly, Brody paints Godard as an obsessive artist who regards “all of human history as a precursor to or tributary of the history of cinema,” and who blames the Jewish people—starting with Moses, who returned from the Burning Bush with tablets of law rather than icons of revelation—for “the fundamental cultural flaw of society, its preference for text over images, its anti-cinematic prejudice.” Brody finds the apex of Godard’s bigotry in the 2004 collage-drama Notre Musique, which Brody calls “a film of prewar prejudices adorned with postwar resentments—and, like much else in the history of anti-Semitism, with personal frustrations.”
As powerful as much of Brody’s argument is, he weakens it by overinterpreting the evidence and (as with the women-and-films motif) pushing it too far—writing about Notre Musique, for example, as if anti-Semitism overwhelmed every other element in its intricate network of images and ideas. But dubious devices mar only a few portions of Everything Is Cinema, and my other complaints are relatively minor, relating to interpretations more than methodologies. Brody peppers the early chapters with hints of New Wave filmmakers courting right-wing ideas, for instance, but he does little to flesh out or analyze these episodes. He overrates A Woman Is a Woman and For Ever Mozart and Éloge de l’amour just as he underrates British Sounds and Weekend and Notre Musique. He fails to see the ungainliness of Le Petit soldat (star Michel Subor told me Godard had “no idea what he was doing” throughout the shoot) and he extols the “decomposition” shots in Sauve qui peut (la vie), which Godard told me had come out all wrong. My eyebrows also rose at finding a New Yorker scribe who thinks “composed” and “comprised” are synonymous. But no study of this magnitude can please every reader all the time, and while more detailed discussions might have bolstered Brody’s positions, at 701 pages the book can hardly be called sketchy.
Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in Contempt
Everything Is Cinema acquired its title when Godard spoke those words to Brody, and the writer takes them to signify not only Godard’s famous idea that “one should put everything into a film” but also his desire to blend the flow of cinema and the passage of his own life into a single indissoluble cascade. This book captures the rhythms and energies of that cascade better than any prior work outside the precincts of Godard’s own films and videos. In the preface, Brody tells about a New Yorker cartoon that Godard described to him when they first met in 2000: a unicorn, wearing a suit and seated at a desk, says into a telephone, “These rumors of my nonexistence are making it very difficult for me to obtain financing.” In today’s artistically parlous movie world, Godard has good reason to feel like that unicorn. Although it isn’t likely to help him obtain financing, this meticulously researched biography is a spirited reminder that Godard indisputably exists, and that his mark on cinema will endure as long as untiring chroniclers like Brody keep his story alive.
David Sterritt, Chair of the National Society of Film Critics, is author of The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible and Editor of Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews.