Jean-Luc Godard – a portrait


This is the third of our Huston Film Lectures, a series of lectures given to students at the National University of Ireland’s Huston School of Film and Digital Media in Galway. The lecture series features leading film directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and academics. This lecture is given by Colin MacCabe, a British writer, film producer and University professor. In his lecture, MacCabe provides an insightful portrait of an almost mythical figure of cinema, Jean-Luc Godard.

Colin MacCable:  To rehearse what presumably is very familiar to you, the Cahiers du Cinéma came up with their theory of the author in the mid fifties and they came up with it, as Godard says, so that we could say that Hitchcock or Ford were as great an artist as Aragon or Picasso. And the theory of the author that the Cahiers’ critics developed was a theory of the author, above all, at the service of a theory of the cinema which was against writing. Classic French cinema traditionally took a great literary text, adapted it, and the director and indeed the writer of the screenplay were held to be at the service of this literary masterpiece. Truffaut, Godard and the others wanted nothing to do with that. They were not interested in the writer, they were interested in the director, they were not particularly interested in the script, they were interested in the lighting, in the shot sequence, the performances, they were interested the themes that repeated across films. There are two things that you can say about it: the first thing is that the Cahiers du Cinéma is the first theory of the author, or at the least the first theory of the author, that I am ware of, to be produced from the position of the audience. It is not a theory produced from the side of the author, the side of the subject, it’s a theory of the author produced from the side of the audience. And the second thing to say about it, it is that was above all a way of categorising the cinema, it was above all a way of taking a huge archive of a particularly commercial American cinema and saying “here there are certain ways in which you can divide up the archive. Here there are certain ways in which you can decide what it is that it is worth seeing”. That actually the concept of the author is a way of dividing up, of regulating this history and producing a canon which actually we are now deeply familiar with, because it’s a canon we all learn from, but a canon which was not, in those initial years, available.

So as a theory of the author it has the interesting features that it is from the side of the audience and it is related to the archive or the corpus. In that sense is very very different from traditional, romantic theories of the author, though it does have most of most traditional, romantic theories in with it. If one is coming to the cinema from outside, if you are coming to a film set on which large numbers of people mill around, expensive equipment is moved about and those delicate things called actors place themselves in front of the camera, you become fairly quickly aware of the fact that if there is not someone orchestrating this huge assemble the whole thing is likely to fall apart. So, in other words, if you look at a film set it seems quite clear that there has to be someone in charge of it, and  it is also quite clear that someone is most evidently be the director. Now I should just as a parenthesis say that actually I have a great number of doubts about the auteur theory in its pure form. If we just take the filmmakers whom the Cahiers were most interested in, that is, Hitchcock and Hawks, they were interested in them as great directors who didn’t write. But actually film history of the last thirty years has rather altered the picture of those directors. It is true, as form as we know, that Hitchcock never put pen to paper; on the other hand, if you read the accounts of how Hitchcock would get some original material, get the writer and decamp to a hotel room in which he would sit with the writer until the script was finished, it is not at all clear that Hitchcock did not at some level write his own scripts. And if we look at Hawks, with a very different method of work, but if we look at the time he spends improvising with his actors and the way that that improvisation gets turned into the scenes that we watch, again, the notion that Hawks isn’t originating the scripts is extremely doubtful. So this is not the topic of my lecture but it seems to me than when one is talking about the author in cinema that the role of the writer is absolutely not to be underestimated. Actually, as a matter of fact, all of the directors who came out of the Cahiers du Cinéma writing in the fifties – we all know their names (Rohmer, Rivette, Chabrol Godard, Truffaut), with the exception I think of Chabrol and even I am not sure he’s an exception – they all wrote as well as directed. So although, theoretically, they had been in favour of the director against the writer and although they had been absolutely determined to stress features of the cinema which were not to do with the writing, it is nonetheless of some importance that they actually all wrote their own scripts. But that is, as I say, is an aside.

If we are now faced with a series of arguments against the author, a series of arguments above all against a notion of the unified and controlling author, the author perhaps above all of romantic theory, the author as the individual set aside from society who finds in nature and art a truth which she communicates and a truth to which she has privileged access to. If we want to avoid the problems of that view of the author we are nonetheless faced with the same arguments which makes it difficult, particularly in the cinema, to get round the author. Arguments both practical, as well as theoretical. And those are in some sense the difficulties that I found myself confronting when I decided to write the biography of Godard. And it seemed to me that the way to avoid the problem of unified author was indeed to take my lessons from the modernists texts which in fact had inspired both Barthes and Foucault. Because the whole of the Parisian theory of the sixties is in fact the kind of repetitional rerun of the modernists experiments in art, literature and thinking of the twenties and thirties. And I took as my model that well-known Irish writer James Joyce. And, as you know, Joyce, well…it can be argued that Joyce did nothing but write autobiographies. But leaving that more general question aside, we know that Joyce had two very different stabs at writing an autobiographical novel. The first, of which apparently there was over a thousand pages of manuscript, he throw in the fire and small fragments of it were retained and published after his death as “Stephen Hero”. A second version, with which we are I assume, particularly in this room, all familiar, “A portrait of the artist as a young man”, which was published in 1916. In the first book, “Stephen Hero”, Joyce tries to write a continuous narrative account of the birth of the artistic consciousness. We don’t have the beginning and we don’t have the end, but we have a middle section which shows us a student at the University, fifty times cleverer than all his contemporaries, fifty times more artistically endowed and, it has to be said, a tremendous prig. And it’s interesting that priggishness is entirely built into the structure of “Stephen Hero”, which is exactly written within a continuous progression towards ever greater knowledge, and which, that ever greater knowledge is always already at the author’s hand in order for him to pour scorn and derision on the stupidity of his student fellows and their pathetic aspirations, both religious and political.

One can see in that “Stephen Hero” exactly the attempt to produce an account of the birth of the romantic author. That is to say, a birth of exactly this controlling and omniscient consciousness exactly in control of his world. What does Joyce do, when he throws this away as worthless and starts again? He completely gives up that continuous narrative thread. The book that he did publish, “A portrait of the artist as a young man”, comes in five sections, each section is written in a subtly different register and voice, suitable to the particular stage of which the extract is a representation. There is no attempt to link together these five episodes, to give a coherent account of consciousness.  So that, for example, at the end of the very famous third section, when having been promised all the fires of hell, he turns to confession and communion with the Church, the break then to the next section, in which he’s lapsed again, is not greatly explained. And then it is explained even less it is the break between the end of that fourth section, when he sees the vision of the young woman in the beach, the vision of the artistic triumph, and then another erupt break and we find ourselves in the kitchen of the impoverished Dedaluses having breakfast before he sets off for his lecture and again no attempt is made to produce an overarching account of how one moment relates to another. In other words, Joyce uses a montage as his crucial tool in providing what, according to the purposes of this lecture, rather than “A portrait of the artist as a young man”, we should call “Snap shots of the artist as a young man”.

So what it was important to do, was to try and find a set of angles on Godard which would provide a way in talking about some of the important elements of the experience of the director, without at any point attempting to produce an overall coherent view, without at any point attempting to produce an understanding of subjectivity. And if there was a rule I had pasted to my word-processor as I wrote it, it was that “I must never use any sentence of the form of the sentence: ‘he must have thought, he must have felt’”. Not simply because of how on earth could I know how he must have thought or he must have felt, but because the lie of that particular formulation goes much deeper, how does anyone who’s living a life know what they think and feel as they live it?  And I tell you, it’s much more difficult to avoid sentences of that structure than you may think, even with that injunction as it were to myself that was constantly there, I must have produced, if not every day certainly every other day, a sentence of that type and had to go back and start again.

Why the author at all? Well, the author at all because I think that Cahiers are right. And I think that Cahiers are right not only in the realm of cinema but in the realm of literature, that you find certain kinds of repetition, certain kinds of emphasis, which you don’t have to explain by a all-knowing, all-unified, regular consciousness but which you probably do have to explain by the specific way in which an individual body traverses a whole set of institutions and histories and which, in some very deep sense, makes us all really individual. And that individuality is not the individuality of the romantics, it’s not a unified individuality, it’s an individuality which perhaps might be even better written in true Joycean style in “-dividual” in which the emphasis is much on the dividual nature of the body that traverses these histories and institutions as on its unity.

So I chose a series of such traverses. The first was the family. And one of the interesting things about Godard is that he is a French protestant. And something I didn’t know before I embarked on the book, he is not simply a French protestant but, through his mother’s side, he’s a member of one of the most famous French protestant family of France, the Monods, who include Nobel prize winners, Jacques Chirac’s right-hand man in the last presidential campaign and, above all, hosts and hosts of protestant clergymen. And the other thing, perhaps even more interesting that I discovered, is that Godard has spent almost his entirely life travelling between two towns. Between, on the one hand, Paris, the great metropolitan city of Europe, the city which from the seventeenth century until the 1960s was the intellectual capital not just of Europe but of the world. And, on the other hand, a small Swiss town called Nyon, in the canton of Vaud, on the banks of Lake Geneva, some thirty miles from Geneva. And his life has been a back-and-forth between these two places. What was interesting was that I discovered that his family’s life had been a back-and-forth between these two places. If you could go back two, three, four generations and discover this passage between these two countries, two cultures, and a passage between being, coming from Geneva, the protestant capital of Europe, between a setting where his religion was the norm and a setting within France where protestantism is a tiny percentage of the population, no more than 2%, which have known a tremendous history of suffering and prosecution throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century. And one finds in this protestantism at least two things which, without in any way wanting to read directly from religious structures to practice of an individual, they seem to me suggestive, if not illuminating. The first thing, of course, that this protestantism has  is the the tremendous notion of justification by faith and, above all, at its centre, the notion of the elect, those who, whatever their actions, are saved. And I think if you look at Godard’s work, both his films and his writings, you can see that this tremendous sense of the importance of faith, a faith for Godard it’s above all a faith in the cinema, a faith that one must preserve against all misadventures and doubts, is, I think, in quite a strong sense, a protestant faith.

And something else, which I found very interesting and suggestive, is that French protestants talk of the seventeenth century as their time of the desert. A time when not only they were forbidden to practise their own faith, but were forced to follow publicly the Catholic faith. And in which all performances of protestant services had to be performed within the family home. And I discovered that this practice had continued in Godard’s own family, where very often on a Sunday they would not go to church but would have the protestant services at home. And it strikes me again as illuminating and suggestive of Godard that the way in which, I wouldn’t say without any precedent in the history of the cinema, but without much precedent in the history of the cinema, that Godard as it were practises his faith at home could in some ways be seen in relation to this religious tradition. And it must be said that one of the moments that I find most striking was when his brother told me about the long tradition of protestant pastors within the family and then said “of course, Jean-Luc himself is a protestant pastor”, an image I haven’t since been able to get out of my mind.

Godard comes from this dual situation, but this dual situation was interrupted and interrupted very very severely by two things: it was interrupted by the war and it was interrupted by the breakdown of his parents’ marriage. In 1945, having been in Switzerland for three years continuously, he came to Paris to continue his studies at the lycée and he came to a situation in which I don’t think there’s ever been anywhere more intense reflection on the cinema.

Paris had been the capital of cinema since the Lumière brothers and it had also been, from throughout the twenties and thirties, the capital of the reflection on the cinema. It was not just that cinema was made, it was that people thought about cinema. And it is in Paris where you find the first beginnings of those people who were saying “here it’s a new great democratic art, here’s an art which transforms everything since the Renaissance, here is an art which challenges the basis of the ways in which we thought about art”. At that point, sound arrived.

One of the great great attractions of cinema for intellectuals was that it was an universal art. And that was a particular attraction in the years after the First Wold War. Here was an art that would transcend national languages, that would transcend nationalities, here was the universal art. Bang! Along comes sound and two things happen when you get sound. First of all, immediately you get national cinemas in a way you didn’t have beforehand. Of course you had national cinemas before sound but you are really doing national cinemas now. And secondly, the budgets go through the roof because actually the cost of shooting the sound affectively consolidates Hollywood stories. And intellectuals drop cinema; there was always a relatively small number of people who have been interested in cinema and most of them dropped with the advent of sound. There is one exception, there is a man called Roger Lienhard, who writes for a Catholic magazine called Esprit in the thirties, and he says “no, the project of cinema is above all a realist project, the advent of sound means the cinema can be more realistic. I want to welcome the advent of sound. Furthermore, I’m going to write a handbook for the spectator, so that the spectator, the person who is looking at the cinema, can begin to understand how the film is put together and understand it better.” If you understand that at that moment the whole of the Cahiers project began, then you are completely correct to understand it, because that is it exactly.

Its most attentive reader is man called André Bazin. He develops the notion of educating the public and combines it with the publication of Cahiers du Cinéma. A publication which is very deliberately broken away both from the University but also from the Communist Party. It’s broken away from the University for fairly obvious reasons. And it’s broken away from the Communist Party because, of course, in post-war France, and in exactly the position  where Godard is as a young man, the Cold War has broken out. And if the Cold War has broken out and you’re on the Russian side, then you’re meant to loathe Hollywood and that means to praise the glories of communist Stalin. So if you are interested in the cinema, that particular Cold War opposition is untenable. And Bazin, very gentle and very wonderful man, finally has enough, and he writes an hilarious article called “The myth of Stalin”, in which he goes through contemporary Soviet films and shows how the new Soviet films are not like the old Soviet films trying to show historical elements at work but everything is at the service of one all-knowing hero called Stalin. And, as he says “it is true of course that Hollywood has heroes like this but Tarzan at least has the justification that the audience want to go and see it, whereas Stalin doesn’t even have that”.

So Bazin has split himself from both the traditional intellectuals and the traditional left. He sets up a magazine in which all these young people, Godard included, write and develop their theories. But write and develop their theories, at the end of a project… the project is to improve public taste, so to improve cinema, so to enable them to make the films for an improved cinema. And remarkably, because you may think that sounds a bit stupid, that’s what they did. Now exactly how they did it’s very complicated and now I want to speed it up a bit. But very crudely put, they did it for two reasons. The first reason was a new generation of technology: they got a new generation of cameras and sound recorders, which meant they were able to shoot on the street, which meant they were able to capture Paris on the run and at a very low cost, in a way that nobody had before. And secondly, the state institution which looked after, was in charge of the cinema was desperate to find some new life. So funnily enough, although you might have an image of them struggling against the establishment – they were certainly struggling against the establishment of directors, producers, etc – but the bureaucrats behind those directors and producers were actually looking for a new generation of film-makers. And thus to find them, breaking through these institutions, and in an extraordinary moment, we find Truffaut, who has been specifically and by name banned from the Cannes film festival, I think it’s 1957… In 1958  he wins the best prize as director for “Les Quatre Cents Coups”, Chabrol makes his films, Godard makes  “À Bout de Souffle”. And suddenly they are “the New Wave” and the New Wave literally goes around the world with imitators in Italy, Brazil, you name it, the New Wave is there.

So, family, intellectual context, institution: those are the three ways of looking at it.  But finally, politics. Godard, you might think, would be blissfully happy with the cinema. But any of you who, for example, have seen “Le Mépris” – people have seen “Le Mépris”? – would know that he isn’t very happy with the cinema. And he isn’t very happy with the cinema for a whole series of reasons. From the most personal, where one of the things all these young delinquent boys had dreamt about, was becoming directors so that they’d have their stars –  their Marlene Dietrichs, their Rita Hayworths.  And Godard had indeed found a star, he’d found Anna Karina and he’d married her. But the marriage was breaking up, in very much the terms that the marriage in “Le Mépris” breaks up. But also, there was a historical paradox that their praise of Hollywood came exactly at the moment that the Hollywood they were praising was dying. The late fifties having the impact of the divestment of their exhibition chains and the impact of television means that Hollywood goes through a catastrophic period. And all their favourite directors, the Nicholas Rays and the Sam Fullers, could not find work. There’s a tremendous lack of… a failure of faith in what’s happened them. And also, there’s the Vietnam War. There is America, which had been the liberation of Europe in 1944-1945, is now suddenly the clear oppressor. And Godard’s work reflects this in the mid sixties. And it ends with him quitting the cinema completely. He leaves the institutions of cinema, despite the fact that he is one of the best known names in the cinema, in fact he gives up his name completely. He stops making films as Godard, he starts making films as the Dziga Vertov Group. The name Dziga Vertov being chosen both for the innovation of documentary style, but also as against Eisenstein, against the representative of Soviet orthodoxy.

That experiment that Godard undertakes is really unthinkable without understanding the moment of 1968. At one level, an unimportant hiccup in the development of the consumer state, a month when a student riot and a general strike have General de Gaulle helicoptering out of Paris to the armies on the Rhine to make sure they’d be loyal in face of the impending revolution. Back home a young Jacques Chirac puts a pistol in his pocket as he sets up to negotiate with the unions and successfully buys them off. In effect, May is over by May 31st. But at one level of society there’s a huge number of young people that believe that a new dawn is at hand, new ways of working must be invented. And Godard, much older, is amongst them as he sets out on a series of political experiments which, although of continuing interest, are films which are completely unwatchable. Just to give you again the merest fragment of the moment, they set out to Czechoslovakia to film what’s happen in Czechoslovakia but the whole film is devoted to showing that you can’t go and film somewhere and find out what’s happening. Thus, for example, there’s a moment with two workers in a factory and they’re talking in Czech to each other; you expect the translation to come up in the soundtrack but instead what comes is the junction “if you don’t know Czech, you’d better learn it fast”.

So a huge kind of way of showing you how difficult… or at least the presuppositions within traditional documentary but the context for those experiments was an active revolutionary movement which had simply disappeared by the time that they returned to the cinema and made a film called “Tout Va Bien”, which effectively presents a picture of France four years after ’68 and shows the various impasses in which everybody is stuck.

And Godard then not only leaves the cinema, he leaves Paris. He first moved to Grenoble and then to a very very small village called Rolle. And he has, for the last thirty years, made his films from there, on his own terms, with his own equipment and he claims to be (and I think he probable is) the only film-maker who can shoot film 365 days a year without asking anybody’s by-your-leave. His name is enough to bring in sufficient commissions and he continues a remarkably productive life. And includes, what I think it’s a new form, and which I can’t imagine – and here is where I’ll end – I can’t imagine any rivals in the immediate future. Because Godard is all in the Cinémathèque, in Langlois’ Cinémathèque… if Bazin is one of his godfathers, the other is Langlois. Langlois in the Cinémathèque in Paris showing the whole Hawks’s work as it were, both silent and talkie, both Western and comedy, the entire range of Hawks’s work is for the first time watchable in Paris immediately after the war. And Godard in 1978 goes to Montreal after Langlois’s death and gives a series of lectures on the history of the cinema in which he says every other page “the real trouble is, I don’t have the technological means to talk to you about the cinema because I need the cinema to talk about the cinema”. And, of course, the developments of video enable him to do just that.

So what he does, from 1988 to 1998, is make an extraordinary series of films or videos, I don’t know which one you want to call them, that are called “Histories of Cinema”. They are a history of the cinema, but they are also a history of the twentieth century and they are also an autobiography. And these three things are mixed together in a way which I can only evoke, I certainly can’t describe, with a richness of image and sound for which I know no parallel. The reason we’ll never see it again or at least we’ll never see anything like it in the near future, is that Godard takes from the whole history of cinema and what he wants to be seen, he just puts it on. First of all, you need the material conditions where you can put your hand on any film that you want, difficult enough. But secondly and much more importantly, you need the resources to clear the copyright on those films. Something which, of course, Godard didn’t bother to do but Gaumont, his great patron, did bother to do for him. And as I say I doubt whether one will ever, or not in the near future, see such a work again.

And if also offered an end to my book, because of course one of the ways that Joyce manages to avoid an unified subjectivity is that he starts his book in the third person but ends it in the first person with a set of diary entries by Stephen Dedalus. So I was able to end the book in the first person because Godard himself ends the “Histoire(s) du cinéma” with a long personal passage about, no matter how terrible the world he’s lived in, and the cinema he’s lived in, how much he appreciates the fact that he’s been allowed to film. And he ends with this quotation, which is a quotation from Borges, which is a quotation from Coleridge and, Godard knew that, but what I found out is that even Coleridge’s is a quotation from the young thinker John Paul. And he ends with this thought:

“If a man travelled across paradise in a dream and received a flower as proof of his passage and on awakening he found that flower in his hands, what’s to be said? I was that man”.


Colin MacCabe’s biography of Godard was first published in 2003 under the title “Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy”.

This podcast was produced by Esther Gaytan-Fuertes

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