Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Confession: I do not care for the films of Jean-Luc Godard

There are, in my experience, two kinds of cinephiles: those who love and understand the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, and those who mostly find he makes their heads and asses hurt. Those who esteem and understand his cinema have higher cred than those who don't, and tend to be very public about it, making neo-Godardian films (Reg Harkema, Gregg Araki) or writing respected film criticism (Jonathan Rosenbaum). Mostly those of us who don't appreciate Godard, I expect, experience this lack of appreciation as a failure, and seldom declare it in public.

I number myself among that latter camp. Since the Cinematheque is having a retrospective of Godard's work, running through February and March, it seemed an opportune time to come out of the closet on this one. My last couple attempts to engage with the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard were so off-putting that it may be years before I try again.

I have enjoyed a couple of the Godard films I've seen - I like his music documentary, One Plus One, about the writing and recording of "Sympathy for the Devil," and the white appropriation of black musical culture (it's not screening as part of the retrospective). With a bit of help from (since retired) SFU film studies professor George Rosenberg, I came to appreciate Weekend, as well - a blackly funny, very political departure from conventional narrative, but maybe a little less unfriendly than some of Godard's other less conventional film fare. Some of his early films held my interest, too - I was able to enjoy Contempt, though I saw it as a teenager, so the nude Brigette Bardot probably helped. But I have not even seen some of his most important films - like Breathless, Alphaville, or Pierrot le fou - because I've been so told that "Godard is a genius" that I don't want to be confronted by my own failure to "get" these films; I would rather say I have not seen them, than to say I have seen them and did not care for them....especially since I would then have to explain myself.

The truth is, more often than not, I have found the films of Godard not only boring and annoying, but deliberately boring and annoying, like I'm supposed to appreciate being bored and annoyed by them. This sense that I am being deliberately one-upped at every turn by his cinema actually makes me a bit angry; unlike the other great one-upper in contemporary cinema, Lars von Trier, being one-upped by Godard brings me no pleasure as a viewer whatsoever. I do understand that one is supposed to take a critical distance from the construction of "pleasure" in bourgeois society, in order to appreciate Godard's cinema, but it's a trick I'm not very good at. I cannot understand the value in watching a film that deliberately sets out to bore and annoy you, so, presumably, that you can feel superior to your desire to have enjoyed the experience. There are a lot of boring and annoying things I can spend my time on, like flossing my teeth or cleaning the food spatter off my fridge shelves, that I would get much more out of, if I have to do something that I simply will not enjoy. 

A concrete example might be useful. Reg Harkema, in talking to me about Monkey Warfare, praised Godard's own film about terrorism, La Chinoise, so the last time it played the Pacific Cinematheque, I went to see it. I found it painful to sit through: talking heads reciting revolutionary doctrine, lots of pop art imagery and bright primary colours, footage of tape recorders running while recordings of political speeches played. There was little in the way of a narrative, and the ideas in the film mostly amounted, as I recall, to lengthy quotations from Chairman Mao. But why the hell would anyone go to a movie to watch people recite Chairman Mao? Even if you're interested in Mao, just stay home and read from the Little Red Book! I don't really recall whether the film serves as an endorsement or a put-down of its student radicals, since, camera-friendly as they may be, they do end up bungling an assassination they attempt, but by the end of the movie, I was mostly just glad it was over.

I still wasn't ready to abandon my attempts to engage with Godard, mind you. When Made in USA came out on DVD, I bought it sight unseen, since it was supposedly an adaptation of a Parker novel, and we know I like Parker novels; the idea of using a Parker text as part of a criticism of American imperialism or something seemed fascinating on paper, at least, and I'd been meaning to see it for years. I sold the disc at Videomatica a week or two later, shaking my head at the loss I was taking. I had not even finished the film, but knew I wanted nothing more to do with it.

I have only seen a couple of other films by Godard to completion (Holy Mary, Prenom: Carmen). I think at this point that I can fairly say I've had enough. I try generally to restrain myself from condemning films I don't enjoy, especially when I don't understand them, since my reactions may say more about the limitations of my perceptions than the films themselves, but there's a quote kicking around, attributed to Werner Herzog, that Godard's cinema is "intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu movie," and I agree wholeheartedly. If only I were Werner Herzog, I would say such things myself.

(Ooh, apparently Ingmar Bergman, on the same page as the previous link, says "Godard is a fucking bore." Well! I'm going to go peruse that page now, see what other juicy quotes there are).

Enjoy the Godard retrospective, Vancouver!


David M. said...

You do not care for them in a chair,
You do not care for them at a Fair.
You do not care for them in a Mall.
You do not care for them at all.
You do not care for the films of Jean Luc Godard.
You do not care for them, Al-You-Are.

Allan MacInnis said...

I will not watch them on a goat, either.