As the last living major French New Wave director, Jean-Luc Godard has become a kind of oracle for younger filmmakers and cinéastes. Despite having turned 89 last December, he remains in a sense what film scholar David Bordwell not long ago called “the youngest filmmaker at work today.” When Godard started working in cinema just about 65 years ago, it didn’t take him long to make his name by breaking its rules. Ever since, he’s warded off complacency by continuing to rethink, at the most fundamental level, not just film but the nature of images, sounds and words themselves. And he pursues this line of thinking in any available medium, including, as demonstrated in the conversation above on “images in the time of the coronavirus,” Instagram Live.
This form, as a filmmaker like Godard would surely appreciate, suits the substance. No venue could be more of the moment than Instagram Live, as performers of all kinds have taken to streaming themselves from home in the midst of the global pandemic. But where many such figures use the opportunity to take viewers’ minds off the coronavirus, Godard and his interviewer Lionel Baier, head of the cinema department at Lausanne’s ECAL University of Art and Design, use it as a starting point. What begins as a discussion of Godard’s news-watching habits turns into a conversational journey across such subjects as filmmaking, writing, painting, philosophy, science, medicine, law, and language. “I don’t believe in language,” goes one of Godard’s characteristic pronouncements. “What needs to be changed is the alphabet. There are too many letters and we should delete lots of them.”
Perhaps that doesn’t come as a surprise from a director whose recent pictures include one called Goodbye to Language. But spoken or filmed, Godard’s ideas on the matter also reflect his personal experience: he tells of having for a time lost the memory of names of certain fruits and vegetables, and consequently developing a visual method of remembering his grocery lists. Such everyday stories come along with references to a wide range of artists, scientists, philosophers, and “adventurers” in history, especially from the history of the Francophone world. More than once arises the name of Nicéphore Niépce, the 19th-century French inventor responsible for the first known photograph ever taken (previously featured here on Open Culture) and a subject of one of Godard’s current works-in-progress.
“In the film I’m going to make,” Godard explains, “I ask what Niépce believed he was doing or what his intentions were when he simply wanted to copy reality.” All throughout his decades as a filmmaker, Godard has clearly kept asking the same question about himself: in making films, does he want to “copy reality” or do something more interesting? Fortunately for cinema, he always seems to have opted for the latter, back to his days with his Nouvelle Vague compatriots François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and Éric Rohmer, all of whom figure into his reminiscences here. And will COVID-19 figure in a future Godard film? “It’ll have an influence but not directly,” he says. “The virus should definitely be talked about once or twice. With everything that comes with it, the virus is a form of communication. It doesn’t mean we’re going to die from it, but we might not live very well with it either.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.