Few can think of the very concept of the auteur without thinking of Jean-Luc Godard. That goes for those of us exhilarated by his movies, those of us amused by them, those of us frustrated by them, and those of us who experience any combination of those emotions and more. Godard’s early audiences, at the dawn of the French New Wave in the late 1950s and the decade or so thereafter, reacted in all those ways, and somehow time hasn’t drained his work in that period of its power.
“How Jean-Luc Godard Liberated Cinema,” the video essay from The Discarded Image above, shows us how a young filmmaker in mid-century France, working under severely limited environments and in a whole new postwar reality — cultural as well as economic — imbued them with that power. Starting with a bang, his 1959 feature debut Breathless, Godard took cinema, says Discarded Image creator Julian Palmer, and “tore through its foundations, reinventing the form and reinventing himself, picture by picture.” This entailed “a haphazard ethos toward editing” as well as oscillation between “genre and the everyday, actors and non-professionals, black and white and color.”
Godard “found the modern world, engulfed with commercialism, both appealing in its pop-art aesthetic, but also repellent,” and his early films vividly express both halves of that worldview. All the while he “toys with the conventions of cinema,” for example by severing the “umbilical cord” of the musical score, “making you aware of how you’re being manipulated by his medium,” and littering the frame with text, “often with abstract phrases, possibly just to provoke a reaction” — or, as some Godard enthusiasts might put it, definitely just to provoke a reaction.
The Godard films on which this video essay focuses — the formidable stretch from Breathless to 1967’s Week-end, with pictures like Vivre sa vie, Contempt, and Alphaville in-between — also draw deeply from cinema itself. “Movies surround these characters’ lives, providing a contrast to their existence,” says Palmer. “This fantasy can allow them to momentarily escape their reality.” But as the 1960s became the 1970s, “like a film coming off its projector, Godard himself was coming off track. He was increasingly disgusted by consumer culture, which was only becoming more dominant.”
Thereafter, as some critics see it, the delicate balance between Godard’s politics and his aesthetics was overturned by the former, but his initial “manic period of fertile creation is still unmatched to this day, and Godard’s influence is immeasurable.” We should not only be thankful that Godard still makes films (his latest, The Image Book, won the very first “Special Palme d’Or” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), but also hope that the next generation of filmmakers continues to look to his example. Godard may have liberated cinema, but it always and everywhere threatens to put itself back in chains.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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 or on Facebook.