Jean-Luc Godard just died – the famous filmmaker was 91 years old. Without knowing this, the Portuguese film festival Doclisboa screened two new documentaries with him in October – Godard Cinema and See You Friday, Robinson.
In this longer editorial essay on Godard and cinema, let me use four other sources: the books Godard by Godard (GG, 1968) and Everything is Cinema, The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody (WL, 2008), and the films Histoire(s) du Cinéma (Godard’s grandiose work, 1998) and Fragments of Conversations by director Alain Fleicher (2007).
«Death» is an ongoing topic in Godard’s works. Back in the 60s of the French New Wave, he had already tried suicide together with Anna Karenina (his wife).
When asked about this in Fragments 20 years ago, he referred to Albert Camus’ «Suicide is the only important philosophical question», which he always had taken seriously. (The existentialist Camus wrote that life was absurd, meaningless, and to end it was a solution.) Godard answers that he wouldn’t know how to do it or where to buy a gun, and he was also afraid of being sick if he swallowed too much poisonous stuff. Or where could he really buy plastic to blow himself up? He was also too «scared to jump out the window of the fifth floor … to get hurt, to badly fall and be in pain. Or get crippled.» He would rather consider doing something militantly political – «to perform a suicide act, as I would be certain to be shot dead.»
Well, assisted suicide is today allowed in Switzerland. He chose this after having lived for 91 years, now totally exhausted.
The new film See You Friday, Robinson, greatly made by Mikra Farahani, showed a correspondence of 8 months around 2015 between Godard and the famous Iranian filmmaker and author Ebrahim Golestan. Golestan’s books and films is the bedrock of modern Iranian culture (also in the time of the Shah) – so here we saw two hermits of cinema’s technical and political revolution. Golestan actually turned 100 after the film was finished and screened at the Lisbon festival.
As Godard answered about this project idea with a man he had never met, the long-distance dialogue would show if they corresponded or not. The film is delicately edited by Faharani and Y. Kergoat, with shots from Golestan’s mansion in Surrey, outside London – a magnificent palace surrounded by beautiful nature – and Godard in his more isolated home in the Swiss city Rolle. Both are somehow of the same generation, striving to walk up their stairs, moving slowly. Both have hospital visits during filming, either blood in the urine or a heart problem. Some humour can be seen when they exchange pictures from these hospital beds. Godard is more ironic, and Golestan has a positive worldview.
As we see over the months, when they exchange reflections on life and cinema, these wise old men differ. Godard is the more complicated one seen in his email texts (aphorisms, quotes etc.) and material. Some shots of Godard are seen in the film on a big screen in Golestan’s gothic palace– spacious enough to look like a set from The Beauty and the Beast. Golestan comments, digresses, evokes memories, and sometimes strives to understand some connections between the elements Godard sends him: As he says: «Godard, he doesn’t view a fabric, he threads beams.»
Golestan, as the oldest, finds Godard to be pretentious sometimes. He wonders why Godard must talk about redemption, fear, and anguish. We all see Godard with his back turned to the camera in Rolle, sitting at his bed before sleep: «Fear is the daughter of God, redeemed on a good Friday night – she is on the bedside of every agony. She intercedes for mankind.»
When Golestan and director Farahani talk together about the death topic – as both men are old – she gets the answer, «He is afraid of death! There is nothing to be afraid of.» But then it happens that Godard is brought to a hospital with a serious heart problem. What she then finds most painful is the disappearance of such a beauty that she has found in Godard’s revelations, philosophy, and many films. We hear her voice together with visuals of a prominent garden port in front of a tree alley, showing autumn leaves flying around in the wind, and she cites Heinrich Heine’s poem: «Do you hear the little bell tinkle? Kneel down. They are bringing the sacraments to a dying god.» Let me cite more of this important moment in the film. Then Golestan reflects to younger Farahani: He not only reminds her about all the unknowns who did beautiful things but also those with a strong sense of beauty that became revolutionaries or terrorists – as a part of life’s beauty too; and about life: «One may not arrive, but once you do, you must also leave.» And seeing that Godard’s life now could pass, he says the source of beauty will not disappear, «it will only change hands.» He reminds Farahani, who feels she is losing a protector, that Mozart died at 36 and Schubert at 33. Meaning ten years younger than her.
Godard had a lot of mourning, but not Golestan. As Godard says in the film about how people start to mourn when a loved one dies, we see the childhood picture of him not as a happy boy: «But I did the opposite: I mourned first. But death didn’t come, neither in the streets of Paris nor on the shores of Lake Geneva.»
Histoire(s) du Cinéma
Godard’s Historie(s) du Cinéma is referred to both in the biography The Working Life, in Fragments, and in Godard Cinema. It is his intellectual autobiography. This view of both cinema and political history took him a decade to finish. A long documentary with eight chapters made for TV, full of film clips, still photographs, on-screen texts, and images of himself and other performers in recitation and discussion, as well as music and film soundtracks. I can also mention the editing technique, as he was doing this himself, with all the technical devices at his disposal – optical effects, superimpositions, flashing alternations, slow dissolves, freeze frame, slow motion, sudden contrasting elements, use of colour or black and white, light, and dark, quiet, and loud. Was the camera not his pen, but a brush?
Godard had earlier criticised America and what happened when you produced film for television: «Television is not a means of expression. This is proven by the fact that the sillier it is, the more fascinating it becomes, and the more people are glued to their chairs. … The bore is that if you start watching TV, you can’t stop.»
Godard shows in Histoire(s) how the American’s more superficial entertainment entered European minds, criticised through post-war cinema. Godard had many one-liners: Also, in Histoire(s), we read on the screen, «all you need is a girl and a gun», and he said, «there are two great stories, sex and death». Well, through his films, we can see how he is fascinated by women, also up in his older days, and the never-ending topic of violence and war.
He then declares the death of European cinema and the success of American Hollywood spectacles for the decades to come. Although he still had some American favourites, like Cassavetes (although he was Greek) and Hitchcock. And he was positive to Italian neorealism, like Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, made in 1945.
The mentioned mourning was also something about cinema itself, as Godard did in Histoire(s) du Cinema. As written about ten years later in the biography Working Life (WL, 2008), Godard elaborated on the mourning or «death» of cinema which came with World War Two. For example, he criticises another long documentary, Shoah (1985) by Claude Landsman, for not featuring any archival materials from the concentration camps. As he shows in Histoire(s) – which he already spoke about in Godard on Godard (1972) and is repeated in this biography: «Take concentration camps, for instance. The only real film to be made about them – which has never been as because it would be intolerable – would be if a camp were filmed from the point of view of the torturers and their daily routine. … The really horrible thing about such scenes would not be their horror but their very ordinary everydayness.» With this banality of evil, I can add – I remember he had a big poster of Hannah Arendt, in his home, for those that know what that means. Godard was also interviewed about Histoire(s) in France – with s much as ten half-hour interviews.
Directors shouldn’t hide this war reality as Godard was sure the Nazis had film archives from the camps somewhere. Cinema could change what was happening or how politics around war have been pursued. Let me add the atrocities in Ukraine now – would more direct filming of that war reality stop this horrendous escalation of weapons, violence and deaths?
When we talk about war, let me mention the film The Natural History of Destruction by Sergei Lozinitsa (2022), screened at the Ji.hlava International Film Festival also in October. This seldom-seen material about Word War shows heavy bombings of German and British cities put together mostly in its black and white shots – doing exactly what Godard was asking for – and visualises these horrors. Isn’t it a film that today should have been obligatory for all these top politicians? Those make themselves «important» by wanting to win a war like in Ukraine/Russia, by today’s ever-expanding military-industrial complex?
Criticism and thinking
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said: «Since Mallamé, we have entered into a period in which art criticizes itself.» Art had also, for a couple of centuries, been involved with itself. From 1962, after four feature films –like Breathless ¬– Godard followed up the new critique after his long fascination for American films ended (he had 16 shelves of such films in his archive in Rolle). He suggests he was unwitting yet an all too eager victim of a delusion and a snare – from a cinematic colonization by concealment and distraction rather than revelation – being an acolyte of false faith.
So then, in Godard on Godard, we can read him saying: «Instead of writing criticism, I make film, but the critical dimension is subsumed. I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in novel form, or novels in essay form, only instead of writing, I film them.» As Golestan in the mentioned new film comments about Godard, «he brought thinking into cinema».
But we do not think at the cinema, as Godard said, «we are thought» – like a cinematic self-psychoanalysis? Or, as the biography cites Godard, that cinema is «a world without history but a world that tells stories – as the «(s)» in the title? Or as «the only place where memory is a slave» since «cinema like Christianity, is not based on historical truth; it gives us a story and says, ‘Believe it’.» An industry of escapism, as Godard said once.
A philosopher like him conveys beauty or humanism through all this negation or vital criticism, just like in The Rage of Pasolini, where Pier-Paolo Pasolini in 1963 commented on chosen newsreels from a huge archive. Faharani actually said her film project was inspired by a poem by Pasolini titled I Am a Force of The Past.
Histoire(s), chapter 3A («The coin of the Absolute») is a plea to Italian postwar, neorealist cinema – about the war. This is also a condemnation of contemporary European governments for allowing the massacres in former Yugoslavia to happen without intervention to those. Here Godard again puts forward his belief that cinema can record such events and, thus, of being capable of doing something to prevent such. (Ukraine today …). He comments in Histoire(s) that this is the crucial role of cinema, which is «to begin with, made for thinking.» But he also adds that this capacity was easily forgotten with Auschwitz…
Fiction or documentaries?
As Godard tells us (GG), «All great fictions films tend towards documentary, just as all great documentaries tend towards fiction.» He criticises Nietzsche’s, «We have art so as not to die from truth» to be «completely and utterly false». And let me add his wise comment: «Would one blush for the religiously realistic art of the cinema if we were not eaten away by an unhappy desire to change the world? But here artistic creation does not mean painting one’s soul in things but painting the soul of things.» And he keeps talking about Flaherty’s Nanook, to be a genius not far from Hitchcock «Nanook hunting his prey is like a killer stalking his victims … Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self.»
Let me add what he once said: «For me, the big history is that of cinema since it is projected, while in a book, it is reduced.» He also said in Fragments that cinema can still explain the whole world. He saw the world through cinema – «cogito ergo video» – something like the mathematician who would look at the world from that viewpoint, the mathematical worldview.
Godard once told Nicolas Seydoux, the head of Gaumont, that he considered himself to not be a filmmaker but «a philosopher who uses a camera». As he is referred in the 2008 biography from his outpost in Rolle, the burden of cinema is the touchstone or «the reference of moral and artistic measures». Here he adds to Richard Brody: «I still have ten or twenty more years to make it last a little longer» – which he did, up until becoming 91. Histoire(s) was also his memorial. The biography explains it as a «personal remembrance of the cinema and a public commemoration of it, a reminiscence, and a monument. But it was also the repository of shards of cinema that Godard rescued from oblivion». A funeral oration in the great tradition, rescuing fragments?
I will end this essay after all my citations – as an honour to Godard’s life and work – with the two great filmmakers in See You Friday, Robinson. It was beautifully shot behind the cameras by Faharani herself and with the help of Daniel Zafer in Iran and Fabricio Aragno in Switzerland.
«Children try, they look, they touch.»
Let me first bring up a topic that can be drawn from these films and books – «hope». Godard also has his comment on this: «Hope will burn again and again. Too often it is stifled by the powerful enemy.» As shown in See You Friday, Robinson, Godard is working between his editing machines in Rolle, with Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) playing at a screen in the background: «It will be awakened again and again. And the domain of hope would be greater than in our time, it will extend all continents.» As Pasolini in an interview after Salò, said with discontent about the word «hope» – it was just used by politicians rhetorically. Yes, we remember the slogan of Obama – and how he then expanded with killer drones and military attacks.
Then an important topic comes up at the end, asked by Golestan: Does Godard still believe in cinema? Did he still have hope that he could help people through cinema?
Let me again show Godard’s intellect when asked at the end of this documentary: «Well, I have no idea.» He talks about this question, mentioning sentences like «Do you believe in literature?» and tells us, «Cinema doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t give answers.» And then he readdresses Golestan directly: «No offence, Ebrahim – but this is the kind of question police asks.» Then he talks about children: «If I said I believe in cinema, you would have asked me why. Children never ask why. They try, they look, they touch. The parents teach them to ask why. And why do they do that? The children don’t know.»
Sorry for all these citations. But aren’t they telling?
Films like Godard Cinema; Fragments of a Conversation, Film Socialism; and more will next be screened as part of the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival.