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The Visionary Director Sans Grammar

The Visionary Director Sans Grammar

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Godard

The French New Wave film maestro is the dawn of cinema. And he is the lone creative director who did not bow to any celluloid grammar during his seven-decade-old career. Prasanta Paul pays a tribute to the maestro – Jean-Luc Godard

“Was a duck, porcupine(to grammar I bow not)

Became Duckupine, but  how I know not”  –

Khichuri (Stew Much) by Sukumar Roy. (Translation by Prasenjit Gupta)

These first two immortal lines from Sukumar Roy’s Abol Tabol(Nonsense Verse), aptly captures Jean-Luc Godard’s style of film-making.

Godard, the French New Wave film maestro who expired about a week back at 91, was literally the last of the Mohicans who actually did not bow to any filmy grammar.

Armed with a hand-held camera and a handful of aides and technicians, Godard ushered in a revolution in the reel world that none of his world peers could so far match.

He bestrode the medium like a Colossus and the corpus of his films the variety of which still remained an enigma, would betray how consciously he went on to demolish Hollywoodian norms and concepts with elan and invent apparently incongruous themes and sew them up with unbelievable dexterity.

In fact, he treaded ‘where angels fear to tread’; where Hollywood seemed like a distant, cosseted, and disreputable dream.

Godard started as a cinema critic for French magazine Cahiers du Cinema and after reviewing the films, he felt could do better films if he had the money and that is probably what gave him the impetus to go where angels feared to tread.

Ray on Godard

And the fact has been concurred by none other than Satyajit Ray, our own world-renowned film director.

“ I don’t like Godard,’ is a statement one frequently hears at Film Festivals,” writes Satyajit Ray in his essay ‘A Word About Godard.’

“Godard has been both dismissed summarily, and praised to the skies, and the same films have provoked opposite reactions. This is inevitable when a director consistently demolishes sacred conventions, while at the same time packing his films with obviously striking things,” Ray wrote.

Most people know Godard for a handful of revolutionary films made in the early ’60s associated with the French New Wave which changed cinema forever.

However, his most important work has arguably been done since then. For the last seven decades, Godard has effectively embarked on an anthropology of the entirety of Western civilization.

How Godard wove his magic

Very few filmmakers have probed deeper into who we are, and why. These films are as important to sociology as they are to avant-garde art, to pop culture as they are to philosophy, and very few people are aware of these monumental works.

In the process, it was his insolence, his defiance, his derisive humour, his sense of freedom that drew sharp reactions from critics as well as viewers.

In staccato miracle Breathless (1960), his debut film, Godard and the actors pretended they were ‘telling a story’, and in so doing changed, for many, the way films are made and seen.

A scene from Dodard's debut movie "Breathless" in 1960
A scene from Dodard’s debut movie “Breathless” in 1960

And in his very first film, he proved his class by creating ‘characters’ by showing us a documentary of actors creating characters. A splendid reflex which he continued till his last film The Image Book (2018).

Godard's last movie "The Image Book" in 2018
Godard’s last movie “The Image Book” in 2018

Every moment of every film is a documentary of what the camera is pointed at, and Godard seems to know, or honour, this more than many others.

A Radical Godard

The upheavals and turbulence in France during May 1968 greatly impacted the man who turned radical and decided to make `political films politically.’

But this revised look at the politically radical Godard should not distract us from celebrating the aesthetically radical Godard. Prior to the events of 1968, Godard had made pioneering films that opened up the medium of cinema.

And this we witness in ‘A Woman Is A Woman’(1961). “ An Inquisition-like regime ruled over French cinema… French cinema is dying under the weight of false myths. The myths had to be destroyed for French cinema to be reborn,” Godard wrote.

His keen penchant to make a sociological study of the new generation whom he called “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” resulted in another unique film ‘Masculin Féminin’(1966).

Here, he portrayed how Bob Dylan was a link between `the yé-yé kids and politics’. And it was Baudelaire, he claimed, who said that it was “on the toilet walls that you see the human soul: you see graffiti there – politics and sex. Well, that’s what my film is.”

Anticipating Digital Revolution

In Numéro Deux, Godard was already using video as an aesthetic and philosophical tool to be pondered, tested and abused, anticipating the digital revolution by several decades. The entire movie takes place on two television screens within the film frame. The film is an examination of the sexual economy within the family and the relationship between media (films, factories, print, video) and the human body.

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Remember Keats:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

In The Old Place (1998), Godard recreates this in his inimitable way. Here, you don’t see the image, you see what the title says about it. It’s modern advertising. This image that you are, that I am, of that point where the past resonates with the present for a split second to form a constellation.

In a thrilling, compact form, he demonstrates that art wasn’t protected from time. It was what protected time. We work in the dark, we do what we can, and we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. Maybe we’re the ghosts of people taken away when everybody vanished.

Dawn of Cinema

He is the lone great persona who is the dawn of cinema; and his films have been the starting point for many filmmakers, though few have had the courage to follow him without hesitation.

One stumbles upon a strikingly unconventional Godard when one discovers that the maestro used to scribble scripts on the back of envelopes before shooting or how unconventionally original he was when the French pioneer extensively used jump-cuts in `Breathless’; and this became a popular technique in the 1960s.

Godard behind the camera

Godard shows us that in addition to all the borrowed arts used by filmmakers (photography, music, dance, speech, theatre, architecture, etc), the essential cinematic art is its own: editing. And sound editing is no less important to the ‘image’ than picture editing.

Last but not the least; he has continued to press the boundaries of what cinema can be to the delight of some and the confusion of others.

But irrespective of what Godard’s ground-breaking early 1960s works are, the entire corpus of his films will continue to serve as a foundation for those who want to experiment with the visual potential of film as a medium.

To conclude, let me borrow Ray’s conclusion on him: “The trouble, really, is not with Godard, but with his critics—or, at least, a good many of them – who are constantly trying to fit a square peg into a round whole.”

“With any other art, I would have said with confidence that Godard would win in the end. But in the ruthless and unserious world of commercial cinema that he has to operate, I have my doubts.”

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