Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Godard/Nixon or, Why I Must See This Movie

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Godard/Nixon or, Why I Must See This Movie

From Everything is Cinema, Richard Brody's biography of Jean-Luc Godard, which I'm currently reading:
"As the film [King Lear] inched forward, Godard thought of recruiting Richard Nixon for a '"distancing operation," a sequence of about twenty minutes during which Nixon and [Norman] Mailer would discuss "power and the loss of power".' Godard offered Nixon $500,000 for one day of shooting. Not surprisingly, Nixon did not respond."
Oh, how I wish he had.

But there's more:

Later, in Norman Mailer's words:

"I was hardly playing King Lear. He said, 'You will be Norman Mailer in this.' And then he gave me some lines and they were really, by any comfortable measure, dreadful...I'd pick up the phone and I'd say, 'Kate, Kate, you must come down immediately, I have just finished the script, it is superb' - stuff like that. He was shooting, and we were getting some dreadful stuff. I said to him, 'Look, I really can't say these lines. If you give me another name than Norman Mailer, I'll say anything you write for me, but if I'm going to be speaking in my own name, then I've got to write the lines, or at least I've got to be consulted on the lines.' So he was very annoyed and he said, 'That's the end of shooting for the day.' We'd only shot for about three hours at that point."
And further:

"There was a moment when Godard told [Mailer] to mention 'King Lear,' and Mailer said, 'Why King Lear? I'm King Lear,' and Godard said 'Be quiet and do as you're told.'"
Not surprisingly, Mailer left the set after a few days and was replaced with Burgess Meredith. (Mailer's daughter, who was going to play Cordelia, was replaced by Molly Ringwald.) That wasn't the only stunt casting:

"Godard reportedly paid sixty thousand dollars to the Actors Studio in New York so that two actors - Al Pacino and Paul Newman - would read several lines of Shakespeare in order for their names to appear in the credits. He also wanted to add two pop stars, Prince and Sting, to the cast; Sting was willing, but Godard couldn't figure out anything for him to do."
Keep in mind there was no conceivable part for Sting in a movie that featured Woody Allen playing "Mister Alien" who's stitching together pieces of celluloid while reciting a sonnet; theater director Peter Sellars cast as Shakespeare Junior the Fifth who is trying to "rediscover the works of his ancestor, which had been lost in the catastrophe of Chernobyl"; and Godard himself playing Professor Pluggy, "a solitary inventor" who "conducts experiments toward the invention of something he calls the 'image'" and whose look is described in Godard's synopsis: "His hair is made of hi-fi cables so that he is able to plug his head directly into the unknown."

Remarkably, Brody contends that this film is "one of Godard's artistic summits." I don't know about that but, goddamnit, I HAVE to see this movie.


Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MovieMan0283 said...

Yes, apparently it's terrible...I even see the word "boring" bandied about frequently...I can understand how it could be terrible, but how could it be boring/dull? Hopefully, I'll get the chance to find out.

For some reason I find the post-'68 Godard work I've seen compelling, even the Dziga Vertov stuff.

One thing's for sure: reading about Lear was very, very interesting...

Ed Howard said...

King Lear is one of Godard's best films, if not his absolute best. Seriously.

It is in my opinion the crowning achievement of the 80s for Godard, the climax to one of his most interesting decades. I'd say that anyone who enjoys late Godard would realize the brilliance of this film -- even though it's obviously meant to be as visually sumptuous as any of his other films from around that time, and that doesn't really come across so well in lousy VHS dubs. I think if this film was made readily available on DVD, its reputation and place in Godard's oeuvre would be thoroughly re-evaluated.

MovieMan0283 said...

Ed, Brody also made a case for the sound getting disserviced by a mono mixdown in its U.S. release.

Have you read the Brody book yet? I'd be especially interested in your reaction, given your famous diatribe against Zacharak's review last summer. I'd say, while personally critical of Godard at times, the bio is remarkably generous (certainly vis a vis the conventional wisdom, but probably even beyond that) towards Godard's post-'68 work, albeit much more the post-Dziga Vertov period - whose works he lumps in one (albeit a long) chapter.

Though I do have to take contention with his (and apparently Godard's) view that Band of Outsiders as commercial fluff (not so true, but not so horrible if it was) and hence one of his lesser, if not his all-time least, work (strongly disagree - it is one of my favorite Godards).

Also, oddly enough on the flip side of things I liked British Sounds better than he did - but maybe it's that rare film that actually improves on You Tube, which is where I saw it. I'm still dying to see Le Vend d'est, which Brody gives short shrift.

Linden Arden said...

I would agree with Ed (Howard). It's one of Godard's most interesting projects and easily the most audacious film of his career. I can understand why many viewers would find it infuriating, but really, it's a key work in Godard's filmography and very much a continuation of the direction that he'd taken since the mid 1970's/post Dziga-Vertov group period.

So much of Godard's work from the time of King Lear is about using sound, editing and cinematography to the fullest of their capabilities, which makes their lack of availability on (good quality) DVD all the more tragic. His shot composition and construction has always been impeccable, however, if you see a film like Soigne ta droite or Hélas pour moi and take the time to plug your earphones in, then you quickly realise that the use of sound and sound editing is simply extraordinary. There are just layers and layers of sound, as densely constructed as the images and the use of on-screen text, which are used to confound and disarm the audience throughout.

Also, for a bit of trivia, Godard's King Lear was one of the films that Quentin Tarantino listed on his résumé when he was originally a struggling actor. He said that the film was so obscure that no casting director would ever bother to look it up. Perhaps he got the idea from the appearance of another Godard-influenced director of Tarantino's generation, Leos Carax, who appears in the film along with his actress friend Julie Delpy (who had just finished working on Carax's second feature, Mauvais Sang).

Ed Howard said...

I have read only parts of the Brody book thus far, though I've read quite a bit about the reactions to it. I like that Brody goes to bat for the 80s films: I think the run from Sauve qui peut to King Lear is one of Godard's strongest periods, and Brody seems to concur. But I'm bothered by his tendency to read the films so thoroughly in terms of his conjectures about Godard's personal life, especially his relationship with Karina (like reducing so many of the 60s films to a cycle of revenge and punishment against his unfaithful wife). It seems overly reductive. Likewise, I think he stretches a great deal to make points about Godard's supposed anti-Semitism and fascism. Some of his ideas about that are frankly hilarious and seem like playing an ideological game of "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" -- along the lines of Godard's fellow director Truffaut was friends with a guy who worked on a newspaper that published an anti-Semitic tract. And he apparently gives short shrift to the 70s films because he doesn't like them himself, even though those films are clearly a critical juncture in Godard's career. I'll read the whole book eventually, I'm sure, but what I've read and heard so far doesn't sound good.

I also agree with Linden about the importance of sound to Godard's work, and especially to his work from the 80s and beyond. It's no coincidence that the complete soundtracks to both Nouvelle vague and Histoire(s) du cinema have been released on CD. These films are so aurally dense that they can work as musique concrete listening experiences even isolated from the film.

Linden Arden said...

Sorry to hi-jack your thread, but... For those interested, there's a great argument against Brody's book posted here...


Although I commend Brody's attempts to revaluate Godard's later works (too many professional critics seem to be under the impression that he retired in 1967), I'm baffled by his seemingly bizarre personal vendetta against the filmmaker, in which Godard becomes a sort of two-dimensional, mean-spirited, Jew-hating grouch who makes small children cry.

Also, as Ed points out; the continually reductive reading of the films as being nothing more than wounded, passive-aggressive attacks on Anna Karina seems to show a complete inability to understand the films on any greater level than the average tabloid. Sure, it makes for great trivia, but I think a lot of his (Brody's) assessments colour the films negatively, rather than positively.

MovieMan0283 said...

Ed (and Linden) excellent points about his reading of the 60s films. I too found the Karina-centric interpretations somewhat baffling and certainly overly reductive. Initially it took me a while to get into this bio (I picked it up and perused it over a period of several months before diving in whole hog). Part of the reason, I think, was that his reading of Godard's films just didn't gibe with mine - not just a tendency to read so much more into the work than seemed present, but also his ability to somehow overlook the liveliness of Godard's work in favor of more "serious," analytical readings (you'd never know how fun and funny his films are - how exhilirating on a purely visceral level - reading Brody's descriptions).

On the other hand, I love how Brody's accounts of Godard's methods - where documentation overtakes speculation - and the way they puncture so much pomposity about Godard's style (including, yes, Brody's own to a certain extent). And reading on, the book becomes quite absorbing, even with the various filters it applies to Godard's life.

That said, I don't think it's fair to say Brody has a "vendetta" against Godard - otherwise he would not have written such a largely sympathetic biography of him (one apparently far too sympathetic for many critics). By multiple accounts, Godard is an extremely difficult person to deal with, particularly on the set of his films, and it would be absurd if Brody left that out. Did he exaggerate some things?

And I think his rare aesthetic/ethical criticisms of Godard, particularly on the grounds where he humiliated inexperienced young (even child) actresses in his thorny investigations of incest and the world of children, are fair game. It certainly fits in - as Godard points out - to the 70s milieu in France, where children - and sexula limits - essentially became fodder to revolutionary aspirations for a while (I'm reading an interesting book now, about the ties between May '68 and the rise of ethics on the left, which documents a lot of this).

At any rate, the book is well worth reading, flaws and all.


Reading about the sound design of Godard's later work is one of the most fascinating things about this book - I was especially intrigued by the descriptions of Nouvelle Vague which I've never seen.

In fact, the only post-Week End Godard I've seen are British Sounds, Tout va bien, the beginning of Notre Musique, a clip from Sauve qui peut, and that bit from Le Gai Savoir which I posted in my actress thread for Juliet Berto. If nothing else, this book has really made me want to explore this area (which will be difficult as unfortunately much of it is unavailable or difficult to attain).

Ed Howard said...

MovieMan, fortunately the state of late Godard on DVD has improved in recent years. Hail Mary is out on a beautiful DVD from New Yorker, and Lions Gate has released a great box set that features a fine sampling of Godard's late films: First Name: Carmen (one of his best), Helas Pour Moi, Detective and Passion. There are still a lot of key films missing (especially in Region 1), but it's easier than ever to at least get an overview of some of Godard's later masterworks.

MovieMan0283 said...

Linden, thanks for linking up to that article - it was quite fascinating. However, I found it as problematic - in its own way - as Brody's book. Does Krohn get a pass for utilizing the very "cultural jouranlism" he criticizes because he acknowledges he's doing so - in an eye-for-eye sort of vengeance? (Along the lines of the playground taunt "he started it" - which, upon reflection, I've always thought was kind of a fair point.)

At any rate, as I've already implied, his polemical assertion that Brody's bio is a disguised hatchet job doesn't gibe with my reading. For one thing, I think the anti-Semitism thread has been overblown, both by those who believe it and those who don't. Much of the book doesn't even discuss Godard's thoughts on Jews, and when it does it shows them to be problematic and insensitive at worst, rather than outright anti-Semitic. Indeed, just as Brody might be overly sensitive in seeing anti-Semitism everywhere, Krohn may be overly sensitive in seeing accusations of anti-Semitism everywhere. He also makes some political assumptions which I find a bit noxious - that, for example, it's anathema to have right-wing friends (a charge Krohn oddly tries to clear Godard of) and that fanaticism of the right and left should not be equated. But I will refrain from trodding further into this territory, lest the recriminatory ceejaying get out of hand.

I did, at any rate, greatly appreciate the context which Krohn provided - on the "dirty Jew" affair, on Godard's relationship with his grandparents, even on Brody's "dinner" with Godard. And at any rate, I like reading polemics - though I hope ultimately that they are tempered by something more juidicious or, at bare minimum, a counter-polemic. One could say the same thing about opinionated biographies, which is why Krohn's critique is appreciated.

MovieMan0283 said...

Ed, that's certainly true - thank God for the DVD revolution! (I still wish I could find King Lear on Netflix, though, to bring the discussion back to its starting point...)

MovieMan0283 said...

Linden, I see in your profile you are a Wind in the Willows fan. Stick around; within the next few months I'm hoping to do a post (or several) on the way various film (mostly animated) adaptations over the years have altered or transmuted both the events and the particular mood of Grahame's great, great book.

Sam Juliano said...

I am a KING LEAR fanatic, like many others here, and i do love Godard, and think LE MEPHRIS his greatest film, but I have steadfastly avoided seeking this one out for various reasons. In fact I got a laugh reading this before by a blogger:

"I adore King lear(I've read it at least four times and taught it two)& am a fan of artistic films, but this? The sound is appalling, though it may be in Dolby; the constant over layering of speakers is not poignant (as at a poetry reading) but incomprehensable. There is a contant screeching of birds, and while I know animals/birds of prey play are often used for imagery in Lear, but the contant sea gull screeches hurt one's ears! The characters are practically unidentifiable, as are their motivations. Not to mention, there are several scenes that seem to have absolutely no point whatsoever (such as Shakespeare the 5th being followed by girls imitating his gestures in the woods). Periodically, you'll see flashes of a black screen that say things such as "King Lear: A Study." A study in what? Crapulous nonsense? If you enjoy pretending to be hip while sipping a $7 latte and decontructing postmodernism, you may enjoy this film. If you love King Lear, you probably won't.

LOL! My site colleague Allan Fish agrees with "Moviezzz" that any Godard post-1968 is to be avoided, yet I am not that close-minded about the matter. The Olivier LEAR is majestic, and Kozintsev's Russian interpretation is solid (although not as good as his HAMLET) and of course Kurosawa's cinematic interpretation RAN is a formidable achievement.

With the stellar recommendation of Ed Howard, which goes a long way with any movie lover including me, I must completely agree with your closing here Movie Man:

Remarkably, Brody contends that this film is "one of Godard's artistic summits." I don't know about that but, goddamnit, I HAVE to see this movie.

Indeed, now it seems that only the Cinnemateque VHS is available. I also need to check out the Brody volume.

Sam Juliano said...

Thats LE MEPRIS. My typically typos. Sorry.

Ed Howard said...

It's important to note that Godard's King Lear is not in any way, shape or form a Shakespeare "adaptation," which seems to be the sticking point for a lot of literary-minded viewers who seek this out expecting to see the play translated to the screen. Godard reportedly didn't even read the full play before making the film: he got fixated on the early exchange between Cordelia and Lear in which she refuses to speak, and made that dialogue one of the thematic focal points for the film. The film is not a retelling of Lear but rather circles loosely around the play, using it as one element among Godard's multi-layered ruminations on literature, filmmaking, culture and relationships. It's an intensely rewarding patchwork, but watching it with the expectation of a King Lear adaptation is a sure-fire recipe for disappointment.

Sam Juliano said...

Indeed Ed indeed. That is the central point here, methinks. It would be the same as anyone expecting Julie Taymour's TITUS to be a straightforward presentation of the Bard's TITUS ANDRONICUS.

Linden Arden said...

MovieMan; I'll try to cover a few different points here...

1. "Vendetta" may have been too strong a word – however, I'm sure that Brody is fully aware of the damage that can be done by even suggesting (let alone stating) that Godard is anti-semitic, and in using that as the basis of his argument through the course of his book. Certainly such issues should be addressed, but since Brody is establishing himself (or at least attempting to establish himself) as an authority on Godard, his own interpretations will ultimate lead other viewers in how they approach and interpret the work with these subsequent factors in mind.

I've already seen a thread on one particular message board which claims that Godard's comments during a segment of his own Histoire(s) du Cinema series (in the episode that questions Hollywood and its part in the decline of forward-thinking world cinema) are motivated entirely by his deep-rooted hatred of the Jews - which again, shows a complete unwillingness to actually engage with the ideas within the film, seeing only the tabloid sensationalism that Brody seems to favour.

Whereas we once saw Godard attacking Spielberg for placing the emphasis of cinema on box-office pull, merchandise and family-friendly spectacle, many will now see it as nothing more than the small-minded prejudice of an established Anti-Semite; turning the very complex arguments in a film like Eloge de l'amour into a two-dimensional rant that can easily be dismissed.

Obviously, these criticisms won't kill the interest in Godard's work, but it would be a real shame if someone saw (for example) Pierrot le fou and only saw it as Godard's attempt to accuse Anna Karina of somehow leading him astray (I won't go into too many details for fear of spoilers) or perhaps missing the broader points of Notre musique because they were bogged down in the debate about anti-semitism/fanaticism/etc.

2. Of course, you're right in a sense; if we assume that Brody had an agenda in his pouring over the more contentious parts of Godard's life, then we can also assume that writers like Krohn and Craig Keller (who has also written dismissive posts on Brody's book) have a similar axe to grind; attempting to bring down Brody as they see Brody attempting to take down Godard, etc. Certainly, in the Krohn piece, the tone is belittling, as the author tries to paint Brody as somehow desperately out of his depth, trying to almost befriend Godard and then pulling him down when his admiration wasn't reciprocated; a kind of "King of Comedy" scenario, with Brody replacing Rupert Pupkin. All of which is as reaching as some of Brody's own interpretations/opinions about Godard's behaviour and past.

I guess some filmmakers naturally seem to attract this kind of negative attention. We only have to look at the interest in the private lives of Fassbinder, Bergman or Woody Allen to see how the personal stuff tends to interest some people a lot more than the work itself. Such is life, I suppose.

3. I look forward to the posts on The Wind in the Willows. There was one animated version in particular that I used to love as a child, but I haven't seen it in over a decade so I'm not sure how it stands up. It would be interesting to see if it pops up during your discussions. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

MovieMan0283 said...


One thing: I spoke to soon in saying that Brody never outright accuses Godard of anti-Semitism. Later in the very day that I wrote that I came across this passage, referring to Godard: "...what can rightly be called his anti-Semitism)" (or something close to that, I don't have the book before me so I'm paraphrasing). Oops...I had about 50 pages to go in the book when I wrote that previous comment, but I guess I should have waited until finishing...

Anyway, I don't think Brody's entirely off in calling Godard out on that. Yes, many of his comments can be pegged as anti-Zionism or as complex thoughts on the historical role of the Holocaust and the cinema and the Jewish people, etc. but often he wanders off into the thicket of insensitivity at best, queasy generalizations about the "Jews" at worst. I haven't seen much that could be construed as vehement anti-Semitism, though, merely insensitive generalizations drawn less from Godard hating from Jews than from Godard seeing everything through a literary, almost metaphorical filter, so Brody probably goes too far in his criticism.

As to your larger point, that's a fair argument: that Brody's narrow viewpoint of Godard's "meaning" could hinder readings and appreciations of Godard's work, but I don't think it's too much of a risk. If anything it will draw more viewers in, and they'll likely be surprised by the vigor and humor of the works, rather than their ostensible connection to Karina or Jews. And at the same time, are the types of people uneasy about watching a Godard film the ones who will snuggle up with a 700-page tome on the filmmaker? I think Brody's book is probably preaching to the choir, so to speak, and that his ideas may be too idiosyncratic and sometimes obscure to become "memes" about Godard (not to mention that there are so many ideas already in circulation on the auteur).

I should have mentioned one other thing that bothered me about Krohn's piece: the more-or-less assumption that the subjects of an author's work don't matter, using that example from the Roth book. A couple points: yes, in the sense that it probably should not affect our reading of the work, but Krohn's dismissal of the people who feel used or misrepresented by the author's interpretation sounds as if these people, by virtue of not being artists, don't matter; worse, they may not "get" the uses the author put them too. And more importantly, there's a hell of a difference between growing up in Michigan, then writing a book presenting a perhaps unfavorable view of the people you grew up with and filming a young girl than dubbing over voices which discuss incest in graphic detail while slowing down her image for audiences (and not telling the girl, or presumably her parents, what you were going to do). In other words, whatever the merits of Godard's work, I think it's perfectly fair to ask actors and collaborators how they felt about the way Godard used their image: there's an issue of ethics here that simply isn't present in Roth's example, and even in his more justifiable mockery of "cultural journalism" there's an element of snobbery, as if people who aren't artistic masters should stay in their place and shut up, dying off quicker so that the artist's greatness can linger throughout the ages without their shabby presence haunting the corners.

(He also brings up Spoto's book on Hitchcock; I have my discomforts with that book too but at the same time if what Spoto writes is true, Hitch was abusing sexual power in terrible ways, destroying the career of an actress who would not sleep with him. My problems stem from knowing whether or not this is true, particularly with Hitchcock not around to defend himself, but Krohn seems to object to the triteness of this observation in contrast to the greatness of Hitchcock's work. In regarding Hitchcock as an artist, he's correct, but if what Tippi Hedron says is true, doesn't her voice deserve to be heard if she wishes to raise it? Is she not supposed to count because she isn't as great an artist as Hitchcock? I was getting this sense from Krohn's tirade, though perhaps I was misreading him.)

At any rate, I've never felt the need to jump to an artist's personal defense, other than to feel a queasiness when irrelevant personal gossip is brought up against their will (as a voracious consumer of biographers, though, I may be a bit of a hypocrite in that matter). But that's an issue of privacy which applies to artists and non-artists alike, not anything to do with artistic integrity. What do I care if Bergman, Godard, Allen is a shit? They can defend themselves in that regard, assuming they're still alive, and it has no bearing on their art. In other words, if Brody's allegations were all correct, Godard would still be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and I don't feel the need to defend him AS GODARD (vs. as anybody) that Krohn seems to; though again, perhaps I'm misreading him.

MovieMan0283 said...

As for Wind in the Willows, was it the Rankin/Bass cartoon with Roddy McDowell's and Jose Ferrer's voices? If so, check out my archives for February; I reviewed it and indeed, that particular version (which I still own on a VHS taped from television in '87) is what spurred the whole idea of this project (and also a video quiz earlier in which I put up You Tube clips of all the actors who voiced the main characters and asked what the connection was...nobody guessed it; that one's in January).