Revered and reviled in almost equal amounts, the cinema of pioneering filmmaker, artist, political firebrand, and consummate performer Jean-Luc Godard since the late 1960s has been puzzled over, analyzed to death, scrutinized, criticized, and almost lobotomized by scholars, critics, academics, and audiences nearly to death. There’s an expectation that challenging films from challenging directors made during their most artistically interesting period should have volumes upon volumes of texts written about them, but that’s not necessarily the case with Godard and his latter day output.
A great deal of Godard’s output in the wake of his “Fin de Cinema” capping of the film Weekend in 1967 went over the heads of most critics. A lot of his ardent defenders suddenly found themselves distanced by the French nouvelle vague auteur, unwilling or perhaps more obviously unable to follow along as the filmmaker started making a more honest form of art. Dabbling in Maoism, collaborating frequently with Anne-Marie Mieville, and covering everything from politics to consumerism and from high camp and low art to fine arts criticism and poetics, Godard was no longer confined to the cinema in this time period. He was almost omnipresent and astoundingly prolific considering how little the second half of his career gets focused on.
The TIFF Bell Lightbox continues their look at Godard with Godard Forever Part II, now running through December 22nd, and it’s an almost overwhelming and remarkably comprehensive collection of films best indicative of Godard’s most interesting – and still ongoing – period of authorship. There’s so much to choose from in this program, that it would take me months to adequately formulate a response to the series as a whole. As a general, blanket statement, though, I would venture to say that about 85% of the films are best viewed without knowing very much about them outside of a possible brief synopsis, and even then that assumes that the film in question can be labelled or categorized in any way. Every film in the second half of this retrospective constitutes an immersive and thoughtful experience.
But for those who feel daunted at approaching such a seemingly obtuse and obviously singular filmography, we’re here to help. Here are five programs yet to come in a series filled with dozens of features, shorts, documentaries, features, and TV shows that can help give a better understanding about some of the most important and slept on films of the 20th century. Also included, some suggestions as to where to go from any of the films we selected, should you see them and find some sort of enjoyment, intellectual stimulation, or curiosity in them. For a full details of features, shorts, special programs, tickets, showtimes, and a complete list of special guests and roundtable discussions, visit the TIFF website.
Sympathy for the Devil
Saturday, October 11th, 6:15pm
There are two almost indisputable facts:
1. Jean-Luc Godard has never made a film that can be outright dismissed as being useless.
2. There has never been a subpar documentary made about The Rolling Stones (provided that the band was involved in the actual filmmaking).
These two facts come together for Godard’s first English language picture, a 1968 documentary that blends cinema verite with the kind of trademark expressionism that would become a hallmark of Godard’s work to come. It’s a great starting point for people who want to dip their toes into late Godard without diving headlong into something they might drown in.
It’s a film not only about the recording of The Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet album – shown often in long, unflinching takes – but also about revolution. It has a lot to say about racial inequality (with members of the Black Panthers reading potentially incendiary passages in a junkyard), feminism, consumerism (via graffiti), and politics. It belongs in the same discussion as Gimme Shelter and Cocksucker Blues when The Stones cinematic output is discussed. Each film gets to the heart of something different about the band and what made them important, but only Godard’s offers a vital critical interpretation of the art they created.
Where to go from here: Godard’s assault on English culture would continue the following year with the 55 minute long British Sounds (See You at Mao) (Saturday, October 18th, 6:30pm), a blistering polemnical that was made for television (but refused to be shown in full by the network that commissioned it). It’s far more boundary pushing than Sympathy for the Devil, but plays like all the non-Stones bits from that film borne out to feature length with a much greater focus on feminism. Similarly scrutinized upon its commission – but this time for Italian television – is Struggles in Italy (Tuesday, October 21st, 6:30pm, with an introduction by University of Regina professor Christina Stojanova), which might be Godard’s most obviously Marxist text. Those curious to see how Godard works with other English speaking cultural icons, however, should check out his abandoned work on One P.M. (One Parallel Movie) (Tuesday, October 28th, 8:45pm), an unquestionably aborted, but still finished attempt to collaborate with filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock that Godard walked away from that was supposed to deal with the question of the potential for revolution in 1960s America. Since Godard left the project, Pennebaker padded his film with a behind the scenes look at Godard’s process, which might stand as a great case against the master filmmaker, while simultaneously underlining what made him such a great talent.
Tuesday, October 14th, 6:30pm
Those looking for one last gasp of “the old Godard” needn’t look further than this 1985 throwback that shows the filmmaker making probably his only stab at nostalgia for the very movies he tried to distance himself from. An overlapping comedic thriller about four bizarrely mismatched families running afoul of each other at a luxurious hotel, it’s probably the most amusing noir attempt of the 1980s. And Godard plays thins more or less with a straight face that’s more concerned with entertaining than necessarily engaging. It might not be as thoughtful as his other output during this period, but it’s undeniably fun and mysterious.
Where to go from here: Not every project taken on by Godard during this period was an inscrutable didactic tone poem, and while Detective might be the most easily accessible of the bunch, there are still films like 1972’s Tout va bien (Sunday, November 9th, 3:45pm, screening with the documentary short Letter to Jane) and 1990’s Nouvelle Vague (Saturday, November 8th, 3:30pm) that offer more traditional narratives that could be easily grasped by those fearful of diving into Godard’s more heavily esoteric material. But the film that functions most as a kindred spirit in a lot of ways to detective is the equally overlapping work of 1997’s For Ever Mozart (Thursday, November 27th, 6:30pm), another grouping of four overlapping stories, but this time told in the world of filmmaking, this film easily bridges the gap between Godard’s more “narrative” films and his more “experimental” efforts.
Tuesday, October 28th, 6:15pm, with introduction from New Yorker film critic and Godard scholar Richard Brody, screening with the anthology short Armide
I agreed with noted critic Richard Brody when he claimed that Godard’s incredibly fast and loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear is one of the greatest films ever made. I certainly believe it to be the most audacious, insane, and intellectual films of the 1980s, and one of my all time favourites. It’s also my favourite Godard of all time. I also realize that it isn’t for everyone.
But beyond being the most imaginative reworkings of a classical text that I’ve ever seen, it represents what late Godard would have been capable of pulling off with an open chequebook. Commissioned by Cannon Films (yes, THAT Cannon films) on a cocktail napkin at Cannes, Godard assembled a cast of actors that included Burgess Meredith, Woody Allen, Peter Sellars, Norman Mailer (who wrote the screenplay), Leos Carax, and Molly Ringwald, and himself (as The Fool) to tell a story about modern filmmaking told through classical means. It’s inarguably batshit in the most pleasant of ways, but you definitely have to be on the film’s wavelength. It’s hard to explain, but the easiest way would be to say that it’s a slow moving sophisticated comedy that has been made from a tragic play. It requires a lot of thought and analysis, but if you feel like you’re up for it, you’re in for the biggest treat of Godard’s career.
Where to go from here: Getting through King Lear and enjoying it makes it a very short hop, skip, and a jump to Godard’s more stripped down films of the current century like Film Socialisme (Saturday, December 6th, 7:00pm) and the 3D Goodbye to Language (Monday, December 22nd at 7:00pm, but also screening in regular release beginning on November 14th). Both films are just as playfully inscrutable and designed for viewers to approach them as works of contemporary art that have been built around modern themes. Despite Lear coming out in the mid-80s, it signifies the start of a bit of a valedictory run for the filmmaker that includes these two films and For Ever Mozart quite nicely.
Friday, November 21st, 6:30pm, with introduction by film critic Jim Hoberman
Inexplicably marketed as a follow up to Breathless for one reason or another, Numero Deux might be the most artistically controversial film of Godard’s career. A sexually charged look at where physical lust (and possibly violence on a deeper level) run afoul of family and commerce, the tone of Numero Deux is nothing short of blistering and incendiary. It was banned in Ontario for many years as being pornographic. It’s Godard actively trying to piss academics and casual cinephiles off in equal amount, but what he’s saying resonates far beyond the frame. I dare say that films like The Dreamers and Eyes Wide Shut owe this project a huge debt for laying a considerable amount of groundwork.
Where to go from here: 1993’s Helas pour moi (Thursday, November 20th, 6:30pm) and 2001’s Eloge de l’amour (Tuesday, December 2nd, 6:30pm) are excellent examples of the pissed off and bitter Godard that’s glimpsed here. They might be less controversial from a filmmaking standpoint, but they have even bigger power as “mic drop” moments in Godard’s filmography.
Histoire(s) Du Cinema
Saturday, November 22nd, 4:00pm, with introduction from film scholar Michael Witt
Arguably Godard’s greatest career achievement in an already exemplary filmography, Histoire(s) du Cinema is like watching a 25 years in the making, 265 minute drum solo performed by one of the greatest musicians to ever live. Bouncing between narrative and discourse and between polemical essay and confessional bloodletting, this deeply personal look back at the nature of cinema really is the key to understanding Godard. Not just late Godard as explored in this series, but retroactively all Godard. It’s a sprawling 8 part work (with an intermission here) that’s filled with shock value, tenderness, love, and rage all in one package. It’s uniquely indescribable in a blurb, but captivating from the opening seconds.
Where to go from here: Anywhere, really. Once you’ve sat down and watched this one a lot of the mystery surrounding late Godard begins to disappear. It acclimatizes the viewer for anything else he might be able to throw at them. But if I had to pick a deep cut to go with, it would be free screenings of Godard’s television series Six fois deux: Sur et sous la communication (Saturday, December 6th, 1:00pm for Parts 1 and 2, Sunday, December 7th at 1:00pm for Parts 3 and 4, and Sunday, December 7th at 5:00pm for Parts 5 and 6), another deeply personal sort of essay film that touches on a lot of things that got left out of Histoire(s), and functions as a really underrated companion piece.