It’s cold outside. Damn cold. It’s the kind of cold where you rarely want to leave the house and instead might wisely curl up under mountains of warm blankets and comforters with a stack of books that you purchased and yet somehow never got around to reading. If you do decide to venture out, it would most likely be to do something grander than simply going out for a meal or going out to a movie. You might consider an art gallery or maybe taking up some sort of class over the winter to scratch a long dormant artistic or intellectual pursuit that has gone unfulfilled for far too long.
I get it. This isn’t exactly movie-going weather, but the TIFF Bell Lightbox for their first truly major retrospective of 2014 have decided to take a look at one of the most stimulating, vital, thoughtful, and best filmmakers of all time. The early cinema of Jean-Luc Godard takes centre stage from Thursday, January 23rd through Thursday, February 14th in the first of a two part look (the second coming later this year) at one of the warmest, most cerebral, and certainly most vibrant artists to ever live. His films are boundless buffets of themes ranging from the philosophical to the scientific to the formalist to the personal to the political and on and on, almost seemingly without end to the possible analysis his work affords the viewer. Any one of Godard’s films regardless of what one might ultimately think of them can hold the power of a dozen great novels and more rewards than simply spending an hour hurriedly rushing through an art gallery. Godard’s films are like gateway drugs to more ambitious cinema, great literature, and boundless potential for lengthy discussion over bottomless cups of coffee or tea.
Possibly one of the few artists to actually bridge the gap between arts criticism and actually creating art himself, the French New Wave contemporary and co-founder of the still indelibly influential Cahiers du cinema always found ways to combine his love of cinema and love of the very intricacies of the human thought process into consistently engaging films. As heavily influenced by his cinematic idols Howard Hawks and Otto Preminger as he was theorists like Bertolt Brecht and Karl Marx, Godard created a cinema as varied as the snowflakes that adorn the sidewalks outside our houses at the moment: infinitely unique and holding infinite amounts of beauty and detail when held under a microscope.
With the possible exception of his rather straightforward, genre based, but none the less startling 1959 debut feature Breathless (Thursday, January 23rd at 6:30pm –screening with two early, playful shorts, Operation Beton and Une femme coquette – and Thursday, January 28th – sans shorts) none of Godard’s films could ever be classified or categorized in a simple manner. His 1961 study of the musical form A Woman is a Woman (Saturday, January 25th, 4:45pm, and admittedly the only film of his that I personally have little affinity for beyond respecting its aims) uses sound design and structure to skewer notions of gender equality, dramatic convention, and the very definition of genre filmmaking. His ingenious and thrilling blend of sci-fi and noir, Alphaville (Sunday, February 2nd, 3:30pm), took the socially conscious underpinnings of the first genre and blended it with the almost blistering nihilistic eye for the human condition exemplified by the latter. From 1966, Masculin feminine (Thursday, February 6th, 6:30pm) can still be looked to as the genesis for countless meet-cute romantic comedies to follow in its wake, but it can also be looked at as one of the most timely and historical skewering of pop culture ever created.
That’s not to say that all of Godard’s works can be seen solely as works of subversion designed to make the viewer question the capabilities of cinema as an art form. Some of his most widely recognized works from this early period (and certainly from his later period) are best viewed as pure, personal expressions from the soul of an artist. Vivre sa vie (Sunday, January 26th, 4:30pm, screening with the short Sloth) might be Godard’s most emotional masterpiece, containing sequences where characters openly rejoice or weep over the beauty or meaning of a work of art; precisely the kind of passion that he always brought to his filmmaking and writing and the very kind of feeling all artists should strive for in their own lives. Contempt (Friday, January 31st, 6:30pm and Tuesday, February 4th, 6:30pm) is a vicious, hilarious, and biting satire about the decline of Hollywood and cinematic ambition that boasts career best performances from Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance (not to mention fellow filmmaker Fritz Lang) and showcases a historic cinematic obsession with Homer long before the Coen Brothers started doing the same.
Equally political as he was personal (as most great artists were), Godard never shied away from imbuing his finest works with a valuable undercurrent of social consciousness. His feelings towards the French involvement in Algeria play major roles in his second feature The Little Soldier (Friday, January 24th, 6:30pm, showing with a trio of early shorts) and later with Pierrot le fou (Sunday, February 2nd, 6:00pm). The recently fully restored anthology Far from Vietnam (Sunday, February 9th, 6:00pm) finds Godard working alongside colleagues Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, William Klein, and more to convey sympathy for a wartorn country pulled apart by French influence. His feelings towards his own country are laid bare in the blistering (and still somewhat rare in North America) Made in USA (Friday, February 7th, 6:30pm, screening with the short Anticipation, or Love in the Year 2000). His somewhat Maoist and Marxist proclivities pop up in the still fairly critical comedy of La Chinoise (Tuesday, February 11th, 6:30pm).
It’s somewhat fitting that part one of the retrospective stops at 1967’s Weekend (Thursday, February 13th, 6:30pm), a blistering sort of film full of humour, rage, and pathos that we would today describe as a being akin to a performer spiking their mic down on the stage and walking off in a huff. Finally fed up with trying to compete with the bourgeois film and culture scene he spent so many of his previous works railing against, the film serves as a pivot point in his career. From this point forward, his films would become even more deeply personal and more obviously political. He was never afraid of rankling or arousing the ire of his contemporaries, but in addition to his obvious skill as a writer, filmmaker, and craftsman, the series will increasingly show a degree of bravery that would only grow bigger and bigger.
It’s tempting to sit down with each and every Godard film and say what I think about them, but I’ll refrain. There’s enough of that information already out there and to watch any of Godard’s films with a preconceived notion of what to feel or what to look for would be doing the work a great disservice. His films are constructions that are almost made so people can spend time with them, both inside and outside of the theatre. To try and impugn or defend the opinions of others on his work is almost fruitless since they’re designed to be viewed with a critical, analytical, or at the very least thoughtful eye and with a great degree of emotional intelligence. When people decry mainstream blockbusters that make billions of dollars around the world as “critic proof,” they’re inherently wrong. The only filmmaker who seemingly defies any and all criticism just so happened to also be one of the world’s greatest critics. They’re positively warming in spite of their sometimes obvious distancing; a perfect reflection of the very season TIFF has decided to screen them in.
Godard Forever Part 1 runs from January 23rd to February 13th. For tickets and a full list of films being shown, head to the TIFF Bell Lightbox website.