Jean-Luc Godard, who passed away on the 13th September, will be remembered as an enigmatic figure and pioneer of French New Wave cinema. Yet his legacy invites a grander question of the cinema’s potential (or perhaps lack thereof) to explore philosophical ideas. Here, Hunter Vaughan explores how Godard used film as a way to ‘perform’ philosophy, before outlining how the contemporary film industry must change in order to realise its full philosophical potential.
Jean-Luc Godard, visionary filmmaker and perennial provocateur, was as conflictual in life as his legacy will no doubt be following his recent death at the age of 91. His oeuvre claims over 130 films as director, though as it spanned over short films, features, television series, digital content, and a variety of meta-textual activities, its quantitative summary is perhaps incalculable. And in a career that moved from flippant pastiche artist to self-branded Maoist to sincere curator of the legacies both positive and negative of moving-image culture, to understand and evaluate his work qualitatively is like trying to pin down an eel in an oil slick. His most superficial triteness held an abyssal profundity, while his audio-visual maxims smacked of dime-store advertising slogans.
Casts light on the potential and the limitations for cinema to express philosophical concepts or, even, perform philosophy as an act
But while his transparent obsession with the largely white male canon of quotable wisdom often made it impossible to know if his messages were genuine or multi-layered plagiarism, his decades of philosophical meanderings on screen were uniquely authentic in their unapologetic and comprehensive manifestation of a zeitgeist that included Brecht and Bardot, Warhol and Vietnam, John Wayne and Fidel Castro. The dialectical list could proceed with endless referentiality, like an episode of L’histoire du cinema – though formally experimental as a modernist, Godard was definitively postmodern. Or perhaps even eventually post-postmodern, neoclassical in where he landed: digging through his epithets and euphemisms one finds a morphology of thought moving from the obscure to the clear, from deeply cynical nihilism to elegiac lamentation on the need for love in a world that has abandoned meaning and monetized human interactions. Perhaps this is the takeaway from a retrospective on Godard’s constantly self-reflective near-century as a filmmaking cineaste: it casts light on the potential and the limitations for cinema to express philosophical concepts or, even, perform philosophy as an act.
Born into the bourgeois comforts his more radical work would deride (while he himself maintained their privilege), he was a cultural scavenger and iconoclast whose opportunity surfaced at the perfect time and place: postwar Paris. The French capital’s legacy as an international Inter-war sanctuary for high modernist masters from Picasso to Kandinsky to Josephine Baker cast as glimmering a romanticized echo as did the brutal challenge of untangling memory and identity from the recent nightmare of the Occupation, the Collaboration, the Holocaust, and ongoing Colonialism cast a shrouded pall on a city of nostalgic avant-gardism that would become epicentre for the intellectualized film criticism and state-supported European art cinema of the 1960s and 70s.
Godard’s earliest films began as thoughts on the history and nature of cinema, extensions of his self-consciously esoteric critical writing and debate in the corridors of Cahiers du cinema, a popular monthly that did more than any other text to promote a retrospective theorization of film history, while consolidating among its writers the band of rogue cinephiles that would become the self-celebrating auteurs of the French New Wave. As likely to paraphrase Nietzsche (often inaccurately) as to cite Hollywood classics (often sarcastically), this generation both in France and elsewhere bore a unique development: the first generation to come into adulthood through a youth and adolescent fully exposed to and engaged in discussing the breadth of international cinema history. They grew up with the Cinematheque as their mecca, and made the films that would announce a new intellectualism for the medium as independent cinemas and film studies departments sprouted across the 1960s and 70s, a time that witnessed a seemingly impossible rate of social and political change worldwide.
Consequently, the starry-eyed cinephiles of the 1960s became split over their engagement with such cultural and philosophical debates, and defined themselves through their treatment narratively, formally, and extra-textually with the sexual revolution, the wars in Vietnam and for decolonization globally, the labour and Civil Rights movements. Despite their many disagreements, Godard and Truffaut anecdotally marched with protestors and hung from theatre curtains to shut down the 1968 Cannes Film Festival. A month later was the legendary May ’68 protests that brought riot police into the streets – and the following two decades would present the epic challenge of progressive ideologues and radical activists to reconcile that apparent moment of opportunity with the triumph of the fall of the Berlin wall and the return of conservatism and injustice in the form of neoliberal paradigms for systemic free-market logic. A band apart from the aesthetic and ethic of late capitalism, it is little surprise Godard sought solace in isolation and small-scale personal filmmaking.
That is not to say his work did not address such issues; with the overtly revolutionary cinema Maoist collective Dziga Vertov Group, he assisted not only in politically charged films but in performing that very ideological framework by attempting to shift the means of production and place camera in the hands of factory workers. If films can be political, it is through their messaging; if cinema can be political, can work for social change, it must do so through its process, through its organization of creative and cultural agency, through its praxis. Despite this exemplary experiment in participatory media production, though, Godard’s work tended to portray the product of a loner (or loners, as we should ascribe multimedia artist Anne-Marie Miéville her rightful credit as equal partner in their work and life of the last five decades) and in its experiments with sound and image, history and the present, subjectivity and objectivity, flirted with the medium’s limits in performing (as opposed to merely discussing) philosophy.
The moving image as an art has been well crafted, if not perfected; its potential as a philosopher has barely begun
As I charted in Where Film Meets Philosophy, Godard – like his contemporaries, precedents, and successors – arrived on the shore of such breakthroughs in the moments not of trying to encircle and encapsulate his objects of inquiry (which were always women – though Godard’s tragic inability to escape misogyny is the tale for another time) but of abandoning the absolute power of the camera, allowing for the intersubjective experience between character, artist, and audience, and permitting cracks in the edifice of Western Cartesian subjectivity and the illusion of photographic objectivity. It happened rarely – perhaps it can only happen rarely, such interventions experienced in small doses made palatable by a constellation of viewing pleasure and engagement. Godard was notorious for filling in entire films just to have one such passage. In those rare miraculous moments where sound and image and the sequencing of time offered a rupture in the certainty of privileged subjectivity and opened the textual moment – not as a teller of stories, but as a sensory and conceptual shaper of meetings with the world – to potential reconfigurations of a world so tightly bound by structures of power and arbitrary laws of representation.
Often copying and often copied, it is this lesson that was most sorely missed by those who rose to fame and fortune by mis-appropriating his conflicted view of masculinity (Scorcese), his ironical obsession with the gangster genre (Tarantino), or his exploration of violence at the roots of a world defined through capital (Noe, Aronofsky, Von Trier). The moving image as an art has been well crafted, if not perfected; its potential as a philosopher has barely begun. Though he would not live to see it so, one can only hope that the rising diversification of voices and perspectives, that the challenging of anthropocentric screen culture and the proliferation of Indigenous and queer worldviews, voices of women and people of color, makes possible more such miraculous moments, as we will badly need them for this world Godard left behind.