Godard Taught Me How to Watch Cinema, Even as He Kept Reinventing It

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I wasn’t prepared for Jean-Luc Godard; I doubt that anyone ever was. And now that he’s gone it feels impossible to articulate the immensity of his impact on cinema, an art that he changed more than most. His influence was profound, so much so that even after his work fell out of favor and was reflexively dismissed by the lazy, and even as he himself faded (he died by assisted suicide on Tuesday at age 91), vestiges of this vexing giant, the cool guy with the dark sunglasses and cigar, remained. He was a phantom of cinema long before his death, and he will haunt us.

When we speak of adored artists, we often flash on the first time we encountered their work, a tendency that evokes first love. I was in college when I saw my first Godard film, “Every Man for Himself” (1980), widely considered a return to form. I can’t remember now what I thought of it then. I only remember the sensations that it produced as I reeled from the Bleecker Street Cinema and walked home in a fog, dazed. I thought that I understood movies, but I didn’t understand this one. What I also didn’t understand is that I had just watched another way of making — and seeing — film.

Early on, Hollywood made movies easy for us. It taught us how to understand its sense of time and space, and it turned sights and sounds into stories. It invited us in with a smile and instructed us to enjoy the show, and then come back for more of the same the next week. Godard didn’t make it easy, or not always. He insisted that we come to him, that we navigate the densities of his thought, decipher his epigrams and learn a new language: his. If we couldn’t or wouldn’t, too bad — for us. We were the ones impoverished for not seeing that cinema can be more than laughter and tears, dollars and awards.

That movies can also be more than moneymaking machines, anything other than corporate brands, sounds quaint in the age of Marvel — terribly old-fashioned, naïve. It’s striking and instructive that now when a new movie arrives that genuinely excites people, there may be some chatter about its representations and whether it conforms to established ideas about correct politics and entertainment. Invariably, though, the greatest focus will be on its box office potential and concomitant Oscar chances. Turning movies into commodities is the other way that Hollywood made it easy for us.

It could be so much more, as Godard showed decade after decade. Cinema is art — or can be — and it’s political, as he also insisted. That was clear from the beginning of his movie life first as a critic and then an artist. But there was such joy and youthful romanticism in the earlier work that it was simpler to vibe on its pleasures than contend with its complexities. The reason I fell in love with his 1966 film “Masculin Féminin” when I first saw it wasn’t because he described his characters as “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” — I fell in love because I too was young and it was beautiful and it broke my heart.

In time, I learned how to watch Godard, though in truth, I think he taught me how to watch. An early exposure to avant-garde cinema helped me in this simply because by the time I started digging into Godard’s work, I already knew that movies didn’t necessarily have to be obvious. Sometimes, you needed to puzzle through them; sometimes, you need to get lost. There’s immense pleasure in getting lost in movies, in letting the at times excitingly, bafflingly unfamiliar wash over you, letting the images and sounds sink into your body as your mind tries to comprehend what’s happening.

And, from his first feature, “Breathless” (1960), Godard invited us to open our minds and hearts as he pushed cinema past its industrial parameters, stretching narrative, exploring realism and navigating the space between classicism and modernism. He inserted reams of text in his work, added babbles of voices, stopped and started the flow, inundated the soundtrack with music, flooded the screen with color. As he pushed and pulled, he challenged viewers and occasionally assaulted them. Trying to explain his latest offering — much less write a pithy synopsis of it — became more difficult, one reason, I think, many critics expressed hostility toward him.

He returned the hostility, certainly, both in interviews and in his movies. Over time, he made boring, infuriating, aggressively anti-pleasure polemics, and his language became more insular, private and cryptic. He became a gnostic voice of cinema and a pariah, at least in mainstream circles. He repeatedly insulted the United States, repeatedly addressed the Holocaust, and repeatedly harped on Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, sometimes to the point of discomfort and, for some observers, to the point of overt antisemitism. I think that what he was often doing, sometimes clumsily and unartfully, was grappling with history, memory and civilization.

One of the things I find most moving about Godard is that even as movies changed, he did, too. He worked in television before it was acceptable for serious filmmakers to do so, and when the movies went digital, he did, as well, finding new and shocking beauty with it. He smeared colors and made them pop, playing with his new media tool kit with the giddy inventiveness of someone just discovering his own brilliance. In his 2014 movie “Goodbye to Language,” he dabbled in 3-D, showing me images I had never seen and haven’t seen since. Watching it at Cannes, where attendees cheered and nearly levitated out of their seats, remains one of the great experiences of my moviegoing life.

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