Undercover: Godard and the New Wave (07/29/76)

new-wave

Like all good critics James Monaco has a flair for drama. He opens The New Wave: Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette (Oxford, 372 pp., $15.95) by placing his five subjects in the late Forties, more than ten years before they began to make movies. They are in attendance at the Cinématèque in Paris, watching perhaps “a collection of five or six eight-reelers from Monogram Pictures on loan from Prague, with Czech titles to translate the English.” The mood is a little ghostly, but also playful: out of that screening room came the most interesting cinema since World War II.

The New Wave really began about 1950, with Monaco’s five working as critics for Andre Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinema and soaking up everything the Cinématèque had to offer; in 1959 Truffaut released The Four Hundred Blows and Godard Breathless, and the movement was officially on. It never had the cohesiveness of a school, stylistically or thematically; instead it represented an explosion of talent identifiable in geographic and generational terms, and in that sense can probably be seen at least partly in the context of other Sixties cultural explosions, such as those of Liverpool, London, and for that matter, China. If the films of Truffaut, Godard and the rest had anything in common that authentically distinguished them from other cinema, it was a virtually philosophical commitment to intelligence (these were critics, these were French intellectuals); a self-conscious love of movies, movie lore and movie-making (something that in later years would prove seriously limiting to Truffaut and Cha­brol); and above all the ability to communicate exhilaration and freedom. These films sang.

Monaco’s book is sadistically overpriced, and it is best recommended to those who have seen at least some of the films he is discussing; still, I haven’t read film criticism so rich in ages. The heart of the book (half of it; and the better half) has to do with Godard, who is approached through the idea that method (technique, choice of form, of equipment, of film stock) is ethics. The filmmaker is understood in terms of his responsibility to his audience; by the way in which he chooses to falsify the reality he will present to his audience and through which he will tell them the truth as he sees it; by his understanding of that process; and by his willingness to reveal this process of falsification and lead his audience to confront it. Monaco quotes Godard’s comment that in La Femme mariée “the spectacle of life mingles with its analysis”–the cinematic version of “the spectacle of life” demands analysis because in film that spectacle seems real even though it isn’t–and it’s the belief that this is the way cinema ought to work that to Monaco makes Godard the most intellectually demanding and liberating of filmmakers.

Monaco’s writing is dense; you can’t skim it. You have to think along with him, reading, stopping, attempting to trace his ideas to their sources and objects, working with him and on your own to see if his ideas hold up. His writing inspires this kind of dialogue with a reader, and that is very rare. Time and again his throwaways, theories and near-aphorisms, or his quotes from Godard, work not merely as illuminations of Godard, but as openings into film or art or thinking per se. A quote from a character in La Femme mariée: “Paradox offers an alternative to the self-evident. And then there is compromise, the finest, most courageous of intellectual acts… Intelligence is precisely the attempt to inject a little reason  into… absurdity.” Now, at first, thinking of his early films–and La Chinoise, perhaps, or Le Gai Savoir–those lines seem to capture the essence of Godard. But, one thinks after a moment, do they tell us what we need to know about Weekend or Godard’s Dziga-Vertov films, shown in this country mostly on campuses, those half-Stalinist tracts that seem to be desperately at war with their own poetry?

Monaco succeeds in following a career as confusing as Godard’s because while he respects every choice Godard has made, he never yields critical ground to his subject. Thus Monaco can write, “The more Godard struggles for a wider sense of politics in his films, the more he will be thrown back into the logic of cinema, which imprisons him,” and show as well how it is that logic which provides Godard’s link to artistic–and political–freedom. Freedom, that is, in the terms Godard established when speaking of Pierrot le fou, terms Godard later sought to leave behind, pure existential humanism: “The cinema, by making reality disgorge, reminds us that one must attempt to live… the important thing is to be aware that one exists. For three-quarters of the time during the day one forgets this truth, which surges up again as you look at houses or a red light, and you have the sensation of existing in that moment.” (Ah, that wonderful French aesthetic rhetoric, so open, so lofty, and so precise–not “at that moment,” but “in that moment”!)

Monaco’s conclusion is simple and elegant. “Godard’s dilemma,” he writes, “is archetypally the dilemma of the 20th-century intellectual, furiously concerned not only to be part of the revolution, but also (having been caught in the fallout from the explosions of theory and logic earlier in this century) to escape back to the human level, the level of experience. There is something absolutely and inherently hollow about the abstraction of the intellect. Godard has felt it throughout his career; fear of it is the one subtext that runs continuously from A bout de souffle [Breathless] to Letter to Jane. Godard may crave the comforting and elaborate Marxist/Lenin­ist structures and fear the perfect freedom of the anarchist non-structures, but he may be freer than he knows or wants to be.”


Rolling Stone, July 29, 1976


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