Essays (book reviews)

The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible
David Sterritt
(Cambridge University Press, 1999, 297 pages)


In his communicative tone and generous range of interests, David Sterritt (once long-serving film critic for The Christian Science Monitor) is a likeable and admirable figure. He is one of the rare American critics who actively pursues the depth and breadth of non-American cinema; and his interest in innovative or experimental film goes far beyond the Miramaxed realm of indie movies to which most critics world-wide seem blissfully happy to confine themselves.


Sterritt also puts himself into new forums and engages in dialogues uncommon among professional critics – even in these times when the place and function of film commentary is changing at a rapid pace. For instance, in the Australian Internet journal Senses of Cinema, one can read an erudite, sympathetic paper by Sterritt on Bob Dylan’s largely forgotten Renaldo and Clara (1978), and a contribution by him to a collective exchange on the current state of film culture and cinephilia. In this exchange, Sterritt does not indulge the kind of melancholic nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ that has marked the pontifications of Sontag or Denby in recent years. Always on the lookout for the genuinely new, always interested in ideas and contexts as well as pleasures and aesthetic evaluations, Sterritt’s work exhibits a healthy open-mindedness.


It is a pity that Sterritt’s latest book, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, is so disappointing.  I do not doubt it will have productive uses. First, as an introduction to the filmmaker for those new to a vast and variegated body of work. Sterritt is careful to range over the diverse periods of Godard’s work, and with each film he carefully spells out the new social and historical context to which the director was reacting. For those whose very first encounter with these movies may be one of shock or bewilderment, Sterritt is a good and wise companion: he acknowledges the oddities in these films, locates the likely resistances in a viewer primed mainly on standard Hollywood fare, and smoothes the way in.


Second, the book will be useful as a trigger for further, deeper thought about Godard’s methods, influences and legacy. With an artist this complex – sometimes cryptically so – every attempt at ‘mapping the terrain’ in a systematic manner is valuable.


But, in itself, this is too often a thin, digressive, dissatisfying account. The book is at its best at the start, as Sterritt lays out his approach to Godard’s work. He stresses the ‘discursive’ side of Godard’s cinema, its ideas-based and essayistic quality. He investigates the role of written and spoken language in the films. He teases out the ethos of spontaneity and impulse which is integral to the director’s hyper-mobile art. And best of all, he does not try to smooth away the manifold paradoxes and contradictions on display in these difficult, exciting texts.


Even here, though, early doubts arise. The central, guiding theme in this book is announced in its subtitle: ‘seeing the invisible’. It is an intriguing concept, and one that allows Sterritt to propose a profound continuity underlying and animating Godard’s superficially fractured (some would say faddish) career. What is invisible in Godard’s ‘romantic’, existentially-tinged work until the mid ‘60s is essentially emotions and moods. Then, in Godard’s political period, the social structure itself – the circuits of ‘power and knowledge’ – must be rendered somehow visible. Finally, in his ‘sublime’ period beginning in the early ‘80s (and continuing still), it is a transcendent, mystical or spiritual reality that needs to be ‘seen’, or at least sensed, intuited.


On reflection, however, this idea strikes me as so broad – and so unspecific to Godard – as to be little more than a literary hook. Isn’t any film about human emotion, political context, or realms magical and divine – in other words, just about every film ever made – in some way devoted to evoking the invisible, that which cannot be strictly, literally photographed?


Unfortunately, most of the book stays at this level of generality and assertion. Six chapters are devoted to specific films – Breathless (1960), Vivre sa vie (1962), Weekend (1967), Numéro deux (1975) Hail Mary (1985) and Nouvelle vague (1990) – with a rather inadequate and sweeping survey of Godard’s groundbreaking work in video and television appended in the guise of a conclusion.


Perhaps in deference to reader-friendliness, Sterritt offers most of his discussions as a kind of walk-through of the film at hand, lightly annotating it from start to end. As a result, the book foregoes any sustained analysis of forms, structures and themes. Even the concrete details in front of the author – the actual images and sounds on screen – tend to disappear in vague descriptions that owe more to journalese than rigorous film criticism.


These descriptions tend to be maddeningly elongated plot synopses, and they exhibit awful, defensive tics that come from the author’s inevitable difficulty in pigeonholing the events of the movies within conventional modes of narrative action and character motivation. Either to avoid the implications of this problem, or to make light of such difficulties for the Hollywood-primed general reader, Sterritt resorts to silly jokes and journalistic patter, as if it were an academic address peppered with misplaced asides: of Vivre sa vie, for instance, he feels it necessary to comment that Godard “sees nothing odd in the notion that a working-class Parisian would select a religious silent film of 1928 from her local listings” (pp. 71-72). Jacques Rancière would not approve of this snobbish assumption!


Meanwhile, Sterritt can fill the chapter on Breathless – offering some striking general observations along the way, such as the description of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Patricia (Jean Seberg) as “continually trying on different poses, expressions, and intonations” (p. 59) – without once mentioning the abundant confusion between Martial Solal’s score and a diegetic radio; or charting the re-invention of naturalistic dialogue in the form of a halting, ever-renewed, mutual interview/interrogation between the protagonists; or digging into the jaggedly lyrical forms of visual study hidden within the commonplace wisdom that Godard invented the jump cut; or describing the exact, boundlessly inventive ways in which the film places and moves its star bodies within everyday spaces. 


Too often, in fast-forward mode, Sterritt is obliged to mention details on which he has nothing particularly illuminating to say – especially in the chapter on Weekend, where dutifully transcribed, cryptic intertitles are tagged merely as “particularly bizarre”, and a climactic scene calls forth this frank admission of bewilderment: “What’s going on here? The answer is murky, and again that is precisely Godard’s point. All we know for certain is that strange days are increasingly upon us” (p. 100).


The Films of Jean-Luc Godard is sure to be compared, in many quarters, with the roughly contemporaneous Speaking About Godard by Harun Farocki and Kaja Silverman (New York University Press, 1998) – especially as the two books happen to alight upon four of the same films. Farocki and Silverman, although also hampered by a walk-through approach to the films (that I have elsewhere described as scanning), exhibit a much firmer grasp of the sorts of cultural contexts and artistic traditions upon which Godard calls.


A comprehensive study of the artistic and intellectual influences acting upon Godard throughout his life remains to be written. The links that commentators continue to unearth – as when Peter Wollen closely and persuasively relates Godard’s segment of Aria (1987) to Cocteau and Demy, or when Nicole Brenez invokes the ‘Byzantine philosophy of the image’ to explain the filmmaker’s prevailing ‘iconoclasm’ – can be as surprising as they are illuminating.


Sterritt’s approach to this kind of study is, again, largely unsatisfying – neither strictly empirical nor inspiringly creative. On the one hand, he evokes some of film theory’s favourite hit stars – Foucault, Kristeva, Deleuze – when their direct influence upon Godard’s practice is far from self-evident. On the other hand – like Stanley Cavell or the General Editor of the Cambridge Film Classics series, Ray Carney – Sterritt is sometimes overly fond of forcing lateral connections between Godard and American aesthetic and philosophical traditions (a nationalist, even myopic or jingoistic preoccupation that, it must be said, is peculiar to American critics across all the arts). Do we really need to read so much about the Beats (subject of an earlier, better tome by Sterritt), or Stan Brakhage, or American video art, in a book about Godard? Here – unlike in most of his regular reviews and essays – Sterritt’s open mind closes a little, and the results fall well short of that redoubtable, elusive target named Jean-Luc Godard.


© Adrian Martin May / July 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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