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NEW! See rare interview footage with Jean-Luc Godard in our Film Archive

Making History - Essay and inteview with Jean-Luc Godard
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Excerpts from his essay on Godard's Histoires[s] du Cinema

In 1996, Jean-Luc Godard showed film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum early installments of HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA at the Toronto Film Festival. A series of conversations about the project followed, and formed the basis for Rosenbaum’s essay on HISTOIRE(S), an insightful examination that has now appeared -- in various versions -- in the French magazine Trafic the English magazine Vertigo and the American Film Comment.

Godard as Historian
Jonathan Rosenbaum: Whenever you recount a history, there's an implication that something is over, and it seems that one implication of HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA is that the cinema is over.

Jean-Luc Godard: The cinema we knew. We also say that of painting.

In HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA, cinema and the 20th century -- almost interchangeable in Godard's terms --are contextualized by two key countries (France and the U.S.), two emblematic producers (Irving Thalberg and Howard Hughes), and two emblematic world leaders (Lenin and Hitler); two decisive falls from cinematic innocence (the end of silent film that came with talkies and the end of talkies that came with video); two decisive falls from worldly innocence (World War I and World War II); and two collective cinematic resurgences that took place in Europe, affecting the moral and aesthetic consciousness of the rest of the world (Italian neorealism and the New Wave).

JLG: Everything came from the New Wave. First it was spreading and then it disappeared. That's why I said to Anne-Marie [Mieville], "At the time of Jean Vigo, it was the same as it is for us now: 'difficult,' a flop, no one's seeing it." But because of what happened at the time of neorealism, and then at the time of the New Wave -- because of the theory of all that -- attendance went up. And now it's going down again. It's always been like that. I say what I mean in the third episode of HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA: it's evident that movies are capable of thinking in a better way than writing and philosophy, but this was very quickly forgotten. So this is what happened. The New Wave was a miracle. It was a crystallization of what James Agee wrote about.

How much of a historian is Godard? Much of his work since the '80s is concerned with amnesia -- a subject that becomes especially important in KING LEAR and 2 X 50 YEARS OF FRENCH CINEMA. But there are times when Godard's own amnesia seems as much of an issue as everyone else's.

Case in point: The epigraph of CONTEMPT, attributed to Andre Bazin and appearing also in HISTOIRE(S) and in Godard's 1996 feature FOREVER MOZART, is, "Cinema substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires." But neither the quotation nor the attribution is correct. A more probable source is a sentence by French critic Michel Mourlet, published nine months after Bazin's death: "Since cinema is a gaze, which is substituted for our own in order to give us a world that corresponds to our desires, it settles on faces, on radiant or bruised but always beautiful bodies, on this glory or this devastation which testifies to the same primordial nobility, on this chosen race that we recognize as our own, the ultimate projection of life towards God." (my translation)....Another case in point would be Godard incorrectly describing Howard Hughes as "producer of CITIZEN KANE".

False quotations and false attributions are, of course, quite common in film criticism. For that matter, Mourlet, in his own statement, may (or may not) have been paraphrasing something he'd heard or read from Bazin. The point, in any case, is I don't know, and the history of film and film criticism abounds with such cases of not knowing. A surfeit of not knowing, however, produces only confusion, and the advantage of false or at least dubious quotation and attribution in this case is that they produce some form of history--or, more precisely, histoire(s).... Is it true, as Godard asserts in HISTOIRE(S), that F. W. Murnau and Karl Freund invented Nuremberg lighting, while Hitler still couldn't afford a beer in a Munich cafe? Whether true or not, it is certainly a form of history, poetry, and criticism, transforming the object of our gaze.

Godard as Critic
Apart from Luc Moullet, who still publishes criticism regularly, and Olivier Assayas, who continues to publish more sporadically, Godard is arguably the only critic-turned-filmmaker from Cahiers du Cinema who has never abandoned his first vocation. This is a question of attitude as much as practice -- the fact that Godard has never swerved from his initial claim at the start of his career that criticism and filmmaking were for him two versions of the same activity.

Dominating the first four chapters of HISTOIRE(S) are the alternating sounds of typing and of film turning on an editing table: staccato and legato, the sounds of Godard's two activities as a critic. (The style becomes exclusively -- and beautifully -- legato in the next chapter, on Italian neo-realism.) The continuity between writing and filming is apparent in many respects here, above all in the important role played by THE WRONG MAN -- the subject of the longest, most serious, and most detailed critique written by Godard for Cahiers du Cinema -- in episode 4a, devoted to Hitchcock, which shows Godard coming full circle back to the preoccupations of his writing 40 years ago.

JLG: I put in Hitchcock because during a certain epoch, for five years, in my opinion, he really was the master of the universe. More than Hitler, more than Napoleon. He had a control of the public which no one else had. Because Hitchcock was a poet. The public was under the control of poetry. And Hitchcock was a poet on a universal level, not like Rilke. He was the only poet maudit to have a huge success; Rilke wasn't one, Rimbaud wasn't. And something which is very astonishing with Hitchcock is that you don't remember what the story of NOTORIOUS is, or why Janet Leigh is going to the Bates Motel. You remember one pair of spectacles or a windmill -- that's what millions and millions of people remember. If you remember NOTORIOUS, what do you remember? Wine bottles. You don't remember Ingrid Bergman. When you remember Griffith or Welles or Eisenstein or me, you don't remember ordinary objects. He is the only one.

JR: Just as with neorealism, as you show, you remember only people.

JLG: Yes, it's the exact contrary. You remember feelings, or the death of Anna Magnani [in OPEN CITY]. It's very clear.

JR: It was a very important moment for me in 4a when you included almost an entire sequence from THE WRONG MAN, of Henry Fonda alone in his jail cell, because that linked your video with one of your major critical pieces for the Cahiers. By contrast, I don't recall you including any clips from BITTER VICTORY or A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE.

JLG: No.

When Allen, De Palma, Scorsese, and Tarantino echo shots or sequences from other filmmakers, the gesture is always one of postmodernist appropriation, not one of critical transformation, and the same thing can be said about the homages of (among others) Truffaut and Bertolucci. But when Rivette literally quotes the "Tower of Babel" sequence from METROPOLIS in PARIS BELONGS TO US, thereby criticizing the metaphysical presuppositions of his characters, or when Resnais virtually duplicates a sequence of shots from GILDA inside Delphine Seyrig's room in LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, thereby locating the romantic mystifications of Alain Robbe-Grillet within the even larger romantic mystifications of Hollywood, a certain kind of critical commentary is taking place. The same process is at work on a much more elaborate scale in CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING, when Rivette applies the critical discoveries of doubling in Hitchcock to the "double" structure of his own film, doubling shots as well as scenes. But the same thing obviously can't be said for Woody Allen and De Palma appropriating the baby carriage from POTEMKIN in BANANAS and THE UNTOUCHABLES or for Tarantino getting Uma Thurman in PULP FICTION to imitate Anna Karina's dance around a pool table in VIVRE SA VIE.

JR: Have there been many cases where you can't acquire the clips you want?

JLG: If I don't have it, I take another one, and then I tell another story, more or less, with no problem.

JR: What are for you the main differences between the early episodes and the late ones?

JLG: The early episodes are more linked to cinematography; the last ones are more about the philosophy of what cinema is in this century, more about what is specific to cinema.

HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA as legal and political precedent
JR: There's an important legal precedent in the way HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA uses clips. There are some other very interesting recent videos that use clips critically -- Mark Rappaport's ROCK HUDSON'S HOME MOVIES and FROM THE JOURNALS OF JEAN SEBERG and Thom Andersen and Noel Burch's RED HOLLYWOOD -- without acquiring rights. It's usually impossible to get rights for the clips in works of this kind, so they've all been made outside the system.

JLG: [...] For me there's a difference between an extract and a quotation. If it's an extract, you have to pay, because you're taking advantage of something you have not done and you are more or less making business out of it. If it's a quotation -- and it's more evident in my work that it's a quotation -- then you don't have to pay. But it's not legally admitted in pictures.

JR: Yes, but it also isn't legally acknowledged that films and videos can be criticism.

JLG: It's the only thing video can be -- and should be.

One could argue that the decline of film criticism in recent years -- observable in the habits of most newspaper and magazine editors as well as most film academics in North America -- is not so much a reflection of the changing tastes of audiences (as these editors and academics often insist) as it is the power of multicorporations to eliminate everything that interferes with their promotion. Just as the so-called "American independent" filmmakers promoted by the Hollywood studios via Sundance usually means the filmmakers who have lost their independence, "film criticism" in the mainstream now refers mainly to promotional journalism; true independents and critics have to function in the margins.

Philosophically speaking, HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA is a dangerous work because it dares to raise the issue of whom cinema, film criticism, and film history belong to. Truthfully, they belong to everyone today with a VCR, but contractually, they belong to the state, and the state today is Disney. It is Disney and its client states such as Miramax that set our cultural agendas and rewrite our official film histories and critiques via the mass media. By writing his own film history and criticism on video, using means that are readily available and relatively inexpensive, Godard is proposing a direction that filmmakers and video artists everywhere could explore with benefit -- the direction of appropriation, a movement already inaugurated by the critical and historical reappraisals of the New Wave, and continued in HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA by other and more subterranean means, such as poetry and autobiography. Recalling PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT, Jacques Rivette's first feature, I propose a slogan: Paramount belongs to us.