2008 Criticism Finalist Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, by Richard Brody

by Scott McLemee | Mar-04-2009

Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Scott McLemee discusses Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (Metropolitan Books)

The cultural theorist Walter Benjamin (who scratched out a living as book reviewer, as his admirers in academe tend to forget) once suggested that the greatest artists either create a completely new aesthetic form or bring an old one to its final stage of development. But at the time, it isn’t always clear which one is actually happening.

That uncertainty is, in a way, the central drama of Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. The most restlessly experimental director of the Nouvelle Vague, Godard revitalized the vocabulary of film in ways that inspired countless imitators. At the same time, he possesses a classicist’s sense of tradition, making his films into essays on the history of the medium itself. The director is pulled between a desire to “make it new” and what Brody recognizes as an almost aristocratic conservatism. This had made for aesthetic and political commitments involving Godard in considerable tension and conflict, to put it mildly.

Any biography of Godard is bound to be equal part cultural criticism. Complete absorption in film renders his art inseparable from his private experience. His movies are memoirs, if obliquely so at times. The juxtaposition of literary, philosophical, and pop-culture elements—overlapping in ways that sometimes prove exciting, sometimes frustrating, often enough both—create dense collage portraits of Godard’s own life. Especially his love life. His films through Weekend (1967) reflect a sense that capitalist modernity has rendered romantic love impossible. Maybe so, but the director’s tendency to cast his real-life inamoratae as prostitutes (or, in one case, as a cannibal) may suggest problems of a less abstract nature.

Following the upheavals in Paris in 1968, Godard spent several years making films that only the most ardent of Maoists could bear to watch, and then only as penance for crimes against the revolution. While clearly unsympathetic to the director’s affiliations during this period, Brody makes sense of the political turn as Godard’s response to a crisis in his own creative process. (Cultural revolution as midlife meltdown, perhaps.) In more recent decades, Godard has achieved a kind of late style: allusive, rarefied, exactingly self-conscious. The director’s “vast embrace of the entire Western canon,” writes his biographer, “from Greek mythology and New Testament prophecies to twentieth-century modernisms, have gone hand in hand” with what Brody calls “a troubling set of idées fixes, notably regarding Jews and the United States.”

As with Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Ezra Pound (or, in a different register, V.S. Naipaul as portrayed by another of this year’s NBCC finalists), we’re left with an uneasy awareness that the artist has a vile streak. But judgment of his work can’t begin or end with that realization. The world is full of creeps—for that matter, of creeps with cameras—yet there is just one Jean-Luc Godard. The supreme achievement of Everything Is Cinema is that its critical portrait keeps that singularity in focus. For as Brody writes, “The cinema will live on for as long as Godard’s films are seen, or Godard himself is remembered.”

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