‘A feast of challenges that were pure anarchic bliss’
The passing of Jean-Luc Godard leaves me pining with deep nostalgic sadness, despite my reservations – shared by many – about the director’s later eccentricities. It was 1960 and Breathless exploded on to the screen at the precise moment I arrived in London, a film-obsessed 17-year-old from Salford, who had never seen a movie that wasn’t in English, British and Hollywood fare being my sole diet. Godard’s debut masterpiece did indeed leave one breathless. Free-spirited location filming, spontaneous believable acting, wayward unconnected quirky moments … here was a feast of revelatory challenges to one’s ideas about cinema: pure anarchic bliss!
Of course, there were multiple world cinema discoveries, Truffaut not least – I probably feel closer to Les Quatre Cents Coups and Jules et Jim than to anything by Godard. But in truth it was Godard who dominated the continuous film narrative of the decade. He delivered a new piece every year, and I and my cinephile comrades embraced them all hungrily, never failing to argue late into the night about each new offering.
My favourites: Vivre Sa Vie, Les Carabiniers, Bande à Part and Two or Three Things I Know About Her. And later, a curious soft spot for Weekend.
‘His movies feel more necessary and alive than ever’
From Breathless on, Godard re-defined the very idea of what a movie was and where it could go. No one was as daring as Godard. You’d watch Vivre Sa Vie or Contempt or Made in USA and you had the impression that he was actually taking apart his own movie and re-building it before your eyes. You never knew what to expect from moment to moment, even from frame to frame – that’s how deep his engagement with the cinema went.
He never made a picture that settled into any one rhythm or mood or point of view, and his films never lulled you into a dream state. They woke you up. They still do – and they always will. It’s difficult to think that he’s gone. But if any artist can be said to have left traces of his own presence in his art, it’s Godard. And I must say right now, when so many people have gotten used to seeing themselves defined as passive consumers, his movies feel more necessary and alive than ever.
‘Cinema was his personal Rubik’s Cube’
In cinema, there was before Godard and after Godard. For 15 years he disassembled cinema, reassembled it, disassembled it until it became his personal Rubik’s Cube. Godard and Dylan are the quizzical lodestars of their generation. Godard was a trickmaster of quotes, so he’ll appreciate what Tanya, played by Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil, says about Hank Quinlan: “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
‘His film about a strike at a sausage factory blew my mind’
The first time I saw a Godard film was during an evening A-level film studies class. I was 23 and my cinema knowledge was scant. Bev Zalcock our teacher showed us Tout Va Bien which revolved around a strike at a sausage factory, and my mind was blown. What was this film? How could it exist? When asked how it differed from other films we’d seen, it was difficult to find the words – we were all affected by it in ways we couldn’t yet articulate – though I have a very clear memory of one student saying that a big difference for her was the subtitles were higher up on the screen than on other foreign films she’d seen.
But as Bev guided the discussion it became clear that Godard, in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, was challenging the spectator in every frame: this was political, radical, revolutionary cinema. And it starred Jane Fonda – someone we’d all heard of! Later, when I became a film-maker, I made a short called I’m Not Here, in which I have a sequence inspired by Tout Va Bien: a long and repeated tracking shot in a supermarket.
On hearing of Godard’s death, I reached for a book on my shelf, Godard on Godard, and opened it to something I had read years ago: “I make my films not only when I’m shooting but as I dream, eat, read, talk to you.” He helped me understand that making films would occupy every breath of my life, and he also taught me just how important it is to disentangle oneself from the so-called rules of cinema and to always remember to play and invent and never stop learning.
‘The crowd were raging and screaming’
The sublime power of the name Jean-Luc Godard, or I should say of the forever legendary acronym JLG, came into my consciousness when I was 14. It was 1985 and in the dark and oppressed Palermo of my teenage years I bumped in a wildly raging group of people screaming in front of a theatre where Je vous salue, Marie was playing.
How, I wondered, could a movie create such a violent reaction? Then I saw the movie and through its luminous terse beauty I completely learned the power of ideas. was a shining light that showed us the way, movie after movie, idea after idea, language. We are more lonely today and yet his astonishing cinema will forever be our guide.
‘The feel-bad cardinal who shattered complacency like a hammer on glass’
He was the feel-bad cardinal. The fire and brimstone preacher. I saw Weekend first and felt assaulted, exalted. He forced us on to moral high ground, disdained entertainment and lyricism. But then I saw Vivre Sa Vie, which was flooded with feeling, and Two or Three Things I Know About Her. His films centred on women were better, more forgiving for me. The eroticism of Hail Mary was conflicted. For him, cinema was never just a pleasuredome.
His layering of voiceover, text and visual montage was often too much for my brain. He and Anne-Marie Miéville outran most other film-makers. They lapped them in the movie marathon. His legacy? He shattered complacent cinema like a hammer on glass. I went to Rolle in Switzerland recently, in case I might bump into him or see him walking his dog. I brought my camera, but how would you film that?
‘There’s a deep well for us to keep drinking from’
I know what Dave Hickey means when he says there’s the way the world looked before Andy Warhol and the way it looked after. Isn’t it the same with Godard? There’s the way films look before him and the way they look after. He was so prolific and lived such a long life. There’s a deep well for us all to keep drinking from.
‘He spawned Tarantino and Soderbergh – but his later films are a chore’
Godard changed cinema. He made it self-conscious as no one had before – you always knew you were watching a film when you watched his films, like a Brecht for the movies. You are always aware of the process and underpinnings of his films – and their influences (usually American gangster movies early on; Vertov and Russian “constructivists” later). Breathless, A Band Apart, Un Femme et un Femme: all brilliant, cool, iconoclastic films that were really about movie-making. He’s not really interested in story, or people. He’s interested in influences and ideas. He started a critic and remained a critic all his life.
But it’s not too much to say that Godard spawned Richard Lester, Tarantino, Soderbergh, Céline Sciamma – in other words nearly all of modern cinema. Those early films still have a daring that takes my breath away. But the later films I have seen are mostly a chore: highly political, highly confrontational – even if sometimes formally inventive. He adored to “épater la bourgeoisie”. That means I must be bourgeoisie, because those films really “épatéd” me. But I did love his Rolling Stones documentary One Plus One, which pitted the vacuity of the band rehearsing against scenes of radical street politics. It says more about rock music and its role in society than any other film of the era – perhaps with the exception of Gimme Shelter.
I once worked with Caroline Champetier, a director of photography who was a Godard regular in the 80s and 90s. I hung on every word I could glean from her about “the master”. I was struck by her stories about filming in Russia on a conceptual version of Anna Karenina, shot amongst the crumbling post-Soviet railway stations of Moscow. The thing is, Godard didn’t go with her. He directed from Paris by phone. Somehow that summed him up for me: outrageously bold, very cool – but maybe lacking the human touch.
‘I devoured directors but I never moved on from him’
I am sitting in taxi cab and the radio is playing Satisfaction by the Stones and the woman announcer is saying: “Soixante-cinque, 1965.” Jean-Luc was really rolling then. I started making films in 1967 when I was 16 and soon discovered they made movies outside of Hollywood. I used to devour one great director at a time, watch everything then move on, but I never moved on from him.
Like Pasolini, the writing was as special as the films and brought us back again, to see them in a different light. I grew up thinking, after the death of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, that the next batch would come along soon but they never did. No one ever followed him. Except for Pier Paolo Pasolini, no one came close. I would sit as a baby film-maker and even the poetry of the titles would blow my mind: My Life to Live, One Plus One, A Woman Is a Woman, Alphaville and my favourite, All the Boys Are Called Patrick. A sad day.
‘His fierce passion towers above us’
As Proust and Joyce are to the novel, so Godard is to cinema. They all still cast their power over new writers and directors. Godard’s influence and his fierce passion tower above us, and we who are left behind can only remember and bask in this reflected glory. It is hard to say goodbye when au revoir would be more comforting. We are now impoverished by his going. I didn’t know him personally but he gave me a compliment once which I shall always treasure. So, ladies and gentlemen, hats off and stand for the passing of a genius.
‘I was aware for the first time of what a film director was’
I was in London’s Portobello Road in the very late 70s – a teenager who had come to buy some reggae records in Daddy Kool, only to find the shop closed. It was raining and I was at a loose end. I decided to see what was on at the Electric Cinema, then a run down flea pit. Pierrot Le Fou was just about to start and I went in knowing nothing about the film. What I saw electrified me. It was ostensibly a thriller but like no other film I had ever seen. Actors turned around and spoke directly to the camera. The music started and stopped in ways that forced you to notice how the soundtrack was manipulating your feelings. Characters broke out randomly into song, or comedy skits, the genre shifting and mutating at a moment’s notice. It was passionate and romantic, cynical and sly and heartfelt all at the same time. I fell desperately in love with Godard’s muse, Anna Karina, the most luminous of actresses.
By the time the movie finished, I was aware for the first time of what a film director was, and how most movies had rules that this film just exploded to glorious effect. And I came out of the cinema into the rain muttering to myself: “That’s what I want to do. I want to make films.” It seemed an impossible dream but it was a dream that came true – and it’s all Godard’s fault. A few decades later, I was back in the Electric, by now a swanky members’ club, casting my first film for the cinema: Girl With A Pearl Earring. It felt like the circle was complete.
‘He was at his best when talking film rather than making film’
His early films were vivid and romantic, swept along by the French New Wave. Later, his films became intellectual and obscure. When he had a film in Cannes his press conference was always a great event and packed out. He was at his best when talking film rather than making them but he was a great innovator and stretched the art of film to its limits and beyond.