The rule is a question of culture, the exception a question of art. Everyone speaks the rule: cigarettes, computers, t-shirts, tourism, war. No-one speaks the exception. It cannot be spoken. It can be written: Flaubert, Dostoyevsky. It can be composed: Gershwin, Mozart. It can be painted: Cezanne, Vermeer. It can be filmed: Antonioni, Vigo. Or it can be lived, and is thus called the art of living: Srebenica, Mostar, Sarajevo. It is part of the rules to want the death of the exception. It is the rule of European culture to organise the death of the art of living.
When For Ever Mozart appeared in 1996, the above words spoken by Godard in his masterly 1994 ‘self-portrait’ JLG/JLG seemed to serve both as an introduction to the concerns of the new film and, more broadly, as a riposte to the question posed so often back then “whatever happened to Jean-Luc Godard?”
In the meantime we have seen a well-documented ‘renaissance’ in Godard studies, and this has developed hand in hand with the active denigration of For Ever Mozart, an attitude crystallized by Nicole Brenez’ remarks a few years ago that it was his “first and only bad film.” (1)
But on its appearance this didn’t seem the case at all. On first release, For Ever Mozart was variously described by French critics as “Godard’s most satisfying film in a long time” (Le Monde) and as a “masterpiece” (Cahiers du Cinéma) (2). So what has happened in the 5 years since For Ever Mozart? From being hailed as a masterpiece on its appearance to its classification as the runt of the extensive Godardian litter, whereby even as staunch and perceptive a supporter as Nicole Brenez can dismiss the work out of hand, what has changed?
In the best of the recent books on Godard, the Michael Temple and James S. Williams edited The Cinema Alone, Temple and Williams summarize the auteur’s recent preoccupations with cinema and film history as follows “[they are] quite standard fare: the purity of origins, the infinite promise of invention, the compact between Méliès and Lumière, document and fiction, the betrayal of cinema’s popular mission and scientific vocation by Hollywood and spectacle, the death of the silents at the hands of the talkies, the ethical irresponsibility of cinema at crucial moments of contemporary history (Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Bosnia), the cancerous spread of global television, the slowly successive deaths of distinct national cinemas, and so on.” (3) When it becomes acceptable for supporters of JLG to take it as given that he has been serving up standard fare (even in terms only of his own work) these past years, one begins to suspect that there has been a power shift and that critics now believe themselves to be in control. Is this why For Ever Mozart is virtually ignored in The Cinema Alone?
I would suggest that this is not unrelated to the print-driven ‘Godard Renaissance’. Could it be that it was only by way of the castigation of For Ever Mozart that the oeuvre could be rendered creatively complete and thereby manageable, a manoeuvre without which there would be little hope of critics ever “catching up with Godard” (to use Jonathan Rosenbaum’s prescient phrase) (4). The completion of the video project Histoire(s) du Cinema in 1998 merely served to underline this sense of an achieved body of work. That there has now been 5 years between Godard features is surely the effective fallout of this perverse state of affairs.
Now the question that must be asked is: if in terms of ideas we have been served up ‘standard fare’ for several years, would we be able to recognise a new Godardian idea if we encountered one? Let’s consider what’s being going on in these recent features.
If the formal flamboyance of his ’60s films has been replaced by complexity and their humour superseded by an intensified sensitivity to beauty, it is only to be expected and welcomed. Continuous variations are an inevitable part of the development of any major artist over a career of more than 40 years. The finest artists have always changed with the times they live in. The adjectives most often applied by critics to JLG’s films recently have been ‘moving’, ‘melancholic’ and ‘beautiful’. As Jean-Michel Frodon has put it:
.those who continue to love Godard’s films know the abyss that separates his manner of filming a tree or a beach from all the others. There are two reasons for this which only half explain the irrefutable beauty of these shots. Firstly, Godard knows how much labour is involved in filming a blade of grass. Secondly, he has become less and less a French-filmmaker, less and less the inheritor of a cinematographic tradition which was almost never interested in nature for its own sake. (5)
For anyone who hasn’t bothered to sit down and watch a Godard feature in 20 years, let’s recall what the actual experience is really all about. Like all great artists his work is not meant to be assimilated at one sitting. His films are complex mainly because there is so much going on in each shot. You have to pay attention not only to each section of the frame but also to the printed slogans on the screen and the multi-layered, polyphonic soundtrack of words and music. Often there will be more than one voice-over each one full of unspecified citations, and these may overlap with equally demanding dialogue (of late all extracted from great works of literature and philosophy). Add to this a method of montage favouring ellipses and assonances and one is well on the way to experiencing that giddiness which Jean Narboni has described as the essence of the ‘Godard effect’:
.when viewing a Godard film there are moments when one has the tendency to resist the experience. As the film unfolds you are suddenly confused, you don’t quite grasp something and you feel like you are loosing your footing. On the point of drowning one is liable to think Godard vague and obscure but then there is a maritime movement/shift and if one lets oneself be carried by the next wave that comes one soon recovers the drift of the film.” It is this wonderful undulatory sensation that only a Godard film can provoke. As Frodon has put it: “Godard’s films are like brains operating at 90% of their intellectual possibilities as opposed to the majority of productions which function at 10% like the normal human brain. (6)
Isolated as he is from the film community, living in exile on the shores of Lake Geneva, Godard has understandably become more and more obsessive about cinema, its history, its possibilities, above all its botched destiny (hence his melancholy). For him, as well as failing to become the new art of thinking it should have been, cinema, with its intrinsic capacity to conquer death, failed also in its documentary vocation. It should have adequately filmed the Nazi death camps rendering them so real as to prohibit their return. Instead it turned real horror into spectacle (recall his declarations of powerlessness to prevent Spielberg from reconstructing Auschwitz). For Ever Mozart was Godard’s intervention in the field of ‘war imagery promotion’ and as ever he chose to engage on the most up-to-the-minute battleground: the Bosnian conflict. Inevitably, on one level the film is a film about representations of war. Then it could be asked: why not shoot a documentary? Because essentially Godard believes in the superiority of a certain type of cinema over the world as ‘it is’. The filmmaker can find in the experience of forms a more adequate approach to reality. He was only being slightly provocative when he spoke about never being invited out because his only topic of conversation is the cinema. He loves tennis “because I know that on the court there will always be someone to return the ball to me.”
The genesis of For Ever Mozart is typical of Godard. Creating images is a painstaking process. (Not long ago, in an explicit riposte to the Tarantinos and Rodriguez’ of the world, his reply to a student at a New York seminar seeking advice on filmmaking was: “go ahead! It is easy to make films. If you have only one dollar then make a film for one dollar. It is creation that is difficult, not making films.”) As JLG/JLG put it, glossing Pierre Reverdy, “the image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born of a comparison but from drawing together two distant realities. The more the ties between these realities are distant and right the stronger the image will be. Two realities with no ties cannot be usefully drawn together. No image is created.” With For Ever Mozart, Godard drew on three distinct embryonic projects, namely, an homage to Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa; an idea borrowed from a newspaper article by Philippe Sollers about staging a play in Sarajevo; and a project whose point of departure would have been a Keith Jarrett concert. Godard set out knowing it would be the film in construction which would tie all of these elements together. By combining these preoccupations with his desire to express his disgust at the attitude of French intellectuals to the war in the ex-Yugoslavia (which he saw as exemplifying his aforementioned contempt for the current state of European culture), Godard, according to Serge Toubiana, managed to forge the most just and accurate political film of recent times.
The film is constructed around a classical sonata form. There is a prologue concerning unemployment and the theatre and an epilogue dealing with a musical performance (hence the film’s title). The bulk of the film (the two main movements of this sonata) presents, on the one hand, a group of young people travelling to Sarajevo with the hope of performing a play (before they reach the city they become caught up in the war itself), and, on the other hand, an elderly filmmaker directing a European super-production with the hope of rivalling Hollywood (the production is ruined by the public’s preference for American films). Frodon described the finished product thus: “it is not a film ‘on’ Sarajevo or ‘on’ the cinema but a film ‘with’ – with the reality of today, with the memory of a civilisation, with humour, rage and curiosity, with music and philosophy.” (7) It is, as For Ever Mozart itself puts it (quoting the great Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira), “a saturation of magnificent signs bathing in the light of their absence of explanation.”
The two main narrative threads (the spectacle and the journey) inevitably recall Le Mépris (1963) and Les Carabiniers (1963) respectively, and allow Godard’s bodies to recover a liveliness absent from the preceding few films. “It may be a depressing film” writes Olivier Seguret “made in honour of those who have shed blood, but it depends also on a mad physical exultation.” (8) Its images are “incandescent” making For Ever Mozart “resonate with lively harmonics.” JLG’s response to the barbarity of war and to avoid turning it into cheap spectacle was in part to return to choreography, mime and dance in order, Seguret continues, “to transfigure the victims of war, to lend their bodies a poetic freedom; these characters dance on a volcano. Faced with death they attain an ultimate grace which saves them from the abyss.” (9) Now, from a creative point of view, this is where the importance of For Ever Mozart lies. What is novel in the film is its intensification of a new linkage of ideas fashioned for the first time in Nouvelle Vague (1990) and by all accounts taken even further in his new opus Eloge de l’Amour (2001): a concern with the human body as the locus of new forms of resistance to ‘culture’, visualised through a series of unprecedented relations between these bodies and nature.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, at a time when the concept of the postmodern sublime dominated cultural studies, JLG was elsewhere, refining a concept of the beautiful that would lead to the ‘turn’ to nature with Nouvelle Vague. Seeing things differently (as ever), Godard realised it was by working through the idea of the beautiful that truly creative things would begin to happen. Not the Kantian beautiful wherein disinterest before the art work relieves the spectator of his or her habits of thought, but a kind of biopolitical ethico-aesthetic notion (when asked some time ago what it might mean to be ‘Godardian’, the filmmaker replied that it would be “to defend an ethics and an art”) whereby nature would have to be re-invented by cinema and bodies constituted by way of relinquishing their ‘habits of habitation’; both human subjects and the earth would be born in a single movement of life. These are characters who express “the dynamism of life caught in its fugitive effusions” (10) (to transport Adrian Martin’s superb phrase from another context). Godard’s turn to Pessoa for For Ever Mozart was an inevitable step to take in following this line of experimentation. The Portuguese poet’s ‘transcendental poetics’ (analysed so well by Jose Gil in his Fernando Pessoa ou la metaphysique des sensations) (11) sought to describe the emergence of the sensing subject out of an impersonal field of sensations, the being of the sensible, and the passage of this singular subject to a universal and shared experience via a reflexive intellectualizing of sensation. In this sense For Ever Mozart is the key to what is new in Godard these last years; he has forged a middle ground between a poetic and a philosophical cinema by marrying Pessoa and Kant (the AND method so brilliantly isolated by Deleuze). Forever.Mozart, the beautiful exception; or nature-sensation, both singular and universal.
- Nicole Brenez, “Movie Mutations,” Film Quarterly, 1997, vol. 52 no. 1, pp 39-54
- Jean-Michel Frodon in Le Monde, Nov 28 1996, p 29; Serge Toubiana in Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 508 1996
- The Cinema Alone: Essays On The Work Of Jean-Luc Godard 1985-2000, edited by Michael Temple and James S. Williams, Amsterdam Univ. Press 2000, p. 18
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Eight Obstacles to the Appreciation of Godard in the United States” in Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image 1974-1991, MOMA New York 1991 p. 202.
- Jean-Michel Frodon, “Jean-Luc Godard, Autoportrait en Melancholie” in Le Monde, March 9 1995, p.26
- Jean Narboni quote, Le Monde, Oct. 6 1995, “Le Monde des Livres” Supplement p. X
- Jean-Michel Frodon, “Quand J-L G Orchestre l’Esprit Critique” in Le Monde, Nov 28 1996, p. 29
- Olivier Seguret, Liberation Nov 27 1996
- Adrian Martin, “Refractory Characters – Shards of Time and Space”, Metro, no. 100 Summer 1994/95, p.42
- Jose Gil’s Fernando Pessoa ou la metaphysique des sensations, Paris, Editions de la Difference 1988