i believe what we think of a piece of art says more about us than the art itself. while you look at a painting and see greatness in the use of colour, i might find the brushwork repulsive—or i would, if i knew enough about painting to identify my opinion on brushwork. even that qualification, however, says more about me than it does the painting. to demonstrate this theory in another medium, one i am more familiar with, let’s turn to film. we all want something out of a movie. we want to be entertained, nominally, but perhaps we also want to learn (documentaries), or laugh (comedies), or feel uplifted (romantic comedies). all of us find different ways of satisfying this urge, different directors or genres of preference. my youngest sister loves adam sandler, my father enjoys 21 jump street and booksmart, and my mother forgets the movies she’s watched often enough to make a habit of rediscovering them.in a world of endless tastes and preferences, there is a section of film lovers who pose a question to their preferred mode of entertainment: what is film?
spend enough time in this world and you’ll realize there’s always a frenchman with an answer. jean-luc godard was one of the masters of the french new wave. his original approach to filmmaking was lauded by peers, critics, and certain groups among the general population. dedicated filmgoers adored him (this is the group i’m talking about). today, his name is pulled from the pockets of film school students and cinephiles alike, a minor status symbol: what have you seen of godard? you may have heard of breathless, contempt, or pierrot le fou, either in reference or in passing. like most directors of note, he’s a polarizing figure. it is easy to find adulation from his many admirers—and criticism from his many detractors.
ingmar bergman (swedish director, made terribly depressing movies about faith and death, my personal favourite), who was not known for mincing words, had this to say: “(godard’s films) have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. godard is a fucking bore. he’s made his films for the critics.”
in keeping with the theory that how we feel about a piece of art says more about us than it does about the art itself, how might we use bergman’s art to reverse engineer his opinion on godard? let’s begin with examining some aspects of a godard film. his films are packed with visuals, eschew a linear script, and invent a world purely for entertainment value—where one character might remark to another that they’re in a lousy movie (true), or question whether their existence is real life (untrue, and annoying to boot). when i say ‘entertainment value’, i mean that godard was interested in what film was as a medium. his films were, in fact, tightly constructed, and their unique and off the cuff aspects were intentional in godard’s conception. the sense i have always gotten from godard’s films is the worship of form, the idea that every film must answer the question of its own inception. what is a film? demands breathless, widely considered the director’s most famous work. why is a film the way it is? what can be a film? what can’t be a film? and this endless wave of questioning, which is so often the backbone of a thinly constructed plot, makes for films that charm critics and turn away audiences.
bergman, on the other hand, has always been a deeply human artist. his technique, masterful and revolutionary though it is, comes in service to the story he is trying to tell. think of that iconic shot from the seventh seal, death playing a game of chess with a knight. it’s an arresting image, but it is not memorable for what it is, but what it means. bergman hasn’t set the camera here because it looks cool or because he wants to create a natural feel to the film—what, indeed, is natural about a man meeting death itself? he does not do it to remind you that this is an implausible world he’s created. he is not asking what a film is. he is asking you to suspend your disbelief so he can tell you a story. and his films succeed, i think, because he captures our imagination, he invites us to bear witness. ‘why can’t i kill god within me?’ asks the knight, launching into an arresting monologue on faith. bergman is not preoccupied with breaking the fourth wall. his films explore his own neuroses and fascinations, opening the curtains on a story which may be dark or miserable, but which carries the ring of truth. film, in bergman’s conception of it, does not require an interrogation of what it is, but is a medium which transmits something true. where he breaks with godard, where he can scoff at movies ‘for the critics’, is their difference in ideology.
my problem with godard isn’t a lack of talent, it’s his inability to suspend disbelief. he is my sister, interrupting little red riding hood to ask how the wolf can swallow the grandmother whole. he is an artist constantly aware of his own art. he cannot escape it. he has to remind you it’s a film, it’s a film, it’s a film—and that’s a fucking bore! it’s not real life, godard shouts, it’s artifice, and artifice cannot contain anything true. godard denies himself even the possibility of an accurate representation. i imagine he must have been a deeply neurotic man. not that i would know: not even my half-amused enjoyment of breathless and pierrot le fou has led me to seek out more information about their creator. in essence i feel that an artist’s work must say something about the way they think of art, just as another’s opinion of that work says something they think of art, and as such it is natural that we seek out further information about those who we feel we’re in sympathy with. a similar viewpoint is the greatest sign of future affection. i have read a great deal about ingmar bergman and joni mitchell and james joyce. i have read next to nothing about jean-luc godard, george eliot, and queen—i find my sympathies to be more in line with the first group, despite incidental enjoyment of the second.when i engage with art, i suspend disbelief. of course there’s a castle where they teach magic in scotland, why not? of course the wolf can swallow little red riding hood and her grandmother. of course you can walk on glass slippers without them breaking. in this i find myself opposed to godard.
which is not to say that there isn’t anything enjoyable in his films. i feel this piece may come across as harsh on godard, but it isn’t meant to be. there’s a reason he’s a household name. for all its self indulgence, breathless is a good film. in pierrot le fou, there’s a line that goes ‘in poetry, the loser wins’, and i’ve thought about it for more than a year after seeing the film. there’s an objective talent there, and i understand why people like him. i’m not trying to argue with that; i am arguing with the premise that film needs to be self-aware. i am arguing with the idea of self-contained universes that brush up against their own edges, filmmaking that wants to Transcend The Genre and Redefine What Cinema Is instead of telling a story. i am arguing with indulgent, inaccessible film—not because i believe there is no place for it, but because i disagree with that approach to film.
the initial premise of this article was that our takeaways from art express more about us than the art itself. my love of wild strawberries is less about admiration for form, which anyone can have, and more about crunching on kapri ice cream in the summer with my grandfather. i want film to feel personal. i want it to be close, in your face, unable to break contact. what’s form without a narrative? what’s a narrative without a heart? criticize the modernists all you like—at least their novels had a pulse. whatever heart godard’s films have is buried underneath shabbily done female characters and a plethora of references that age like milk. the heart and soul of film, its bread and butter, ought not to be need to be film itself.
my taste for criterion editions and that one-inch barrier of subtitles is shared by no one and plays punchline in a lot of jokes.
i have only ever referenced queen to start awkward conversations with my father. yes, bob dylan is better, and no, i don’t take criticism. do you think this newsletter would exist if i did?
Love this sooo much!!!! I completely agree with the point that you made, I'd even argue that the way something is executed, the more grounded aspects of filmmaking such as camera work or special effects (more grounded as in the aspects of film that separate reality from the screen), automatically hold more meaning and are way more impressive if they are primarily there to support the story. Paradoxically, what casts the special effects in leading roles is treating them as extras.