What possible meaning could French New Wave architect Jean-Luc Godard have in a society so base and craven that The Dark Knight is treated like the second coming of Citizen Kane? It's hard to believe that once upon a time - say, 40-odd years ago - the first three letters of Godard's last name were interpreted literally by those who believed cinema could change the world. "Godard is God" indeed.
If nothing else, Breathless: Godard from 1960 to 1967, a touring retrospective of 10 classic films Godard made in the 1960s, should serve as a much-needed corrective and give old fogies like me a case of the warm-and-fuzzies. And maybe, just maybe, a few curious souls might actually decide to check out two or three of the titles just to see what all the fuss was about. The series runs from September 5 though November 2 at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque.
While it's probably impossible to recreate the tingly sense of innovation, immediacy and discovery that audiences experienced - and responded to - at the time of the films' original releases, Godard's '60s oeuvre still holds up remarkably well. It's impossible not to be moved by the spirit of reckless, go-for-broke inventiveness (jump-cuts for the hell of it, text-as-image, Day-Glo colors, comic-book graphics, et al.) that was Godard's defining characteristic as a young filmmaker. That limitless sense of possibility he created for future generations of filmmakers can still be felt today. You can find traces of Godard's signature tropes and stylistic tics in the movies of Wong Kar-Wai and Quentin Tarantino, both of whom have fetishized Godard. Hell, even fledgling auteur Madonna has come out of the closet recently as a Godard enthusiast.
Despite the fact that Godard has been living (and working) in relative seclusion in Switzerland for more than 30 years, he never really went away. Even if you don't agree with Godard biographer Richard Brody that the director's latter works are as impressive as early career milestones like Contempt (October 16 and 18) or Breathless (September 6 and 7), no one could dispute Godard's rightful place in the cinematic canon.
Godard's films are not only ravishingly beautiful to look at (thanks in large part to nonpareil cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who shot 9 of the 10 titles in the series) and almost indescribably sexy, but they also stimulate the brain like a Mensa energy drink, spurring discussion and sometimes querulous debate. Even when the political talk in a Godard film seems impenetrably dense and jargon-laden, you feel smarter just listening to it. Plus, there's the compensatory virtue of witnessing young people - Godard's fabled "children of Marx and Coca-Cola" - so actively, impulsively engaged in life in all its messy permutations. (Jean-Pierre Léaud became as much of an alter ego for Godard as he was for Franois Truffaut.)
Charting a chronological path through this mini-retrospective, it's easy to spot where Godard transformed from the former film critic infatuated with Hollywood B-movies (see Breathless) and Vincente Minnelli musicals (A Woman Is a Woman) to the radicalized misanthrope who opined that "cinema is capitalism in its purest form" (check out Two or Three Things I Know About Her and Masculine Feminine, screening on October 9 and 11 and October 4 and 5, respectively).
And if you just want to dip your foot into the Godardian oeuvre, I'd suggest beginning with Breathless, which is not only Godard's first movie but also one of his most robustly entertaining. The candy-colored 1961 feature A Woman Is a Woman is another immediately accessible, intensely pleasurable Godard masterpiece and one of my personal favorites: a Pop Art musical fantasia starring former Godard muse Anna Karina at her most incandescent.
Follow that with Contempt - the film that was intended to be Godard's Hollywood "crossover movie." Produced by legendary vulgarian Joseph E. Levine (importer of Steve Reeves' Hercules programmers) and starring reigning international sexpot Brigitte Bardot, Contempt practically invented the term "postmodern." It also helped launch Godard on an entirely different career/artistic path from which there would be no turning back. Had Jean-Luc Godard never existed, cinephiles would have probably been forced to conjure him piecemeal out of their wildest fantasies.