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Jury prize winner at Cannes, named best picture of 2014 by the National Society of Film Critics, Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language rode a wave of breaking news last year, mostly from critics irate that no American distributor had picked it up. Even at the Online Film Critics' Society there was anger -- one can't vote for a movie one hasn't seen although I'm sure it happens all the time. A Godard film? In 3-D! And all those accolades? It sounds like some kind of breakthrough, something not to miss. The man's a poet and a visionary, after all.
Back working at The Cannon Group in 1988 I was in an audience where the execs got to see Godard's King Lear for the first time, the one with Woody Allen, Burgess Meredith, Norman Mailer and Molly Ringwald. After the regulation ninety minutes had played out, Menahem or Yoram stood up as if in a daze, as if their pockets had been picked. The movie played like a Black Hole; its overall message was "DETOAATPFT": Don't Even Think Of Asking Audiences To Pay For This. Hadn't Mo or Yo ever heard of Contempt, a movie so named to express Godard's attitude toward being asked to direct a commercial film? Contempt actually delivers something resembling a narrative, which we agree is not the definition of a good film. Parts of King Lear are organized around the semaphore message "NO THING", which pretty much aligns with his preferred method of communicating with production companies.
Great filmmakers cannot make uninteresting films, the same way that great writers cannot write wholly uninteresting books -- just relating the new work with what we know usually gives us something to chew over. I wish I could say that Godard's pesonal style worked for me. In the 1960s we loved the way he gave us outlines of genres, riffed off of the Nick Ray and Vincente Minnelli movies he loved. He did a hollow homage to Arthur Freed musicals but in Alphaville seems to have lost control ... his alternate adventure of Lemmy Caution almost plays as a fully realized pulp narrative.
Those on Godard's personal wavelength seem to soak up his films, hanging on every word recited by his puppet characters, who are of course artificial objects, surely unaware of their appointed roles and seeemingly trying not to exist even as they perform. We must absorb abstract paintings in a nonverbal way, but what is our response when a Godard film's "text" amounts to a huge quantity of unemotional words that, for all we understand of them, might well have been spoken in a foreign tongue? I watched Goodbye to Language twice in 3-D, soaking up everything I could. The experience was not "like encountering motion pictures for the first time." 1 It was the same as it ever was with Godard, post- 1970 or so when he apparently lost all interest in playing with narrative forms. In the 1960s he toyed with relationships and genre conventions, and filmed love letters to Anna Karina, who was allowed to express elements of personality. I freely admit that with 100,000 other Godard fans I took the Kool-Aid on faith. When Godard popped revolutionary slogans on screen, it was okay by me. When he reduced political arguments to simple displays any film student could come up with. When we saw some consumer products tossed on a lawn, that was good too. When he thumbed his nose at Joseph E. Levine, waving Brigitte Bardot's bottom at us to make good on the contract, we got the message.
Some of defected when Godard's movies became diatribes in which all roads led to Mao. The feeble politico concepts got old quick. Godard's short subjects that accompanied shaky shots of pictures tacked to a wall with verbal rhetoric (more subtitles, please!) were in general classier than the wearying stuff seen in film school, but not by much. When he stopped shooting on 35mm the intimidation factor evaporated. Face it, way back when in film school filmmaking was not as democratized as it is now. The basic tools and venues for quality filmmaking were so difficult to acquire that being rich and/or incredibly talented was an absolute necessity. Therefore, just the evidence of real 35mm filmmaking gave anyone status, even Ed Wood. Godard and his Cahiers gang pulled a cultural coup, convincing their producers to let them ride a new wave of expression generated by young punks claiming a vision of a new cinema. Godard had a new vision, all right, but I'm not sure that ultimately it was very cinematic, except on a theoretical, academic level.
Goodbye to Language is not something different. It is another impenetrable philosophical discussion between Godard and Godard, accompanied by fragments of images. Half are mannered-random scenes in which Godard's spokespeople-characters say his dialogue, deliver his lectures and whatever slogan-like speeches that aren't covered in his intertitles, of which there are very few this time around. We see shots in and around a lake in Switzerland. A professor answers some questions posed by the female lead (clothed outdoors, often nude indoors) but then tells her that it's vacation time, to come back when class is in session. A threatening guy in a shiny black sedan prowls around a bit with a gun, that is, when the camera is turned in his direction instead of a focusing on a lawn chair. A handsome excursion boat arrives and departs from a pier. A couple argue in their apartment, often when images from old films are playing behind them on a widescreen monitor: Only Angels Have Wings, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc. She watches him defecate, twice, with sound effects, the admittedly valid message offered being that pooping is a universal experience that unites us all.
Toward the end we see Mary Shelley (Jessica Erickson) at leisure, in full 1820s costume. Her 'subplot' makes us reach for other ideas -- she painstakingly writes with a quill pen, in large script. There may be two sets of identical lovers, or alternate timelines played out simultaneously. The couple picks up a dog at a gas station, and much of the latter part of the film is simply shots of the dog enjoying life doing what dogs do, while some of the talk takes on a discussion of nature. At least, a big title comes up reading, "nature."
Here's Godard's full scenario, from his handwritten notes:
The idea is simple:
Once upon a time we would marvel at the cinematography of Raoul Coutard, who on a moment's notice could make art of whatever haphazard setups Jean-Luc handed him. Goodbye to Language is in 3-D, so we are of course eager to see what Godard does with it. Manohla Dargis, no stranger to compelling criticism, calls the show "a thrilling cinematic experience'.
Godard uses all of his old mechanisms, the ones that remind us that his show is not like other movies. Music cues are cut off without warning, and 'dramatic' themes undercut by being re-used until they become monotonous. Godard edits in bits of black and repeat parts of a shot. He'll pop between color treatments in the same way he once popped between a normal shot and its inverted negative image. Many of the shots are conventional -- made on a tripod and conventionally composed. Many more are handheld, affecting a casual or accidental feel.
Back in the 1980s I felt that Godard's video-originated films amounted to little more than dial-noodling on the TV switcher board, purposely throwing the contrast, video gain, etc. far out of kilter. Was anybody impressed by this stuff? Even high schools have had creative AV classes for a few decades, and most students know what it looks like to screw around with the Chroma Key effects buttons. Who respects films that seem to be produced in a spirit of boredom?
Those viewers who can see Goodbye to Language in 3-D can look forward to two or three interesting jolts. Godard floats his mysterious, authoritarian text titles over each other in 3-D. The English subs we see do this as well, adding a layer of 'visual tension' enforced by the format, not the director. Most 3-D movies try their hardest to keep things simple so as to help us believe the 3-D illusion, but Godard throws caution to the wind... which is a great idea. He posterizes shots with bright colors, giving us 'deep' images of flowers that look like moving video cutouts. Many shots are thrown into contrast flux, with video noise intruding. Those are merely annoying. 2
Shots in low indoor light of course have an unattractive video look not helped by the depth. The nude actors are not erotic in any conventional way, but hairy and purplish under the haphazard lighting. They ignore the classic scenes playing out on the TV monitor behind them. The dog, I am happy to report, is not at all self-conscious before Godard's camera.
Exterior shots vary as in any 3-D picture. We're just about to conclude that Godard has filmed in 3-D to sneer at commercial cinema's reaching for a new empty dimension when he actually hits us with something NEW and fascinatingly creative. In one of the interior scenes, our left eye and right eye images suddenly split up. The left eye stays with the subject at hand, while the right eye pans to follow one of the characters as she walks across the room to the right. It feels as if our head is being torn in two, with one eye wandering to the right, like that of an African Chameleon. It's like an eye-muscle trauma at the opthalmologist's office. Is this how a flounder feels as one eye migrates around his head? After a couple of seconds, viewers with sufficient eye-stamina are treated to an odd flicker-less flicker sensation. Moviemakers can't show us 'new' colors but Godard has given us a new sensation. Thought: what effect if any might this right-eye/left-eye discriminatory visual bombardment have on epileptics?
I heard several interesting verbal and written messages breaking through Goodbye to Language, but the only one that comes to mind is the unpleasantly literal nugget about poop. I know that the writing style of this review may read as flippant, but I've tried to engage with the film in the best way I can. I respect Godard enough not to make direct fun of Goodbye to Language but I'll have to exclude myself from the anointed inner circle fit to worship him. His theories are always compelling. 3
The Kino Lorber 3-D Blu-ray of Goodbye to Language is a sparkling- clear and well-encoded rendering of this... pretty important Godard creation. I have no doubt that the digital 3-D images equal the theatrical experience. The 2-D version, as explained on the package, is slightly altered. Simply taking the left or right eye would eliminate material from the one or two scenes where the two 'eyes' deliver different visuals. Kino has instead superimposed the 'eyes' to at least show the action in double vision. 4
David Bordwell's pamphlet essay leaves me convinced that I have some troglodytic resistance to Godard. I have no response to his description of Goodbye to Language as exhalarating, exciting, etc.. I must conclude that there is a fourth D of intellectual perception here that escapes me.
A trailer and an interview with Godard are on the 2-D disc only. Godard is in fine form in the hour-long inteview. He talks both in word games and about word games, which is in itself enjoyable. His attitude is that 3-D is meaningless, and that is exactly why he included it. The real art of filmmaking, he says, is converting reality to 2-D, not the other way around. He makes a big issue of ignoring rules, of course. It's interesting to point out that the interviewer's questions most often ask about text statements from his earlier films. When Godard gives an answer, it is often in the form of a literary quote or an observation about a painter.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Goodbye to Language 3-D Blu-ray rates:
1. The plum quote of J. Hoberman, a critic I read at every opportunity. His book The Dream Life is brilliant, and recommended.
2. A few weeks back a friend brought over a pro-sumer digital 3-D camera he had bought to experiment with. The accidental mis-alignments in convergence we saw in his first efforts resemble some of the 'effects' in Goodbye to Language. In some shots reflections on water, which should have appeared to be in a far plane, instead floated in space as if they were curtains of energy in a closer visual plane. Some 3-D images also look strange when the depth of field is too great. Look at the 2-D Invaders from Mars again. William Cameron Menzies uses perspective cues to yield a 3-D look, but selective focus does the trick even better. In Goodbye to Language we see shots where an object at the center of our attention is out of focus. It throws our brain for a loop when our eyes can't solve the problem. I'm not being facetious when I say that Goodbye to Language is an EXCELLENT film over which to discuss the phenomenon of 3-D: its fascinating effects, its limitations.
3. One reason I'm eager for a remastered Alphaville to come our way is that I very much want to write about it again. My old review (that I even put in my Sci-Fi book) reeks of defensive attitudes about Jean-Luc Godard that I think I've outgrown. What I perceived as technical or stylistic crudities in his films were actually my own narrow prejudces in favor of 'respectable' production values. Seeing more of his films in excellent prints, it is easier to appreciate them for what they are. Raoul Coutard's cinematography is often brilliant, and always harmonious. I'm willing to believe that his intellectual desire was to knock down all the building blocks and start again. I can see a 'grammatical' relationship between his political signage and his cinematic constructions.
The movies wouldn't be the same without the provocateur Godard. Ever seen his epic-length montage history-of-movies series? It's cinematic quicksand, from which no man returns.
4. Hey, I just realized that the two-eyes 3-D trick in this movie is a perfect visual correlative for the outlandish literary conceit of the last chapter of Jim Thompson's pulp novel Hell of a Woman. The whole chapter is one long two-page paragraph in which parallel sentences alternate from one line to the next, one in italics, one not. I'm sure that readers of Thompson will instantly know what I mean.
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T'was Ever Thus.