NYFF51 Spotlight: Jean-Luc Godard – The Spirit of the Forms

From cinephile and film critic to filmmaker and cinema revolutionary, Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave's most outspoken member, continues to inspire intense and passionate discussion, debate and fandom. An intimidating presence, the director's work is often open to and encouraging of sincere interpretation; the trick is to patiently find your way in and get to work. Jean-Luc Godard  The Spirit of the Forms, our month long retrospective covering everything from Breathless and beyond (including documentaries, shorts and Godard-directed movie trailers), begins today with an apt opening film, Hail Mary.

Released in 1985, Hail Mary, a modern, not quite practical retelling of Joseph and the Virgin Mary, is pure Godard: jump cuts, quotations, an imposing score and a battle between diegetic and nondiegetic sound are all on hand. What made this film different was its touchy subject matter, thrilling to some and maddening and offensive to others. Quite fittingly, the film (as with most of the director's works) premiered locally at the New York Film Festival with press coverage to die for. In his biographical text, “Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard,” New Yorker's Richard Brody recalled “when the screening was announced in September, New York's Archbishop John O' Connor spoke out against it and many Catholics mobilized a show of force. The night of the screening, angry crowds, many brought into town on chartered buses, lined the streets around Lincoln Center; Broadway was filled with an estimated eight thousand protesters. They encircled the theater and attempt to prevent viewers from entering. The police parted the crowd, creating a narrow path for ticket-holders to enter the theater, albeit through a gauntlet of jeering protesters.” We can assure you that you will not have as much trouble making your way to a Hail Mary screening this time around.

Religion was also the subject of one of Godard's most recent films, Notre Musique (NYFF '04), which dealt with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the ongoing political troubles in Sarajevo. Anger and unrest blends remarkably well with the often tragically emotional undercurrent of the film—suicide, genocide and personal acceptance via the world's view of specific religions are some topics discussed—and it, too, was not without controversy. Nonetheless, there is a sadness to the film that is quite palpable and moving, no moment more so than when Godard, playing himself and speaking to a class on the relationship between sound and image, uses pointed photographs to describe shot-reverse shot. “For example, in 1948,” Godard explains to the students while holding two photographs, “the Israelites walked in the water to reach the Holy Land. The Palestinians walked in the water to drown. Shot and reverse shot.”

As Godard's appreciation of the cinema is so wide, it's necessary that the cinema mutually shares the adoration. A writer for Cahiers du cinéma, Godard once recalled in an interview that “as a critic, I thought of myself as a film-maker. Today I still think of myself as a critic, and in a sense I am, more than ever before. Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed. I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in novel form or novels in essay form: only instead of writing, I film them.”

Other Godard classics are sprawled throughout the series. After Hail Mary, Alphaville, the ultimate sci-fi, “fear the computer” movie, screens at 9:00pm today. Weekend, which very well may be Godard's most bizarrely anarchic and hysterical movie representing quite literally the end of cinema, screens on Thursday and Friday, while the hypertextual, self-narrated 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is as philosophically satisfying and iconic a movie as any in the filmmaker's oeuvre. Vivre sa Vie, which had a preview screening last Friday night in Alice Tully Hall, is Godard at his most Brechtian, while Contempt (now celebrating its 50th anniversary) features striking images of the beautiful Brigitte Bardot that have since entered into the pantheon of classic cinema.

Other world stars such as Jane Fonda (Tout va bien) and Chantal Goya (Masculin Féminin) do impressive work with challenging material. And as the 21st century marches forth in its acceptance of all things digital, there is perhaps no better time than to catch In Praise of Love, a film in two halves, one shot in black-and-white 35mm and the other in over-saturated color video; for our screenings, it will be projected on film, as Godard intended. It's also a film with some controversial remarks for Hollywood prodigy Steven Spielberg that shouldn't go unnoticed.

For those looking to familiarize themselves with Godard, you would be hard pressed to find a more extensive, complete selection of his work than Jean-Luc Godard  The Spirit of the Forms. A cinematheque auteur study this in-depth should not go under the radar. Breathless is, for obvious reasons outside of it being the filmmaker's debut, a good place to start—it's one of the most famously influential films of all time—but do not hesitate to dive into the Godard's post-1968 cannon (where, it is believed in some circles, the man took his career in a dramatically new direction).

If possible, bring a friend. Each work deserves its fair shake in the sun, and who better to share the light with then with a peer?

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