Band of Insiders

by Todd McCarthy
May 18, 2010 3:02 AM
17 Comments
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If one of the elusive subjects of Jean-Luc Godard's new "Film Socialisme," is the problem of communication, then the director himself, who was similarly elusive in Cannes yesterday, is part of the problem. This is a film to which I had absolutely no reaction--it didn't provoke, amuse, stimulate, intrigue, infuriate or challenge me. What we have here is failure to communicate. Had this three-part video essay taken the form of a newspaper or magazine article, I would have tossed it aside and quickly moved on to other things. But because it's Godard, we have to attempt to come to terms with it and try to explain it even when the director himself declined to attend Cannes for a press conference, at which he would have rebuffed every attempt to probe its meanings anyway; as the final title card at the end of the film proclaims, "No Comment." When I pressed some die-hard Godardians to defend the film or explicate its potential meanings, no one could do a very good job of it, and the most common and ominous remark I heard among them was, "I really need to see it again." I don't. There are absolutely many difficult and dense works that require repeated viewings or readings to reveal their true and full meanings, but even the most daunting of them at least suggest their stature at first exposure and should presumably inspire, rather than intimidate, one to make return visits.

Ironically, Godard himself recently described not only his own position but that of any number of other members of the ivory tower group whose work regularly turns up at festivals, is received with enthusiasm by the usual suspects and then is promptly ignored by everyone other than an easily identifiable inner circle of European and American acolytes. Godard explained in Telerama on May 13 that, in the years after he hit his commercial peak with his first film, "Breathless," in 1960, he could count on roughly 100,000 paid admissions to his films in Paris. "The problem is that there's no longer 100,000 in Paris--there's that many in the entire world. At most you can reach 10% of them."

I'm glad Godard put an absolute number on his contemporary audience, and I'm pleased it's that large, as I'd thought it might be slightly lower. Except for the rare freak break-out success, it's probably about the same number as attends most films by Jia Zhangke, Pedro Costa, Bela Tarr and Abbas Kiarostami, among other members of the high-art elite. What Godard's estimation tacitly and usefully acknowledges is that his and the others' audience really does consist of a private club with a rigorously limited membership list. This time out, Godard and his backers are trying to expand their economic potential by putting "Film Socialisme" out on VOD for, I'm told, seven euros, although those who tried to check it out on their computers yesterday morning were blocked until after the Cannes screenings.

I can argue either side when it comes to Godard. Intellectually, I can extol him as a cinematic James Joyce, as they both playfully expanded the language, structure and form of their chosen arts and achieved sublime works until, increasingly, flying off into rarified realms into which few could accompany them; the proper view, I think, would be that Godard has been in his inscrutable "Finnegan's Wake" period for some time now. More personally, I have become increasingly convinced that this is not a man whose views on anything do I want to take seriously. I can neither forget nor forgive Godard's wish, resourcefully noted by Colin MacCabe in his biography of the director, that the Apollo 13 astronauts would die on their imperiled voyage; this was either the most spurious sort of anti-Americanism or genuinely profound anti-humanism, something that puts Godard in the same misguided camp as those errant geniuses of an earlier era, Pound and Celine. MacCabe's biography also made note of the child Godard and Anna Karina might have had but was lost to a miscarriage, and in my idle moments during "Film Socialisme" I wondered if Godard would have been any different an artist or thinker had he been a father. Whereas Godard's one-time comrade-in-art-and-arms and subsequent favorite whipping boy Truffaut adhered to Jean Renoir's generosity of spirit, Godard has long since become the mean-minded anti-Renoir, someone who can say nothing good about anyone except himself. Like his film, it's not a worldview that says anything to me at this point.

17 Comments

  • forget god-(l)ard | November 22, 2010 1:33 AMReply

    its time for some french eccentric directors to learn english

  • Raoul | May 25, 2010 4:43 AMReply

    "More personally, I have become increasingly convinced that this is not a man whose views on anything do I want to take seriously."

    "But because it’s Godard, we have to attempt to come to terms with it and try to explain it even when the director himself declined to attend Cannes for a press conference, at which he would have rebuffed every attempt to probe its meanings anyway."

    It's obvious that Mr. McCarthy had made up his mind about the film before he even viewed it. And attacks on Godard do play well these days, don't they? So thanks for the non-review, in which you said absolutely nothing about the film except that it was exactly what you expected it to be. It's a wonder you even deigned to see it, as your real intention all along appears to have been to pass judgment on its author. And really, it's quite a stretch to equate Godard with ardent fascists like Pound and Celine merely on the basis of a few thoughtless comments he once made to Colin McCabe.

    For an interview with a thoughtful and decidedly not "mean-minded" Jean-Luc Godard on the subject of Film Socialisme, please see: http://cinemasparagus.blogspot.com/2010/05/jean-luc-godard-interviewed-by-jean.html.

  • SaMoFilmGuy | May 24, 2010 8:06 AMReply

    What's funny is reading Godard fans like Mahola Dargis in the NYT who can't bring themselves to criticize the guy, even when the film is bloody awful. Breathless was, is, great, a seminal movie. Nothing else he's done is.

  • Craig Dawson | May 20, 2010 10:32 AMReply

    So this is indieWire's big get: a critic dismissed from the trades, railing against the elites.

    Just what the art world needs--more plain talk from real America.

  • Arthur S. | May 20, 2010 5:04 AMReply

    For all of Renoir's generosity of spirit, he was as provocative in his generation as Godard is to ours. As for Godard's anti-humanism, it isn't far behind Renoir who said of ''La Regle du Jeu'' that "no one in that film was worth saving".

  • lemmy caution | May 19, 2010 12:56 PMReply

    "I wondered if Godard would have been any different an artist or thinker had he been a father."

    Hey Todd, parents can be solipsistic assholes too, and you don't need to be a parent to care about other people. Ask around.

  • Neil Young (Sunderland, UK) | May 19, 2010 8:02 AMReply

    "Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good Kung Fu film."
    -- Werner Herzog, 2005.

    I'm personally very keen to see "Film: Socialism", but will go in with very cautious optimism, having been knocked out by "In Praise of Love" but been left clay-cold by "Our Music."

  • pdunk | May 19, 2010 5:54 AMReply

    I love Bela Tarr, Carlos Reygadas, Bruno Dumont and many other 'difficult' directors but for the life of me I cannot fathom Godard's place in the 'pantheon'. I watch one of his films every couple of years to see if my view has changed, but no luck so far. Although inventive in form, I find his films pretentious and without meaning. They do not seem connected to people, or life.

    I think Todd's point is that despite Godard's reputation, he can only command an audience of 10,000 worldwide, which is comparable to other high-art directors like Tarr etc.

  • Rex NZ | May 19, 2010 5:21 AMReply

    Has everyone forgotten "Godard and the Godardians"
    (1967) by John Simon? That said it all ....

  • Jean Floressas | May 19, 2010 4:44 AMReply

    "Hey Todd, parents can be solipsistic assholes too....Ask around."

    Or go see Daddy Longlegs.

  • Sam | May 19, 2010 4:31 AMReply

    MDL: I see no evidence whatsoever that the film itself inspired these 800 words but the unwarranted flurry of attention it has been paid. Nothing contradictory there.

  • Daniella Isaacs | May 19, 2010 2:30 AMReply

    I was with you until you threw Bela Tarr under the bus. Not being able to make a distinction between Godard's late work and Tarr's work, which is admittedly difficult but which does suggest its stature on first viewings and does inspire repeated viewings, is a major flaw here. I teach film studies, and while I've not shown any late Godard, I can guarantee that were I to do so, my students would rebel. On the other hand, I've shown Tarr's "Werckmeister Harmonies" and clips from others and really intrigued students--obviously not all of them--whose attention spans are supposedly ruined by Youtube and the internet.

  • FPS | May 18, 2010 12:54 PMReply

    Thanks for another enjoyable post. But I'm still wondering what point you were trying to make about the fact that filmmakers like Godard, Kiarostami and Tarr all have a rather small audience. Are you suggesting that all of this filmmakers deliberately alienate viewers, or that there are other conditions that have kept their works from reaching larger numbers of people? Is that situation something you regret, or are you arguing that, as you believe Godard is doing, all of these filmmakers are failing to communicate?

    I think it would be interesting to discuss if this Band of Insiders shares something other than a limited audience, if they have consciously maintained this state of affairs, and who or what regulates that "club with a rigorously limited membership list."

  • Michael Sooriyakumaran | May 18, 2010 12:17 PMReply

    "Except for the rare freak break-out success, it’s probably about the same number as attends most films by Jia Zhangke, Pedro Costa, Bela Tarr and Abbas Kiarostami, among other members of the high-art elite. What Godard’s estimation tacitly and usefully acknowledges is that his and the others’ audience really does consist of a private club with a rigorously limited membership list."

    I guess that makes me a high-art elitist, because I think all those guys are terrific. If they're not as popular as less demanding filmmakers, I'm inclined to think it's less their fault than the fault of the audience.

  • Phil G | May 18, 2010 11:07 AMReply

    I really appreciate this essay. I have found Goddard to be inaccessable, with a few exceptions sprinkled here and there, pretty much from WEEKEND on. And still, feeling like a cinematic philistine too stupid to "get it", I have gone back to Goddard trying to find that which I was obviously missing the first time or two around. I have pretty much given up, thinking that if there is anything that I am missing (which I more and more doubt) it is not worth the time and effort to figure it out. I am not against a challenging or obsure movie, but I just don't feel there is a reward at the end of this task.

  • MDL | May 18, 2010 9:08 AMReply

    I appreciate your opinions here but find it interesting that you say the film doesn't provoke you in any way yet you write 800 words to the contrary.

  • p. | May 18, 2010 6:57 AMReply

    Comparing Godard to Joyce is comparing Congo the chimpanzee to Picasso.