God or Godard?

Reel love: Jean-Luc Godard snuggles up to a coveted canister

If every film critic in the world suddenly confessed his secret longing to be a film curator, I wouldn't be a bit surprised. After all, the two practices are remarkably similar--both involve the foolhardy attempt to spread one's enthusiasm for "good" movies--save for one crucial detail: The curator generally gets away with doing a lot less writing. Alas, one of the most enthusiastic film critics who ever lived, Jean-Luc Godard, skipped film curating almost entirely and headed straight into filmmaking. Yet, representing a kind of archeological endeavor, Oak Street Cinema's "Curated by Jean-Luc Godard" digs through the auteurist's Fifties and Sixties reviews in Cahiers du Cinéma and discovers 22 pictures that he might have loved to screen in public if he hadn't been so busy shooting his own.

From a curatorial standpoint, the series is pure genius. At a time when everything old is new again only if you've avoided visiting rep houses or video stores for the last decade, it manages to repackage the past in a way that appears not only fresh but intellectually astute. Yet from a critical standpoint, the program can't help seeming a tad passé. Assembled a half-century after Cahiers published Godard's then-radical views that Hollywood movies reflect their directors' distinct sensibilities, "Curated by Jean-Luc Godard" means to credit a director's distinct sensibility in recognizing directors (Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford) whose works supply this series with, distinct sensibility.

Trouble is, none of this is all that distinct anymore. The canon-making auteur theory proposed by Godard and his New Wave compatriots is now so commonly accepted as fact in the pages of Entertainment Weekly and on American rep-house schedules alike that damn near any decent series of two dozen old movies could be considered to have been curated by Jean-Luc Godard--or Ted Turner. And the fact that "Curated" solely reflects the cineaste's aesthetic before 1966--when he wrote, "Cinema is capitalism in its purest form....There is only one solution, and that is to turn one's back on the American cinema"--doesn't help its topicality quotient, either.

So: Why attribute yet another double bill of Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not (screening Friday through Sunday, November 16 through 18) to the catholic tastes of a cinematic giant? Answer: because he's a cinematic giant, of course. "Curated by Jean-Luc Godard" naturally resonates more than would, say, "Curated by Pauline Kael," mainly for the fact that Godard's own critical filmmaking invites an additional round of investigation. Having just seen the new print of the auteur's Band of Outsiders at Oak Street (which runs for two more days, by the way), one could make detailed notes during the Hawks double bill on how Godard reimagined through the lens what he had identified in print as the American master's "love for [an] artificial grandeur connected to movements of the eyes, to a way of walking..."

As that quote suggests, Godard--both the critic and the filmmaker--was chiefly interested in style, and particularly in American style. When the super-cool gangster protagonist of his debut feature Breathless (1960) looks in the mirror, runs his thumb across his lower lip, and mutters, "Bogie," it's clearly the director doing the emulating as much as the character. But even in an early work that blushes with the narcissistic pleasure of obsessive cinephilia, Godard knew enough to look on the dark side. His Bogie fetishist's violent fate--at the hands of a fashionably fickle American woman, natch--highlights the dangers of all that slavish devotion to the Hollywood ideal.

At least in his Fifties reviews, Godard's youthful passion for American pop and the occasional European art film remained nearly unbridled--to a fault. "The cinema is Nicholas Ray," he wrote in 1958--although Ray's war movie Bitter Victory (November 19 at 7:30 and 9:20 p.m.) "is not cinema, it is more than cinema." At its most vague and unsubstantiated, Godard's outrageous hyperbole bespeaks the critic's apparent exhaustion from the task of finding--how should I say?--the bon mot. For Godard, Charlie Chaplin (whose Modern Times and three other features screen November 23 through 25) is "beyond praise because he is the greatest of them all. What else can one say?" Ingmar Bergman's Summer Interlude (November 7 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.)--one of three non-American films in the Oak Street series--is "the most beautiful of films" because "it just is." Whereas Bitter Victory--itself the "most beautiful" of films--"is what it is....What is the point of saying that...[it] is edited with fantastic brio?"

Good question. I suppose that for the critic, the point, at least in part, is to help encourage people to see the cinema that has been rendered with "fantastic brio"--the cinema that is "more than cinema." But for the curator or the filmmaker--which is how Godard would bring his own passion to fruition--the point is to show, not tell. Although the revolutionary films that Godard directed in the early Sixties (e.g., Vivre sa vie, Contempt, Pierrot le fou, Masculine-Feminine) are works of criticism as much as anything, they articulate themselves in all sorts of ways, verbal and otherwise, leaving the task of assessing and explaining--or not--to us. Perhaps the filmmaker's parting gift to film criticism was to create the sort of supremely challenging cinema that could inspire reviewers to rise to the level of artists. On the other hand, it may be more apt to say that Godard is both the greatest film critic and the greatest filmmaker who ever lived...because he just is.

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