Jean-Luc Godard was the conscience of cinema

With the departure of Jean-Luc Godard, the history of cinema, in many senses, comes to an end. For him, both history and cinema were central — the two poles between which his life, thought and works oscillated. He was a filmmaker who saw, felt and thought his way through cinema, to experience and understand the world. For him, cinema was the image-history of the world, and so, in one way or another, all his films were about cinema itself. Politics was central to it. So was the idea of revolt, resistance and rebellion. In all his works, one can see a young, restless, irreverent rebel at work, thinking in and through images, to not only make sense of the world, but also to shape it as a form of memory and a mode of action. An obsessive and urgent desire to engage with the world — to image, imagine, incite and transform — pulsate through his films.

From celluloid to video and digital, his journey was long and eventful. Throughout his career, he was prolific and in the thick of both radical politics and revolutionary aesthetics. Though he seldom travelled, his films constantly and obsessively journeyed across the world, incisively critiquing the imperialist/colonial legacies of the West and holding hands with voices and images that revolted against it. Even when most of the filmmakers of his generation moved positions and “settled” into predictable formats and themes, Godard continued to experiment with cinematic form and also persisted with the deeply political questions about power and image, aesthetics and politics that he started with.

For Godard, cinema was a sort of encyclopaedia of the world or a laboratory of life, where everything converged, came into conflict, and took a definite political shape. So, he freely drew from all forms of intellectual and aesthetic resources — from literature, philosophy, painting, news and archival footage. The inveterate Eisensteinian in him pieced them all together to make cinema speak to history, and vice versa. For him, cinema itself was raw material and medium to make films.

There has never been a filmmaker who was so obsessively self-reflexive, both about himself and his medium. This is how Jacques Ranciere describes his 266-minute long Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988) that uses images and clips from hundreds of films to make cinema reclaim and reassert its historicity: “Godard takes the films these filmmakers made and makes with them the films they didn’t make…(through) a set of operations that singularly complicate our notions of image and history, operations that ultimately invert the thesis that cinema betrayed itself and its century and demonstrate, instead, the radical innocence of the art of moving images.” It was this deeply radical task of engaging with cinema’s tryst with history that engaged Godard’s film philosophy and made him a true film historian of cinema. For Godard, image was truth and the mission of cinema was to testify to its presence and the present.

In a long and productive career, we see Godard initially as the incisive film critic of Cahiers du Cinema, then turning into the iconoclast filmmaker of the New Wave generation, as a Maoist in the Dziga Vertov group, and in the last decades, as one of the most self-reflexive chroniclers of cinema and his times. No other filmmaker in the world has reinvented himself aesthetically and relentlessly followed radical politics with passion. Hence, he was always considered a “filmmakers’ filmmaker”.

This is how Serge Dany, one of the finest film critics of the last century, describes him (‘The Godard Paradox’): “He is not just a great filmmaker… he excels at being the filmmaker who expects everything from cinema, including ‘that cinema should free him from cinema’… He foils our calculations and disappoints those who worship him too readily; Godard has always kept moving, in every sense of the word, within a film-world that is still big enough to allow you to move about and to show your restless energy. He is a philosopher, a scientist, a preacher, an educator, a journalist, but all this as an amateur; he is the last (to date) to have been the (coherent) witness and the (moral) conscience of what’s afoot in cinema.” Godard was the conscience of cinema and its consciousness.

Finally, when one looks at Godard from India, how does he figure in our understanding of the world, experiencing of film aesthetics, and the understanding of radical cinema? A European to the core, the only Asian image that appears in his epic history of cinema is from an Ozu film. But the questions he raises with regard to the medium of cinema, its aesthetics and politics are universal. For instance, while chiding Indian new wave attempts, Satyajit Ray looks up at Godard as an unconventional, innovative and unorthodox filmmaker who is “the first director in the history of the cinema to have totally dispensed with what is known as the plot line. Indeed, it would be right to say that Godard has devised a totally new genre for the cinema… It is a collage of story, tract, newsreel, reportage, quotations, allusions, commercial short, and straight TV interview — all related to a character or a set of characters firmly placed in a precise contemporary milieu. A cinema of the head and not of the heart, and therefore, a cinema of the minority”. Ray also says that with Godard “the reversal of convention is not a gimmick or an affectation, but a positive and meaningful extension of the film language” that “demands craftsmanship of the highest order, let alone various other equipment on an intellectual plane.”

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Godard, whose commitment to the truth of the image was total and who considered filmmaking a testimony of history, has a lot of urgent and crucial lessons to offer in an age of digital excess and distraction. Seekers of image-truth and truth-image will continue to return to his works, both to comprehend the first century of cinema as a witness to history and to seek ways and means to image the next.

The writer is a film critic and documentary filmmaker

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