Rest in peace to the filmmaker who taught us how to see (and how to hear), who opened our eyes with his ferocious reconstruction of film form and with the emotional intensity of his images. Jean-Luc Godard’s cinema remains, above all, an attempt to restructure perception. His deeply sensual films seek to retrain our eyes and ears, taking nothing for granted, as if we are learning how to read an image for the very first time. In this regard, his cinema is one of enormous generosity and sensitivity in its respect for the viewer.
Godard, one of the greatest of all filmmakers, passed away on the morning of September 13, 2022. As tributes, memorials, and other words begin to trickle out in honor of this giant’s passing, one thing has become clear: the breadth of Godard’s achievement is extremely difficult to articulate and to eulogize. For one thing, Godard has always stubbornly resisted this kind of canonization: he never became static, never stopped working (according to Nicole Brenez, he created new moving image works every single day), never made polite speeches, never mummified his own past achievements. This isn’t to say that he did not think about or engage with his early, beloved films of the 1960s; Godard was incessantly quoting and re-quoting himself in his own texts and films, especially in the late video work Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989-1998), his mammoth five-hour series about the history of cinema in relation to the history of the 20th century (and vice versa). But when Godard did quote his own films and those made by others, this became a form of recontextualization and (self-)criticism, a way of situating the entire history of moving images within a historical and emotional continuum. Godard not only reshaped film form in his own image (as much as Joyce or Mingus did in their respective arts), he also allowed his own images to acquire new meanings. In this regard, he’s a great artist of time and the passing of history in relation to the self.
Another reason that one comes up a bit short in trying to memorialize Godard is that, quite simply, the body of work he leaves behind is one of enormous density and intensity. Though Godard is seen as perhaps the defining figure of film modernism, he was also a deeply Romantic figure — he loved Mary Shelley — in his emphasis on perception and emotional states. In his late masterpiece Nouvelle Vague (1990), Godard created a film wherein every line of dialogue could be traced back to another literary or historical source, so that the characters would recite lines from Faulkner or Bernanos to one another throughout the piece. But rather than arriving at some obscure guessing game for the viewer, Godard’s great achievement here was rather one of a mysterious, formal liberation, conjuring up (as David Sterritt puts it) “a world-without-names through a cinema-before-language.” Similarly, in the layered image collages and color blow-out effects of his late digital works, Godard invents totally new forms of composition, resembling Stan Brakhage’s quest to restore the sensory visions of infancy and childhood.
No one will ever have the final word on Godard, nor will we ever be finished thinking about or discussing his work. In part, this is because he left behind so many films, many of them shorts and image-fragments, and in this regard there is likely an abundance of JLG images that we still haven’t even seen. But it’s also because Godard himself, through the example of his art, negated the very idea of completion, an idea that’s of course primarily tied more closely to commerce than to art. In a very real way, Godard allowed the entire history of the 20th century to flow through his work, displaying a level of formal and conceptual audacity that remains unsurpassed. The cinema, and those who still care about it, have been indelibly and eternally marked by the work he leaves behind.
In 2013, IU Cinema invited the New Yorker film critic Richard Brody to present a selection of Godard’s films at the Cinema, which included rarely screened titles like King Lear (1987). Other Godard films shown at the Cinema include La Chinoise (1967) and Adieu au langage (2014).
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.