Beating the Master: Film as Responsive Criticism

Jean-Luc Godard has never lacked for opinions. It is, of course, his criticism in Cahiers du Cinema that brought him fame and eventual funding for his directorial debut, Breathless (1960). Breathless, however, is not the film to be discussed herein – Breathless is of Godard’s earliest work and is most directly allied with the work of perhaps his most revered directors, Alfred Hitchcock.  When reading Godard’s earliest writing on film and Hitchcock it is clear that he feels defensive. The Cahiers writings of Godard are, as a whole, drenched in the kind of lavishly over complex language of one intent on validation. Even films that Godard clearly does not especially like are lent several overblown adjectives. Films are inevitably “interchangeable entities in a fourth dimension” possessing any one (or two or three or half-dozen) adjectivized authors of historical significance. It is in his Hitchcock pieces however that Godard really goes all out – Hitchcock’s Strangers On a Train (1951) is both Dostoievskian andindicative of the modern condition of man” – Godard finds more cause for discussion in his reviews of Hitchcock films than in many of the seemingly more thought-provoking directors that litter the pages of Cahiers like so many avant-garde bohemians. However, Godard seems to dismiss the young, radical artists and dreamers of French and German cinema for the languid and balding Anglo-American Master of Suspense.

Why then? Why does Godard gives devote so much effort to a director with whom he would seem to share little idealistic territory with? The answer lies not simply in the criticism that Godard so lavishly furnished the pages of Cahiers with but it is the resulting films that he made with Hitchcock always in mind that truly demonstrate the lengths to which he comments on and evokes so strongly the Hitchcock brilliance while creating films that quite deliberately run perpendicular to those of his Hollywood-by-way-of-England Muse.

Alfred Hitchcock created a film to entertain. He drew from the most talented actors and skilled technicians, to say that Hitchcock ran a tight ship would do the man a true discredit – Hitchcock produced movies with near-mechanical proficiency.

Alfred Hitchcock’s two most widely revered and positively reviewed films are, in retrospect, Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959). Both are intensely suspenseful narrative films with well defined characters and a script written by Hollywood’s finest. Setting aside the brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock there remains a remarkably modern structure about both films – big stars and smart dialogue, the same kind of brilliance that we see in the blockbuster of today’s modern cinema. Godard does not object to the use of stars – but he does seem to dismiss them as simply a part of funding. Jean-Paul Belmondo was only acquired for Pierrot le fou (1965) as a way to guarantee some form of financial success for the backers who were investing more than ever in a director not known for pecuniary considerations. Godard looks toward Hitchcock in this matter and again recognizes and criticizes his use of stars while continually improving on it.

The nature of Godard’s brilliance is not simply that he appreciated – it is any proficiently literate cinemagoer that is able to appreciate a Hitchcock thriller – Godard is able to criticize. Godard sees in Hitchcock his own potential genius. The two men may be exemplified for the point of discussion by their own evaluations of what they attempt to do in the movies. Jean-Luc Godard, when discussing 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her mentions that “I wanted to include everything: sports, politics, even groceries. Everything should be put in a film,” perhaps what is most remarkable about this particular bit of Godard wisdom is that he actually seemed to believe in it himself. Hitchcock quips that “A good film is when the price of dinner, the theatre admission and the babysitter were worth it,” and one can only wish to imagine how Godard would have reacted upon first hearing it. It is quite clear that Godard, while enormously appreciative of Hitchcock’s work saw some great failings in the work of the Master of Suspense.

Godard was born a critic and did not stop publishing criticism even as his own career grew – it was second nature for the man to observe what he did and did not like in a film. To understand what Godard saw lacking in Hitchcock as being made according “to a structure that has had its time.” Godard was not one to dwell incessantly on the past and we know this not because of his oftentimes contradictory and purposefully vague explanations on the influence of the past on his modern film but by observing his own rapidly changing style of film. The Godard of Breathless and A Woman is a Woman (1961) is divided from that Godard that would later direct 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) and Week End (1967). These later two are very different films that both contradict and criticize the work of older directors, especially Hitchcock.

With 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her Godard creates a film in direct contradiction of Hitchcock’s observation that a good film involves extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. 2 or 3 Things presents the daily life of Juliette while Hitchcock presents the highly extraordinary lives of his “mistaken man” characters as seen in The Wrong Man (1956) and North by Northwest. In this way Godard reclaims a connection to the character and emotion. Juliette is not even truly a character from film – Godard’s inspiration for 2 or 3 Things is a quite real letter sent in from a woman in the very same situation that Juliette is written into. In Godard’s film-world the prostitute is that most ordinary and everyday item. In the final scene of 2 or 3 Things, as the shot fades from Juliette it focuses on perhaps the most memorable image of the film and certainly among Godard’s great images – that of household products (chiefly one reading ‘Hollywood’) are laid out on a lawn as if they are a city in miniature. Godard takes Hitchcock’s ordinary-man-in-extraordinary-situation and reverses it confronting the audience with a glorified individual splayed out against the normal lives of women across France.

While 2 or 3 Things happens to criticize a slightly ambiguous narrative aspect of Hitchcock’s while the second of Godard’s more experimental films to be discussed here is almost purely political in nature. Week End attempts to place a political lean on everything in a way that is so totally foreign to the work of such idolized directors as Hitchcock and Ray that it almost becomes impossible to compare the two. Where Hitchcock’s films attempt to entertain the audience Week End seems out to antagonize them. With Week End Godard confronts an argument about film as pure entertainment – an although he is certainly not the first to make a political film he is certainly remarkable for diverging from prior work and previous influence. Week End is responsive to just about any issue – it tackles worker and human rights, corruption and infidelity, capitalism, imperialism – Week End spares nothing and no one from criticism. Is it really so odd to think that Godard may have turned toward his most close-held influences as material for criticism? Perhaps the warped mirror of refracted influence is the only one into which Godard can stare for long enough to effect real change in his film?

-Ryan Blaydes

One thought on “Beating the Master: Film as Responsive Criticism

  1. Pingback: 1946 – 1970 metų kino kalbos kaita ( Italų neorealizmas, Prancūzų Naujoji banga ) | Kino istorija (-os)

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