Remembering a titan Godard, or why the personal is political

Remembering a titan Godard, or why the personal is political

The parallel arthouse cinema movement that emerged in the late 50s shunned the excesses of traditional, studio-centric filmmaking conventions and relied on the spirit of experimentation and auteur-driven iconoclasm.

CHENNAI: Last week, cinephiles around the world mourned the passing of Jean Luc Goddard, a French-Swiss filmmaker who is regarded internationally as one of the doyens of the French New Wave. The parallel arthouse cinema movement that emerged in the late 50s shunned the excesses of traditional, studio-centric filmmaking conventions and relied on the spirit of experimentation and auteur-driven iconoclasm. And nowhere was that signature more visible than in the works of Godard, who turned the grammar of filmmaking on its head, and invented an all new vocabulary for motion pictures, whose influences is seen in the works of directors even six decades later.

His debut feature from 1960, A bout de soufflé (Breathless) was the proverbial equivalent of a splash of cold water on a sultry summer day, as the film upended narrative structures in a way that was never seen before. Employing elliptical jump cuts, minimalism, and a free form jazz-like storytelling aesthetic that was punctuated by improvisations and moments of sublime beauty and extended silences, Breathless knocked the winds off anyone who had witnessed it in the 60’s or any era since then. The departure of Godard is all the more painful, when one considers that he was literally the last of the true auteurs of the medium, individuals whose body of work has gone on to inform everything that passes for modern cinema.

In 2016, a screenwriting workshop helmed by Kamal Haasan in Chennai was headlined by Jean Claude Carriere, the screenwriter of Godard’s Every Man for Himself. During those sessions, Haasan and Carriere extensively spoke about how vital Godard’s legacy has been in evolving cinema as we know it today.

The contemporaries of Godard include the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle and India’s very own Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, who of course, worked in diametrically different social milieus, but whose works were underpinned by a political subtext, not unlike that of Godard’s. In his condolence note for Godard who has had a lasting influence on the new wave of Malayalam cinema of the 60s and 70s, the Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan spoke about how Godard had been instrumental in presenting Left progressive ideas through the cinematic medium. Vijayan had also highlighted how Godard had raised his voice against the Vietnam War as well as the attacks on Palestine.

In fact, while lending his support to the May 1968 student protests in Paris, aimed at a large-scale reorganisation of society, Godard was instrumental in the cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival that year, an initiative in which he was aided by fellow directors Truffaut, Malle, Alain Resnais and Claude Lelouch, who called out other members of the film fraternity for not standing by the protesting students and workers of France. There are other aspects of Godard that made his passing a colossal loss, not just for ardent cinemagoers, but even for the journalistic community. A little bit of digging around will tell you that Godard began his cinematic career as a film critic, writing for the prestigious French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema (Notebooks on Cinema) founded way back in 1951. Apart from being a hyper-vocal advocate of bending or breaking the rules of film, Godard also regarded his cinematic career as an extension of his film criticism and vice-versa, essentially blurring the boundaries between creator and critic.

Today, when audiences revisit arthouse features like Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox or even Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, they might be remiss in their duties if they fail to acknowledge the beats that drummed up the cinematic lexicon we take for granted. And audiences are poorer by that measure, now that Godard is gone.

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