Godard: the last moralist?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Jan 9 16:45:28 MST 2001

>From Wheeler Winston Dixon, "The Films of Jean-Luc Godard" (SUNY Press, 1997):

Although the mainstream cinema continues to proliferate, and blockbuster
films like The Rock (1996) and Twister (1996) capture huge theatrical
audiences, the cinema itself is going through a period of radical change at
the end of its first century, coexisting with CD-ROM interactive "movies,"
video cassette and laserdisc distribution, cable television, satellite
television, video games, and a host of competing sound/image constructs.
While such recent films as Virtuosity (1995) demonstrate the limitations of
interactive video systems rather than heralding a seemingly limitless
figurative horizon, the 1995 production of Mortal Kombat is a spin-off of a
wildly popular video game, and owes whatever temporal popularity it
achieved as an ancillary manifestation of its source material. The Wayne’s
World films are spin-off s from the television comedy showcase Saturday
Night Live; Super Mario Brothers (1995) is yet another non-interactive
version of an interactive original. Low-budget films such as The Brothers
McMullen (1995), Clerks (1994), Go Fish (1994) and other fringe enterprises
may momentarily capture the public’s fancy, but in every case, these
productions are now seen as stepping-stones to larger-scale Hollywood films
rather than individual achievements in and of themselves. The exponentially
rising cost of film production (not to mention distribution and publicity)
helps to ensure the hegemony of the dominant industrial vision in the
middle-American marketplace, and the super-conglomeration of existing
production, distribution and exhibition entities further assures the
primacy of the readily marketable, pre-sold film, as opposed to a more
quirky, individualistic vision.

Theatrical distribution, the mainstay of motion picture distribution for
more than a century, is obsolete. Target audiences are increasingly
younger, and these viewers perceive the experience of seeing a film
primarily as an escape from the mundanity of their prepackaged existences,
as witness the popularity of such lowest-common-denominator films as
Clueless (1995), Dumb and Dumber (1995), Forrest Gump (1994), Operation
Dumbo Drop (1995), and others too numerous to mention. European films are
no longer distributed in America; they are remade in Hollywood, in English,
with American stars—and then distributed overseas in this revisionist
format. The few foreign films that attain moderately wide release in the
United States are lavish costume spectacles.

As we approach the millennium, it is apparent that people today go to the
movies not to think, not to be challenged, but rather to be tranquilized
and coddled. Sequels are safe bets for exploitation, provided that the
original film performs well at the box office; it is for this reason alone
that nearly every mainstream film today is designed with an "open" ending,
all owing the film to be franchised if the parent of the series captures
the public’s fancy. Television has become a wilderness of talk shows and
infomercials, with time so precious that even the end credits of series
episodes are shown on a split-screen with teasers from the upcoming
program, to dissuade viewers from channel-surfing, which is nevertheless

Psychic hot lines offer spurious counsel at $3.99 a minute, shopping
channels commodify the images we see into discrete, marketable units, "no
money down" real estate brokers hope to dazzle us with their varying
formulae for success. The cable movie channels run only current fare, or
thoroughly canonical classics, avoiding subtitling and black and white
imagery (with rare exceptions) at all costs. Revival houses screen films in
only a few major cities, particularly Paris and New York. And indeed, it
seems very much as if the first century of cinema will now be left to the
ministrations of museum curators and home video/laserdlisc collectors,
rather than remaining a part of our shared collective cultural heritage.

With films so banal, is it any wonder that more adventurous
viewers/auditors are turning to the internet, e-mail, the nascent world of
cyberspace, in search of not only a cheap medium of expression, but also
human contact? For this last is what the cinema inherently denies US;
sealed in a can, projected on a screen, we watch it, and it surveills us,
but the connection between viewer and viewed is gossamer thin. CD-ROM and
cartridge games offer a more concrete, though still synthetic connection to
the spectacle witnessed by the viewer/participant—an illusion, in fact, of
control and interactivity.

The limits of this insular spectacle are striking, and the technology at
present is clumsy and expensive. But the experiential horizon is there, and
the strip of film that runs through a conventional 35mm projector is an
archaic aide de mémoire of an era of puppet shows and magic lanterns. To
satisfy us, the spectacle must engulf us, threaten us, sweep us up from the
first. The "plots" of most interactive games are primarily simple—kill or
be killed. These games achieve (at home and in the arcade) a wide currency
among viewers bored by the lack of verisimilitude offered by the
conventional cinema. And because of this lack, the cinema, to put it
bluntly, is dying.

Would the career of a cinéaste like Jean-Luc Godard have been possible in
our present marketplace of imagistic constructs? Denied theatrical release,
relegated to the "Hot Singles" section of Blockbuster, how could any of
Godard’s cheap and transcendent early films ever have achieved a global
audience? The exigencies of 1960s theatrical film distribution constituted
a series of paradoxically liberating strictures; for a film to make a
profit at all, it had to appear in a theater. Other markets, with the
exception of television (which ran only older films) did not exist. Thus
distributors were forced to seek the widest possible theatrical release
pattern for even the most marginal of films, and it is this way that
Jean-Luc Godard achieved and consolidated his initial reputation in the
late l950s and early 1960s. Such a project would be impossible today.
Godard’s budgets of the early period of his career—an average of $100,000
for a 35mm B/W feature film—are also astonishing today.

Yet what is most remarkable about Jean-Luc Godard’s career in the cinema
may be the fact that he has gone on making "small, personal" films, films
created entirely to suit himself and his collaborators, when the rest of
the industry is desperately scrambling to please the widest possible
audience. Godard did away with narrative after his first dozen films; now
his films and videos are visual/aural essays, meditations, created in a
world removed from ordinary commerce. Yet Godard still finds backers for
his films, even when the results don’t always please his sponsors, and
seems more dedicated to his lonely, individual vision at the age of
sixty-five than he was in his twenties. Jean-Luc Godard may joke in his
videos and films from time to time, but he is not an entertainer. Godard is
a moralist—perhaps the last moralist that the medium of cinema will ever

Louis Proyect
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