Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, by Richard Brody. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008. Hardcover $40.00. 720pp. ISBN: 0-805-06886-4.
It is 634 pages long, with nearly 100 more pages of footnotes and index. Its publication was postponed several times as it grew in length. It is the longest book on its subject by at least 200 pages. It has been touted as the definitive biography of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, examining every film, interviewing every collaborator, even scoring time with the irritable subject himself. It boasts adulations from Wes Anderson, Peter Biskind, Jonathan Lethem, and Bernard Henri-Levy. Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard has all the qualities a great, definitive book on Godard should have, and yet it falls short because it insists on imposing an unsatisfying, incomplete, myopic definition onto its subject.
Brody’s task is a monumental one, no question. Godard has made nearly one film a year since 1958 — two or more per year during his most fruitful periods. As a body of work, it is both eclectic and representative of the auteur who made it. Brody has to cover periods of immense activity, frustrating delays, self-imposed exile, esoteric soul-searching, and creative resurrection — and that’s only to get the reader to 1980! Such an undertaking needs a unifying principle beyond the subject himself, a thesis or theme to weave and render intelligible all the seemingly unrelated strands into the massive tapestry that is Godard.
Brody succeeds in finding a Unified Theory of Everything Godard, and his thesis is the very problem with Everything Is Cinema. It is not synthesis but overdetermination. Rather than risk in cohesion by dealing with each film according to its particular merits and unique analytical needs, Brody subjects nearly all of Godard’s films to the same interpretation. While this approach is not without its strengths, it is hardly sufficient to capture the breadth and quality of Godard’s work with any sort of integrity or nuance. And if there’s one thing that disparate films like A Woman Is a Woman, Tout Va Bien, Comment Ca Va, Detective, and In Praise of Love (it is still hard to believe one person could make all of these films) need more than synthesis, it’s a nuanced, clear-eyed reading.
Brody’s thesis is this: Each and every one of Godard’s films is entirely autobiographical in conception and intent; cinema is Godard’s diary, his way of working through the issues in his life, a life that oftentimes only exists to provide him with material for another film. As Brody states it, “the cinema has always been inseparable from [Godard’s] personal experience — and his own identity has been inseparable from the cinema.” While this statement has some validity, Brody relies on it too heavily, as though he wants to avoid the difficulty of letting Godard be Godard. In writing about an artist whose entire career revolves around breaking free of form, Brody lets his own fear of formlessness get the best of him, and he dilutes Godard’s art in the process. Brody gets this theory out early and often, claiming that Breathless was not “revelatory of the fictional characters [but] being principally revelatory of Godard himself. . . . The viewer’s crucial and primary emotional identification is not with any filmed character but with Godard. . . . this first-person cinema invoked not the director’s experience but his presence. . . . all appear[ing] as part of the same formula: parasitism” (71).
After such a statement, a backhanded compliment to one of the director’s most effervescent pictures, the reader wonders what kept Brody interested enough in Godard to write another 600 pages about him.
But that’s only the beginning. After Breathless, there comes Anna Karina, which is where Brody’s thesis not only hits its stride but gets stridently limited in its outlook. Once Godard takes up with Karina, Brody seems to read Godard’s identity (real and cinematic) only in terms of his relationships with women, which drags Everything Is Cinema into the most clichéd biographical territory of all, a treatment that a reader would think that Godard’s work had immunized him from. But Brody does not allow Godard the freedom he’s spent his career fighting for. Everything is autobiography for Brody, and if Godard ever does something that isn’t autobiography, it must have been stolen from someone else.
It’s very easy to see how Godard’s early films contain large elements of autobiography. Films like A Woman Is a Woman, Vivre Sa Vie, Contempt, and Pierrot Le Fou would be nothing if they were not largely concerned with Godard’s relationship with Anna Karina (right, in Vivre Sa Vie), a legendary screen presence as synonymous with the Nouvelle Vague as Godard himself. These films deal with love and jealousy. But they also deal with so much more, though Brody does little to assist the reader in seeing the films in any context apart from the Godard/Karina relationship. At the end of the day, for Brody, Vivre Sa Vie “issue[s] a warning to Karina” not to be unfaithful to Godard, ushering in what Brody considers to be a string of films that contain “an implication of the harsh condemnation of sin, and of one particular sin. Under his praise of freedom is an ode to self-restraint” (139). Godard’s grappling with language, existentialism, and the conflict between cinema and reality barely merit a mention, which is a shame, because Godard masterfully connects these philosophical threads to the Karina story while also allowing them to form enlightening statements which are hardly subservient to his autobiography. Godard has referred to his films as “thinking out loud,” and Vivre Sa Vie may be the first example in his work in which he truly attempts to capture “truth twenty four times a second.” Brody, however, sees Godard’s developing interest in different philosophical ideas as little more than a “parasitic” regurgitation of whatever Godard was reading at the time. In other words, Godard’s ideas are not his own unless he’s talking about his sex life.
Brody’s reading is not without its merits. His analysis of Pierrot Le Fou andMasculin-Feminin rank among the greatest, most accessible readings of these two key films in Godard’s work. They work so well because these two films, Pierrotespecially, best fit Brody’s overall thesis. More importantly, however, Brody writes about these films with a passion and clarity that make them come alive for the viewer emotionally, providing a powerful entry point to the films: Pierrot Le Fou is “an angry accusation against Anna Karina and a self-pitying keen to bewail how she had destroyed him” (244). Here Brody crafts a statement as harrowing, tragic, and engaging as the film itself. If anything, Brody could be guilty of letting this one film excessively inform his reading of Godard’s body of work.
His reading of Masculin-Femininex emplifies the best kind of criticism, making the reader see the film in a new way: “one of Godard’s most impressive achievements [in the film] is his translation of public and grand-scale politics into personal and intimate dramatic terms” (265). He is also thankfully thorough on Une Femme Mariee, a film often overlooked in Godard’s 1960s output. Rather than gloss over it as a minor, insignificant work, as he is comfortable to do with Les Carabiniers and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (above), Brody gives this film as full a treatment as he gives to Godard’s most popular work: “his most aggressively philosophical film to date, one which unambiguously reflected a generational shift in intellectual matters and proclaimed his engagement with the most advanced thinking of the day . . . as much a melding of two conflicting philosophical arguments [existentialism and structuralism] as it is a synthesis of two forms of expression dear to Godard — sentimental narrative and speculative essay” (190).
Brody’s contribution here is likely to influence the future of scholarship on this film and rescue it from the label of Minor Work, which, when you’re talking about a filmmaker as prolific as Godard, usually means it will be seen by die-hards only (and then probably only once). So Brody’s work here represents a significant achievement in altering the discourse on Godard’s early work.
There are times, however, when this thesis clearly will not hold water, the most obvious example being Godard’s much-derided and little understood Marxist/Maoist period in which he formed a filmmaking collective called the Dziga-Vertov group, whose stated purpose was “to make political films politically.” These are some of the hardest films of Godard’s to watch (both in terms of content and availability). It’s the point where nearly every cineaste who claims to like him parts ways with Godard, despite the fact that the director went on to make films for almost forty more years.
In an attempt to say something positive about the period, Brody claims that “the effort that went into the making of those films . . . can be understood as a set of counterscripts, of alternate scenarios for films that he did not make, that no one made — and this experience is of greater artistic importance than the films that derived from [the Dziga-Vertov period]” (319). In other words, anything, even no film at all, is a greater artistic contribution to cinema (and to Godard’s development) than the Dziga-Vertov films.
These films appear to be a major break in Godard’s career, though if one follows Godard’s cinematic autobiography as closely as Brody claims to, it would be quite clear that Godard was headed down this road for years. One could easily argue, as Brody seems to at times, that 1965’s Pierrot Le Fou is both the end of his relationship with Karina and the beginning of his search for a new cinematic (revolutionary) vocabulary. All the anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist concerns are amply present in Pierrot Le Fou, and Godard seems to equate his disillusionment with Karina to his disillusionment with cinema.
In his two subsequent films, Made in USA and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Godard seems to be looking past Karina in search of a new mode of expression; both films end with a stated desire to return to zero. 2 or 3 Things concerns itself with the ability to communicate meaningfully in a world in which capitalism has hijacked all our forms of communication. Brody would be aware of this — and its importance to what follows in Godard’s career — if he spent more than seven pages talking about this film. When he does analyze 2 or 3 Things, which he calls a “virtual cinematic zero,” it is only to claim that the film is Godard’s way of looking for a new girlfriend in actress Marina Vlady. Of the relative unimportance of Vlady’s character Juliette in the film, Brody claims “it was not Juliette but Vlady whom he saw as already essentially dead — her rejection of him being proof, for him, of her inner inertness” (290). To reduce the reading (and entire purpose) of a film like 2 or 3 Things to little more than an excessive (and expensive) form of courtship is to ignore the film entirely, which Brody appears quite comfortable to do because little of what’s in the film supports his thesis.
By the end of Godard’s next film Weekend, which concludes with the title cards “End of Story. End of Cinema,” it is apparent that Godard has found his new revolutionary cinema and only one option remains for him: total commitment to a new cinematic form. However, Brody claims that Godard did not form the Dziga-Vertov collective willingly but rather was intellectually co-opted by Jean-Pierre Gorin, whom Brody treats with an unnecessary level of disdain. Brody sees Gorin as a Yoko Ono of sorts, dragging Godard off course for selfish, self-promotional reasons, forcing the director to practice politics when he should be filming his autobiography. It seems that Brody cannot admit Godard’s fallibility or inconsistency, and this reluctance compels him to jump through some illogical hoops as he tries to exonerate the auteur.
For instance, Brody claims that during the editing of Wind from the East, “Gorin reoriented the film — and, in the process — reoriented Godard,” turning them both from “fiction to manifesto” (348-9). And in the midst of bashing Gorin for the unwatchable quality of this film, he manages to state that “Godard’s work in the editing room with Gorin was his first step toward a great and distant goal of new cinematic composition — which would take him a decade of work to realize” (349). This is an example of how Brody both faults Godard for the misguided, purposeless nature of the Dziga-Vertov period and simultaneously not only absolves him of any culpability but also credits him for how these films developed him as a filmmaker. Here he seems to assert that Gorin’s editing work on Wind from the East corrupted not only the film but Godard’s artistic soul, while also claiming that this same editing work is integral to Godard’s artistic breakthrough in the 1980s. Both can only be true when one selectively criticizes the films in a way that makes all their shortcomings the fault of Gorin and any future success the contribution of Godard, even when events indicate otherwise.
It’s quite ironic that Brody can champion the intellect of Godard when it suits his thesis, but the minute Godard’s films do not live up to Brody’s reading, it is not because his thesis is not universal but rather because someone else distracted Godard from his true project, proving Brody’s thesis. In other words, if Godard made a work about anything other than Brody’s narrow reading of Godard’s autobiography (principally his love life), it is because someone else brainwashed him. To make such a claim (albeit implicitly) about perhaps the most independent major filmmaker is shortsighted and ultimately disrespectful to the autonomy of the artist himself.
Brody’s treatment of Godard’s later 1970s work, while brief, is much more accessible than the bulk of the writing on this period, which is usually only found in academic journals or in the work of Colin MacCabe and Laura Mulvey. Brody, however, does an admirable job of showing how this period, which he calls “Restoration,” serves as the link between the Godard of the 1960s and the Godard of the 1980s, in which the director practiced making “images in a daily notebook-like process . . . integrat[ing] behind-the-camera social relationships even more openly into the film’s substance” (374). With a filmmaker whose ever-changing interests stand to confuse viewers seeking an auteur stamp, Brody provides the necessary context that his discussion of the Dziga-Vertov period lacks.
After his discussion of Every Man for Himself, however, Brody seems to lose steam and rushes to end the book. This is tempting because Godard’s post-1980 work, particularly his 1990s output, is little seen in America, due to both its difficulty and its unavailability. It’s even more tempting for Brody because Godard more or less settles down romantically with Anne-Marie Mielville, rendering his default reading of Godard’s work inaccurate. Where Brody could increase demand for this period of Godard’s work the way he does with Une Femme Mariee (which is also very hard to find in the States), he instead gives it a cursory treatment that is again limited by a myopic reading. During this period Brody focuses on Godard’s complicated interest in the Holocaust, a fascinating subject that (one suspects) deeply informs his work. But Brody does little to synthesize Godard’s stance(s) on the issue or explicate its ultimate significance. Rather than try to contextualize, and thus clarify, the information he’s presenting to the reader, Brody offers straight reporting with little commentary. This is unfortunate, not only because there is so little mainstream writing that could educate viewers on the themes of Godard’s later work, but also because those who have seen this work, particularly his series Histoires de Cinema (above), believe that it will prove to be Godard’s most important contribution to cinema. Just what is Godard saying with these late films, and how is this vision different (and more meaningful) from his more accessible work? The reader, denied access to the films themselves, can only look to Brody for an answer to this question, but Brody’s answer is not thorough enough, leaving the reader to wonder if he declines to provide a satisfying answer to this question simply because his romantic/autobiographical reading is not readily apparent.
For all of the things there are to admire about Brody’s book, it does not ultimately bring significant new, lasting insight to the discussion about Godard. Every bold stroke of criticism is matched by pages of gossip and overly reductive analysis, which makes this book’s status as the definitive Godard biography frustrating. If there is one thing to learn from this attempt to pin down this complex director creatively, it is that Godard perhaps cannot be pinned down, for his mind, like cinema itself, is constantly evolving. Each new Godard film represents a revision or synthesis of his vision of cinema as an aesthetic, philosophical, political, and poetic tool and our relationship to it. If one were to truly accept Brody’s vision of Godard, it would seem that Godard has more or less been doing and saying the same thing since 1960, and such a broken record, no matter how great the song, could hardly be considered the most important filmmaker since D. W. Griffith, as Brody claims. Everything may be cinema for Godard, but that doesn’t imply that all his cinema is the same.