It must be a whole different experience to be French when watching Godard, because of the need for subtitles; he really takes advantage of the disconnect between words as expression and symbols. His movies are half-book to begin with, sauced up in quotes and abstracted alphabet. He uses the English subtitles to teach us French through repitition, running certain mythic ideas over and over, wanting us to mull on them. And we should, because when we do the following scenes create a nice sense of disaffect. We keep waiting for a narrative to begin, Godard outpaces our attention span, then brings us back to the “one” again. The words go one way, the action another, and the subtitles remind us of the difference.
The young regularly chase the old in Godard’s 1980s, early 1990s films, reflecting his newfound sense of middle-age wisdom; he’s amazed people want to learn from him, and he loves to be chased. Godard wants the youth of Paris to be mad as hell and ready to fight for causes, but he no longer believes in the causes themselves, or in causes at all, except in that fighting for them is “good for the youth” of which he is no longer part. But he’s glad they associate him with causes, because his cold old bones are warmed by their political fire; but that’s all, as soon as they leave his side to chase the next rainbow, he’s back to smoking and reading the script. This is the adult Godard; he’s switched from angry to fond of anger; emotion of any strength can be fire in which to forge liberation of the self; one can’t free a society that is nothing but shackles by definition. Always it’s back to the one, not creating as Lacan said, “new masters,” via championing some explicitly rendered social cause. For Godard, all actions and points fade fast in the lapping waves, a new idea is already coming into focus as the next one is cast off; hold onto the last wave too long and you wind up bedraggled on the shore of dour daddy dogma.
Instead Godard is in full meditation on the transience of the human experience against the vastness of history and of art, particularly of writings by Marx, Nietszche or variants: “False statements are dead weights we carry for years.” The mis en scene of Oh Woe is Me is a torrid soap opera for adults, a lot of standing around in fields and following each other, but the text is philosophy 666: people quote books and then their partner answers them in the dramatic manner of as if they were fighting, It’s unbelievably hilarious, especially if you’re the only one laughing in a room full of bored hipsters. in the U.S. we tend to think of being “weird and free” as putting on a false nose and gobbling at the moon. To us, Godard is art and therefore not to be laughed with, at or otherwise, unless the joke is bawdy and broad. Only a few directors in the deadpan tradition exist: Carpenter, Godard, Lynch. Godard I would say is the most diabolical. Lynch is the most transcendental, Carpenter the most satirical and the most deadpan as well: I’m still waiting for people to share my love for the hilarity that is Ghosts of Mars.
One of the trenchant questions asked in Oh Woe is Me: “Did you know that the communist manifesto was published the same year as Alice in Wonderland.” This time he’s much more on the Alice side than Marx’s, or rather he’s seen that there is no difference. This three disc set should be considered essential buying for anyone who professes to love Godard based on Breathless and/or Contempt. The four films in the set show that if Godard indeed had lost his sense of humor in his post-1968 communist fetish era, he got it back, with a vengeance. There’s so many great Godard films still not on DVD. My Argentine ex-wife was all hammering at me about how great Nouvelle Vague (1990), I couldn’t find any mention of it for a long time and tried to convince her it didn’t even exist. But it’s out there, along with MADE IN U.S.A and so many great others…. the question is, will Lionsgate emerge as the great new force in classic foreign DVD releasing with these awesome directors set? I must say I’m pretty pleased to be able to get four great Godard films for the price of 1 Criterion.
And speak of the devil, will Criterion ever stop re-releasing stuff that’s been out on cheaper labels for decades, like Bottle Rocket and the Spy Who Came in from the Cold, or blu-raying their old catalogue, long enough to try and put this stuff out before Koch Lorber snatches them up and does their usual half-assed jobs, or worse, no one does anything at all? Pardon me, pardon my anger. I suppose it would be no use to stage a guerilla protest at the Criterion offices? In the name of Marxes Karl, Groucho et Hilliard! as Filmbo’s Chick Magnet points out, we certainly couldn’t do any worse than NYU.