This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: May 29, 2008 - The title of Richard Brody's new book, "Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard" (Metropolitan Books, 702 pages, $40), comes from one of those aphorisms about life and art that flow so easily from its subject, a man who once listed his name in a film's titles as Jean-Luc Cinema Godard. To use a more famous quote, Godard's belief that "Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times a second" has guided his work for the last 50 years, a prodigious output currently standing at more than 75 films and videos of every shape, size and form.
Many commentators on Godard tend to divide his career into various periods, a tactic that sometimes seems counter-productive given the sheer volume of his work. There are the genre-bending New Wave films of the early '60s, the Anna Karina period, the widescreen color epics of the mid-'60s, the early attempts as an essayistic style, the initial phase of political filmmaking, the full-blown agit-prop of the Dziga Vertov Group, the early experiments with video production, the various "comebacks" of the '70s and '80s ... and that just takes us to the halfway point. (No wonder so many critics have tried to dismiss so much of JLG's post-'68 work: It's too hard to keep up!)
One of the most useful things about Brody's book is that it treats Godard's life and work as being more or less consistent. As the subtitle states, the book looks at Godard's life primarily as expressed through his work (and Brody appears to have seen almost everything). A comparison with Colin MacCabe's useful but limited biography from five years ago is telling: The first 19 years of Godard's life get 41 pages from MacCabe but less than four from Brody. This should not be seen as a biographical limitation, for as Brody shows, Godard makes little distinction between the concepts of "work" and "life." In fact, the idea(l) of combining domestic life with one's labor is a frequent theme in many of his films.
If "everything" - let's call it reality - is cinema, then, conversely, Godard believes that whatever he films must also reflect some attribute of the real world. This, Brody suggests, explains his unusual shooting schedules, his reluctance to begin projects and his frequent disappearances from a set simply because some elusive and indefinable bit of the real is absent or compromised. (Frustrated by having to use a set rather than a real apartment for "A Woman Is a Woman," he insisted on having ceilings added because "Anna has never slept in a room that hasn't got a ceiling".)
That same definition of realism also drove Godard to put his own experiences and thoughts into his work, with conversations and events from his personal life often becoming dialogue and action from his characters a day or two later. Though his films are not autobiographical in any traditional sense, Brody shows how they can be interpreted through the ups and downs of his personal life, as much in his current work as in the years of his stormy marriage to Karina.
How, then, can we reconcile the claim for realism with the long list of stylistic devices with which Godard famously disrupts and subverts conventional narrative and continuity - the jump cuts, intertitles, off-screen interruptions, and self-conscious narrative strategies? For Brody, the answer comes from Godard's existentialist view of film as a medium with its own essence: montage. In one of his most significant critical pieces, "Montage, mon beau souci," Godard rebelled against the naturalistically based concept of realism proposed by Andre Bazin that dominated Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s.
Editing, he argued, was better suited to depict the realistic sense of space, just as the long takes and wide angles championed by Bazin favored a sense in time. But one suspects that for Godard, montage means more than simply arranging pieces of film; he sees it at work in everything, in the collision between form and content, realism and fantasy; in the striking puns and word games that appear in his political films; in the ability of videotape (which he began using in the early '70s) to combine images on the screen simultaneously. What, after all, are his films of the 1960s but collages of style and subject, neorealistic and documentary methods cut against the fantasy materials of Hollywood genre films?
With extended studies of even the most difficult of Godard's later work (often with the assistance of the director himself), Brody comes closer than any book in years in tracking Godard's thinking, from the "return to zero" rejection of conventional film language in the late '60s and the analytical critiques of language and image in the '70s to the various "comebacks" of the last three decades, the increasing interest in European history and the complex, multilayered video essays like the eight-part "Histoire(s) du Cinema." He's especially good on some of the more neglected later films like "Keep Your Right Up" and "King Lear" and offers insight into the historical context of such dense recent films as "In Praise of Love" and "Germany Year 90 Nine Zero."
Ultimately, the greatest strength of "Everything is Cinema" is that Brody takes Godard seriously as an intellectual challenging artist and looks at the life and the films not through the twin traps of nostalgia and pop culture but as an ongoing intellectual challenge in how we see and interpret the world. Within that framework, it's essential reading, a detailed and consistently insightful look at how language, politics, culture, history, sociology - in short, everything - became cinema.