When Jean-Luc Godard exploded on the scene as one of the brilliant young rabble-rousers of the French New Wave, he was assuredly a man of his time. He was also ahead of his time, with a penchant for quoting from other movies, elliptical storytelling and irreverent soundtracks. Godard's early films were emblems of '60s youth culture and big hits on their initial release, yet their innovation and genius may best be appreciated all these decades later.
The Pacific Film Archive series Jean-Luc Godard: Movie Love in the Sixties spans Godard's breezy 1959 breakthrough Breathless through the deliciously anti-romantic and unsentimental 1966 duo of Two or Three Things I Know About Her and Masculine Feminine. Godard's astonishing creative output in such a compressed period of time, all the while rapidly evolving his style (rather than repeating a formula), calls to mind nothing so much as the Beatles circa 1964-67.
The series begins tonight with Band of Outsiders (1964), a ramshackle crime movie whose vibe trumps its plot. Two young guys, engaged in a kind of laid-back competition for a pretty girl, allow her to cajole them into embarking on a break-in and burglary. Godard started out as a film critic, and the movie reflects his adoration for the crime genre as well as his primal urge to mock, subvert and reinvent. Ultimately, Band Of Outsiders is about our attraction to coolness and, by extension, to what was once Ground Zero for coolness -- the movies.
That same year, Godard made Contempt, a movie about the movies that stands as one of his lushest masterpieces. It's old hat now for moviemakers to pay homage to films that influenced them by using a particular camera angle or move, or by borrowing a character name or an article of clothing. (I daresay there would be no Tarantino without Godard, which Quentin openly acknowledged when he named his production company A Band Apart Films, after Bande a part (Band of Outsiders). Godard's gorgeous study of alienation and artifice amid the ruins of Rome centers on a screenwriter (Michel Piccoli), his wife (Brigitte Bardot), a soulless producer (Jack Palance) and a pained American director (Fritz Lang). It's an eviscerating parable of the pitched battle between art and commerce, set to Georges Delerue's enveloping, heartbreaking score.
Godard was always as artistically and politically uncompromising a filmmaker as you could name, which enamored him to moviegoers in Europe and the States. In this country, at least, the audience for his hearty stew of philosophical investigation, formal experimentation and oblique narrative gradually dwindled in the '70s to the point that distribution of his films became erratic. Although Godard continues to make terrific movies that push the grammar and possibilities of filmmaking, he is off the cultural radar pretty much everywhere outside of New York City.
The PFA series is a marvelous opportunity to discover, or rediscover, Godard at the beginning of his career, when he was perhaps most in love with the basic pleasures of exposing celluloid. Leaving aside the unassailable greatness of the films on display, I have a hunch that younger audiences in particular will find Godard's style not so much radical as familiar, after all these years of MTV-style editing, and absurdist Michel Gondry/Charlie Kaufman/Wes Anderson storytelling. Most filmmakers come off as dated when you look back at their work after 40 years. Godard seems more accessible.
Jean-Luc Godard: Movie Love in the Sixties screens September 5 through October 17, 2008 at the Pacific film Archive in Berkeley. For more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.