What you don’t need to understand in Godard’s films

Often, from some positions or from the contrary, the hermeticism of Jean-Luc Godard, the French filmmaker who died this Tuesday at the age of 91. But in reality that reproach implies a higher praise. Hermeticism, when relevant, is one of the marks of the best art of our time. Van Gogh —whom he admired so much—, Le Corbusier or Cage were hermetic. Kafka, Pessoa and Woolf too. It does not matter if some were relatively well understood by their time and others will only be fully understood by posterity. Artists never work for their time nor are they just for their time. His contemporaries are the dead and those not yet born.

In the present plane, in fact, only a few of his films remained at hand. Before his name and his cinema had sounded something else, never so much his cinema as his name. Movie buffs of my generation had to discover him in books or, who was luckier, by chance on television or video, later on the internet. On a cassette loaned by José Ángel. In Paulino’s classes. In Miguel’s translations and interviews. In Miriam’s gestures. In the conversation with Pablo and Manuel.

In my case, it was in a film recorded without much knowledge of the facts, in the cinema club of the 2in the early nineties: new wave. That changed everything. The cinema could also be that. And yet, what the cinema could become was not something given, that was understood at first. Or maybe it was just not something to be understood. Perhaps it was not about understanding but about seeing and listening. (And what splendor of sounds! The soundtrack of that film, precisely that one, with all its noises, voices and music, would be published on two discs by the ECM label, paying attention to its author, who had assured that the film was made to be able to see all of it without sound or listen to it without images).

It was necessary to begin by seeing and listening because what images were made for was not to understand them —in fact, there was little to understand in themselves, much between them— but to make us think. The shots could have a different quality than the other movies. They didn’t have to be closed, self-oriented, coiled like someone who hides their flaws or is overcome by fear. Cinema could be a tool for opening and relating, for comparison and analysis. As in literature or art, as in the deepest reaches of the imagination, the issue was not ideas. In the other cinema there were ideas, too many even, but in Godard’s films —in this he had tended to be cruelly alone, especially in the most ideological contexts through which he passed— ideas were not the starting point but the arrival point . The cinema was not a channel to circulate with them but a tool to dare to think about them.

That way of doing it was not easy at first, it was a bit dark, but an exciting darkness. In the foliage of the treetops of that film, new wave, or in the blackish bottom of its lake, there was a light and a music. Or in that cheap little lamp, one of those that sell a hundred and not an antique one, with which he outlined a pensive figure sitting on the edge of a bed against the light. Her head was activated not at every shot but at every shot change. She didn’t know exactly what she was trying to tell us, but the way she said it, it had to be fair. That could entail some risks and he was the first to accept the relative failures. He listened to few as much as to those who, instead of praising him, knew how to criticize him. He also admired many. In his interviews, he was always ready to give the names of the filmmakers whose films he had recently discovered. “I know that in the movie house,” I quote from memory, “I don’t get a master bedroom. Those rooms are occupied by others, by Griffith and Welles. Sometimes they are shared rooms, but I also know that I am part of that house.” In these rooms, on another level than today, Godard is a little more alive than yesterday and it is to be hoped that tomorrow he will be better understood than today. Just as it is up to posterity to understand him better than he understood himself. Some of us are convinced that in the movie house he gets a better room than he expected, very close to his beloved Rossellini and Ray.

Manuel Asín is coordinator of the cinema area of ​​the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid and artistic director of the Punto de Vista Festival.

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What you don’t need to understand in Godard’s films