"He wondered if the world was becoming a dream or if a dream was becoming the world."
-- Jean-Luc Godard
White light on a white screen. Murmurs of anticipation from an unseen audience.
Manhattan's Lincoln Center, mild spring afternoon. Beautiful people, casually dressed, cross the square in the last year of the 20th century, headed to the Walter Reade Theater for a New York Film Festival screening.
Interior, crowded theater, lights going down.
Cut to: "On the Origin of the 21st Century," a 17-minute film essay consisting of re-edited archival footage of wars and Nazi atrocities, interspersed with clips from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," Jerry Lewis' "The Nutty Professor," Santiago Alavarez's "69 Springtimes of Ho Chi Minh," Maurice Chevalier in "Gigi" and Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless."
Faces in the audience, modeled by the light bouncing off the screen.
Boredom. Surprise. A nonplussed critic with his head cocked like a spaniel trying to understand quantum physics.
Est-ce du génie? Est-ce une fraude?
A black-and-white photograph of Humphrey Bogart. In voiceover, a young girl with a French accent: "UMP-fray oh-GARD."
Odile (Anna Karina), Arthur (Sami Frey) and Franz (Claude Brasseur), three small-time would-be criminals, push aside the tables in a smoky cafe and dance "the Madison" in Jean-Luc Godard's "Band of Outsiders" (1964). Odile dons a fedora, they all act like they're in a movie, which they in fact are though not in the universe of the movie that they're in.
Quentin Tarantino snitched this scene for "Pulp Fiction."
The movies teach us how to act.
The song that was originally playing on the jukebox when the scene was shot is John Lee Hooker's "Shake It Baby." What plays on the soundtrack is some conspicuously dubbed inoffensive bit by Michel Legrand that doesn't quite sync up.
Why didn't Godard get the rights to the Hooker song for the movie? It couldn't have been that expensive. Did he try? Was he turned down? Or maybe he just didn't worry about such things.
One of the coolest scenes in cinematic history could have been even cooler.
Cut to: A black screen.
In voiceover, a man says in French: "I want to make a film." A woman's voice answers, also in French: "That takes money."
Then, for what seems likes minutes, checks for all the banal essentials of filmmaking--makeup, catering, electricians, etc.--are signed and torn off.
This as the opening scene of "Tout Va Bien," a 1972 film by Godard and his then collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin about a has-been filmmaker (Yves Montand) who came to prominence during the French New Wave but is now reduced to directing television commercials and his journalist wife (Jane Fonda), well-meaning but naive leftists who get caught up in a wildcat strike at a sausage factory.
The film, which isn't very entertaining, is about class struggle and may be most notable for borrowing a production technique from (Godard's muse) Jerry Lewis' 1961 comedy "The Ladies Man."
The film's "factory" is a cross-sectioned building, with one exterior wall removed to allow the camera to dolly from room to room as though it is passing through the walls. At times, the camera pulls back to reveal the factory as a matrix of open-faced cubes, not unlike the set of the game show "Hollywood Squares," or a comic strip, or something Wes Anderson would try.
This constantly reminds the audience they are watching a scripted drama, an artificial and contrived play. This is a literal breaking of the fourth wall. Meanwhile, Montand and Fonda affect curiously opaque performances that suggest--intentionally--that they are bored with the whole process. Or with all the processes--their marriage, the coming people's revolution, the day-to-day nuisances that come with trying to make a film.
"Tout Va Bien" translates to "Everything is Fine."
Think about the popular meme "This is Fine" which you have probably seen if you go anywhere near the Internet. It consists (usually) of a single image of an anthropomorphic dog trying to convince himself that everything is fine, despite sitting in a room engulfed in flames. It comes from a comic drawn by K.C. Green published in January 2013.
The meme is typically used to comment on what the user sees as an episode of willful self-denial.
Godard may never have seen that meme.
He was 41 in 1972; that was 50 years ago. Was he that exhausted, that young?
One of the things we heard in the wake of Godard's death by assisted suicide last week was that he was not so much sick as just very tired.
A scene near the end of "Faces Places," a 2017 documentary by Agnes Varda and French street photographer and visual artist JR where they try to visit Godard at his home in Switzerland. The whole film has been building to this climax, as Varda and JR have traveled through villages, small towns, and factories throughout France to meet people and create large mural-style portraits of them.
Throughout the film Varda continually refers to "Les fiancés du pont MacDonald," a five-minute pastiche of silent comedies that star Godard as a Buster Keaton-esque figure who sees terrible things when he puts on his sunglasses. Godard was known for wearing dark glasses everywhere, a habit also affected by JR, who throughout the film wears his shades. The intimation is that it is his homage to Godard, an artist he greatly admires.
So finally Varda and JR travel to Godard's house in the Swiss village of Rolle, where he lived semi-reclusively for the last decades of his life. Before arriving she picks up brioches from Godard's favorite bakery. But when they arrive at the house, Godard refuses to see them; he's left a message scribbled on the glass by the door.
"If he won't let us in, he's a dirty rat," a tearful Varda tells JR.
To comfort her, JR removes his glasses for the first time, to show her his unobscured face.
The camera shows him blurred, because Varda, who died in 2019, was losing her sight.
A black screen on which the words "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun" slowly appear in white. They fade away and the words "The cinema is truth at 24 frames per second" appear. Then they fade away and the words "A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order," appear.