Understanding Jean-Luc Godard
In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw eulogized Jean-Luc Godard as "a genius who tore up the rule book without troubling to read it." This is a fundamental misunderstanding. Decades ago, the critic Peter Wollen made the much more perceptive observation that Godard's films showed "a contradictory reverence for the art of the past and a delinquent refusal to obey any of its rules."
Godard stands in a distinguished line of radical conceptual innovators who have pillaged the art of the past even as they deliberately violated the rules that art had followed. Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, David Bowie, and Damien Hirst are just a few of the more prominent members of this group. Generations of critics have expressed their outrage at both these artists' unprincipled theft of the work of their predecessors and their blatant trampling of the conventions and forms that had generated this work.
These artists did not break the rules because they didn't know them; just the opposite. All of these innovators were brilliant and meticulous students of the canons of their disciplines, and often many others, even when they sometimes pretended not to be. The critic Richard Poirier recognized this, comparing the songs of the Beatles to the poems of T.S. Eliot in their aim for "a kaleidoscopic effect, for fragmented patterns of sound that can bring historic masses into juxtaposition only to let them be fractured by other emerging and equally evocative fragments."
Francois Truffaut remembered being struck by the distinctive way Godard absorbed art when the two were fledgling critics: "He liked cinema as well as any of us, but he was capable of going to see 15 minutes each of five different films in the same afternoon." Godard's cinema always drew heavily on earlier art, and he noted that in his masterpieces of the '60s this was inevitable, because "I knew nothing of life except through the cinema." He considered the history of art his natural habitat: "We're born in the museum, it's our homeland."
Susan Sontag compared Godard's violation of such established film rules as the unobtrusive cut, consistency of point of view, and clarity of story line to the challenge of the Cubist painters to realistic figuration and three-dimensional pictorial space, and Godard stressed that the magnitude of the challenge was deliberate, explaining that his intent in Breathless was "to take a conventional story and remake, but differently, everything the cinema had done. I wanted to give the feeling that the techniques of filmmaking had just been discovered for the first time." As had been true for Picasso - and Eliot, Joyce, Dylan, and Lennon - it was Godard's mastery of the rules of his discipline that made his violation of those rules so exciting to young artists, and his work so influential. But perhaps these innovators' mastery of the rules can only be seen by those who themselves understand the rules.