Interviews Sightsurf and Brainwave: Blake Williams’ PROTOTYPE by Michael Sicinski In the Shadow of the Magic Kingdom: Sean Baker on
By Bill Krohn
So this is all treacherous old Shade could say about Zembla—my Zembla? While shaving his stubble off? Strange…strange… — Pale Fire
Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody is a chance for a writer of capsule film reviews for The New Yorker to go after bigger game, weighing in with a critical biography of almost 700 pages about a brilliant filmmaker whose oeuvre, as he sneaks up on 80, currently runs to around 90 films of varying lengths: over 40 features and three miniseries, including the mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-97), which continues to inspire imitators.
The sheer volume of Brody’s achievement has buffaloed reviewers, who praise him extravagantly for his research and commitment—and especially for his attention to the neglected recent decades of Godard’s output—without noticing his shortcomings as a biographer and critic. So far there have been only two mixed but favourable reviews and one flat-out pan, which was published in Australia by Adrian Martin and is not available online. The pan that follows is intended to right the balance.
When the book appeared earlier this year I was outraged by Brody’s claim that Godard is an anti-Semite and by the spurious evidence of racism he purports to have found in the films. I was also very surprised when the favourable reviews either endorsed those claims or passed over them in silence. As it happened, I had been reading Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, which had also just appeared. In it an aging devotee of a great but forgotten writer, I. Lonoff, locks horns with a young devotee of the same writer who is planning to rescue their idol from neglect by writing a biography accusing him of having an incestuous affair with his half-sister, on shaky grounds. And I was stirred by Roth’s reflections on the sins of “cultural journalism,” the name he gives to this kind of writing.
From a letter to The New York Times by one of the book’s characters: “As soon as one enters into the ideological simplifications and biographical reductivism of cultural journalism, the essence of the artifact is lost. Your cultural journalism is tabloid gossip disguised as an interest in ‘the arts,’ and everything it touches is contracted into what it is not.” As my analysis of the twin starting points for Everything Is Cinema will suggest, “ideological simplifications and biographical reductivism” pretty much sums up my beef with Brody. These habits obviously pose no problem for the people who’ve embraced his book, card-carrying practitioners of cultural journalism all: a personal bête noir I’ll return to later, which is actually being taught as a profession in French schools. It has long been one here.
The main threads of Brody’s approach are laid out in his discussion of Godard’s first two critical pieces. Citing an article about Joseph Mankiewicz that appeared in La Gazette du cinema for June 1950, he skips over Godard’s relatively in-depth discussions of two films, A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and House of Strangers (1949), to cherry-pick the idea that the article on Letter “is devoted less to his films than to Mankiewicz himself,” as shown by a single sentence: “This letter to three married women is also three letters to the same woman, one whom the director probably loved.” That way lies biographical reductivism.
The second selection of quotes comes from a more difficult piece, “Towards a Political Cinema,” which takes as its starting point newsreel images of young German Communists marching in a May Day celebration: “By the sole force of propaganda that was animating them, these young people were beautiful.” Brody again skips over the gist of this densely argued article to get to what interests him: “We could not forget Hitler Youth Quex, certain passages of films by Leni Riefenstahl, several shocking newsreels from the Occupation, the maleficent ugliness of The Eternal Jew. It is not the first time art is born of constraint.” And he concludes that Godard “took all fanaticisms to be alike and to be equally beautiful. Without equating the far left and the far right politically, Godard equated them aesthetically.”
Sliced and diced like a package of subprime mortgages, Godard’s questing thought becomes what Brody needs it to be, and in the process we may not even notice that the person who’s equating communism and fascism politically, by calling them both “fanaticisms,” is Brody. That’s ideological simplification with a vengeance. Cultural journalism is now in the driver’s seat.
A rhetoric of defamation
The groundwork for uncovering Godard’s dirty secret is laid in the opening pages of the biography, which are among its worst. Noting that Colin McCabe, in his semi-authorized biography, has already supplied “generous [pun intended] views of young Godard’s family life,” Brody proceeds to be ungenerous: he portrays Godard as having grown up in a family of Nazi sympathizers who raised him on a diet of genteel anti-Semitism and Vichy hate broadcasts.
But in the sources Brody cites, Godard makes it clear that the Nazi sympathizers were his maternal grandparents, the Monods, who lived in France and occasionally spent summers with the Godard family at Anthy, the Swiss chateau that had been his mother’s dowry. There is no reason to doubt McCabe’s description of Godard’s parents, who lived in Nyon, Switzerland, listening during the war to the Swiss news, “which had a deserved reputation for impartiality,” and hiding a fleeing member of the Resistance. Switzerland was anything but a hotbed of anti-Semitism, McCabe explains, having been a refuge for the Protestants, another persecuted minority. Unfortunately, Julien-Pierre Monod’s anti-Semitism, which would have been somewhat unusual in Godard’s homeland, was typically French.
Here are the Monods as described by Brody: “Godard’s maternal grandparents were supporters of Vichy. Godard later described his maternal grandfather as ‘anti-Jew’ and ‘anti-Semite,’ and remembered hearing Julien Monod refer to his doctor as a youpin (kike). At home [i.e. the Monod home, but Brody is blurring that], the family listened to Vichy-run radio, where Jean-Luc grew accustomed to the rhetoric of pro-German politicians and commentators and remembered, decades later, the rapt attention when speeches by Philippe Henriot [a Nazi propagandist of the Vichy era] were broadcast.” When Henriot and another Nazi propagandist, Robert Brasillach, were executed, Brody writes that “the Godard house” went into mourning, again blurring the fact that this time Godard’s recollections locate those days of mourning in the home of his paternal grandfather: a shadowy figure in the Godard “family novel,” the gun-toting diamond merchant Georges Godard, who lived in Geneva.
Even Lucien Monod was more complex than Brody cares to let on: “Godard recalled that he had an ‘affinity’ for Julien Monod, whose sympathies were clearly suggested by the reading that he shared with his grandson Jean-Luc, as Godard later recalled: ‘I read Les Decombres, by Lucien Rebatat [a pro-Nazi novel published in 1942], because my grandfather was ultra-literary…” But we need to supplement this account with other recollections in the 1985 interview from which Brody cherry-picked the “youpin” reference: “I recall that he listened to the speeches of Philippe Henriot on the radio,” Godard says, “That must have influenced me later because, as I do today with oeuvres [=works of art], my grandfather judged the form as much as the content. He thought Henriot’s voice was superb, but also the style of Dominique Ponchardier, the author of Hell’s Pavement, a story about the Resistance, which he made us read out loud, like Les Decombres and The Plague,” Camus’ allegory of the Occupation.
Brody skips over that passage, even though it gives an early source for one of the big ideas that shapes his book, Godard’s belief that aesthetics transcends ideology. Perhaps that’s because Godard says no such thing here: “the form as much as the content” is what he says. But there is no excuse for depriving us of the charming anecdote in the same interview about Godard’s aunt, Aude Monod. At age 12 he spent five months in France, first in Paris, then in Brittany, when he was unable to get back to Switzerland at the start of the war: “ I remember that every Saturday my aunt made us walk by the soldier who was guarding the Kommandantur. She bought us lollipops, so that we could stick our tongue out at him without any danger. It was my only act of resistance during that period.”
At one point Brody puts Godard in France for 18 months during the war, despite the fact that school records consulted by McCabe show that he was only there from June to October of 1940. But the picture Brody is painting of Godard’s life in wartime Switzerland, which consists mostly of recollections of time spent in the company of his French grandparents, would certainly be more plausible if he had spent “a year and a half…in wartime Vichy.”
My apologies to the reader for all the minutiae, but they matter. I’m not only concerned with nailing down details of Godard’s childhood, which is not—or should not be—the job of a book reviewer. I’m also bothered by the style of these passages (e.g. “whose sympathies were clearly suggested”), which Brody falls into whenever something in Godard’s life and work pushes his buttons. That style, half schoolmarm, half gendarme, returns in accounts of Godard’s early days as a film buff in Paris.
Before that, even Godard’s school friends in Switzerland turn out to have been a bad lot. We learn, for example, that a member of his circle of cinephile friends in Geneva in 1948 was “an extreme rightist philosopher, Jean Parvulesco” who escaped from Communist Romania during the war and became friends with the New Wave in Paris, writing articles in support of their early films.
Parvulesco did exist, roughly as described, and Godard gave his name to the bombastic writer played by Jean-Pierre Melville in À bout de souffle (1960), although the character’s statements aren’t exactly Parvulescan. It would be a stretch, but I suppose I could see Parvulesco as one source—one of about a hundred—for the idea in the Histoire(s) that World War II caused the decline of western civilization. But if you’re going to forget about art and play policeman, you’d better get your facts straight: Parvulesco couldn’t have been “flicking out” with Godard in Geneva in 1948, as Brody says he was, because he was interned in a Yugoslavian work camp at the time.
After an unfriendly account of the life of Godard’s occasional idol Jean-Paul Sartre, our hero arrives in Paris, where his associations become more numerous and more alarming. For starters, the famous Cine Club du Quartier Latin sounds in Brody’s account like a neo-Nazi front organization. Of course it was only one of several cine clubs that Godard and the future New Wavers attended in order to see as many films as possible—another was Andre Bazin’s Work and Culture cine club, which was at least nominally left-wing—but Rohmer programmed films and spoke after screenings at the club in the Latin Quarter, which also published the Gazette du cinema, so Godard’s film-going friends will henceforth be referred to (and referred to often) by epithets like “the CCQL group” and “the young men from the CCQL,” a foreboding acronym whose meaning is filled in for us with two anecdotes: the prank played by one of the club’s founders, Paul Gégauff, when he interrupted a screening wearing a Nazi uniform, and a tasteless publicity stunt (described as “a fascist practical joke”): having a man with a sandwich board, wearing a yellow star, advertise a screening of the Nazi propaganda film Jew Süss (1940). But neither of these stories has anything to do with Godard.
Nor does the fact that his close friend François Truffaut interviewed (for Elle) a lapsed seminarian named Michel Mourre who, as a stunt, stood up in Notre Dame on Easter and announced that God was dead, although I suppose it’s interesting in a general way (if true: no source is given) that Mourre was “a former right-wing strong-arm of the Latin Quarter” whose “radical rightism responded to a crucial strain of thought in the CCQL circle” (never really defined, apart from liking American films). Nor does Brody’s assurance that Arts, a magazine Truffaut and Godard wrote for, “had a political agenda that was an open secret.” Make that “a secret,” period: Arts had no discernable political orientation, even though its founder “held office in Vichy”—like future Socialist Party leader François Mitterand, among others.
Nor, God knows, does the fact that a friend of Rohmer and Rivette, the Romanian-born Isidore Isou, leader of a dissident strain of Dadaists, “gathered a claque of friends to disrupt a  production of the Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s play La truite (Tzara too was a Romanian Jewish immigrant, born Sami Rosenstock [Italics mine]),” although Godard, then 17, may have been attending a lycee in Paris when this obscure provocation (anti-Semitic? anti-Dadaist? anti-trout?) occurred. Again, I’m concerned with the style of that meaningless parenthesis, which serves no purpose except to add another droplet to the cloud of negative connotations being formed in the mind of an uncritical reader skimming these early pages.
But that Romanian connection could definitely do with some looking into….
Branding and biographical reductivism
Let’s leave it at this: relations between the young critic-filmmakers of the New Wave and the French Right were more complex than they are often described as being, and Everything Is Cinema is not the book that’s going to sort out those complexities. Instead let’s examine the other thread that organizes it, the fusion practiced by Godard between life and art. I believe in this thread more than I do in the anti-Semitism thread when it takes the extreme form of making Godard’s first wife and most wonderful actress, Anna Karina, the raison d’être of his oeuvre until the end of the ‘60s. But I am less convinced by what Brody does with this idea.
The problems start with his account of Godard’s first feature, À bout de souffle, made before Karina. It was probably Colin McCabe who first discovered that the film’s clever press agent, Richard Balducci, had ensured that the myth of Godard, built around the low-budget, improvisatory way he shot, was expanding like the Blob in the Paris papers even as the film itself was being finished. But Brody actually bases his reading of À bout de souffle on this “making of” PR: with nothing to say and no idea of how he will make his film, Godard invents himself and it ex nihilo in one fell swoop.
As a high-end cultural journalist (or “ceejay,” to use an abbreviation I hope will stick), Brody is savvy about the mechanisms of today’s celebrity culture and is inclined, like his colleagues, to project them onto the past, as he does when he describes the self-invention of Jean-Paul Sartre beginning with “Existentialism Is a Humanism” (but no earlier, which would have cast a peculiar light on Sartre’s career in the Resistance): “A public figure, indeed a world-renowned figure, as famous in the United States as at home, Sartre soon became something more: he became a brand name, exactly as planned.” (To put this observation in historical context, Ajax, the Foaming Cleanser, would not make its first appearance on the world stage for another two years, although “Ajax, the tall Salamian leader, son of Telamon and Periboea” had been around for quite some time.) Branding, for ceejays, is identity.
Brody’s tour de force description of how Godard branded himself sets up a long thread that traces how the brand has perpetuated itself through four decades, ending like a corny Hollywood biopic in “the martyrdom of fame.” But as those films remind us, fame isn’t everything—at least the kind of fame Brody (as opposed to, say, Pindar) is talking about. In particular, it’s a rather flimsy aim on which to found an aesthetic project.
The arrival of Anna Karina in the filmmaker’s life supplies the solution. Henceforth Karina becomes the prime mover, and it is from Godard’s increasingly tortured feelings for her that an inexhaustibly self-renewing set of cinematic forms—each of which is also a worldview—will be spun into being. (Manny Farber in 1968: “At the end of this director’s career there will probably be a hundred films, each one a bizarrely different species, with its own excruciatingly singular skeleton, tendons, plumage….Already he has a zoo that includes a pink parakeet [A Woman Is a Woman], diamond-black snake (Contempt), whooping crane [Band of Outsiders], jack rabbit [Carabiniers], and one mock Monogram turtle [Breathless].)”
So what if, according to the film’s producer, Pierre Braunberger, the director was inspired to make Vivre sa vie (1962) by Rossellini’s The Flowers of Saint Francis (1950), while it was Braunberger who suggested he apply his experimental ideas to the story of a prostitute to ensure commercial success? According to Brody, Godard made Vivre sa vie to hold onto Karina—who had been accepting other film offers and was currently banging Jacques Perrin, the co-star of her second non-Godard feature, Le soleil dans l’oeil (1962)—by offering her the kind of role no other director could. “From the outset, Godard explicitly sought the grandeur that had been missing from his previous film [Une femme est une femme], as well as what he expressly called ‘intellectual adventure,’ in the hope of establishing Karina as a serious actress.” Note the bow to the tenets of celebrity culture. But how do we get from there to constructing scenes?
Here Brody implicitly acknowledges the shortcomings in his theory by falling back on another thread: the Damon and Pythias saga of Truffaut and Godard. Explaining why the film’s first scene between Karina and Andre Labarthe is played with their backs to the camera, he dredges up a remark by Truffaut, the dry wit of which appears to have escaped him, that intellectual directors in the Germaine Dulac tradition “film moral conflicts between characters who usually speak with their backs turned.” Hence, “the first shots of Vivre sa vie were Godard’s attempt to prove to Truffaut’s satisfaction that he was the intellectual equal of Resnais and Antonioni.” And what about the fact that Karina’s first scene with Michel Subor and the actor playing his buddy in Le petit soldat (1963) is filmed from the back seat of a car with the actors’ backs to the camera, perhaps in homage to Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950)? Again, what matters about this blooper is the style it adorns, which relies on occasionally bogus C+ finds like this one to paper over a lack of ideas.
For while I’m willing to entertain the notion that casting Karina as a girl who falls into prostitution (already the subject of Godard’s second short) delivers “a cautionary tale of the wages of infidelity,” and even that “most of Godard’s films for the next five years would issue the same warning to Karina” (who can deny it? or prove it?), this still begs the question of how he managed to keep flogging that slender notion “through the most diverse of cinematic and intellectual frameworks,” which set the course for modern cinema not only in France, but all over the world.
So even though the chapter on Une femme mariée (1964), made with another actress while Karina was reportedly having an affair with Maurice Ronet, does a decent job of describing the film’s form, slack-jawed disbelief is the only sane response to Brody’s assertion that Godard’s formal, semiotic, and political inventions in this film (which for Gilles Deleuze make it a landmark in the development of modern cinema) shape “a critique of a world in which it is plausible for Anna Karina to leave him.”
The Karina thread ends with their last collaboration, the short film Anticipation (1967), which takes a futuristic look at the world’s oldest profession. John the client (Jacques Charrier) asks the demurely clad prostitute played by Karina if she wants a drink, which turns out to come in a spray-can, and she smilingly accepts. Brody writes: “He takes an Evian can from the dresser and sprays her face with it. In close-up, Karina’s face is being sprayed copiously wet at point-blank range: her mouth is wide open, her eyes are closed, and her tongue is agitating lasciviously to drink the fluid. It is Godard’s most obscene and degrading shot to date, showing the cruel subjection of the woman, with her face sprayed as if with sperm or urine, which the actress is lapping up avidly. It is a view of Godard’s readiness to humiliate Karina and to show her in a state of carnal abasement—to a man who is not him. (He follows it with a shot of Eleanor subjecting John to the same treatment.)”
Pay no attention to the little reverse shot in the parentheses. If Godard really made this short (which also has a plot and themes, and a form based on printing black and white as if it had been shot with colour filters) for the sake of that close-up, the rest is window dressing. Brody apparently doesn’t know that Godard used further optical manipulations (subsequently eliminated by the producers) to turn the actors into unrecognizable blobs of protoplasm, but in any event, those opticals wouldn’t have kept the filmmaker from getting his rocks off filming his “money shot.”
Did he? Some 34 years later, a short film on L’origine du XXième siècle made for exhibition at Cannes incorporates a shot of a nameless porn actress whose face (visible in this case…) is being pissed on by an unseen porn actor. Like Karina, she closes her eyes and opens her mouth to imbibe the “facial,” as it’s called in the industry. Edited into the Cannes film ten years after Godard belatedly entered psychoanalysis, the shot could be a comment on that shot from Anticipation, or even an unconscious echo of it.
In either case Brody, who presumably has seen the Cannes short, would be just adding a thin layer of interpretation to Godard’s, as he is doing throughout the 267 pages of the Karina thread or in the less appetizing anti-Semitism thread, which uses memories of childhood that Godard began accessing in depth after he started in analysis (an event one would think any biographer would find interesting: McCabe mentions it; Brody does not) and went to work in earnest on his eight-part monument, the Histoire(s) du cinema.
But something always seems to get overlooked, such as Godard’s precise statement to a group of students in Montréal at the inception of that project that “My grandfather was fiercely—not even anti-Zionist, he was anti-Jew, whereas I’m anti-Zionist—he was anti-Semitic…” Brody quotes this, but because anti-Zionism is widely equated with anti-Semitism, GQ-ready ceejay Bernard-Henri Levi, whose pretense of being a “philosopher” is no longer taken seriously anywhere but in The Los Angeles Times, can say to Brody without blushing, referring to Godard’s invitation to him to take part in a videotaped three-way discussion with him and filmmaker Claude Lanzmann on the topic “What Is a Jew?”: “I think that he wanted to make the film because he is an anti-Semite who is trying to be cured. Lanzmann and I were part of the cure. That’s fine; I’d like to help an anti-Semite be cured. Like epileptics who feel a seizure coming on, he felt one coming on—a seizure of anti-Semitism. He called on us so he could administer some preventive self-medication. I was ready to play this game.” And Brody—arguably a more intelligent ceejay than Levi—is happy to put this nonsense in print. Why?
In search of Zembla
First a few words about the rest of the book, which is a long, uneven slog, niggardly in the rewards it doles out to the reader. One of the odd things about this critical biography is that it is sometimes almost entirely one thing and sometimes almost entirely the other, rather than a fusion of the two. In the heat of the unfolding Karina thread, Brody pretty much forgets that he’s writing a biography, often neglecting to tell us what Godard or Karina were doing the rest of the time, so that these chapters play like one of those two-character dinner theatre shows that needs neither sets nor supporting cast to convey its stark drama of love and loss.
But the biographical imperative is spectacularly revived in the long chapter on “Revolution,” pretty much burying the films made by Godard and his partner Jean-Pierre Gorin during the Maoist ‘70s, because “petrified by [communist] ideology, by doctrine, [they] suggest hardly a glimmer of the brilliance and vital energy that went into them.” As a result of Brody’s distaste for one whole decade of his subject’s oeuvre, the chapter says little about the actual films, but it’s loaded with information about a lost period in Godard’s life, much of it supplied by Gorin, making for 75 action-packed pages that are well worth the $40.00 price of admission. And of course there is a lot more research throughout the book that is new to me. On the other hand, reviewers who praise Brody’s critical insight and knowledge of French culture never quote examples of either, and there turns out to be a reason for that.
First, learning, one more time, since I’ve already given a few examples: a surprising number of pages in Everything Is Cinema are spent parsing the clipping file from the mainstream press for each film, interlaced with Wiki-thin commentary about French political and intellectual life. I haven’t consulted those files, but it’s disturbing (a word Brody always uses when he wants us to know his subject is up to no good) that he misdescribes two I happen to have on hand. He says that Luc Moullet’s Cannes review of Bande à part was a pan—it’s a rave (“La nuit du Carrefour 1964”). And he describes Jean-Louis Comolli’s Venice review of Une femme mariee as “an unusually long and deeply engaged review.” It’s three paragraphs long.
Next, criticism: the two faces of the book really ought to come together again in the meaty 200+ pages devoted to the films Godard started making at the end of the ‘70s, which are supposed to be Brody’s forte, but they don’t, for reasons already explained: the author’s lack of theoretical and critical sophistication (despite the habit, not limited to ceejays, of occasionally throwing in the word “signifier” with no visible theoretical strings attached) and his dogged insistence on lugging like an albatross a reductive explanation of the oeuvre that leaves a void at its centre.
Instead, although repetitive accounts portray the director merrily presiding over the suffering and chaos he creates on the set, which is supposedly mirrored in the films, one gets little sense of those films, their meaning and value, or anything but the “making of” chaos, wrapped in the slim notion that “there was a method in his madness.” Again Brody’s feminism (roughly on the level of “The View,” but 20 years behind it) is used to cover the weaknesses in this approach, as it was in the Karina thread.
Roth again (channeling “I. Lonoff”): “Hemingway’s early stories are set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so your cultural journalist goes to the Upper Peninsula and finds out the names of the locals who are said to have been models in the early stories. Surprise of surprises, they or their descendants feel badly served by Hemingway. These feelings, unwarranted or childish or downright imaginary as they may be, are taken more seriously than the fiction because they’re easier for the cultural journalist to talk about than the fiction.”
If Roth’s complaint rings a bell, it’s because cinema, with its live “models,” is particularly vulnerable to moralistic ogling—Donald Spoto recently capped a career built on a slanted biography of Hitchcock with a second book devoted to collecting gripes from the Master’s actresses. Brody, who quotes Spoto as an authority on this aspect of Hitchcock, never misses an opportunity to do the same thing to Godard in a way that illuminates neither the films nor the director. Adrian Martin is very good on this particular brand of malarkey, so I’ll just add a comment by that Godardian man of letters Oscar Wilde: “History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”
These are difficult films, and Brody doesn’t make them more accessible, which is surprising because the autobiographical thread is front and centre in the four where Godard is an actor. The last half of the Return to Cinema section, which keeps coming back to the Histoire(s), actually hangs together better because the features made during this period, which Brody describes as “Olympian” (the autobiographical element having been siphoned off into the Histoire(s): one of his better points), are more susceptible to the kind of one-note allegorical readings he favours. (Hence his laboured glossing of every character name in the oeuvre, proper names being a seductive mirage for people who hold simplistic theories of language.) The funniest one: Nouvelle vague (1990) as an allegory of the Nouvelle Vague. But when he starts to examine the subjectivity he finds in the Histoire(s), he finds only his own.
This is where all the slurs and innuendoes scattered throughout the book start to coalesce into a j’accuse directed at Godard the conflicted anti-Semite, paired with an interpretation of the six-hour symphony of sounds and images in the Histoire(s) that raises the program implicit in the word “reductive” to new heights of audacity: “In Godard’s formulation, Jewish people, who were crucial to the development of the cinema, were also fundamentally responsible for its downfall—its repudiation of the image, specifically, its failure to prevent the Holocaust.”
Brody does acknowledge, perhaps at the prompting of kindly friends, that Godard never said that anywhere, and certainly not in the Histoire(s), but he buries the admission in a footnote: “Even if it is arguable that the leaders of the American film industry in the nineteen thirties and forties, who were predominantly Jewish, critically failed the Jews of Europe who were facing extermination—the Hollywood producers didn’t flood the market with exposés of the Nazi regime, which came to power in 1933—Godard does not make this point in such terms.”
David Sterritt understandably missed that footnote when he penned his review of the biography for Cineaste, where he confidently explains: “Brody locates the heart of Godard’s anti-Jewish bias [sic] in his conviction—aired most expansively in Histoire(s) du cinéma, his 1998 video series—that true cinema died in the middle Forties as a result of its failure to document the Holocaust, a failure that Godard attributes to money-minded Jewish studio heads.” Sterritt and Brody seem to have been reading the same musty tomes, surveys with titles like The Jew in American Cinema by committed Jewish scholars where that unwittingly anti-Semitic myth resides, although it appears nowhere in Godard’s work. (I’ve tried to debunk it in my contribution to Le cinema et la Shoah, which will be published in English this year by New York State University Press.)
“The cinematic non-representation of the Holocaust,” says Brody, is the “single idée fixe” of which all Godard’s voiceovers in the Histoire(s) comprise “a concise exposition.” Those voiceovers are now available in book form, so anyone who reads through them can verify that they don’t argue any one thesis, and certainly not that one, which is to be found mostly in Godard’s desultory polemic with Claude Lanzmann over the latter’s vainglorious assertions that Shoah (1985) is the only legitimate film ever made about the Shoah because it never shows it. The nearest thing to Brody’s idée fixe that I have found in Godard’s interviews from the period of the Histoire(s) is a statement that while there was lots of film stock in London, films made by the Free French during the war were silent on the fate of Europe’s Jews.
But when Brody makes the tired old slur against Jewish moguls the lynchpin of his reading of the Histoire(s), all the while acknowledging that it isn’t to be found there “in such terms,” he descends to the cloudy depths where the Patron Saint of Critical Hobbyhorses, Charles Kinbote (pronounced “kin body”), presides: the putative author of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Kinbote believes, in the teeth of the evidence, that the last poem of a great American poet was inspired by accounts the critic had personally regaled the deceased with concerning the history and customs of Zembla, the non-existent kingdom of which he, Kinbote, is the exiled king—even if he is obliged to scratch around in the discarded variants to find faint, iridescent traces of the epic that never was.
I’m sure the quote that has done the most to persuade reviewers to overlook the gaps in Brody’s reasoning is Godard calling producer Pierre Braunberger a “sale juif” (=dirty Jew), an incident that should be treated in some detail or not at all. Truffaut refers to it in two furious letters about various subjects that he wrote to Godard in 1973 and 1980, and it has been in print since the publication of Truffaut’s correspondence and the Toubiana-de Baecque biography, but Brody gives it new life. Having woven a web of innuendo and distortions within which the anecdote can do a maximum amount of damage, he floats it twice with no comment (a rhetorical ploy he rather overdoes), adding the tautological information that it happened “during a dispute.” Curiously, he does refer in a footnote to a March 1968 letter from Braunberger to Truffaut denouncing Godard in no uncertain terms for the insult, but he doesn’t quote from it. Nothing in his behaviour as a biographer suggests that he would forgo reproducing such a damaging exhibit if he had actually seen it—but in that case he would have known what the dispute was about.
“Letter from Pierre Braunberger (producer) to François Truffaut (treasurer of the committee for the defense of the Cinémathèque) I’m very happy because this check permits me to be with you, to help you in your enterprise. It’s possible, dear François, that my attitude hasn’t been well understood even by you, you who understand so well what friendship means. I have so much esteem, admiration and gratitude for you. You know I love Jacques Rivette, Langlois, my co-religionist Mary Meerson very much for who they are and what they’ve done. I have admitted and understood what has been said against me by those Jean Rouch calls ‘the children of Pierre Braunberger,’ but I’ll never forgive Godard his antisemitism. Antisemitism never brought any honor to anyone, neither the brilliant (and already Godardian) Céline or the mediocre Autant-Lara.
“I know that now you can only have contempt for Godard on a human level. ‘Dirty Jew’ is the only insult I can’t bear, an insult that gives me a desire for vengeance, a desire to kill…If you knew what those words evoke in me, what they bring back from such an unhappy past, you would come embrace me.
“Your Jewish friend who owes you so much of his Jewish happiness, Pierre”
Truffaut’s 1973 letter to Godard fills in one detail, probably based on talking to Braunberger after getting his letter and the accompanying check: the incident happened over the phone. “You’ve always been a poseur, as when you sent a telegram to de Gaulle about his prostate, when you called Braunberger a filthy Jew over the telephone, when you said that Chauvet was corrupt (because he was the last and only one to resist you), a poseur when you lump together Renoir and Verneuil as though they were the same thing, a poseur even now when you claim you’re going to show the truth about cinema…” Braunberger had referred to Godard’s “antisemitism,” but Truffaut calls him “a poseur,” the same word he applies to the other examples of political grandstanding. This suggests that Truffaut, who knew Godard as well as anyone, knew he wasn’t an anti-Semite, no matter how angry he was with him when he wrote the “drop dead” letter in 1973.
A little backstory is in order: Braunberger was one of French cinema’s most important independent producers, and as much a godfather of the New Wave as André Bazin or Henri Langlois. He also seems to have been quite a character. In some ways he resembled Roger Corman in his habit of cutting corners during production, which had driven Truffaut and Godard mad when they were making Tirez sur la pianiste (1960) and Vivre sa vie. Now it’s six years later, May ‘68 is coming to a boil, and neither of them has made another film with him. In the letter Braunberger says he is contributing to Langlois’ defense fund and acknowledges that some members of the New Wave have expressed hard feelings toward him, partly due to a misunderstanding. In Godard’s case this took a form he can’t forgive.
Without mentioning the insult, he sketches in more of the background in his 1987 memoirs, where he recalls: “I only had one difference with Godard, at the moment of what is called l’affaire Langlois, in 1968.” André Malraux was attempting to bring the Cinémathèque under state control by saddling Langlois with a president, Marc Allegret, who Braunberger had persuaded to accept the job. When that fell apart, Malraux asked Braunberger to replace Allegret as president. “When I refused, he repeated his offer, accompanying it with a proposition of financial aid that was very, very important for my production company (seven million francs), in the form of an avance sur recettes. I refused because I didn’t want to act against Langlois.”
It’s unlikely, however, that attacks on Braunberger by members of the New Wave occurred while he was engaged in those secret negotiations—something he would have done “for the love of intrigue… knowing it would lead to nothing,” according to a veteran of that era. A more public occasion would have presented itself when he helped the Centre National du Cinéma avoid a sit-in by the defenders of the Cinémathèque—again, I’m told, out of the love of “plotting for plotting’s sake, not for any result.” Braunberger ultimately did right by Langlois, and in March he sent Truffaut a check with a letter recounting Godard’s insult and predicting that it would make Truffaut despise his best friend. Then in May, after a decent interval has passed, he turned around and proposed an adaptation of La Chartreuse de Parme to Godard.
Since the conversation with Godard had happened over the phone, I assume that the insult came at the end and went like this: “Au revoir, sale juif.” As Janet Bergstrom has pointed out to me, those are Jean Gabin’s affectionate words to Marcel Dalio when they almost part company near the end of La grande illusion (1937). Without the cinephilic twist, the phrase “sale juif” doesn’t sound much like Godard, in whose hands the French language is a stiletto, not a blunderbuss. The silent quotation marks could have been explained to Braunberger, if there was any need of explanation—he was a cinephile too, after all, and had produced five films by Renoir. (He is said to be the model for Batala in Le crime de Monsieur Lange .) His discrete allusion in his memoirs to his instant reconciliation with Godard in 1968 becomes as effusive as the letter to Truffaut had been vengeful: Godard is cinema’s greatest poet, he says, and his biggest regret is not having produced all his films.
Braunberger’s memoirs were published three years after the death of Truffaut, who never made another film with him, but singled him out as one of two people he took into his confidence when he learned that his missing father, tracked down by a detective, had been Jewish—a gesture that must have seemed only appropriate after Braunberger’s “Your Jewish friend” letter. The volume of correspondence containing Truffaut’s first letter to Godard alluding to the insult was published in 1989 with a preface by Godard, who had already contributed a preface to Braunberger’s memoirs in which he says that while they may seem boring at first, they’re sheer poetry to the eyes of a cinephile. (Perhaps he was making up for having described the producer as “dead on the field of honour” in 1986’s Grandeur et décadence, an exaggeration Braunberger humorously corrects at the end of the memoirs.) Godard’s preface is accompanied by a photo of Braunberger that is so out-of-focus (“flou”) as to be unrecognizable, with an annotation in Godard’s hand: “Flou, mais sincere.”
A Very Painful Experience
As all those reviewers who have no word in their vocabularies to describe what has just happened in Gaza are well aware, being called an anti-Semite can wreck the career of a hard-working ceejay, and even an artist. So what does Brody think he’s doing laying that one on Godard? Little known fact: In 1995 Brody completed his first feature film, Liability Crisis, a devotedly Godardian pastiche about a filmmaker obsessed with signs of anti-Semitism that he sees all around him, and by the failure of his relationship with a beautiful foreigner, who is Yugoslavian—like Brody’s wife, to whom he dedicates Everything Is Cinema. (Anna Karina, of course, is Danish.) At one point, Brody’s obsessed hero uses a magic marker to draw a swastika on the door of a neighbour he suspects of being a Nazi war criminal and runs away. Since the film is pastiching ‘60s Godard, it’s impossible to say where the protagonist ends and the filmmaker begins.
If I were of a mind to treat Godard’s biographer the way he treats his subject, I’d interpret the glimmers of self-awareness in this promising but unpleasant first feature as an exposé of Everything Is Cinema, written ten years later: the anti-Semitism thread being spun out of paranoia and the Karina thread out of projection, a subject Godard has been very interested in since his analysis. But I think that Brody knows exactly what he is doing when he accuses Godard of anti-Semitism.
A decisive moment in the writing of Everything Is Cinema was the interview Brody planned to do with Godard for a profile he published in The New Yorker in 2000, which took him to Godard’s office in Rolle, Switzerland. The beginning of their first exchange was touching—or sinister, seen in retrospect: Godard showed Brody a New Yorker cartoon of a unicorn sitting behind a desk, as he was doing at that moment, with the caption: “These rumors of my non-existence are making it very difficult for me to obtain financing.” After that the interview proceeded swimmingly, continuing over dinner at Brody’s hotel, but when he went back to the office the next day he found a note stating that “Godard could not continue the interview because ‘it was not a real discussion and was ‘flou’ (out of focus, vague) but he wished me a better ‘game’ [an allusion to tennis, a sport Godard enjoys—there’s that stiletto] with people I’d be seeing in Paris.”
There’s nothing particularly secret about this incident, which is described in Brody’s article, “An Exile in Paradise,” as is the ghastly dinner he ate at his hotel that night with Godard and his wife, Anne-Marie Miéville, eating at another table and pointedly ignoring him, after a chillingly polite “bon soir” and “bon voyage” from Godard. It must have been a very painful experience, but Brody omits any mention of it in the biography, instead profusely thanking Godard for his time in the acknowledgments. Am I somehow insinuating that Brody’s book, with that one really bad thread, is some kind of patricidal passive-aggressive revenge on the author’s part? Yes I am, although I wasn’t sure until I reached the last page.
Brody’s “Epilogue” kicks off with a description of Rolle and the following passage, lifted from the 2000 profile: “In the busy restaurant, even the nearest voices melt into the reverberant din of table talk and kitchen sounds, yet one could discern the high, flutelike voice of Anne-Marie Miéville: ‘Brigitte Bardot…Cannes… to drop off his screenplay…he’s waiting…budget…doing the color timing before the editing…’ Occasionally, when Mieville paused, Godard murmured haltingly before she resumed the steady flow of energized observations.” Decontextualized by omitting the story of the interrupted interview and the nightmare dinner (and by substituting “one” for “I”), the paragraph just hangs there, like a silent accusation: the irritant that produced this black, misshapen pearl. The book concludes: “The cinema will live on for as long as Godard’s films are seen, or Godard himself is remembered.” No mention of the films he has yet to make, as if he were already dead.
The motives for Brody’s fellow ceejays getting behind the book and repeating its slurs are less Jacobean. They seem to dislike Godard on general principles and have jumped at the opportunity afforded by the book under review to stick a fork in him. Perhaps a fairer book would have had the same results, although it would have furnished them with a less lethal fork. The reaction against Godard that I became aware of after the publication of Everything Is Cinema seems to be part of a larger reaction against a certain idea of the arts of film and film criticism by a whole generation of writers who are now comfortably ensconced in their careers. Godard, who embodies that idea, is their natural enemy and a reproach to their very existence. This inevitable downshifting from cultural struggle to cultural journalism also has to do, I think, with the spread of reactionary politics in America over the last 30 years.
But I may be reading too much into those reviews. After all, they were written when the authors, faced with deadlines, had just struggled through a 700-page hatchet job disguised as a celebration of Godard’s genius. Again Roth captures the tone perfectly: “An astonishing thing it is, too, that one’s prowess and achievement, such as they have been, should find their consummation in the retribution of biographical inquisition. The man in control of words, the man making up stories all his life, winds up, after death, remembered, if at all, for a story made up about him, his covert brand of baseness discovered and described with uncompromising candor, clarity, self-certainty, with grave concern for the most delicate issues of morality, and with no small measure of delight.”
My thanks to Andy Rector, Bernard Eisenschitz, Janet Bergstrom, Emmanuel Burdeau, Luc Moullet, Jean-Michel Frodon, Jean Narboni, Noel Simsolo, and B. Kite.