The Politics of Art: Godard’s Cinematic Revolution
April 11, 2021 • Carolina Azevedo
Cinema, as an art form and communications medium, can never be ecstatic. Accompanying this is the social power of cinema, as part of what the Frankfurt School would call the ‘Cultural Industry’. Well aware of that, French director Jean-Luc Godard would use his everchanging cinema as a tool to overcome capitalist oppression, and grant the consumerism-reeked Western society a taste of what it was becoming.
In response to Hollywood’s lengthy reign over the cinematographic industry, European directors, such as Godard, attempted to overcome that monopoly, in a movement which became known as the Nouvelle Vague. The French New Wave is undeniably one of the most influential movements in film history; its rejection of traditional Hollywoodian filmmaking shaped most of the acclaimed indie films of the last decades. The movement was characterized by experimentation with camerawork, sound, and editing, and was responsible for the creation of films heavily influenced by existentialism and the political turmoil of the cold war.
In style, Godard started his revolution. Between the years of 1960 and 1965, the director produced classics such as Breathless (1960) and Pierrot le Fou (1965), which would dictate what cinema would be from that point on. A handheld camera paired with exquisite editing skills would culminate in an innovative, inventive, and poetic type of filmmaking, which the world had never seen before — a mise en scène which would embody both the experimental and the familiar, the radical and the romantic.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960)
By making these films, directors such as Chabrol, Truffaut, Varda, and Godard himself were establishing the bases for a cinema that would serve as a means of popular power. These artists confronted an established medium and turned it into something beautiful, significantly by making it in their own molds. After all, as singer David Byrne described in his 2012 book, How Music Works; “The act of making art has a very different and more beneficial effect on us than simply consuming those, and yet for a very long time the attitude of the state towards teaching and funding the arts has been in direct opposition to fostering creativity amongst the population. it seems that those in power don’t want us to enjoy making things for ourselves. They prefer to establish a cultural hierarchy that devalues our efforts and encourages consumption rather than creation.”
With the rising tensions in France, along with the debunking of American myths, such as those surrounding the Vietnam War, and issues inherent to Capitalism, such as poverty and the growing inequality between people and countries, Jean-Luc Godard decided to radicalize his filmmaking. Instead of making films for the entertainment industry supported by the bourgeoisie, Godard started using his films to promote his views on the downward spiral into which Western society was headed.
Beginning with the subversive yet entertaining Masculin Féminin (1966), Godard slowly began to incorporate Socialist and even Feminist theory into a chronic of love and romantic relationships amongst young French people. Following the concept he defended in an interview near the beginning of his career as a filmmaker, Godard let youth influence cinema as the foundations of the May ‘68 riots began taking place in universities around Paris. We can see how Godard’s filmmaking was inextricably linked and heavily engaged with the social and political events which were unfolding in the second half of the 20th century.
With films such as La Chinoise (1967) and Weekend (1967), Godard, “replaces vague ideas with clear images”, as a scripture on the walls in La Chinoise evokes. This indicates a shift in his course of action, which would dictate the next phase in Godard’s career. He understood the power of communications through Adorno’s ‘Cultural Industry’, and utilized the tools of Capitalism to imagine a world outside of it, encouraging the young people to wake up and take the streets over which authoritarian market powers rule with no restrictions.
Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967)
In La Chinoise, Godard takes images of young Maoist students in the making of a revolution, chanting; “the true power is at the end of the rifle”. He evokes the image of a bourgeois couple who relentlessly attempt to enjoy an idyllic trip, meanwhile society all around them is collapsing under consumerism. Here we see that Godard is continuously mocking the society in which he finds himself. All along, he silently incorporates communist propaganda, something his work would embody not only as a subject, but also as a method…
Indeed, Godard would make use of theories created by Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, in order to transform his films into purely militant cinema. So much so that in the late 1960s, the director would create, along with the French director Jean-Pierre Gorin, the ‘Dziga Vertov’ group. The partnership’s mission was to make films based on the dialectics of communication, as well as Marxist ideology and revolutionary praxis. They recognized the importance of cinema as a revolutionary tool and made extensive usage of it, evidenced in films such as Le Vent d’Est (1970), Ici et Ailleurs (1976), and Tout va Bien (1972), which became fundamental foundations for the formation of political cinema as we know it today.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Vent d’Est
As stated in La Chinoise, “a minority with the right ideas is not a minority” — this was the message the revolutionary filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard left for the future generations of ambitious and rebellious directors and activists. With influences all around the world, addressing different types of political issues — from Third Cinema to Queer Cinema — one can confidently state that without Godard’s cinema, the world would likely not have seen movies such as Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express and Glauber Rocha’s Entranced Earth.
In contemporaneity, films such as Parasite (2019), Get Out (2017), Moonlight (2016), or even Godard’s Image Book (2018) and Adieu au Langage (2014), carry out the legacy of political filmmaking, a sphere which should always accompany humanity through its vast spectrum of social, political, and individual turmoil, for there will always be, “so many people living badly, and so many dying so well”. Yet cinema is here to incessantly strive to put an end to that suffering, because the filmmaker is the one who walks through paradise in his dreams, just like Jean-Luc Godard in his journey through the Histoire(s) du Cinema.