Jean-Luc Godard and Film as an Imitative Structure


My lecture today is on Jean-Luc Godard, a French film maker who was born in 1930. We have now seen two of his films, Breathless, made in 1959, and Tout va Bien, made in 1972. Some of you have also seen Weekend, made in 1967. I think that most of us have a similar reaction to a Godard film. Let me read you something that one of my students wrote after seeing Weekend earlier this semester. "The movie was really abstract. It was hard to pinpoint exactly what the movie's point was . . . While sitting in the movie I wanted to leave, but somehow felt that it might get better. . . It didn't." I feel the same way myself most of the time; you're sitting there watching a film by "famous" film director, somebody you know everyone else considers to be a great artist, and what's your reaction? Boring. Although Breathless had pretty much of a plot; most of his later films don't, and you sit there waiting for something to develop, and each time you think you’ve got a bead on what the movie is about, something happens to assure you don’t have the slightest idea what’s going on. But of course by that time, it doesn’t really matter whether you get what the film is about or not, because it’s the middle of the movie and you are on your way up the aisle and over to Four Corners for a couple of quick ones.

Many of Godard’s films are boring. Mark Twain, who didn’t like the author James Fenimore Cooper, said of him that Cooper thought that to represent boredom one had to be boring. We know that Godard is a critic of what has been called capitalist society; he thinks that such a society is spiritually empty and boring. But if we take La Chinoise or One Plus One (or a number of other of his films for that matter) as examples, it really doesn’t seem necessary for Godard to show you how empty and boring society is by himself giving you an empty and boring cinematic experience.

But maybe boring isn't exactly the right word. How about frustrating? I find myself frustrated watching a Godard film. His films are very frustrating because they refuse to fulfill the expectations we have for a film experience. Most of us have gone to films all our lives, and when we enter the theater we have certain expectations for the experience. Most of these expectations center on the plot of the film; usually if it’s a good story it's a good film. Yet whenever we watch a Godard film, there always seems to be a problem with the story. It stops, it starts, it stops again, something extraneous is inserted, the story starts up again, something completely incomprehensible is inserted, the movie is over. This is not a happy movie going experience.

But perhaps, perhaps the problem here is not with the film but with our expectations for the film. Godard doesn't want to tell us a story; he wants to tell us about stories. Let me suggest an analogy which might be helpful.


Most of us have seen this equation. It states that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. I've been told that along with perhaps the Uncertainty Principle and the Second Law of Thermodynamics that this is the most important scientific equation of this century. And I believe it, this is a very important equation. Why do I believe that? Because scientists, people lots smarter than me, tell me so, and I’m willing to believe them. So I can repeat to you that, yes, this is a very important equation, based not on my knowledge of the equation, but upon what other people have told me.

Now imagine somebody told you that Godard was an important director, perhaps the most important film maker since, say, Eisenstein. Armed with this knowledge you go to a movie of his. And probably you'd come out saying, like the stagehand in Citizen Kane, "Peeyoo," right? "That was a stinker!" Regardless of what the pointy heads say, we know ourselves that this was a bad movie. Why? Well, we may not know much about theoretical physics, but we’ve all been to movies and we know a bad one when we see it, right? We see things every time we use our eyes, and after eighteen to twenty years of seeing on a daily basis we come to trust our judgments about what we see. To understand physics takes a background in math; but anybody can watch a movie and render a judgment on it. And here is precisely the core of the problem, our problem, not Godard’s. We assume that just because we see every day, we are competent to render judgment on what we see. I hope to persuade you that such an attitude is wrong, that seeing is not a given, but a learned talent. We need to learn to see just like we need to learn math. And this is precisely what we have to learn from Godard. We can begin to learn to see by watching Godard. And this is my thesis for this lectures: Godard is not interested in telling us stories; he is interested in teaching us how to see. To show you what I mean by this, I want to look at the question of narrative in Godard’s work.

Godard uses film to criticize narrative. What I'd like to do in the time remaining is to examine one concept we usually associate with narrative and see what Godard does with It. This is the concept of Imitation.

After a particularly awful robbery, the Barrow gang in Bonnie and Clyde retire to the movie theater to watch a film, The Golddiggers of 1933. The Golddiggers sing "We're in the money." We then cut to Bonnie standing in front of a mirror, trying on a necklace identical to the one worn by the dancers in the film. In Breathless we watch Belmondo pause before a movie theater, pronounce the holy name of Bogart, and mimic a pose of Bogart’s. In Annie Hall, Diane Keaton apparently went to the PTA for her wardrobe, and within weeks women around the country were wearing second hand clothes. As all of these examples show, it is a very common thing for people to imitate actions, styles of dress, and bits of dialogue that we see up on the screen. This is obviously a sophisticated case of monkey see, monkey do, but we usually use the phrase "Life imitates art."

There is a particularly interesting instance of this form of imitation in Breathless, with Belmondo’s lip rubbing. There is no apparent explanation for this gesture, except that he perhaps left his chapstick at home. He rubs his lips at the very beginning of the film, then in front of the movie house, in front of Patricia’s mirror, twice in Patricia’s bed, at the airport, and finally in Montparnasse. This is merely a mildly amusing affectation until the final shot of the film, wherein we see Patricia in a close up facing the camera and repeating the gesture. How are we to take this shot? It seems to follow a Chinese-box like pattern of imitation: Michael imitates Bogart (who himself was 'imitating" someone, that is, acting, in the film, The Harder They Fall). Patricia imitates Michael and supposedly we then, are to imitate Patricia. I know I did. The important thing to note is that the gesture is meaningless. Were it something like Annie Hall's clothes or Bonnie’s necklace we could say, "Oh, monkey see, monkey do," and rest with that. But precisely because this gesture has nothing to do with anything, Godard is calling attention to the question of imitation on a more fundamental level. What is, he seems to ask, the relationship between film and life? There seems to be a very basic level upon which film and life are related, and it has something to do with imitation. In this gesture from Breathless Godard brings up this question, but in my mind merely brings it up. We'll return to this idea at the end of the hour, but now I'd like to turn to other manifestations of imitation in Godard.

Another truism on the level of "Life imitates art" is its obverse, "Art imitates life." Up until the twentieth century, with a few exceptions, most people thought that art was an enhanced representation of life. Alexander Pope, an eighteenth century poet, for example, said that Art is "Nature to advantage Dressed," that is, that art takes natural actions and objects and dresses them up in a flowery way. Our pleasure from art, then, would be to see something we see every day, only in a heightened, concentrated, and ultimately more pleasurable form. And this is the usual idea we have about movies; they are an imitation of life. We go to movies to see representations of human action that are pleasurable, or horrifying or whatever, to watch. But what we go to watch are stories. Just as people in the olden days read novels, now we go see movies or watch T.V. But a few years back someone made the very intelligent observation that "Life does not narrate," that is, when you live your life it isn’t in a story form; there is something radically different between life, as it is lived, and stories, as they are told. If this is true (and it is) then the idea that Art Imitates Life is a mistaken one. Art, once it sees that it isn't parasitic on life, is free to do anything it wants. The realization that Life does hot narrate is equivalent to the idea that God is dead for morality. Suddenly, with this idea, people saw that art, specifically those arts ostensibly tied to narratives such as novels and films, did not need to tell stories.

Godard is very conscious of this fact. He continually plays with the idea. While Breathless had a fairly conventional narrative, Tout va Bien, open with the sound of clapboards, a series of voices who are supposedly the film makers and then a discussion of what it takes to make up a story on film. By the time the checks start tearing and we see a map of France, we realize that we are not watching a story. Or are we? We are watching a story, but it is a story.

The inner story between "Jacques" and "Suzanne" starts up, stops, and starts up again. Because of the presence of the bona fide movie stars we take an interest in this story, since the stars make us feel comfortable: what we are about to see another story on film. But Godard will never let you rest easy with that supposition; he is continually preventing you from being swallowed up by the narrative.

How does he remind us? In Breathless we saw the beginning of some techniques that Godard uses with increasing frequency: Michael talks to the camera when he is driving down the road, effectively breaking the narrative illusion. There are jump cuts during Patricia’s interview with the journalist, during a bedroom scene, during the taxi ride, and elsewhere that startle us and break the illusion that we are watching a story. In Tout va Bien, of course, there's a lot of this. On the level of sound, we hear the phrase "tout va bien" repeated by several people at the beginning. Suzanne talks but her lips don't move in the scene in the boss’ office. Suzanne makes a speech in English which is in turn overdubbed by her into French (and for us, resubtitled into English). Elsewhere, we hear an off camera voice repeating phrases or lines, a voice that is never identified nor referred to. With respect to the editing, we see two shots, most obviously the one in which Jacques and Suzanne have their discussion, in which the cut isn't correct: we see Suzanne do the same thing from two different angles. I'm sure that you can think of many other instances in this in this film wherein the illusion of a story is continually destroyed.

Why does Godard do this? In the case of Tout va Bien he is, I think, trying to tell us something very basic about the role of stories in our life. On the other hand, he messes with the Jacques and Suzanne story, frustrating us at every turn when we try to settle back into the usual and comfortable psychological posture we adopt when watching movies. But again, there is a further "story" in this film, the story of a film being made, and if there is a story, this is it. It begins when the film begins, and ends when the film ends, whereas the Suzanne and Jacques story occupies only a part of the actual film time. But note that this isn’t a story about making a movie, this is a story about the process of making a movie. A film such as Truffaut’s Day for Night is a story about making a movie. That film follows most of the basic conventions of a romantic narrative. Tout va Bien, however, is a meditation upon the process of making a film. Just as Belmondo's lips in Breathless made us reflect upon the relation of life to art, the refusal to tell a conventional story in Tout Va Bien makes us reflect upon the relationship of art to life. While in conventional narrative we may exit the theater thinking about, for example, what Dallas and the Ringo Kid's ranch looks like in Mexico, Godard wants us to exit the theater reflecting upon the actual nature of the art form we've just seen, and it's relation to our life outside the theater. Once we begin to reflect as upon this, we can never be movie-going innocents again.

There is a third way of looking at imitation. Breathless was dedicated to Monogram Pictures, a motion picture company that made low budget gangster films in America. And obviously Breathless is a type of imitation gangster film. So we could say that "Movies imitate movies." This is a easy way of saying that all films tend to fall into one genre or another. In the case of American films, we've seen in this course that Hollywood has made westerns and crime films from the literal beginning of the industry.

But what are we to do with Michael in Breathless? He’s a happy go lucky kind of guy; the gun he uses he found in a car, he says he likes cops, he loves movies; he’s a thief, sure, but is he a gangster? What has he done, who is he trying to find on the phone all of the time, who is this American girl, etc., etc. This is ostensibly a gangster film, but it thumbs its nose at so many of the conventions of gangster films it’s certainly hard to take seriously.

Again, Godard is playing with a set of conventions that we usually take for granted. He knows that if we know that his is a gangster film, we'll come into the theater with a series of expectations for the film, and what he does is to play with these expectations, to frustrate them, turn them on their head, and generally flaunt the conventions. Again, he wants us to reflect upon the question of genre itself: What makes a film fall into a certain genre? How much can one play with the conventions before the film ceases to occupy that genre? Why are there genres? The idea of a genre, of course, is in basic conflict with the idea that art imitates life. If a film occupies a certain genre it's not because that film has anything to do with, for example, prohibition era gangsters in Chicago, but because it conforms to the conventions established for a certain genre of film. But just as we say that art does not imitate life, we can now ask the question, does art imitate art? Do movies imitate movies, and if they do how do they? If we can bend and twist the conventions of a genre to the point where the conventions are recognizable only by contrast, in what sense could such a film be said to be an imitation of another film? This is a sticky question, and another one which Godard would like for us to take with us out of the theater.

I have been talking thus far about the relation between narrative and Godard’s films, using the idea of imitation to get the question. I said that basically Godard is playing with our expectation of seeing a story on film. Where did we get this expectation? Why, in as new a form of art as film did we get the idea that the purpose of film is to tell stories?

There is nothing about the technological nature of film that requires that it tell stories. I would suggest to you that the reason we expect stories from films is because films have come to be seen either as a form of recorded drama or as a form of visual novel. I think that the idea that a film is a metaphorical form of a visual novel is not essential to film as film, and that is yet another form of imitation that Godard is trying to repudiate in his work.

So, a fourth way in which the question of imitation could arise in Godard's films is with respect to our cinematically naive idea that Film Imitates Novels. In the beginning was the screenplay. But, as we have learned, I hope, from reading Gianetti, film making did not begin exclusively with everyone either taking novels as a basis for their films or soliciting screenplays that were in story form. As Gianetti points out, film has taken both expressionistic and realistic directions. While no film is usually exclusively either one or the other, some films fall more easily into one category than another. At the second beginning of Tout va Bien, when the two voices begin discussing what is necessary to make a film, they say that well, what we need is a story. I would suggest that this conversation is very ironical for two reasons. On the one hand it was preceded by the clapboards and the voices announcing "Tout va Bien." The film has already started, and the voices saying that we need a story are already part of a story, that of the process of making a film.

On the other hand, the conversation by the voices is ironical because they certainly do not need a story, since so much is done within the film to interrupt, hinder, confuse, and generally prevent us as viewers from taking Suzanne and Jacques story seriously. It is a tribute to our conditioning, that is in our expectation for films to tell us a story, that we take the strike at the Salumi plant seriously. In the first place, the plant is not plant at all, but a film set, and not a very convincing one at that. Most of the action scenes in this film are also hard to take seriously. The later ones of the students rioting look like poorly directed "set pieces": we hear the students yell, but we can see that they aren't really yelling. The police and the students beat upon one another, but only half-heartedly, as if they were acting in a scene.

We are further mistaken if we take the bar scene toward the end as the final scene in Jacques and Suzanne story. In the first place, it is a very stylized scene, in which nothing approaching a narrative exists. In the second place, it's not the end of the film; this scene is followed by a tracking shot of a street, a brick wall, and a railroad siding. The sound is composed of a mindless popular song about the sun shining on France, and some rather curious Delphic utterances about history. If this is a successful film, we should, as I know I did, come out of this film saying "What is this movie about?, that is what is the story of this film?" I would like to say three things about what this movie is about.

First, to repeat, there is absolutely, no reason why films should tell us a story. Although virtually every film you will ever see tells a story, there is nothing about film which requires that it tells a story. Think about, for example, some other forms of artistic expression: sculpture, or painting, or opera. In the nineteenth century all of these art forms "narrated" to a certain extent. A sculptor may sculpt a ballerina, or a famous historical figure. Painting may represent say, an event from the French revolution or Napoleon. Wagner's operas were based upon archaic German legends. In each of these instances the art form in question imitated something from what we call real life: people, historical events or the legends of a nation. In the twentieth century, however, all three of these arts went in for what is called nonrepresentational subjects. Think of Henry Moore in sculpture, Jackson Pollock in painting, or Schoenberg in music. Nowadays we don't expect any of these art forms to narrate anything; it even seems antithetical to their nature. We wouldn't go to a gallery, look at a piece of nonrepresentational sculpture and ask what novel it was based on, or who this is supposed to represent. What Godard is trying t o do in film is to free it from this seemingly accidental connection with narrative. Film consists of a moving image, which is sometimes augmented with sound. While it is within the nature of language to narrate, I'm sure we can think of examples in which even language does not narrate, such as the novels by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Godard is not twisting or bending the nature of film when he makes a movie; what he is attempting to do is eliminate the accidental relation that has developed historically between film and stories.

Film shouldn’t have to narrate any more than sculpture, painting or opera. Indeed, perhaps it is an actual distortion of the medium to make it narrate. That being said, let me say a second thing about Tout va Bien. That is that one thing this film seems to be about is not that film needn’t stories, but that there is an eternal tension between the many possibilities for film, and our expectations as film viewers for movies to tell stories. To put it another way, we may recognize intellectually that there s nothing about a film that requires it to tell a story, but we always expect film to tell a story. By way of analogy, imagine yourself again in an art gallery. You come upon three pieces of burlap, a dead car battery, and a torn picture of Marilyn Monroe. You assume since you are in an art gallery that this is a work of art rather than a trash dump. You approach the piece and look at the title: Number 67: Homage to James Worthy. What is this fellow trying to say? Who knows? (Who cares? you might say). We cannot rest content looking at this art work; we always find ourselves asking what is it about? In this imaginary case, of course, there is no answer to such a question. But in the ease of Tout va Bien there is an answer. One of the things that this film is about is the relation between the almost accidental connection between film and narrative, and our eternal desire for all films to have a narrative. When we ask, what is Tout va Bien about, what it is about may not have anything to do with unions or love stories, but about the nature of film. Film’s only requirement as an art is that is show us something, not tell us something, in this way is similar to sculpture. When we ask it to tell us something, we are revealing more about our limited expectations for film rather than about something that film must do, and in Godard’s case, isn’t doing. The third thing I would like to say about the relation between stories and film is this. Novels communicate their truth to us in a peculiar way. There is usually a story in a novel, and most of us, I think, read novels not because they are forms of art, but because they contain good stories. Our interest in novels lies in what happens in the story. If we read an entertaining story then we are entertained. However, when we consider a novel as a work of art, we are saying that the man who wrote the book is trying to communicate something to us that is not on the level of the story. If he wanted simply to tell us something, he would write an essay. Instead, he chooses to write a novel because what he has to say can't simply be communicated directly. We usually refer to what the author is trying to communicate is the theme of the novel, which may not have much to do with the plot of the novel. Instead, the theme emerges out of certain repetitive elements in the work which we call motifs. For example, Huck Finn and Jim may be floating down a river. The river obviously functions in the plot as a means of carrying them away from Aunt Polly. But if we consider the novel Huckleberry Finn to be a work of art, this river means something entirely different on a thematic level. The river serves as a motif and a series of these motifs in turn communicate a theme to us. As I say, a readers of novels for entertainment and distraction we are not usually concerned with motifs and themes that are supported by a narrative; we are concerned only with the narrative, the story. Let me use this structure of narrative, motif, and theme as an analogy to Godard’s films. What he does in his films, such as La Chinoise or, to a certain extent, in Tout va Bien, is give us only visual motifs whose function is to communicate the theme of the film. There is little or no supporting narrative at all. He is attempting to show us that what we should be looking for in his films is not a story, but certain visually repetitive structures, motifs, which themselves will communicate what he is trying to communicate, that is, the theme. For example in Tout va Bien, the tracking camera shots, the fake sets, the peculiar sounds, the consciously bad editing, the funny camera angles, all have absolutely nothing to do with the story of this movie, whatever that is. Instead, through a comparison of the repetitions of these intrusive techniques we can discover what Godard has to say. And what I think that Godard has to say is something about the relation of Art, and specifically films, to life, and specifically to politics. I will conclude with two observations, one about the relation of film to politics for Godard, and what this means about the nature of film as an art form for Godard.

I began this lecture by referring to Bonnie and Clyde, Annie Hall, and Breathless, and talked about the question of whether Life imitates art. On a very primitive level, life does imitate art, on the level of styles of dress, bits of dialogue, and so forth. These forms of imitation have to do with the content of a film. I think that Godard is really convinced that life does imitate art, but on a much more sophisticated level than monkey see, monkey do. Godard believes that Art imitates Life on the level of form, not content.

You have probably heard that Godard is a Marxist, or a leftist, or a Communist, or a Maoist, or whatever. Regardless of what is his precise political orientation, he agrees with the Marxists on several points: (1) that we have in a class society, (2) that this class society is a form of oppression, oppression in which the rich, who own the means of production of goods make wage slaves out of the rest of society, and (3) that this is a bad situation and must be changed. He furthermore believes that this oppressive economic structure affects all levels of human interaction, from being in love, as were Jacques and Suzanne, to working in a factory such a Salumi to making works of art, such as a film.

He believes that films that tell a story, narrative films, are a manifestation of the evil economic structure that has enslaved the Western world. Obviously, if the bosses of this world think about what sort of art they want, they want a form of art which would make the wage slaves forget their slavery. They want films which entertain, not ones which make people think. Thinking is dangerous, and might upset the economic structure which has made the bosses rich and powerful. They want people to go to movies to see stories which convince them that everything is okay in the world. If life imitates art, then movies with people singing, dancing and falling in and out of love will act like opium, and narcotize the movie going population into staying in their little dream world while they’re not working. If you can be happy going to a film and them buying a dress just like Diane Keaton wore, and be happy about it, then you are not only perpetuating a system of capitalist oppression by remaining passive, you are helping it along by buying the dress.

Godard realizes as did Brecht before him, that it is very easy to get drawn into the narrative of a film. Consequently he wants to make it hard, if not impossible to get taken in, because stories are a bourgeois art form. He is seeking not a new content to movies, but a new form. Why? Because he believes that we do imitate movies, but what we do is imitate their form. If he could find a new form for film, he would be doing his part as an artist to break up the economic system that he despises. If he could get you to leave the theater talking not about how cute William Hurt is, but talking about the form of films and their function in society, he will be doing his part as an artist in transforming society. Consequently, if you are bored at a Godard film, what that boredom represents is how deeply enslaved you are to the material world and the capitalist system that has produced it. Leaving a Godard film for a few quick ones is tantamount to perpetuating an oppressive system. If, instead, you are simply frustrated, this at least means that you take the film seriously enough to try and figure out what it means. But there is a level of "figuring it out," and there is a level of imitation of its form. If the troubling and upsetting form of a Godard film can in turn change the form of your consciousness, then you are in a sense imitating the film, but on a much more sophisticated level than shopping for clothes like the movie stars wear. You would be bringing about a transformation in society by bringing about a transformation in your consciousness. And that is Godard’s aim.

To conclude, let me say a word or two about what Godard thinks film is as art form. If as I hope I have shown, film has no necessary connection to narrative, then obviously its function as an art form is not to tell a story. To use a few sixty four dollar words, let me say that for Godard, film is an affective imitative structure. That is, film is not a self-contained organic form which refers only to itself, but it is affective; it seeks to change the people who see it. It is imitative, in that in Godard's case it imitates the form of a free consciousness, and, in doing, should in turn cause a change in the consciousness of those who see it, since as I said, it is also affective. There is a circular (the big word is dialectical) relationship between film and consciousness. And Godard, who is an artist, is attempting to structure his films in such a way that they mirror the "free consciousness"that he is privy to as an artist, for the purpose of liberating the consciousness of the moviegoers who see his films.

I began this lecture by stating that its thesis is that Godard is not interested in telling us stories, but teaching us how to see. For him, seeing is a political act; what we see both in film and life, is conditioned by the political system of the capitalist West is corrupt, he wants to change that system. Because he is an artist, he believes that he can best change that system by producing artistic works whose form is radically different from those works produced by bourgeois capitalist film directors. He believes that since we are all imitative creatures, if he produces films with a radically different form, seeing this form will have a corresponding effect on how we see things, not just films, but also our work and love relationships, in short; films of this sort will change our political attitudes. Godard is a cinematic and political revolutionary, but his "politics" has nothing to do with his political opinions, but with the form of his film. Consequently, we should not go looking to the comment of his films, that is, the mise en scene, but the form of his films if we seek to understand what his politics are. Godard is, I think, worthy of our attention because he offers his films opportunities to reflect upon some of the deeper questions about the relation of art to life.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford