Jean-Luc Godard talks language, information, virus and semantics on Instagram Live
by Elena Lazic
- Lionel Baier, of ECAL University of Art and Design in Lausanne, talked to the legendary director for more than 90 minutes
Though not altogether new to the technology, legendary French director Jean-Luc Godard surprised the world on Tuesday when he appeared on Instagram Live, talking to Lionel Baier, head of the cinema department at ECAL University of Art and Design in Lausanne, the Swiss city where the director resides. Baier and Godard, together with frequent collaborator Fabrice Aragno, were all actually in the same room at Godard’s house, with Baier and Aragno wearing face masks, which the director remarked made them look “like figures in a James Ensor painting”.
The long and wide-ranging conversation lasted over 90 minutes, with nearly 4,000 viewers watching at any given time. While most of the comments simply expressed gratitude for this rare opportunity to have such direct access to the mythical figure of cinema, the conversation was just as complex and exciting as any of Godard’s most recent work.
Godard compared the virus causing the current health crisis to the spread of information, explaining that “a virus is a form of communication, it needs another… When you send a message, even on a social network, you need the other in order to get into his house.” This idea of reciprocity in communication soon brought him to the topic of language itself, which is of course one of the favourite themes of the director of Goodbye to Language.
Answering Baier on the question of how TV journalists might have changed in this time of confinement, as they are forced to present the news from their home, the French director discussed the inevitably distorted nature of news hosts’ words, who are not only reading the words of others, but whose words themselves are not, according to his definition, language but speech — essentially bad photocopies of language.
Indeed, for Godard, language is “a mix of talk of images”, and it is a lack of images in the speech of journalists and politicians that he deplores.
The use of language has always fascinated the filmmaker, who claims he “stopped talking for a year or two” when he was around 15 years old - to the horror of his family - after he read Brice Parin’s Research on the Nature and the Functions of Language. But this refusal to speak thankfully did not last, and to these bad uses of language, the director proposed good ones: those of “three quarters of good writers [...] who do with language something other than the common man,” as well as painters, “who have never made copies.”
What emerged several times throughout this conversation was a rejection of the idea that speech and words should be copies of reality, as well as a profound desire to return to a pictorial alphabet, which would come closer to painting. “I do not believe in speech so much anymore. I think that what is wrong — but how could we change it? — is the alphabet. There are too many letters, we would have to delete lots of them, and to then move on to something else, which is what painters have always done.”
Naturally, Godard was quick to link this rejection of copies to photography — which seeks to capture, or copy, reality — and therefore to cinema: “When [Nicéphore] Niépce invented photography, he didn’t know that he was making a copy.” But the filmmaker also recognised the scientific quality that this confers upon cinema: like directors, scientists “research, and they have an eye, via the microscope or their drawings.” Like him, scientists are men of action, and not of words. The difference, for Godard, is that scientists always have to eventually fall back into speech, “to get tangled up in words and numbers.”
Cinema, meanwhile, “allows us to be a little more versatile,” to mix scientific and artistic approaches, and he claims to be happy he found cinema as a kind of “antibiotic to words”. Discussing his own mixing of clips of films, of literature, of paintings, he quoted Robert Bresson: “to bring together things that do not have connections between them”, explaining that his book Notes on the Cinematographer was “a real bible for us at the time.” However, be careful. He nevertheless encouraged those making films to ask themselves “what Niépce perhaps didn’t ask himself: why do I want to reproduce a memory of this?”, and thus not to fall back into simple and thoughtless copy.
In addition to these complex reflections about language and cinema, Godard related several anecdotes, in turns touching, scathing and amusing from his career. He gave us a welcome reminder of what exactly is the ‘politique des auteurs’. “It was in response to production companies, who thought that just in the same way there are authors for books, there were authors for films, and that they were a film’s screenwriter or screenwriters. And we said, no, the auteur is the director, whether he is a good director or not.” With the crucial addition, often well forgotten, “But then, and I still believe this, there is no need to think of the ‘auteur’ together with all the rights, prerogatives and celebrations that often go with it.”
Another change since the Nouvelle Vague was his rather provocative opinion on the teaching of filmmaking: “At the time of the Nouvelle Vague, I thought that cinema had to be taught in universities. Today, in France, you need to study for many years after the Baccalaureate, so I say, stay home!”
When Baier asked him whether he missed his friends from the Nouvelle Vague, Godard immediately replied that yes, he missed them a lot. “Because we talked a lot. Now, almost not at all. We talk of films, when there is a film to be made.” Then he realised, with a smile, “actually, no, things aren’t that different now, because we never used to talk about our personal lives with [François] Truffaut or [Jacques] Rivette, just a little bit with [Éric] Rohmer!” It seems indeed that what truly brought them together was cinema, as he continued: “We went to the cinema a lot at the time, each in our own way. Rivette could spend a whole afternoon rewatching films four times. I was watching four or five films a day, sometimes just bits of films. It was another way of doing it. We were a team though; even with [Claude] Chabrol” — despite the fact that he does not consider the latter to ever have been an auteur.
Finally, he talked about his next project, which seemed at an already quite advanced stage judging by the many pencils and pieces of paper visible in his living room. This new film, which will “imagine that the director of the Bastille Opera is the Queen of Sheeba” will include famous pre-existing music from composers such as Bizet, but also original music composed for the film — something the director hasn’t done for several years.
The conversation can be watched in its entirety on Youtube.
(Translated from French)
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