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“In Movies, Comedy and Tragedy Are All the Same”: Jean-Luc Godard Interviewed by Hal Hartley


In Spring of 1994, as Filmmaker began its third year of publication, we received a call: would we be interested in interviewing Jean-Luc Godard? Yes, we excitedly said, and when Hal Hartley agreed to be the interviewer, and the interview was a go, we made the film our cover. (In Filmmaker’s history, it’s sandwiched between Rose Troche’s Go Fish and Rick Linklater’s Before Sunrise.) Rereading the interview today, I’m struck — although I shouldn’t be! — by the prescience of Godard’s musings on the future histories of cinema, the ways that it will be mediated by technology and its changing relationship to audience, as well as by this interview’s blend of melancholy and humor. (And I’m certainly glad that Godard kept working with vitality past some of the time markers he himself cites below.) With today’s very sad news that Jean-Luc Godard died in Switzerland at the age of 91, the complete text of this interview is being posted on this site for the first time. R.I.P. Jean-Luc Godard. — Editor

In the world of independent film, the element of dependence– whether it be financial or aesthetic– is perhaps as important, if not more so, than the drive for independence. For Hal Hartley, whose fourth feature, Amateur, will be released this spring by Sony Classics, and whose cool style and comic irony can now be detected in a new generation of filmmakers, it is the earlier figure of Jean-Luc Godard who stands as a kind of mentor. Indeed it is Godard’s slapsitck, critical, and more often than not, adoring relation to images that so clearly showed the way for Hartley and so many others. In New York for the opening of his new works, JLG/JLG and Histoire(s) du cinema, as part of the traveling Gaumont Exhibition of French Film, Godard meets his protege for the first time. But in the world of dependence these independent filmmakers have certainly met before, if only in the images they take from others and in the ones they leave behind. — Peter Bowen

Thursday, May 5, 1994, 9 AM, the Essex House Hotel, NYC

Hartley: I saw your self-portrait film (JLG/JLG) yesterday afternoon and I wanted to bring someone with me. As it turned out, I brought my friend Martin Donovan, who’s an actor I’ve worked with quite often. He knows I have a high regard for your work, but he hasn’t seen that much of it. His initial response was, well, he laughed almost continuously.

Godard: (laughs)

Hartley: And he came out feeling you were the funniest person he’d seen since Groucho Marx.

Godard: I think it’s a compliment

Hartley: Well, I thought it was. Regardless of whatever else your films might be doing, to me it seems you have a sense of humor that people don’t talk about enough. I was curious about the things that make you laugh.

Godard: Why you can laugh at, I mean, just the fact that you are a human being. Living, it can be sad too. I like both slapstick and contradiction. Like philosophers. It makes me laugh when you bring two things together which have nothing to do with one another. In movies, comedy and tragedy are all the same. I’m a great admirer of Jerry Lewis for this very reason. Especially the very last one, Smorgasbord. And the other one he made just before, it was a flop here — called Hardly Working. I think laughter comes because things are hardly working.

Hartley: I see (humor) in the smallest things: in the self portrait, you sitting down at the desk to write out your thoughts; or in Helas pour moi the girl dropping the bike; or in any number of things. That’s what I go to the movies for I’m finding, that kind of activity.

Godard: That came from the beginning. It was moving. Movies. It can’t be done in theater of in a novel. It’s action. Action can make you laugh. But just because you are glad. Even if there is no meaning.

Hartley: Is that your home in JLG/JLG?

Godard: That’s my apartment, yes.

Hartley: In your work since the mid-’80s there seems to be a serene but rigorous contemplation of nature. Not only is it something different from your earlier work, but it has something I don’t see in anyone else’s work — this intensity. Was there a certain point at which you recognized this too? Do you think it has anything in particular to do with age?

Godard: It’s coming back to my homeland, both French and Swiss, because at Lake Geneva, one side is French and the other is Swiss. My maternal grandfather had a house on the French side and my father’s parents were on the Swiss. We would cross the lake just sometimes to go to lunch. I have two countries, this lake and Paris. Going from one exile to the other one. There are two kinds of homeland: one that is given is like a negative, and one that you have to conquer is like the positive.

Hartley: To me, the nature in your films seems to be the visible aspect of something quite spiritual. It has that kind of impact for me.

Godard: If I may say so, it is just an image. It’s like the body. And words and action in movies are the spirit or the mind. And these days the body is almost completely forgotten. In the beginning the body — nature — was more part of the action. It has no meaning today if you put Clint Eastwood in the mountains in Nevada. It has nothing to do with the story. It has just been decided by agents or lawyers. And before the war, and just after the war, it still had a meaning. Now it has disappeared. On TV you can’t show landscapes. You just can’t. Even a postcard is better. (Landscapes) are too close to painting. And TV has nothing to do with painting. It’s just transmission. And you can’t transmit a landscape, happily enough.

Hartley: When I was making Trust, I was working with quite a small budget

Godard: What was your budget?

Hartley: $700,000.

Godard: Yes, it is a low budget. When I have a low budget I always try to make it a lesson in economy. I learned from Rossellini that you are rich even if you have a little money. If you have $300,000 to shoot a cigarette on a table, it’s an enormous amount of money. Maybe that’s why my movies are the way they are. But it’s the only way I can make a living. Because my movies are not successful, they are not shown. So I make a living from the budget.

With Trust, as with every picture I have made, I asked myself, “How does a human body fit into this?” And I extended this exercise to the point where the question was: “How do I make a landscape shot that’s still a picture of a human body?” I don’t know if I succeeded, but it did focus my attention. Anyway, (Trust) is a movie I like on TV, and it has no landscapes.

Godard: No, TV can’t. Even with painting, even abstract paintings, you need the incoming of, light on the canvas. There are different kinds of painting, some with lights and some without, but still if you look at any painting here (in the light) and then over here (out of the light) it’s an entirely different thing. The consciousness of this came to the Impressionists and I’m very interested in that. I’ve decided that what interests me most is that you can only capture the light at a certain time. But after that, five minutes after that, then it’s a different thing. So if you don’t have the right aperture, you’ve missed it. Of course, you can correct it in the lab. But not really. So it’s a feeling of light. And this coming of the light has to do with the subject too. Because the light goes through, through the character and the action and what you describe. That’s why I said yesterday to someone that the landscapes — the tree or the road — the ones I know of, finally they are the only characters I know really. The human characters I don’t know. So there is both something I know and something I don’t know. And I put them together.

Hartley: I like to think I’m learning to commit myself more to that moment of choosing the f-stop. Making that choice at the moment.

Godard: At the moment of the light. The position for me is the place now to put the camera. It’s very easy. It’s to be in front of light. I would never do a shot like that [makes framing gesture towards the back of the room, away from the windows] because the light is here. Because you go to where the light is coming from. Like in the Bible. The shepherds were going in the direction of the star. And then the characters are found in the shade with the light behind them. And you approach the shade. With electronics, this is disappearing a little. Because there is no light in electronincs. There is lightening. But lightening is not real light. So when the film stock disappears, the matter — because movies are matter — (disappears). The laws of this have been established by Newton, Einstein, and others: there is a correspondence between light and matter, and light is matter. And energy. So when I go in front of the light — go towards it — it is because it brings me energy. That’s all.

Hartley: What changes will occur if that matter, the film, goes away and we begin seeing electronically? Will it change the way we look?

Godard: I won’t be there. It will be new. I don’t know. I like it when it’s new, but the way it’s going is not that kind of newness. It’s bureaucracy. I mean, Hollywood was invented by hoodlums from central Europe. And today a Hollywood lawyer is not a hoodlum. He’s a bureaucrat.

Hartley: I take it you’d prefer him to be a hoodlum.

Godard: Of course. No, I have a great admiration for those Hollywood hoodlums. Like Harry Cohn, head of Colombia when he was discovering Kim Novak. Or Howard Hughes.

Hartley: Thalberg…

Godard: Even Thalberg. Thalberg was a genious. As I said in my first Histoire(s) du Cinema, he was the only one that was able to think at 30 pictures a day.

Hartley: This notion of changing technology interests me. I work on a computer now, and it’s not been easy to adjust. I still prefer to have my hands on film when I’m editing.

Godard: A computer for what?

Hartley: For editing.

Godard: Oh, yes, those kinds of things. I think it would be nice for me for the time being because at least you can do it at home, and you are sure that with almost no money you can do it in your kitchen. So it’s a way of being secure. But it depends. The projector will soon disappear. The camera, not really. OK, it depends…it depends on change.

Hartley: Back at the cutting room, we’ve come to think the most interesting thing about all this is the possibility of changing notions of distribution. The distribution of electronic information.

Godard: I read an article where they say you can choose a movie from (your) hotel room. You can choose a (D.W.) Griffith (film), and then after that you can have a pizza. But, you know, probably, there won’t be any Griffith. You can see any movie you want to see! But no! There is no Griffith!

Hartley: But think about filmmakers distributing their films themselves, directly from the computer.

Godard: I won’t like it. I don’t believe it will be a huge screen. It’s not done for that. And anyway, in Europe, the houses and the apartments are getting smaller. So there is no need to increase the screen because the apartment is becoming smaller.

Hartley: But I’m intrigued. Perhaps I’m just optimistic.

Godard: Projection will disappear. And the possibility that was given by motion pictures will be missed. The possibility of there being a real audience– a group of people who have nothing in common, but, at a certain time of the day or the week, are able to look with other unknown neighbors at something bigger than they are. To look at their problems in big. Not in small. Because if it’s small, you can’t…It was big, so it was evident. And in the beginning there was not even talking. There was no need for that. Because it was more evident if there was no talking. Only in sports does there remain this fervor, which can even become violent. There’s this desire to see something big.

Hartley: But collectively.

Godard: Yes, collectively.

Hartley: The excitement is in the crowd.

Godard: Yes, but in the movies it is different. You can be with other people, which is ideal, or you can be alone. But to be alone with other people, and not to forget yourself within yourself. And when there’s 100 people around you can’t really forget yourself. Now, this will disappear, obviously.

Hartley: That’s sad.

Godard: Yes, it’s sad for us. But now at my age I understand how sad it must have been for some directors or actors at the time the talkies began. Because, really, a whole continent disappeared.

Hartley: In part “2B” of Histoire(s) du Cinema you say to, I guess it’s Serge Daney…

Godard: Yes. It was about five years ago, before he was getting sick.

Hartley: You tell him how you think the history of cinema is the greatest history that can be told because it can project.

Godard: It’s the only one. It’s the only way to do history.

Hartley: A bit further on in the same episode, there’s a female voice reciting something to the effect that, the strange thing about the living dead of this world is that their reflections and their sensations come from before.

Godard: Because there is a new world coming and this new world is very rude. This new world which is being born is cynical and amnesiac. And it has eliminated perspective. And its escape point…

Hartley: The vanishing point?

Godard: Yes, but, no. That’s right — its escape point, its vision of a future. So we are in the twentieth or the twenty-first century, but all the thinking, if you speak to one of those people keen on technology — you see that all their thinking is two centuries old. In cinema, you can show this. Einstein was a contemporary of Stravinsky. But he was also a contemporary of Griffith and Feuillade. If we think today the way TV is ordering us to think, we think of Einstein as someone modern. Stravinsky is modern music, but it came at the time of Birth of a Nation, which is an old movie. All our thinking constitutes the new world, but all our thoughts are older and older.

Hartley: Sometimes I think our aims are still old. All the discoveries seem to be discoveries of means. I think perhaps I’m conservative in that way. I wonder if there is anything to discover. I mean, things that are not superficial. We discover and invent new ways of finding out the same old things.

Godard: There is no more discovery. Not since the beginning of this century. There are new gadgets. New important gadgets.

Hartley: Towards the end of JLG/JLG you talk a little about the desire to become universal.

Godard: It’s a sentence I took from an old French philospher. If I’m speaking it means that in one way or another when I say, “I’m cold” it belongs to me: I’m cold. But just by saying this it becomes general.

Hartley: It struck me that perhaps yourself as legend is a bit of a bore to you and maybe a hindrance to work.

Godard: Yes sometimes the way it is used. The way we are obliged to (be one). But now I am still able to make work. It is part of my making a living out of it, so it’s a bit OK. That’s my way. I think I’m innocently representing a certain belief in motion pictures, and, well OK.Even with a small video we will always be able to do a small movie with friends and to show it to someone. You won’t get the Oscar for it. But, after all, why are you writing and why are you filming? So it will be possible. And I’ve always said that to make movies, to make images and sound, is possible by one way or another. And it has not to be ruled by the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Pharaohs from Hollywood or wherever. I have tried very hard to make even a small budget picture here. It always fails. Over a dozen times. And now I know why. It was only because I wanted to be in control of the money. To spend it the way I wanted. It was like my father when I asked him for money. He would say, “Tell me what you want to do and I will buy it.” And I said, “No, I want the money.”

Hartley: Is your solitude very important to you?

Godard: Yes, it’s too much though. It’s part of my character, but now it’s too much. Especially in Switzerland, but in Paris too. Because I don’t like Paris or being in big cities. But then when you are out in the land, OK, you have the land but you are alone with it. And sometimes it is too much.

Hartley: That quality of nature in films which I brought up before, especially since Hail Mary, Nouvelle Vague and Helas Pour Moi

Godard: Now it’s over. It comes in periods of ten or twelve years. Because now, the place where we are living in Switzerland, we call it a studio. This place near the lake is Studio One, this other place is Studio Two. We have been everywhere–

Hartley: I like that about the films. The recurrence of certain places, images, even sounds. And, as an audience, you develop a sort of relationship to these things, these elements of the work. Like in Helas pour moi you use that excellent big piano chord and it shows up again in JLG/JLG. I like that continuity. Do you ever watch your films with audiences?

Godard: (shrugs “no”)

Hartley: You watch films alone all the time?

Godard: Well, since we are far from the town, and (even) in the town of Switzerland, it’s mainly American pictures. In Paris maybe it’s a little more democratic. You can see a little American or Egyptian movie if you want. Or old movies. Something that I like in movies, and I dislike too, is that they can’t be projected well. But movies will continue one way or another. Maybe on video. Even on video games. You have to look at it, if you have children, or if you are linked to children, because it’s new for them. This has not disappeared; the look of a child who is discovering the world, whatever it is. But the way we have done pictures has to be disappeared.

Hartley: Eventually? Or immediately?

Godard: It doesn’t matter. But we never thought that it would disappear. The silent film, it was cut at the age of thirty.

Hartley: I think that’s it. (The interview is scheduled to end at 10 AM.) It’s five to ten.

Godard: It’s OK, if you want more…

Hartley: Well, sure, if we don’t have to go?

Godard: Or, I don’t know. If you would like to have dinner with… do you know Tom Luddy?

Hartley: Tom Luddy? No.

Godard: No? You don’t? I’m having dinner with him. If you want to join us, he will be pleased. I will be pleased too. If you want to talk more informally. Because you are a director. You are coming to me. I know that I am old, because even if I think I’m younger than everyone– but that’s true– my way of hoping and continuing is that I am always in a younger position than the other one. We are equal at your first film. And now I have a feeling, I don’t know you of course– but what I am saying is, if you have made three or four films, my feeling is, he is older than me because I am still making my first movie. That helps me. It is nothing insulting, you understand.

Hartley: Not at all.

Godard: To see you come here, when I saw your name, it reminds me when I was in Venice in competition with a movie called A Married Woman and Antonioni was coming in with Red Desert. And I knew I would be beaten 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. He told me I am older than him still. But I will get younger.

Hartley: My new film is called Amateur, actually. And it’s a title used in that regard. An urge, you know, to see new. Yes, younger.

Godard: Is this the one that was not taken in Cannes this year?

Hartley: It was in the Director’s Fortnight.

Godard: Is it the one refused by Gilles Jacob?

Hartley: I guess.

Godard: Anne-Marie Mieville is one too.

Hartley: Oh?

Godard: Her film was refused by Gilles Jacob, yes.

Hartley: Is it in any of the other categories?

Godard: No. In a way, she was relieved, shocked by the refusal, but relieved by the refusal.

Hartley: I’m often uncertain of what’s expected of a movie. More and more, even with a measure of success, I’m not sure what it is people are seeing when they see a movie I’ve made.

Godard: Well the trouble with Hollywood is that it has poisoned us. If you see a poster of a movie it is mainly the picture of a woman and a man. Always a love story. Yes. But it shouldn’t be that way. It should be another (way).

Hartley: There’s got to be more.

Godard: More things to see through. It’s not astounding that it is more difficult. We are losing our own capacity because we are poisoned in one way or another. What I like in pictures whether by an old director or a young director is when I have the feeling he or she is really using the capacity of film.

Hartley: That’s what I feel I have to get to. Just looking without all the other needs of a movie. I mean, you’ve talked about this as clearly as anyone over the years. I don’t mean to flatter you, because I think it’s something you know. But I think your pictures bring out, underline the very fact, that we have this capacity to see with our eyes. And that this is a very amazing thing. I’d like to get there. I think maybe my first attempts at making moving pictures when I was like nineteen years old, in Super-8, did bring about this sense of mystery. The excitement of just getting an image of anything — a reflection in glass — to me that was the most exciting thing.

Godard: You have to continue and discover the grammar of things, of what we can see.

Hartley: Any particular reason why you decided to make a self portrait now?

Godard: Self-portraits have been done in painting, but never in music or literature. It has no meaning, it makes no sense. And in movies I was wondering if it could. And how.

Hartley: I guess it can. [Martin] Donovan came away from the film yesterday and said he felt like he had just spent a day with this stranger.

Godard: Yes. It’s a compliment. You can have a feeling of daytime. And that’s why I put “a self portrait in December”. If it was in July it would have been different. More or less the same kind of movie but not at all the same pictures. Not the same lake, not the same tree.

Hartley: Not the same thoughts.

Godard: Certainly not the same thoughts. These are the thoughts of this day.

Hartley: Your father was a doctor?

Godard: An ordinary doctor. A general practitioner. Which is less and less happening today. There are specialists.

Hartley: Everybody’s a specialist.

Godard: Yes, everybody’s a specialist, except of himself.

Jean-Luc Godard photographed for Filmmaker‘s Fall, 1994 cover by Gabor Szitanyi. 

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