6 Filmmaking Tips from Jean-Luc Godard

By  · Published on November 20th, 2014

Les Films Imperia

Jean-Luc Godard’s career has been devoted to both honoring and destroying cinema, to taking it apart and refitting it anew, and to making it speak against those who most often speak for it. Godard’s film’s have addressed a wide range of subjects – from Vietnam to prostitution to revolution to Jane Fonda – but they are, invariably, about cinema.

From his Molotov cocktail of a debut, Breathless, to his latest push at the boundaries of form, Goodbye to Language 3D, the former Cahiers du Cinema scribe and New Wave pioneer has made a career out of exploring what can be done with a device as powerful as cinema. At age 83, he remains a tireless essayist of the medium, constantly provoking , questioning and challenging, searching for new ways to redefine and deconstruct what makes cinema work.

So upon the release of his latest, here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the director who once said that “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.”

“Cinema is the Truth 24 Times a Second…”

“To photograph a face is to photograph the soul behind it. Photography is the truth. And the cinema is the truth 24 times a second.”

This quote, regularly credited to Godard himself, is from his second film, Le Petit Soldat, and uttered by Michel Sabor in his performance as an assassin for French Intelligence. The quote has been taken up, decontextualized and (as I’ve done above) severed from the last clause of its sentence as a sort of treatise of Godard and his view of what film can capture. Godard’s take on cinema’s relationship to reality was a bit more complex than this, as he expressed in a March 1968 interview with Gene Youngblood for the Los Angeles Free Press:

“…the movie is not a thing which is taken by the camera; the movie is the reality of the movie moving from reality to the camera.”

The presence of the camera is what produces cinema. Cinema thus exists well outside of the frame, and imbues a way of living and a way of seeing things. It tells us how to act and provides a mechanism for looking. Movies produce a reality all their own which is inseparable from the “reality” we see as supposedly distinct from its capturing.

“…And Every Cut is a Lie”

This is the final part of the quote from Le Petit Soldat, and a line that is often severed, but it’s as essential to understanding Godard’s approach to filmmaking (and filmgoing) as the prior collection of quotes. In one of his 1978 lectures at Concordia University in Montreal (collected in the volume “Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television”), Godard argues that editing, or “simply bringing things together,” is the essence of cinema.

And in Godard’s films, editing is where the devices of filmmaking are most blatantly exercised, from the jarring and kinetic jump cuts of Breathless to the lingering blank spaces in between shots in later work like In Praise of Love. If the frame is where the movie in front of the camera is captured, then the cut is where the personality of the director intercedes, dictating a viewer’s experience by controlling what they see and how they see it.

Nowhere is Godard’s assertion that cutting is the essence of cinema more apparent than in his late-career opus Histoire(s) du Cinema, a film of juxtaposed and often decontextualized films that are slowed down, obscured by text, and rendered as a montage. It is a work of making cinema with cinema – the existing images he uses are just as much a part of reality as their initial capturing, and by further editing them, he further participates in the essential project of filmmaking.

You Have to Distance Yourself in Order to See

Godard’s films are well known for their psychological and emotional distance from their characters. Instead of drawing us into the world of the film, as classical Hollywood often did, Godard’s work often alienates viewers from the narrative by making the mechanisms of filmmaking present. But it is through this process, as Godard told Dick Cavett in 1980, that the filmmaker can finally have a perspective on the subject being filmed. It is through the distancing capacities inherent in the mechanisms of cinema that allow us to see anew.

You can watch Godard’s continued explanation here.

Filmmaking is Criticism is Filmmaking

I don’t make a distinction between directing and criticism. When I began to look at pictures, that was already part of moviemaking. If I go to see the last Hal Hartley picture, that’s part of making a movie, too. There is no difference. I am part of filmmaking and I must continue to look at what is going on.”

You take part in the movie when you watch a movie. An audience takes part in your movie when they watch your film. All participate in its meaning.

It was hardly a leap, then, for Godard to move from film criticism to filmmaking, and it is between those spaces that he has continued to reside.

You Will Never Fully Understand the Potato

“In films, we are trained by the American way of moviemaking to think we must understand and ‘get’ everything right away. But this is not possible. When you eat a potato, you don’t understand each atom of the potato!” – from The Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 1994.

There Are No Rules. Ignore the Bells and Whistles That Say Otherwise.

In this interview taken from Cannes during the premiere of Goodbye to Language, Godard lists the many commercial cinematic technologies that have announced themselves as techniques of the medium, his latest film sporting one rather familiar technological attraction in particular. He argues that these terms create a false negative, a structuring absence of a supposedly “inferior” way of experiencing cinema. “3D” suggests that we do not already see two-dimensional images in three-dimensions, so Goodbye to Language uses the technology to confront the audience (and the medium) with something other than 3D’s commercial use.

Cinema, argues Godard, is “still an area where there are no rules.” The practices of commercial filmmaking, the presence of spectacular film technologies, and conventions of film production and advertising suggest that there may be rules, but these must be recognized as invented practices meant to serve ends other than cinema itself, which in turn limit cinema.


What We’ve Learned

Godard has been such a dedicated lifelong philosopher and provocateur of the medium that multiple entries of this column could be filled with his observations on cinema. But like cinema itself, Godard’s work and his relationship to form has shifted dramatically – in his politics and aesthetics, yes, but mostly in an attempt to continue to meet and challenge of cinema wherever it may find itself next. That’s how this octogenarian remains one of the most inventive filmmakers alive.

Godard’s career has moved from challenging Hollywood conventions in the 1960s to experimenting with video art in the 1980s to now exploring with digital technologies. For an adherent to cinema, Godard has never proven himself a purist for film. In fact, he’s done just the opposite, exploring how new technologies can be utilized to explore cinema anew, in heretofore untouched directions. Godard acknowledges that cinema is an unfixed practice, and he uses the inevitable changes that befall the medium as an opportunity to speak for expansive cinematic possibilities and against stratified, commercialized convention. Cinema, in all its forms, has for Godard been the most fitting platform for a critique of cinema.

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