A Godard Preview

Bridget Bardot, luminous in "Contempt."

There are known and remarked upon annus mirabilis in art forms—art has 1913, writing has 1921, film has 1939 and 1972—and there are years that show remarkable evolutionary leaps forward. The 1960s had many form-expanding films, but none were more so than the fourteen Jean-Luc Godard made between 1960 and 1967, each in its own way a kind of miracle in the advance of cinema. Most people know by now that Breathless, his first feature in 1960, introduced the jump cut. But what is at least as interesting is that the film gave us a strangely alive sense of a present tense for the first time since perhaps D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin.

In Godard’s case, each scene was both composed and nervily (sometimes nervously) improvised: a film, as Godard would later say, is also the documentary of the film. The combination gave the film a revolutionary sense of being made and being made on the side: a major new work that was also an aside.

Godard’s remark that his films were also documentaries has been quoted often, and out of context it can sound glib or even joke-y. But it takes up one of his recurring interests, the time in cinema that splits between what is captured forever and lost as it flickers past our eye.

Films from Europe and Japan had been introducing American audiences to a more consciously artful moviemaking at least since Rashomon in 1951. But no one before Godard had the style or the temerity to seemingly throw away scenes of a film, to make them feel so caught, so hip-shot or snap-shot. Watching the moves of the cinematographer Raul Coutard’s camera, themselves alive to moments (and learned when he was a wartime newsreel photographer), we can find ourselves back in the moment of the scene, back in its time.

Director and actress, on the set of "Contempt."

Part of the miracle of his early films is this sense of present-ness in the images combined with only a few of the customary pleasure of watching story and character. If you are looking for astonishing combinations of the artificial and the natural you will no doubt feel, through these films, that you have come into a garden.

In Contempt, working with the largest budget he would get in the 1960s, and with international stars—Fritz Lang, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, and, above all, Bridget Bardot—he made a gorgeous Pop Art tryptich about cinema, sex, Homer, the Aegean, the death of a marriage, and mordantly funny, and whimsical, tracking shots. This is the film I’ll introduce, with some more notes, this Saturday.

Lyall Bush is executive director of Northwest Film Forum and an adjunct faculty member of Seattle University’s Film Studies program, where he teaches international cinema, including a seminar on Godard in 2015. In his previous position as executive director of the literary arts center, Richard Hugo House, he raised the profile of the organization, re-focusing the mission on new writing and creating the Hugo Literary Series. Previously he has also directed film festivals and directed a year-long college course for adults in poverty. He has also written and published on films (and filmmakers) for over a decade. In addition to his work at Northwest Film Forum he is at work on a memoire and a collection of short stories.

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