The obsessives

There’s a new book out about the life of Jean-Luc Godard called Everything Is Cinema. Richard Schickel wrote a review of it, but it’s as much a criticism of Godard’s style of filmmaking as it is a critique of the book.

Godard shook up the bland, traditional film industry as part of the French new wave movement starting in the late 1950s. He gave us the jump cut and tore up the idea of continuity. He helped to change the idea of what we can accept aesthetically when we watch a movie, and that enabled the art to take chances with how a story can be constructed.

I’ll get back to that in a minute, but first — I especially liked this part of Schickel’s article:

I‘m not arguing that traditional melodrama is the only worthwhile model for moviemaking. Rather the opposite. The current bankruptcy of the medium — the American craze for special effects, the rest of the world’s reversion to, yes, “the tradition of quality” — is a direct result of caution and uninteresting calculation. But good movies, movies that leave a permanent mark on our imaginations, are not made in the Godard mode. They are made by obsessives, by directors who shut out the distractions of the outside world and fret endlessly over every aspect of their films. The best of these directors eventually achieve thematic and stylistic coherence — whether they are Hitchcock or Bergman, Hawks or Kubrick — and, for better or worse, auteur status. They are aesthetic conservatives, people who find their ground and work it until it is overgrazed: Then, they sit back to watch others imitating them. Unlike Godard, they show almost no interest in advancing the cause of cinema in general, of finding new topics for it to take up, new methods of expressing themselves on the screen. Implicit in their work is the notion that everything is not cinema, that there are matters better suited to other forms — essays, painting, music, even pulp fiction.

This hits squarely on something I think about a lot when it comes to art, but I would extend the idea to all art forms. The “obsessives” are the ones I most appreciate in any art. When I think of my favorite writers, filmmakers and musicians, they’re usually those who have crafted something that I find exquisite. This isn’t a very popular perspective to have these days because we’re flooded with the idea that lo-fi rendering is somehow more real. If I remember back to my grad school readings, I think it has something to do with economics and issues of power. It’s seen as more valuable to break from lofty pursuits of aesthetic “quality” because those notions have been defined by those who supply the paychecks.

I can accept this to a certain degree. We do need to occasionally shake off the cobwebs. We need to find new perspectives and new ways of stretching things. Creativity should be available to everyone. I understand this intellectually. But I also find that such efforts are too often more clever than they are compelling, and rarely if ever move me emotionally. As Martin Scorsese once said about Godard: “He’s too hip for me.” And with some of these movements in post-WWII modernism/postmodernism, there is a hipster code at work that pulls things into their own kind of exclusive cliques. When music and film becomes like fashion something’s gone wrong. You have to ask yourself which is worse, aloof conservativism or snooty antiestablishmentarianism?

I’ll take neither, thank you. I appreciate what Schickel seems to be advocating — those who exist outside of all of that. This unnamable place is where you find those who find their own voice, who have the courage to try and to care, and who aren’t afraid to chase something beautiful.


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