[Part of VARIABLES, a series of essays on the art and politics of Jean-Luc Godard]
Before Jean-Luc Godard began his storied career as a film director, he was a critic for the influential magazine Cahiers du cinéma. Mentored by the great film theorist André Bazin, and working alongside other “young Turks” such as François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Godard wrote passionately and wrestled with issues of form and politics in cinema. The relationship between the content of a film and its form, and the extent to which both could be said to be political, would come to define much of his own work as a director. Indeed, filmmaking for Godard was a form of criticism, and an examination of his writing reveals much of this criticism at work.
One of Godard’s most well-known writings is “Towards a Political Cinema,” published in Gazette du cinéma in 1950. Like many of his later pieces for Cahiers du cinéma, “Towards a Political Cinema” is a very telling glimpse into a mind continually considering the meaning of film, and what its own contribution to the art form could be. While its tone is a bit hyperbolic, it is nonetheless an earnest and thoughtful examination of the formal elements of cinema.
Godard admires the Soviet film The Young Guard (1948) for the ramifications he sees beyond its images. For example, the image of a sudden outburst of tears has significance not only for its own emotional power, but also as a symbolic act. “[The shot] takes on its real function of sign, indicating something in whose place it appears.”
This idea of signs functioning as stand-ins characterizes many of Godard’s films. His 60s films, for example, frequently played with the concept of genre, utilizing symbolism to draw attention to narrative devices themselves. In Pierrot le fou, his jarring use of dramatic music calls attention to the purpose it serves, not only in his film, but in all films.
This recalls another of Godard’s critical assertions he made in a review of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much: “People say that Hitchcock lets the wires show too often. But because he shows them they are no longer wires. They are the pillars of a marvelous architectural design made to withstand our scrutiny.” Godard would often come to let the wires show in his films. By manipulating images and sounds, he demanded that audiences consider and wrestle with the significance of the wires themselves, not merely with the ideas that they symbolize.
“Towards a Political Cinema” also convinces us of the great importance he and other critics and filmmakers of his era placed in the filmic image, as an art form, a political tool and a cognitive device. We sense his profound belief in the power of film, for example, in his political reading of Soviet film: “No doubt only Russia feels at this moment that the images moving across its screens are those of its own destiny.”
Godard himself feels this destiny, the great importance of the image, and he makes it known to us through his films. “Towards a Political Cinema” urges viewers to think critically about the intense symbolic power of the filmic image, just as Godard’s future films will force viewers to confront the suggestive power of his own images.