My first summer in Paris, one of my many zeniths was when the night arrived where I would finally see Godard — a new Godard, yet! — in not just Paris but a small cinema hall in an artsy theater-cinema-bar complex in the neighborhood where Camus and Hemingway used to live a few steps from the Luxembourg Garden. The film was “Eloge d’Amour,” freshly minted from Cannes and faithful to Godard’s credo that cinema isn’t just filming plays but using the camera as a pen. Autrement dit, the medium is the message. The film started at the end and worked its way to the beginning; and the first half was filmed in black and white, the second shot in color with a digital camera, the enhanced color possibilities part of the focus. Along the way, Godard got in a swipe at Hollywood blockbusters; one of the characters, a young female producer type, is (as I recall) interviewing a Holocaust survivor in France, and at some point picks up the camera to check in with Spielberg.
But the surprise came offstage, in the audience. This was the film’s first release; if it was being shown in New York in such circumstances, the line would be around the block. Here in Paris — in Paris, birth of the New Wave! — it was being shown in the tiniest salle in the building to all of ten people. In the first week of release! Not only that, I, fresh off the boat in France, knowing hardly a word of French, was perched on the edge of my seat with my mouth open in a constant incroyable for the entire 90 minute duration, while my friend Sabine, not only French but an actress to boot, spent the whole time clutching her hair in frustration. In effect, the French person found the film too intellectual, and the American guy was enthralled — not because he’s an intellectual, but because of the richness of the images. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have gotten more out of the film if I spoke French, but rather, for Godard the premiere language is the film and it spoke to me.
Flash forward to this week when, with it’s regular host on vacation, the morning show of France Culture — France Culture the state-owned radio station — has taken a frustrating sharp turn to the middle-brow. Earlier this week, the guest was the author of a new book on blacks in France, who was immediately hamstrung by the host, who began by stating, “Of course, in France we’re universalist.” In other words, we were about to discuss the problems of one racial group in a state where officialdom still refuses to acknowledge that race matters, a 60-year legacy of France’s collective guilt over deporting any and everyone with a trace of Jewish blood to their deaths. Then yesterday, May Day, with at least three huge topical newsy angles to choose from — the 40th anniversary of May ’68, the recent push by sans papier workers to get their papers and the unique decision by France’s biggest and long-time quarreling unions to march together in the parade (at the front of which were the sans papiers workers), who does France Culture choose for a guest? A guy that, basically, has written the French version of How to succeed in business without really trying.
But today was the worse. If I told you the special guest is a, er, supposedly professor, who animates weekly seances on cinema and philosophy, your first reaction might be great, how French, how meaty, Godard, Godard, and Godard. But no, apparently, this pseudo-philosopher sees Descartes and Spinoza in the Matrix and Fight Club. (Predictably, in seances at MK2, one of the more insidious chains.) Godard didn’t come up until the last half hour free-for-all, when Olivier Duhamel asked the man if Godard ever made it into his sermons. “I’ve avoided Godard,” said the philo-punk, “who tends to make the cinema a classroom and rend the cinema more difficult to access.” After a pause, he admitted, almost condescendngly, “Actually, I don’t know Godard that well, and I try not to talk about things I don’t know.” If the young man doesn’t see a connection between the cinema of Godard and philosophy, if the young man thinks Godard wants to turn the cinema into a classroom, the young man understands little about the potential of either.