December 19, 2018

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Jean-Luc Godard Is, Quietly, a Probing Musical Mind

Jean-Luc Godard Is, Quietly, a Probing Musical Mind
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For over half a century, Jean-Luc Godard has proved durably quotable on film, including his memorable commandment that “a movie should have a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order.”

Another maxim is voiced by Bruno Forestier, the protagonist of Mr. Godard’s second feature, “Le Petit Soldat”: “Photography is truth. And cinema is truth 24 times a second.”

Less remembered, though, is the stream of musical criticism that comes later that scene, in which Bruno takes photos of another character, Veronica Dreyer. When Veronica asks which of her records Bruno would like to use as the soundtrack for their afternoon shoot, he lets loose with a series of judgments.

“Bach?” she asks.

“No, it’s too late,” he answers. “Bach’s for eight in the morning.”

Soon after, she suggests: “Mozart? Beethoven?”

Bruno’s not into it. “Too early. Mozart’s for eight in the evening,” he says, adding, “Beethoven is for midnight.” He eventually settles on “good old Joseph Haydn” as the proper pairing.

Mr. Godard turns out to be a quietly probing musical mind. Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM Records, said in an interview that the director “is a very well-educated man, as far as classical music is concerned” — even though, Mr. Eicher added, he often “belittles” his own knowledge. “Film Socialisme” (2010) features a harshly struck piano chord from the composer Giya Kancheli; “Goodbye to Language” (2014) includes gloomy midnight moods worthy of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Starting with the 1990 film “Nouvelle Vague,” recordings from the ECM label have played a prominent role in Mr. Godard’s works, including his latest, “The Image Book,” which recently had its New York premiere at the New York Film Festival and will be released more widely in January by Kino Lorber. Mr. Eicher has released the full sound mixes (as opposed to soundtrack excerpts) of “Nouvelle Vague” and Mr. Godard’s multipart essay film “Histoire(s) du Cinema” on his label. ECM also made an early venture into the realm of DVD production by distributing a few short films credited to Mr. Godard and his partner, the filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville.

Speaking by phone from his office in Munich, Mr. Eicher recalled writing to Mr. Godard in the late 1980s; he had loved early Godard works like “Vivre Sa Vie” and “Band of Outsiders,” which features a classic moment of playful movie-sound innovation: During a scene in a cafe, after a trio of characters has resolved to stay completely silent for one minute, Mr. Godard erases all the room’s ambient noise.

Mr. Eicher said his letter brought a quick reply, and an invitation. Soon, he found himself being driven from Geneva to Mr. Godard’s studio in Rolle, Switzerland, where the filmmaker screened — in almost total silence — a rough draft of “Histoire(s) du Cinema,” and dropped the news of a coming narrative feature, “Nouvelle Vague.”

Not long after, Mr. Godard brought a pre-mix of the “Vague” soundtrack with him on a trip to Munich. “And we listened together to music,” Mr. Eicher said. “I even played him Meredith Monk, you know! Which is also, then, in the film. And other things: Kim Kashkashian [playing a] Hindemith sonata. And so he changed everything, and started the whole work again with music.”

The film is not currently available on home video. (If you have a region-free DVD player, keep an eye peeled for sensibly priced secondhand copies of the out-of-print French DVD release.) But as the writer Claire Bartoli vividly describes in her liner notes for ECM’s audio-only release, the soundtrack is fully sufficient. Ms. Bartoli, who is blind, also quotes Mr. Godard’s claim that “my film, if you listen to the soundtrack without the images, will turn out even better.”

Mr. Eicher cited a favorite collision of elements in the final sound design of a fateful car crash in the film. “This was so great, how the brakes were ‘tuned’ into the cello clusters of David Darling,” he said. “The juxtaposition, the whole music is so beautiful. And then Patti Smith comes out of the radio after this crash.”

“Godard is a master of montage, and also, in a way, he’s a composer,” Mr. Eicher added, calling the sound mix “a wonderful composition by itself.”

Albertine Fox’s recent book “Godard and Sound,” a study of his late films, is absorbing, particularly in its analysis of “Every Man for Himself” (1980). (Thankfully, that film exists in a gorgeous home-video transfer from the Criterion Collection.) Ms. Fox describes how an aria from Ponchielli’s opera “La Gioconda” is presented as a vocal-only artifact early in the film — then she charts how the piece influences Gabriel Yared’s electronic-music score for the film. In the final sequence (after yet another car accident), the orchestral accompaniment for the aria is played for the first time, by an ensemble situated near a highly trafficked roadway.

“The intermittent confusion that arises when characters nonchalantly question the source of the music they can hear (‘What’s that music?’),” Ms. Fox writes, “instantly binds with the spectator’s own sense of befuddlement as to the music’s location and identity, jarringly converting her/him from a passive to an active listener.”

Active listening, and comfort with befuddlement, have been ever more necessary in watching Mr. Godard’s films from the decades since “Every Man for Himself.” “The Image Book” is an 85-minute essay film similar to “Histoire(s) du Cinema.” The main character is Mr. Godard’s own consciousness: He juggles literary quotations, stills from the world of visual art, clips from old movies (including his own), as well as an array of sonic sources.

Even when you’re familiar with the general tack of Mr. Godard’s narration — and his cigar-stained voice — his use of sound has a way of creating fresh caverns of poetic depth. A recitation about global inequality — “the richest ravage the global environment by producing waste, while the poorest destroy their resources by lack of choice” — can at first hit like pro forma critique from one of cinema’s most dedicated leftists.

But then something startling happens, as Mr. Godard splices in a clip of the opening-credits music from Orson Welles’s infamously bedeviled “Confidential Report” (also known as “Mr. Arkadin”). Because that film was taken away from Welles at the editing stage, there are now a wild bevy of different cuts available. And it’s this unstable history that makes the film’s opening music a perfect fit for Mr. Godard’s purposes.

The reference to “the richest” may now also apply to globally dominant film producers, pumping out “waste.” And “the poorest” might be the quasi-independent, ever-strapped-for-cash filmmakers like Welles, forced to compromise or even abandon their artistic endeavors because of “lack of choice.” That this particular observation came during a New York Film Festival that also screened a new completion of Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” gave Mr. Godard’s deft layering of aesthetic and geopolitical concerns a timely, even spooky, resonance.

“The music today in so many films is so cheesy,” as Mr. Eicher said. “Illustrative, very often doubling the meaning of the scene already. Godard is often in counterpoint.”



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