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Pop goes Wittgenstein

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  February 18, 2009

In anticipation, then, of the MFA retrospective, which includes 10 of Godard's first 13 features (Le petit soldat, Les carabiniers, and La femme mariée are missing), two or three things to remember about Jean-Luc:

HEGEL, SCHMEGEL | Don't close the book on Godard when Georg Wilhelm Friedrich's name comes up: he's simply embracing the German philosopher's idea that reality is a synthesis of opposites. Other filmmakers give you the synthesis; Godard gives you the opposites. When the balance between them breaks down — when his dialectic turns into dialectical materialism, as in his post-Weekend œuvre — so does his filmmaking. He referred famously to the kids in Masculine Feminine as "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola." Later it became just Marx.

1 + 1 | In Alphaville, "eternal programmatrix" Alpha 60 drones, "Once we know what 1 is, we think we know what 2 is, because 1 + 1 = 2. We forget that we still have to learn what is +." The centerpiece of Godard's 1968 One Plus One is the Stones rehearsing "Sympathy for the Devil"; Godard withheld any complete, uninterrupted performance of the song from the film, but his producers slapped one on at the end and changed the title to Sympathy for the Devil. Godard should have slapped them back. (Some say he did.) In Made in USA, "1 + 1" is Paul (Widmark) and Paula facing the camera side by side and reciting, simultaneously, different monologues, each telling his or her side of the story. The viewer can barely make out either one. From Widmark we do learn that the year is 1969; a few minutes later, however, Paula and Widmark date the "confessions" they exchange "17 September 1968."

RED, WHITE, AND BLUE | Made in USA was made in France. But it's dedicated to "Nick" (Ray) and "Samuel" (Fuller), and the characters have mostly American names, from cinema (notably Otto Preminger's) and literature (David Goodis wrote the novel on which François Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player is based) and politics (Paula meets "Robert McNamara" and "Richard Nixon," characters played by Cahiers du cinéma critics). Widmark even imitates Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird. The opening credits and the concluding "FIN" are in bands of red, white, and blue, and the film is set in an invented French city with an American name and the Atlantic Ocean nowhere in sight.

WOMEN ARE FROM LIFE, MEN ARE FROM FILM | That would be Jean-Claude Brialy's Émile riding his bicycle around their flat when Karina's Angéla wants to talk about having a baby in A Woman Is a Woman. Men go in circles, women in a straight line; men talk philosophy and politics while women play with their hair. Godard ultimately wrote that he "couldn't talk about films" with Karina. In Made in USA, in the trenchcoat-and-gun guy role, she's the girl he always wanted her to be, and she gets to talk about responsibility and "la morale" while he, doing her dead boyfriend's voiceover, bores us (intentionally, one hopes) with interminable leftist screeds.

FUNNY BOY | Also from A Woman Is a Woman: Angéla flips an egg into the air, runs out to take a phone call in the neighbor's flat, then runs back to catch the egg in her frying pan. Godard movies that aren't funny generally aren't good.

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