Arabella Byrne’s marvelous remembrance of Jean-Luc Godard sent me down a Proustian rabbithole of navel gazing. Like her, I have certain collegiate associations with the director, and the nostalgia I experience when I recall his films is so intense it could very well knock me out. Granted, the memories her piece conjured up for me are a little less Swann’s Way and a little more Can’t Hardly Wait, but that’s about right tonally—and length-wise—for this column, so come on a cringey stroll down memory lane with me, won’t you?
Sophomore year of college, I took an intro to religion course. The professor was a film buff, so each week we complemented our theoretical readings with an arthouse film that explored the lecture’s theme. It was here that I discovered the French New Wave, and took it upon myself to continue seeking out and consuming these films independently, as I thought that watching them made me incredibly cool.
So cool, in fact, that I dubbed it my new favorite hobby. Specifically, if you asked me my favorite thing to do, I’d reply, “Sewing while watching French New Wave films.” (Oh my God, what a DORK!) However, I was a wee 19-year-old, and very excited to immerse myself in creative things, and exposing my squishy sponge brain to disorienting, interesting, deeply sexy artsy films was absolutely the right move at the time. (I also might mention I had had sex a grand total of one time, so learning the effortless cool of a people who’d likely devirginized in early their teens was socially essential.)
To offer context for the sewing bit, I was staying on campus over spring break to assist with a theatrical production, and it was my job as a theatre certificate student seeking “tech hours” to help mend the actor’s costumes. The show featured extremely physical work by Philly’s Pig Iron Theatre Company, so I was literally mending and re-mending the same crotch of the same men’s pants over and over again. It was unmysterious but soothing work that did not require much cognitive skill, so watching movies while sewing was actually a pretty entertaining and edifying way to get my hours in.
(Of course, it would have been immeasurably wiser to choose movies in English, since you really can’t sew as well when you’re constantly reading subtitles—but I already was committed to the coolness of the “sewing while watching French New Wave films” hobby, so my inefficient ritual stuck. And while oui, je parle français, non, I am absoluement not fluent enough to comprends a Godard film sans sous-titres. But I sure know just enough to butcher the hell out of it in this essay!)
Arabella describes Godard’s film Contempt, the fall, and a feeling of melancholy as “welded together” by her memory. Similarly, I can’t detach his oeuvre from a similar yawning feeling of sadness, the quietude of an empty campus, and repeatedly stabbing myself in the fingertips while reading subtitles.
I am certain I had little sophisticated understanding of what the hell I was watching, but as Arabella aptly noted, “to watch a Godard film is to be upended and confused, to be maddened by the abruptness of his narrative form and left stranded in a universe of the abstract.” And this worked for me, because I was at the very beginning of a disoriented, upended chapter of my life, having lost my father to a sudden heart attack only two months prior.
Art allows the audience their own specific relationship to the work through their own individual interpretation. I cannot imagine Godard without the tinge of grief, anxious wondering about an unwritten future, a sense of extreme urgency to seize the moment—and with that, a gnawing, all-consuming, generalized horniness. (At this point, I’d decided that sex was the opposite of death, and I really wanted to live.)
My sense of self and world as I knew it had ended, and I was in the process of rewriting it. It’s something nearly all 19-year-olds do, so while I was doing the trademark “I watch French movies now because I’m in college,” I did have considerably legitimate existential angst to back up the vibe shift. This wasn’t just a nose ring I’d later change my mind about: everything I did, watched, read, consumed felt incredibly important to me. So Godard’s work still shines with some totemic, mystical power in my memory—so much so that I honestly have no idea how normal people perceive it.
Left open to interpretation, Godard’s films were the perfect artistic complement to my psyche as I reworked the canvas of my identity. His films were a mystery, I was a mystery. No longer the honor student virgin, I was a moody, jaded 19 year old who had gone through some shit. And had had sex. (Once.)
It’s nice to learn that Godard kept it weird up until the very end. Some twenty years later, I’m keeping it decently weird myself. And while I maybe didn’t wind up as cool and mysterious as I envisioned myself becoming back then, my Godard-watching self would be thrilled to see the hot guy I’m marrying who I get to bang on the regz. I think he and I are overdue for a nice New Wave movie night.