Jean-Luc Godard. JLG. Perennially hiding behind dark-tinted glasses. An inscrutable, impossible genius. Lapsed Maoist, poet and prophet. He’s that improbable thing: a maker of films that are both sexy and intellectual. Who else could make high art about class struggle starring the author of Jane Fonda’s Workout Book (1981)? Godard indulges in every filmic convention – the heist, the romance, the road movie, the documentary – cannibalizing each along the way. He is constitutionally restless. Over time, he grows more cantankerous. The director of such cinematic summits as À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) disavows his early work, probably, in part, because it’s so popular. And so, it should come as no surprise that, when Godard is offered a retrospective at Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou in the mid-2000s, a car crash ensues. He feuds with the show’s curator; in the end, he drops out entirely.
Earlier this year, at New York’s Miguel Abreu Gallery, traces of the foiled exhibition were on display in the form of 18 fascinating foamcore maquettes, made between 2003 and 2005. Joseph Cornell-like, each one is an enigmatic universe filled with the stuff of art and books and photographs and films. Originally conceived by Godard as rooms in the Pompidou, the maquettes represent a sifting through the stuff of the auteur’s crowded head, an archaeology of cinema as he sees it. They’re a tribute to cinema’s magic, but also to cinema as crime scene: its clichés, its ironies, its cold indifference to human suffering.
At the gallery, my eyes landed on a maquette whose lo-fi theatrics reminded me of a nativity scene: a film projector on a miniature Persian carpet; two plastic palm trees; some ruins; smears of green paint; a monitor playing a Charlie Chaplin reel from 1914. On one wall hung photojournalistic images of Bedouin girls. On another, a painting of the Hollywood sign, Mickey Mouse and the words La Mecque du cinéma (The Mecca of Cinema). Godard is presumably riffing on Hollywood as religion but also the Orient as a psychic geography upon which cinema projects desire. So far, so interesting.
Each of the remaining maquettes, burdened with elliptical names like The Bastards (parable) – God Is My Right, offers an exploration of a particular theme. Visitors were left to puzzle through the eclectic references, hoping to glean a trace of the director’s thinking: a miniature Pablo Picasso painting; press about the Rwandan genocide; a film by John Ford; a book by Arthur Schopenhauer. Inevitably, a recurring Godardian theme runs throughout: the ugly hegemony of American culture. Also present: photocopies of gruesome engravings by Francisco de Goya.
In a gallery setting, the maquettes, as abject as they are, do a fine job oflooking like contemporary art. Godard’sobsession with Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy) – a portrait of a couple whose marriage falls apart in the midst of a vacation – makes clear his interest in the existential potential of ruins (volcanic pools at Vesuvius and Pompeii serve as backdrops). Godard as architect is present here, too. The man who made Alphaville (1965), with its soul-destroying, tower-block monotony, is riveted by how architecture shapes us. Similarly, the maquettes offer a spatialization of the concerns, inspirations and frustrations that inform, but don’t make it into, his films. Herein is an extravagant unravelling of process.
As it happens, the show at the Pompidou did take place, in a way, though both artist and curator were conspicuously absent. What was originally conceived as ‘Collage(s) de France: Archaeology of the Cinema According to JLG’ became instead ‘Voyage(s) in Utopia, Jean-Luc Godard, 1946–2006: In Search of a Lost Theory’. At the entrance to said exhibition, which opened in 2006, a sign announced that the original show had been cancelled because of ‘artistic, technical and financial difficulties’. A pen, presumably Godard’s own, had crossed out the words ‘technical’ and ‘financial’. The lonely maquettes were shown in one corner of the exhibition, leaving many viewers baffled.
I don’t know the sordid details of the Pompidou kerfuffle. I do know, though, that Godard has been described as a man who increasingly lets his ethical judgements trump his aesthetic ones. Late Godard is less pop, more doctrinaire and dowdy. Many of us dutifully see his newer films, even if sitting through them sometimes feels like a chore. Perhaps the fact that the show didn’t pan out as he had hoped, that it languished in limbo as an unrealized ‘copy’, is apropos. Reproduction, or the copy, is at the heart of cinema. So, too, is much of our experience of contemporary life. This weighs on Godard; the characters in his 1963 film Les Carabiniers (The Carabineers) share their experiences of wartime through postcard images. Our current digital age, which Godard seems to lambast at every turn, has made his prophecy even more vivid. The digital ‘erases the past’, he told the writer Richard Brody in 2000. If anything, Godard’s true art may lie in those maquettes: traces of a show that never was, in which past and present mingle. His mad dollhouse schemas slow down time. They are, in a way, a gift.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, May 2018, issue 195, with the title Cinema as Archaeology.