Godard and Tanner: cinema to confront the viewer

In the history of cinema, narrator filmmakers, creators of epic stories, architects of closed universes abound: Griffith, Hitchcock, Ford, Ozu. Fewer are the poets, the creators of indelible images, those who disdain the Aristotelian narrative structure, those who invoke it rather than tell a story: Buñuel, Fellini, Tarkovsky. But even stranger are the filmmakers who dedicate themselves to rehearsal and experimentation: those who challenge form in search of new directions. I am referring to those who renounce “the dictatorship of the plot” to capture what happens in front of the movie camera, be it among the actors who improvise their dialogues, be it what we see in that semi-desert city in which a sunset falls slowly , be it in that open space in the frame that extends under an endless gray sky. The filmmakers, then, whose interest in form becomes a tireless intellectual investigation. They use cinema to convey ideas, more than feelings, more than passions. These filmmakers are very rare and two of them, both contemporaries, both of Swiss nationality, died within hours of each other.

It is natural that the death of Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022) has overshadowed that of his compatriot Alain Tanner (1929-2022). The shadow of the Swiss naturalized Parisian, one of the insolent young Turks of the French New Wave, the defiant and passionate film critic of cinema notebooksperhaps the last authentic revolutionary of the film form, is too great not to impose itself on any other similar film review.

I don’t think Tanner would have bothered about it: after all, the Swiss filmmaker once admitted that his three film models were Renoir, Bresson and… Godard.

Tanner met Godard in Paris, on his way back from London, where he had worked at the British Film Institute. Tanner arrived in France in the late 1950s, befriended French New Wave patriarch Henri Langlois, the legendary director of the Cinématheque, and began working as an assistant in the film industry. The highly politicized, culturally explosive Parisian environment was not to his liking: the ideas of New York critics and filmmakers seemed to him a strange hodgepodge of retrograde anarchism, with which he did not get along. Tanner believed in confronting the viewer, but not through openly militant speeches, but rather by questioning the cinematographic form.

Alienated from that contentious scene, Tanner returned to Switzerland. He worked for several years for television in his country until he founded the Groupe Cinq, a quintet of filmmakers who, independently, began to produce and direct a new type of cinema that sought to change the panorama not only in Switzerland, but throughout Europe. . From Charles dead or alive (1969), Tanner would begin to create a very personal cinematographic work made up of 21 feature films and focused on constant questioning. The idea that the filmmaker should make the audience think of him, build the stories from a healthy Brechtian distance, is even clearer from The salamander (1970), his first work of relevance, which deals with the way in which two young writers approach the life of a girl –the salamander of the title– for whom they want to write a screenplay.

Over the years, Tanner would embrace the conviction that the filmmaker’s true political commitment did not lie in placing “revolutionary” dialogue recited by “committed” characters, but rather in defying conventionalism, erasing the identification of the audience with the protagonists. What is revolutionary, Tanner went on to say, “is not in the theme of the film, but in the way in which we present it to the viewer.” With this phrase he could characterize the rest of his filmography: Jonah (1976), its sequel Light years (1981), his masterpiece in the form of travelogue, in the white city (1983), his very personal documentary The men of the port (1994), the experimental and oneiric Requiem (1998) or his last film, the most theatrical and literary, Paul leaves (2004).

Godard’s influence on Tanner is more than evident, especially in his constant formal explorations, in his commitment to provoke ideas in the viewer, to rehearse proposals that went beyond mere ideological discourse.

Of course, the number of filmmakers influenced by Godard were and are legion. For example, the abrupt and accidental jumps of Breathless (1960), his seminal opera prima, would be reused the same by Scorsese (in dangerous streets1973) than by Woody Allen (in husbands and wives1992) or by Wong Kar-wai in his early films. His tragic love stories, with characters destined for self-destruction, would inspire Arthur Penn to make bonny and clyde (1967), while his stylized approach to dystopian science fiction in Alfavhille (1965) would be a point of reference for the first Leos Carax with his Bad blood (1986).

And these examples refer only to the imprint left by Godard’s first cinema, made in the early 1960s. The career of the French theoretician, essayist and visual artist evolved and changed skin as he progressed in the creation of an overwhelming filmography that spanned more than six decades, in 131 audiovisual pieces including feature films, short films, video films, series and television programs. I am not counting here the discussed and debatable film reviews of him, published in the 1950s in cinema notebooksFor Godard, writing about cinema was also making cinema.

It was after those combative years as a film critic that Godard made his feature film debut with Breathlessthe most conventional and popular of all his films.

Made from a plot written by his then comrade (in more ways than one) Francois Truffaut, Breathless it was the spearhead of the formal ideas, the stylistic proposals and even the moral positions of the nascent French New Wave. The film had an unexpected success at the box office – the first and, according to Godard himself, practically the only one of his entire career – and even more critically. Winner of the Silver Bear for the best direction in Berlin 1960, Breathless placed Godard at the forefront of that new generation of French critics and filmmakers – Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais – who would forever transform the way of seeing and understanding cinema.

The truth is that Godard was never very interested in success. His thing, I insist, was to provoke ideas: in fact, his first essay texts, those critics from the 50s -which David Thompson has described as fascinating, but also as onanists, difficult to read and so aggressive that they denote a deep insecurity – can be read as drafts of the challenging film-video-television essays that he would carry out in the decades to come. Godard’s cinematographic passion did not stem from emotion – although some of his early films are full of it – but from intellectual reflection and reckless aesthetic and stylistic nonconformity. “When you have learned to do something well, you have to do something completely different”, Alain Tanner once said, but it is a phrase that Godard could well have said.

So Godard went from the popular “Karina years” – the dynamic films starring his wife Ana Karina, from my absolute favourite, the musical A woman is a woman (1961), until Made in the USA (1966)– to the turbulent “Maoist years” –between 1968 and 1974, when he made an openly political and militant cinema– to later experiment with the then new video format –between 1975 and 1980– and finally dedicate himself in the last decades – from the 1980s to his latest work, the documentary the picture book (2018)– to question and question the very meaning not only of the film story, but of the film image itself.

In this last stage, the most radical, risky and uneven of his entire filmography –and therefore the richest of all?–, Godard could go from a brainy artistic self-reflection –Passion (1982), as a spiritual and unconfessed sequel to his early major work contempt (1963) – to the open religious provocation I salute you, Maria (1985), to later devise the Shakespearean extravagance King Lear (1987) –with everything and Woody Allen in cameo, paying the favor, since Godard had made a short film about him, WA meeting (1986)– and thus reach the new century, in which he devoted himself, with a constancy as admirable as it is irritating, to taking the meaning of cinema itself to the limit: the act of looking at a screen.

And I emphasize: the act of seeing, not necessarily understanding. Who cares to understand something when, in one of the most extraordinary moments I have ever experienced in a feature film, I could edit, by closing one eye and opening the other, goodbye to language (2014), the 3D movie you were watching? At 84 years of age that he was in that year, this indomitable enfant terrible -or rather, terrible old man– He continued, therefore, experimenting with the cinematographic form, making possible other ways of looking at the screen, playing with the devices he had at hand and playing, without a doubt, with us. Thanks for letting us play from the seat.