Jean-Luc Godard in the USA

In the spring of 1968, Jean-Luc Godard accompanied his film La Chinoise on a tour of US universities. Claire Clouzot – granddaughter of director Henri-Georges Clouzot – reported on the director’s encounters with students eager for political change, for our Summer 1968 issue.

Updated: 14 September 2022

By Claire Clouzot

Sight and Sound
Godard meeting Black Panther activist Kathleen Cleaver in Oakland in 1968

For a great number of years, Jean-Luc Godard has been attached to America by an umbilical cord. Some 14 years ago, he found his film inspiration in the Hollywood cinema, and in his works he paid homage to it, imitated it, quoted it and parodied it. His teachers were Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Don Siegel. Samuel Fuller, Fritz Lang and many others became his friends.

He read American novels, became acquainted with all aspects of the American culture. But, as with all distant relationships, the idyll subsided, the links loosened up along the years, it worsened and finally deteriorated. Godard slowly passed from an aesthetic admiration to a denial of American psychological drama, from an acceptance of the culture to a rejection of the phenomenon called ‘Americanisation of the world’. This passage corresponds to the cineaste’s evolution from aesthetic to socio-political consciousness, or from adolescence to adulthood.

Through his 15 features, the development appears as follows. At first he was full of regard for American gangster films and he tried to imitate Scarface in A bout de souffle, which – in his own words – turned out to be more like Alice in Wonderland. Then he winked tenderly at musical comedies and at Cyd Charisse in Une femme est une femme.

He began gently to mock some aspects of the US in Le Mépris, where he stigmatised the elementary monetary philosophy and the dictatorship of the producer via the role of Jack Palance. Bande à part was the last – and already sad – nostalgic expression of his affection for America. Beginning with 1964 and Une femme mariée, I see the first warning signal of the danger of Americanisation in his attacks on advertising. Alphaville is the undisguised description of that dehumanisation and computerisation which he criticises in America.

It was in Pierrot le fou that he took sides politically against the US military involvement in Vietnam and declared he would mention it in his films as long as the war lasted. He kept this promise in Masculin féminin. Made in U.S.A. contained probably the last teasing reference to former US ‘favourites’ through the names of the characters, but the title and the allusions to American violence came through stronger than ever before.

From then on, America became the target, as proved by Two or Three Things I Know About Her, where the bitter role played by Raoul Lévy and the Life magazine atrocity photos echoed an anger and a wound deeper than ever. Next, Godard disarmingly declared his position of ‘rejected outsider’ and the suffering it caused him in the sincere Far from Vietnam. Finally, in La Chinoise, he turned to the pro-Chinese communists, equated the Soviets with the Americans and demonstrated his irreversible separation from a former country of adoption. His cinematographic commitment was accomplished.

At that particular moment of his personal development, he accepted early this spring an offer from Leacock-Pennebaker, US distributors of La Chinoise, to tour 20 American universities with a print of the film.

La Chinoise (1967)

In La Chinoise, five French young people – Véronique the student, Guillaume the actor, Yvonne the peasant girl, Henri the chemistry engineer and Kirilov the artist – decide to live together during one summer in an apartment lent them by friends. They are trying to form a Maoist cell and live according to the precepts of Chairman Mao.

Henri is thrown out of the cell because he advocates the pro-Soviet Communist line and he is called the ‘revisionist’. Yvonne, who was illiterate and resorted to prostitution to help Henri, is taught to read and she is able to sell l’Humanité nouvelle. Kirilov commits suicide because of the uselessness of art in the context of the revolution. Véronique murders a Soviet minister of culture after killing another man by mistake and, going back to the university, she decides to pursue her violent activities.

Guillaume applies the principles of revolution by starting the ‘door-to-door’ theatre. He is, in Godard’s terms, the “most advanced one” at the end of the film: “Through studying Mao’s thoughts, he has found his vocation, that is to say politics has made him discover his art.”

This beautiful work, which salutes the coming of age of Maoist revolutionaries in the West and which delineates the Black African Comrade X as the ‘correct’ man, was Godard’s compensation for his uneasiness at being in the land of Lyndon Johnson’s capitalist prosperity. The other compensation was that he was to address the ‘youth of knowledge’ he had dealt with in La Chinoise and not Hollywood journalists or people from the commercial circuit; for it was expected that the Guillaumes, Véroniques and Kirilovs of American campuses would come to listen to him. Thus his tour was a way of ascertaining whether the students of America were or weren’t like their French counterparts.

Godard meeting students in California in 1968

On the surface, Godard’s decision to come on these conditions was irreproachable. He is the hero of this country’s young generation because he rejects the power of America and because he has flouted conformism. It is not surprising that his admirers are dissidents, hippies or yippies, underground filmmakers and draft-resisters, future cineastes and film students who denounce the establishment or work against it. Each is fighting for the same goal in his own way, the French director with his free films and the students with pot-smoking, love-ins, sit-ins, draft-card burning and protests of all kinds. They were in tune and this ‘new’ America should have enabled Godard to disregard the old one.

The initial contact was somewhat awkward, for Godard is ‘non-heroic’. The students had to cope with his refusal of glamour, while he had to cope with their literal-mindedness. They were much like his characters from La Chinoise – Yvonne, asking for the definition of the word ‘analysis’, and Véronique, whose conversation oscillates between political rigidity and puns on class struggle and philosophy class. Godard stated publicly that he had been like Véronique two or three years earlier. Since the students are just now in their Véronique stage, could there be a dialogue?

Anne Wiazemsky as Véronique in La Chinoise

He first went to Los Angeles. He had been only to New York before this recent tour. He had never set foot on Sunset Boulevard; he had never been near the studios where Hawks, John Ford, Don Siegel or Otto Preminger shot the films he so admires, nor had he contemplated the gorgeous Californian scenery or dozens of the works where he found his creative motivation. And yet, when he arrived in California, he said he was depressed.

On his first stop, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the public discussions dealt with matters of aesthetics and his interlocutors were primarily film students or filmmakers. Godard’s approach to cinema had gained him innumerable supporters in America, long before his political engagement became apparent.

Improvisation, absence of definite script, total spontaneity and even quotes from world events or advertisements are the credo both of Godard and of the underground cineastes. For the Los Angeles students, Godard’s absence of code is the only possible answer to the over-technological aspect of Hollywood and the insistence on tight plots. What they ‘dig’ is his phrase “I see no difference between life and cinema.” Gene Youngblood, an underground journalist of the Los Angeles Free Press, wrote: “I am perfectly serious when I say that for me and for an increasing number of serious young people Jean-Luc Godard is as important as Sartre, Hesse and Dostoievski.”

However, the time was past for Godard to talk about the aesthetics of cinema. In a panel discussion on the subject of Hollywood, where he sat with King Vidor, Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich and Samuel Fuller, the atmosphere degenerated into reciprocal indifference. In his opening statement, Godard cautiously compared himself with the directors present: “I don’t want to be provocative… but it seems to me that all of you, each for different reasons, are no more Hollywood directors than I am,” as if to excuse them. He closed by accusing commercial directors of being ‘slaves’.

With his incredible outspokenness, turning to Vidor he added: “Mr Vidor, I’m really ashamed of what’s happening to you, as I’m ashamed of what happened to people like Joseph von Sternberg or Fritz Lang…” As it turned out, both parties – except for Fuller, who respects Godard’s films and is still the ‘actor-friend’ of the first sequence of Pierrot le fou – were bored with each other. The American directors went into shop talk about questions of production, ignoring Godard who finally stared at the ceiling.

Godard on his tour of US universities

How could it be otherwise? “Every film is the result of the society that produced it; that’s why the American cinema is so bad now. It reflects an unhealthy society,‘’ Godard attacked upon his arrival when he was interviewed by Newsweek’s Raymond A. Sokolov. After such an opening statement, Godard’s severe judgement of Yankee cinema could only increase when he was repeatedly asked about Bonnie and Clyde or assaulted by questions like “Why don’t you work in the US?” or “Which are your favourite American film directors?“, all of which greatly irritated him.

“Bonnie and Clyde is a traditional movie,” he told flabbergasted audiences who had heard that he had been considered for directing it and that there is a real French craze for the film. “It’s a dead film. And why? Because it was made according to a structure that has seen its day. When Arthur Penn was making The Left-Handed Gun, he was inventive and fresh, just as Preminger was in Laura and Aldrich in Attack or Kiss Me Deadly. But now Aldrich is making stuff like The Dirty Dozen, and I mean it’s really dirty… I think a person like Arthur Penn, who is a very intelligent and nice man, is not even aware of what he is doing. When he thinks he’s inventing something, when he thinks he’s finding something new, it’s not new at all. It’s only because he’s doing it here in Hollywood and there is no life in Hollywood…” Just when the American public and critics had regained hope for their national industry, Godard was shattering it.

The disappointment of the crowd after Godard named Mack Sennett, D.W. Griffith and… Chaplin as his favourite American directors turned into the laughter of incomprehension when of all the filmmakers alive in this country, he spoke out only in favour of Jerry Lewis. Godard uncompromisingly refused all contact with Hollywood, and threw away the script of a western a Hollywood company wanted him to direct. He was very firm on this point: “As for working for Hollywood, I would not do it, no matter how much they might pay me…”

The trouble, though, was that Godard did not want to discuss aesthetics; he wanted to talk about politics. He was keen to know the reactions to La Chinoise in order to start a dialogue. So he moved on to the University of California at Berkeley, the most challenging campus of his tour, where he was sure to find politically committed students, radicals, activists. As his interpreter there, I was able to note the facts and the words pronounced on both sides.

Godard at the University of California at Berkeley

Three times a day for four days La Chinoise was projected to a full house. The overall response was one of surprise and enthusiasm. Surprise at the charm and fun of the film, enthusiasm for a subject which permitted Godard to do more than his usual nose-thumbing at conventionalism. Here he took a stand which immediately launched a political discussion.

In their basic views, Godard and his debate partners at Berkeley were in agreement. They hold similar positions on American foreign policy, on the Third World, on socialism and communism, on Cuba, on China, and naturally on Vietnam. Godard endorsed the plea for freedom, decency, equality of the Black people and their white defenders, when he said, à propos Omar Diop, Comrade X of La Chinoise: “The lessons of the Third World are applicable to us because the Third World’s problem is that it is hungry. We, on the contrary, are over-fed culturally and we eat things which are culturally unnecessary, so we must learn again what is our real nourishment.

“Three-quarters of the films are unnecessary but we do not realise it. The amazing thing is that, except for the Indians and the Arabs, cinema is made only by white-skinned people everywhere in the world. Films have been made for Blacks but not by them. In fact, if they wanted to make films, they wouldn’t even know how, for all the cinematic means have been invented by whites and for whites. Even in Guinea, which is rather revolutionary, and Algeria, which is trying, they do not make films of their own. The Western countries must listen to the lessons of the Third World because it is the European children who are underdeveloped intellectually and the Third World which is developed. In La Chinoise, everybody else gets reprimanded, but Comrade X’s presence and what he says are correct.”

His confession that he discovered imperialism from an aesthetic point of view (“Imperialism is a group of people who want to oblige others to make movies their way”), and that he found out about American imperialism when he signed a contract with a Hollywood company and physically experienced at 35 what a Black man in Africa must feel much earlier, converged with the Berkeley students’ rejection of the American power structure of which Hollywood is a part. He got an ovation on the subject of the fear of Chinese Communism when he declared, “Johnson wants to shoot when a communist is yellow but he shakes hands with a communist who is white…”

Godard with documentarist Sol Landau and the latter’s Fidel Casto mask

Godard often attained political harmony with his listeners, as Sol Landau, a documentarist and maker of a film about Castro, summed up one day after a panel on ‘Politics and Cinema’. Paraphrasing the final insert of La Chinoise, he said: “Whatever criticism we have, we cannot just consider your film as the End of a Beginning but as the Beginning of a Beginning, for both revolutionary politics and revolutionary filmmaking. Our level of consciousness is expanded by seeing all of your works, which demand that we grow with you. So, in the words of another compañero, Viva Jean-Luc Godard!”

Whereupon, seeing that Landau had put a Castro mask on his face, Godard murmured as if to himself [riffing on Castro’s revolutionary slogan “Fatherland or death, we shall overcome”]: “Cinematografia o muerte venceremos…”

But the same people who agreed with Godard on politics became his opponents on the central issue stemming from La Chinoise, the question of revolution and the way to bring it about. Radical students at Berkeley are now convinced that the time for ideas, for persuasion and cinema propaganda is over and that, like Véronique, they should resort to violence with guns and Molotov cocktails. For them it is no longer a problem of discussion but a matter of emergency. But Godard, who acquired his political conscience at the age of 35, is a mature artist whose medium is not violence. He feels he should be on the side of those who take up guns but he does not intend to give up his camera for a rifle.

As Véronique opposed Francis Jeanson, the older resistant of the Algerian war, partisan of a peaceful co-existence, so the activists are impatient to accelerate changes, even if it means blood-shedding. They pressed Godard with the question “Do you consider cinema a revolutionary tool?” After admitting that art lags behind revolution, Godard added: “I think that art is a special gun. Ideas are guns. A lot of people are dying from ideas and dying for ideas. A gun is a practical idea and an idea a theoretical gun. A film is a theoretical rifle and a rifle a practical film. Fortunately I don’t have any gun for I am so short-sighted that I would probably kill all my friends. I have the impression I’m less myopic in a film, hence I prefer making films.”

Godard meeting students in California in 1968

If they were not quite ready for Godard’s sense of humour, they were even less prepared for his ideas on what revolutionary cinema could be. “I think that the future for a revolutionary cinema is an amateur cinema. And television is the only true possibility we have of making a popular cinema, the true possibility for the people to express themselves on a screen whereas it is always governments telling things to people: TV could be the great art for the masses and for the individual as well. Today, television is an endless repetition of the same things, whether it be in a socialist or a capitalist country. I find it grave that enemy countries should have television programmes which resemble each other. It saddened me to see that Cuban TV is entirely American…”

The radicals narrowed the question down to whether Godard had succeeded in making a revolutionary film with La Chinoise. Someone reproached him: “But we have all been through the ramble-on of your protagonists, so why impose it on us? Would there not be another way than to sit and stare at these birth pangs which are sharper than they need to be?” “I quite agree with you,” Godard admitted quietly, proving that he had purposely done so.

“Did you want to make the characters look absurd?” “To me, the characters are not absurd,” declared Godard. “I was asked here if La Chinoise is about politics or children and I answered that it is about children who want to learn about politics. Since they are new-born babies, it takes them two or three years before learning how to talk.”

The opponents went on, “But your film has nothing to do with China!‘’ Godard, familiar with an objection already raised by pro-Chinese communists in France, defended his intentions. “La Chinoise is mainly about French youth. For three or four years, I had wanted to make a film on a specific kind of youth, the students, the youth of knowledge. Little by little the events of China became important and the Cultural Revolution was the spark which triggered La Chinoise. So it is also about communist youth.”

A French poster for La Chinoise (1967)

His challengers couldn’t quite grasp the nature of the protagonists with whom they were nevertheless trying to identify. “Are they actors who have decided to make a film about revolutionaries or are they authentic revolutionaries themselves?” Godard’s answer did not satisfy them: “If that situation had happened to them, this is the way they would have acted it out in life. You can see this truth in the film.”

On this subject, Godard had another revelation to make: “You had a preconceived idea of what a political movie should be, and your difficulties stem from the false idea you have that people on a screen are made of flesh and blood. Whereas what you see are shadows and you reproach these shadows for not being alive. What is alive is not what’s on the screen but what is between you and the screen.”

I thought that humour and paradox were a barrier between Godard and the activists of Berkeley. On one side there are the playful French Maoists of Godard, sleeping together to the background of the Internationale and practising calisthenics by rhythmically following the recitation of Chairman Mao’s precepts; and on the other, the straight and serious-minded Americans who are caught in the system they are fighting.

But I was wrong. In fact, both Godard and the students have made the move from tenderness to violence, from passivity to action, but each in a different way. The differences lay in their respective definitions of the tools to bring about revolutionary changes: for the hardcore radicals the rifle, and for Godard the cinema. Godard’s practical engagement consists at most of “supporting the ones who are taking up guns”.

This is why they could not agree on practical questions such as “Would you take a year off to become a worker at the Rhodiaceta factory?” or “Why don’t you work with the Cubans?” To which Godard replied that he would gladly “take time off to shoot a film about the Rhodiaceta factory” and that he did not think he “would make a more revolutionary film in Cuba than in France, revolution being international and not national”. The extremists even objected to the ‘commercialism’ of Godard’s tour, and a militant actor, a sort of American Guillaume, implied that Godard should not talk in a “non-revolutionary room”, since the Berkeley campus is owned by the US government.

They indeed wanted Godard to leave his director’s chair and come with them to this summer’s Democratic Convention in Chicago where they are organising, in their own words, “what will amount to, hopefully, the destruction of the United States as we know it”. Godard calmly replied that the job required a newsreel man and not a “poet or a novelist” like himself and that, being non-American, he could not do the real picture of Chicago, which would be to study the structure of this movement and not merely to record it.

He quoted as an example his refusal to shoot the Bertrand Russell Tribunal, to which he felt he would have contributed nothing, except for the editing. But his opponents were not quite convinced. The militants no longer believe in the possible influence of art on the revolution or on the downfall of the United States. Godard, on the contrary, believes in it; he rejects the reactionary idea of the artist as the extraordinary person but condones art, which is for him a “normal everyday activity”.

Godard at a rally for Black Panther Huey Newton at the Alameda County Courthouse

After Berkeley, which had been a substantial four-day visit, Godard was to appear for one-night stands in 18 more universities across the country, from Texas to Canada, Ohio to New York. But the Midwesterners were not really avid for aesthetic or political exchanges with the maker of La Chinoise.

In Houston, Texas, Godard witnessed cowboy students picking up pieces of film as souvenirs while the print of La Chinoise was being damaged by incompetent projection. The day after, in Kansas, taking advantage of a short break in the schedule, Godard decided to leave for France “for a two-day visit” from which he never returned (but for a one-day appearance at New York University and at the commercial opening of La Chinoise in New York).

Out of the 20 campuses on the programme, Godard had visited a total of six: the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; Berkeley; the University of Texas; St. Thomas in Houston; the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas; and New York University. It was at this point of the tour that he must have felt he had nothing to gain and nothing to give any more.

He had expressed the desire to meet students, future filmmakers, Black militants. He did meet the students who, except at Berkeley, asked the wrong questions and mobbed him with the wrong gestures appropriate for a star. He did go to a ‘Huey P. Newton Rally’ in Oakland and he met Black militants; but one, the wife of the Black Panther Party minister of information Eldridge Cleaver, told him point blank: “The Black Revolution is the first revolution in history,” and Godard, a Frenchman who knows a bit about history could not quite agree with that. He met future filmmakers but they were interested in the type of film stock he had used at the end of Alphaville or the position of the mikes in the various interviews in his films.

At Berkeley there was goodwill at the beginning on both sides. Godard went from seminar to seminar, from panel to panel, without minding them too much. The students surrounded him with warmth and respect in public discussions and in informal reunions at the campus cafeteria. But as time went by, a certain gap developed and Godard’s alienation grew wider and wider.

What happened the first night of his arrival at Berkeley might perhaps illustrate the fact that this visit was doomed by a basic malaise. To the avid crowd who had been stomping and shouting, “We-Want-God-Ard! We-Want-God-Ard!” interrupting the projection of underground shorts which were to launch the discussion, Godard said: “I have nothing special to say, I’m not a president or a dictator.” They were demanding and he was on the defensive for fear of being milked of his substance.

When he had to defend his attackable position in Far from Vietnam Godard apologised for being far away from it and explained that the only thing he could do was to say so. The result of his US tour is that now – even though in a different way – he is not only far from Vietnam but also far from America. We can be sure he will say that in one of his next films.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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Originally published: 3 December 2020