In Notre Musique, we see snow, demolition, and a sixteenth century Ottoman bridge, called the old man, below which runs the greenest water in Europe. A second young Jewish woman, one who attended Godard’s lecture, Olga (Nade Dieu), has some physical resemblance to the first, Judith, and Olga visits the bridge, which is being rebuilt. Whereas Judith is made hopeful by the reconstruction of the city, as she is by her grandfather’s being given shelter during the war, Olga is not reassured, but remains disturbed by reality, especially regarding the Palestinians, and she is not comforted by symbols, even those coming out of daily life and history. Olga’s unhappy speculations, spoken to her uncle, made me wonder about her private life, as usually private life and its friendships and its pleasures can offer balance to public or political life. Olga says that suicide—is life worth living? is it acceptable to take a life, even one’s own?—is the only philosophical problem.
We see the Native Americans in traditional dress—a fantasy, or preparation for an event at the literary conference? I see such clothing as time-bound; and think that Native Americans have a right to claim the present and the future, not merely the past: in fact, that’s the way I heard the question, “Isn’t it time we met face to face in the same age?”
Someone says that isolated from other aspects of life, politics is totalitarianism.
Godard is given a digital video disk of the conference’s events made by someone. I thought that someone was the young woman journalist, Judith, but have read that it was the lecture attendee who was contemplating suicide, Olga.
We see Godard tending flowers, an image of a surprisingly luxurious and tender solitude. He receives a call; and is told that a young woman entered an Israeli theater and said she wanted to blow herself up in a demonstration for peace and asked for volunteers, allowing people to leave if they chose. They left; and she was shot by civil security men to prevent the bombing—and it was found that her bag continued only books. The caller thinks she was the young woman, Olga, from the conference. (Did the conference give her any comfort or guidance—or agitate her further; or have no effect?)
Heaven. We see a girl walking through the woods. Olga? There’s a stream, with water rushing over rocks. The woods are fenced, and patrolled by armed men in sailor suits. We see a young man reading a book. People frolic.
In the brief part of the film devoted to hell, we have facts, images, histories, all mostly of war (proof). In the long section exploring purgatory, we have discussion (analysis); and as consciousness, ethics, logic, and cultural achievement are aspects of this, it seems itself a kind of ideal, though it could be also embodiment of the torment of knowing conflict without being able to ease it. Purgatory is life, as many of us know it. In heaven, there is comfort, pleasure, and serenity, though that is a state that requires protection—and in heaven there is, possibly, resolution and transcendence.
The film is spiritual if one thinks that care of others and care for the world are spiritual matters. The film concerns religion if one thinks of it as being about the crisis of the young Jewish woman in the film, Olga—she is aware of Jewish vulnerability in early to mid-twentieth century Europe, and misuse of force against the Palestinians, in late twentieth-century Israel, and now. It’s interesting that some of the people who find Shylock’s murderous intent an aspersion against Jewish character do not condemn Israeli Jews’ execution of German war criminals or their long and varied mistreatment of the Palestinians, suggesting they take public image more seriously than lived morality. The young woman’s problem is that she has a genuine conscience and cannot reconcile the contradictions.
In early February 2005, it was announced that following the death of Yasser Arafat (1929-2004), Israelis and Palestinians (Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas) were in talks to advance the prospect of peace, and The New York Times February 13, 2005 edition reported that Israel would allow now several hundred Palestinian laborers to leave the Gaza strip, where many Palestinians live, to work in Israel (there is a planned summer withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip). The Israeli government approved the release of five-hundred Palestinian political prisoners. The Palestinian Authority claims that Israel is holding seven-thousand, six-hundred Palestinian prisoners.
Notre Musique concerns religion if one thinks of the violent uses to which religions have been put, and of how sacred texts have been used to authorize the punishment and suffering of others. (Godard, reared a Protestant, but interested in Catholicism, inspired international controversy among Catholics with his treatment of Christ’s mother in Hail Mary, which was considered irreverent, as Godard tried to imagine what Joseph and Mary talked about, and Godard’s Mary, apparently, played basketball.) Hell, purgatory, and heaven were always metaphors for spiritual states, though they have been accepted by many as actual places, and believed in as part of the magic and superstition that people attach to the institutionalization of spiritual belief we call religion. Godard, in Notre Musique, gives us contemporary definitions of hell, purgatory, and heaven, definitions that a humanist—someone who values, above all, human existence, knowledge, and laws—can accept.
The Paris-born Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard, a former critic-contributor for Cahiers du Cinema, a man who has called France his first and last homeland, has a filmography that includes Breathless (1959), A Woman is A Woman (1961), My Life to Live (1962), Contempt (1963), Band of Outsiders (1964), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Masculine Feminine (1966), and more recently Every Man for Himself (1979), Hail Mary (1985), King Lear (1987), Forever Mozart (1996) and In Praise of Love (2001). Godard, whose films have been called revolutionary, the foundation of a new wave, has said, “I’ve managed to shoot some successful sequences, but rarely films that hold up from beginning to end” in Jean-Luc Godard: The Future(s) of Film; Three Interviews 2000/01 (Verlag Gachnang & Springer AG, Berlin, 2002; 21). Godard has said that film projects are created to give a man focus, a form in which to explore images, ideas, feelings, and situations, but that film is a collaborative art, and a popular art thanks to mass distribution (Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews, ed: David Sterritt, University of Mississippi, Jackson, 1998). Godard once said that the real word is not the word of men of power but of philosophers and lovers.
Godard received a degree from the Lycee Buffon in Paris, and studied at the Sorbonne (and the Cinematheque Francaise); and with friends such as François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Demy, he talked and wrote about film. He wrote about Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir; and he also liked and helped raised the profiles of Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht, and Sam Fuller. It’s funny to think that, like many young people, Godard and his friends made much of the popular culture that happened to fall their way. Godard described the evolution of ideas of film authorship to Emmanuel Burdeau and Charles Tesson in The Future(s) of Film, saying that in the beginning scriptwriters were thought of as auteurs (or authors of films), then producers were considered auteurs, and finally directors, who previously had been mere employees (28). Godard made a documentary about a Swiss dam in 1954, a film short based on a Guy de Maupassant story in 1955, and a comic short in 1957 based on a Rohmer script. Godard began making films inspired by his love of cinema. His associates and collaborators through the years have included Agnes Varda, Albert Maysles, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jane Fonda, Anne-Marie Mieville, Woody Allen, and Marguerite Duras. Isabelle Adjani and Gerard Depardieu, at different times, walked away from Godard productions after filming had begun. Godard has worked also in television and video, though he has made many criticisms about each medium.
Susan Sontag once wrote that Godard treated cinema as an exercise in intelligence. Her comprehensive essay on the work of Jean-Luc Godard, an essay simply called “Godard,” was first published in 1968 and subsequently collected in A Susan Sontag Reader (Vintage, New York, 1983). She began by describing many cultural heroes as ascetic destroyers, one of whom was Godard, whose work included a “mixture of tonalities, themes, and narrative methods” (236), with the results being “sometimes harmonious, plastically and ethically engaging, and emotionally tonic” (236). Godard, a producer of films that embodied consciousness and criticality, a light-hearted polemicist, wanted to reorganize the audience’s entire sensibility. Sontag’s recognition of that aim may seem a banality—artists do want to change minds, and affect emotions—but that observation is only the beginning of her detailed explication of how he achieves his effects. “Godard,” she wrote, “has disclosed a new vein of lyricism and pathos for cinema: in bookishness, in genuine cultural passion, in intellectual callowness, in the misery of someone strangling in his own thoughts” (238). Sontag named Godard’s cinema as not poetic but essayistic, noting that he had been criticized for not doing things that disinterested him. (He may provide story but not plot, and he may suggest motive rather than explain cause.) Godard had been inspired by various plot-driven popular American genre film directors, but his understanding of the influence of the United States in the world led him to see America as a cultural and a political problem, something for which he was criticized when In Praise of Love was released after the 2001 World Trade Center attack. Sontag, decades ago, had observed, “Inevitably, Godard broaches the menace of the bastardization of culture, a theme most broadly stated in Contempt in the figure of the American producer with his booklet of proverbs” (248). Godard’s cinema is one of investigation and interrogation. Sontag discussed Godard’s direct literary quotations, and use of real world artists and thinkers. It seems inevitable to conclude that fiction is part of reality; and reality is part of fiction. Sontag remarked on Godard’s embrace of abstraction, shifting points of view, co-existent time schemes, and even comments spoken to the camera (the viewer); and she said that his art is a cinema that devours cinema.
Godard, a filmmaker who allows improvisation and is open to accident, shares something of a jazzman’s sensibility, just as his own serious intellectual explorations bring him near to a scholar’s world and his concern for political events make him something of a journalist of advocacy. “Godard is, nevertheless, involved in an extremely purist venture: the attempt to devise a structure for films which speaks in a purer present tense” (257), stated Sontag, who also perceived the coolness—the detachment—of Godard’s films, works of language, image, and sound; a coolness that exists despite the pain and pleasure that are events in the films. Susan Sontag, with apparent approval, wrote, “Godard himself still appears a partisan of that other cultural revolution, ours, which enjoins the artist-thinker to maintain a multiplicity of points of view on any material” (248).
“I think a true intellectual is never at home. To me, being an intellectual means seeing things in a complicated way. One lives on the boundary, one is aware of many claims, many alternatives, and that precludes being at home, in the simple sense. I’m not so interested in being at home. I accept being uncomfortable, I also don’t know how else to be,” said Susan Sontag (1933-2004), the novelist and essayist, in a 1987 conversation with Marithelma Costa and Adelaida Lopez (Conversations with Susan Sontag, ed: Leland Poague, University of Mississippi, Jackson, 1995; 235). Susan Sontag, a citizen of international culture, directed four feature-length films: two in Sweden, Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971); one in Israel, Promised Lands (1974); and one in Italy, Unguided Tour (1983). Sontag appeared in several films, Agnes Varda and Susan Sontag: Lions and Cannibals (1969), Town Bloody Hall (1971), Improper Conduct (1984), and Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983). (“Whoever one films is growing older and will die. So one is filming a moment of death at work,” said Jean-Luc Godard in an interview in Godard on Godard, ed: Tom Milne, DaCapo, New York, 1986; 181.) Susan Sontag wrote about filmmakers Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Rainer Fassbinder, Alain Resnais, and Jack Smith. Godard told journalists Emmanuel Burdeau and Charles Tesson in The Future(s) of Film that he thought film criticism should come from within the film—from what the film is—and not be imposed from outside; and that is the kind of appreciation Sontag gave, serious and delighted, abstract and sensual, respectful and understanding.
Susan Sontag, who liked Emerson and Poe, claimed as models Nietzsche, Kafka, and Van Gogh, and also Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. Sontag admired, as well, the two Simones, Weil and de Beauvoir. A cosmopolitan thinker, Susan Sontag grew up not in New York or Paris but in Arizona and California; and, an energetic child and an avid reader, she was excited by a biography of Madame Curie by Curie’s daughter and Les Miserables, before turning to Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Eliot, Kafka, and Gide. She graduated high school at fifteen. She attended the University of Chicago, where she studied with Kenneth Burke and Joseph Schwab. Sontag, who did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard and Oxford, dreamed of writing essays that would be appreciated by informed readers; and that is what she spent her life doing. The philosopher Sartre said that freedom has no essence; and that there are descriptions that aim not at essence but at existence; and, with this in mind, I would say that Susan Sontag sought, found, and lived an exemplary freedom. While bombs fell on Sarajevo, she staged Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, sustaining culture, expressing solidarity with a besieged people. The play’s production lasted about two months, but Sontag—as she told interviewer Evans Chan, and also wrote in Where the Stress Falls—was in Sarajevo for two and a half years.
Is there an antidote to our desire for conflict, our appetite for war? asked Sontag in a chapter on the value of seeing, knowing, and remembering, in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Some critics try to establish the appeal of their subjects by emphasizing how those subjects correspond to contemporary trends or prejudices, but Susan Sontag, an essayist more than a critic, did not do that. She believed in drawing attention to neglected ideas and artists, while aware that publicized evaluations could inhibit the work of the people being discussed (her essays could be described as cerebral celebrations; and they in turn became celebrated cerebrations). Many people do not know that when she wanted to write an essay that would describe a sensibility, her first choice was not “camp,” but “morbidity.” In conversation and in her work, she communicated as if for an ideal audience, people for whom pandering was unnecessary. Her essays have been collected in Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), and Where the Stress Falls (2001). Where the Stress Falls contains articles on Machado de Assis, W.G. Sebald, Adam Zagajewski, Robert Walser, Danilo Kis, Witold Gombrowicz, Juan Rulfo, Jorge Luis Borges, Lincoln Kirstein, Richard Wagner, and Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as the prose of poets, bunraku puppets, gardens, travel, and painting. Some of her sentences offer new shapes, and some of her essays come in new forms in Where the Stress Falls. That last collection has a lightness her earlier collections cannot match; and that does not signify inconsequentiality but rather the boundless and relaxed nature of her joy, of her transcendence. Sontag’s books include the novels The Benefactor (1963), The Volcano Lover (1992), and In America (2000). She said that her films and novels came from a more spontaneous, less conscious, part of herself, but she wasn’t inclined to be autobiographical, and found freedom in invention.
Susan Sontag’s personal life was private. Sontag married Philip Rieff, who she described as the first person she could really talk to, when she was 17, and they had a son, David, and the marriage lasted from 1950 to 1958. She told a British newspaper, The Guardian, in a May 27, 2000 interview that she had been seriously involved with about five women and four men; and others have named playwright Maria Irene Fornes, dancer-choreographer Lucinda Childs, and photographer Annie Leibovitz as having been among her intimate companions. Sontag wrote about Fornes and Child as artists and collaborated on a photography book with Leibovitz. Sontag, whose face had eyes and bones that conveyed intellect and strength, a face on which pleasure, melancholy, pride, and concern moved, a handsome face, said that she liked young men, but that as she got older it was women who found her attractive. Susan Sontag was a Jew, a woman, and a lover of women and men, but it is her work that is paramount and permanent, work that is no accident of birth or history, work that is thoroughly concerned with classical, modern, and international themes. It does not take genius to have an erotic relation to someone of the same sex, but genius, attended by hard work, is required for writing Illness as Metaphor (1978) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Sontag once said that the secret of her productivity was that she didn’t let other people’s expectations dictate her actions (for instance, she ignored personal slights to her gender; and while she considered herself a feminist, and advocated equal rights and opportunities for women, she refused the feminist demand for ideological simplicity). I would rather have her essays on John Cage, Roland Barthes, and Glenway Westcott than have her contributions to gossip and political jargon, to the triviality of our time.
Susan Sontag, known as a warm and loyal friend, and given in her longer interviews to acknowledging how she had changed and grown, and what her limitations had been, was a great person, a greatness attested to by Steve Wasserman (Los Angeles Times
), Tim Rutten (The Los Angeles Times
), Gary Indiana (The Village Voice
), Ed Vulliamy (The Observer
, London), Joan Acocella (The New Yorker
), and Hillel Italie (Associated Press). An intelligent summary of Sontag’s life and work was written also by Margalit Fox (The New York Times
). I did not know Susan Sontag, though I did see her in New York: browsing at the St. Mark’s Bookstore in the East Village; attending a Film Forum screening of Ousmane Sembene’s Faat Kine
, at which she had to stand at one point for her own comfort; and speaking from the podium in Cooper Union’s great hall, where she talked about images of war. I was introduced to the work of Susan Sontag in the early 1980s with A Susan Sontag Reader
, which I admired; and in 1990 or 1991 I read AIDS and Its Metaphors
; however, it was the few words—direct, eloquent, honest—that she published in The New Yorker
about the lies being told about the World Trade Center attack that fully aroused my interest and then I began to study—and to love—her. Sontag, like Godard, like Shakespeare, like any significant figure, must be judged by her best work; and excellence is her most intriguing, most useful, legacy.
Sontag, who spent part of the last year watching Hollywood musicals she previously had not seen, had written about Jean-Luc Godard several times. She once concluded that “Godard is perhaps the only director today who is interested in ‘philosophical films’ and possesses an intelligence and discretion equal to the task. Other directors have had their ‘views’ on contemporary society and the nature of our humanity; and sometimes their films survive the ideas they propose. Godard is the first director fully to grasp the fact that, in order to deal seriously with ideas, one must create a new film language for expressing them—if the ideas are to have any suppleness and complexity” (Against Interpretation, 207).
Godard lives in a small Swiss town, and in The Future(s) of Film
he admitted, “When I go to Paris, two or three days every two weeks, I haven’t got the free time to go to the movies” (39). Godard does not have time to go to the movies? I read that, thought about Hotel Rwanda
, The Merchant of Venice
, and Notre Musique
, each one a gift, and I went out and saw Istvan Szabo’s Being Julia
, based on Somerset Maugham’s novella Theatre
and featuring Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons, about an actress, her theater-manager husband, and their associates, most of whom have difficulty separating fact from fiction.
Daniel Garrett’s book reviews have appeared in The African, American Book Review, The Compulsive Reader, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Those were reviews of the books of Louis Auchincloss, James Baldwin, Hal Bennett, Peter Cameron, Raymond Carver, Michael Frayn, Ivy Goodman, Anthony Hecht, Joseph Heller, Charles Johnson, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Albert Murray, Carl Phillips, John Updike, Colson Whitehead, and Richard Wright. Garrett wrote about the film Rocco and His Brothers for 24FramesPerSecond.com, and reviewed various films, including Les Destinees and The Lady and the Duke, for IdentityTheory.com, and 13 Conversations About One Thing for AllAboutJazz.com.