Take, for example, Jacques Rivette's Cahiers du Cinema review of Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapo (1960). Rivette's moralistic condemnation of Pontecorvo's decision to move the camera during a violent moment had the effect of initiating a entire strain of criticism that's lasted for decades; a problematic strain at that, but one which nonetheless compels us to ask some worthwhile questions about how movies represent atrocity. Or take Vincent Canby's takedown of Jean-Luc Godard's Nouvelle Vague (1990). His dismayed proclamation that "the party's over," in The New York Flippin' Times no less, seems to have made it officially okay for a whole swath of film writers to stop taking Godard's recent work seriously (even pans of his King Lear (1987) tended to include something to the effect of "this is the kind of bad movie only a genius could make").
Godard's always been a divisive figure, but in the last 20 years or so, most of those who aren't crazy about him have resorted to the same reductive narrative to justify their distaste: that he was brilliant for about 7 years in the 1960s, got tangled up in Mao, and has produced empty, lifeless, irrelevant, cranky, incomprehensible, and possibly/probably anti-Semitic work ever since. And with every new Godard movie this narrative is regurgitated again, larded with only the most obvious details of the current movie. Which details, on first viewing, are admittedly the only things most people could use to describe a later Godard, unless they're already on his wavelength and fairly familiar with whatever corners of his vast frame of reference he's chosen to draw from.
But instead of just admitting that what he's doing has escaped their grasp,* a sizable bloc of the critical establishment pronounces that there's no there there, and impugns Godard's character and the motives of anyone who happens to have found the movie in question to be a worthwhile experience that might be worth a closer look-see. It's aggravating, not only because it's a cop-out, and insulting besides, but because it's a move beneath the intelligence of some of the writers who've made it. Canby's review of course isn't solely responsible for this,** but it appears to have inaugurated this particular trend.
Which prompts a number of questions: Which of Godard's mid-'90s video works has O'Hehir seen? (Histoire(S) Du Cinema (1988-98)? 2X50 Years of French Cinema (1995)? Je Vous Salue Sarajevo (1993)?) Why do these sometimes quite emotionally direct movies suggest to him a puritanical devotion to boring and frustrating the audience? Does he think that's really Godard's intention? Why the '90s and not the '70s, which is when Godard began experimenting with video, and to largely more difficult and esoteric ends than in the '90s? Why single out the video works? Why not the features? Why not Godard's work with the Dziga Vertov group, which I'd consider the first half of that sentence an accurate description of? And most importantly, why bring up something as culturally marginalized as Godard's mid-'90s video work--some of which is almost impossible to see in the US outside of bootlegs and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's current Godard retrospective--in your snarky review of a multimillion dollar Hollywood production if you're just going to describe it in such unappealing terms? Does the average reader of Salon need more reasons to never check out Histoire(S) Du Cinema? Because that's essentially all that line will do for most who read it. And that's unfortunate, because maybe one or two or ten of those readers would find Histoire(S) Du Cinema as hypnotic, beautiful, funny, and moving as I and a number of others do. That far more egregious and dismissive things have been written about Godard by prominent film critics in recent years doesn't mean that this passage isn't complicit in the sidelining of his late work.
My first exposure to Godard was certainly unique in my experience of cinema up to that point, but it was hardly revelatory. Breathless (1960) was entertaining for a while, but sagged big time in the back half. Band of Outsiders (1964) was just okay. (I was 18. Such was my vocabulary.) Alphaville (1965) mainly made an impression for having one of the most perversely irritating soundscapes I'd ever heard. Contempt (1963) was gorgeous, though some of Godard's formal decisions made me feel as though I was watching a melodrama conceived by Martians. But then came Pierrot Le Fou (1965), so vibrant and playful and entirely alive moment-to-moment that it made me genuinely enthusiastic about seeing more. I saw Week End (1967), the first movie I'd ever found at once absolutely, self-evidently brilliant and a near-total ordeal to sit through. I don't think I saw another Godard after it for a couple years, but I did end up getting several of the ones I'd seen already on DVD, and they opened up considerably on a rewatch.***
The pivot point in my transition from Godard agnostic to Godard acolyte lay in an extra on Criterion's Pierrot Le Fou DVD, wherein Godard's onetime collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin discusses the first 20 minutes of the movie, and unpacks the many levels on which it operates, most of which had never occurred to me. The real clincher was this, on the opening sequence, where Godard has Belmondo quote a text about the painter Velasquez over a series of images of a tennis match, Belmondo browsing for books, and a twilit view of the Seine: "Are we listening to the quote? Hell no!" I realized that part of what had put me off in Godard is the sheer density of verbiage he throws around, from thick theory to advertising copy to cryptic aphorisms. We carry into movies the assumption that we are meant to fully and immediately comprehend every line of dialogue, and so upon encountering a Godard movie where obscure references, polysyllabic words, and sentences that take 4 or 5 subtitles to encompass are tossed about so cavalierly, it can feel pretty intimidating. Manny Farber indelibly summed this feeling up: "No other filmmaker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass."
Farber's piece on Godard is one of the best things ever written on him, but that line gives the wrong idea about how one should approach and process his body of work. The greatest pleasure of Godard, I've found, lies in the flux of images and sounds and ideas, the collagist juxtaposition of a variety of materials, and that's even more true of the later work, where the flux is more intricate and the materials more diverse. Of course, the meaning of it all matters and sussing it out is a pleasure in itself, but one shouldn't get hung up on the meanings that slip by. Once a degree of perplexity is accepted as part of the package, Godard becomes much more accessible, lively, and funny. Even though Histoire(S) Du Cinema spends a significant amount of its four and a half hours meditating on the cinema's failure to properly respond to the Holocaust, the central image in it--Godard alone in his house, puffing a cigar, pronouncing the titles of movies and books with stentorian seriousness as he uses a typewriter and futzes with an editing bay--is as comic a self-portrait as any of Hitchcock's droll cameos.
Now, not everyone will have my Road to Damascus moment. How you feel about Godard does depend to some degree on your political leanings, your feelings about modernism, your patience with certain veins of French theory, and your convictions about what cinema should do for the spectator. There are elements of his thought that I don't care for (his belief that cinema is now a moribund art form, for starters, and the way he makes it too easy for his pro-Palestinian position to be construed as outright anti-Semitism), and I don't like some of the movies that lean heavily on those tendencies, particularly For Ever Mozart (1996). But the least he deserves, like anybody else, is to have his work evaluated on the terms it sets for itself. For once, I'd like to see a dissenting take on Godard that does just that.
**Also in play is the fact that Godard is a experimental filmmaker whose historical significance and enigmatic allure is such that his work ends up being reviewed by people whose sensibilities are calibrated toward more conventional fare. Among other factors.
***The first viewing of a Godard is often just prelude to the first rewatch, the increase in comprehension+enjoyment is that exponential.