The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday Nov. 27, 2000
Godard: Unicorn Wearing A Suit
The true artist is not welcome in Hollywood. Duh!
By Michael Goldberg
I thought Jean-Luc Godard was dead.
Godard's first film, "Breathless" (1960), influenced the cinema on a level arguably comparable to that of Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane." The legendary and influential director went on to become a leader in the French New Wave along with François Truffaut, who died in 1984. It had been so long since I'd heard anything about him I assumed he was gone.
But Godard lives! Writer Richard Brody found him in exile, in the town of Rolle in Switzerland, where he's lived since 1978. Brody wrote about his meeting with Godard in the November 20 issue of the The New Yorker.
Godard told the journalist that he had "long admired The New Yorker's cartoons." According to Brody, the director had clipped one that characterized his career: "A unicorn wearing a suit is seated at a desk and talking on the phone, with a caption reading, 'These rumors of my nonexistence are making it very difficult for me to obtain financing.' "
In addition to "Breathless" (AKA "A Bout De Souffle"), he made other notable films, including "One Plus One," which, among other things, includes amazing footage of the Rolling Stones in the recording studio as they created "Sympathy for the Devil." But if you're not of a certain age, you may have a hard time understanding what Godard meant in the '60s.
Not just to film, but to pop culture itself. Godard epitomized a kind of sophisticated European cool with his black knit shirts, slacks and sport coat a cigarette in his hand, his hair cut short, his true intentions concealed behind dark glasses. To see a photograph of Godard was to see him as both artist and rock star. Godard made being a filmmaker as cool as being a rocker.
In his role as a rebel in "Breathless," actor Jean-Paul Belmondo is rock 'n' roll, the way Elvis, the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, Sleater-Kinney are rock 'n' roll.
Despite his place in history, Godard has scrambled for decades to find the money to make his small, esoteric films. It is one of the many tragedies of our time that this legend has had to make commissioned videos to support himself.
"I've been sad for so long that now I'm making an effort to be more contented," Godard told Brody. "Otherwise, one would have reason to cry all the time."
One Plus One
Like the pop music business, the American movie business has always talked about "artists," but its real interest has always been the bottom line. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are considered gods in Hollywood because their movies usually generate millions upon millions of dollars for the studios. No matter the platitudes one hears over and over, art has nothing to do with it and never has.
When I read the Godard story, I had been listening to Teenage Fanclub's latest album, Howdy! (Columbia), for about a week. So far, the album hasn't even been released in the U.S., and I'll be surprised if it is.
Teenage Fanclub were once a punk-pop combo that U.S. record companies thought might hit big here, the way Oasis eventually did. But the grunge moment, and then the much-shorter Oasis moment passed, and Teenage Fanclub took the long and winding road to that fabled shadowland occupied by other critically acclaimed, commercially unsuccessful power-pop artists Big Star, the Flamin' Groovies, Marshall Crenshaw, and the Dwight Twilley Band.
By the time they recorded their fifth album, 1997's Songs From Northern Britain, Teenage Fanclub must have known they had nothing left to lose. And so, even as electronic music was taking hold in Europe, and the hip-hop/ hard rock fusion and teen pop were gaining momentum in the U.S., Teenage Fanclub took a left turn and created a beautiful album filled with light harmonies, sweet melodies and a kind of Byrds-meet-Beatles For Sale sound. It was one of the 20 best albums released that year. Naturally, practically no one in the U. S. noticed.
Like Godard, Teenage Fanclub are radicals keeping the punk spirit alive. What could be more punk than refusing to compromise your vision? Or spitting in the face of a corporate record business that wanted them to make records that would get played on the radio?
Now, three years later, Teenage Fanclub return with an album even more decisively "out-of-time" than Songs From Northern Britain; indeed, the phrase recurs in Howdy's lyrics. As "High Fidelity" author Nick Hornby wrote in the November issue of Mojo: "It's as if they wish to reverse the direction of the '60s: they started with 'Helter Skelter' and have worked their way back to 'I Want To Hold Your Hand.' "
To The New Yorker's Brody, Godard explains that the New Wave directors were fighting against "the occupation of the cinema by people who had no business there."
In the music business, the same can be said for Teenage Fanclub.
In The Game
Mark Kozelek, Rock 'N' Roll Singer (Badman): Mark Kozelek led the Red House Painters, and under his strong hand, the band released a series of amazing recordings on the 4AD label during the early-to-mid-'90s. Some people compare the group to the mysterious and legendary Nick Drake, and, listening to Kozelek's first solo effort, Rock 'N' Roll Singer, it's easy to see why. But it's also easy to hear what's special about this dreamy romantic. He includes three (!) AC/DC songs here, but unless you read the credits you'd think these were Kozelek originals, so distinctive are his interpretations. "Rock 'N' Roll Singer," done as a ballad of course, is rightfully the title track. The Neil Youngish electric guitar will give you a rush, as will Kozelek when he sings, "I had the devil in my blood/ Telling me what to do.../Gonna be a rock 'n' roll singer/ Gonna be a rock 'n' roll star." Simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking.
Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2000 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.