Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Essays, Jean-Luc Godard

Vivre sa vie – A Life to Live in 12 Chapters

[Originally published for the UW Continuing Education Office of Cinema Studies, January 23, 1983]

By a strange process of free association I hope eventually to justify, watching a couple of Lily Tomlin’s character sketches on Saturday Night Live this past weekend reminded me of Godard’s rectangular portrait of Anna Karina/Nana Klein in Vivre sa vie. One sketch featured Edith, a wizened-wise little girl who pontificates from a huge rockingchair, dreaming up all manner of bizarre mischief and fantastic scenarios in which she must always be the star. This particular skit ended with Edith’s sudden fear of heavenly retribution for all her egocentric naughtiness. She confides that God has a television set and that he watches us on it: “When I think he’s watching me, I always try to do a commercial for myself … to show him how good I am.” In an earlier sketch, Tomlin had verified the trustworthiness of a “public service announcement” and her own spokesperson sincerity by stating: “I am not a professional actress, but a real person just like you.” Tomlin’s satirical jibes at the power of media/mediated realities to confer or deny authenticity, even the odor of sanctity, began to work for me as a comedic version of the complex collisions of art and reality in Vivre sa vie (1962). Godard’s fourth feature film is nothing if not a commercial for the “goodness” (a term I use in the Godardian, cinematic sense) of Anna Karina/Nana Klein—whether for the edification of a God who watches us all in the movies or the Platonic ideal of film critics, I would not venture to say. Vivre sa vie exemplifies the aesthetic paradoxes implicit in Godard’s critical premises about cinema, paradoxes which, more superficially, are at play in actress-comedienne Lily Tomlin’s assumption of a “real person” persona in a comic skit designed to create the illusion of pseudodocumentary.

Godard was after nothing less than Truth in the making of movies. His aesthetic politique was radicalized, if not politicized, from the beginning. As an intellectual, more given to the raptures of analysis than emotion, he could see that the genteel fraud of cinematic Art-with-a-capital-A could seduce audiences by means of artifice, creating a comfortable schism between cinema and ordinary experience. One could go into the dark and dream in a willing suspension of disbelief, but the light of day chemically redefined that suspension: dispersion of the components of the dream in liquid reality. Godard, like many of his compatriots in literature, painting, and even sculpture, consciously decided to sabotage the seductive forms and manifestations of art and artifice. The images in his movies would have the dream-stopping immediacy of newsreels or machine-gun fire in the theater aisles. He attacked the beguiling concept of plot, that aesthetic form we so cherish for its orderly shaping of experience into a beginning, middle, and end, a coherent, directed narrative itinerary which satisfies us as messy reality never—or rarely—does. His attack failed, of course, or rather turned into something else, something that allowed for the creation of his best films. For the moment Godard turned the camera on person or scene, he “framed” it, and thereby began the process of making fiction. His eye was too drawn to richly significant images and events, and too able to provocatively juxtapose them, to avoid narrative altogether. Every directorial decision he made toward the end of de-dramatizing his work metamorphosed that work into something new in the world of cinema.

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