IT says a lot about today's moviegoing habits that Jean-Luc Godard is no longer the familiar figure he once was - almost a household name in some circles - among American cinema buffs. His approach to film is apparently too mercurial and challenging for some viewers to handle comfortably.
Fortunately, he remains an artist of such stature and fascination that serious filmgoers are refusing to let his recent works go unheralded.
A major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) here, "Jean-Luc Godard: Son+Image, 1974-1991," has lined up more than 30 of his film and video productions from the last 18 years. Accompanied by an extraordinarily well-produced catalog of commentaries, analyses, and ruminations, it promises to inaugurate a healthy new era in Godard appreciation.
Mr. Godard's impact was felt first in 1959, when his modernist crime drama "Breathless" reshuffled storytelling conventions in ways that both celebrated and exploded Hollywood patterns that had dominated film narrative for decades.
Such outstanding pictures as "My Life to Live" and "The Married Woman" followed, propelling France's innovative New Wave movement and influencing cinema around the globe.
In the second half of the 1960s, however, Godard's preoccupations turned in radically new directions. These testified to the continuing vigor of his creativity and to his fierce insistence on marching to the drumbeat of his own ideas, however this might affect him as a "commercially viable" filmmaker.
"Two or Three Things I Know About Her," produced in 1966, was less a dramatic story about a Parisian prostitute than a radical analysis of commodity culture, aimed at deconstructing the languages of both economics and cinema. Subsequent pictures like "La Chinoise" and "Le Gai savoir" were even more extreme in their political explorations and sociocultural critiques.
Godard and his colleague Jean-Pierre Gorin then formed the Dziga-Vertov Group, named after a pioneer Soviet filmmaker and devoted to cinematics of the most abstract and cerebral sort. Godard's dwindling audience shrank even further.
It rebounded when he moved back to narrative in "Sauve qui peut (la vie)" in 1979, however, and he stayed in the international-film news with such controversial 1980s works as "First Name: Carmen," a reworking of the operatic "Carmen" story; "Hail Mary," a modern-day version of Jesus' nativity; and "King Lear," a Shakespearean spinoff with a cast ranging from Peter Sellars and Burgess Meredith to Molly Ringwald and Woody Allen.
What has remained constant during the continual rethinking and repositioning of Godard's career is his steady fascination with cinema as a close relation to writing and painting. He sees the value of moviemaking not in the high-tech entertainment possibilities that Hollywood exploits, but in the opportunities film offers for deeply personal expression through hands-on creative work. He has never flinched from sharing his most audacious ideas in the most imaginative forms he can devise, even when this has
meant leaving most audiences (including erstwhile admirers of his work) scratching their heads in puzzlement. His talent and integrity have proved equally tenacious.
One article in MoMA's new Godard catalog is an examination of "Eight Obstacles to the Appreciation of Godard in the United States," written by Jonathan Rosenbaum, a Godard watcher. Listing roadblocks that separate Godard from the high repute he deserves with a sizable American audience, Mr. Rosenbaum points to such features of contemporary US culture as historical amnesia, aesthetic and political conservatism, and a declining interest in intellectual cinema.
Rosenbaum is correct in suggesting that mainstream trends on the American arts scene have devalued the sort of rigorous, challenging, and often irascible work to which Godard and his collaborators - including Anne-Marie Mieville, his partner for many years - have dedicated themselves. To balance this, the MoMA program rightly focuses on an aspect of cinema that has been a primary Godard obsession: the infinitely malleable relationship between sight and sound, two sensory dimensions that have vastly more possibilities for counterpoint, dialectics, and mutual illumination than Hollywood is usually willing to admit, much less explore and utilize.
It is a superbly assembled show, making a forceful case for an artist who deserves far more sustained attention than he has lately received.
"Jean-Luc Godard: Son+Image, 1974-1991" was organized by film curator Laurence Kardish and colleagues. In addition to many films including the 1982 drama "Passion" and the 1985 comedy "Detective," which have received theatrical exposure in the US, the program contains various Godard-Mieville television works. The most ambitious are "Six fois deux: Sur et sous la communication," a series of politically informed interviews with an assortment of French citizens, and "France/tour/detour/ deux/enfants," an ex traordinary look at the lives of two French children.
The program opened with showings of "Histoire(s) du cinema," a bravura video production on film history seen through Godard's idiosyncratic eyes, and "Germany Year 90 Nine Zero," an exquisitely filmed tragicomedy dealing with German reunification.
One hopes the museum's decision to spotlight these works will now help propel them into other venues, including movie theaters. One also hopes the publication associated with the show - including essays by Laura Mulvey, Gilles Deleuze, Peter Wollen, Raymond Bellour, Colin Myles MacCabe, and others - will be circulated far and wide.
* The Jean-Luc Godard retrospective closes on Nov. 30.