Jean-Luc Godard Showed Me New Possibilities of What Life Could Look Like

I grew up in a suffocatingly conservative environment. Jean-Luc Godard’s films helped show me that my own conception of who I am and what kind of life I could lead could look radically different.

Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard in Berkeley, California, 1968. (Wikimedia Commons)

What objects of beauty retain their hold on you? What texts refuse to give up their hold on your imagination? What images become so unforgettable that they become the lampposts that light the way through an unforgiving world? What art, to quote an aphorism of Jean-Luc Godard, “reveals our most secret self”? These are the questions I have been asking since reading the news of Godard’s death at his home in Rolle, Switzerland, via a legally assisted suicide.

I’ve been devouring the remembrances, obituaries, reflections, and streams of emotion that have poured out since his death, and thinking about my own touchstones of experience with the artist’s creative output and its influence on my life and work.

When I was a soft-faced freshman at the University of California San Diego and a self-identified eighteen-year-old Reaganite, I saw the bar on campus with a rainbow flag and told people that I wouldn’t go there because being gay was a sin. Six months later, I was coming out to anyone that would give me the time of day, and slowly realizing that my entire life until that point had played out within a tiny ideological bubble, and that an entire world was available to me for the taking if I was willing to rebuild myself from scratch.

As I reported back to my parents on reading Friedrich Nietzsche, signing up for classes on the history of culture, and devouring new ideas from the great thinkers and creators, my dad would send me books like Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment — with extensive analysis on cinema’s deceptive use of metanarrative to undermine the grand project of redemption by our Lord and savior through faith alone.

Undeterred, I signed up for any film classes I could get into at the time. One of the classes was a class on the French new wave taught by Jean-Pierre Gorin, who had worked with Godard during his most political era, in the aftermath of the May 1968 protests. My life was changed forever.

A handful of my classmates and I would get blasted on a huge joint and walk into the class in the basement studio of Mandeville Hall, the visual arts building, with a graffitied stairwell across the way. Gorin — an imposing figure with his fish-oil vitamins, European scarves, and endless stories of battling cops in the streets with a movie camera in hand — would give us a knowing smile and then put on three films in a row.

One week it was Les Carabiniers, Bande à part, and Le petit soldat in one marathon session, and suddenly I saw the possibility of still images in a movie. I learned about the Algerian independence movement, and I understood that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of my favorite movies growing up, stole one of its iconic sequences from a French new wave director.

The next week, the haunting intonations of Lemmy Caution wandering through the fictional streets of a fascistic Alphaville were juxtaposed with Jean-Pierre Melville’s treatment of the French Resistance’s fight for survival in Army of Shadows, and the vistas of noir and science fiction were opened up to me as cinematic languages that could make historical scenarios with real political stakes thrilling.

Over the following years, I continued taking classes with Gorin and other luminaries alongside the friends I made during those seminars my freshman year. Learning about Tsai Ming-liang, Stanley Kubrick, Chantal Akerman, François Truffaut, Wong Kar-wai, Claire Denis, Pedro Almodóvar, Jean Renoir, and so many more of the architects of contemporary cinema guided me as my proclivities changed and as I was politicized by the events around me.

Eddie Constantine plays secret agent Lemmy Caution in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. (Athos Films)

They gave me a lens through which I could view the growing contradictions in my own life: going through mental and physical anguishes and ecstasies of learning to be an out queer, discovering sex and romance, and then having to hide it all every time I would go home for a holiday or family visit. I never got to a point of open suicidal ideation at that time, or obsession with suicide in the way that Godard apparently did, carrying around a razor blade in his wallet. But like for many people with a history of familial homophobia, it was a constricting force.

All these images and experiences prepared me for my time two years into university, during the fall of 2011, as Occupy Wall Street rocked the country. Something clicked in me between my trips to the free meals at the food co-op and watching Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the LGBT Center. I realized that there was a lot of injustice in the world, and more importantly, that we could stand up together to do something about it.

I took two buses and a trolley to get downtown to the first night of Occupy San Diego, where I was greeted by a member of the International Socialist Organization with a free copy of The Communist Manifesto and a sleeping bag. Later, I would see viral images of mass arrests, kettlings, and pepper spray in Zuccotti Park and on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Reminded of the images I had seen on screen, and feeling the urge to do something more than go to one protest, I joined a nascent group on campus, the Public Education Coalition, that was fighting a proposed 81 percent staggered tuition hike at the University of California. I skipped rehearsals for the play I was in to take part in a sleep-out in front of our library the day that UC Davis students were pepper-sprayed in a line, images of which quickly spread around the world. A week later, we were up at 6 AM, and I was showing new comrades how to break into a shuttered library. We spent six months occupying that library, taking over our administrative complex, shutting down the state capitol, attempting to pass a Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions resolution through our student government, inviting students to come and paint the walls and hang banners and claim the space as our own.

The creative spark was alive in us — and we nurtured it by showing films in the library. We weren’t talking about tracking shots and close-ups; we were talking about solidarity with students and workers on campus — a lesson that had been drilled into me, via my professor Gorin, by Godard.

The campaign to reopen the library was unsuccessful, but it put me on the path to becoming an organizer. The next year, I was invited to help curate part of a show at University Art Gallery, a prestigious white cube for faculty, MFA students, and visiting artists to show work that was located next door to the scrappier studios of Mandeville Hall. The new assistant curator had heard about our occupation of the library and, after a couple of meetings, invited us to recreate the space in the gallery as an opening salvo for her social practice series.

We took the invitation and spent a month sleeping in the gallery, providing supplies for anyone to mark up the walls and hosting film screenings, organizing meetings, and open mics. By that time, I had moved into performance art and away from film, but I would still pop by Gorin’s classroom to see what he was showing to the new crop of students.

One time I got lucky and walked in right as he was starting The Wayward Cloud, a Tsai Ming-liang film from 2005 that can only be described as a musical porno with watermelon motifs. It made almost no sense, but the images washed over me and I felt the colors and shapes and feelings of my reality changing and shifting once again — the same feeling I had felt watching Godard for the first time.

I’ve spent the last week working through all the tangled feelings that come with the passing of anyone whose work could take the clay of growing up in a home of aspirants to the bourgeoisie and mold it into class consciousness and anarchic, always shifting, fluid sexuality and gender.

Even seeing that he ended his own life not because of sickness but “exhaustion” doesn’t make me lose hope in the possibility of life. As Tony Kushner, another great polymath of the twentieth century, said via one of his characters in Angels in America,

I don’t know if it’s not braver to die, but I recognize the habit; the addiction to being alive. So we live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough. It’s so inadequate. But still bless me anyway. I want more life.

Godard may have been more addicted to cinema than to being alive, but the impulse feels the same. It’s an impulse that has kept me getting out of bed in the morning.

Sometimes that’s been hard — like when I was outed to my parents a month after moving home and ended up actively suicidal, or when we were in something that felt like the end of the world in spring 2020, when it felt dangerous to step outside and interact with others and I had no income and no idea how I would find any. In the former case, it was obsessively reading the words and devouring the paintings and photos of David Wojnarowicz. In the latter, it was watching the films of Godard that kept me alive at least as much as the political and personal relationships of those around me.

We live in times that feel far past hope: no safety nets for most workers, a global pandemic that the ruling class has declared over and done, an accelerating climate catastrophe, violence against people who try to exercise bodily autonomy, and endless other crises. We also live in times with hope returning: with strikes and protests, growing class consciousness, and a deepening understanding that building a better world is a lifelong commitment. Godard, more than most great artists, understood that history isn’t linear, that culture and art are never enough, and that the making and remaking the self and its relationships is a lifelong process not independent from history. He, his collaborators, audiences, critics, and detractors have shown this to be true since the opening sequence of Breathless shot into the hearts of cinephiles generations over.