My one and only dream is to compete at the French Open dressed in an overcoat, sporting heavy shoes and smoking, and maybe reading this text by Fréderic Prokosh on Bill Tilden entitled Une Sarah Bernhardt: «Well, let me tell you something, my boy. Tennis is more than a simple sport. It is an art, like ballet. Or like a stage play. That moment I enter the court I feel like Anna Pavlova. Or Adelina Pattie. Or even Sarah Bernhardt. I see the footlights in front of me. I hear the crowd whispering. I feel a cold shiver. Win or die! It’s now or never! It’s my life’s crucial moment. But I’m old, my boy, old. My legs are giving out on me. Will the last act be tragic?»

 Jean-Luc Godard

 

Cinema isn’t a technique of displaying images, it’s an art of showing, and showing is a gesture, a gesture that demands looking and watching. Without this gesture there is just imagery. But if something is shown, someone must acknowledge its receipt. There were certainly other ways of spending one’s life with cinema, but this is how I spent mine. It’s very tennis-like, this idea that it would be scandalous not to return a serve. I was never a great server, but I believe that like Jimmy Connors I was good at returning.

Serge Daney 

 

Wandering through Voyage(s) in Utopia: In Search of a Lost Theorem, Godard’s installation at the Pompidou Centre in 2006, even the most distracted visitor could not have failed to notice the miniature train circling on tracks in the gallery space. On a loop between adjacent rooms marked “Yesterday and “The Day Before Yesterday, the train – which quaintly conjured memories of all the trains running through the director’s work – hauled a freight car filled with oranges, bananas, and tennis balls. Cinephiles saw in this gesture a nod to the director’s favorite sport, and indeed it was, but the reference to tennis goes much deeper.

Suggestive allusions to and depictions of tennis recur throughout Godard’s body of films and videos, spanning his different periods. Tennis fittingly accompanies the train in Voyage(s) en utopie in that both motifs have to do with the concept – at once aesthetic and philosophical – of between-ness, or what we might call the condition of interstitiality. Godard’s pivotal importance in the history of modern cinema owes considerably to his inventive engagement with all manner of interstitial relationships. In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze treats Godard along these lines as a visionary explorer of the «interstice» and «irrational cut», new practices of montage that break with the continuity system, forging in its place arrangements whereby the images no longer submit to classical, plot-based rules of coherence and contiguity. «What counts […] is the interstice between images, between two images: a spacing which means that each image is plucked from the void and falls back into it. Godard’s strength is not just in using this mode of construction in all his work (constructivism) but in making it a method which cinema must ponder at the same time as it uses it»[1]. Applauding Godard’s «method of BETWEEN» in two co-directed efforts with Anne-Marie Miéville, Ici et ailleurs (1974) and the TV miniseries Six fois deux/Sur et sous la communication (1976), Deleuze argues that Godard renders the gap between images primary, the cuts no longer mere relay mechanisms in the service of continuous action. Freed up and allowed to stand on its own, the interstice becomes a manifest expressive register through which passages and relations between incommensurable elements can be contemplated. The Godardian interstice doesn’t just contravene the syntax of classical cinema but maps new kinds of connections, making perceptible «relinkages […] between de-linked images» through a «generalized serialism» whereby combinatorial forms partake of unfamiliar, more dissonant logics and rhythms[2].    

 Deleuze’s treatment of Godard’s work in such terms is commonly cited in discussions of post-1945 modern cinema, but it needs to be acknowledged that Godard’s exploration of forms and forces of between-ness takes effect in more fine-grained ways, within shots as well as between them, through mise en scène as well as montage. Deleuze’s reading supplies a larger, philosophical understanding of a crucial Godardian obsession that needs to be considered more minutely, with careful attention to how between-ness comes into play not only in the interstices between images but also in the interlying spaces between figures, objects, and graphic aspects of his compositions. In Godard’s visual and acoustic enterprise, between-ness further bears on the viewer’s encounter with the work and interface with the screen, factoring significantly into the structures of address that involve us in the cinematic reflection. In what follows, I want to survey some of the ways in which these interstitial parameters converge in and through Godard’s deployments of tennis as a motif. His recourse to the sport sustains an evolutionary thinking through of interstitial relations, a line of investigation that reflexively concerns the film medium itself and that permutes across the early, middle, and late stages of his corpus[3].    

 

Mysterious Exchanges

 

Let us begin with the famous opening of Pierrot le fou (1965), where a male voiceover recites from Élie Faure’s History of Art (1924) a section regarding the late style of Diego Velázquez. We are told that after the age of fifty, the Spanish painter, despite being condemned to have only royalty and nobility as his subjects, dedicated his artistry to the description of spaces between and around his human figures. «He drifted around things, like air, like the twilight, catching unawares in the shimmering shadows the colored palpitations which he transformed into the invisible core of his silent symphony». Through setting his keen sights on such interstitial details, Velázquez portrayed «mysterious exchanges that united shape and tone by means of a secret and unceasing progression that no convulsion or cataclysm could interrupt or impede».

The film delays unveiling the source of this lyrical passage, to which the musical score lends a sense of mystery. Eventually, we will find Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) reading from Faure’s book as he smokes a cigarette in his marble bathtub and only faintly seems to grasp that his own privileged bourgeois existence in modern France fits in with Velázquez’s unflattering portrayal of the seventeenth-century Spanish nobility. But in the early seconds of the film, the recital of Faure’s text doesn’t yet belong to the subjectivity of a known character, and it coincides with ambiguously situated images that do the work not of beginning a plot but of sketching a peculiar logic of images at the crux of Godard’s stylistic approach.    

The first part of the voiceover recital pairs with shots of two women leisurely playing tennis in a public park. We see a medium-shot of one player and then cut to a distant view encompassing them both, their animate figures and the chalk-striped clay court filmed through a large net spread over the frame (fig. 1). In showing these brief glimpses of their match, the film significantly avoids shot-countershot cutting, a technique that Godard singles out for critique in writings published in Cahiers du cinéma around the film’s release. In his interview “Let’s Talk About Pierrot”, as well as in his experimental prose piece «Pierrot, my friend», Godard raises the technical and conceptual issue of knowing, as a director, when, how, and why to start a specific shot and when, how, and why to end it. He claims that a traditional Hollywood filmmaker, such as Delbert Mann, doesn’t have to face this problem because of a routine reliance on continuity syntax. «He follows a pattern. Shot – the character speaks; countershot – someone answers.» Godard then suggests that it is on account of his own refusal to impose such an automatic scheme of continuity that Pierrot le fou ought to be viewed as «not a film, but an attempt at film»[4].

 

 

 

(Fig.1) 

 

Godard’s attempt is a search for continuity, for sensed connectedness through untraditional means. The beginning of Pierrot both repudiates shot-countershot cutting and uses Faure’s book to map out an alternative method. Faure’s poetic description of Velázquez’s late style lends Godard a painterly springboard for his own experiment, a guiding hypothesis: «It’s as if some ethereal wave skimming over surfaces soaked up their invisible emanations to shape them and give them form, and then spread them like a perfume, like an echo of themselves, like some imponderable dust, over every surrounding surface». After the shots of the women playing tennis, we see a man (who eventually turns out to be Ferdinand, the agent of the voiceover recitation) browsing a bookshop with “The Best of All Worlds on its banner. He is studying a spinner rack labeled “Ideas[i]. The film then cuts to a stunning landscape of Paris at dusk, with reflections from two streetlights cast symmetrically over the calmly rippling Seine. This shot resonates with Faure’s later argument in the same passage that Velázquez is the «painter of evenings»[5]. More to the point, it illustrates the possibility of capturing and becoming sensitive to an «ethereal wave» that circulates through the atmosphere, gathering and carrying «invisible emanations» as it «skims» from surface to surface. Godard, as is his wont, is being rather cryptic at this juncture, but he is adapting Faure’s text in order to articulate and reflect on an elemental initiative of his film and its desired reception, as elemental as the reduction of the alphabet to ABC and the color spectrum to primary hues in the opening titles onscreen. As Jean-Pierre Gorin remarks of these gradually vanishing titles, the twin Os held over from PIERROT LE FOU figure as eyes calling out to the viewer on whose vigilance the film will rely. Then, when just one O remains, it signifies as zero, suggesting that Godard must begin from scratch, without a readymade manner of proceeding[6].      

But what exactly are we supposed to see? What sort of connections are at issue and to what purpose? Does Pierrot offer a filmic counterpart to Velázquez’s emphasis on the between? If it does, then how? Godard’s concern for interstices between and within his images follows more generally from the creative aspirations he puts forth in “Pierrot, my friend”. While allusively riffing on Jean Epstein’s vitalist theorization of the film medium, Godard writes that cinema captures not reality so much as life. Or rather, cinema takes register of a vital, atmospheric current but only in partial and fleeting streams: life, Godard contends, enters and exits the frame simultaneously, like water from the tap into an overflowing bathtub.[iv] Precisely because this sense of life is elusive and can be seized only in fragments, his film’s basic task must be to reimagine and tinker with possibilities of articulating continuity and discontinuity. This moves Godard to devise an aphorism that inspires his stylistic approach: «two shots which follow each other do not necessarily follow each other. The same goes for two shots which do not follow each other»[7].

This aphorism imparts a film poetics that exceeds the fixed ordering of photograms on the strip, as well as the narrative-based succession of pictures on the screen. More specifically, it alerts us to a double aspect of the shot everywhere in play. On the one hand, each shot and each shot-to-shot resonance is weighed by the filmmaker with methodical care (the shot goes precisely where it falls in the film’s horizontal unfolding). At the same time, each shot is free to dislodge and link up with other images through associative pathways that might well arise out of sequence (the shot is unsettled and open to later, vertical echoes and correspondences between events that occur several scenes apart). Given this metamorphic potentiality, an acoustic or pictorial detail within one shot can persist formally into another shot (as a repetition, a contrast, or a kind of rhyme), and the later shot may or may not be consecutive with the first.

To return to the Faure-inspired opening of Pierrot, this vertical poetics of montage is subtly at work throughout the film’s initial act, at once supplying an audiovisual variation on Velásquez’s fixation on between-ness and structuring Ferdinand’s gravitation toward Marianne (Anna Karina), the babysitter and ex-lover with whom he bolts, leaving behind his wife, children, and debilitating middle-class society. The twilight cityscape of Paris, which, as we have said, illustrates Faure’s text – its intimations of color and surface and atmosphere – is strangely continuous with later shots that reconstitute and transform its graphic features. The next nighttime scene – a lavish surprise party for Ferdinand’s in-laws – ends convulsively as Ferdinand hurls a fistful of cake at a party guest. His action graphically matches, across an abrupt cut, with fireworks exploding in a black sky (the cut is synchronized with the word "despair" in Ferdinand’s narration, and this, in turn, sparks his voiced longing for Marianne).

These fireworks – these «colored palpitations», to draw from Faure’s language – resurface a few shots later, still as fireworks but now combined with thunderstorm noises so as to seem more like strobes of lightning. In the ensuing shots that depict Ferdinand and Marianne running away together that same night in a stolen car, another "mysterious exchange" transpires: the fireworks metamorphose into spirals of colored light that play on the car’s windshield in pulsing arcs over Ferdinand’s and Marianne’s faces (red and green lights on her side, blue and yellow on his). The scene is rather obviously filmed on a soundstage and is a cinephilic tribute to the charm of such scenes in classical Hollywood films. In concert with artificial sounds of wind and of cars zipping past in the oncoming lane, the whirling colors serve in part as make-believe reflections from the streetlights under which Ferdinand and Marianne are supposed to be driving. The most crucial function of this playful setup is to prolong a series of vertical relays and resonances instigated by Faure’s text on Velázquez. Reviving the earlier fireworks, as well as the earlier dusk cityscape, these colored lights signal the formation of our lead couple, as Godard (again skirting shot-countershot in its orthodox guise) presents long-held singles of each character and then shows us a two-shot of them both (fig. 2-5). In short, Godard has carefully charted Ferdinand’s drift toward Marianne (his becoming “Pierrot, as she insists on calling him) through a Velázquez-informed emphasis on the interstitial, adding a plurality of short-lived compositions and a game of memory with and for the vigilant spectator. In doing so, Godard has also tested out his own aphorism that non-consecutive shots can “follow one another, and he has enjoined us to see the repetitions across these different nocturnal, chromatically vibrant scenes not as mere embellishments but as sensitive expressions of transversal, atmospheric forces of coupling.

 

(fig. 2-5)

 

“That’s life for you, says Ferdinand/Pierrot as soon as the film cuts to the two-shot of the couple. Narratively his line replies to her commentary on the limits of news reports on the war in Vietnam, their reduction of casualties to sheer anonymity. At the same time, his mention of “life affirms the film’s compositional and conceptual focus on the between as a way into apprehending the elusive life force Godard describes in “Pierrot, my friend. Much later in the film – before the main couple is undone according to an elaborate double-cross narrative borrowed from film noir – Ferdinand/Pierrot/Belmondo declares while looking directly into the lens, in an “old man” voice that seems to be an impression of Michel Simon: "I’ve got an idea for a novel: not to write about people’s lives anymore, but only about life – life itself. What lies in between people: space, sound, and color. I’d like to accomplish that. Joyce gave it a try, but it should be possible to do better". In this moment, the actor is, of course, channeling Godard’s experimental sensibility as a filmmaker and reaffirming the ambition at the basis of the film’s logic of images. We can now understand the particular valence of that early scene of two women playing tennis: their back-and-forth rally figures as a microcosmic expression of intercorporeal space and movement, a dance and exchange of vital energy. Their match is a quotidian event made strange, both itself and a metaphoric rendering of something beyond itself. These scenes reflexively characterize the cinematic screen as a court on which mysterious crosscurrents play out. Echoing the optical OO from the opening titles, these shots also align our gaze with that of the camera, defining the film as a kind of spectator sport, a game that turns on our rapt perception. Hence the two surrogate spectators shown watching the match, in the background on either side of the court. There are two different nets that matter in scene: the net between players and the net that surrounds the entire court. The latter – a net of capture – falls flush over the frame in the wide shot, thus defining the film medium in terms of spontaneous apprehension, in the sense of netting an event, as one might net a fish or butterfly. This net also sparks a vertical series, insofar as its weave of boxes rhymes visually with the graph paper on which we later see Ferdinand writing in inserts – actually, the hand of Godard himself, jotting down ideas for his reflective practice (fig. 6).      

 

     (fig. 6)

 

Godard’s exploration of between-ness in Pierrot le fou demonstrates a certain vitalist poetics, but this is not mere formalism. Although not a militant film, Pierrot partially and tentatively moves toward Godard’s shift into the Leftist politicization of his years with Gorin and the Dziga Vertov Group. The reuse of Faure’s remarks on Velásquez is at once aesthetic and political in that Faure characterizes the painter’s investment in the between as a subversive process of class commentary, one through which we become, along with the artist, newly sensitive to events, actions, and pulses of detail (of life) that entrenched powers and entrenched idioms of expression either deemphasize or hide away. Implicit in Godard’s adaptation of Faure’s passage is the notion that a poetics keyed to between-ness stands to provoke in its observer a profound reexamination of one’s convictions, habits, and sense of self. Ferdinand, who embodies this very transformation in both comic and pensive tones, is a hybrid figure. Part artist and part spectator, he doubles as both. We become loosely aligned with his adventure, his flight from his bourgeois tedium in Paris, though we of course don’t have to share his character’s film noir-encoded trajectory, which inevitably ends in betrayal, isolation, and death. The work of Godard’s interstitial poetics is to rouse and condition – in the sense that training for an athletic contest is called "conditioning" – the viewer for additional games and "attempts" to come.

  

 

Middle Godard

  

Tennis resurfaces as a conceptual figure in Vladimir and Rosa (1971), the last and one of the most anarchic of Godard’s unsigned projects with Gorin and the Vertov Group. The film loosely and parodically reenacts the infamous trial of the Chicago Eight, the group of activists, including Abby Hoffman and Bobby Seale, who were charged by the U.S. government with conspiracy and inciting to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Inserted as brief digressions from the trial are scenes of Godard and Gorin walking and talking to each other down the middle of a tennis court. They move back and forth along the net, where two couples are engaged in an odd, chaotic mixed doubles match – what appears to be two matches happening at once on the same court. The filmmakers appear as somewhat farcical versions of themselves – Godard as “Vladimir Lenin”, Gorin as “Karl Rosa – who occupy the same side of the net in some of these scenes and, in others, interact from opposite sides. They are encumbered with sound recording gear as they discuss how best to analyze the unjust trial in all its complicatedness. Their words, which play back over the court’s PA system, are hard to follow in part because of technical sound distortions and in part because of their stammering. Meanwhile, tennis balls fly past and in between them, as well as in between their bodies and the camera (fig. 7-8). These moving objects figuratively evoke the hard-to-study variables of their interrogation. 

 

 (Fig. 7-8)

 

 Nicole Brenez refers to these scenes in her essay on Godard’s creative preoccupation with scenes and forms of questioning. She writes that Vladimir and Rosa initiates «a famous Godardian metaphor connecting dialogical exchanges in cinema with the exchange of shots in tennis». Such a metaphor underlies the «eristic» spirit of Godard’s cinema, its ethos of relentless debate as well as its «gymnastic» technique of piling question upon question[9]. Vladimir and Rosa’s questioning of themselves and the events under inspection serves to counter the prosecution’s dictatorial way of questioning the eight defendants, who form a cross-section of the radical left. As with its function in Pierrot le fou, tennis marks a site of interstitially, but its basic tenor has undergone a politicized change. The first tennis scene notably starts with Gorin stammering out the word “contradictory” and arguing that the exposure of the trial’s contradictions will offer an escape route from what he describes as a situation of constant oppression. As a principle, contradiction plays an integral role in Mao’s adaptation of dialectical materialism, which, building on earlier positions handed down by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, argues for the essentially contradictory character of all things, events, and processes, all dimensions of life, with growth and change occurring through ceaseless struggle between opposites caught in dynamic negotiation. Crucial to the Maoist perspective to which the Vertov Group commit their film is the methodological imperative to observe, move between, and parse the interdependent contradictions that permeate a given event, with an eye to understanding both their particular and universal ramifications[10]. In Vladimir and Rosa, tennis works as more than just reflexive cinematic figure suggesting dialogue and exchange; it becomes a veritable dispositif for this critical engagement with contradiction, the proper examination of which promises to combat the oppressive and reprehensible forces motivating the trial. Tennis, as with its use in Pierrot, is a figure that evokes the apprehension of life, but life now is understood within the parameters of a full-on dialectical world outlook. Abstract and bordering on slapstick humor, these tennis scenes mark a dialogical gap in the middle of an ongoing inquiry, a chaotic space within which new and more just thinking has a chance to arise, thinking inclined toward political action. Since Godard and Gorin fail to clearly enunciate their own ideas in this potentially dialogical space, the viewer is tasked with mentally continuing and adding to the reflection. What the film looks to galvanize is not an already determined answer so much as a circumstance whereby the spectator’s thinking can creatively ally itself with the revolutionary project of resistance.

 

 

Middles in Godard’s Late Work

 

Godard reactivates tennis as a motif in his late films and videos, again conceptualizing the sport as a vehicle of dialogue and self-conscious, critical rumination. In Soft and Hard (1985), his made-for-TV video essay co-directed with Anne-Marie Miéville, Godard, in one of the program’s most memorable segments, practices his backhand, swinging a tennis racket in his and Miéville’s living room while video freeze-frames study his movements. In another, equally striking segment, he mimes a performance as a tennis player, serving an invisible ball (one thinks of the enigmatic ending of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966)) in the direction of the lens, which is to say, of us. Indeed, this mimed serve is a gesture of address to the viewer, one that acknowledges our dialogical role in Godard-Miéville’s critical exploration. The act implies a receptive other, not simply a recipient but a returner, in the sense of Serge Daney’s remarks in the above epigraph. As I argue elsewhere, Soft and Hard, not unlike many of Godard’s late-period instances of self-portraiture, is a work acutely focused on elements of interpersonal dialogue – between Godard and his interlocutor, between the spectacle and the viewer – that fly in the face of, and pose correctives to, monological idioms that reign on television, particularly television news. The tacit, virtual space of exchange between ourselves and the work onscreen is, of course, just as crucially significant for Godard’s practice as the dynamic interspace between himself and Miéville, which Soft and Hard highlights in its central conversation scene.

That, for Godard, the motif of tennis has to do with an interval of interaction, whereupon the self opens onto others, is further made apparent in a brief segment in JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December (1995) in which Godard, as JLG, shows up in a curiously presented tennis match on an indoor court of his athletic club in Rolle. As with the tennis scenes in Vladimir and Rosa, the film throws us into the middle of what seems to be a mixed doubles match, but JLG – with changes of his apparel that correspond chromatically to his partners’ outfits – switches between both sides of the net, at first playing a point with a young boy as his teammate and then playing another with a young girl as his teammate. This scene ties in with a series of encounters that JLG has in the film with others (housemaids, inquisitors, a blind editor, an aged woman in the forest) who physically enter his orbit, his life of solitude. If Godard’s mindfulness of his actual mortality infuses the film, his figurative death plays out across several scenes, as a stripping away of his authorial ego for the sake of his entry into intensive co-belonging with others, a movement couched by the last scene as a gesture of loving sacrifice. The tennis scene already has death on its mind, preparing the ground for the film’s conclusion. During the match, close-ups of Godard’s notebook pages are interleaved into the image track. Citing William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun (1951), the handwritten pages by Godard state: «The past is never dead. It’s not even past.» This prompts the film to cut back to the tennis match, where JLG, after failing to put his outstretched racket on his opponent’s passing shot, says with a smile, punning on Faulkner’s aphorism, «I am as happy to be passed as not to be passed.» Tennis thus occasions a reflection on dialogical connectedness and conveys JLG’s embrace of his looming death. His wordplay suggests a mindset both reconciled with his imminent pastness and accepting of his loss at the hands of his fellow player (fig. 9).

 

 

 (Fig. 9)

 

In an earlier film, Keep Your Right Up (1987), Godard again turns to tennis for both lightly comic and profound reflective purposes. The film starts with a sketch-like scene in an auto garage where Godard, playing the part of the Idiot Prince, a loose, slapstick-inspired variation on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s protagonist in The Idiot (1869), voices his discontent with contemporary professional tennis, doing so from the perspective of the audience, turning his gaze from side to side as though following the flight of the ball. His mimed performance implies that tennis used to be a peaceful, delicate display of skill but has devolved into brute swats and grunts and self-congratulatory battle cries after nearly every point – celebrations that the Idiot Prince mockingly imitates (fig. 10). This hysterical scene accords with some of the grievances Godard has voiced about professional tennis in interviews. It also resonates with Serge Daney’s critiques of televised tennis in pieces he wrote for Libération, with which Godard was doubtless familiar. In The Smash of Rage”, Daney regrets that the traditional elegance of tennis has, in the wake of the popularity of champions like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, been stolen away by the sport’s commercial pact with network TV and has been replaced by a vile choreography of aggression having centrally to do with self-image. Such exaggerated outbursts, as Daney sees them, are «directed more towards oneself than towards the Other». The televised sport, he writes, all but requires the players’ histrionic manifestation of a hateful yet bogus rage, passing for motivation[i].

 

 (Fig. 10)

 

These respective commentaries by Godard and Daney are germane to Keep Your Right Up inasmuch as the film’s treatment of the sport extends, somewhat obliquely but still meaningfully, into ethical considerations that lend the episodic, non-linear film a strand of thematic coherence. Take the interspersed scene on an airplane, in which the passengers show ferocious disregard for one another as they clamor for their seats on a jam-packed flight. One passenger, after reading a magazine article bemoaning the failure of May ’68 and the triumph of competitive individualism in late-capitalist society, switches to an issue of Tennis magazine. Another passenger plays with his tennis racket as though warming up for a match, and periodically in the scene, we hear someone shout, from the offscreen space, a tennis score of a game in process (a trope in Godard’s Nouvelle Vague (1990) as well). Echoing the Prince’s earlier criticisms of pro tennis in the garage scene, the pilot walks up and down the aisle reciting Lautréamont’s 1868 proto-surrealist novel, The Song of Maldoror, describing unsightly grimaces of men that would frighten wolves. Elsewhere in the film, the woman (Jane Birkin) of a posh couple, driving through a forest in a red convertible, speaks of possibly heading to England for the Wimbledon final. She says this wistfully in close-up, as though the experience could offer something sorely lacking in her life.    

In Keep Your Right Up, tennis – the variety of tennis Daney and Godard remember fondly as connoisseurs – harbors a lost capacity for calm, peaceable sociality in the modern world. In the airplane scene, there is one moment that deviates from the bedlam of selfishness. Godard, as the Prince, has a congenial conversation with his neighbor, an older woman who is crocheting, about the possibility of a person both smiling and conveying regret at once. As he explains this seeming paradox, he assists the woman in sorting out her red yarn, which wraps around both of his hands in even loops. The words he speaks are from Gaston Bachelard’s essay on «the vertical instant», a notion of time wherein ambivalences of feeling – compressions of opposites – emerge outside of consecutive order and the structure of causation[i]. This moment philosophically implies linkage through Bachelard’s discontinuous model of temporality, while showing that the Prince, like his Dostoevskian precursor, is not in fact an idiot but merely naïve and gentle-hearted. More to the point, the red yarn, resonating with burgundy tones in the Prince’s necktie and shirt, expresses a momentary accord between the Prince and the woman (as does their similar eyewear). When the Prince waves his hand in an illustration of Bachelard’s idea of reversibility”, he traces the spatial interval between them. This interlude in the scene, a brief lesson in poetic phenomenology, thus correlates with the tennis motif and its interpersonal focus.  

The film’s tennis-inflected concerns with dialogue and togetherness further find expression through intermittent scenes of the French rock/synth-pop group Les Rita Mitsouko – Katherine Ringer and Fred Chichin – collaborating in studio sessions (to be exact, we see them at work on their 1986 album The No Comprendo). The film concentrates on the duo’s testing out of different tones and tempi, their quest for binding rhythms, and we hear the end results of their effort only as transient refrains that mark the film’s soundtrack as though atmospheric gusts from offscreen.[ii] At one point during a studio scene, as Ringer and Chichin share the same shot and modify a song, we can hear, beneath their music and conversation, a repetitious, echoic noise that I believe to be the sounds of a tennis match recorded in an indoor setting, perhaps the same indoor club shown in JLG/JLG. Here the tennis motif underscores the bi-directional (and rhythmic) negotiation of a dialogue, with Ringer and Chichin featuring as a creative couple. (In this way, they bring to mind the partnership between Godard and Miéville.)  

 

 

Cinematic Tennis: Bonus et Malus

 

While tennis, for Godard, carries a reflexive association to cinematic form and technique, it should be noted that his practice critically engages good (bonus) and bad (malus) versions of this association[11]. After all, he has dismissed traditional shot-countershot syntax as presenting a bland tennis match of speech that unthinkingly assumes continuity[12]. For Godard, the good, promising cinematic embodiment of tennis resides both in its configuration of a non-narcissistic encounter with otherness in its many forms, and in the viewer’s ability to weigh non-identical elements and materials brought into interactive contact. In a 2001 interview with L’Équipe, Godard claims that televised tennis misleads observers by displaying equivalences where none really exist: «A shot by Venus Williams has nothing in common with one by [Martina] Hingis. Yet television is incapable of showing that. And so they forget the essential, they forget the bodies. They get people’s minds all worked up but true spirit is missing»[13]. When Godard makes use of tennis in his late ventures, between-ness entails an encounter with alterity, and the detection of differences across which the observer may still grasp formal, thematic, affective, and historical linkages. In The Old Place (1999), Godard and Miéville reflect on their artistic method and essay the notion that montage, as a tool of historical inspection, has to begin with simple links and then open onto increasingly elaborate links that force their craft to confront and reckon with an always-shifting external reality. A use of shot-countershot launches this reflection. Godard and Miéville construct a differential alternation between shots of tennis players – Venus Williams on one side of the net and a white woman from decades earlier on the other side. This gesture revises the conventional logic of shot-countershot by removing it from the rule of the same (fig. 11-12)[14]. 

 

        

 (Fig. 11-12)

 

As a check on egoism through an open encounter with otherness, tennis, in Godard’s late phase, also brings us back to the director’s theme of love and coupling, forming a bridge with his larger historical, political, and ethical considerations. Consider the trailer he made for the 2008 Viennale. The short video, A Catastrophe, begins with sounds of tennis balls swatted by grunting players – first two women, then two males – that oscillate between left and right audio channels and combine with sampled shots from the Odessa Steps massacre in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which is soon replaced by slowed, grainy and re-colored video footage of a dying man in the Siege of Sarajevo, a clip Godard recycles across a number of his late works. The tennis sounds conclude with the applause of spectators, and this gives way to sounds of military combat, accompanied by shots of a tank firing and a fighter plane spitting fire-orange bombs. Meanwhile, a series of intertitles on black screens are interspersed: «A catastrophe / is the first strophe of a poem / of love». Godard follows this assertion with slowed, re-edited shot-countershots between a young couple kissing in People on Sunday (Siodmak, Ulmer, 1930). These shots (fig. 13-14) coincide with a vocal recitation of a song in low German, That You Are My Love”, which entails children meeting in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to their parents[15].

 

 (Fig. 13-14)

 

What do these reworked shots and countershots have to do with Godard’s video poem as a whole? They of course riff on the asserted constellation of love and disaster, with the clip taking on both horrific and tender associations. As is also true of Godard’s use of People on Sunday in Goodbye to Language (2014), these reused shots mark a prelapsarian moment before the Second World War, an event that, in Godard’s vision of history, sets off a succession of large-scale conflicts through the remainder of the twentieth century, up to and including Sarajevo. Because of Godard’s convulsive adjustments of speed and flow of motion, the two young lovers onscreen seem, on both sides of the alternating cuts, caught between hostility and affection, until the latter wins out, as the kiss verifies. How should we interpret this curiously placed scene of love? How does it work together with or against the war imagery that precedes it? And how does the tennis motif inform this partly mournful, partly lyrical montage? 

According to Godard’s historical perspective, the catastrophes are not merely the unjust and horrific events themselves but failures of cinema to prevent and counteract them, or rather, failures on the part of humanity to harness and implement the astonishing creative, perceptual, and ethical powers of cinema in such a way as to change the brutally repetitive course of history. The trailer invokes Godard’s longstanding correlation of tennis with cinematic montage, but in doing so, moves structurally from bad to good versions of this trope. Despite the crowd’s cheers (which are nullified and made chilling by their juxtaposition with images from Eisenstein’s film), the tennis at the outset of the video insinuates a failure to perceive, explore, and build self-other connectedness in non-identical, non-hostile ways. The fragments from Battleship Potemkin evoke a discontinued chapter in the history of cinema: montage as a revolutionary form of resistance that has suffered defeat and desertion)[16]. When the shots of the young couple emerge, they hold out a redemptive force – not just through the negotiated inter-affection they stage but through the very critical utility of a videographic form of montage that lets us study, with heightened attention and feeling, their figures from both sides of the spatial interval that conjoins them.  

A Catastrophe bears out Godard’s late-period definition of montage as a critical instrument whose proper, urgent vocation is to cross and study disparate phenomena, exploring the interstices revealed between such elements. Tennis, as we have seen, functions in his repertoire of motifs as a reminder of the ethical necessity to exercise the extraordinary interstitial resources of montage in the context of human interaction and dialogue, this being an activity of dialogue in its own right, undertaken with the spectator-returner. Godardian tennis fosters and amplifies athletic sensitivity to the dia-(Greek: through”) of dialogue, the transverse streams of thought and affect that mediate the potentialities of interpersonal exchange.   

 

 

Rick Warner

 

 


[1] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, University of Minnesota Press, Minnepolis 1989, pp. 179-80.   

[2] Deleuze, Cinema 2, pp. 275-7. Borrowing from Deleuze and other theorists, Laura Rascaroli argues that thought in essayistic cinema – of which Godard, we know, is a prime example – manifests itself through disjunctive and dialectical encounters with interstitial gaps of various kinds. Rascaroli, How the Essay Film Thinks, Oxford University Press, New York 2017, pp. 6-21.

[3] Drawing on Raymond Bellour’s intermedial notion of entre-images, one could extend Godard’s fascination with between-ness to relationships between different media. Indeed Godard’s work informs Bellour’s framework in indispensable ways. See Bellour, Between-the-Images, ed. Bellour and Allyn Hardyck, trans. Allyn Hardyck, JRP Ringier & Les Presses du réel, 2012.

[4] Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, trans. and ed. Tom Milne, Da Capo, New York 1972, p.  223, trans. modified.

[5] In French, the banner of the bookstore reads LE MEILLEUR DES MONDES, the title of the French translation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

[6] «Velasquez is the painter of evenings, of space, and of silence, even when he paints in broad daylight, even when he paints in a closed room, even when war or the hunt rages around him». Élie Faure, History of Art: Modern Art, trans. Walter Pach, Garden City Publishing, Garden City 1937, p. 128.     

[7] For a shrewd examination of graphic expressivity in the film, see Tom Conley, «Pierrot le fou and a Legacy of Forme», in A Companion to Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Tom Conley and T. Jefferson Kline, Wiley Blackwell, Malden 2014, pp. 187-96.

[8] Godard, Godard on Godard, p. 214.  

[9] Godard, Godard on Godard, p. 215.

[10] Nicole Brenez, «The Forms of the Question», in For Ever Godard, ed. Michael Temple, James S. Williams, and Michael Witt, Black Dog, London 2004, p. 162. Brenez draws on Socrates to finesse this point.

[11] Mao Tse-Tung, «On Contradiction», in On Practice and Contradiction, Verso, London 2007, pp. 67-102.

[12] I am indebted to Andy Rector for suggesting, on his blog Kino Slang, a link between Godard’s film and Daney’s text. See Daney, «The Smash of Rage», trans. Laurent Kretzschmar, Kino Slang, April 4 2009, http://kinoslang.blogspot.com/2009/04/smash-of-rage-by-serge-daney-where.html.

[13] Gaston Bachelard, «Poetic Instant and Metaphysical Instant», in Intuition of the Instant, trans. Eileen Rizo-Patron, Northwestern University Press, Evanston 2013, pp. 61-2. On the ethical thrust of Godard’s citation in this scene, see James S. Williams, Encounters with Godard: Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics, State University Press of New York, New York 2016, 124-25.

[14] For an astute reading of the role of this couple’s music in the film, vis-à-vis questions of love and gesture, see Williams, Encounters with Godard, pp. 111-16.

[15] Bonus (good) and malus (bad) are Latin terms that Godard uses in Vrai faux passeport (2006) when he passes critical judgment on a host of fictive and documentary scenes he has sampled.

[16] In Scénario de Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1979), Godard complains about the «ping-pong» structure and cadence of orthodox uses of shot-countershot, before he moves on to experiment with other montage procedures through video. 

[17] Jean-Luc Godard, «Movies Lie, Not Sports», interview by Jérome Bureau and Bennoît Heimermann, in The Future(s) of Film: Three Interviews 2000-01, trans. John O’Toole, Verlag Gachnang & Springer AG, Bern 2002, p. 79.

[18]Godard and Miéville are scarcely the first and only innovative directors to look upon tennis as a correlate of cinematic editing. One thinks of Hitchcock’s reflexive analogy between a tennis match and the dramatic logic of crosscutting in Strangers on a Train. See Murray Pomerance, «The Dramaturgy of Action and Involvement in Sports Film», Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 23: 4, 2006, pp. 324-29.

[19] I am indebted to Craig Keller for the identification of this low-German song and the translation of these lyrics, which are not translated by subtitles in the video. Craig Keller, «Une Catastrophe» Cinemasparagus, October 29, 2008, http://cinemasparagus.blogspot.com/search?q=catastrophe.  

[20] Doubtless the Shoah is one of the catastrophes implicitly evoked by the video, and here – similar to what transpires in the much-debated passage of Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98) that interweaves footage of the Nazi death camps with a clip of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (Stevens, 1951) – a young, amorous couple bears a redemptive relationship to the atrocity and its ramifications in Godard’s montage-based sense of history, this also being a relationship that temporally includes our moment of viewing.