Jean-Luc Godard and America’s Oxymoronic Need for Profitable Art

by Matthew Cabe

goodbye-to-language-cannes-2014

If you desire to see—or are even remotely curious about—Jean-Luc Godard’s new film, Goodbye to Language, you better live in New York City. Theaters in other major cities (namely Los Angeles since that “market” is, for me, within driving distance) have yet to book the film, and it’s unclear if they ever will.

An article written by Tom Brueggemann detailed the two main reasons why even a limited release of Goodbye to Language would be tricky at best. The second reason is interesting enough: The film can only be seen in 3D, and most of the smaller, independent, or artsy theaters out there—those theaters most willing to show a smaller, independent, artsy movie—aren’t equipped for 3D. This means that a larger-than-New-York release of Goodbye to Language relies almost solely on the mercy of larger, corporate-owned cinemas, and, well, good luck.

The sole purpose of the larger, corporate-owned cinemas is the same purpose of any good, old-fashioned American corporation, which is to turn a profit. And that’s fine. There’s nothing new or shocking or even wrong there. And to be clear, the goal of the smaller cinemas is the same; like any business, the smaller theaters can’t remain open if they’re not financially viable (unless they happen to be the New Beverly in Los Angeles, a theater that has stayed open entirely because Quentin Tarantino shelled out large sums of money, and eventually took over ownership, to keep the theater afloat).

I have no faith in American capitalism insofar as its relation to art is concerned, which is distant at best (and should be), so it’s easy to surmise that in all likelihood Goodbye to Language’s release future is bleak. But that raises questions concerning the uncomfortable relationship between film as an art form and film as a product meant for easy consumption.

Because the first reason Mr. Brueggemann offers in his article as to why Goodbye to Language will struggle to see a limited release is, simply, “It’s a Godard film.” He adds, “Exhibitors are shying away from Jean-Luc Godard and the challenging nature of the film, despite its Cannes pedigree and critical acclaim. It’s just not a conventional film, it’s different from what is normally booked.”

That the film might be challenging is nothing new. Since Breathless in 1960, Godard has made films that challenge not just audiences, but the standards and grammar of film as well in attempts to test the sturdiness of the medium’s foundation. That the challenging nature of the film is probably not viable is nothing new either because what it really comes down to is the nature of the challenge being presented.

David Fincher’s latest film, Gone Girl, has it’s challenging moments and attempts to subvert audience’s seeming desire for happy endings by offering what in any other movie would be considered a happy ending. It’s a difficult film; I still don’t even know if I like it. Yet in the U.S. alone Gone Girl has grossed nearly $153,000,000.

So what’s the difference between the challenges of Gone Girl and Goodbye to Language? I have no idea; I clearly haven’t seen Goodbye to Language. But, as a fan of Godard’s work and someone who found it difficult at first to engage with his films, I’m willing to bet that the challenges his new film might pose are more niche than those posed in Gone Girl, which are more universal and, thus, more easily digestible.

And therein lies the problem between film as an art form and film as a product. When art becomes product that product must be profitable, and art by it’s very nature is usually not very profitable, which inevitably results in less art being consumed, and that is a problem since art provides important opportunities for thinking and feeling that are central to the real value of human existence.

Keep in mind, too, that I’m not arguing Goodbye to Language is inherently good simply because it might be artful. I’m arguing that audiences should not be robbed of the opportunity to form an opinion of its possible merit simply because those in charge are afraid of losing money by giving it space in their theaters.

What’s more is I’m not here to admonish money or the making of it, though that goal does seem to be more of an obsession in America than it is in other countries. But if the fact that Goodbye to Language is doing well in the few NYC theaters in which it’s being shown (and it is), shouldn’t that persuade other markets (like Los Angeles and Chicago) to engage in another distinctly American obsession, which is the art of taking a risk? 

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