For Richard Brody
To watch, and in some respects especially to listen to, a film by Jean-Luc Godard is to be drawn into a web of intertextuality that can be as nettlesome as it can be pleasurable. (And this is true even of, you know, the earlier, funnier films, the acknowledged influential "classics" Godard made prior to the chimerical decline cited in accounts published in various middlebrow accoutrements.) Either way, one is always stimulated, and sometimes moved. One may be particularly moved when the texts evoked, invoked, quoted from, and woven together stop forming a mask from behind which the artist speaks but melds somehow with the face, becomes the voice, of the artist himself.
In Godard's 1991 film Allemagne annee 90 neuf zero (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero), the Los-Angeles-born actor Eddie Constantine plays Lemmy Caution—the "authentic" hard-boiled protagonist he played seven times in "authentic" French B-thrillers before putting the character through Godardization in 1965's Alphaville—here, in just-post-Cold-War Germany, re-imagined by Godard as "the last spy," trying to find his way back to "the West." The dialogue and narration of the movie, which I saw on October 18 as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's mammoth, and wholly admirable and incredible, Godard retrospective, alternate between French and German for the most part, but every now and then Constantine pronounces something in English, his tough-guy rasp accented with audible evidence of over four decades away from America, but the voice very American nevertheless. As his trench-coated self wanders a wintry German landscape, Eddie/Lemmy/Jean-Luc observes, in English, "Christmas with all its ancient horrors is on us again."
The phrase sounded familiar to me. At first I thought it might have been derived from a letter S.J. Perelman wrote to Paul Theroux in 1976, recounting a Christmas-shopping snafu that would elicit extreme disapprobation from the website Jezebel were anyone who wrote for the website Jezebel ever to read Perelman's letters. In any event, the phrase, I learned, did not originate there, although Perelman's letter does pack the same general world-weariness ("the increasing frenzy of the Saks and Gimbels newspaper ads as these fucking holidays draw near").
Then, on Tuesday October 22, I saw Godard's 1986 Grandeur and Decadence, a television project Godard made under the pretext of a commission to adapt a serie noire, in this case an adaptation of The Soft Centre, a late work by No Orchids For Miss Blandish author James Hadley Chase. What Godard produced instead was a tortured (albeit hardly humorless) work about a small film company (Albatross Films, naturally) that goes horrifically under while trying to initiate such an adaptation. As Richard Brody points out in his Everything Is Cinema, biography of Godard, the actual auteur is represented in the film both by the unhinged director Gaspard Bazin (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and the desperate, financing-juggling producer Jean Almereyda (Jean-Pierre Mocky). (This does not preclude Godard from showing up as himself in the film's final third.) In a long sequence in a restaurant, Bazin makes, in French, the same Christmas observation as Constantine/Caution/Godard does in the later film, but this time in French, and the English subtitles of this rarely-screened picture garble the sentence/sentiment somewhat. Later Bazin brandishes Chase's book, and then waves a volume of Raymond Chandler, pronouncing the latter writer "better." There was the clue I was looking for...even as I went back to 1990's Nouvelle Vague (which I had seen at the Godard retro on October 17), and its own sticky web of Chandler-Hawks-Hemingway evocations (Delon's character's surname being Lennox, from The Long Goodbye, the frequent reiteration of the question about having been stung by a dead bee).
Sure enough, the sentence "Well, Christmas with all its ancient horrors is on us again" is from the volume of selected letters by Raymond Chandler edited by Frank McShane. The letter is dated December 21, 1951, and it's to the British publisher Hamish Hamilton, and as cited by blogger Tom Williams a few years back (I do not have McShane's book myself, and the letter is, alas, not included in the selection of Chandler letters in the Library of America's edition of the writer's work), goes on ever more dyspeptically: "People with strained, agonized expressions are poring over pieces of distorted glass and pottery, and being waited on, if that's the correct expression, by specifically recruited morons on temporary parole from mental institutions, some of who by determined effort can tell a teapot from a pickaxe."
Chandler was in his early sixties when he wrote the letter; Godard was in his mid-fifties when he made Grandeur and Decadence. Perelman was 72 when he had the shopping snafu he relates to Theroux. Christmas is no holiday for old men, sometimes. But the distaste in all their cases only reflects a deeper disillusionment. As Brody recounts in his book, Grandeur and Decadence accurately reflects the incredibly stressed and anguished circumstances under which it was made. The director that so many critics take as a somewhat imperious, hermetic, willfully esoteric trickster is here revealed as a man utterly unsure of where life and art are taking him, and very nearly succumbing to despair. The evocation of "ancient horrors" is an allusion, but it isn't a joke. It's anything but.