Wednesday 31st March 2010

Frederique has brought me a present of Antoine de Baecque’s monumental biography of Godard. Monumental because its 900 pages contains no bibliography, the scantest of filmographies and is printed in particularly small type. I calculate that it must be at least 400,000 words long; more than three times my own not inconsiderable tome. De Baecque was a good friend to me when I was writing my own biography in Paris and I went more than once to the Liberation offices, where he was then editing the cultural pages, for his advice. Even more invaluable were his books – both the Truffaut biography that he wrote with Serge Toubiana but best of all the first volume of his two volume history of Cahiers du cinema. I say “I think’ because to call de Baecque prolific is to understate the matter. A historian by trade he has penned substantial academic works of history as well as many volumes on the cinema. When I saw him at Liberation he was not only editing Liberation’s cultural pages but also writing a history of French cinephilia. When I asked him how on earth he did it, he said that any day he didn’t write a few thousand words “je ne me sens pas propre” Well he must have been feeling pretty clean the last three years as he powered through this biography. The book is full of detail but slightly disappointing. Whether the two previous biographies (mine and Richard Brody’s) had done too good a job, or whether de Baecque is just discreet, there is little really new information – no new topics, no further insights into the most important relationships. But there is plenty of detail; detail piled upon detail. Most interesting to me are the pages on the offices of Godard’s production company in the early to mid sixties and one gets a real flavour of Godard at the height of his worldly success which is not available elsewhere.
My first real shock comes when I make a small appearance myself as Godard is preparing to relaunch himself into cinema after a ten year’s absence in 1979.
It was then that I was asked by the BFI to edit a small pamphlet that would bring together articles on Godard’s then practically unknown post 68 work. Godard has shunned any media spotlight for more than ten years but I hoped that I might get an interview to go with the essays. I talked to Simon Hartog who knew Godard from Mozambique and he told me that if I wanted Godard’s attention I should go armed with a cheque. By great good fortune another part of the BFI wanted to acquire the British rights to Godard’s television work and so I traveled with a contract and a $2,000 cheque in my pocket. My meeting with Godard was at the train station in Nyon and the business was concluded in an incredibly brief three minutes. I then stammered out something incoherent about a book. To my surprise his response was a question “is it a proper book?” “Yes” I lied “If it is a proper book then you can come to my offices, I will give you your interview and you can come to the set of the film I am about to shoot”. To say I was dumbfounded is to understate. Here was the reclusive Godard welcoming inquiry and attention. Within 24 hours, and almost as many phone calls, I had a proper book contract and I spent most of the next year writing a book Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics which was published to coincide with the UK premiere of Sauve qui peut in the autumn of 1980. What became clear to me as I wrote the book and saw the film take shape was that Godard’s surprising response had been part and parcel of his decision to return to the cinema that meant also a return to the world of publicity and promotion. It wasn’t however, until more than two decades later when I was finishing my own biography that I understood how much energy Godard had put into the launch of the film and how unsurprising was his reaction to the possibility of a proper book to tie in with the release of the film.
De Baecque’s version of this has Simon Hartog as the director of the BFI (he never worked for it) sending me as an employee (something I only became much later) to write a book that I never finished in time (he obviously doesn’t realize that I wrote two books on Godard). These factual errors surprised but did not upset me although I should say that my scholarly amour propre is shocked that de Baecque did not know about my first book on Godard. But I was deeply upset when he quotes me as saying that Godard had “manipulated” me. This was not what I felt at the time nor subsequently. My dealings with Godard were always straightforward and he was both generous and helpful to me on numerous occasions. I am surprised at how strongly I feel about these minor errors but fortunately de Baecque e-mails the same night that I finish his book so rather than letting resentment smolder, I tell him how upset I am. He says he merely wanted to show how I was caught up in a wider strategy, something I have no quarrel with and indeed had set out in my own biography. There seems little point in continuing the argument but I am surprised how much I mind.

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