I went to see Jean-Luc Godard's new film "King Lear" as a theater critic, a Godard watcher and a fan of Shakespeare's play. Godard's non-linear, jump-cut, post-modern film commentaries--he has never made "movies" in the conventional sense--inspire respect more than a fan's passion. Not at all like "Lear" the play, certainly, which always has had a real rooting section--those of us who think that it's the greatest play in English. We cheer on the battle for the crown, like Lakers versus Celtics fans. (The "Hamlet" contingent is our only serious competition.)
One of the absolute proofs that "Lear" and "Hamlet" loom over even Shakespeare's other works is the frequency of their stagings and filmings that continue to this day. (Stein Winge's "Lear" appeared last fall at the Los Angeles Theatre Center; Charles Marowitz did his very "free" version of "Hamlet" at L.A. Actors' Theatre in 1985.) They have a vitality few recent plays enjoy, definitive examples of art standing up to time's ravages. "Lear," as Godard's film shows, stands up so well that it seemed to become a towering colossus for him, daunting him. It's a movie about a director scared to death of confronting a masterpiece.
Godard isn't out to give us the typical theater work on film, but a film about what he thinks "Lear" is about. Adopting a style for "King Lear"--part essay, part drama, part self-deprecating comedy--that used to be his staple in the '60s (but which he has used less often in his film and video work in the last 10 years), Godard inserts title graphics as signposts as well as parodies of silent film graphics. An early one is "KING LEAR/AN APPROACH." Interesting, and a good case of honesty in advertising. But another one is "KING LEAR/a hEARing." Like so much of the film, was I supposed to laugh at this, or (worse) was I really expected to admire its cleverness?
This Lear has become a waning American Mafia chieftain named Learo (his difficult daughter is still named Cordelia). There are the title credits, "KING LEAR/CANNON PICTURES/BAHAMAS" (Bahamas? A movie made with funny money? I wondered. Godard's first of many gangster jokes?) There are the deliberately missing cast credits of Peter Sellars (the stage director plays William Shakespeare V), Molly Ringwald (Cordelia), Burgess Meredith (Learo), Godard himself (a nutty professor) and Woody Allen (a nervous film editor). On the sound track, an even more nervous producer (Menachem Golan? Yoram Globus?) phones Godard with marching orders: Get the much-delayed film ready for Cannes. Not even a moving image yet, and anything's possible.
I had forgotten all the press reports about Norman Mailer and his daughter, Kate, originally cast in the leads, leaving in mid-shoot over multiple "artistic differences." In a reversal of the cutting-room-floor syndrome, Godard put Mailer pere and fils back on the screen, fretting over the script. Mailer, adopting clipped Hollywood newspeak: "I think the Mafia is the only way to do 'King Lear.' "
Godard may not have warmed up to Mailer, but he did to the Mafia concept. Yet, despite the inspired recasting of Meredith (who soon appears onscreen with the hopelessly vacant Ringwald), it soon became clear to me that the film wasn't even about Lear as a Don Corleone with no one to take over. Rather, it was a melancholy diary of an ambitious film failing and how everyone in the production knew full well that it was collapsing before their eyes--just like a king's empire in rigor mortis. You felt sad for the cast and crew, and sad for the film.
It immediately reminded me of "Contempt," Godard's 1963 film starring Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance and Fritz Lang about the making of a movie version of "The Odyssey," and how nearly impossible it is to do. The metaphor was the superhuman quest, and I wondered if, during filming "King Lear," Godard realized that getting to the heart of the play was just as impossible. Making Sellars, whose own reinterpretations of the classics have polarized audiences, run around taking notes on the father and daughter is a coy joke that wears thin; but perhaps he really is Godard's alter ego when he laments, "I've reinvented the lines, I've reinvented the plot, now it's up to the characters. Or are they actors?"
Having sat through a few wise and many silly "director's theater" productions of classics, I sympathized with Godard's plight: Perhaps it's more honest to surrender to a masterpiece than impose one's will on it. The best filmed "Lears"--Grigory Kosintsev's mystical/medieval version and Akira Kurosawa's "Ran"--are straight takes on the text laced with each director's cultural sources (such as Kurosawa transposing the action to Shogunate Japan). Yet they weren't auteur works, like Peter Brooks' filmically dull "Lear," but retellings of an old man's tragedy by older film makers who naturally saw life tragically.
Godard, in his own probing, stumbling, precocious way, is still making a young man's movies at age 50. It's not amazing to see a bad movie (which his "Lear" is), or a bad play-to-film adaptation (which it also is). That's almost the norm these days. What's amazing is to see a bad play-into-film that confesses it's failure and honors the original work of art, in its own peculiar fashion, by pondering the failure. Godard likely eventually realized the truth behind Edgar's last lines in the play:
"The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long."