King Lear (1987)

14 03 2015

The lost or unrealized film, as a concept, is endlessly fascinating to cinephiles. Just in the past year, Frank Pavich’s loving documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, explored the endless possibilities that we can dream up for a film that never exists. However, I can’t share Pavich’s enthusiasm for Jodorowsky as an artist, and I find him forcing the idea that the non-film in question would have been an unquestioned masterpiece. King Lear is just one of the films that Jean-Luc Godard, yet in all his resourceful, he managed to restructure the failure of the project itself into a film. As maddening and complicated as the film itself stands today, I can’t help but find that the entire project was planned ahead by the filmmaker. The messy failure that was the film’s production becomes the actual film’s powerful and beautiful meditation on art.


The world is beginning to pick up the pieces following the Chernobyl disaster. William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth is searching for pieces of language from his ancestor’s past and in doing so bumps into Don Learo, who might actually just be a famous playwright, and his daughter, Cordelia. Don Learo is actually Norman Mailer, but Mailer and Kate, his real daughter, leave the film after two takes of the opening scene. They’re replaced by Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald, embodying the hybrid space of the artists and their actual roles. Meanwhile, Professor Pluggy/Godard is auditioning to become a recluse, chaperoned  only by goblins (one of which is played by Leos Carax) while diving into the “deep end” of his research.


On the surface, one can easily claim that Godard’s adaptation can be only be called that with one’s tongue firmly in their cheek. In the middle of the controversy surrounding the film’s production, Godard confessed that he never read the source text. It sounds like him being coy and playful in his unique sort of way, but it wouldn’t surprise me. There are connections to be made with the Bard’s original text, but Godard’s interest is in the act of creation itself and its labor, potentially futile, when it comes to the world at large. Stuart Hall once made a remark that critical theory, in the face of suffering and oppression, seems unproductive or at least lacks the necessary urgency for true social justice. Godard is making a similar claim about art.


King Lear does qualify as a science fiction film and it does take place in a world recovering from an apocalyptic event yet even if we take such circumstances to heart, it is still funny to think of William Shakespeare’s word as at risk or even worse, completely lost. To say nothing dismissive about Shakespeare himself, his canonization in academia is so firm that if we ever “lose” him, we can lose anybody. Despite one’s own personal opinion on his art, his work has been molded into a syllabus that has been unquestioned, perhaps to the detriment of educators and students alike. His words, even if we do connect with them on an emotional level, have little use when we’re suffering from radiation poisoning. This isn’t a dismissal, but a conversation on art’s limitations that doesn’t exactly shape the film, but become a crucial moment. I would argue that Godard has always been a political filmmaker, even when he was making something comparatively more approachable like Band of Outsiders, but here he begins asking what can the political filmmaker do? What are they to do in order to question or fight the way things are?


Shakespeare’s King Lear is a story about territory and power, which sounds like fertile material for Godard and yet, his eye focuses towards Lear and Cordelia, the incestuous potential he finds in their relationship. It’s communicated to us even as there is no specific physical manifestation of said feelings. Burgess Meredith, as Lear(o), never really settles, his uneasiness embodies the tension. He is not a leech, but he is overly protective of his daughter. He’s always about to snap, and he frequently does so when his daughter, Molly Ringwald (who seems to be providing the blueprint for every Hal Hartley heroine ever), dictates back to him his own words which he finds unsatisfactory. Lear(o)’s guarding of his daughter makes sense in the text’s time and place, but here it manages to synthesize a relationship between power, territory (which we can read as colonialism), and gender. It is interesting to note that Kurosawa switched Lear’s daughters to sons in Ran, erasing this relationship. A minor detail for one filmmaker is the most crucial element for another.


The theme of territory looms large over both Shakespeare and Godard. No one Godard film can be separated from the rest of his canon, and King Lear, at least to me, has an inseparable relationship with For Ever Mozart. There, the white leftists and artists find themselves as the saviors as opposed to the occupiers. They feel entitled to the territory, just the way that colonialism tells us that White men are entitled to the land of natives. The violence all occurs under words like “cultivation” and “civilization” and “enlightenment” which obscures real history and produces the one that leads us to the racist and sexist shackles that maintain and inform the public’s idea of “common sense.” Art, perhaps, can be the thing that challenges this common sense. It is an effort that feels hopeless, as though we are throwing pebbles at the bruising machinery of hegemony, but it is necessary and vital. The institutionalized study of Shakespeare, divorced from the man’s own words, has become a part of this larger common sense. If this film undermines him, then it is a political act. We can love Shakespeare, but he is the White, the Colonizer, the Oppressor. Ironically, so is Godard and so am I. Even as we do speak out against these very forces, we are protected by and benefit from them. To return to my borrowing and paraphrasing of Hall’s quote, what purpose does art serve in relation to all of this? Godard abandoned words a long time ago, they’re not enough to answer this question.




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