King Lear

(1987)

by D. B. Bates, Editor-in-Chief

From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.

As a longtime lover of the underdog, I can appreciate unintentionally bad movies. Incompetence is usually tempered by passion, stupidity is tempered by oddness, and the dearth of drama is tempered by the trainwreck fascination of cinema gone wrong. I’m harder on movies that are bad for more commercial reasons — cashing on a cheesy fad, throwing a handful of mega-stars together and assuming the film will coast on their charms, and so on. Obviously, there’s a difference between a filmmaker thinking he’s made a masterpiece and a filmmaker not caring one way or the other.

And then there’s Jean-Luc Godard, the most overrated of the French New Wave auteurs, who never met a script he couldn’t turn into a navel-gazing portrait of cinemaphilia and the struggle and sacrifice required to bring Art to the screen. I can’t call myself much of a fan of his work; in general, his films have enough bright spots to make me wish the overall product was better, and usually the flaw stems directly from Godard’s apparent self-obsession. His inability to make any movie — from the sci-fi oddity of Alphaville all the way up to this alleged adaptation of King Lear — that isn’t secretly or not-so-secretly about Jean-Luc Godard. There’s nothing inherently wrong with self-absorbed filmmaking — after all, most auteurs infuse their work with their own fascinations and peccadilloes, even if they don’t do it so brazenly or annoyingly as Godard. I have an issue, however, when a filmmaker creates a solipsistic dung heap under the guise of bringing to the screen the greatest dramatic work in human history. Even if Godard hadn’t turned it into a half-assed examination of his artistic fears and flaws, he could have at least made a competent film.

Instead, he made the worst film I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen many, many, many bad movies over the years, but this is the first one I’ve seen that seemed intentional. Usually, bad movies happen on accident — even the notoriously reviled Manos, the Hands of Fate started its production with the hope of making a good movie. Here, Godard simply does whatever the hell he wants, whatever pops into his head at any given time, and trust me when I say the things popping into his head during its production couldn’t fill up a haiku, much less a feature film.

I don’t know what went wrong during production. I know the legends: that producer Menahem Golan wrote a contract on a cocktail napkin at the Cannes Film Festival, signed by Jean-Luc Godard (director) and Norman Mailer (writer). Golan and Yoram Globus financed what was to be a straightforward adaptation of King Lear, to star Mailer as the titular character and his real-life daughter as Cordelia. Woody Allen signed on to play the Fool. It’s unclear if Mailer attempted a Baz Luhrmann-esque modernization using Shakespeare’s language, or if he retained the story but updated everything including the language. All that’s known — because it’s referenced frequently in the tragic final film — is that Mailer’s script set the action in a Mafia family. (Strangely, my study group did the same thing for a humanities project in college.)

But the script Mailer wrote was not the film Godard wanted to make. Because, you see, it was all about King Lear (or “Don Learo”) and not at all about Jean-Luc Godard. Enraged, Mailer and his daughter left the project in a hurry. Godard opens his film by repeating apparently the only scene shot between Mailer and his daughter (and, based on the poor technical quality of these scenes, I speculate they were shot more for some sort of behind-the-scenes documentary than this film). She crosses a hotel room and sits across from him on a balcony overlooking a Swiss lake and, clutching a copy of the script, asks her father why he’s so obsessed with the Mafia. Mailer grumbles a response, then says they’re returning to America the following day. Godard repeats this scene twice, narrating it each time (with different narration) and inserting titles like KING LEAR: A STUDY at random points, because why not, right?

Eventually, some semblance of story begins, and what a story it is! Controversial theatre director Peter Sellars (who I have to imagine does a better job directing for the stage than he does acting here) stars as “William Shakespeare, Jr. the Fifth,” who struggles to preserve his ancestor’s work in the wake of a tragic human apocalypse caused by the Chernobyl incident. Here’s a tip for budding filmmakers out there: the more specific your sci-fi concept, the more dated it becomes. Nothing’s funnier than watching Godard’s film play out as if Chernobyl — which occurred during the making of the film — is literally the end of the world, when it’s become sort of a tragic historical blip. I don’t want to lessen the tragedy of the time, but let’s face it: they have Chernobyl tours now. The end of the world it ain’t.

All right, enough snark. Shakespeare mostly sits around trying to remember the plays, so he can write them down. He doesn’t seem to realize that, staying at the same Swiss hotel (apparently the only safe haven left), is Don Learo (now played by Burgess Meredith) and Cordelia (Molly Ringwald), who in the periphery go through the motions of King Lear while Shakespeare struggles to remember things like the title of As You Like It. The film around him quickly grows more and more insane, as Godard blurs the line between reality and fantasy, bluntly stating King Lear’s actual themes in treacly dialogue and voiceover narration while operating more subtly on Godard’s own thematic preoccupations.

The film is willfully, almost gleefully nonsensical, but the absurdity and surreality come across as a distinct lack of dramatic and artistic thrust. Godard edited the film himself, making it as as incoherent as possible, inserting pointless, rambling narration and non sequitur scenes in order to reinforce ideas he clearly dreamed up in post-production, desperately trying to salvage a disaster. The entire film looks, sounds, and feels adrift in every conceivable way. Its slapped-together nature has an improvised feel, as if Godard and Sellars wrote and shot scenes based on whatever drug-induced whim struck them in the morning. (I don’t usually speculate on the pharmaceutical enhancement of a film or its makers, but we’re better off assuming both Godard and Sellars were high out of their minds than having the notion that they came up with these terrible, unfilmable ideas while stone cold sober.)

Maybe Godard had some sort of impenetrable artistic purpose for these choices, but it feels more like the work of a man paid an absurd amount of money to make whatever he wants, and the joke’s on a pair of producers desperate to make high-fallutin’ art alongside Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. Instead of making a film with even a small amount of merit, Godard manages to deliver the unthinkable: a film worse than Roman Polanski’s Pirates.

This is the only film I’ve ever seen that doesn’t have a single redeeming moment, be it an undercurrent of good intentions gone awry or a luminous performance amid a sea of crap. I consider it shameful and personally offensive that a handful of people defend this film as a masterpiece, when the loathed-by-all-but-me The Postman treats Shakespeare’s work with more dignity and respect. Godard’s King Lear is unwatchable from the first frame to the last and has been justifiably forgotten.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

Comments (2)

On February 4, 2011 at 11:22 PM, David wrote...

I can’t understand how intelligent people can be so suckered into believing the hype about Godard. His style is so artificial that I find it insults the viewer because it is supposedly a mark of an inferior viewer to enjoy a film that is linear and that has a cohesive narrative. He actually insults the viewer, here, dumb ass cinema buff…I will slow it down and chop up the shot into bits and freeze the action and add a ridiculous film score so you can be happy and not notice that I have no interest in developing characters or that I distrust myself so much that I cannot simply tell a fucking story…

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On February 7, 2011 at 6:50 PM, D. B. Bates wrote...

Godard’s appeal baffles me. I had some hope for this one because I love Lear and had heard his take on it was interesting. “Interesting” is one word for it…

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