FRESH YARN presents:
Lately -- in part because I'm finally admitting to firmly being middle aged, and, too, because of recently watching Jean-Luc Godard's Notre Musique -- I've been waxing nostalgic about a snowy night decades ago when I was a graduate student in New York City, taking a course called something like "Art Life and Civilization." There, in our melancholy professor's coldwater flat, we would-be Master's of Fine Arts students brimmed with hope borne of the end of the war in Vietnam and the start of what felt like a more promising era. We never imagined life wouldn't just become better and better as we talked dreamily, admiring each others' writing, staying up too late, drinking too much.
Those were heady and heavenly days.
But the night I most remember happened in snowy February. I considered skipping class that night. I lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and our professor's place was on the Lower East Side. Riding the subway meant a return trip at midnight, alone; that felt too dangerous. So despite my gorgeous but lemon-like lemony yellow Karmann Ghia, I decided to drive.
That night a visiting writer was in attendance. He wore an eye patch and spoke down to us. "You see, when you know about Life as I do," he droned on, "you know it is Art that matters. As Stendahl wrote to his friend, ... I prefer the pleasure of writing bits of nonsense to that of wearing an embroidered coat which costs 800 francs. That is how a true writer must feel."
We were a motley crew wearing grungy jeans and tattered tees and shaggy hair. Naturally we nodded agreement. Embroidered coats were for plebeians, for economists and lawyers, this last being most offensive.
phone rang our professor left the room to answer, and when he returned
he said, "someone's coming to visit," implying by his tone that
someone wasn't just anyone.
A few minutes later the doorbell rang, and into the room stepped Jean-Luc Godard.
We gasped. If anyone could teach us about Life and Art, Philosophy and Film, Politics and Pleasure and Pain it was Godard. Weekend and Breathless -- that's what we were, all of us breathless as Godard slumped into a corner of the shabby couch. He wore thick eyeglasses and an overcoat frosted with ash and melting snow. He smelled like cigarettes and something sweet, something French or perhaps Swiss, something at any rate exotic. The dingy room suddenly was brighter. We moved closer to him.
We sat at his feet. His eyeglasses steamed. Out of the cold he'd come, in a coat too large, with tired feet and droopy eyes. He held a film treatment, but no ordinary treatment; Godard did nothing ordinary. This was a Godard-style treatment, a photo collage he'd been taking around to studios on the other coast. "Diane Keaton and Robert DeNiro," he said, and we looked down at photos of the two stars side by side, from a distance, then in close-up, in profile, from behind, lit by neon. Godard continued. "They will play identical twins in my next feelm. Set in Las Vegas."
"Ahh, Monsieur Godard, yes, they do look alike!" the eyepatched writer raved. The rest of us nodded our agreement.
Godard slumped lower. "In Hollywood they do not want thees feelm."
"Illiterate idiots!" called out my fellow student Bob, embalmer turned novelist.
"Freebasing fools!" echoed Liz, the most promising poet amongst us, also the dourest and blondest.
"Barbarous bandits!" added Diane, my best friend. Diane usually shunned mob-think, the only one of us who hadn't marched against the war. That night, though, she was caught up in the thrill of the throng.
We all adored Godard. He was one of our heroes, and though we had many, he was somewhere near the top of our lists. I wanted to say something too, but I felt suddenly shy.
"Tell me," Godard said as he slipped still lower and the collar of his overcoat crawled up around his ears; he looked like a turtle burrowing into his shell.
"What could we possibly tell you, Monsieur Godard?" the Visiting Writer gushed. "Does anyone know the phone system?" Godard asked.
Heads swiveled. Eyes blinked. "Sure, what do you want to know?" asked our professor, and he nodded toward Juvane whose father worked for Bell, the lucky brute.
"So," Godard said, "I call my girlfriend on the telephone, every night, five nights. The phone she rings but she gets no answer. So tell me this," he leaned toward Juvane, "is thees the telephone or ees thees my girlfriend?"
Juvane shook his head and his Afro quivered. "Don't know for sure, Monsieur."
"I must know why the phone she is not answering. Every night for five," he repeated, "I ring the telephone and she is not answering. My girlfriend. The phone she rings."
We all shook our heads.
"Hard to say. You may be getting interference somewhere between New York and -- Paris, is it? Is your girlfriend in Paris, Monsieur Godard?"
"Thees is what I want to know."
"Is that where you're telephoning, Monsieur?" Juvane gently persisted.
"Yes, ees my apartment. She ees there, no?"
"Well " Juvane struggled to find comforting words. "Sometimes the line will ring and connect, so the New York operator thinks you've gotten through, but the Paris operator might be deluged with calls and lose the line, and in New York you hear a click, but in Paris your girlfriend's waiting and the phone doesn't ring there "
The Visiting Writer whispered, "Monsieur Godard, is this the sort of thing you might consider doing visually? Girlfriend in Paris, endless ringing phone, man in New York calling her. A metaphor for miscommunication. The breakdown of society. Severed connections. Technology's curse."
"Of course," Liz gasped. "You're a genius, Monsieur Godard."
He looked up. "I thank you, yes, but do you know, is thees system working?"
He wasn't a madman. His girlfriend wasn't answering his calls; the studios didn't comprehend his work. No one was offering support, and here he was on a snowy night in Manhattan, surrounded by fawning strangers when he longed only for the comfort of his apartment, his girlfriend, a glass of Loire Valley red.
"Any red wine?" he asked shyly.
"So sorry, Jean-Luc, the red's all gone. We have bourbon. Scotch. Rum."
Everyone bowed their heads and sighed, and I sneaked a look out the window. The night sky had turned flesh-colored, reflecting snow. Tompkins Square Park was empty, a fierce wind howled, and my Karmann Ghia was slowly drowning under snowdrifts.
"Monsieur Godard, tell us about Belmondo, please," somebody begged.
flung questions at him, but distracted, I only half-listened. Someone
asked for an autograph; embarrassed by that, someone else began to talk
about why Breathless was a classic, and the Visiting Writer offered
a lecture on genius.
I stopped listening altogether and contemplated my options. Then I slowly half-stood, cleared my throat and said, "Excuse me " I began to gather my bags, " I'm sorry but I have to leave." I nodded toward the window hoping they would understand. "The snow " I said, "it's coming down so fast "
Conversation stopped. Everyone stared. How could I leave a moment early only to return to my quotidian life? What was I thinking? Let the damn car disappear. Take a taxi. But I didn't have the money for that. Still. How could I compare the cost of taxi rides with the incalculable worth of Godard's time? "I'm sorry, but my car "
Godard's neck poked out of his collar. "You have a car?"
"Yes," I nodded, "and it'll be buried soon, so I apologize but I have to say goodnight. And thank you for coming, Monsieur Godard."
"But, Mademoiselle, you have a car?"
"For only awhile longer," I pointed outside.
"You could drive me to my hotel perhaps?"
The class held its collective breath.
"Hampshire House?" Godard rose. "Could you drive me to there, please?"
I smiled at my colleagues, at their cheeks rosy from alcohol and excitement, their eyes, rimmed in dark circles, suddenly opened wide with wonder and envy.
"Of course," I said.
Once outside I fumbled with my keys and reached to unlock the passenger door. Godard stood beside me. He smelled like Gauloises, and he seemed sad, and very small.
"Sorry," I said, as the door creaked halfway open. "It only opens this far." He slithered in sideways while I ran to the driver's side. I climbed in, rammed the keys into the ignition and turned. Nothing. I cracked my knuckles, prayed silently to my car that had, from day one, been a finicky beast. "Please, car." I tried again. "Damn," slipped out before I could stop, and then "Sorry." I glanced at him. He was staring ahead, watching the tumbling snow. "Once more," I held my breath and turned the key. "Damn, damn, damn, damn." I slapped the steering wheel. "Damn you, car."
"No." His voice surprised me. Among our raucous group he had seemed soft-spoken, romantically foreign, but here in this cramped, humid space he sounded like a great director. "You must not be upset with her. She knows."
at him. "Sorry?"
I nodded and stared at him.
"She is what, a Volkswagen?" he asked.
I nodded. "A Karmann Ghia."
He bowed his head, then touched a gloved hand to the cold dashboard. "Please," he whispered, "Karmann Ghia, you will start for us now. We must to go home." The tone was firm.
Then he peered over his steamy eyeglasses at me. "Try her again," he prompted me. I hesitated. Maybe he was mad? Perhaps all those rejections and ringing phones had undone him. I loved my car but I'd long understood it was a certified, if pretty, lemon. Still, who was I to resist direction from Jean-Luc Godard? "Go on," he commanded.
I turned the key.
And this is true: My car purred.
to peer at him and whispered, "No one will believe this."
And then I turned so that the front wheels nudged aside a drift, and out of the space we trundled. We talked only a little. He mentioned a pair of Labradors friends of his owned; they were vicious, he said. What did I make of that? Did I like dogs? He did, but not these two, and he wondered what created viciousness.
We skidded across 23rd Street, buffeted by the relentless wind and snow. Usually the Ghia's windshield wipers worked only sporadically, but that night they swished across the front window, silently, effortlessly.
"These writing schools," he said, "what are they for?"
I turned north on 6th Avenue. "Probably so we nobodies can meet somebodies," I said, only half-joking.
"Oh, who?" he asked.
"Um, you for instance."
"Sure." I wished I could say something wise, something profound, but the only thing I could think of saying was: "Monsieur Godard, I hope you'll call your girlfriend tonight. I think tonight you'll get through."
He smiled. And then we were quiet, listening to the tires hiss as they skimmed slippery roads.
I pulled to the curb outside his hotel. He leapt out. "Bonsoir Mademoiselle, merci beaucoup." And he was gone.
wondered if he reached her that night. Whether he did not not, he has
not only survived all these years, he has grown still more inquisitive
and brave, still more determined to push his audiences to look hard at
our world, and Notre Musique, his symphonic treatise on war, reminded
me that Heaven exists, still, despite Hell and Purgatory, and reminded
me, too, that I should try to keep the cynicism that has crept in since
those heady and perhaps more hopeful days, a little at bay.
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