Jefferson Airplane Wakes Up New York; Jean-Luc Godard Captures It (1968)
Just when you think you’ve seen everything Jean-Luc Godard has ever shot, something like this surfaces. If you’re only now considering tucking into the feast that is Godard’s filmography, don’t let his abundance of uncollected odds, ends, clips, and shorts intimidate you. Not only do they promise a little thrill down the road when you’ve already digested his major works, but they offer quick bursts at any time of the revolutionary cinematic zest with which the filmmaker took on the world. With the man alive and working, I should perhaps say “the revolutionary cinematic zest with which the filmmaker takes on the world,” but that gets into one of the most fascinating conversations that swirls around him: has Godard still got it?
Some say yes, that his latest picture Film Socialisme presents the logical continuation of all Godard has ever represented; some say no, that the Godard to watch remains the scrappy star of the 1960s’ French New Wave. In his study Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, New Yorker film blogger Richard Brody somehow makes both claims. In the chapter “Revolution (1968-1972)” he describes Godard’s improvised method of shooting a 1968 Jefferson Airplane concert:
He took over from the specialists and operated the camera from the window of Leacock-Pennebaker‘s office on West Forty-fifth street, shooting the band on the roof of the Schuyler Hotel across the street. (Pennebaker recalled him to be an amateurish cameraman who could not avoid the beginner’s pitfall of frequent zooming in and out.) The performance took place without a permit, at standard rock volume: as singer Grace Slick later wrote, “We did it, deciding that the cost of getting out of jail would be less than hiring a publicist…”
Amateurish or not, a piece of the footage has surfaced on YouTube. Listen to the Airplane perform “The House at Pooneil Corners,” watch Godard’s dramatic swings of focus and zoom as he attempts to convey the spectacle of the band and the spectacle of countless surprised Manhattanites at once, and think for yourself about this peculiar intersection of two bold lines in the era’s alternative zeitgeist. As Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner said in a 1986 interview, “Just for a while there, maybe for about 25 minutes in 1967, everything was perfect.” But these seven minutes in November 1968, from opening shouts to inevitable arrest, don’t seem so dull themselves.