Jean-Luc Godard: Histoire(s) du cinéma (ECM New Series 1706-10)

Jean-Luc Godard
Histoire(s) du cinéma

As one of the world’s most distinctive and important filmmakers, Jean-Luc Godard has not only an amazing eye for images, but also an astute ear for sounds. I first encountered the work of Godard in the singular experience that is Je vous salue, Marie (1985). Having now seen the film dozens of times (it remains one of my most cherished), aside from its unflinching tongue-in-cheek narrative, intimate atmospheres, and visual parallels I am always struck by the film’s innovative deployment of sound. Godard’s splicing of the Dvořák Cello Concerto simply makes sense. Like a rapid-fire commentator, he throws in descriptive snippets wherever and whenever appropriate, never afraid to cut them off at their most soaring moments. This technique has continued to dominate his subsequent work, and nowhere is it more fully realized than in his Histoire(s) du cinéma. What separates Histoire(s) from its predecessors and followers alike is an unequivocal sense of time and image. It is far more than a developmental exposé of the art form, twisting itself as it does into an utterly personal Möbius strip. With his characteristic rough-hewn grace Godard skirts the line between the sacred and the profane, holding a floodlight behind every palimpsestial theme to reveal the ravages of sight and the idolatry of retrospection.

After seeing Godard’s Histoire(s) I felt my view of the imagistic world forever changed; not because what he was doing was particularly revolutionary, but because it was so honest. Whatever one may think of Godard, one can hardly fault him for laying himself bare in every project he takes on. Histoire(s) is so unabashedly mitigated that it becomes translucent.

The ECM enthusiast will already know Godard, whether having seen his films or not, through the occasional visual borrowings manifest in a representative spread of album covers (Voci, Trivium, and Asturiana, to name a few). Regardless, the stereophonic intertextuality of Histoire(s) is obvious. More than just a thoughtfully arranged ECM greatest hits album, this complete soundtrack slithers through a provocative obstacle course sculpted and collaged from a vast archive.

Godard hammers his thoughts into the ether with his automatic typewriter, and its steady rhythm provides a pedal point to Chapter One as he calmly sketches the divisive nature of cinema, upholding its founders while reviling its abusers. Cinema was forged in black and white, he asserts: that is, in the colors of mourning. This is not to say that film was already dead the moment it was born (even if it was never alive to begin with), but that it has always been interested in that which is lifeless. Indeed, Godard believes the only two viable stories of the cinema since its inception have been sex and death.

“that which has passed through cinema
and been marked by it
can no longer get in anywhere else”

The sounds represented on this collection, slip-cased in minimal beauty, are as much something to behold as they are to be held. We may read the words, flipping through their corresponding pages with the careful patience of a novice, and yet we can never disassociate their orality from the visual cultures they describe. The cinema has already taken shelter in our heads by the time its music finds us. Godard is more literary than literal, undermining our wonder for celluloid in favor of the patchwork that is its constructedness.

“if George Stevens hadn’t been first to use
the first sixteen millimetre colour film
at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück
there’s no doubt that
Elizabeth Taylor’s air of wellbeing
would never have found a place in the sun”

By no means is Godard drawing a direct correlation here, luring the nascent viewer with the smoldering promise of self-destruction. Elizabeth Taylor flickers with all the iconicity of a votive candle, unspooling from her reel with a single expulsion of breath. She cannot last like death, and yet that is precisely the dichotomy we fervently hold dear. The march of cinema is a march of faces, each one more clearly disassociated from its body than the last, and serves to ritualize the art of viewing to the point of absurdity.

“technicians will tell you
it’s not true
but it’s worth remembering
that the nineteenth century
which invented all the technologies
also invented stupidity”

Such pronouncements remind us of our own complicity in the ethical vacuum of the cinematic enterprise. In the same way that every film is edited, so too do we clip our lives and adhere them back together in a series of lies and convenient elisions. That being said, I see no reason to believe that Godard is trying to be antagonistic. He is certainly not on a mission to open our eyes, for clearly they are already observing his work in tandem with its message. Rather, he seems to desire nothing but the recording of his desire. He doesn’t make films to be seen, but makes films to be read. With his hands hidden, revealed only by their periodic contact with an ever-present cigar, Godard is able to reform himself with the deceptive real time of his narration.

Chapter Two draws an implicit parallel between the development of recorded sound and recorded imagery. While the former preceded the latter, the two would require decades to synchronize. Godard is perhaps addressing the cinematic turn to melodrama, all the while lamenting over his slumber within, and painful awakening into, the whirlwind of moving-picture production. In human grasp, such a marriage is unavoidable and inviolably tethered to defaulted outlets of mass entertainment.

“to me, big history
is the history of cinema
it’s bigger than the others
because it’s projected”

In this sense, history is not the token of its own achievement, but the extant scar welted from centuries of picking and contortion. The master narrative in which we are schooled turns out to be nothing more than a flat image—there is none of the dimensionality we so readily accepted in our youth.

Time cannot be the sustenance of reason.

Chapter Three is a measured attack on the atrocities of European conflict. It is a scathing about-face related in a half-whisper, caressing the facts with self-reflexive pauses and audible punctuation. Politics ooze into a diatribe on the nature of their unraveling. The traversed border becomes the broken sentence, spilling its meaning like an inkblot across the map. Godard’s musical selections here are especially attuned to his subject matter, mimicking the mass media effect upon history: the dramatization of tragedy via the juxtaposition of graphics and sound bytes. It is the mise-en-scène of everyday life splashed against a backdrop formatted to fit our television screens. Our feelings are led down the aisle, wedded as we are to the didactic interpretations spun for our supposed protection, only to realize too late that the moving image is, at heart, motionless. If we accept Godard’s famous idiom that film is “truth 24 times a second” and that “every cut is a lie,” then the only way we can accept the truth of film is to package it in a lie. The editing room becomes the kill floor.

Chapter Four presents us with a critique of individualism through a visually marked conception of time. The filmic medium is no longer just a tool, but a way of life, a means of extending the reach of oneself beyond the world as one knows it.

“Alfred Hitchcock succeeded
where Alexander, Julius Caesar, Hitler, and Napoleon
had all failed
by taking control of the universe”

Cinema is not the key to conquest, but is one way in which we can visualize conquest and thus ensure its permanence. It allows us the luxury of repetition, the illusory mastery of time. And if the only mediation between an audience and the event depicted is the film itself, then the director has essentially offered him- or herself as a living replacement of the cause, in effect of the forces of nature.

“perhaps there are ten thousand people
who haven’t forgotten Cézanne’s apple
but there must be a billion spectators
who will remember the lighter
of the stranger on the train”

Although film, in Godard’s estimation, evolved out of painting, it has also destroyed the highly wrought image with the illusion of movement. Suddenly we can relate, seeing connective tissue where it had atrophied before. Like the film noir detective, we flit in and out of shadow—in and out of existence—as much in life as on screen. And so, whereas the museum piece reminds us of our transience by visually foregrounding an object that will outlive us, at least in cinema we find a kindred spirit willing to share in our self-deception to the point of death. Yet its indifference keeps us coming back for more:

“the cinema doesn’t cry
it doesn’t comfort us
since it is with us
since it is us”

Godard’s video essay is polyglottal and non-linear, a watershed composition for and of the twentieth century. Listening to the film on CD, however, I find that it speaks more directly. While the accompanying stills allow me to reenact the full experience as I see fit, I almost find them distracting when approaching Histoire(s) as a purely audio experience (assuming this is even possible). Godard’s voice becomes one of many, stripped of its paternalism through the concrete approach of his pastiche. We are implicated, imbricated, and insulated at every moment. Histoire(s) is inescapable. And yet, we can never be its prisoners, for the cage is honed in our very flesh.

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