Four Short Films
Produced and edited by Manfred Eicher
Editorial assistance: Sophie Schricker
Release date: April 24, 2006
“Culture is the rule, art is the exception.”
Jean-Luc Godard’s relationship with ECM Records and its producer, Manfred Eicher, seems as inevitable as the output of both artists is prolific. Eicher understands that the relationship between sound and image is at its most beautiful when contrapuntal, as proven by his own foray into filmmaking when he co-directed and -wrote the film Holozän with Heinz Bütler in 1992, to say little of his meticulous attention to album art and presentation. Godard, for his part, practically invented the cinematic language with which he is so often associated. Said language has always been as much about the ears as the eyes, and has intensified as his awareness of ECM has grown. Godard, on Eicher: “Every time he sends us music we have the impression this is somebody who is giving us something to listen to, sound from a place which comes from the same family as the place to which one should go. He is in a world which is not the same as ours but is on friendly terms with ours. And he says with his music: Carry on living, carry on working!”
And carry on he does in this lovingly packaged DVD, for which Eicher has assembled a selection of Godard’s collaborations with Anne-Marie Miéville. The latter’s genius was already confirmed by her second film, 1985’s Le Livre de Marie (The Book of Mary), which served as prelude for Godard’s excoriating Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary) of the same year. In that pairing, Miéville’s laser focus on intersections of gender, space, and history found a kindred spirit in Godard. It was only a matter of time before the two would mesh their talents.
De l’origine du XXIe siècle (On the Origin of the Twenty-First Century) was a commission for the opening of the 2000 Cannes Festival. It’s a veritable gymnasium for Godard’s wordplay. His language spits out the ruptures of an intrusive capitalism. We encounter a man playing violin on a country path as Sarah Leonard sings Górecki’s O Domina Nostra, interrupted by a gun shot and a scream. “You don’t wage war against outlaws,” says Miéville. “You exterminate them.” The people are always playing by an instruction manual written on the bodies of those who came before. Images of hanging, death, and torture ensue—not as an extension of shock value but as a critique of the master’s tools.
“The spirit borrows from matter the perceptions it draws its nourishment from,” our narrator soliloquizes, “and gives them back as movement stamped with freedom.” Indeed, this is the process of speech at work, as words and impulses are scrambled and reshuffled to the tune of editorial improvisation. On that note, there is a haunting sequence in which The Shining’s Danny Torrance rides his tricycle through hallway as Hans Otte’s Das Buch der Klänge plays. The minimal leanings of this music ensure that the threat of death is a coercive tactic to bring about negations on a grander scale. It reminds us that the human is empty without the possibility of destruction. As if to underscore this point, shades of Vietnam, of whispered lives given credence by historical memory, are given a blood transfusion of sound and movement.
The victory of war is necessarily predicated on defeat, and in these fan-leaves one understands that life is reducible to the spines connecting them. As a boy looks at the tanks outside his train window, on his face is written the enterprise of colonial interpretation, by which lands are divided on a first-come-first-served basis. “The state’s rationale,” we are told, “directly opposes the sovereign value of love,” and in that statement burns a world of understanding. In the boy’s countenance is a capacity for love clipped by passing trees until its edges are as frayed as mortality. The negative spaces between those tendrils is where the musk of reality develops its pungency. In tying the iconic images of cinema with those of history, as funneled through the atrocities of Nazi killings and other warmongerings, Godard and Miéville elucidate the cinematic tendencies of history and the historical tendencies of cinema. These connections are powerful enough to enliven mere numbers flashed on a screen, as intertitles flash years of significance: a dance chart between the frivolity of the West and the death of the East. By the end, Godard has proven that one cannot represent the 20th century without evil.
“Society makes the body something more than it is, and the soul something less.”
Like its predecessor, The Old Place examines the role of art in history, only this time in still rather than moving images. Says Michael Althen of this piece, commissioned by the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1999, “[T]he aim is not to give an overview of art history but to cut a path through the forest by asking how art relates to reality and its horrors.” Throughout its mid-length duration, reflections on art and its traces cross swords with future-oriented impulses. The questions it poses are not meant to be answered, but taken as wholesale embodiments of cultural memory, which tends to account for reality via myths and legends. As in the opening image of a monkey dangling from a tree, it is dependent on the presence of gravity to give hierarchical sensibilities a grounding from which to suspend our inhibitions.
Against a musical collage drawn from pigments mixed by Tomasz Stanko, David Darling/Ketil Bjørnstad, Keith Jarrett, Federico Mompou, Dimitri Shostakovich, and more, the role of text functions more greatly in this film than in its predecessor. Recognizing these snippets from the ECM catalogue provides a fleshly satisfaction, and lends new interpretations to their already-deep entrenchment in the bodies of those who create and consume them. In their usage is a coded message, which tells us that choosing materials is choosing mortalities. As if to say that agreement with the self is far more important than with the world, for only the self receives recognition in return for inviting interpretation, and touches upon the web of human activity by its remnants alone.
Crimes against humanity cannot be art because they shed light on darkness. It is the same with cinema: both are speaking the same language of death. The will to flight is humanity’s default setting, yet impossible to achieve, because creation has its hold on us so much so that we can only mock its divinity with illusions of our own. Image-based mediums render escape impossible because they are the undeniable incarnation of our fixation with darkness. As Godard puts it, “Maybe we’re the ghosts of people taken away when everybody vanished.” In that thought experiment is expressed the vagueness of expression, despite the explicitness of its products. In this respect, art and cinema equally tread the border zones of silence.
“Art is normally not something to be touched, but regarded at a respectable distance, protected by law.”
Moments can only be objects in art: paintings, sculptures, film stills. And as Godard and Miéville peek through the cinematic portal, we are reminded that construction is sovereign in both realms. The problem of progress, then, is not a lack of paths but of homes to return to. A paucity of materials, if you will, resulting from a ban on exploration. To be consciously alive is to articulate one’s vibrations in some form of impulsive communication, and shifts of color may be defined only in a realm of light and movement. Movement is essential in the artist’s brush, in transporting the work and giving it illusory stasis on a museum wall. The religiosity of painting is a means of asserting that humanity has a right to continue.
“In a plane, you never see the whole sky.”
Liberté et Patrie (Freedom and Fatherland), a commission for the 2002 Swiss Expo, was rarely seen until its release here on DVD. Something of a companion piece to the previous, it’s yet another dance between content and form, where liberty isn’t so much an illusion as it is hope for illusion. In this instance, the string quartets of Beethoven figure heavily, and with good reason: for the stereotypically tortured composer’s soul was swimming in contradictions. In this combination, we find that the boldest art can live without the rest of us to validate it. As war and technology flicker across the eyes like fire slashing through celluloid, we find ourselves as spectators making pathological errors of liberty in order to parse shadow from freedom. Whereas liberty is stationary, the film seems to claim, freedom is itinerant. This casts a fishing line back to the idea of movement as expressed in the previous film, and puts a finger on the pulse that animates these filmmakers in their walk with life.
“Representations depend on will.”
Je vous salue, Sarajevo (Hail Sarajevo) is a morsel of history in and of itself. Made in 1993, when the Bosnian War was at its apex, it compresses untold hours of action into two minutes. Arvo Pärt’s Silhouans Song lends it urgency, a feeling of searching and never finding a clue toward uncovering the heart of atrocity. “In a sense, fear is the daughter of God,” says Godard, “redeemed on Good Friday night.” With that theme, he personifies fear as an intercessor between reality and fantasy. By looking at a single photograph of the war, building it organ by organ, he shows that the purpose of art is to express the death of exception, the organizing principle behind torture and rule. Flesh can never be a canvas when its display is only for the wickedness of ephemeral violence.
“I’ve seen so many people live so badly, and so many die so well.”
In addition to musical allusions, these films include quotations from Godard’s own films, including À bout de souffle (Breathless), Passion, and others. And Miéville’s own Le Livre de Marie gets a nod as a reflection of a brush poised before an already-bloodied canvas. Another layer is added by the fact that certain ECM covers have also been drawn from these films. The result is a multisensory conversation. And while these are non-narrative pieces, they are heavy with stories. Cinema is the knife that cuts through reality with fantasy, and fantasy with reality.
These films comprise a haunting yawn into the great goodnight, each the crater of a meteor falling in slow motion before the dawn of an era comes to a close as extinction squeezes the land dry of its most formidable juices. A cup brimming with blood in our own image.