Jean-Luc Godard / Anne-Marie Miéville: Four Short Films (ECM Cinema)

Four Short Films

Jean-Luc Godard
Anne-Marie Miéville
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!”

Or 1

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.

Or 3

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.

Or 2

“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.

Or 5

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.

Or 4

“Society makes the body something more than it is, and the soul something less.”

Old 2

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.

Old 1

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.

Old 5

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.

Old 4

“Art is normally not something to be touched, but regarded at a respectable distance, protected by law.”

Old 6

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.

Lib 5

“In a plane, you never see the whole sky.”

Lib 1

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.

Lib 4

“Representations depend on will.”

Sara 1

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.

Sara 3

“I’ve seen so many people live so badly, and so many die so well.”

Lib 3

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.

Lib 2

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.

Old 7

Jean-Luc Godard: Nouvelle Vague (ECM New Series 1600/01)

Jean-Luc Godard
Nouvelle Vague

Featuring the music and voices of:
Dino Saluzzi
David Darling
Patti Smith
Jean Schwartz
Werner Pirchner
Paul Hindemith
Heinz Holliger
Paul Giger
Arnold Schoenberg
Gabriella Ferri
Alain Delon
Domiziana Giordano
Roland Amstutz
Laurence Cote
Jacques Dacqmine
Christophe Odent
Laurence Guerre
Joseph Lisbona

But I wanted this to be a narrative. I still do. Nothing from outside to distract memory. I barely hear, from time to time, the earth softly creaking, one ripple beneath the surface. I am content with the shade of a single poplar, tall behind me in its mourning.

In every Godard film, there are moments in which chaos reigns. Ambient sounds replace human voices. Animals, especially dogs and crows, always seem to have something to add. The mechanical world becomes part of the conversation. These intersections of sound and darkness, of silence and light, underscore our social inequities and nothing more. They pass without judgment, suddenly swallowed whole by accidents and unarticulated pain. Yet it is in precisely these gnarled irregularities that the larger construction of life, and this film depicting it, is betrayed. There is no order beyond choice, no means for permanence in a world so finitely recreated. The film gives illusory clout to its own staying power and falls flat against the screen long before its depth can be realized.

As a soundtrack, Nouvelle Vague is a rich experience, made all the more so if one has seen the film and has its images in mind. An earlier companion piece to the vastly significant Histoire(s) du cinema, this is the complete aural map of Godard’s multi-sensory essay. Like the soundtrack to Histoire(s), it brings to light not only the film’s interior but also its exterior nuances, probing its topography, if you will, with a practiced hand. This is strictly a descriptive engagement. As spoken voices fade in and out of a painterly mélange of musical selections, ECM and otherwise, our ears (and our eyes) spin the one continual thread holding it all together. The musics of Dino Saluzzi and David Darling figure most heavily in Nouvelle Vague and inform much of its dialectic edge. They are placed among, and in place of, dialogue, adding to a mounting intellectual cacophony. Darling’s cello merges with a beeping car horn and screeching tires, Hindemith graces the inside of every mask donned by the film’s characters, and voices cry out like solo instruments against a larger orchestral palette. Godard’s familiar splashing water also makes its requisite cameo. Yet it is Saluzzi’s bandoneón that provides some of the more understatedly dramatic moments. Its tearful, bellowed cry is as recognizable as the rhythms of the filmmaker using it, and ends the text on a stark note as a car speeds away in a swirl of filmic dust.

With this release, ECM redefined what a soundtrack can be: something that literally “tracks sound,” marking every stage of a narrative with its most fleeting aspects. Diegetic distinctions are arbitrary in Godard’s world. Sound is image is sound. Our own mental pictures are no less substantial than those captured on film, for captured is precisely what they are. Nouvelle Vague invites us to let the visual world unfurl—not through the sound, but as the sound itself.

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.