The World According to God

The strange truths of Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma
by Michael Atkinson  posted December 12, 2011
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Cinema is built in its very emulsion to be a eulogy for itself. You cannot pull a clip or gaze upon a film still, it seems, without singing the rueful hosanna of Cinema Past, of a bedazzling dreamscape that we have all shared and share still. Even during the Oscar ceremonies, "movies" means the reverent worship of Chaplin, Dunne, Gable, Monroe, Wayne, McQueen, et al., or, more accurately, of their film presences. (Compare the relative paucity of remembrance abiding in the music, dance, theater, art, and even broadcast TV industries; only serious sports fandom takes history as seriously, but its retrospections are largely in the form of statistics.) Our wizened archdruid of diegetic obliteration, Jean-Luc Godard, has been nothing if not the medium’s most fervent rememberer, and though his long-awaited modernist step forward in the ‘60s was undoubtedly "new," it was also a protracted requiem for the yesteryear frozen in silvery cinematic ice.

Finally, JLG’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) finds its petulant way to American viewers via a new Olive Films DVD set (years after appearing on video in the UK and on TV in France), and this is where the grizzled master comes cleanest about his semi-secret life as a fanboy, a sentimentalist, a Kuleshovian, and a conflicted utopian. At almost four-and-a-half hours, and in a spasmodic, overlapped montage fugue-form that probably contains twice that in actual footage, the film is nothing more or less than a JLG brainwave caught in mid-nostalgic fit, considering in characteristically oblique terms the essence of his favorite medium (which means in the context of classical painting, literature, and history-history, too), from Méliès and Lumière to Apocalypse Now and beyond, from his own cigar-fumed desk to the dark ether where Chaplin, Anna Karina, anonymous porn performers, and the Holocaust all exist side by side. The depth of your empathy for this endless tissue of references may depend entirely on how many films you’ve seen, and therefore how many moments and epiphanies you can share with the man (whose shelf at Kim’s Video on St. Mark’s Place was labeled, famously, GOD), none of them ID’d for our convenience. (The most persistent image is of a couple urgently manning a film projector, from the inconsequential 1949 Bergman film, Prison.) But you don’t have to be an archive-brain to thrill to the rescoring of Jennifer Jones’s last, bloody crawl through the desert from Duel in the Sun (1946) to the Leonard Cohen ballad from McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and then to the post-shrieking dum-ta-dum Bernard Herrmann pulse from Psycho (1960), momentarily making two new movies, a frontier pulp-requiem and a sexualized wilderness thriller, out of nothing much at all. Or to a late-in-the-game suite of movie embraces, stretching from The Lady From Shanghai (1947) to '80s video porn, in effect simply saying that they’re all the same, all equal in their preposterous simulacra of human contact and, at the same time, all beautiful and all vapors of the past, of death, and of the lingering ghosts that cinema holds forever.

Though typically chockablock with cryptic Godardian aphorisms and bold-faced Godardian title-puns and discursive Godardian readings from texts chosen, it seems, for their near-poetic impenetrability, Histoire(s) is not at all what it seems to be—it’s not a theoretical text, or even a meaningfully philosophical one. One should be cautious about finding large statements within Godard’s dialectical matchups. Film theory has always made the mistake of attributing elaborate meanings (or pseudo-meanings) to the fine particulates passing through a movie’s atmosphere, motes of process and creation and experience that in themselves possess only as much import as an accident or a moment’s inspiration or a compromise made by a filmmaker as the light or money ran out. Godard would never be so foolish as to erect a fortress of entangled jargon around a film image or scene—his posture is of an artist devoted to thinking about basic essences and meanings that are naturally impossible to articulate. So, he articulates, and fashions a prolonged and whimsical exegesis on the medium and in effect only adds to its mysteries. This isn’t discourse—it’s dreaming.

Hence it is folly to look to Histoire(s) as a documentary, or as a history, but we can take it, as his titular parentheses indicate, as stories—stories of movie-watching, of musing on the moral bankruptcy of the 20th century, of love. (Over a glimpse of Karina in the Madison scene from 1964's Band of Outsiders, Godard’s sotto voce narration mutters, "tout seul"—you only. By which he may mean not Karina per se, but "Karina" as he filmed her, two very different incarnations.) Some great movies teach you how to watch them; Histoire(s) doesn’t. It's every man for himself, and there are as many ways to decide what it is as there are passionate viewers who will attend to it from beginning to end. Certainly, here Godard joins the secret forces of found-footage retournage with an autumnal vengeance, even dedicating a chunk to Santiago Álvarez, the head of Cuba’s state-run propaganda outfit, the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), for 30 years, but also a prolific free-form, scrap-footage radical collage maestro. But Godard’s far less a Craig Baldwin-style cargo cultist—Histoire(s)’ famous footage and images are repurposed because of what they meant in their original context, not despite of it—than a cataloguer of his own filmic experience.

Histoire(s) is, in fact, one of cinema’s great memoirs, or perhaps the only one of its kind; whereas other filmmakers have tried to capture their lives on celluloid, Godard has documented nothing and then looks impressionistically back at his life at the movies, free-associating from image to image, dynamic to dynamic, form to form. ("Little fuss when I was making things up," he grumbles, alluding to his 1970s slide into pure radicalism. "Big fuss when I made nothing up.") If you were to map the intersections and cyclical references, it’d probably look like the path of a charged ion ricocheting in a lead box. Godard’s lifelong interrogation of the viscous seam between movies and life may have its most moving fruition in these fragments and collisions, because here the man admits, at least half-seriously, that his life has been a movie, or all movies, all along.

But whose hasn’t? Almost 20 years ago, found-footage pioneer Bruce Conner was quoted, vis-à-vis what inspired him to make A Movie (1958): "I would see third-rate, cheap movies that came out of Poverty Row in Hollywood. They had a stock footage library and would use the same images again and again. When there was a scene in New York introduced, you would see the same shot of the Brooklyn Bridge.... Also, it was cheaper to shoot in front of a rear projection screen in the studio instead of going out. People were walking in front of a movie! Cowboys would pick up their guns and point them, and up would pop shots taken from previous and larger productions, Indians attacking and things like that. So I became aware that there was a 'universal movie' that was being made all the time." It’s a powerful, entrancing idea—one universal movie, an endlessly repeating, endlessly recycling parallel world that entangles with ours so the two can never be quite separated. Just like dreams in toto, except we share the aggregate wave, and JLG’s memories are ours, too, if of course signifying different impulses and syntheses to each of us. No other film-object has come as close as Histoire(s) to fulfilling Conner’s epiphany, which is to say, realizing a strange truth about modern culture and how we live in it.

Maybe. Maybe that strange truth is quantum-ness, as JLG suggests in a narrational explanation of dark matter, 50 percent of everything in the universe, and in cinema, too, being unseeable, unknowable, inconstant. Godard began as cinema’s first true modernist, which means also being a recyclist and a deathless oppositionist. Histoire(s) du cinéma suggests that being a modernist also means not using cinema as a cultural-political device with which to seduce your fellow citizens, but as a means to create paradise. All great modernists do this—remake the world into their own heaven, however abstracted. ("Yes," JLG intones late in the fourth hour, "image is happiness.") For him, without whom we would be so much less, a perfect world is before us, swimming in movie-star shrapnel, drunk on half-coherent talk about Saturnalian traces and sexual symbologies, helpless before beautiful young women (here, Julie Delpy) reading from Baudelaire, in senseless love with a graceful gesture and a feigned swoon, unreasonable in devotion to whatever gorgeous mystery we see when we gaze upon the shadows of Anna Karina or Ava Gardner or Buster Keaton or the children in Zéro de conduite (1933) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). Godard has, I think, been for decades mistaken for an egghead; I think he has always been a savage, who knows only his heart. When he decided to make an epic paean to the 20th century’s defining art form, which he himself did no small part in defining, of course he ended up with a tempestuous lyric, a Whitmanesque yowl of ardor. 


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Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

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Author's Website: Zero for Conduct