The Interventions of Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker into Contemporary Visual Art

By David Brancaleone

histoires-du-cinema-jean-luc-godard-1.jpgHistoire(s) du cinéma, 1988-99

1. Godard, Marker and the Art world

The 2008 exhibition of video, installation, photography, and photomontages, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, organised by star curator Okwui Enwezor, includes the work of Christian Boltanski, but, surprisingly excludes that of his near contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker. This is odd, since Godard has been described by one scholar as "one of Europe’s most prolific contemporary artists" (Witt, 2004), while another argues that there is now a stronger case than ever for re-reading Godard not just as a feature-film director, but as a video artist, and for rethinking his project as a whole in relation to the history of video art, going on to note that "a history of art perspective would doubtless emphasise his status as a multi-media collagist" (McCabe, 2004: 9). There can be no doubt that Godard’s work and Marker’s extends to videographic and multimedia work, the culmination of sustained practices combining text, document and image, in films which always cross the borders between fiction and the real, and always challenge cinema’s fictions by engaging in the real.[1]

Consider the precedents of these filmmakers’ forays into the art world. Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville were commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to make The Old Place (1999). Then, in 2001 the Beaubourg premiered another short, entitled Dans le Noir du temps (In the Dark of Time), which accompanied The Old Place. Both show what video art can achieve, bringing to it the results of a lifetime choice: breaking down artificial barriers between text and image, between imagination and logic, between film, art (at its best), video, painting and other media.

Chris Marker has also had several exhibitions of film and video since the late 1970s. In 1978, he participated in the exhibition Paris-Berlin also at the Beaubourg, with a video wall made of a montage of films "Quand le siècle a pris forme". Then, in the 1980s, Zapping Zone for Passages de l’image, was shown in the same place. In 1998 Immemory, a multimedia merging of film and digital technology (made with Hyperstudio and the images reviewed using Fractal Design Painter, Adobe Photoshop, Studio 32, Morph, and Kai’s Power Tools) was released as a CD Rom. The publisher’s note provides a succinct synopsis: "Chris Marker has combined the key fragments of his life and work in the shape of interactive "zones", about cinema, war, travels. He maps the imaginary country which extends before him."[2] Lev Manovich mentions Immemory as one example of what he refers to as "database multimedia", that is, not a basic, text-based database for archiving data, rather a non-linear model of storage of elements producing an account of "what the world is like", as opposed to the linear narrative sequencing of film (Manovich, 2001: 218-43).

As for Godard, he and his work were welcomed to the Beaubourg once again between October 2005 and June 2006, to engage in public discussions with artists and philosophers each month, while at the same time an installation of images, texts and videos were to be shown. The installation was to be called Collages de France (the title was a pun, since Colléges de France is an academic institution, rather like the British Academy). In the event, Collages was replaced by Voyage(s) en utopies, Jean-Luc Godard, 1946-2006, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 11 May-14 August 2006, (Voyage(s) in Utopia): Godard, 1946-2006. In addition to a comprehensive retrospective of his films (but no Godard in conversation), Godard made the following films for the event: Reportage amateur (maquette expo); Vrai faux passeport. Fiction documentaire sur des occasions de porter un jugement à propos del a façon de faire des films; Ecce homo, and Une bonne à tout faire. Despite varying perceptions of Godard today, this major retrospective of his life’s work was shown in the art world, and outside commercial filmmaking.

And yet, these exhibitions notwithstanding, Godard and Marker are still today the notable absentees from the art canon. Nevertheless, even if we discount their Nouvelle Vague period, it is particularly the recent video work of Marker’s Immmemory (1998), Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), The Old Place (1999), De l’Origine du XXIe Siècle (2000), Notre Musique (2004), not to mention the more recent Ecce homo (2006), Une catastrophe (2008), Film Socialisme (2010), which challenge discipline-specific divisions still lingering today.

The word gatecrashes the image early on in the 20th century, in an anarchic streak of Futurism transmitted to Russian Futurism, long before women artists such as Martha Rosler in her The Bowery series of photographs juxtaposed text and image to challenge mainstream clichés in the 1970s or Barbara Kruger used it for ‘direct address’ in the 1980s, or, more recently, visual artists began to include social networking in some of their installations.[3] However, this relation between document, text and fiction is one that film has pursued in new ways and for a very long time, resulting ultimately in reconciled harmony in Marker and an unreconciled tension in Godard. In fact, video artists have more to learn from Godard and Marker than either of them from video artists, since cinema is inherently a multimodal form of expression which, in the form of video installation, is becoming increasingly part of contemporary art practice. Some say, including Jean-Luc Godard, that it has even supplanted painting. In the film milieu this acknowledgement has largely been made by Godard’s biographers (McCabe, 2003, Brody, 2008, Temple, Williams and Witt, 2004). However, the art world, its art criticism and radical and social art history, are lagging behind. But does an art historical re-reading of Godard have to pit the feature-film director against the video artist? What can a history of art perspective offer? Would it really have to entail a rethinking of Godard’s project in relation to the history of video art, as McCabe has suggested?

In fact, for such filmmakers, literature, philosophy and politics complement image-making in interesting ways, contributing to setting up a tension, a clash that provokes thought. Thought can be communicated by images as well as by words, or the combination of both. Images may show no sign of words, or of linear logic, but nevertheless be puzzling, discursive or intertextual. André Bazin, the first editor of Cahièrs du cinéma, credited Marker for introducing a new form of montage (‘horizontal montage’), in which sense-making proceeds from the association between text and images, rather than from the relationship between shots. (Bazin, 1985: 179-181). Godard’s montage combines both.

Yes, their work cannot but invite questions for artists and art historians. This entails thinking about the consequences of these films and videos on video art, on film and on radical art history, while setting aside outmoded disciplinary confines. This analysis is Warburgian; specifically iconological, thus multi-disciplinary and intertextual, such that it might foil "the disciplinary border police" (Warburg cited in Iversen 1998: 222), and one which cannot but include their spectres: André Bazin, Neorealism, Bertolt Brecht, Sergei Eisenstein, Alain Resnais, and Pier Paolo Pasolini who thought that Neorealism had been reinvented by Godard (Pasolini, 1992: 512) as well as eminence grise Guy Debord and the Situationists who rejected Godard’s films in the 1960s. These are considered here, not as episodes of a teleological history, but in a dynamic relation to their work.[4] In what follows, this essay attempts to offer possible lines of enquiry from this iconological perspective.

2. Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma and Warburg’s Mnemosyne 

histoires-du-cinema-jean-luc-godard-2.jpgHistoire(s) du cinéma1988-99

Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1999), and the films he has made since, draw on selections of images from the archive of cinema and newsreel documentaries, but also on lived history, since the six hours of footage are both historical and autobiographical (Godard appears in his editing suite, Godard’s authoritative voice provides continuity, he is both character, filmic narrator, and artist presence).[5] His own visual memory subsumes into itself the collective memory of the century to combine singularity and universality, just as Augustine of Hippo brings into language individual identity through reflections on the function of memory in his Confessions (AD. 399), where he verbalises memory as remembered experience, individual and shared, as well as marking a sense of identity, visible and sayable conjoined in analogy:

…with my bodily senses I surveyed the external world as best I could, and considered the life my body has from me and the senses themselves. From that I turned inwards to the depths of my memory, like so many vast rooms filled so wonderfully with things beyond number: and I considered and stood awe-stricken. (Augustine, 1954: 204)

"With my bodily senses": Augustine opens the paragraph with his perception. The place of the museum is also the physical repository of memory, always an overwhelming collection of documentary material, long before the moving image was invented. From this perspective, then, given the shift in contemporary art precisely towards the archive as organising principle, it is even stranger that Marker’s and Godard’s work on text, document and moving image, could attract little or no attention outside film circles, quite apart from the painterly beauty in ever changing combinations of colour, sound, image, text. 

Antoine De Baecque likens Godard’s Histoire(s) to André Malraux’s imaginary museum, an art history without a text, bringing together, through the juxtaposition made possible by montage, images from different eras, though he notes that it is hard to establish how much of a direct influence Malraux’s book Les Voix du silence (1945-1967) was. The idea was adopted by Malraux’s project of the imaginary or immaterial museum, and put into practice by Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque in Paris, which Godard has referred to again and again (De Baecque, 2004: 118). However, Langlois was not taking stock, but salvaging film stock from destruction: his was an empirical gathering and public showing of the history of cinema, including silent movies salvaged from neglect after the war. The museum is a cultural space which becomes in Godard’s practice, "an imaginary site that can encourage and nurture editing" (de Baecque, 2004 Ibid.). Ultimately, Godard "creates a work of art by using the imaginary form of the museum: his ideal museum" (de Baecque, 2004: 120).

The point is, in my view, not the extent of Malraux’s influence, but that there is indeed an analogy between the way of thinking and organising images in Histoire(s) and the notion of an ideal (or virtual) museum. The analogy draws attention to the important functions of memorializing and historicizing human experience to understand and learn from it, as Augustine does in the Confessions, but how does one not obscure the underlying dynamic of relation, and what it can tell us about moments in time seen in relation to the present? In the post-structuralist sense, images are to be understood also as text. What complicates matters is that in Godard’s films, the image is a composite image, compounded by text and inter-related with image. Furthermore, text appears on the screen as graphic mark, as well as in the form of verbal quotation, spoken dialogue, voice-over commentary. Therefore, if we were to regard each image-text as a standalone, we would divorce it from its multimedia context which would, in turn, lead to missing the interplay between text and image – not to mention the multiple overlays of its soundscape (the music of noise and the noise of music as well as of people speaking, including Godard himself) and the fact that these words interact with the moving images on screen. Consequently, it seems necessary to enquire further as to what else the collection, comparison, juxtaposition and superimposition of image entails, beyond its technical aspects. What generates the dynamic relation between text and image, where image-based and text-based signifiers compete, clash or cohere in a constant flux of colour, sound, movement and words?[6]

Not everyone agrees that Histoire(s) constitutes an ideal museum. Most notably, Jacques Rancière claims that Godard: "does not construct any memory machine. He creates a surface on which all images can slide into one another" (Rancière, 2009b: 129). But we have only his metaphors of surface and sliding to convince us of his argument which is not borne out by Godard’s material practice of montage that you experience watching the films which show images clashing, rather than sliding; the difference is more than purely metaphorical. What is meant by ‘clashing’ is the juxtaposition of contradictory, non-sequential images, following the practice of Eisenstein. Nor is such a suggestion of non-stick images convincing. Firstly, because the images are meaningful, since Godard himself attaches significance to them, having selected them, rescued them from oblivion and then worked on them for several years. Secondly, while such an analysis might be appropriate in relation to Guy Debord’s film Society of the Spectacle (1973), where images are emptied of their original meaning by making them into signifiers of something else, in new combinations he devises for them as a kind of revenge against media and information flows, in Godard’s use of found footage two operations take place: he also re-sequences the images he takes out of context, like Debord; but what sets Godard apart is that he then goes on to intervene on the images themselves, right down to the level of individual frames, in terms of painting, with colour, using fades, irises, wipes, black or white screens, superimposition, slow motion, and many other techniques, as well as forming a new filmic composite of voice, music, reworked image, and finally placing the new combination within his newly constructed sequencing of montaged composites.

Like De Baecque, Philippe-Alain Michaud also sees a correlation between Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema and a spatial configuration, but not one limited to a museum function and one in which montage plays a central role (Michaud, 2004: 288-289).[7] Mnemosyne is an art historical atlas of about 1000 images, pasted onto black panels. Each panel brings together an area of art history, viewed both as sequence (in time, objectively) and chain of thought (procession of ideas over time). Only by combining the images of the art objects does the dynamic model come into being. It is of no consequence whether or not Godard is familiar with Warburg’s Mnemosyne. What counts is that Histoire(s) and Mnemosyne function as composite works of images organised spatially in screens (Godard) and panels which also function as screens (Warburg), still and moving image, but also as intertextual relations (Kristeva, 1986: 34-61) between themes that develop across decades of his life. Michaud argues that through montage, different elements are brought into dialogue, into relation. They are not represented, but presented face-to-face, simultaneously. This approach naturally produces discontinuities, but these gaps elicit further thought, raise questions rather than answering them. However, in my view, the similarity of the two enterprises extends beyond a technical procedure of comparison, to encompass a kind of conceptual and visual mapping, when one considers the other areas of Warburg’s approach to text and image.

In Mnemosyne, Warburg develops a dynamic model to think of works, using photographic reproductions in such a way that does not coincide with how photographic slides are used nowadays in art history classes or even conferences. His dynamic model of inter-relationship in Mnemosyne was noted by K. Forster (Forster, 1976: 169-176). Importantly, what counted for Warburg was establishing relationships. (Didi-Huberman in Michaud, 2004: 37). Mnemosyne is topographical, an iconology of interrelationships, rather than an iconology of the meaning of figures (as would be the case with Panosfky and other disciples of Warburg’s) (Michaud, 2004: 252). Warburg calls his method "an iconology of intervals" (Michaud, 2004: 244). The spaces between the object-images on the panels are significant because of the responses which are generated in perception by the juxtaposition of objects. Michaud argues that, bearing in mind the structure of montage, Mnemosyne is a cinematic arrangement, despite the fact that it is not in any way related to film technique (Michaud, 2004: 244).

One finds such a model in the machinery of a combinatory logic, which works by analogy, contrast, juxtaposition and so on. Its basis is Porphyry of Tyre’s (AD. 232/3-301) tree structure in his Isagoge or introduction to the Categories of Aristotle, to organise concepts. This method was transmitted to patristic and medieval thought by Boethius’s commentary. Porphyry’s tree structure organised the logical basis for the encyclopedia, such as Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, (died c. 636) by producing categories that served to encompass the chain of being from the most general and abstract to the particular (Eco: 1997, 94, 91-106, 106-134). The context for Porphyry’s search for the relation between abstraction and the empirical in his Isagoge, is that he was a neo-Platonist and the editor of Plotinus’s Enneads. Before the invention of printing, combinatory logic served as a mnemonic device to remember, when manuscripts very scarce and the diffusion and availability of texts minimal. However, combinatory logic dealt with what was already known. The medieval thinker Ramon Llull, for example, used it to prove to Muslims and Jews the validity and supremacy of Christianity. In this respect, it did not produce new ideas, but new ways of remembering existing ones. Whereas, the idea behind Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne was to suggest to art history new ways of seeing, to break out of the pre-existing categorisations of connoisseurship, and had nothing at all to do with mnemonics.

Critical perceptions of Mnemosyne are influenced by Ernest Gombrich’s dismissal of its importance (Gombrich, 1970: 59). However, despite his portrayal of it in his intellectual biography of Warburg, Mnemosyne comprised, as others have noted, a new way of apprehending artistic phenomena into configurations, breaking the divide between making and interpreting, criticism and art process (Didi-Huberman 1990, Iversen 1998 [1993]). Michaud compares Godard’s methods to Warburg’s, identifying the process of montage as the principle that brings different elements into dialogue or relation; something which can produce discontinuities and gaps. However, these may elicit further thought and raise questions from the viewer rather than answering them. Even so, his study on Godard (which appears only in an appendix to the book), fails to provide detailed evidence, through a comparison of like with like, film sequence in Histoire(s) and Mnemosyne screen, that might have shown how Godard’s practice of montage as juxtaposition of disparate images could be related to Warburg’s Mnemosyne.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that Warburg rearranged the images just as he rearranged his library and that very different types of objects were brought together by photography, paintings, reliefs, drawings, buildings, people, and combined visually into the screen space of Mnemosyne and that the panels also brought together images from very different contexts, such as ads, press cuttings, art photographic reproductions, maps, not to mention his own photographs. What is particularly interesting about the project, but not explored in Michaud’s book, is that Warburg points in the direction of a spatial organisation of concepts, be they visual or textual. It does not follow that, as Michaud maintains, the lack of any accompanying textual commentary precludes interpretation. Indeed, each Mnemosyne panel can be viewed both as sequence (in time, objectively) and as a chain of thought (procession of ideas over time).

Despite the lack of a more detailed account of the organisation and of a closer analysis of how montage works in the panels, I think that Michaud provides, nevertheless, a point of departure, a model, not just as a term of comparison to help understand how Historie(s) is structured, but for mapping or re-mapping Godard and Marker, given that Warburg’s Mnemosyne was itself a re-mapping of art history along different lines of enquiry which departed from a nineteenth-century formalist practice. In the years after his death, similarly, Alfred Barr’s map of the avant-garde, made shortly after he became director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was also a spatio-temporal systematization of contemporary art which rejects Heinrich Wölfflin’s linear teleology of styles in his Principles of Art History (1915), in favour of the chart, in an attempt to visualise in graphic form tendencies and lines of influence (Barr in Fernie: 2003, 180). Come to think of it, an even earlier kind of mapping was the Blue Rider’s Almanac of 1912. It took the form of an edited book (with, for example, such disparate elements as children’s art and Gabriele Münter’s version of it, German vernacular painting on glass and American Indian ritual headdress in the company of Kandinsky’s painting). Finally, T. J. Clark’s seminal 1973 article "The Conditions of Artistic Creation" was also a remapping of art history to mount a second important attack in the twentieth century against formalism and argue in favour of a social history of art that, ultimately, has its roots in Panofsky’s work on perspective as symbolic form and beyond that, as we now know, in Aby Warburg’s iconology (Clark in Fernie: 2003, 248-253). The following paragraphs, then, offer a loose and tentative re-mapping of Godard’s and Marker’s contribution to film, informed by an iconological practice of art history.

3. Re-mapping boundaries: the essay-film

immemory-chris-marker.jpgImmemory, 1998

The sworn enemy of this logic of combination or juxtaposition are the border police of genre classification (typical of art history and its curatorial leanings which seem to contaminate film theory too) who struggle with any notion of redistribution of the sensible. It is in The Future of The Image that Jacques Rancière defines the artistic image as a set of operations or relations "between the sayable and the visible" and calls this the regime of the "distribution of the sensible", a status quo which can be altered, through a redistribution, which creates new ways of seeing (Rancière, 2007: 6). In the work of Marker and Godard, such a redistribution of the sensible has been generally understood, categorised as – and duly named – ‘film-essays’, ever since André Bazin coined the phrase, referring specifically to Marker’s work as a political and historical type of writing mediated by poetry (Bazin, 1985: 179-181). Fine. But what does the catch-phrase cover? What practice does it immunise? Is there a risk of seriously limiting the scope and aesthetic dimension of such films by segregating them?

Phillip Lopate considers the film-essay a "cinematic genre that barely exists" in Can Movies Think? In Search of The Centaur: The Essay-Film (Lopate, 1998: 280). It must have words, whether spoken, subtitled, or intertitled. These must represent a single voice and exclude any collage of quoted texts that do not reflect a "unified perspective". The film must be an argument, an attempt at working out a problem; it must put across a personal view, and be well-written (Lopate, 1998: 283). However, his classification is quite prescriptive: no interviews are allowed and no documentaries (Lopate, 1998: 305). Yet, Lopate’s examples include Resnais’s documentary Night and Fog (1955) and his dictate of "reasoned, essayistic discourse" seems too narrow from the perspective of visual art, and certainly contradicts his celebration of Marker, whose digressive approach to text and image is deliberate in a spiralling multiplicity that brings to mind, for example, Carlo Emilio Gadda’s novels which are equally and intentionally digressive and always on the edge of subverting the integrity of the text, or, perhaps closer to home in a French milieu, Georges Perec’s roving pen in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1997) that picks up from the smallest detail of everyday life a point of departure for a long intellectual journey. In this regard, Italo Calvino’s 1985 Harvard lecture on multiplicity, later collected in Six Memos of the next Millenium (1993), provides an excellent cultural context for exploring the method and the creative potential of experimenting beyond the limitations of genre from inside, showing how genre can become a nonsense when its border lines are crossed, because you are invited to look at the real differently; true of these filmmakers, true of Calvino himself, true of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni or of Federico Fellini’s too.

This is particularly true of Marker’s film Sunless (1982) which seems to thrive on digression; a film which features, rather than "reasoned, essayistic discourse", Marker’s personal and political layers of lived experiences of the 1960s and 1970s, traces of the films he made in revolutionary Cuba and elsewhere, observations, asides, memories, comic strips, death, Japanese culture, 1968, neocolonialism, African struggles of liberation, history of cinema, TV, mass culture, video technology; all held together by the Sellotape of insightful commentary, reminiscence, analysis, questioning, and irony alternating with empathy for other people’s lives.

Furthermore, these topics are put across by a fictional character, an alter-ego, a cameraman whose imaginary letters have been edited and cited by a voice belonging to a woman, who provides the scripted commentary for the film. But this literary device works more as a filter of the real, sifting lived experience, than a mere rhetorical means for creating fictive illusions. It would be too limiting to say that Sunless comes across as a visual essay, for the viewer is presented with a summation of experience spanning over half a lifetime, a Proustian, multi-layered masterwork, but compressed in such a way that calls to mind how J. L. Borges synthesised his journeys of the imagination into short stories. What is more, the categorization of "essay-film" completely falls apart when confronted with Marker’s 1998 Immemory, a CD ROM multimedia art object, a kind of Tower of Babel that somehow makes perfect sense, using hypertext to provide multiple narrative paths into different episodes of Marker’s personal witnessing of history. Tellingly, given what was said earlier about topography of images in Warburg and Godard, mapping constitutes Marker’s own frame for a reading of Immemory as fragments of memory organised in spatial terms:

In every life, we would find continents, islands, deserts, swamps, overpopulated territories and terrae incognitae. From this memory we can draw the map, extract images with more ease (and truth) than do stories and legends. That the subject of this memory is found to be a photographer or a filmmaker does not imply that his memory is more interesting. (Marker, 1998)

Paradoxically, the map metaphor becomes a dematerialised reality in Marker’s multimedia creation, where random access does not contradict the patterns that emerge both in history and one’s lived existence of it as a witness which, of course, defies Lopate’s tidy formulation as much as, if not more than Godard’s films. Marker recalls the origins in the Art of Memory, the brave attempt to build a practical archive of ideas which could be drawn on to further thought, research and knowledge, citing Filippo Gesualdo’s Plutosofia (1592) (Marker, 1998). As has been pointed out earlier, the genealogy of this organisation of ideas stretches back to the fourteenth century and Ramon Llull’s work on the Art of Memory (Brancaleone, 2002), in the form of combinatory logic, and ultimately much further back, to late antiquity and Porphyry’s work in particular, on the tree structure as a diagrammatic way of organising learning. This explains how, when Gilles Deleuze contested thought as being "arborescent", he was actually pointing to a traditional way of thinking stretching back in time and which is indeed a vertical and hierarchical structure, and substituted it in his philosophy with the mental conception of "rhizomatic" thought, typified by a horizontal, non-hierarchical one (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004).

Raymond Ballour, writing about Marker’s exhibition in the Beaubourg (Bellour in Roth and Bellour, 1997: 109-111), recalls that the origin of the essay film formula was André Bazin’s Lettre de Sibérie, in which Bazin, following Jean Vigo’s description of his own documentary film, A propos de Nice (1929) as "an essay documented by film", defined Marker’s cinema as an ‘essay film’, (Bazin, 1985: 179-181). Bazin stressed the importance of the word essay, "understood in the same way as in literature: both an historical and political essay, though written by a poet" (Bazin, Ibid.). Ballour points out that:

In this brief article Bazin did not recall all that the essay form owes to the letter; nor did he recall that Marker had borrowed it from [the Belgian poet Henri] Michaux, whose departures from the deceptively clear definition of poetry had left his critics perplexed. (Bellour, Ibid.)

So perhaps we can blame Bazin for this classificatory impulse, not just to define, but also to segregate the essay from cinema – an impulse which is reflected in categorisations such as Lopate’s. The complexity, the multiplicity of what I would call Marker’s film-writing (rather than essay-film), defies any such classifications. The ‘I’ of the essay is confounded by the multiple personae Marker inhabits.

In Sunless the writing of the voice-over becomes not only archival, but also reflective, documentary, personal, anecdotal, delighting in detail, digressive to a disconcerting degree, so that you almost lose the thread. Ballour argues that Marker pitches the document against the author’s own subjectivity, mediated in his films by exchange, through the medium of conversation and of (literary) correspondence. However, genuine communication is problematic in the spectacular society. Consequently, the filmmaker developed his writing as a constant critical activity, regardless of cinema or television (Bellour in Roth and Bellour, 1997: 109-111).

immemory-chris-marker-2.jpgImmemory, 1998

Furthermore, the distinction between linear and non-linear narrative falls short of the task of explaining Marker’s film work. Since the metaphor of mapping is Marker’s own, then, perhaps it is worth pausing for a moment to consider his work in terms of space and time. The geographer David Harvey divides space into absolute, relative and relational. Absolute space is the space of mapping and Euclidean space, the space of city plans; relative space is problematic space, after Einstein’s theory of relativity, it considers the point of view; and relational space denotes the relationship between the object and the influences bearing on it. For example, take the political role of collective memories of a space which cannot be mapped as absolute space: Harvey’s examples are Ground Zero and Tiananmen Square. Both contain overlapping dimensions which are part of the same space, only when considered relationally. In this respect migrants, diasporic groups, tourists, commuters, travellers (and Marker has been a traveller for most of his life), all inhabit a relational world of experience (Harvey, 2006: 119-148). Given that linearity is itself a spatial concept, Marker’s non-linear approach produces a relational space which, I would contend, is the site of his films. Relational space is the space Marker inhabits in his narratives and filmmaking. A space which cannot be mapped in absolute terms, as absolute space.

Ballour problematizes Bazin’s essay formulation, pointing to the different strands of its genealogy, including the letter genre (just think of these two opposites: Cicero’s letters, at once both personal and political and, at the other extreme, Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa or Virtue Rewarded). Marker’s is a very different kind of direct address from Barbara Kruger’s, for it engages the viewer on multiple levels, all the time self-effacing or displacing the artist Marker from the scene. If this cannot be a dialogue, it is, however, dialogical, in its spatial relationality, in the many ways in which Marker programmatically puts the viewer first. In Marker, what has been called essay, for want of a better description, compounds the personal dimension as well as the public, but breaks down barriers between writing and imaging, be it still photography becoming moving image, cinema or video.

Other schematizations have relegated such endeavours to the category of art films or experimental films, for having questioned the relation in cinema between fiction and documentary. However, although such designations might at a stretch be applicable to Sunless, they fail miserably with Marker’s later work that defies such labels. Agnés Varda, an early Nouvelle Vague filmmaker (who made the amazing Gleaners and I in 2000, and Beaches of Agnes (2008), winner of the Best Documentary César Award in 2009) pointed out in a joint interview with Godard: "I don’t believe in the term ‘art film’" (Varda in Sterritt, 1998: 17). Ever since her film La pointe course (1954) Varda has practised techniques which have challenged mimetic cinema, interweaving personal and social dimensions, documentary and fiction. As for Godard, when asked back in 1968 whether he was making social commentary or film, he chose to reply that he "could see no difference between the two", it must have been partly to do with the relevance of the social and political context of the time which involved him and many others, outside the cinema world too. But in the same interview he also said: "I believe both in fiction and documentary" (Godard in Sterritt, 1998: 32, 34). Even then, he was seeking to reconcile the two opposites. Indeed, as early as in a 1962 interview in Cahièrs du cinéma, Godard suggests the link between creating and writing, the continuity between writing and filmmaking:

Instead of writing as criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed. I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in novel form or novels in essay form: only instead of writing, I film them… For there is a clear continuity between all forms of expression. It’s all one. (Godard, 1986: 171)

Far from reducing his film practice to what has been categorised as essay-film, Godard points to the continuity of forms of expression, not the difference. This is confirmed by a much later interview of 1994, at which time we can no longer accuse him of being on the barricades: "I think I am making more or less documentaries, but I don’t see much difference between these two categories" (Godard in Sterritt, 1998: 176). He adds: "I’m half a novelist and half an essayist – which is not admitted in the motion-picture world, and is very awkward." (Godard in Sterritt, Ibid.)

What is revealing is the continuity of such statements, their similarity. Godard’s work is poised between fiction and documentary, but is neither and this, it seems to me, is also the nature of the more recent films in which what Herbert Marcuse calls "the aesthetic dimension" tempers hard facts or frames them in ways that heighten their resonance. Marcuse: "Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance" (Marcuse, 1978: 73). By "petrified world" Marcuse means the world of late capitalism which reifies people and things with its Midas touch, leading people to believe, ever since the Thatcher era, that happiness can now be purchased in the shops with a credit card. What is still relevant today in Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension is that while orthodox Marxist theory assigned to art a specific political function and didactic purpose, Marcuse’s unorthodox Marxian approach enabled an analysis whereby he could value: "the political potential of art in art itself, in the aesthetic form as such" (Marcuse, 1978: ix).

So in my view, what is at stake in Lopate’s categorization of the European essay-film is not genre at all, but how you frame film as idea, when it escapes your tidy, if contradictory, genre classification. His framing of film as essay is constricting, precisely because it limits the very possibility of thinking an alternative to the mainstream and constrains its experimental fluidity into no more than one genre among others, instead of an entirely different way of doing things, a mode of expression capable of releasing the real potential of the moving image. This is how I interpret Godard when he says in an interview of the 1990s:

Motion pictures were invented to look, tell, and study things. They were mainly a scientific tool for seeing life in a different way. To be only spectacular should be 5 or 10 percent of cinema. All the rest should be documentary study in a broad sense, research and essays. (Godard in Sterritt, 1998: 176)

In this interview, indeed, the recurring theme of Histoire(s) is the idea that cinema should not be primarily entertainment and that cinema had failed to live up to its potential in recording the truth of history. It follows that so-called ‘essay-films’ and ‘art houses’ cannot exist separately in divisive categories. The same tendency towards classification can be detected in Sam Rohdie’s Montage where despite precious insights, "classicism" becomes a trope justifying the whole book (Rohdie, 2006), almost a shield to defend the cinema of the spectacle and entertainment from any Brechtian-inspired interruptions, and to naturalise its cinematic forms into a neutral film language. (Perhaps this goes some way to explaining other extraordinary exclusions from Rohdie’s book – that of Godard and Marker, not to mention Jean Vigo whose A propos de Nice is an important moment of transmission of Russian cinematic ideas to French cinema). Another questionable categorization is that, in Godard’s films, the criticism of what Debord called "the society of the spectacle" belongs to a strict periodization (of the 1960s and early 1970s). Actually, such a critique of consumption in late capitalism is a recurring preoccupation of the films made since the 1990s. Towards the end of that decade Godard is still making statements of this kind: "Movies were invented to show reality, but they have not been used that way. They have been used to show dancing girls, killers, machine guns, lovers." (Godard in Sterritt, 1998: 177).

4. Umberto Eco’s Open Work and open-ended art forms

Umberto Eco’s Open Work (1962) provides a helpful way of mapping these artistic endeavours, because he tries to find the words to describe and understand a certain kind of open-ended, neo-avantgarde experimentation which was happening in poetry, music and the visual arts in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the basis of Open Work is chaos theory, and the artistic correlative includes the work of the musician John Cage and the writer Alain Robbe-Grillet. For years, Cage had been extending the notion of what counts as music, in fidelity to Russolo’s Futurist The Art of Noise (1913), in which MONOtony is discarded in favour of POLYphony, to celebrate noise as chaotic, inconsistent, multiplicity. Specific examples given are Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavier Stuck XI which features a performer faced with note groupings on a single music sheet; Luciano Berio’s Sequence for Solo Flute in which it is the performer who decides how long to hold a note; and the first section of Pierre Boulez’s Third Sonata for Piano which comprises ten pieces on ten music sheets, shuffled like a stack of cards, and played in any order (Eco, 1989: 193).

Chaos theory also underpins A Thousand Plateaus (1969). This is its symptomatic opening sentence: "The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together, since each of us was several, there was quite a crowd" (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004: 3). The underlying concept of the book is multiplicity and the idea of breaking out of molar or arborescent structures of thinking, and molar mnemonic systems – in opposition to Porphyry’s Tree of ancient Greek thought, identified as "the image of the world" (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004: 3, 325). Open Work some twenty years earlier, had pointed in the direction of chaos theory for Deleuze and Guattari’s approach to thinking (and their explicit attack on metaphysics): "The world has become chaos", they write, "but the book remains the image of the world" (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004: 7).

The musical score by Sylvano Bussotti (written for David Tudor, a friend of Cage’s) and illustrating the opening page of A Thousand Plateaus, is as much a piece of art fighting the consistent logic of Western sheet music with the weapons of chaos, as ostensibly musical notation. The now half-forgotten Open Work had already extended the concept of mathematical multiplicity to visual art and literature, arguing for the open-endedness of contemporary art. The work of art (regardless of whether it is music, visual art or literature), succeeds because it is ambiguous and open-ended. Eco says that you can’t engage in univocal decoding, because there is no single reading and trying to reduce a text to a univocal interpretation is precisely what the text resists (Eco, 1989: 193). Eco breaks the boundaries of discipline, clustering artists – musicians, poets, philosophers, painters, filmmakers –for their practice of open-endedness as a useful way of organising images and ideas. You can see why. Because it allows for non-linear narratives and experimentation, pointing to a centre-less writing and image-making that match, for example, Marker’s film, Sans Soleil (Sunless).

5. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinema of poetry

la-ricotta-2.jpgLa Ricotta

Complementary to such formulations (Eco’s and Deleuze and Guattari’s) as a lens for interpretation and for re-mapping, is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s distinction between cinema of poetry and cinema of prose, because it seeks to highlight (in theory) and develop (in his film practice) the multidimensionality of film, freeing it up from issues of linearity or objectivity. It also invites one to consider text and moving image as closely connected as they are in his paradigm which included his own work, Michelangelo Antonioni’s and, tellingly, Godard’s. Pasolini named their filmmaking cinema of poetry. Moreover, Godard himself makes such a connection between poetry and film work: "The cinema should be more poetic – and poetic in a broader sense, while poetry itself should be opened out" (Godard, 1986: 242).

The phrase cinema of prose does not designate documentary film, nor exclusively Neorealism for its attempts at objectivity, criticised by Pasolini in Officina (1955-1959), a literary journal he co-founded, but what can be construed as the opposite of the new forms of cinematic expression which he saw as the context of his own film work. In fact, Pasolini adopted key elements from the practice of Neorealist filmmakers, such as working with non-professional actors, instead of film stars and borrowing narrative techniques from film documentary, especially the elliptical form of story-telling that reduces stories to their defining fragments, or what Bazin called the "image-fact" ("l’image-fait") (Bazin, 1990: 263). In effect, if cinema of prose is to be interpreted at all in the sense of a critique of Neorealism, then it went beyond the practice of film criticism to form instead a rethinking of what Neorealism had stood for to form a premises, indeed an integral part of the films he made, such as, for example, La Ricotta (1963) or Uccellacci e Uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows, 1966) which latter even openly rejects Neorealism through a reference to Roberto Rossellini, the director of Open City (1945), uttered by Pasolini himself, in his voice-over for the character of the talking raven. In Pasolini’s critical or revised realism, that film can be an allegorical journey (in a story within the story the father and son characters, the comic Totò and Ninetto Davoli, become twelfth-century Franciscan monks preaching to the birds in a parable told by the raven to teach them perseverance), and at the same time contain documentary filming of the signs of the 1960s capitalist boom, seen from the beyond of Rome’s hinterland places, the new flyovers crossing the campagna romana, the half-built new apartment blocks and the shantytowns), and the cinéma direct footage of devoted masses at the funeral of party leader Palmiro Togliatti.

Pasolini’s only attempt at theorising the cinema of poetry is in Empirical Hereticism (1972), in an essay by the same title (Pasolini, 1991: 167-187) first published in 1965 in Pesaro at a screening of new cinema. The new films have in common elements of style and technique which enables filmmakers more freedom to express their subjectivity (Pasolini, Ibid.). Given the prosaic nature of filmmaking, its practicalities, Pasolini’s conception of a cinema of poetry might seem paradoxical. But maybe the obstacle for relating poetry to film for many would be how poetry is to be properly understood as an intellectual activity. The problem seems to be to consider the poetic image as a form of thought, but a logic which does not exclude sensation. However, the dualism inherent in categorisations that see intellection and intuition as entirely separate has been questioned by Giorgio Agamben who has argued for the need to rediscover the unity of the broken word (Agamben, 2006: xiv). He is not the only thinker who discusses the scission in the West between approaches to life in terms of reason as opposed to body or desire; the two opposites being the ecstatic-inspired pole and the rational-conscious pole (in which prevailing view reason is generally considered an entirely separate process). In fact, much of the early work of Gilles Deleuze was concerned with this kind of problematic and so it is hardly surprising that Deleuze took Pasolini’s cinema of poetry seriously (Deleuze, 1986: 72-76).

The foundation for the cinema of poetry is the literary classification of the language of free indirect speech, theorised by Valentin Volosinov, alias Mikhail Bakhtin (Volosinov, 1973).[8] Practically speaking, Pasolini’s poetic realism, his version of reformed Neorealism, includes the subject position (of the writer and director) in filmmaking, while at the same time not rejecting a realist approach, but definitely repulsing the naturalism and mimetic linear narrative of classic cinema; this idea that there is an objective real that can be filmed objectively (which is not the same as accepting the historicity of the real, but being realistic in acknowledging that we see it nevertheless from a point of view, with whatever that may entail). The underlying principle is that language – including speech and writing – is essentially dialogical, even at the level of an individual utterance. It follows that it cannot be objective (a character incorporates the logic of the author and its own internal logic within the economy of the story), because both dialogue and monologue are the author’s as well as the character’s. This recognition dates back to Luigi Pirandello and is explored in his play Six Characters in Search of An Author (1921) which had problematised mimesis by introducing a metalinguistic dimension to theatre, exposing the open-endedness of writing as well as writing the figure of the author into the work itself, and destabilising the perception of characters, stage director and production crew. Thus Pasolini challenges the Neorealist binary opposition of objectivity versus subjectivity, on the basis that it cannot be but subjective, as it always involves a point of view. But for him, by contrast with the later postmodern paradigm, this neither invalidates nor relativises subjectivity, nor does it question the factual nature of empirical events, but introduces a recognition of interpretation always-already present.[9]

The principle of free indirect subjective allows film writing to be in a state of flux, containing elements of fiction and of documentary, and combining narration and visuals in such a way as to openly recognise the authorial voice and blur the distinction between subjective and objective shots. In Pasolini’s legacy, montage is to film what condensed poetry is to linear prose and it is precisely using poetic procedures that Godard could condense meaning in less direct, more allegorical ways.

la-ricotta-pier-paolo-pasolini.jpgEarly on in La Ricotta, the dialectical image of crown of thorns against the backdrop of 1960s Rome and its construction speculation. Later, Stracci’s mocking and torturing by the film crew re-enacts and renews the Passion of Christ, breaking down barriers of time and space. 

Pasolini does so through questioning the presumed objectivity of the lens by filtering the story, and creating an authorial distance from it, by, for example, including shots which may not be what the characters see, rather what the director wants the viewers to see for what they reveal as visual commentary, so that the reality of film and the film of reality are both acknowledged as part of the real. One example afforded by Pasolini himself is Red Desert (1964), in which Michelangelo Antonioni shows the world as seen through the eyes of Monica Vitti, the protagonist, but he is actually showing it through his own eyes, by using indirect free style (Pasolini, 1991: 167-187).

His essays of Heretical Empiricism were an attempt, very much in the vein of work in progress, to define to some extent Pasolini’s critical positioning in terms of what he was trying to do within the context of continental experimental cinema. It never precluded making short film documentaries such as Comizi d’Amore (1964) or Appunti per un film sull’India (1968). One film, La Rabbia (1963), was a montage of newsreel with voice-over commentary by a writer (Giorgio Bassani) and a painter (Renato Guttuso) and demonstrates that for Pasolini from his very first film Accattone (1961) cinema of poetry never excluded the documentary element of Neorealism. It is entirely a work of montage. The raw materials are the 1950s newsreels which Pasolini sets up in dialectical clashes that replace the original authoritative commentaries with his own probing version of events and their interpretation. For Adelio Ferrero the clash was precisely due to the resistance of the images to the poetic voice of critique (Ferrero, 2005: 49). The model of La Rabbia precedes anything similar by Godard who was making in the same year Les Carabiniers, Le Grand Escroc and Le Mépris and it predates Guy Debord’s film Society of the Spectacle by ten years.

The documentary approach to feature filmmaking was in the air when Jean Rouch made Chronique d’un été (1960), which Pasolini had seen (Viano, 1993: 192-197) and soon learned from, as I have just noted. However, despite obvious analogies, there is a difference between a Neorealist approach of working towards a documentary, as opposed to Pasolini’s documentary, which was only a point of departure, used for a sociological term of comparison, reminding viewers of the complexity of what an alternative to mimesis might look like (in La Ricotta or Accattone). In this respect, in Pasolini’s work cinema of poetry also meant adapting to the screen the realism of his novels Ragazzi di Vita (1955) and Una Vita Violenta (1959), both written in Roman dialect, the language of the working class characters. The documentary genre in Pasolini’s Appunti per un film sull’India is turned inside out by Pasolini asking the interviewees about a fiction film he was planning to make about India (Viano, Ibid.). Just as Neorealism went some way towards demystifying Fascist myths by attempting to bridge the gap between film and the real and focus on the present day, Pasolini’s project also tried to do so, but took a different route; he distanced himself both in theory and practice from the Neorealist total reliance on the image alone and from its rejection of mise en scène (Viano, 1993: 69-70). This is true even of La Rabbia which uses borrowed material, but relies heavily on the authorial commentary of the poet he was.

In Accattone (1961), Pasolini juxtaposes the image to writing and literature in the opening sequence of the film, where four lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Purgatory Canto V, 103-107) serve as a preface, to provide a key of interpretation that universalises the particular events of 1961, by placing them side by side with poetic events of the fourteenth century. One could object that as an established writer making his first feature film, this is a tactical move, playing to his (literary) strengths. However, Pasolini’s own writing and his dialogue with literature, especially poetry, allows him to get close to the real in Dante, however remote an author the Florentine might have seemed from a twentieth century viewpoint.[10] And moreover, in the 1970s, Pasolini borrows from Dante the powerful invective form for his Scritti Corsari, his regular column in the daily paper, Il Corriere della Sera.

Those lines of medieval verse might seem entirely outside the economy of the film narrative, but, as one aspect of the practice of cinema of poetry, they frame the actions of the protagonist as a character, a type which acquires an epic (Christ-like) dimension, heightened by Pasolini’s montage of sound and image, such that the sublime sound of Bach accompanies a scene of violence, and of iconography (he had studied art history at Bologna university with Pietro Longhi).


la-ricotta-pier-paolo-pasolini-3.jpgExpanded montage in Pasolini’s La Ricotta. The 20th century Passion of working class Stracci (in black and white) juxtaposed to the mise en scène of the film-within-the film, the colour sequence borrowing the iconography of Rosso Fiorentino’s Descent from the Cross (1521). This is matched by a further juxtaposition of word and image.

Furthermore, the only colour sequences in La Ricotta are the tormented Mannerist Crucifixions by Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, set up as artifice in the film, or art historical representation within a filmic mise en scène and montaged into a black and white film that witnesses the death on the Cross of the working class protagonist Stracci. In La Ricotta, Orson Welles plays the role of the film director, forming a composite character which combines the subjectivity of the off-screen poet and director Pasolini (whose verses Welles reads aloud) with the voice and presence of a Hollywood rebel (out of favour at the time), himself a living witness to the history of cinema. Pasolini stays off-screen, behind the camera. But the character of Welles, in the film-within-the film about the Crucifixion, incorporates Pasolini’s poetry, his view of Italian society and of the interplay of media, producers and business.

Pasolini’s cinema of poetry in La Ricotta equates with metafilm or film reflecting on two worlds and namely: the fiction of film and the reality of fiction. It does so in several ways; by playing with sound (witness the absurd clash of contemporary music (the Twist) with the Classical music of Carlo Rustichelli), in what also effectively translates into a sound montage; on the dual reality of the film extras, filmed both as extras and as characters in a filmic imaging of the two paintings; on the dissonance of the actual spoken language of the actors (dialect, considered low brow in Italy and elsewhere) clashing with high brow Italian (in Orson Welles’s dubbing); and, finally, the tragedy of the death of one of them, whose dying destroys these dualities: the polarity between the Passion of Christ and the 1960s capitalist Boom in Rome, between the high art of Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino and the real world of media, film directors and producers, and jet set, between Pasolini and Welles, between Stracci’s black and white twentieth-century Passion and Jesus’s full colour filmed Passion in the form of a tableau vivant).

6. Cinéma Vérité, Everyday Life and the Passion for the Real

man-with-a-movie-camera-dziga-vertov.jpgMan with a Movie Camera, 1929

While Pasolini’s cinema of poetry developed an aesthetic which was meditated on Italian Neorealism and took it in a new direction, in many ways constituting his own response to it (just as Federico Fellini’s 8½ (Otto e mezzo) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy are possibly the best Italian expressions of it), in France, André Bazin had been championing a naturalist film aesthetic:

Montage which we are constantly being told is the essence of cinema is, in this situation, the literary and anticinematic process par excellence. Essential cinema, seen for once in its pure state, on the contrary, is to be found in straightforward photographic respect for the unity of space. (Bazin, 2005: 47)

Marker had worked closely with Bazin just after the Liberation. Bazin valued Neorealism’s refusal to submit to "a priori aesthetic standards", and its "exceptionally documentary quality"(Bazin, 1972: 20). Not that he thought that the camera could be entirely objective: "documentary reality plus something else… the plastic beauty of the images, the social sense, or the poetry, the comedy" (Bazin, 1972: 100 and Bazin, 2005 [1967]: 108). This is the French context of a revaluation of Dziga Vertov’s film Man with A Movie Camera (1929). A 1967 poem by Marker celebrates Vertov for being the first who made us see: "this first draft of what was to be our world." Marker writes:

Not only the faces, the gestures, the segments of life but words also, words suddenly alive by filling the whole screen, heavy words, real words… words coming to a new stage of perception owing to these large, big BLOCK letters, words achieving equality with images/ ideas achieving equality with facts/art achieving equality with life/How d’you say that in Russian?/Dziga Vertov. (Marker in Alter, 2006: 136-137)

In practice, Marker’s enthusiasm splices into two, firstly, as the real mediated by the fiction of his cinema of poetry and secondly, as the real presented, rather than represented, in his other films. It is worth mentioning also that Marker was also a published writer and novelist before his involvement in filmmaking. While Debord pointed polemically to the real of the production of the image and to the real of the estrangement caused by how society represents itself cinematically, Marker points to the real of words, of the faculty and potential of the imagination which they verbalise.

The critical admiration for Neorealism and the emergence in France of realism in the late 1950s was invigorated by a new film documentary approach which drew on sociology and anthropology to revive and refine what Dziga Vertov had done in the 1920s as has already been mentioned earlier. For both Marker and Godard, the attraction of Vertov’s ideas was mediated by a French climate of ideas which harked back to Jean Vigo’s film A propos de Nice (1929) and seems encapsulated in some of Vertov’s statements which, in their afterlife, their Warburgian nachleben, translated into the exciting possibility of developing an alternative to Hollywood mimesis: "As of now, neither psychological nor detective dramas are needed in cinema. As of now, theatrical productions transferred to film are no longer needed" (Vertov in Michelson, 1984: 21). Vertov articulates the possibility of thinking of cinema as a speculative activity, and in alternative ways to Eisenstein’s agit-prop theatrics, in terms of deciphering, of new perception:

I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. […] My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world. I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you. (Vertov in Michelson, 1984: 17-18)

In formulations of this kind Vertov expresses an expanded concept of montage:

Kino-eye as the possibility of making the invisible visible, the unclear clear, the hidden manifest, the disguised overt, the acted nonacted; making falsehood into truth. (Vertov in Michelson, 1984: 41)

Vertov also offers an alternative view of montage to Eisenstein’s which is no less political, but in significantly different ways:

Montage means organizing film fragments (shots) into a film-object. It means writing something cinematic with the recorded shots. It does not mean selecting the fragments for "scenes" (the theatrical bias) or for titles (the literary bias). Every kino-eye production is subject to montage from the moment the theme is chosen until the film’s release in its completed form. In other words, it is edited during the entire process of film production. (Vertov in Michelson, 1984: xxix-xxx)

This is a position which, in many ways, coincides with Cesare Zavattini’s attempts in the early 1950s, for example, in producing a feature film in the form of a documentary of six episodes: Amore in Città (1953), made at the height of Neorealism by six directors, including Zavattini himself, in which some of the characters were the real life protagonists of their own stories, such as the young attempted suicide Caterina. Zavattini’s neorealism expressed a "hunger for reality, for truth [which] distinguishes neorealism from the American cinema"(Zavattini cited in Overbey,1979: 69). Zavattini, as early as November 1944, had been involved in organising Italian filmmakers in a conference expressing self-criticism for their Hollywood-style entertainment films of the Fascist era. However, Zavattini was clear that "it is not a question of rubbishing demagogically twenty years’ work" (Zavattini 2002: 142). For Zavattini, the honesty of self-criticism could pave the way to a new way of making films, a project to which he devoted the rest of his life. Neorealism may be synonymous of Zavattini, however the idea and practice in his own work, his scripts, montage, writing and criticism demonstrates that after the war the foundation was always a fascination with the real. In a diary entry for 1946 he imagines that the revolution would erupt in five years’ time and that between lootings and summary justice you would witness everywhere the theft of movie cameras "intent on fixing on film faces and objects outside the laws of spectacle" (Zavattini, 1979b: 39).

This kind of mid-century critique of cinema is what I associate with contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou’s concept of the "passion for the real": Badiou asks what relationship art (and in particular film) entertains with the real. Ultimately, what is the real of art? For Badiou, in the wake of Jacques Lacan, the real is always a gap (Badiou, 2007: 49-57). Badiou’s question is Rossellini’s question, Zavattini’s question, Pasolini’s question, Vigo’s, Vertov’s and Brecht’s. Such a position is the outcome of a rejection of Aristotelian mimesis which Badiou singles out as a crucial preoccupation for the early avant-garde (Badiou, 2007: 49, 50). Brechtian distanciation in theatre was one of the forms it has taken, but not the only one (and in his plays it was only partly effective, since it fell into didacticism and agit-prop). When you consider these filmmakers from Badiou’s analysis and re-evaluation of the twentieth century, what is striking about the century is the constant tension to work in the gap between the real and its semblance. For Badiou this was central to the art of the century; and it is crucial to this seam of European filmmaking. Such a perspective rescues it from genre sub-classifications.

In particular, the central theme of Histoire(s), cinema’s betrayal of its potential after the silent era, and its counterpart, Godard’s championing of its exception after the Second World War with Rossellini’s neorealism, seem to evidence such passion for the real in film which had re-emerged in the research of ethnologist Jean Rouch’s and sociologist Edgar Morin’s cinéma vérité that translated Kino Pravda or "film truth", coined by Dziga Vertov. In the ground-breaking film Cronique d’un été (1960), Rouch filmed outside the studio, using a less cumbersome cine-camera than the norm (a 16mm Arriflex), theorising and putting into practice a new way of connecting with everyday life, through a more direct kind of filming (Morin, 2003 in McDonough, 2007).[11] What was at stake was the same intention to reject mise en scène and to get closer to the real of everyday life, using the camera to make participation possible, such an extraordinary concept for the time.

The real is also the everyday. That is where to find it, as Zavattini had been advocating since the 1940s. But how to work with it? In France, the framework for connecting film and the unglamorous everyday owes much to the sociologist Henri Lefébvre whose Critique of Everyday Life was first published in 1947. He followed it up with Everyday Life in The Modern World (1958). Lefébvre analyzed the everyday life of society and suggested the ways in which it might be transformed, on the basis of a critique of moral and psychological alienation, fetishism, inequality (Lefébvre, 1991, 148). As a sociologist, he also questions the contradictory nature of leisure, demystifying it as distraction, alienated entertainment, and passive spectating and sees the space of the everyday as the place in which to intervene politically (Lefébvre, 1991: 29-42). His dialectical method produced a critique of the unreality of capitalism in which social organization makes us both human and inhuman (Lefébvre, 1991: 138-175). This line of thought was not alien to Pasolini, most of whose journalism since the 1960s reflected his analysis of what he called homogenization, in other words, an anthropological change in social relations and perceptions, due to the social effects of late capitalism, nor to Marker who also rejected supposedly direct communication as always problematic, and like Pasolini and Godard developed filmmaking as a self-reflective activity, an ongoing critique: at times incorporating a direct criticism of the world or of how the world represents itself; at times to enquire into the problematic of finding or being a voice.

Beyond the level of technical considerations, the passion for the real and the passion for cinema is the context in which Godard incorporates documentary directly into fiction, going as far as co-opting Rouch’s cameraman Raoul Coutard, as well as cinéma vérité techniques. But a direct rebuttal of Cronique d’un été along the lines of Lefébvre’s ideas came in the form of a film, Critique of Separation (1961), by someone who was close to Lefébvre at the time, Guy Debord who had known Lefébvre since 1958 and had even attended his lectures in 1961 at the Centre of Sociological Studies at Strasbourg (Lefébvre, 1991: xxvii). Although their collaboration was short-lived (it ended in 1963), it was mutually beneficial (Lefébvre, 1991: Ibid.).


critique-de-la-separation-guy-debord-2.jpgOpening shots in Guy Debord, Critique de la Séparation (1961). The inter-title is polemical and self-reflexive in drawing attention to its agenda, while also making the association with promotion.

Debord’s Critique of Separation attacks documentary film, and extends his critique to what he calls "the cinematic spectacle". The title echoes Rouch’s title, but with an ironic twist (McDonough, 2007: 7-14). How can the reality which Rouch proposes to film as documentary be filmed, unless we demystify documentary cinema by dissolving its subject matter, emptying it so as to produce an endless string of signifiers devoid of context? Debord’s declared purpose (in the voice-over) was to undermine the conventions of the spectacle’s communication.

Why did Debord feel this was necessary? Because of what he refers to as "the spectacle": the spectacle is alienation and non-communication; it is the gap between the mainstream media image and its consequences or impact; because of mainstream media, the gap gets wider between fulsome participation in private life and, as Debord says in the film commentary, a lack of participation in "the events that really concern us and require our participation", but attract our indifference instead. He accuses cinema, whether dramatic or documentary, of presenting a false and isolated coherence, as a substitute for a level of communication and interaction that are absent. For Debord and the Situationists:

… the fetishism of the commodity – the domination of society by "intangible as well as tangible things" attains its ultimate fulfilment in the spectacle, where the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality. (Debord, 1994: Thesis 36)

Two decades earlier, Frankfurt School thinkers Adorno and Horkheimer had already warned that: "real life is becoming undistinguishable from the movies" and that the culture industry: "cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises" (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2008: 139). In their indictment of cinema as big business, of the promotion of pleasure as leading to acquiescence of the status quo, as flight from the last remaining thought of resistance to commodification, Adorno and Horkheimer provide many good reasons for a filmmaker to wish to interrupt the spectacle (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2008: 120-167).

The two philosophers anticipate the use of the Situationist term ‘spectacle’: "the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory" (Adorno and Horkheimer, Ibid.). However, for the Frankfurt School, there was no way out of alienation except through artistic autonomy, that is, cultural resistance by means of non-involvement, keeping art separate and autonomous from societal concerns and resisting the clichés of mass culture, by excluding them from art.

By 1967, the phenomenon Debord calls "the Spectacle" had, in his view, already reached the stage at which: "the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life. Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity" (Debord, 1994: Thesis, 42).

7. Resnais and Marker

All this complicates matters. However, to consider Godard’s films and ideas in relation to Marker and other contemporaries at least rescues us from the pitfalls of auteurism, from the finality of biography and from the limitations inherent in the traditional art historical paradigm of man and his works. There is a sense in which Bazin can be compared to Leon Battista Alberti in the history of painting (Alberti, De pictura, 1435). For, like Alberti, he was pivotal in advocating a change in status of the filmmaker into an equal of a writer, enjoying, in his eyes, an even higher social position than an artist: "no longer the competitor of the painter and the playwright, he is, at last, the equal of the novelist" (Bazin, 2005: 40; Bazin, 1990: 80). Unlike Godard, Marker has not engaged with many interviews for the media or embarked on promotional tours. Early on in his career, Marker had been primarily an editor who had also published articles and a prize-winning novel.

night-and-fog-alain-resnais-4.jpgNight and Fog
1955. The opening shots. Montage achieved by vertical panning. 

Marker was involved with filmmaking as co-director and script editor in Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), containing black and white Nazi footage of the camps, Allied images of the war and film clips, montaged with Resnais’s post-war filming of Auschwitz in colour which might explain why there are some analogies between La Jetée and Night and Fog, which latter had rejected the declamatory approach of British pre-war documentaries, addressed to the masses rather than to actual people. Rather than point to the ineffability of absolute Evil (that was to be a later idea, developed by Lyotard’s forced reading of Kant’s sublime, and deeply influenced by Adorno), Resnais documents the efficient manufacturing plant that applied industrial methods to slaughter (in this respect the film offers a Marxist reading of the Shoah, through an analysis which is not limited to ethical aspects). The voice-over commentary for Night and Fog was written by a camp survivor and edited by Chris Marker, but what is surprising is that words are also inscribed in many of the scenes: in turn, Nazi simulacral text in the form of ironic mottos, such as: "to each his due"; "in cleanliness lies health"; writing as an administrative tool, as train convoy numbers, in lists, and signs, painted on the backs of deportees explaining the Night and Fog title (itself a Nazi quote), as resistance in the form of clandestine diaries and notes by the internees, documenting precisely in words what was happening.[12]

The opening shots compare innocent landscape to land marked by history. The first image on the screen frames the blue sky before panning vertically to what lies below; the barbed wire, the concrete fence posts of a concentration camp.

Strictly speaking, this is hardly montage, it is montage, however, in an expanded sense of the word, generating a cut, a juxtaposition between the timelessness of the sky and the landscape marked by history. Rather than describe, it documents, re-inscribing into that landscape its near-contemporary history, confronting our ineffability with the responsibility of the facts and the recurring frames of letters, numbers, written text, seem to serve this specific purpose of providing an indelible record of what happened.

la-jetee-chris-marker.jpgLa Jetée1962. The powerful sequence produced by a dynamic montage of photographs.

1962, the year after Critique of Separation was released, was a crucial year for Marker. He made the ciné vérité film, Joli mai, featuring street interviews with Parisians and La Jetée, exceptional for being a film made from montaged photographs (with the notable exception of a few seconds of a woman’s gaze into a borrowed cine-camera). But more importantly, while its material facture is a lesson in minimalism, it is the cinema of poetry aspect that is captivating. Its combination of sequences form tableaux vivants, featuring friends as the characters in the plot, accompanied by the sound of a mesmerizing story about an imagined post-apocalyptic Europe uttered by a single voice, the all-knowing author figure. La Jetée shows glimpses of the real through the combination of crisp poetic prose narrative (sounding like a personal reflection) and dramatic compositional solutions, using high contrast photography and setting up stills as if they were mise en scène. Marker authored the writing which forms an impossible circular commentary forever locked into its impossibility. Like Pasolini’s Accattone of the previous year, the film opens with lines from a poem, T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday: "Because I know that time is always time/ And place is always only place"and a voice-over.

At the very beginning, text fills the screen; an immediate presence in the film, first as intertitle, then as quotes, then as narrative voice-over, central to the whole work. We learn that Paris has been destroyed in the Third World War, that its survivors are reduced to living underground, under the control of German scientists, who carry out painful time-travel experiments on their guinea pigs, to find an escape into a better future. We know of course that this is untrue, that we are expected to suspend our disbelief. But there is something tragic about the dispassionate voice-over and the images which accompany the sound of the candid, expressionless voice, real documentary photographs of war-torn Europe, their proximity a sobering memory of the recent war, and the neorealist element: amateur actors, Marker’s friends, playing the roles of the characters, and the neorealist locations: street scenes, a dark museum basement, the airport terminal. 

La Jetée is today a cult-film in Anglo-American art circles. It breaks with the conventional filmmaking of spoken dialogue and moving image, compressing the potential of the moving image into spoken writing and photographic sequence. Movement relies on cinematic techniques, pacing, montage, dissolves. Its form is also a statement of content, an alternative version to mainstream cinema, a good example of Rancière’s redistribution of the sensible. Just as Godard’s Alphaville (1965) conveys the anxiety of the Cold War, the era of manufactured consent by creating atmosphere, the subtext of La Jetée with its German whispers, its bomb sites, its torture, its underground concentration camp, projects the long shadow of the Shoah, evoking the Adornian question in Minima Moralia of art after Auschwitz. If Paul Celan’s post-war verse is one form of engagement with the real (through poetic imagery and stunning metaphor) making the German love lyric speak the horror beautifully, Marker’s and Godard’s is another. In film history, as Marker and Godard acknowledge, it was Neorealism that brought ethics and politics into film, through an engagement of cinema with the everyday, resisting the logic of instrumental reason of the culture industry, which Adorno and Horkheimer had explained in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. In this connection, Godard has spoken of "the obligation to resist" something that only one film, he tells his interviewer, "did knowingly", Rossellini’s Neorealist film Rome Open City (Godard and Ishagpour, 2005: 94). This could not be explained in Lopate’s terms or Rohdie’s, because they are reductive. However, Adorno’s The Culture Industry mentioned earlier provides the broader perspective of cinema rising to the challenge of mimesis or representation as spectacle to be consumed, Adorno says (contra Kracauer) that: "there can be no aesthetics of the cinema, not even a purely technological one, which would not include the sociology of the cinema"(Adorno, 2007: 182). In this perspective, Godard’s lasting appreciation of Open City makes perfect sense, because Rossellini’s film intervened through its art form in the social sphere, enacting, in Godard’s eyes, an alternative genealogy in the history of cinema, but also because of what he perceived in an interview of 1988 as the freedom and simplicity of the medium in Rossellini (Godard, 2007: 201).

8. Godard’s montage in the early films

breathless-jean-luc-godard.jpgA Bout de Souffle, 
1959. Jean Seberg is framed in juxtaposition to a female portrait seen from the back by Renoir

The logic that governs Marker’s and Godard’s thinking is always montage. As Serge Daney recognised: "Cinema was looking for one thing, montage, and this was the thing twentieth-century man so terribly needed" (Daney, 2004: 315). But Daney’s montage meant Eisenstein’s film theory which had little time for the script: "The presence or absence of a written script is by no means that important" (Eisenstein, 1998: 44). What Bazin openly rejected was Eisenstein’s combinations of montage, parallel montage, accelerated montage, and montage by attraction, or the "juxtaposition of facts", the idea that any demonstrable fact combined with others can heighten the audience’s emotions through manipulation and selection (Eisenstein, 1998: 35-36). And even in splicing documentary film with fiction, as Marker does in Sans Soleil, it doesn’t so much spark off strong emotion, as enrich the film with scattered, additional, layers of experience, conveyed through spoken memory or montaged images of his past militancy, generating a kind of Wordsworthian emotion recollected in tranquillity.

From the beginning, Godard montages the text that exists outside the text into the film; in À Bout de Souffle (1959) Renoir’s painting is made to engage with late twentieth century film when the protagonist Jean Seberg is framed in juxtaposition to a female portrait seen from the back by Renoir. Seberg looks at the woman looking out from the painting and the crossing of their gaze and ours intersects with their profiles which form a series of arabesques. This composition of the shot allows two eras to enter into silent dialogue, however briefly, appealing to our powers of abstracting from the image into the realm of mental associations. It is more than citation, because it brings together the now of filming and the then of painting, in gazes spanning the gap in time.

Indeed, Godard uses many kinds of textual and visual citation, or iconographic citation, as when he directly references Bob Fosse’s Hollywood choreography in Bande à Part (1964). In Petit Soldat (1960) image and text are combined, by filming a poster of Hitler in a car window exactly parallel to the screen, and an automatic pistol point at the screen and the viewer. But since the film is neither about the Shoah nor the Second World War, this external element brought into the frame amplifies the theme of torture in the Algerian war of liberation. The shot is made for the camera, defying our suspension of disbelief.

At the same time, Godard’s complex practice of montage matches what Bazin had to say about Eisenstein’s montage, defined as "literary and anticinematic" (Bazin, 1972: 25, 47).[13] For Eisenstein, the individual shot produces collision, "conflict between two neighbouring fragments" (Eisenstein, 1998: 87). Eisenstein’s ambition was to create an experience, condensing the whole of cinema into (visual) conflict, making conflict spark off strong emotions, rather than a sequence of shots representing an idea (Eisenstein, 1998: 88). Eisenstein in the 1920s explains how montage is the idea itself, and so not to be equated with editing, but the outcome of editing:

In my view montage is not an idea composed of successive shots stuck together but an idea that DERIVES from the collision between two shots that are independent of one another (the ‘dramatic’ principle). (Eisenstein, 1998: 95)

Judging by his films, this lesson of montage as idea translates into montage as a relationship between images, once again, not the cutting, but the outcome of the cutting, the juxtaposition; as Godard puts it: "we are not showing images, but relationships between images" (Bergala, 1985: 341).[14] There is one significant difference, however, in Godard and Marker; the clash of image provokes thought rather than raw emotion.

petit-soldat-jean-luc-godard.jpgLe Petit Soldat1963. Moving mise en scène or montage?

Godard presents the paradox of a filmmaker who also began as a writer, but who claims we should "see and not read", someone for whom writing has always been central to his enterprise, and for whom the citation of modern and classic texts is a recurring aspect of all his films, always combining the visible and the sayable in myriad ways (Dubois, 2004: 232).[15] But the association goes further than a propensity to quote literary texts in a visual medium.

In La Chinoise (1967), the walls of a shared apartment become tazebao posters for the revolution. The characters are French Maoists who hold meetings there to read and discuss Marxist political theory. Posters, slogans, printed texts and materials crowd this film. Most of these are found objects from the real world, documentation of what was going on (and included genuine Radio Peking broadcasts). La Chinoise was made the same year Marker formed Groupe Medvedkine, a Marxist collective and at the time when Godard was meeting École Normale Sup students of Althusser’s, the author of Reading Capital and only months before Godard himself formed the collective Dziga Vertov, after May 1968.

In the press release, Godard vindicates the independence of cinema from Hollywood, but, more importantly, strives to create free cinema and by doing so: "provoke two or three Vietnams" in Western culture. After all, that same year Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967) and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) were published; works that concentrate on ‘everyday life’ as the site for political involvement. This is the Godard of 1967, advocating cinema as a disruption of clichés, through the choice of content and the use of montage:

Fifty years after the October Revolution, the American industry rules cinema the world over. There is nothing much to add to this statement of fact. Except that on our own modest level we too should provoke two or three Vietnams in the bosom of the vast Hollywood-Cinecittà-Mosfilm-Pinewood-etc. empire, and, economically and aesthetically, struggling on two fronts as it were, create cinemas which are national, free, brotherly, comradely and bonded in friendship. (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967: 243)

La Chinoise is a striking example of Godard’s increasing and intensive practice of montage, even within the frame itself, of images, colours, texts, sounds, ideas that serve to bring to visibility the French Maoists’ miniature world of dissent. The characters represent a cross-section of political positions: an alienated artist; someone who argues for co-existence with the French Communist Party; Maoist students plotting to assassinate a Soviet ambassador; a Maoist who turns to socialist theatre and a former revolutionary who had taken part in the Algerian resistance against French colonialism, who acts himself, in a dramatic exchange with a young actress who was also one of his philosophy students at Nanterre. La Chinoise cannot be reduced to formal aesthetics or rejected as failed propaganda. The dénouement happens in a train scene: a philosopher challenges the political cell’s politics. He is the real Professor Francis Jeanson, a witness therefore, carrying the authority of a text, of a real document. Here was the real former ringleader of Algerian resistance fighters who had been put on trial in 1960 telling the fictional would-be terrorist (Anne Wiazemsky) that political actions need to come from within the mass movement, not be separate gestures of defiance against the system.

9. Brecht, anti-mimesis and the resistance to American cinema

two-or-three-things-i-know-about-her.jpgTwo or Three Thing I Know About Her, 1967

Back in the spring of 1960, Jean Paul Sartre gave a lecture at the Sorbonne on Brecht, "Beyond Bourgeois Theatre", itself symptomatic of a renewed interest in Brechtian theory in France. This is confirmed by a special issue of Cahièrs du cinéma on Brecht, published in December of that year (Brody, 2008: 132), under the editorship of Eric Rohmer, about Brecht’s ideas on the theatre, which were topical once again in the 1960s because they could also be applied to film. But certainly from then on Brecht’s theatre seems to form a part of Godard’s general outlook. It shows in the many ways he works with Brecht’s theories and, moreover, it parallels the shift from Godard’s assimilation and appreciation of cinema in the 1950s, during the period he was writing film criticism for Cahièrs, to a self-reflexive form of critique that was aimed at his own film practice and was matched by a constant anxiety of experimentation. Godard’s cameraman of the time, Raoul Coutard in a 1963 interview, explains how he and Godard distanced themselves from convention to break the rules of the grammar of cinema (Coutard in Collet, 1963 in Turigliatto 2009a: 44).

Godard had seen Threepenny Opera, and had even decided to base a scene of Vivre sa vie (1962) from it, but then changed his mind (Brody, 2008: 132-133). In Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), which revolves around a day in the life of the female protagonist, Godard disrupts the delivery of the lines of the lead actress Marina Vlady, by interrupting with distracting questions fed to her through a hidden earpiece and, in the opening commentary in his own voice, by introducing her as named actress in a role as well as character. The commentary itself, in this and later films, adds a frame-within-the-frame layer of reflection on the action of the film also which serves to create distance, to prevent emotional identification or empathy and to interrupt the suspension of disbelief – the norm in theatre and classic cinema which Brecht had set out to challenge.

Challenging it also became an integral part of Godard’s filmmaking. From Brecht he inherited the deliberate interruption of Stanislavski-style method acting, by not giving actors lines to recite, or feeding them only suggestions for lines (as in the case of Anne Wiazemsky in the train scene with Professor Francis Jeanneret in La Chinoise), and, in the same film, making scenes in which a character is interviewed by an off-screen voice, at which point it becomes clear to the viewer that the interview is interrupting the movie, because it is evidently not written into the plot, thus drawing attention to the artificiality of the mise en scène; and, by swinging round the movie camera by 180° to face the film crew on set. Godard has also intervened in the film crew’s established patterns of working, by not permitting the construction of a set which facilitates filming closed spaces, thus forcing the crew to adapt to the real spaces of the built environment, or by rejecting artificial lighting, or, in a later film, by not lighting a subject whom convention would dictate be well lit, by rejecting Aristotelian unity of time and place, by distinguishing between the time of the film and the time of the shoot (the clapper board at the beginning of one scene of La Chinoise and framing the filming as part of another scene; and, in the same film, by introducing a character from a different era (the French Revolution) who appears in a field declaiming a text within a film set in the 1960s, and doing the same in Weekend (1967) and Notre Musique (2004), with American Indians in full tribal dress appearing as characters in bombed out Sarajevo library.


la-chinoise-jean-luc-godard-1.jpgTwo scenes from La Chinoise1967. One begins with the clapper board at the centre of the screen forcibly breaking the theatrical suspension of disbelief of Hollywood and traditional theatre, the other deliberately interrupts the story with a second camera pivoting round to frame cinematographer Raoul Coutard and his camera, thus drawing attention to the process of meaning making.

So, what is at stake? It seems useful to consider what it was that Godard found in Brecht. In his notes to the Mahogonny Opera (1930) Brecht had rejected Aristotele’s theory of theatre expounded in his Poetics (an approach which has dominated Western theatre and film), in favour of a model of participation. Brecht’s viewer is encouraged to become an observer who is credited with the potential for action and making decisions, instead of being worn down by sensations and identification (catharsis through empathy), in the plot of dramatic theatre, The "spectator", Brecht says, "stands outside, studies" (Brecht, 1978: 37).

This idea of creating a separation is completely at odds with Eisenstein’s efforts to heighten emotional response in the audience (by means of his montage by attraction). Distanciation, Brecht’s V-effect, Verfremdungseffekt (normally translated as ‘alienation effect’) is instead an anti-narrative, and therefore an anti-mimetic approach altogether. It serves to produce a critical distancing, an estrangement, or even defamiliarization from any tendency towards identification with characters and narrative (Jameson, 1998: 85). There is a sense in which distancing is more than a technique, since the resulting break in narrative flow can lead to looking at something afresh; Fredric Jameson calls it "this instant of intrusion into the everyday, what constantly demands to be explained and re-explained" (Jameson, 1998: 84). Brecht also rejected the catharsis of entertainment, the living by proxy produced by Aristotelian theory, opting instead for radically separating these elements of music, words, and production; rejecting the Gesamtkunstwerk, the bourgeois integrated work of art, because it determines a particular relation between spectator and theatre, producing passivity. Brecht thought that:

Whatever is intended to produce hypnosis, is likely to induce sordid intoxication, or creates fog, has got to be given up. Words, music and setting must become more independent of one another. (Brecht, 1978: 38)

Just as Godard’s practice soon reformulated cinema and its possibilities into a highly speculative and critical art form that cannot be reduced to a film-essay genre, Brecht’s intervention in the theatre had built on a redefinition of opera and its constituent elements. For these reasons, it is understandable why Cahièrs in 1960 and Godard soon after would build it into a constituent condition of his filmmaking.

10. Histoire(s) du cinéma and montage

histoires-du-cinema-jean-luc-godard-6.jpgHistoire(s) du Cinéma, 1988-99

In Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard’s montage of film clips are combined and transformed, shot by shot, and in so many ways that, to some extent, the fragments cease to be such, bound together by colour, assonance, echoes, implicit and explicit reference. His montage also brings together moments in time in a non-sequential order. As he says: "at the montage stage, you finally feel secure. In montage, you physically hold a moment, like an object, like this ashtray. You have the present, the past and the future" (Godard cited in Morrey, 2005: 203). This is particularly true of the Histoire(s). Several hours of hundreds of film clips, sequences, and sounds from a century of cinema, combined or juxtaposed with texts, paintings and photographs, merge words and image with dissolves, jump cuts, superimpositions, inter-titles, voice-overs – almost impossible to convey only in the medium of words. Philippe Dubois has listed the types of writing on Godard’s screen: the representation of the act of reading, of writing, film letters, displayed book covers, newspapers, posters, neon signs, graffiti, titles, inter-titles, superimposed titles, letter games, puns, as well as handwritten diagrams (Dubois, 2004: 233).

The result is a Babel of overlapping sound, text, image, constantly breaking expectations of sense in the viewer’s perception and challenging received ways of organising verbal and visual elements. Yet, Dubois’s list and stills do not do justice to the multiplicity of recitations, citations and textual references, something in common with Ezra Pound’s interminable Cantos, T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland or James Joyce’s unwieldy Finnegans Wake in which the sense almost breaks down into non-sense through excess, but one would be justified in citing again Dante’s encyclopaedic Divine Comedy which also combines (and indeed is built on) multiple sources, and also uses, as did his twentieth-century admirers Pound, Eliot and Joyce, a polyphony of linguistic registers and poetic imagery. In Dante scholarship, Dante’s drawing together of high and low register language is referred to as "plurilinguism"; but, in addition to the linguistic form, there is also in Dante an interlocking or overlapping of verbal images and conceptual bodies of knowledge: classical mythology, theology, medieval science, philosophy and history. What all such writers have in common is a dialogical approach, such that any useful scrap of citation is thrown into a huge collection of texts, a macrocosm of microcosms that refuse to be called to order, which, in their new quality of fragments, portions of content extracted from an original context, begin to relate to the new neighbours as a polyphony of voices, forming a new whole made of extraneous multiplicities.

Godard’s voice-over co-exists as one layer of sound interlaced with other sound, just as clips from his films do with clips from his own archive of cinema, so you hear the real voice of poets as documentary sound-texts: Pound’s, Celan’s, of filmmakers, Hitchcock’s and Renoir’s, of politicians, De Gaulle’s, Hitler’s, and of the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. For example, in Section 4A of Histoire(s), you hear Hitchcock’s monotone voice explaining ‘editing’ overlapping with Godard’s commentary in French. The effect is to disturb one soundtrack with another, so that neither can be heard clearly. The two overlap and co-exist in deliberate disharmony. In this respect, Rancière’s concept of the distribution of the sensible as: "a recomposition of the landscape of the visible, a recomposition of the relationship between doing, making, being, seeing, and saying" (Rancière, 2008: 45) tallies with Godard’s practice of film as a privileged form of multimedia criticality.

The viewer’s perception of the Histoire(s) – its recurring and declared theme being the betrayal of cinema’s ethical and political potential and its ability to witness, lost to entertainment industry – is immediately confronted with the familiar Godardian loss of linear narrative, compensated for in many ways, one being the voice-over citations, some in whispers, some spoken out, of texts by poets, philosophers, critics, including Baudelaire, Benjamin, Blanchot, Borges, Foucault, Malraux, Pound. Godard’s sound montage includes the use of his own voice – a practice he began in his early 1960s films, mostly in the form of a monologue. Very striking in the Histoire(s), as a detailed study by Roland-François Lack has shown, is the contrast between the muteness of the image and the sound of the spoken text, the multiple instances of mechanical printed text on screen lacking the intonation and expression conveyed by the human voice (Lack, 2004: 312-329). He puts it well. The: "text on screen is the degree zero of disembodied voice" (Ibid.: 314). So Godard’s cinema includes this polyphonic voice montage of spoken texts which have often been edited or even re-written by Godard himself who told us earlier not to read, but said nothing about listening (Lack, 2004: 312). His own director’s voice cuts through the mimesis of narrative with his ‘personal’ reflections outside film time, as it were. 

In Histoire(s), Godard almost entirely rejects fiction and mise en scène for documentary-based videographic work, overlapping video images, which serve as cyphers of multiple histories and the cultural politics of the image, with his voice-over and the many voices of his memory and of cultural history. Godard’s recurring theme is cinema’s great failure in the century’s tragic moments: that it did not apply its technical potential to engage with the real. Only Neorealism proved an exception. In the mapping perspective that this essay pursues, cultural events occurring around the same time are taken as significant. Histoire(s) was begun before (but completed long after) the publication of Fukuyama’s triumphalist The End of History, (Fukuyama, 1992), after Lyotard’s rejection of master narratives (Lyotard, 1984), and after Derrida’s Specters of Marx (Derrida, 1993), in which only justice is exempted from deconstruction and after Slavoj Žižek published Mapping Ideology which features Louis Althusser’s late 1960s reworking of Gramsci, accompanied by new commentaries (Žižek, 1994). From this broader perspective, what might sound like an idiosyncratic, auterist voice in the wilderness which can be considered an expression of die-hard anti-Americanism, begins to sound more in touch with French thought after its postmodern adventure. The scope and ambition of his undertaking, is clearly announced in the interviews given at the outset, for example, the well-known one at the Femis on 26 April 1989 (Godard, 2007: 231-240), in which montage emerges clearly as the ordering principle for a new history of cinema which is also intended as a critique of cinema made by one of its practitioners.

Godard’s De L’Origine du XXIe Siècle (2000) is an uncompromising retrospective of the 20th century, sharing the same structure of video montage, text and voice-over with Histoire(s); for example, one finds inserted into the soundscape, words that sound like medieval French, as well as remarks about body, soul, state and love. The images fade in and superimpose war, displaced people, atrocities, humiliation, suffering, marching armies, gunfire, prisoners, goods trains carrying innocent victims, mountains of corpses, humiliation, frozen bodies, torture. At one point the De L’Origine du XXIe Siècle voice-over condones the Shoah with a Fascist logic (not to be confused with Godard’s own views), at another, it celebrates the Garden of Eden as garden of earthly delights. There are analogies with the thesis of Alain Badiou’s recently translated The Century (2007), a philosophical overview of art against the backdrop of tragedy, in which Badiou juxtaposes the intellectual triumphs of Brecht, Celan, Mandelstam, Malevic and Beckett (among others), to the suffering that characterized the century. In Badiou’s book and Godard’s film, a political subject, an organic intellectual, speaks out, for whom the role of the intellectual is to "disturb people’s habits" and raise "embarrassing questions and confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than produce them)" as Edward Said put it in his 1993 BBC Reith Lectures (Said, 1994: 11).[16]

11. Benjamin’s constellation in Godard’s and Anne-Marie Miéville’s The Old Place

In addition to practices of interruption that disrupt the possibility of constructing narrative, in Histoire(s) Godard steps up his anti-mimetic form of montage by dividing the film into much smaller fragments. Godard relies on the commentary as the common thread to connect what might seem a haphazard selection of moving images and stills. 



de-lorigine-du-xxe-siecle-3.jpgThe anti-montage of fades and super-impositions in Godard and Miéville, De L’Origine du XXIe Siècle2000.

What is also at stake is the notion of time and the relation between the past and the present. The unifying principle is Walter Benjamin’s text, The Theses of History. In particular, Benjamin’s mental conception of the "constellation", as Godard and his collaborator Anne-Marie Miéville readily acknowledge in the voice-over of The Old Place:

This image that you are, that I am, which Walter Benjamin speaks of, of that point where the past resonates with the present for a split second to form a constellation. (Godard and Miéville, 2006: 54)

Godard and Miéville illustrate the idea both by explaining it in their scripted dialogue and through pictorial illustration:

JLG: The concept is that of approach… Just as stars simultaneously approach and move away from each other, driven by the laws of physics as they form a constellation, so too do certain things and thoughts approach each other to form one or two images. 

AAM: So to understand what goes on between stars and between images, you must start by looking at the simple links. (Godard and Miéville, 2006: 54.).[17]

Benjamin’s ‘constellation’ is explained filmically in The Old Place where the shots of paintings and photographs are transformed into artworks by retouching; these images form a composite image, integral to that part of the film and its voice-over, and feature two ancient mask-like sculptures which flash on the screen, then one is superimposed on the other, before dissolving and juxtaposed with a montaged starburst, producing startling and unexpected visual comparisons. The ‘piece’ does not consist in the images taken separately, nor in the commentary, but in their combination and complementarity.

Benjamin’s idea that the past can be reclaimed by the present, indeed, relive, transformed (Benjamin, 1992, Thesis III: 246) is a far cry from hackneyed ideas about appropriation. He condenses it into what he names now-time, that is to say, "the present, which comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment" (Benjamin, 1992, Thesis XVIII: 245-255, 255). Benjamin insists on thinking of the present in terms of its emancipatory potential, as opposed to a view of the everyday as the site of a serialized, unchanging present, opposing such a standpoint with the possibility of identifying a constellation governed by a logic in common (Benjamin, 1992, Thesis XVIII: 255). It is this concept of now-time which Godard’s montage can enact when text and images of past and present are joined together or when he engineers a verbal montage of people and presence, a meeting of real witness and fictitious character, as when Fritz Lang confronts the fictitious producer in Le Mépris or the poet Goyitsolo interacts with the fictitious journalist in Notre Musique. The interplay of documentary and fiction thus also serves to defy Aristotle’s Poetics, and namely his call for a unity of time and space, which is what makes classic cinema truly classical in its obedience, because the time of documentary and witnessing is opposed to the time of the fictional story.

The sound track of The Old Place, a film commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, consists in a scripted dialogue between Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville who co-directed it (they started their collaboration in the 1970s). Their words combine with quotes by poets, philosophers and novelists; among others, Ricoeur, Valéry, Bergson, Blanchot, Simone De Beauvoir, Pushkin and Benjamin. Divided into 14 parts (Godard and Miéville call the MoMA project "exercises in artistic thinking"), it is a meditation on art and how it can relate to the real of suffering. It is entirely built on commentary, opening with a critique of Christian Boltanski’s use of the Holocaust that raises immediately the question of art that commodifies suffering, a theme explored recently by Susan Sontag in Regarding The Pain of Others (2003) and by David Levi Strauss in Between The Eyes (2003) who recalls the origin of this debate in Walter Benjamin’s essay "The Author as Producer" (Levi Strauss, 2003: 7). On that point, further on, Godard speaks of "rejecting readymade views" (Godard, 1999: 52).

But The Old Place also takes a different line, exploring the possibility of artistic agency in the social sphere. Godard and Miéville choose a symbolic image of poppies in Monet’s painting, montaged with their footage of poppies on the edges of a motorway. In section 5, Images of Utopia. Godard comments that:

They are more alone than ever. In fact, they’ve disappeared. They’ve left the landscape, or at least our idea of a familiar landscape. In some places, they still organize a small demonstration, but only for love. And the next year, they fall into a ditch, or cling to an embankment on the edge of the road, the highway or the freeway. Always on the fringes. As if they were refugees. (Godard, 1999: 49)

The colour red is symbolic of emancipation, de-alienation, and returns later on in the dialogue when Godard exclaims that, "with the red hair of a little street girl I’d touch all of modern civilization" (Godard and Miéville, 1999: 50). These exercises consist in finding the patterns, identifying the genealogies in what might seem a haphazard selection of moving images and stills. But there is more to The Old Place than a reflection by Godard and Miéville about aesthetics: it is a modern Benjaminian reflection on history, a feature it shares with Les Histoire(s). In a reference to Debord’s view of modern society, the certainty of instrumental reason and its pseudo-scientific statistics are mimicked: "19 people attended the Crucifixion, 1,400 the first performance of Hamlet and two and a half billion attended the World Cup final" (Godard and Miéville, 1999: 54). The film contains reflections on the role of the artist from both directors:

JLG: An image isn’t only an atom. It is, has been, will be its own image, the image of the image, the image of all these possibilities.

AAM: Artistic thinking begins with the invention of a possible world, or a fragment of a possible world, then using experience and work, painting, writing, filming, to confront it with the outside world. (Godard and Miéville, 1999: 54).[18]

12. Godard’s expanded montage in Notre Musique

Godard’s Notre Musique (2004) juxtaposes clashing montages of newsreels with mise en scène, and is built on a tripartite structure that is Dantesque which also cites Dante’s Divine Comedy directly, like Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) and Godard’s Mépris (1963). In the first part of Notre Musique, intertitled "Hell", Godard’s documentary film clips condense the horrors of the twentieth century into just ten minutes, using some of the same footage from his collection which appears in Histoire(s). The second takes place in the Purgatory of postwar Sarajevo, where Godard restages The European Literary Encounters, an event he attended in 2002. History speaks its dramatic dialogue here also through individual witnesses (in interviews, conversations, and a lecture, with the sharpness of anecdote and just the kind of invective that one might find in Dante’s Comedy (for example, in Paradise XXVII, when St. Peter, red with rage, screams at Dante that the papacy is not fit for purpose).

notre-musique-jean-luc-godard-1.jpgNotre Musique
2004. The mimesis of shot reverse/shot is replaced by the dialectics of montage which implies in this case the dialectics of politics. 

Likewise, (and bear in mind that it is Godard who attracts such intertextual analogies by dividing the film into Dantesque kingdoms) the poets and architects who appear as themselves in Notre Musique were chosen for their stand in the public sphere, because they had spoken out against EU indifference to the war and genocide in the Balkans and in Palestine (Witt, 2005).

In one scene, Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, stands in the ruins of Sarajevo public library. He is an example of organic intellectual: here is someone who witnessed in person what was going on in 1993 in Bosnia-Herzogovina and took a public (and therefore also political) stand directed against the European Union’s failure to intervene to stop the war, with his eye-witness account of the siege of Sarajevo, Cahier de Sarajevo (1993). In an interview with Godard, Goytisolo is reported as calling for "a wave of creativity", not revenge (Witt, ibidem). What Goytisolo actually says in the film, quoted verbatim in the interview, is: "Just as our age has endless destructive force, so it now needs a revolution of a comparable creative force to reinforce memory, clarify dreams and give substance to images." To call it "a wave of creativity", diminishes the force of the statement. In the film, when the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich is interviewed by the fictional character Judith Lerner in the role of an Israeli journalist, he repeats what he really said to the Israeli press: "Do you know why we Palestinians are famous? Because you are our enemy. The interest is in you, not in me... You’ve brought us both defeat and renown." This is a very political statement; hardly a cipher of lightness.

There is another sequence in Notre Musique in which Godard teaches the principle of montage in a master class. In the film, Godard himself appears in the scene, re-enacting a lecture given in the same place before the film was made. He argues and offers a visual demonstration of how montage can produce poetry, once it has been dislodged from classic American cinema’s use of the shot/reverse shot.

The reverse becomes the unexpected. The shot can be the filmic shot, the reverse shot a text. In the same interview, Godard explains just how text and image can be combined in montage:

A good example of a real shot/reverse-shot is one I took from a book by German physicist Werner Heisenberg who, on visiting his friend Niels Bohr before the war, arrived at Elsinore Castle. Here the shot is the castle, the reverse-shot the description ‘Hamlet’s castle’. In this case the image is created by the text. It’s what poetry does – like two stars whose rapprochement produces a constellation. (Witt, Ibid.)

Another example in Notre Musique of expanded or cognitive montage concerns two female characters, Judith and Olga, who are doubles. In response to a question about this, Godard replies that:

Here there’s perhaps an idea of reverse-shot – not so much in relation to character, but as if the second girl were a reverse-shot of the first. I didn’t think of it like that, but I’m pleased when someone points it out. It’s part of the creative unconscious. (Witt, Ibid.)

To put it differently, Godard himself is explicitly extending the short/reverse shot dispositif from its strict technical meaning to an expanded poetic metaphor for juxtaposition and analogical thinking, demonstrating in a performative way how the gap created by the suspension of meaning can occur when we are faced with contradictory signs.

In another sequence, the relation between sayable and visible plays out in the gutted shell of the bombed interior that was once the ancient library of Sarajevo, where the viewer is presented with readers doggedly choosing their books from a heap on the ground, and taking them to the librarian who copies out the titles in long hand at his small desk. In this scene, expanded montage serves to stage an everyday situation in exceptional and contradictory circumstances. The scene acts out the dissonance, the dialectic opposition between ruins and learning, art resisting war, everyday life resisting subjugation.

13. Re-mapping the boundaries of the political in Godard

je-vous-salue-sarajevo-jean-luc-godard.jpgJe Vous Salue, Sarajevo
1993. The title shot is a detail of the photograph. The blotchy quality reflects newsprint from mainstream media.

It seems right to reject the division of Godard’s works into periods advocated by Colin McCabe in his biography of Godard, Nouvelle Vague, political work, video, and so on, as Michael Witt has done; but there is good reason to take this line further and wonder about the divide which would segregate Godard’s political work within the late 1960s and early 1970s (Witt, 2004, 73-89, McCabe, 2003, 280). Apart from my own arguments which are put forward in what follows, several others, in the very recent Udine Conference on Godard (5-6 February 2010) expressed dissatisfaction with the received interpretation handed down by film history, criticism and Godard himself. For example, Federico Rossin, reassessing the Dziga Vertov Group, speaks of a repressed history, and even a damnatio memoriae (a deliberate suppression of the past), pointing out how such negative accounts miss the continuity in Godard’s work of experimentation and result in the loss of the sustained critique of the image these films had already carried out (Rossin in Turigliatto, 2009b: 81-91). And Ariel Schweitzer, writing in Cahièrs du Cinéma in 2006 observes that in Prière pour refuzniks (2004) Godard equates political resistance with poetic praxis (Schweitzer in Turigliatto, 2009a: 289). Furthermore, Stefan Griessman, in the catalogue for the Viennale exhibition of 2008, notes that in Godard art and politics simply cannot be separated (he is referring specifically to Godard’s film Une Catastrophe (2008), a one-minute trailer made for the Viennale (Griessman in Turigliatto, 2009a: 293).

The continuity can be seen in Godard’s minimalist Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo (1993), a two-minute film featuring a documentary photograph by Ron Haviv and Luc Delahaye of soldiers kicking Bosnian civilians on a kerb during the war in Yugoslavia. The close-up panning explores, lingers through movement, thus reversing the page-flicking viewing patterns of images. All the while a voice analyses the image. It is Godard’s voice. He explains how he sees the combination of expressive forms in an Adornian distinction between the culture industry and art:

There’s a rule and an exception. Culture is the rule, and art is the exception. Everybody speaks the rule: cigarette, computer, T-shirt, TV, tourism, war. Nobody speaks the exception. It isn’t spoken, it’s written; composed; painted; filmed; lived. (Voice-over, Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo)

Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo follows the template of the earlier Dziga Vertov 52-minute Letter to Jane. An Investigation About a Still (1972) by Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin which is accompanied by a much longer commentary on a photo of Jane Fonda in North Vietnam pictured in the foreground as she listens to the people of Hanoi telling her about the effects of US bomb raids. In an interview made on a promotional tour in 1972, Godard observed that:

…people today have completely lost the power of seeing. We only read, we don’t see the image any more. It was Dziga Vertov who said we have to see the world again, to learn and to teach people how to see the world. (Godard in Sterritt, 1998: 63)

Long before Notre Musique, with its political themes (the Palestinian conflict, Israel, the aftermath of the war in Bosnia), and the closely related Prière pour refuzniks (2004), two video shorts conveying letters addressed to two young Israelis imprisoned for refusing being drafted into the Israeli occupying army, Godard made Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo (1993), consisting only in a press photograph accompanied by voice-over commentary in which he puts across the concept that art creates autonomy from the consumer society’s mass culture; that art is an exception to mass culture which belongs to the unfolding capitalist Spectacle. And he places art (which belongs to the sphere of independence from the Spectacle) in dialectical opposition to capitalist Spectacle. For "culture" in this sense read also how violence of the war in Bosnia-Herzogovina had been documented. Godard’s is not a moralist stance in singling out a single act of violence. It is, rather, selected as symptomatic of the Century’s culture or civilization. The victim is anonymous, so could be any one of us. Art interrupts the status quo of cliché, of repetition. In so far as it is the exception, the film takes exception to the spectacle of visual culture, but this is not done by direct address, in 1970s agit-prop style, in the medium one would characterize as political art.

je-vous-salue-sarajevo-jean-luc-godard-5.jpgJe Vous Salue, Sarajevo1993. The shots crop into the photograph, emulating what happens in photo-journalism. The result is a slowing down of viewing and fragmentation into separate frames linked by montage. The dénouement is the last shot, finally allowing the viewer to see the whole image, so far denied.

The Sarajevo photograph is a document that fixes the moment in time of the violence. What is striking about this two-minute still into film is how the movie camera has the effect of deliberately slowing down our viewing (or re-viewing) of the photograph. Initially we’re only given fragments. The violence is kept from us or delayed in its entirety, foiling the customary speed of deciphering and recognition that typify viewing. The delay de-alienates, breaking the estrangement of everyday life, by forcing the eye to wait, to see and the mind to engage in thought, under pressure of the image arrangement of the music of Arvo Pärt and verbal commentary. The voice-over observes: "there is fear and there is transcendence, deliverance." Such statements require reflection; the press photograph, rescued from a cursive glance, is elevated to image, requiring our active engagement. The Sarajevo photograph becomes an unusual filmic shot, in the sense that expanded montage consists in a cut from the media flows of information. The photograph is the raw image; only when it is montaged with the audio commentary does it turn into something more, a historic document of the Balkans, subtracted from the media flow whence it came.

Je Vous Salue Sarajevo is just one of many examples of deconstructive or, to put it explicitly in Marxist terms, ‘demystifying’ montage in Godard during and after the Dziga Vertov years. In a 1972 interview, Godard credits Gorin’s contribution to the Dziga Vertov Vent d’Est, for having subverted montage from being no more than a collage of frames to being instead an organisation of frames. Godard goes on to say that such work consists in a political enquiry on sounds and images and their relationships (Godard in Turigliatto, 2009a: 119).

Moving on from Je Vous Salue Sarajevo, in the above cited interview with Godard in Sight and Sound, Witt describes Notre Musique in terms of an "upbeat mood" and "luminous" (Witt, 2005). He opens the interview with the assertion that "one of the most striking aspects of the film is its exploration of the streets of Sarajevo, which recalls the documentary curiosity of the New Wave in Paris" (Witt, 2005). They seem to be talking at crossed purposes, for when Godard states clearly the problematic of starting again in cinema "since we don’t appear to be capable of speaking or filming differently. It’s more like an end for the moment", Witt responds with: "I’m surprised that you say that. For me the film is remarkably light in tone and forward-looking" (Witt, 2005). And when Witt concedes that Sarajevo has constantly appeared in Godard’s work since the war began, Godard replies ironically: "It’s a little like with Vietnam before 1968, when making regular allusions was my way of protesting" (Witt, 2005). Finally, when Godard explains the roundabout way one of the characters commits suicide, he is drawing Witt’s attention to the not-so-light reality of the film and of how he, Godard, has chosen to filter it using irony, Godard is making a political point about the Israeli occupation, not about personal suicidal tendencies. This is met with silence by Witt who changes the subject. Godard exposes the paradoxes and duplicity of the occupation:

I’d do it like Olga. I would achieve my suicide because I’d know the soldiers would shoot me three minutes later – despite Sarah Adler’s argument that Israeli soldiers would never do that. And it would be done in the name of peace, with my friends the books. I am an image who has his friends, the books, in his pocket. And I said to myself, that I can do. I expected this to be criticised, but nobody has mentioned it. It’s unchallengeable. (Witt, 2005)

This verbal exchange suggests that Godard has never abandoned politics in favour of the grand themes of love, death and the Western tradition of art and religion, as has been maintained authoritatively (McCabe, 2003: 280). McCabe’s account of The Old Place reduces it to a critique of the commercialization of art, thus ignoring its main political thrust (McCabe, 2003: 312-315). This is done by rescinding the interconnectedness in the century between historic events and the century’s aesthetic. Here one finds in film criticism a similar strain of aestheticising proper to nineteenth-century art history which Warburg tried to overcome through iconology. Richard Brody notices, instead, how Miéville and Godard see aesthetic beauty and human suffering as the effects of politics, in one and the same gaze; adding that politics also coexist with cinema in De L’Origine du XXIe Siècle, where the relation is made clear. Cinema exists to document the real, including politics (Brody, 2008: 613).

Rancière also depoliticises Godard by postmodernising him. In Aesthetics and Its Discontents, Rancière ring fences into the 1960s Godard’s use of montage as a weapon of resistance against commodification (following Lukács’s analysis of reification in capitalist society); into the 1980s its use as a formal device to link "heterogeneous elements" and, finally, in Histoire(s), Rancière claims it serves to produce a sense of shared community (Rancière, 2009, 122). The very fact that Histoire(s) and its later 80-minute version, Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinéma (2004), do not falter when it comes to showing photographic documentation, belies this. In The Old Place Godard and Miéville reject outright Boltanski’s church installation of children’s clothes alluding to the Holocaust and the photography of William Haglund of exhumed bodies from the war in Yugoslavia which Haglund later exhibited as art in a gallery space. For Godard and Miéville, these are forms of pornography, commodifying the human body and instrumentalising suffering. This is something Susan Sontag had discussed not so long ago in Regarding The Pain of Others (2003).

However indirectly, the political Godard survives 1968 in the films made after the Maoist phase with Gorin. The marked difference is that after the 1970s it becomes ingrained in the texture of the filmmaking, rather than outwardly proclaimed like a manifesto. Consequently, unless we restrict the term political to its strict sense of ‘party-political’, the films since the 1990s are both political and subjective, and even political because subjective, in Adorno’s sense of not commodified (Adorno 2007: 183), also, perhaps, in the ways the women’s movement had advocated. It can be extended to an organic intellectual’s lifelong commitment (in Edward Said’s modern sense) to the social dimension, but intertwined more and more with the personal dimension to the point where the two can hardly be told apart.

Roy Bhaskar’s theory of social being and human nature as being "four-planar" overcomes such polarisations. According to his model, we engage in four levels of relations with the world around us: in terms of material transactions with nature; of inter-subjective or personal relations; of social relations and of the subjectivity of the agent. Social life consists in these four planes of interaction which are dialectically interdependent. Each person engages in material transactions with nature, but, as individuals, we also carry out interpersonal actions; furthermore, there is a level of social relations and a level of agency, against a backdrop of external constraints that limit our ability for transformative social agency, such as the co-existence of the spectacle (Bhaskar refers to "Disneyfication" and "McDonaldisation") and poverty and exploitation in the post-1989 Berlin Wall world, dubbed by President Bush senior, "the New World Order" (Bhaskar and Norrie, 1998: 561-574).

Bhaskar’s model of a dialectically interdependent way of being in the world seems to cope better in conceptualising the work of Godard and Marker as both political and aesthetic, over and above traditional schemata. Carol Mavor’s recent study of Marker’s Sans Soleil at least tries to make sense of the overlap in a film made after the years of his Medevekine political collective; in Sans Soleil the beautiful and the political co-exist, as a matter of fact, if uneasily in the film and the real; incidentally, the black in the title, she informs her reader, refers directly to politics: "Happiness with a Long Piece of Black Leader" (Mavor, 2007: 738-756).

14. The persistence of Debordian political themes in Godard

Godard’s more directly political films, such as La Chinoise, a study of militancy based on the new ferment leading up to 1968, and Weekend (1967), which symbolises the decrepitude of the middle class, and the sketch in La Contestation (1967), were all made the same year as the publication of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life. Especially in light of Histoire(s) du cinema, Debord, the Derridean spectral absence-presence, in terms of his filmmaking as well as what informs it: his 1967 analysis of late capitalism, The Society of The Spectacle, emerges as a figure who is waiting to be brought into intertextual or dialogic relation to Godard. Then, in Godard’s Notre Musique, made several years after the completion of Histoire(s), the initial ten-minute sequence entitled Hell, composed of montaged film clips, documentary footage from the awful past, is also intertexually related to Debord’s film Society of the Spectacle (1973) and, as such, Godard dialogues with Debord, whether he openly acknowledges it or not. Tellingly, in Un film commes les autres (1968) which belongs to the Dziga Vertov period, the Situationists Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, the latter author of The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), are quoted again and again (Rossin in Turigliatto, 2009b, 88). Both Vaneigem and Debord were indebted to the author of Critique of Everyday Life, (1947), the French sociologist Henri Lefébvre.


de-lorigine-du-xxe-siecle-5.jpgThe political critique of the Debordian spectacle survives the 1970s in Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie MiévilleDe L’Origine du XXIe Siècle2000. 

Drawing on the analysis of everyday life in the work of Lefébvre (his Critique of Everyday Life, 1947) and on Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (1923), Debord had theorised the shift in capitalist society of the 1960s from production to consumption and from individuals to consumers, as he puts it "a degradation of being into having and having into appearing" (Debord, 1994: Thesis 17). It is a cogent critique of the capitalist image, in classic cinema, television and advertising, developed together with the other members of the Situationist Internationale, including Raoul Vaneigem

Debord defines the spectacle as a huge accumulation of images in which what used to be lived directly is now only a commercial representation of images. Spectacle is what the mass media produce, but also a social relation between people, mediated by images. The spectacle is capital at such a level of profit accumulation that it becomes images, separation or alienation; the world makes image and images become reality.[19]

Poor Debord. 1990s postmodern criticism de-politicised his work and the art world misunderstood him altogether, as T. J. Clarke and Donald Nicholson Smith cogently argue in Why Art Can’t Kill The Situationist International (Clarke and Nicholson Smith, 2004: 315). Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes, a book about vision in French philosophy, perceived Debord’s analysis apolitically, as "a denigration of the gaze" (Jay, 1994: 434), rather than what it is, a critique of the gaze – of capitalism. Like most in that era, Jay chose to ignore the substantial section of the book that deals with political mobilization (Jay, 1994: 431: 432). More recently, Jacques Rancière dismisses Debord’s analysis of capitalist spectacle, because he thinks it assumes passivity and thus denies people’s autonomy (Rancière, 2009: 15).

A lone voice is Thomas Levin’s who notes that film history has ignored Debord’s contribution to post-war European film (Levin, in Mc Donough, 2004: 315). Recent studies seem to be part of this big black hole of silence; take the book of interviews: Cinema. The Archaeology of Film and The Memory of A Century (2005): nothing about Debord; The Cinema Alone or Forever Godard (2004), both truly seminal texts, have only passing references, one lamely suggesting that it is at least plausible that Godard was familiar with the theories of the Situationists (Martin, in Temple, Williams and Witt, 2004: 258; Dall’Asta, in Temple, Williams and Witt, 2004: 358; Reader, in Temple, Williams and Witt, 2004: 79; Temple and Williams, 2000: 126). The same is true for how Marker is passed over silence in relation to Godard. In Marker’s case, though, at least someone is willing to admit that a comparison between Godard’s Histoire(s) and Marker’s Immemory would be "very rich" (Temple and Williams, 2000: 224). Is this not problematic, in any reappraisal of these works? Does it not serve to replicate a Cahièrs-style auteurism which ultimately prolongs traditional art historical patterns, as established long ago by Vasari’s Lives of the Artists?

Guy Debord thought that: "cinema could have been historical examination, theory, essay, memories," adding: "that is what my cinema is trying to do" (Debord, cited in Levin, 2004: 404). What sets Debord apart is his consistent corpus of theory with a parallel existence to the films or anti-films, in which, ever since the early 1950s and his Lettrist beginnings, he also proves capable of taking montage to the extremes of the black or white screen, to the extremes of utter silence, by splitting apart signifier and signified, and shattering the connection between procession of images and text which produces the spectacle of representation in the first place. The reified sequences of images run into each other’s spectacle into which any differentiation of objects disappears entirely.

One prominent philosopher who has given Debord’s work serious thought is Giorgio Agamben, at least since 1990 and throughout the years of the postmodern belittlement of Debord’s ideas. Agamben was probably the first to associate Debord to Godard, but not in Harold Bloom’s terms, of an anxiety of influence. Agamben’s Community to Come (La comunità che viene, 1990) contains a chapter on the commodification of the human body which does not reference Debord directly, but refers to Marx, reification and consumerism and the spectacle, adopting Debord’s stance in Society of the Spectacle: "the incommunicable foreignness of the singular physis has been abolished by its mediatisation as spectacle" (Agamben, 2009: 50). In other words, the human body is perceived and reproduced (represented) through the lens of the media spectacle in such a way that it is stripped of its inherent foreignness. Another chapter in the book originally prefaced the Italian translation of Debord’s Commentaries on the Society of The Spectacle (1988). In Commentaries Debord looked back on his theory twenty years later, and, having compared the society of the late 1960s with that of the late 1980s, came to the conclusion that the problems he had written about were much greater than before: the spectacularisation of politics, of parliamentary democracy, the control of information by corporate media and the resultant control of public opinion.

In particular, Agamben rescues Debord from narrow perspectives that corral him into the confines of 1980s appropriation art and practices of détournement, that is to say, the subversion of capitalist signs and culture, but divorced from their context and ossified in postmodern visual art into a formalised ‘best practice’ of the era. Instead, Agamben asks himself how contemporary philosophy might make use of Debord’s legacy, given that, in his view, Debord’s analysis was correct, since capitalist alienation now extends to language and the very possibility of ‘the common’, of logos; and that, in the politics of global capitalism, language is disembodied, language is spectacle (Agamben, 1996; Agamben, 2005: 64, 68). The spectacle of today, Agamben claims, includes the expropriation of the common through a stripping down or numbing of the power of critique in the regime of spectacular democracy (Agamben, 2001: 66). Thus, instead of placing Debord in a category such as the film-essay cliché, or historicizing him (predictably his fate in academia), Agamben sees the contemporary significance of Debord’s intervention as "a manual for exodus" or a "weapon for resistance" (Agamben, in Mc Donough, 2004: 313-319).

Agamben identifies in Debord’s work and Godard’s Histoire(s) the same two (Brechtian) principles at work: stoppage and repetition. However, these techniques (of resistance) are not mistaken for resistance in itself, which is, rather, a struggle against a society in which language is separated from the real, and relegated to an autonomous sphere by journalists and mainstream media, so that the very capability of communication is affected and alienation takes this new form, as a kind of exile or dispossession from society of its own language. His name for such a process is experimentum linguae (the experiment of language), equated with contemporary politics that empties the world of its traditions, mental conceptions, identities and communities. (Agamben, 2005: 69-70).

Finally, what is not represented by politics, the unrepresentable, as Agamben calls it, exists nonetheless. One could go so far as to say that it escapes it even, like an inconsistent multiplicity of set theory which cannot be entirely circumscribed. Agamben’s unrepresentable is not to be confused with postmodern notions of ineffability; rather it is closer to Alain Badiou’s "zero level of appearance" in Logics of Worlds (2009). The phrase indicates that there may something situated in a world, an entity the appearance of which (its visibility or coming into existence) may not be apparent yet (Badiou, 2009: 126). In Badiou’s philosophy of the event, the distinction is made between a situation and the state of the situation. Only the first holds promise, potential, because it might lead to a change for the better, whereas the state of the situation refers to a static state of affairs, kept in place, replicated purposefully or by inertia. In Logics of Worlds, Badiou replaces the word situation with world, thus casting off the duality of Being and Event and enabling contemporary thought to consider a concept of a world in which new realities might be emerging or existing at some level or other, in a situation which we may not yet understand or even know how to interpret, realities which do not appear outwardly and which are not yet visible. This kind of world can ultimately be understood as a realm of possibility and change in which a new singularity (a new idea or work of art, for example), a new entity, one that does not belong to what we already know, and for which we have no category, exists nonetheless in fieri, in a logic of change.

15. Godard’s montage as open-ended metaphor

histoires-du-cinema-jean-luc-godard-8.jpgHistoire(s) du Cinéma, 1988-99

The organising principle for this extended essay is mapping and within that context, the concept of montage as expanded montage, following Godard’s own declarations at the FEMIS in 1989 at the very outset of his Histoire(s) ten-year project that montage is cinema’s modus operandi, resurrection of life, affording the ability to see life for what it is (Godard, 2007: 231-240). An essay by Michael Witt drew critical attention away from technical aspects of the videographic editing of Histoire(s) du Cinéma to consider instead the central importance of montage in Godard’s later work, especially in Histoire(s), mirroring Godard’s own dismay at the time due to a lack of debate about it, given the fact that for decades, ever since the 1950s in fact, he had been remarking in many interviews on the importance of montage in his work.

Although Godard believes that cinema is "the final chapter in western art", the wealth of his insights on cinema compensate for the contradictions in his theorising (Witt, Ibid.). Ultimately, Godard charts a poetic of the image in which montage is a metaphor for cinema, equated with art (Witt, 2000: 49). What distinguishes cinema from other cultural forms, its essential difference is "reduced" to montage, into bringing ideas and histories into relation and tension (Witt, Ibid.). In the filmmaker’s own words: "there’s the montage, there’s a moment of history, there’s a moment of cinema" (Godard, cited in Witt, 2000: 230, n. 64). Finally, worlds, ideas and realities are combined in Histoire(s); cinema is equated with image, with montage, with metaphor and art (Witt, 2000: 50).

Godard himself has always placed montage at the centre of his work over the many decades of his film practice, an overriding concept which subsumes into itself several aspects of his work, such as the recurring combination of text and image, the important role of poetry, indeed of literature, the tension between fiction and documentary, and between prose and poetry. In considering Godard’s recent films, including Histoire(s) du cinéma, Notre Musique, Histoire du XXIeme siècle, The Old Place, as well as the overlaps between Godard, Marker, and Debord, the problem is that montage, as organising principle needs to be applied or explained further. In this sense, I think Witt is right in his conclusion that montage is a poetic metaphor for a variety of practices in Godard’s evolving ideas of cinema (Witt, 2000: 48).

What is at stake in the shift from cinema to art gallery is that the films of Godard and Marker and the questions they raise do not belong to the past, but raise questions for us now; the realist aesthetic, has been, if anything, revived and indeed critically and pragmatically re-invented by them; a Badiouian "passion for the real" can be found in both Godard and Marker. Their work seeks realism beyond social realism or Neorealism; Debord’s lesson becomes less spectral through Agamben’s transmission of it to contemporary thought: that theory of film cannot ignore the sociology of mass entertainment and pleasure in which cinema has played and still plays such a central role. Furthermore, narrative expectations of linear storytelling are inevitably confronted by Godard’s multiple strategies of meaning-making through a combined use of text and image and a ceaseless dialogue with the past of cinema, a dialectical dialogue which argues for a continuity of practice. Agreed: montage in Godard is metaphor. But ultimately this is an invitation to reconsider Pasolini’s cinema of poetry, beyond hard categories. Such accounts tend to explain things in terms of assumed polarities, such as commitment or politics and their opposites, film-essay versus fiction, and so on.

What is also at stake is a model for how you deal with the past in relation to the present, especially as to how tradition might be relevant to the present. Perhaps this might explain Godard’s recourse to Benjamin who sets out the task of historical materialism as: "brushing history against the grain" (Benjamin, 1992: VII, 248). Benjamin writes that: "in every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it" (Benjamin, 1992: VI, 247). He rejects historicism for contenting itself with "establishing a causal connection between various moments in history" (Benjamin, 1992: XVIII, 255). Instead, once you relinquish the comforting rhetoric of teleological time – as Godard and Marker have done – the past turns into separate isolated events, and is thus salvaged from the continuum of history through "a tiger’s leap" from present to past, making the continuum of time explode, blasting it open (Benjamin, 1992: XIV, 253, 254).

Benjamin sees the present as the time of writing history, an action which interrupts its flow (Benjamin, Ibid.). The continuum could be compared to the moment-to-moment sequencing of the long shot, and montage to the cut of its interruption and the disruption of linear time. The link between the present event and a previous one, however remote, once recognised, forms the constellation, the conception of the present as the time of now" or Jetztzeist (Benjamin, 1992: XVIII, 255). To continue the analogy, the purpose of montage, then, in this context, is to interrupt and bring together a non-linear configuration, "when thinking suddenly stops" (Benjamin, Ibid.), forming a monad, a constellation, formed by the overlap between a now and a then. So works like Marker’s Immemory and Sans Soleil and Godard’s Histoire(s) fit into the present, not as continuum, logical sequence, but "as model of Messianic time, […] the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment" (Benjamin, Ibid.).[20] Benjamin’s spatial concept of the constellation, his conceptual, non-linear configuration of ideas, offers an analogy of Godard’s montage. This is Pasolini’s cinema of poetry the dialectical interplay between linear and poetic logic, not just in Godard, but in Marker, Antonioni, Fellini and others.

At the end of his life, Adorno wrote a short text about film in which he references Benjamin, in response to Siegfried Kracauer’s formalist Theory of Film (1960). Adorno claims that La Notte (1961) is "uncinematic". In particular, that film gives a "static" depiction of time which, of course, contravened Hollywood. Further on, Adorno opposes realism to cinematic montage, since realism tends to reinforce the phenomenal surface of society, while montage "does not interfere with things but rather arranges them in a constellation akin to that of writing" (Adorno 2007: 182). Adorno is referring to Benjamin’s Theses of History, cited elsewhere in his text, making a similar association between non-linear time, the time out of sequence of the event, and applying the spatial concept of constellation (therefore a relational network of sorts) to film and specifically to montage.

16. Montage and Badiou’s concept of subtraction or cut

histoires-du-cinema-jean-luc-godard9.jpgHistoire(s) du Cinéma, 1988-99

Alain Badiou’s idea of thinking as an operation of subtraction is applicable to film and to expanded montage. Indeed, Badiou himself has discussed the activity of filmmaking in terms of "what a film withdraws from the visible" (just as every poem is an interruption of language) (Badiou, 2005: 78, 80). In particular, the art of film as subtraction is discussed in relation to art and film in his Handbook of Inaesthetics (2005) and in The Century (2007) and in both Godard is specifically acknowledged. But the concept, as Badiou employs it, is to be found in his more directly philosophical works, where one finds that it is a procedure of thought that subtracts from what he calls "the encyclopedia", or that which is already known, in other words, what he considers the existing archive of knowledge which belongs to the state of the situation. In films, the encyclopedia might include how we (still) think in terms of the categorising of genre, for example, or the principle of re-presentation of what is known (as opposed to a novel presentation – of a truth), or the divisions and periodisation mentioned above.

In particular, this theoretical model (of the situation, based on the mathematical set) is developed in Badiou’s major work, which concentrates on the philosophy of the event, founded on ZF axiomatic set theory. In Being and Event (2006), Badiou produces a philosophy to account for radical change, seeking a way out from the fixity of what is known, to posit the new as a value, the philosophical, as opposed to empirical, event. His system, so foreign to poststructuralism and postmodernism, so openly antithetical to them, opposes the encyclopedia to the event, the utterly new, and so new that until it has occurred and its fragility has been shored up through the fidelity of those who can recognise it for what it is, is undecidable, not visible, even unthinkable.

This is why paradoxically, Badiou can state that "cinema is the least mimetic of the arts" (Badiou, 2005: 82) when, on the contrary, it might seem the most representational. What he terms subtraction is understood as a subtraction from the norm – that is, the encyclopedia – subtraction singles out something new which, precisely because it is unspoken, unheard of, cannot be fitted in to any existing classification; hence Badiou defines it both undecidable and indiscernible. For it does not have a name (or else it would find a place in one of the pre-existing categories); there is just no formula for it. It helps to think that subtraction is equated with abstraction, in the sense of a formal abstracting from particularity; and to think that it abstracts from imitation (as in ‘mimesis’) and resemblance (Badiou, 2008: 114-128). Subtraction consists in extracting the subject of truth from the sensible, that is, from empirical perception. So, on the one hand, in the cinema of the culture industry, the state of the situation is dominant mimesis and representation, that is to say, re-presentation or replication of the status quo. On the other hand – one could even say, at the other extreme – art is the process of truth which consists in "the transformation of the sensible into the event of the idea" (Badiou, 2006: 144). For Badiou, subtraction is achieved through what the film:

…withdraws from the visible. The image is first cut from the visible. Movement is held up, suspended, inverted, arrested. Cutting is more essential than presence – not only through the effect of editing, but already, from the start, both by framing and by the controlled purge of the visible. (Badiou, 2005: 78)

Montage involves a cut, but the cut extends from the tangible 35 mm sensitive film stock to "a cut from the visible". Movement (an essential aspect of the moving image), is arrested. In other words, the ongoing flow of life is brought to a halt by the artist/filmmaker. It is not a matter of Heideggerian "presence" (the ontology of presence and its opposite, the ontic; that is to say, some kind of pre-Socratic semi-religious idea of being), because being is pure multiple for Badiou and so what he is referring to is a process of sifting out from the visible (in the simple sense of empirical perception), deducting, subtracting from the multiplicity of reality that which matters to the filmmaker. This entails both framing in the sense of editing out and framing in the sense of focussing attention on something. Another way of putting this would be to point to the difference between multiplicity and singularity. The work of art is a singularity subtracted from the multiplicity or at least belongs to an artistic sequence of singularity (Brancaleone, 2009: 84-91).

Badiou distinguishes between film and cinema. Perhaps this distinction makes more sense when you consider film not in terms of the function of film criticism, but of the philosophy of film or film aesthetics. Badiou distinguishes precisely in this respect between an "axiomatic judgement" and "diacritical judgement", which latter "argues for the consideration of film as style", as part of auteur theory, and connotes quality cinema, but fails to address film as art form and, on the other hand, "an axiomatic attitude that asks what are the effects for thought of such and such a film" (Badiou, 2005: 84, 85). This is cinema. It is Badiou who thinks of film as a realm of possibility (Badiou, 2005: 78, 84).

This explains why he asks what the consequences are for thought of such and such a film, bearing in mind that this question only applies to a film which exposes "the passage of an idea" effected through takes and editing; for only that kind of work is of interest to philosophy, as far as he is concerned (Badiou, 2007: 84). The film does so within what he sees as a context of prevailing neoclassicism in cinema (by this he means the cinema of Hollywood and its genres, mimesis as a replication of the status quo in terms of perception). So the distinction Badiou makes is between re-presentation of the status quo, an endless repetition of the encyclopedia, of the state of the situation, and a non-mimetic approach which constructs film as thought, as something entirely antithetical to entertainment which results in such a passage of an idea. This is only possible through subtraction, by filtering, displacement, all distancing operations which, in his writing, subtract it from the domination of representation (Badiou, 2007: 84-89).

In "Third Sketch for a Manifesto of Affirmationist Art" the context for making art is one in which: "a single power dictates its law to the circulation of capital and images" (Badiou, 2006: 133-148, 137). He goes on to say in that text that only through subtractive operations can art remain close to the imageless real (Badiou, 2006: 142). And finally, works of art do not share in the culture industry’s communication which is re-presentation anyway; indeed they interrupt it (Badiou, Ibid.: 146). If we manage to move away from the known, in terms of thought or image concepts, we no longer have a yardstick of what is given. That is why subtraction produces the undecidable; undecidable because it does not belong to the existing artistic or philosophical encyclopedia. This is how Badiou puts it: "any statement that subtracts itself from the norm we can call the undecidable" (Badiou, 2008: 114). It does not fit in to the existing economy of ideas, and is therefore devoid of value. What escapes my attention and which I am unable to perceive, because it has been subtracted, is indiscernible. Therefore, I cannot assign it a name, it is unnameable: "the unnameable is that which is subtracted from the proper name, and which is alone subtracted from it" (Badiou, 2008: 119). And lastly, what has been subtracted is the generic, because it subtracts from the One, the totality of the known: "the generic subset is evasive and indefinable by any linguistic construction at all" (Badiou, 2008: 117). In other words, I cannot pin it down, it eludes classification, since classification occurs within a totalising system or what Badiou often refers to as the One as opposed to the Multiple.[21]

Art is defined by Badiou as: "the capacity to render visible for all that which, for media and commerce, and so also for everyone, but from another viewpoint, does not exist." (Badiou, 2007: 146). The way to approach such a perspective is to begin with the idea that art renders visible the idea, even though in most filmmaking no such thing occurs. Rancière has attacked Badiou for his concept of purification in relation to art (the word is charged with negative connotations gleefully exploited by Rancière) (Rancière, 2007: 218-231), but suffice it to say here that what Badiou means is made clear when he writes: "all art comes from impure forms, and the purification of such impurity makes up the history of artistic truths and of their exhaustion" (Badiou, 2006: 145). This is a kind of materialist idealism, such that the passage of the idea can only emerge from matter, the empirical, that which is given at the outset. In the rest of the paragraph Badiou goes on to explain that "art persists in purifying the impure, in dedicating itself ever further to its duty of visibility as against the mere evidence of the visible". So the distinction is made between what is already given, the empirical phenomenon that is, and a process of making visible. "It is far better to do nothing than to work formally toward making visible what the West declares to exist" (Badiou, 2007: 148).

Finally, this seems the appropriate context for thinking of montage as expanded montage: on the one hand as a rejection of the spectacle (in the sense of ultimate mimetic strategies which replicate the culture industry), on the other as cinema of poetry, an artistic practice which serves to abstract and "subtract" film as now-time, the blasting of Jetztzeist from the continuum of time and from "the encyclopedia" of spectacular mimesis. As such, subtraction as passage of the idea or film-idea, defies the polarity of shot and long shot. It extends beyond any definition of it as mere technical dispositif. Subtraction can be the acceptance of noise as a creative component of the soundscape for a film (in the wake of John Cage’s 4’ 33” or of some of Godard’s recent experiments), instead of a distracting interference or it can work through framing or composition (as in Antonioni’s Trilogy, for example or the compression of scenes and characters and registers of real and fiction suggested by Fellini’s 8 ½ or the narrative strategies of Sans Soleil). As expanded montage, subtraction subtracts the real from cinema’s encyclopedia, beyond the narrow distinctions of art historical categories of abstract or non-figurative and representational art.

From this angle, perhaps Godard’s critique of the history of film in Histoire(s) begins to look less idiosyncratic and more reasonable a critique of the role and track record of mainstream cinema. It is a critique of film itself (even working towards an aesthetic) but from inside the practice of filmmaking, for its connivance with the culture industry and a powerful indictment which utterly resists the quarantine effect of the film-essay genre. Even Godard’s dramatic films (such as the recent Notre Musique) are poised between fiction and documentary, unstable on the edge of facile classifications. Badiou’s terms are absolute: cinema, a very rare occurrence, is art as philosophical event, a passage of thought.

17. Postscript: cognitive mapping

old-place-jean-luc-godard-anne-marie-mieville.jpgThe Old Place, 1998

Much of this extended essay has explored the practice of montage, conceptualised as an organising principle in a cognitive mapping or spatial organisation of ideas, be they visual or textual, taking the cue from Warburg’s art historical model (iconology), including the later development of Mnemosyne, to inter-relate certain recurring aspects of the filmmaking of Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker. To go beyond the generalisation of montage as purely metaphorical, this essay has attempted to identify different levels of practice, applying Warburg’s iconological method of matching ideas and images and teasing out the ideas of images by situating them in broader contexts, artistic, cultural and socio-political.

The wager is to consider film in this broader, multi-disciplinary Warburgian sense, adopting Michaud’s insights about Mnemosyne, in terms of mapping image, but departing from Michaud by taking into consideration also the other dimensions of film, in the ways explored by Godard, Marker and Debord, and also, from the view afforded by Agamben, that is, in ways that problematise writing as ancillary to film (through treatment, script, voice-over, inter-titles, and dialogue). Moreover, writing in this broader sense extends dialogically into collective writing, in the wake of Mikhail Bakhtin, and intertextually, in line with Julia Kristeva’s later elaboration and Tel Quel mediation for the West – beyond, that is, the confines of the problematic of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence (Bloom, 1973). This then makes it possible to view montage spatially and relationally, as more than a film technique and yet more tangible than a poetic metaphor. In this respect, in The Old Place, Godard and his collaborator filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville speak of thought understood as artistic thought, bringing together of thoughts to form one or more images; they speak of the image of an image, and "the image of all these possibilities". They go on to speak of images in the terms of mapping discussed here: "Artistic thought begins with the invention of a possible world, or a fragment of a possible world." The artistic or possible world is relational, it is made of connections, it is more than "an accumulation of experimental data" (The Old Place); it is not the individual work. All this is said in a film which relies on the same principles of intensive montage that typifies Histoire(s)

In respect of mapping montage, as Michaud’s book invites us to do, the other question which is not addressed by Michaud is how the tensions and juxtapositions play out in Histoire(s) and Mnemosyne. Specifically, what Michaud’s comparison lacks is an analysis of the underlying organising principle of Mnemosyne as mapping, an overriding logic which dictates the choices made in montage and which Edgar Wind, Warburg’s first librarian, touches upon when he explains how Warburg’s art historical method was to show how "a whole complex of ideas has contributed to the formation of the image" (Wind in Preziosi, 1998: 211). This is so both for the individual image of Warburg’s earlier research and for his later pictorial project. Just as "the mind spontaneously synthesizes images", through recollection of pre-existing forms, in the function of pictorial memory, the art historian cannot interpret a single image in isolation, but must consider that it belongs to social memory (Wind in Preziosi: 1998, Ibid.). In this respect, Godard’s Histoire(s) reveals the work of social memory as much as (and not in opposition to) individual memory and it does so spatially, in such a way that blurs "border police" distinctions between roles of auteur, filmmaker, artist, historian, art historian.

Kevin Lynch’s cognitive mapping methodology serves to cluster ideas and situations, in order to construct a map of the dynamics and exchange between different positions, and relies on memory and the way we visualise and map space and our activities within it (Lynch, 1960). Cognitive mapping offers a way to work out a map of the different aspects of a topic; in this case, to chart the dialectic and dynamics of Godard’s contribution to art. Mnemosyne functions as a compound, cognitive map, producing a visual logic, organising spatially and relationally disparate concepts, in the shape of conceptual images. What Marker and Godard have shown in their work is that it is possible to extend the cognitive mapping from visuals as mental images to words on the screen or a layered cognitive map in the form of a textual soundscape of citation, reflection, commentary and so on.

This enables one to reconstruct an invisible chart of alternative trajectories, seeking, contra auteur theory, social space as the space of intervention and situating the work of Godard in the context of other filmmakers who are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same breadth, and namely, Chris Marker and Guy Debord or Agnès Varda. What is the validation for applying cognitive mapping, originally used by Lynch to create mental maps of the built environment, to a filmmaker? It has already been done. Or at least, cognitive mapping has already been applied by a cultural historian (Jameson) to art and societal concerns. When Fredric Jameson applied Lynch’s cognitive mapping to art and society, it enabled him to make the connection between society’s systems of organisation and a personal involvement in society, relating something incredibly abstract to lived experience and one’s everyday life (Jameson, 1991). One important consequence of cognitive mapping is that the attention shifts to the ideas and away from the person, so that the reification of the subject that auteur theory produces is minimised, allowing us to notice context and single out elements that belong to the foreground rather than to the background.

Another shape of re-mapping juxtapositions and tensions is afforded by David Harvey’s concept of "scalar space" which, transposed to film, invites one to think beyond the limits of the frame or the screen or to expand the mental image of the screen outwards into three dimensions: scalar space names something which is hard to see empirically, although it does exist. In this respect, to interpret Godard (or Marker or even Debord or Pasolini or Antonioni) from the perspective of the geography of space, would mean rejecting sharp distinctions between public/private/personal levels as separate, because our activities and understanding of the world, on Harvey’s account, actually fit into a hierarchy of importance or "scales" (Harvey, 2000: 75). These are the spaces of household, neighbourhood, institution, city space, regional space, national space, EU space, global space. The point is that we do not exist in a vacuum. We live in space. Actually, we live in spaces. And what is more, we inhabit all these spaces simultaneously. These organisational scales of space are scales of you and me, as social beings. The consequence of this is that if I consider myself in terms of one scale, I get one picture, but if I then shift my perception up or down the scales, I shall get a different picture. What makes sense at one scale does not make sense at another. But the point is that the scales are interconnected. Because of this, I know that what I do in one scale has an impact on another. The scales are not fixed; their position may change, depending on the context. Bearing all this in mind, expanded montage, as practiced by Marker and Godard and Debord, breaks the barriers of absolute, Euclidean space of 2-D, making it possible to present the scalar space of multiple being. Montage then sparks thought, but also bridges ideas, and can form a Benjaminian constellation. Histoire(s) does so as does Marker’s Immemory, using hypertext to find a way of breaking the fixity of frame or shot, creating a montage of sequences instead of shots. Sans Soleil does so too, but in another way: through the sheer density of shots and of sub-texts within a narrative epistolary commentary which keeps subverting its narrative structure.

Godard and Marker have both challenged the spaces and limits of mimesis. In fact, the concept of scalar space resists the concept of linearity applied in art to narratives, precisely for its multidimensionality. Manovich provides an apt example of scalar space in Marker’s Immemory (Manovich, 2001: Ibid.). Manovich’s explanation of database logic fits both Godard and Marker, though multimedia interactivity is not relevant to Godard. But such an analysis also distinguishes between two different responses to the world: one encapsulated in the encyclopedia, its opposite in narrative, and both with roots in antiquity (Manovich, 2001: Ibid.). But it is Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929) which attracts Manovich’s attention as an example to explain that that film shares with new media a multiple layer structure or hierarchy, the story of the filmmaking, the shots of the viewers, the shots of the editor in the cutting room, the day-in-the-life shots of Russian cities. But what gives Vertov the upper hand over video and new media artists, is that: "Vertov is able to achieve something that new media designers and artists still have to learn – how to merge database and narrative into a new form" (Manovich, 2001: 243). Of course, the same argument, which is akin to Harvey’s relational scalarity of space within an artistic sphere of activity, can be made for both Godard and Marker, just as it is applied by Manovich to Peter Greenaway and his The Stairs, Munich, Projection (1993), a hundred numbered screen projections of colour for one hundred years of cinema, described by Manovich as: "a spatialized database – but also with a narrative" (Manovich, 2001: Ibid.).

What is the function of text within this logic of cognitive mapping? Despite Godard’s protestations and the pre-eminence assigned by him to the image in interviews and the film voice-overs of his recent video work, as graphic mark and spoken text, text still plays and has played – leaving aside the usual periodizations mentioned above – just as strategic a role as image, in breaking the Debordian spectacle of capitalist reification and alienation, in the form of experimenting in many ways and over many decades with systematic interruption and distanciation. But even such a text/image division is doomed to replicate the pattern of the fiction/documentary distinction or of the essay-film vs feature film divide, whereas an open-work mapping can accomodate Bakhtin’s dialogism, Kristeva’s intertextuality, and Pasolini’s cinema of poetry framework, in the kind of relational, spatial dimension put forward here, one in which montage serves as a logical operator, an ordering principle which allows me (a four planar "social being" in Bhaskar’s terminology) to go from the Particular to the General, to jump from one scalar space to another, in Harvey’s language. Expanded montage conveys scalar space and four-planar social being, in the search for a broader, less classificatory, genre-based frame of reference, beyond the vagaries of poetic metaphor but closer to the Pasolinian cinema of poetry, in an attempt to align the experience of the art object, the films, with the language and concepts available and to find a way out from categories such as art-house, essay-film, archive, and Euclidean concepts of space, as well as Rohdie’s version of montage which has naturalised it into a technical dispositif.

Alain Badiou’s philosophy of the Logics of Worlds (2009) is also a form of cognitive and spatial mapping, one which provides a framework to chart the degree of existence of what is new, what is changing. He applies it to visual art, but not to film, though he has, as mentioned earlier, discussed film in terms of art in Inaesthetics and The Century. Badiou’s approach offers the possibility of naming the dynamic of change, however slight it might be. From this perspective, narrow philological approaches or the comforting temptations of Aristotelian genres within classificatory systems of aesthetics (or Porphyry’s tree structure, deeply rooted in Western thought), are rejected in favour of the more rewarding uncertainty of alternative, open-work perceptions, which offer a view of these films as constituting a realm of possibility, to be explored, as well as a legacy of concrete challenge and resistance towards the inconsistent multiplicity that does not add up to the totality. Lindsey Hair, in Ontology and Appearing: Documentary Realism as a Mathematical Thought has applied it to thinking the relational complexity of an artistic world as a topos, and namely Resnais’s Night and Fog, and particularly for mapping that documentary (Hair in Ashton, Bartlett and Clemens, 2006: 265-305).

Within the artistic world of Marker and especially Godard, the organising principle is montage but one, I think, that functions within a combinatory logic: the formless, inconsistent multiplicity of reality as it unfolds around us day by day, becomes form in the artistic configuration, bringing to what is visible a body of works which are charted by points that form that configuration, such as, for example, the one consisting in lyrical montage (Badiou 2009: 73). The artistic subject is not an individual artist or filmmaker, but the works; the artistic configuration to which he has contributed. What is new is "what has no place to be" and "that which subtracts itself (out of place) from the worldly localization of multiplicities" (Badiou 2009: 45). Not the films on the edge, outside the Aristotelian or mimetic paradigm of Hollywood, but another way of making film. This is the uncharted territory which exceeds the pre-existing map. Like the workings of Mnemosyne there are at least two maps: the one that is immediately visible and countable as sum of images, and the larger one that exists in the gaps between the images.


[1] Initial research for this article was presented in 2009 at Cork Sculpture Factory’s Films in the Mezz organized by David Dobz O’Brien: "Montage and the Spectacle in Debord and Godard, introducing De L’Origine du XXIe Siècle (2000), The Old Place (1999), Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo (1993)" and was later developed in: When the outside of film walks into the artworld’s inside. The interventions of Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, Making in Two Modes Conference, University College Cork and Crawford Gallery, 15 September 2010. Ideas about documentary were inspired by a conversation with Gideon Koppel, after the viewing of his film Sleeping Furiously (organised in Limerick by my colleague Dara Waldron). It is further developed in my: The Thin Line Between Documentary and Fiction, Experimental Conversations, Spring 2011 which was written alongside a screening by the same title, organised in the second semester of 2011 by Art in The Making, LSAD. My thanks to Prof. Griselda Pollock for her encouragement on my research on the application of Alain Badiou’s thought to visual art. Thanks to Dr. Waldron for his generosity in sharing books, films and enthusiasm. I would also like to thank Dr. Linda Goddard for her encouragement at the conference. I dedicate this essay to my old friend and compagno Stefano Febbraro.
[2] "Chris Marker organise les fragments marquants de son oeuvre et de sa vie sous forme de 'zones' interactives concernant le cinéma, la guerre, les voyages. Il ‘cartographie le pays imaginaire qui s’étend au-dedans de lui.’".
[3] The full title is Martha Rosler, The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974-1975).
[4] In terms of methodology, this study benefits from Aby Warburg’s type of iconological method which is explained in what follows, given that our understanding of Warburg’s iconology still suffers from Ernest Gombrich’s intellectual characterization in his biography of the man which paints a portrait of a late nineteenth-century Romantic, thus deflecting the attention from the categories of thought in art history that Warburg introduced. The work of Erwin Panofsky, a student of Warburg’s, had already limited the scope of Warburg’s research, by producing a popularised and limited version of iconology, in Studies in Iconology (1939) and Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955).
In actual fact, Warburg was a cultural historian who researched texts and images together to understand the history of art, in the wake of Jacob Burkhardt in his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) and L’Arte italiana del Rinascimento (1994). Warburg’s method, in this regard, has the merit of shifting art history’s attention from an analysis of the image in isolation, almost contemplated as an icon, to considering its relation to other images: the conventional static model is thus replaced with a dynamic one.
Warburg’s dynamic iconology can be applied to Godard’s and Marker’s films, treating them as composite works of text and image, still and moving image, and by taking into consideration the intertextual relations between themes and levels of intervention. For Warburg, each culture consists in a process of transmission and nachleben (afterlife), or coming to terms with what has been received from previous eras in terms of the history of images. His method involves seeking correspondences between things and ideas in apparently unrelated bodies of knowledge which are brought together using the principle of "good neighbourhood", essentially a practice of spatial mapping applied to knowledge, a method of juxtaposition and comparison which he also adopted in his research. In particular, the good neighbourhood conception dictated how his famous library was organised. This dynamic conceptual and spatial ordering brought into relation with the visual arts primary and secondary sources from other disciplines. It was dynamic in that the library served not so much as an archive and repository of knowledge, but as a site for discovering relationships between images and text and between image and the interplay of connections with a broader cultural horizon, in the course of consulting the collection of images, books and manuscripts (Wind, 1998: 207-214.). It involved physically laying out the documents and objects in the same space, books and images, to compare them. Even the categories are inherently multi-disciplinary. In the modern Warburg Library in London, for example, one finds in the stacks even today a typically Warburgian category of "Knots and Mazes" which invites one to seek spatial graphic combinations across ages and cultures. The library changed with every new development in Warburg’s research following new inter-relations of facts and ideas.
If we relate nachleben to Godard, it suggests an evolving art practice in which the ideas of André Bazin, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Vigo, Bertoldt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, among others, do not influence Godard directly, but indirectly in the form of the afterlife of montage (and definitely not one which develops in a linear direction), and a dynamic and philosophy of film as montage. An exilic figure (he leaves Paris to live in Switzerland), Godard becomes a witness of his own work. Like the novelist of late antiquity Apuleius, Godard survives his own life, etiam mihi ipse supervivens et postumus (cited in Agamben, Quel che resta di Auschwitz, Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2007: 124), outlives it, just as he survives the Nouvelle Vague. In his "posthumous life", Godard survives his own practice of montage, renews it, amplifies it. Histoire(s) develops out of that.
[5] This apparent contradiction is addressed in §XVIII.
[6] This combination can only partly be explained in terms of an intertextual dynamic (Kristeva, 1986: 34-61), which is the logic of how citation, removed from its original context, interacts with what it finds in the new one to produce something that is a mixed entity or a new multiplicity. In Word, Dialogue and Novel, Kristeva’s interpretation of dialogism as a relational concept would explain its transmission and understanding as such in the West. She contrasts dialogism with Hegel’s dialectic, something that would make it even more attractive to Post-Marxists keen to avoid Marxian contradiction, ciphers and symptoms, which concepts provide a link between the particular case and an external context.
[7Mnemosyne was first associated with montage in the early avant-gardes by Karl Forster and to contemporary art practice by Benjamin Buchloh in Gerhard Richter’s encyclopaedic collection of mounted photographs called Atlas (Forster 1995 and Buchloh 2000).
[8] In recent years, it has generally been agreed that Marxism and the Philosophy of Language was co-authored by Mikhail Bakhtin.
[9] John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) tackles the same problem from a different angle of reception, when discussing the genre of the Nude in art, by criticizing the "objectivity" of Kenneth Clark’s mainstream views in The Nude (1956).
[10] The Roman dialect of his novels and films was entirely acquired by Pasolini through his friendships with Ninetto Davoli and the Citti brothers who also acted in his films. His native dialect was his mother’s Friulan in which, tellingly, he had published a first collection of very fine poetry, Poesie a Casarsa (1942), a work of erudite philology and technical skill, a linguistic intervention which values what the Italian ruling class then (and even now) rejects as low brow, thus making it critical of Fascist cultural politics. It was published four years before Pasolini’s degree thesis on the poet Giovanni Pascoli, a very acute work of exegesis, now in print, but not translated into English.
[11] Rouch had already filmed Me, a Black Man (1957) and Human Pyramid (1959).
[12] Resnais later worked with novelist Marguerite Duras who wrote Hiroshima Mon Amour and experimental Nouveau Roman novelist, Alain Robbe-Grillet who wrote L’Année Dernière a Marienbad subsequently published, and notable for its literary commentary, its puzzle-like plot, animated by minimal dialogue, and its visual and textual repetitions.
[13] However, Bazin does not seem monolithically opposed to montage. After all, there is also the Bazin who recognised that montage makes it possible to suggest an idea by means of metaphor, ellipsis, or an association of ideas; at times (Bazin, 1972: 25).
[14] "Nous ne recherchons pas à montrer des images, mais des rapports entre les images.
[15] Dubois’s "scripto-visual essay" combines a short introduction with frames of Godard’s films documenting the many ways Godard combined text and image on screen.
[16] The reality is that our public space is not a space of consensus. Just as our Western society at the moment witnesses radical resistance to global policy-making that nobody wants, both at global and local level, it carries the signs, the marks of contradictions, of rivalries between the encroaching privatizing of the public sphere, of the public domain, in the name of neoliberal policies which view the world only in terms of competition, individualism, and private enterprise. The space for the public good has shrunk in the past twenty-five years. Public intellectuals, including activists and even some artists, have put up an ongoing resistance to this encroachment. This was the context of Said’s concern, in 1993, when he put together a series of broadcasts defending the need for the organic intellectual. It was Antonio Gramsci who theorised a new type of intellectual, who does not belong to the traditional elite, for whom this emergent function is characterised by organising, and even actively intervening in society, learning to represent, defend and campaign, critique the doxa, the dominant ideology, putting forward alternative views, in issues that affect the public through the medium of ideas. (Gramsci, 2007: 5-23).
[17] The commentary about Benjamin suggests the contiguity of Warburg’s Mnemosyne project, but also the limits of Michaud’s analogy, in the sense that what characterises Mnemosyne is that it is not accompanied by written text, let alone the multiple montage of Godard’s soundscapes. However, if we take Menmosyne as a form of mapping, framing on separate panels a montage of images, the analogy still holds true.
[18] This direction towards a possible world ties in with Alain Badiou’s very recent philosophy (explained below), where the logics of existing worlds (or configurations of thought) are charted, including those parts of a world that elude identification, naming, because as yet, they have only a "zero degree of appearance" (Badiou, 2009: 159).
[19] With hindsight, we might associate Debord with Baudrillard, while bearing in mind that for the postmodern Baudrillard, there is nothing but image or image sign, which he calls, with Plato, the simulacrum. But Baudrillard loses sight of the social divide and division of power in his analysis. He differs from Debord, in believing that the spectacle cannot be challenged.
[20] Terry Eagleton argues that this approach to history extends to Benjamin’s criticism which needs to do more than transmit cultural information, that literary texts need to be "violated, read against the grain and so re-inscribed in new social practices" (Eagleton, 2009: 117). The idea that emerges from this process of cutting, interrupting, reshaping, is not an essence, but "a configuration of conceptualized particulars" (Eagleton, Ibid.). For this to be possible, empirical phenomena must be: "dismantled, re-dispersed and rearticulated, drawn into an objective constellation of concrete relations that cuts through the literary and historical categories of conventional theory" (Eagleton, Ibid.).
[21] A lengthier explanation is provided elsewhere (cf. Brancaleone, 2009).


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Dr. Brancaleone lectures in social art history at Limerick School of Art and Design where he also teaches theory on the new MA in social art practice. David read History of Art at Rome University and was awarded a doctorate by the Warburg Institute in 2002, after working in educational publishing as a designer and design manager, for which he received the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Educational Publishing. David has also worked as a researcher for Christie’s, taught and supervised on a Sotheby’s MA course, and acted as Deputy Director of the Central Registry of Information on WWII Looted Art. He has contributed articles to Circa, Enclave Review, Stimulus Respond, and Experimental Conversations, Muse, Italian Studies, Per Leggere, Artists Newsletter, Arts Business Exchange, British Journal of Sociology of Education, and Irish Educational Studies Journal. He has published in book form a translation of a Renaissance Italian text on printing and several conference papers, including ones on art, photography, film an the aesthetics of Alain Badiou at the Association of Art Historians (2009) and College Art Association, (2010). He has recently made four art documentaries and is planning to translate into English and provide a commentary for texts on film by Cesare Zavattini.