The History of Cinema and History in Cinema

By Chris Petit

histoires-du-cinema-jean-luc-godard.jpgHistoire(s) du Cinéma, 1988-98

Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma invents its own reality

In the opening episode, one of the first names mentioned is Mary Meerson, so let’s start with her, to whom Godard dedicates this film. Meerson was the long-term companion of Henri Langlois who ran the Paris Cinematheque. For Godard and other directors of the French New Wave, the Cinematheque was the womb in which cinema could be reborn; never mind that it was a child that Godard would later disown.

In his Biographical Dictionary of Cinema, David Thomson argued that Godard emerged out of the darkness of the Cinematheque rather than from any plausible biographical background. This was just after the Second World War. Paris had gone through the German Occupation, during which many French had collaborated, including the French branch of Godard’s family, though Godard himself was neutral Swiss.

It was a time of tremendous score-settling.

And of escape. The disgraced Celine was hiding out in exile in Denmark. Simenon, who had a borderline history of collaboration, because of film and publishing deals with German-sponsored French companies, disappeared to the United States before 1945 was out. And those left behind found ways as best they could to escape the everyday dreariness of post-war reality. For a young, socially rebellious generation, which rejected the compromises of their parents, escape was to be found in the jazz clubs of the Left Bank and, above all, in the cinema – sitting in the dark, watching other people’s projected fantasies. There was plenty of distraction: for a start, a backlog of four years of Hollywood movies.

For a clique of young Parisians, that included Godard and Truffaut, cinema became more than a form of cultural tourism. It was a barometer for life and moral arbiter. They turned watching movies into a vocation. They told themselves that what they were doing was legitimate engagement rather than a substitute for experience. Theirs was, Godard admitted later, a generation that knew nothing of life and learned everything from cinema.

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Cinema became a secular religion, a matter of life and death, certainly worth stealing for, as Godard did, selling family valuables to finance an early film of Jacques Rivette. In Hollywood they saw none of the compromises of France. They coded American cinema according to what mirrored their own ambitions. Seeing these films in a rush, it was a simple business to learn to distinguish between the cinema of Nicholas Ray or Fritz Lang and that of George Cukor or William Wyler. And because they were desperate to make films, it made sense to elevate the director to the role of creative author, and to become critics in order to create a pantheon into which they could insert themselves.

The rest is history. These young men wrote their way into directing via Cahiers du cinéma. The process was always a more elevated one than anything in this country. Paris was the intellectual capital of France in a way that London wasn’t and Godard, as Swiss outsider, was aware of that. A generation of French philosophers, academics and intellectuals wrote seriously about cinema in a way that they didn’t here, where cinema was (and is) seen as more of a way-station or cultural annex, an outpost of Hollywood. On an intellectual front the French had a formidable First XI – Barthes, Morin, Deleuze, Bachelard, Virilio, Derrida, Baudrillard and so on, and so on. Godard, who prided himself on his intellectual smartness, nevertheless felt belittled and snubbed by the high echelons of French culture. Apropos of this, it has always struck me how the French New Wave had little time for the frivolities of rock and roll.

Toward the end of the 1960s, after a furious rate of activity, Godard experienced his ‘road to Damascus’: he denounced American cinema, renounced his own films and threw himself into French Maoism, which, his colleague Chris Marker observed, was one of the more pointless and arrogant culs-de-sac of 20th century political thought. Godard’s self-imposed exile lasted most of the 1970s, ending with his return to a cinema of limited but sufficient appeal to play on what was by then a dwindling art house market.

He retreated to Switzerland and reinvented himself as the recluse of Rolle, after taking the precautionary move of acquiring enough equipment to become more self-sufficient in terms of production. The films we’re seeing today are the product of that strategy. Since then he has rarely strayed far from his base. For the last 30 years he has been almost entirely a home movie-maker, apart from occasional responses to larger events in the outside world.

He has said, with a sense of wonder, that he is amazed that he has managed to earn a living from making films for the last 40 or 50 years. In that he’s lucky, because he wouldn’t have been making them if he had been in England. No funding from the Film Council for him.

Despite remaining prolific, I suspect Godard has suffered from a sequence of creative blocks over the last 30 years, and what once came easily, knocking out films, often with pages only written on the day of shooting while he kept cast and crew waiting, has become harder, slower and more prone to doubt, as a result of questioning the form in which he was working, and a growing awareness that European art cinema, of which he had been a major part, was in decline. Furthermore, his break with that cinema in the name of political ideology, also rejected, had played a part in that decline. There was the further awareness, as the twentieth-century ran its course, that the death of cinema itself, as understood by him and others, was imminent. This was a fashionable argument around the time of the millennium and with the advent of the digital, which Godard has denounced as death. It was another form of apres moi la deluge.

histoires-du-cinema-jean-luc-godard-2.jpgHistoire(s) du Cinéma, 1988-98

He probably carries on for the same reason Dylan does. He has nothing else to do. Working is the only way to keep reality at bay. However, I think there was a period in the 1970s, during his wilderness years, when Godard was really onto something, with a series of television documentaries and the film Numéro Deux. Unlike many filmmakers, he was never snobbish about methods of production. He didn’t look down on video. He embraced it. He became interested in family, and domestic and sexual politics, and there was a tremendous immediacy to this work, which was informed and funded by television, a medium which he generally dismisses.

Then, in 1979, he made Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) (Slow Motion), which was taken to be a return to form. It marked the start of Godard’s reflexive, autobiographical period. He took to appearing in films himself or creating characters based on him. Sauve Qui Peut represented the start of a withdrawal. He thought the English title of the film should have been Save Your Ass, which says a lot. Whatever, it signalled the end of sustained engagement with the outside world in favour of forms of self-exploration, and self-promotion into high culture.

Histoire(s) du cinéma dates from around the mid-1980s. The films can be read on many levels, at their most basic as an epic re-viewing, by a man who had once reviewed film for a living, now re-viewing cinema to see what his take on it was. Rather touchingly, he asked his assistant to buy the entire series on VHS of classic films called ‘The Films of My Life’. He spent lots of time organising them and wouldn’t let anyone else touch them; and watched them all, thinking he had to watch a whole film just to find one shot. He complained that nobody took into account the screening time it took him to make the film.

What started out as a plan to make some money from his knowledge of film history turned into a vast personal project that took years to complete, and it may well stand among the works for which he is most remembered.

histoires-du-cinema-jean-luc-godard-3.jpgHistoire(s) du Cinéma, 1988-98

Histoire(s) functions as Godard’s intellectual biography of a life in cinema. To paraphrase his most recent biographer, Richard Brody, it became a working through on screen of the network of associations that formed in Godard’s movie-colonised unconscious. A combination of night thoughts and daydreams, which owes as much to Freud as it does to Sartre or Bazin.

Like a lot of Godard, it contrives to be lucid and opaque at the same time, a cryptic biography as argumentative as you would expect from a man who has made a second career from falling out with people.

He appears as himself, half-detective, half-interrogator, shuttling through images from the cinema of his life. He’s laconic and gnomic, a man talking to his typewriter. It’s a fancy typewriter that has a keyboard that delays the printing, which makes a staccato sound like gunshots. He’s playing the detective, after Chandler, trying to figure out a mystery. He’s also like Lemmy Caution in Alphaville, an old legend on a last mission, and the film works like science-fiction in reverse. Just as Godard took elements of contemporary Paris to make a future world in Alphaville, he performs a similar trick here by presenting the past in such a radical and fragmented way that it appears not as history but as an imagined projection of another world.

It’s a history of a century, and of a parallel artistic medium, and a self-portrait of a man of that century. Not just a work of history but a vision of history, composed of snippets of memory and film moments, a museum in memory of cinema, in honour of Langlois. It is quasi-religious in that Godard has a secular faith in the power of the image, and subscribes to the idea of cinematography as ‘a form that thinks’, and to Robert Bresson’s belief that true cinematic art is based on fragments.

So, it’s a man with an irritating typewriter and an image bank. Images are rocked back and forward and slowed down until the sound becomes like the cry of a wounded animal. There’s a lot about pain. Godard quotes a German director who says: happiness is not fun. He edits and shows how cinema represents the end of a span that began with the Brothers Lumière and Cubism. It is also a penitent work, an acknowledgment of history, which as a young man he and his colleagues had denied and is now seen as paramount. The American cinema to which he was once so in thrall is again rejected, utterly. It’s a film about factories of dreams, salvaged as dream fragments, clips, anecdotes, and allusions. A funeral oration.

histoires-du-cinema-jean-luc-godard-5.jpgHistoire(s) du Cinéma, 1988-98 

We are no longer dealing with cinema in terms of what it’s about by way of synopsis or narrative or the what-happens-next, or thumbs up or thumbs down.

As to what it might be about and how to view it on first acquaintance, it seems to me very close to Chris Marker’s La Jetée, in which a man is sent from a future world back into a past to try and make sense of it. Both are films about time and memory, with cinema as the bridge.

What you get is not what you expect. It’s not a documentary. There’s nothing ingratiating about it. Quite the opposite. It makes you work hard and makes few concessions. It’s a work of association and juxtaposition and painstaking in its visual and audio layering. In technical terms the film is as radical as anything that Godard has made. An interrogation of one medium – film – by another – video. It uses superimposition. It slows sound down, runs it backwards, and shows film shuttled back and forward on an editing table. It is about the process of making films, and how Godard made this one is among its main achievements. In an age of Avid and Final Cut-Pro and non-linear editing it’s not a big deal to cut and paste material. But the early films in this cycle don’t belong to that period. I am assuming, because of the date they were made, and how they look, that they were cut on VHS using a basic linear editing system. If that is the case, this would have been a very cumbersome undertaking because if you wanted to insert anything the tape had to be remade from the point of insert each time you made a change. I did it once and it was an enormously frustrating and slow process, starting with finding the right tape from 50 VHSs, then winding to the correct part of the tape. Nightmare. Forget it.

By way of summary, the cycle becomes an act of curation and, less persuasively, one of self-justification. It’s a remix of cinema and newsreel. It could have been made only by a filmmaker saturated in cinema. It’s very contemporary in its sampling; I’m sure that Lee “Scratch” Perry would get it. Someone said it’s like the product of a laboratory, factory or a crypt. I prefer the last because of the cryptic nature of the work. There’s an element of Prospero in Godard’s presence. He attributes to cinema powers of transfiguration and alchemy. Regards cinema as both redemptive and fallen. The films are driven by the idea of death.

Godard, in showing how film is often seen as an escapist medium, shows too that there is no escaping death. In a sense his film is a ghost story, the one about the haunted screen – which is also a shroud. And it is also about what didn’t happen as much as what did – a history of all the films never made. For all the audio-visual distraction, the film is also text and can probably only be fully understood by consulting other texts. Watching it is a bit like reading a book only by its footnotes, and I pass on the fact that Godard has made a practice of reading the first and last pages of a given book for the purpose of being able to quote from it.

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On one level just watch it, for its combination of collage and collision, as a sensory experience, and don’t fight it. That said, his diagnosis is of a sick century, but what of the feverishness of that approach, how healthy is that? As some have noticed, there is a neurosis to this compulsive recovery and reconnection of archival fragments.

Finally, okay, in some ways Godard has always been light years ahead of the rest. Maybe he came to understand the pointlessness of his art, if not all art. Graham Greene has said that success is only failure deferred, something I am sure Godard understands just as I suspect he believes it is the job of any true artist to paint him or herself into a corner.

You see that in these films: the massive, intensive labour of a man left with nowhere to go, except to sift through the tatters of the past; the massive, intensive labour of a man painting himself yet again into another corner.

But, to be fair, what a corner, and what painting.

Chris Petit is a filmmaker, novelist and commentator. He is developing a project on England and Germany. See Vertigo - Volume 4 - Issue 1