Jean-Luc Godard has always been one to break the rules, but his personality is one of paradoxes. In his later years he has embraced what might be called humanism–specifically steeped in the art, literature and music of the Western world. And thus the fact that his most brilliant, exprimental film is likewise a book (with a life of its own) published by Gallimard (arguably the most prestigious house in France…printers and tastemakers of the canonical) makes perfect sense in the upside-down world of history’s most consistently idiosyncratic auteur.
Originally published in 1998, the book is a joint venture with Gaumont. At age 68 Godard had gone from enfant terrible of the May ’68 Parisian riots to fulfilling a lifelong ambition to be not just an auteur, but an author. In André Malraux’s 1937 novel L’Espoir, the Negus explains to Puig that the Republicans fighting for democracy in Spain had not yet come to fully appreciate the gravity of their situation. It is with a reference to Man’s Hope (L’Espoir) that Godard begins his masterwork Histoire(s) du cinéma. History is a fight. The history of the world is the history of its battles. There has been, and will always be, a war on between competing histories.
“Films have never given back to life that which they have stolen,” Godard tells us. Cinema has told a history (une histoire seule) of the world…one of many versions: a story. We always hear about “the Hollywood version,” that proverbial method of accounting for facts which often involves changing essential details and providing “happy endings” where there originally were none. For Godard, the movie industry (taken in its totality) has failed humanity. Even when Hollywood attempts to remember, it cannot for some reason. And forgetfulness is equal to murder–at least in the eyes of Godard. Why is Schindler’s List actually an exercise in forgetting rather than remembering? Is it that the director (Spielberg) cannot help but apply elements of “the Hollywood version” mentality even to such a grave subject as the Holocaust? Godard seems to indicate as much right from the first paragraph of his film-tome.
What is Godard getting at? His intricate argument has even earned him the label anti-Semite, but is this really fair? It seems that even at age 84 Monsieur Godard continues to be misunderstood. Perhaps he only wants the Holocaust to be remembered by way of “real tears and real blood.” One might hear the influence of Rossellini in these words which echo the ethos of Roma città aperta (1945) and other neorealist Italian films of the postwar years. Perhaps it is not possible to cinematically capture the horror of the Nazi extermination camps seeing as how no footage exists (or has it merely not been made public?) of the camps while in operation. We only have footage of their “liberation”–and that at the hands of Hollywood (by way of George Stevens…courtesy of the U.S. Army). By 1951 Stevens was back to directing Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In The Sun (herself having starred in National Velvet in 1944, at the height of the war).
Godard does not single out Stevens as being artistically impotent. In the spirit of self-criticism, he faults the whole of world cinema (almost without exception). It is not just Los Angeles (Hollywood) which is to blame for propaganda, nor simply Moscow, but even Paris itself (epicenter of la nouvelle vague). It is not just Frank Capra (himself also hired by the U.S. War Department like Stevens…in Capra’s case to literally make propaganda films prior to the war’s end) who is to blame, but also Jean Renoir (a key figure in Godard’s personal pantheon of film heroes). Directors whose job is to direct “fiction” have been “incapable of controlling the vengeance” which life now demands: real tears and real blood.
When Jean-Paul and Anna kissed in Pierrot le fou as they leaned from their cars pulled up aside one another, we were seeing Godard in a more naïve period of his career (yet one in which he was beginning to struggle with the fundamental deficiencies of cinema as it then existed in 1965). That film marks a relatively early foray for him into surrealism which he would return to with more venom in Week-end (1967). By then, Godard was claiming the “end of cinema” along with the Fin of finality which would prove to be a penultimate prophecy from cinema’s one true oracle. By 1968, Paris was in flames and Godard had essentially left what little area of the mainstream he had carved out by way of earlier productions such as Le Mépris (1963). There would be no more films with Brigitte Bardot. Godard jumped headlong into a fight not unlike that of the Spanish Republicans…and perhaps he could not foresee what a pitched battle it would be.
Indeed, it is possible that Godard sees himself not unlike L.B. Jeffries in Hitchcock’s Rear Window: simply a technician, a professional…curiosity and a telephoto lens. Whatever the case may be, Godard became a decidedly political filmmaker from at least 1967 onwards. It was not until the 1980s that he began to emerge from this single-minded politique to begin embracing a more mature, yet no less eccentrically passionate, form of filmmaking.
No doubt: a crime had been committed. Like Jimmy Stewart at his window, Godard has taken it all in for huitante-quatre years (not quatre-vingt-quatre, for Godard is decidedly Swiss). World War II was, and continues to be, the defining time of Godard’s life. From ages 9 to 15, he was an impressionable youth living mainly in Switzerland and observing the war with, to say the least, curiosity. What would happen? Would all of Europe soon be German? It certainly looked that way for awhile.
By 1953, the world was starting to forget in earnest. The shock of World War II was soothed by Hollywood. It was the year of Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. The influence of such films on a then 23-year-old Godard is obvious in, if none other of his films, Une femme est une femme (1961). But much closer to his heart were the works of Alfred Hitchcock (such as 1959’s North by Northwest). Add to that the influence of much earlier films by Dziga-Vertov (the Soviet director who was arguably at his artistic peak between 1924 and 1934) and you have some of the many filmic ideas which were surely floating around in Jean-Luc’s head…ready to be synthesized and rearranged beginning with Godard’s first feature film À bout de souffle (1960).
In Histoire(s) du cinéma Godard is taking stock (no pun intended). His film is the culmination of the 20th century: the century of film. Just as J.S. Bach neatly tied up all of the fascinating loose-ends from the Baroque period (and pre-Baroque) with his masterful “golden braids,” Godard determined to give perspective to a century’s-worth of movie attempts in the form of a film essay which is absolutely unrelenting in its criticism of “the seventh art.” Hegel codified les six and Canudo la settima. An industry, yes, but also an art–the art. It was, and remains, the art of arts. Where sculpture, painting, dance, music and poetry are woven together by way of a curious architecture: a place both spatial and temporal.
From Fitzgerald’s “last tycoon” Irving Thalberg to Welles’ subject in F for Fake (and an inspiration for the protagonist in Citizen Kane) Howard Hughes, the film industry has seen its share of “gods among men.” And yet both of these gods were impotent each in their own ways. Thalberg was no doubt a true “idea man” of film, yet he was as “fragile” as he was fecund. Hughes, the courageous and rich multi-industry baron who was yet in thrall to his RKO starlets eventually succumbed to a reclusiveness worthy of Salinger. The power of Hollywood has always contained within it a powerless human-element–a formulaic tendency dictated by fealty to that double-edged sword: the bottom line.
Godard and Truffaut (among other French New Wave filmmakers) would turn this formula on its head. They took the predictable plot schemes of B-movies and inflated them with a fulminating absurdity from the inside until the forms exploded. One of Godard’s most quotable and enduring utterances over the years has been, “A film is a girl and a gun.” In the hands of the erudite Godard (himself a disciple of Sartre), this “rule” was transgressed all the more deliciously in that Jean-Luc recognized it and deconstructed it. The results in his early films were devastatingly beautiful.
Hollywood has always been for the masses. It is truly the backbone of “the society of the spectacle.” And thus for “a nickel,” the world would come alive in the hands of early pioneers like Griffith. The spectacle of Intolerance (1916) was a riposte to earlier Italian epic films such as Cabiria (1914). Hollywood cranked out dreams as if from a factory and, as Godard points out in Histoire(s), a factory not unlike those of communism. Ars Gratia Artis (art for art’s sake) reads the MGM logo. No doubt, among the vapid diversions there were true pieces of art. New York’s Museum of Modern Art was incredulous when Henri Langlois (founder of the Cinémathèque Française) proclaimed, upon its release, that Only Angels Have Wings (1939) was a masterpiece. Langlois would be proven correct…not least due to the success of his disciples Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, etc. Indeed, its director (Howard Hawks) would become a key influence upon the French New Wave.
But is it not ironic that the producer of Hawks’ early masterpiece was also the producer of Citizen Kane (a film based in part upon himself…and not at all flatteringly)? Those are the twisted roots of Hollywood. Hughes of TWA, of Hughes Aircraft, of Project Azorian (not Jennifer, as it is sometimes known) in conjunction with the C.I.A., of RKO…like Daniel Defoe, owner of civet cats (entrepreneurial perfumer), secret agent for William III, trader of wine to Portugal, tax assessor (specifically taxes on glass bottles), proprietor of a tile and brick factory, nonconformist (Nonconformist?), social/economic/political activist, satirist, Tory intelligence agent, “modern” journalist, Whig intelligence agent, false-flag pamphleteer (covert propagandist), chronicler of the supernatural (ghosts), propagandist and spy due to financial debt, spy in Edinburgh, agent for political union and the consolidation of power for state economic gain. Corn, excise taxes…it was among such concerns that this widely published and now notorious liar, travel essayist, occasionally honest, candid, and (finally, at age 59) brilliant author of Robinson Crusoe (1719) operated.
Howard Hawks’ film His Girl Friday (1940) would not be titled thusly were it not for Defoe’s character Man Friday. And Godard would not have mentioned Defoe and Robinson (as he had Malraux’s Puig and the Negus) had he not grasped the allegorical reading(s) of the 1719 novel. Western civilization (Spengler be damned…) continued its “development” (<—…but not discounted) in the Twentieth Century by way of film–from Hawks and Hitchcock to Godard, Cassavetes and Brakhage. The economic tyranny of the “bottom line” has put undue pressure on filmmakers to be craftsmen at the expense of true artistry. Yet, artistry has been rewarded on occasion…even as far back as Chaplin and the formation of United Artists (also taking into account the economic individualism of Fairbanks, Pickford and Griffith) in 1919 [UA was initially an anti-company…a response to bigger, more tyrannical business concerns].
But there is a heart beating in this darkness…a heart of colonial desires…the impetus in the marrow of Howard Hughes’ bones: the desire to write one’s name everywhere (“partout”). Perhaps what Godard takes most from Defoe is the spirit of repentance (again with the self-criticism…not unusual for a filmmaker who began his film life as a film critic for Cahiers du cinéma, etc.). Godard is not apologizing for cinema’s refusal or impotence to stop the Holocaust (this is really what is at issue throughout this 266 minute work), but is rather railing against the hollowness of Hollywood’s priorities…starlets not as faded flowers, but rather as rotten meat.
It might be said that Robinson Crusoe is the first English-language novel. Whatever negative can be said of Histoire(s) du cinéma, it likewise seems to be sui generis. And if Robinson can be said to have finally triumphed in the series of his adventures (because death never came for him), the same perhaps cannot be said of Howard Hughes. Death wouldn’t come. Did the sickly recluse’s life drag on past its usefulness? Has the cinema pioneered by Thalberg and Hughes (among many others) outlived its usefulness? Was 1967 truly the end of cinema?
Death is the author…the grand auteur. “…and death/like Daniel Defoe/did not dare/to kill Robinson.” The ever-cryptic Godard is positively Joycean both in the film and book versions of Histoire(s). Franchises, sequels, product tie-ins… Of all the films never made, was there one which would have “killed” cinema? Is the movie industry merely a bloated corpse waiting to be punctured and drained of its useless substance?
It is now television which predominates. The name Jean Renoir is on no one’s lips. His father, the painter Pierre-August, is only slightly more remembered in this society of forgetting. We watch TV to forget. We once went to the movies to escape, to be air-conditioned, to dream in darkened halls, but now…the forgetting is 24/7. There is no Jean Vigo. No Jean Cocteau. No Max Ophüls. The happiness of television is not joy. There is no Ozeray to take the stage for a Giraudoux. Pixar might model a character after Louis Jouvet (in Ratatouille), but a Pixar character can’t quit a few weeks into filming. It is a voice. Animated. Ophüls’ L’école des femmes was never completed. It was 1940. Geneva. Godard was 10 years old.
Molière’s play (L’école des femmes), however, was completed…and first staged in December 1662. [Was Howard Hughes intimidated by femininity à la Gatsby?] Molière, for his part, was a bold (yet self-criticizing) character himself. L’école is almost a Lolita story…a girl brought-up from the age of 4 to the age of 17 by one man (twice her age) whose intent is to have her be faithful due to a purposefully-ingrained ignorance. It is a play of mistaken identity, a comedy of errors (or tragedy), and a case for Fate.
Is it not ironic that Godard references Gaumont newsreels from WWII in this book about the impotence of the film industry (a book, no less, co-published by Gaumont itself)? We see Hitler, Seurat, treason on the radio: “but cinema keeps its word.” Fritz Lang tells a real story in M. No happy ending. No Lubitsch touch. Chaplin imitating Hitler imitating Chaplin. “Radio Paris is German.”
The years rolled by…39-45. And it was that “simple rectangle”…35mm film, whether Agfa or Ilford, which could have saved “the honor of the real.” Godard is still fighting that battle today (even if he is working in video, this film for example). Sure, he is a Spanish Republican at heart, but his trenches are frontline in the war of remembrance (the last soldier, perhaps). Some might wonder with curiosity about this man who doesn’t know the war is over, but for him it is not. He is still holed up in the jungle with a Steenbeck editing table. If any man is an island, it is Godard. He is living empathy. To forget the dead is to dishonor the dead. To remember the dead dishonorably is as good as forgetting them. No, Spielberg is not up to the task…nor Lanzmann.
Most would reckon that Godard has not made a Holocaust film, but he has. This is it.
During the war years the movie industry was “mute/with its humble and formidable power.” Why? In Lang’s Metropolis social justice takes center stage. There is the curious son who walks a mile in the shoes of the workers who are, each day, buried alive. There is the angel of protection for the orphans of capitalism.
The battle is fiction vs. reality. The only real weapons “images et sons”… Godard would come to respect Nicolas Ray, Samuel Fuller and others who, like Lang, used fiction against itself. There was a respect for the image. A respect for sound. And the little 35mm rectangle, in turn, saved the honor of humanity…if one could let it. To a certain extent, the director had to “get out of the way.” And it took true auteurs to walk the tightrope of economic pressure from above (studio heads) and thereby make art (even if given a bad story, scenario, premise, etc.). The true auteur could transmit a cryptic message like Shostakovich did in his string quartets: we are alive, I am alive, we are aware, we shall outlast this tyranny.
But the masses want fiction. The war is over there, not here. Nothing to see. Move along. It’s somebody else’s problem. From Fantômas to Christ, are they really all myths? Jesus attending to the crowds. Films speaking to The Crowd…the lowest common denominator. The phantom is in the opera. When we finally see him without his mask, will we be properly horrified? Is it not much worse that the actor who played The Wizard (in Oz) was a member of Yale’s Skull & Bones fraternity? It is a rich metaphor. And completely factual.
Drop your bombs. Film for BDA: battlefield damage assessment. But the Germans of Arriflex, the most technologically advanced nation in Europe: they filmed nothing at the camps? Nothing was ever found? Found, but not released? Why? To forget?
The methods are the same today in the fictionally-free U.S.A. If Wernher von Braun designed it, then was it really Made In U.S.A.? This is the rhythm of Godard…the cadence. It is the filmic equivalent of Voyage au bout de la nuit or Mort à credit. Those three little dots…ellipses, a splitting of the literary atom…to join Mussorgsky and Zola and Partch and Henry Miller in vernacular speech patterns…verismo beyond Leoncavallo or Mascagni. “People don’t say such things.” Or rather, people don’t talk like that. Ridiculous Pagliacci: singing with a knife in his back. Lester Townsend. “La Commedia è finite!”
The nightly news continues to be The Birth of a Nation. And the only hope is Rome ville ouverte as Godard writes in translation. The opera’s opus number works against it. What if Louis Ferdinand-Céline had been elliptical? Just as Saul Bass needed Jules Antoine Lissajous to truly express Vertigo in that Hitchcock film’s opening credits, Arnold needed Richter (Arri). Lightweight cameras.
Godard gives us nightmares and dreams on a screen–a shroud with motives as automatic as a Turin assembly line. Destouches in Detroit. Céline in Cameroon. The shrimp await Glauber Rocha. 20th Century Fox. Goya. George C. Scott? Ingrid Bergman? William Blake? Is it a glass bead game or Dorothy about to click her heels?
If you cannot navigate such a foray into absurdity–into a surrealism as black as spring, then you will never ford the fjord which leads to the hall of the mountain king…and you will forever scream.
Unspoken histories. Histories of the night. Singin’ in the rain… Suspicion. “…it is too late and the army has already fired upon the crowd”…never, Van Gogh, faithful heart. “Rembrandt and his terrible black and white”…
In this which has been burned, I no longer know what to quote: and that is the point of Histoire(s) du cinéma. It is sensory overload. It is Rembrandt superimposed upon Monet. This is cinema’s answer to Finnegans Wake and Le Sacre du printemps. Have we forgotten Guernica? No. Art remembers.
Who was Valentin Feldman? Was the first 16mm color film used at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück? Godard’s steel-trap mind always keeps us on our toes with obscure details he has gleaned over the years. But one thing is certain: eyes blind to the final solution brought about a new Germany: year 0 (zero).
Godard takes issue with American cinema while worshipping it, but one must consider at what age he made this masterwork. After a life of study, he understands how American cinema “ruined” French cinema and, indeed, all cinema in Europe. To exactly what cultural colonialism is he referring? Max Schreck…not the same as Shrek. Schönberg not the same as Schoenberg. The last words of Max Linder? “Help!”