Mary Meerson. Monika Tegelaar. John Cassavetes. Glauber Rocha. These are the dedicatees in the first two parts of Godard’s eight-part pièce de résistance. The first, a personage from the Diaghilev days of Paris (and inextricable from the Cinémathèque Française). The second, a two-time film producer who helped Raoul Ruiz conjure an ersatz Patagonia in 1982. And the third? And fourth? It may be advisable that you stop reading now if those two names mean nothing to you. But if you are brave and push on, I salute you. The name Cassavetes I had heard in my youth. For all I knew, he might as well have been a plumber of some renown. Glauber Rocha I am still grappling with (even his very existence…not to mention his films).
Jean-Luc Godard begins each of his film’s chapters (and sub-chapters) with two such dedications. These four names symbolize Histoire(s) du cinéma as a whole. If the reference is too obscure, go look it up. The auteur dares us to immerse ourselves in the details which has made his own inner life of 84 years so rich. As a “reward,” he will also bless us along the way with references so obvious as to require no research whatsoever…Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, for instance.
Everything, no matter how high or low (culturally), which has passed through cinema has been marked by that experience. Some forget that Sympathy For The Devil (1968, the film) was directed by Godard (and originally to have been called One Plus One). It has been said that he would have preferred working with The Beatles, but The Rolling Stones figure definitively into the oeuvre of JLG. Godard was not even above comparing himself to Bob Dylan (in the 60s and beyond). Beatles, Stones, Dylan…these are not the talismans of a haughty Swiss intellectual. But Godard never ceases to amaze. It is like waking up and having your morning coffee served nonchalantly by Méret Oppenheim in a fur-covered cup…and saucer…and spoon. Fur. All of them. Bonjour 🙂
“Someone whispering in my room/I shut off the TV/but the whispering continues.” It is Der müde Tod, tired of playing his role. Dead voices gather here in my room. The window has been painted into place, but it wasn’t completely closed…and so the wind whistles in through the crack all night long…and my ancestors come and go.
Prison (1949). Ingmar Berman, not to be confused with Ingrid Bergman. So many names floating around in Jean-Luc’s head. Eighty-four years on the planet (68 at the time of Histoire(s)‘ completion in ’98). Numbers. Joyce toiling for 17 years–the Irishman in Paris. And Godard for 10–the boy from Paris now in his golden years…in Rolle, la Suisse. Histoire(s) du cinéma might as well have been written in Romansh (that obscure, little-spoken, fourth official language of Switzerland)…or Welsh…or Basque.
Who is it we see struggling to claw her way up the hill? Jennifer Jones? And from what film? It is not only the language (Godard whispering in French with his Swiss accent…as he has since at least 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967)…all of the many text elements which fill the screen during Histoire(s)‘ 266 minutes), but the film language–the endless references, the fragments of Bartok and Hindemith, the fine-art interpolated between Hollywood vacuities, actualités, realities…reels and reels of the “real”…and the wordplay so beloved by not only Joyce, but Hitchcock. All of these must be navigated and deciphered to have any chance of finding one’s bearings in the constant referential stream of Histoire(s).
Sex and death. I am reminded of Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991). Jim Morrison is in film school at UCLA and his class project is premiered in front of his classmates and professor. The film is ridiculous. It is the stuff of young filmmakers, but it is primal…visceral.
Hollywood is nothing more than sex and death itself. Always has been. But Hollywood has, with its glitz and glamour, attracted some of the greatest modern literary minds to shroud the obvious with novel fabric. The world has been in thrall subliminally since the earliest days of Los Angeles’ long reign.
Jean-Luc found “a keeper” in a fellow filmmaker. Anna Karina. Anne Wiazemsky. And, finally, Anne-Marie Miéville. I spoke with Anne-Marie on the phone one morning several months ago. She is a graceful, patient woman. She is not, at heart, an actress. She is a genius.
“neither an art, nor a technique/a mystery”… I do not care about capitalization (nor care much for capitalism). i will be here in the corner with e.e. cummings. Strunk and White must take a backseat to Auguste and Louis. You who obsess over MLA, tell me off the top of your head the meaning of SNCF. If you cannot, please sit back down.
Were there no rules meant to be broken? We debate the pros and cons of prose and Cannes. Tabu: a story of the southern states…Texas, where to adore Godard is to seem Martian. I am supposed to think of B.B. King. If I am an exotic pervert, perhaps Brigitte Bardot. But Bertolt Brecht? In Texas the name itself is enough to create a distancing effect (and a generally stupefied look of ignorance). That is ok. We are the utopia of Germans and Japanese (to pick randomly): we are the “wild west.” John Ford, Rio Bravo, Johnny Guitar…indeed, Joan Crawford was born in my hometown (from which I am writing) San Antonio.
Auguste and Louis. Lumière. Light. Camera. Act. I on the other hand have no such appropriate name. Am I at the edge of the ether (Etheredge)? Am I truly so reckless as to wish for death? Depressed? [I will at this point indulge in a sort of literary sit-in which shall allow me to savor my transgressions as per “writing about film.”] Ahhh…much better. I feel refreshed. And now, on with the show!
There has always been a master/slave relationship in cinema. The two brothers. Two reels. One taking up the slack, the other spooling out. I know the terminology from sound recording…24-track 2″ tape machines. SMPTE for the devil (Grasshopper, Mercury Rev). Please tell me, won’t you? Which reel is Hegel and which is Nietzsche? Which Heidegger and which Sartre? Baudelaire and Baudrillard? Degas and Debord.
If Méliès (the magician) is fictional, then les fréres Lumiéres are documentary. But what, then, is Flaherty? What is a documentary when the characters are directed rather than documented? Consider Louisiana Story (1948) for instance. Would Buster Keaton laugh at this oxymoronic method or remain stone-faced (leaving us to laugh, or cry…in turn)?
Consider Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. I am Spartacus. No, I am Spartacus. If we are all Spartacus, then not one of us can be singled out. They will have to kill us all. But Karl and Rosa were indeed murdered.
Master…slave…Spartacus. It is the same old story: opposition to imperialist wars. Oh!, imperialism. You did not disappear when the sun first set upon the British Empire, did you? No. Nor did you cease to exist in the 60s when African countries like Algeria were finally able to assert themselves. There are still busy bees toiling away for imperialists…drones for corporatists.
Without a future. Johnny Guitar. Johnny Rotten. Prison. “good, he said/night, she said”…Dziga Vertov…Ukrainian for “spinning top”…that man with the movie camera…the devil, probably.
“the whispering/which the man had already perceived”…it begins again. That lady from Shanghai–an exterminating angel…a femme fatale…Augie and Lou record the arriving train; the workers leaving the factory. Godard reminds us that a film projector is obligated to the “memory” of the camera. There is an occasional optimism in Jean-Luc’s philosophy which at times pierces the clouds like the sun at high noon. L’Espoir. “…cinema is not an industry/of evasion/because it is…”…what? “the only place/where memory is slave”… But don’t take my word for it…a Texan trying to translate French. Head on down to Barnes & Noble and pick up an English version of Histoire(s) du cinéma. Just be advised that there isn’t one.
The shadow of a doubt. You are incredulous. The law of silence. You reserve the right to later prove me wrong. I welcome the day when an English translation of Histoire(s) du cinéma exists. We human beasts–les Fauves…we live life by the drop…by the dram. L’Assommoir. dram…drachm…Dracula.
Godard’s “family album” includes Zola, Proust, Manet. Is it false to graph a fauxtograph? Niépce, Daguerre…yes, camera photography indeed originated in France (in the 1820s) and the first known photograph of a person (made by Daguerre) dates from 1838 (in Paris, naturally). But perhaps the most ironic omission from Histoire(s) du cinéma is Louis Le Prince (ironic at least in that, though he is “remembered” for pioneering moving pictures by way of scenes he shot in the U.K., he was thoroughly French).
But though there is no mention of Le Prince, there are other sorts of pioneers…such as Giotto and Matisse…even Madame de la Fayette and (due to Sartre?) Faulkner. It is well-known that Sartre was Godard’s intellectual hero. La Fayette was friends with Cardinal de Retz during the Fronde as well as being close with La Rochefoucauld. She authored La Princesse de Clèves (1678). Sarkozy may no longer see exceptional value in this groundbreaking French novel, but leave it to Godard to once again be oracular in predicting (somewhat) the 2009 French protests which consisted of anti-Sarkozy public readings of France’s first historical novel (and quite possibly the first “psychological” novel in the history of world literature). But Godard was not pulling from thin air: he knew his history (and had lived it). Jean Cocteau had adapted the novel for a 1961 film version directed by Jean Delannoy.
Godard with his mind like a TGV. He is the eternal skeptic…skeptical of cinema as much as Christianity. JLG the TGV is not one who can be forced to believe. His mind is too far ahead. Our avant-garde. And his mind races backwards through time…back to Bergson…Meerson…and avec grande vitesse towards our present destination…Watson and Crick…Manson and “Tricky Dick”…fat…gift…poison…mist…shit
Louis Le Prince or no Louis Le Prince: in the beginning was the word. Ordet. Danish for “word.” But as Godard pays homage to Dreyer (director of Ordet in 1955) he drops into German for some reason…and as e.e. cummings…capitalizing (on) nothing: “wie zu einer anderen historischen nachricht” [as to another historical message].
The eye is sliced again and again throughout the course of Histoire(s) du cinéma (just as the digital razor blade is applied in ever more inventive ways in Godard’s editing laboratory). “eine ganz andere stelle in deinem leben einnehmen” [an entirely different spot to take in your life] The Image, it has been said, will appear at the time of the resurrection. Girls in tears. “The cinema was never an art and, still less, a technique,” says Godard. Le Repas de bébé (1895), directed by Louis Lumière, keeps the girl from crying. Rio Bravo keeps the Frenchman dreaming. Motion picture cameras never fundamentally changed between ca. 1895 and 1959 (the year of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo). Godard educates us to this fact while going on to extol the virtues of the Debrie 7 (a cine camera from the 1920s) at the expense of the Panavision Platinum (1986, which would have been the latest Panavision model when Godard was filming Chapitre 1b of Histoire(s)).
Old is better? Perhaps. But at the very least, one must know one’s history–the history of their art. [not an art/nor a technique/but a mystery] Why do some things “work” in art while others don’t? That is the mystery of art. For Godard, cinema is beyond art: it is a complete mystery. That is having respect for one’s medium. That is a humility beyond self-criticism. I am reminded of Le Gai savoir (1969). Cinema year zero.
Gide. Guide. White shadows, south seas. Black shadows, north sea. Kiss me, Captain Blood…you stupid, ordinary fascist. Madame Bovary. Adam Ovary. Before there was porn, there was Bovary. The Devil. Cinema is an art without a future. Godard the pessimist is as splenetic as Baudelaire–as sardonic as Céline. As Godard was filming Chapter 1 of Histoire(s) it had still not even been 100 years since L’Arrivée d’un Train en gare de la Ciotat (1895)…that canonical cornerstone of film history (directed by the Lumière brothers).
Godard takes another stab at one of his employers (this time specifying the Léon of Gaumont) while again viciously eviscerating the vitiating effect of television upon society in general. Gaumont’s TV dream was indeed essentially a dark victory. The sky (indeed, heaven) has been brought down to the level of a midget (“du petit Poucet“…from Perrault, 1697) by way of television [argues Godard].
The “Geneva drive” or “Maltese cross” in movie projectors (the mechanizing principle having originated in the Swiss watch industry) allows each frame of film to pause before the projection lamp for 1/24th of a second. In that 24th of a second, each frame is twice exposed (creating a frequency of 48 Hz). The mechanism was still being used (for other purposes) as late as 2007 for NASA’s Dawn mission. “ce désir mort…” I cannot explain Godard. I can only follow leads. And there are so many of them in Histoire(s)…from Marguerite Duras to Jeanne Moreau.
I read “baron Enfantin” and arrive at Dimitri Kirsanoff by way of Ménilmontant (1926). It is a silky smooth road of mental glissandi…so very similar to Finnegans Wake. Godard may be talking about “the dream” being mechanized, but my mind is drunk on rhum–dancing a rhumba. Is it but a bitter victory to “figure out” what Godard is getting at in Histoire(s)? …that is to say, the birth of art? ice floe…sloe gin… It was the dawning of the 20th century when hysteria began to be treated by the young Freud…”les portes du rêve“…the key to dreams…the key to these doors…Charcot meets Lilian Gish…neurology, psychology, psychiatry…nothing…never…Salpêtrière… Cinema would not catch up to Godard’s thoughts ca. 1988 until 2012 when Alice Winocour decided to make a film about Charcot and his love affair with a patient (Augustine).
God. The gods. gods~~~ the state of infancy was perverted by the World Wars…and sad television…poor, pitiful television of imbecile adults…”which refuses to see the hole from which it was born”…television, personified, itself an adult imbecile…
All of this is, for Godard, wrapped up in the splendor and misery of cinema. Hitler. Cinema. “the techniques have been decided upon for the reproduction of life”…by way of cinema…in the morning of the 20th century.
“she said neither yes nor no”~~~a girl and boy
When will life be given back what cinema has stolen from it? When will life take it back? From the beginning, it was decided (for some reason) that the standard would be black and white. But life is not black and white. These are “the colors of mourning,” says Godard. What do Chaplin and the poets have to say about this situation? If they sing gravely, they still consider all mortals to be their brothers. Even Edison filmed May Irwin in The Kiss (1896). And it is simply that: a kiss. Was it the first kiss ever filmed? Perhaps an earlier kiss will be unearthed 😉 One thing is certain: for its time it was positively scandalous. Improper. Quasi-pornographic. Edison showed the 47 second film in Ottawa and it was long thought to be the first film ever shown in Canada. Turns out the Lumière brothers had been in Montreal about a month before. the angel…Gauguin…recapitulation. “to be a poet in times of distress is to sing, to be attentive to the trace of the gods who have fled”~~~What are we (not to mention, Where do we come from?)? And, by the way, Where are we going?
She has jumped into San Francisco Bay. It is nighttime for the world. And the poet?