Histoire(s) du cinéma {Chapter 1(a): Toutes les histoires} [1988]

Times seem apocalyptic.

So here is the greatest movie ever made.

But it is not available on iTunes.

You may have a hard time finding it.

And an even harder time playing it.

I did.

Back in the day.

I had to acquire a region-free DVD player.

And I did.

Solely to watch this film.

It is in four parts.

Each of which is divided in two.

So, therefore, eight parts.

This much-féted masterwork was not only released on television (which is to say, it was not a “theatrical” film per se), but it was accompanied by a soundtrack on the very erudite German record label ECM and further augmented by a book (text and screenshots) published by the most famous French publishing house Gallimard.

The soundtrack is very difficult to find on CD, but it is becoming less-difficult to find in the digital realm (unlike the film itself).

You can at least “listen to the movie” on Spotify.

And so for this film review, we will only be considering (to start with) the first section (which runs 51 minutes).

It is the section with which I am most familiar.

It is my personal favorite.

But it is important to note that the entire 266 minute film is essential to the “weight” of this creation (even if this first part is the most finely-crafted).

But we will reconsider as we go along.

The first section of the film (that which is under consideration) dates from 1988.

The book was not released till 1998 (when the film was completed).

So we have a sort of serial composition here (in the sense of Finnegans Wake).

It came out in parts.

It dribbled out.

Like QAnon.

And its influence spread.

Like COVID-19.

We remember William S. Burroughs and his concept of the “word virus”.

That is certainly germane here.

But I return, again, to Finnegans Wake.

No film creation in the history of cinema is more like James Joyce’s aforementioned masterpiece than Histoire(s) du cinéma.

Indeed, the only other creation I know of which enters into this same sui generis realm is Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk (translated in English as Arcades Project).

These are DENSE works…these three masterpieces.

One (Joyce) a “novel”.

One (Godard) a “movie”.

And one (Benjamin) a philosophical book.

Two books and a movie.

And the movie eventually became a book (Godard’s Gallimard creation).

The reverse of the usual.

Here, book doesn’t become film.

And there is not “more” in the book than there is in the film in Godard’s case.

If anything, there is certainly less.

Which doesn’t make it any less poignant.

So, what Godard has created for us with the book is a perfect guide to REMEMBERING WHAT WE SAW.

Which is a big theme of Histoire(s) du cinéma.

Film preserves the holiness of real life (to paraphrase).

Film (and video…of which this movie makes extensive use) preserves a moment.

Film can be (and is, always) a document.

Godard outlines a very French dichotomy here.

Film can be either predominantly of the Lumière brothers’ tradition (what we might call “documentary”).

Or of the Méliès tradition (a doctored reality…a “staged” document…what we might call “drama” [and its various subgenres such as “comedy”]).

But this dichotomy is not strictly “mutually exclusive”.

And here Godard brings us the example of Robert Flaherty.

Known as a director of documentaries, Godard points out that Flaherty “staged” his documentaries (which blurs the lines between the Lumière/Méliès dichotomy).

And what of Histoire(s) du cinéma?

Is it a documentary?

In many ways, yes.

It is a history of film.

But it is also a history of the filmmaker who is MAKING that very same history of film (namely, Godard himself).

To add further layers of surreality, Godard must address his own contribution to the history of cinema (which is considerable by even the most unbiased estimation).

Which is to say…

Godard is important to the history of film.

Very important.

Whether you like him and his films or not, he cannot be ignored.

And so we have here a very curious and “loaded” document indeed.

It is a matter of historiography.

Godard cannot (and indeed, does not even try) to remove his own opinion from this exercise of surveying the history of cinema.

That may be, ultimately, because Jean-Luc Godard never stopped being a film critic.

It was as a lowly film critic that he started…and it is as a film critic with his caméra-stylo (“camera pen”) that he continues to create today.

All of his films are, in and of themselves, film criticism.

From Breathless to The Image Book, he is always making a statement.

Pointing out how vapid Hollywood can be.

Pointing out what doesn’t exist in the marketplace.

Perhaps he is creating that which he would most like to watch…as a film lover.

His favorite film didn’t exist (except in his head–except as a vague concept).

No one had made it.

So, in order to watch it, he had to create it himself.

Then he could (theoretically) “enjoy” it.

I imagine he does this with each new film he makes.

It is always an attempt (“essay”…from French etymology…”to try”) to materialize what he would like to watch.

No director has his cutting wit.

No director’s mind pivots so nimbly.

So he must become his own favorite director…over and over and over and over again.

But this film is indeed a special case.

Ten years of creation.

Joyce spent 17 years on Finnegans Wake.

Benjamin spent 13 years on his Arcades Project.

And all of this which I have written is merely a preface.

That is how IMMENSE and pithy(!) Histoire(s) du cinéma truly is.

To be a creator is tiresome.

It makes one weary.

To always dream.

To imagine.

And to sweat in pursuance of crystalizing ones inspiration.

Jean-Luc Godard has always been a bitter sort of chap.

Bitter about Hollywood.

A love/hate relationship (LOVE/HATE…Robert Mitchum…knuckle tats).

And it is true.

Godard delves very early on into the parallel birth and adolescence of cinema and the Holocaust.

Cinema and the Holocaust.

Cinema was still young.

Cinema had a responsibility to document.

The Germans were very technologically advanced (particularly in sound and video recording).

They kept records of everything.

Even when they went astray during the Third Reich.

Germany had already produced great directors by the time of the Holocaust.

At the top of the list would be F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.

But they were not alone.

Wiene, Pabst…

There were others.

UFA (which still exists till this day) was a giant.

Think Metropolis.

So where is the documentation of the Holocaust?

[you can see what a “dangerous” question Godard is asking]

Is he “denying” the Holocaust happened?

I don’t think so.

But he’s asking a relatively simple and (I think) sincere question.

Where is the video record?

All that has been passed down to us of the concentration camps (and “death” camps) is the record made by American directors like George Stevens AFTER the camps had been liberated.

So what really went on there?

Are we to really believe the Germans shot no footage whatsoever in these camps?

And if so, why can’t we see it?

Wouldn’t it truly help us to “never forget” and “never again” and stuff etc. etc.???

It is a very inconvenient fact that, as far as the general public has been made aware, there are NO (and I repeat NO) films (NO FOOTAGE) shot by the Nazis in the concentration camps during WWII.

Surely it exists, right?

But where is it?

Who has it?

What does it show?

Godard is the ultimate enfant terrible here (and elsewhere).

He wants to know.

He’s curious.

Because he’s a film lover.

And he ultimately blames Hollywood (which had, by WWII, become the global center of the film industry) for not truly DOCUMENTING what happened in the concentration camps (neither while the camps were active nor anytime afterwards).

But here Godard branches off into an aesthetic direction.

Godard flatly rejects the talentless Spielberg evocation of Schindler’s List.

For Godard, a directer as mediocre as Steven Spielberg has no business trying to tackle humanity’s darkest hour.

This is the conundrum at the heart of Histoire(s) du cinéma.

What Godard (I think) is saying is this:  there is no way to “write” a history of cinema…because a large portion of contemporaneous history (1939-1945) was not addressed in any true way by the BUSINESS (ironically represented heavily by Jews) of Hollywood.

Godard seems to be saying that Hollywood’s Jews (which is to say, Hollywood) let down world jewry during the years 1939-1945…all for a buck (as it were).

It is a persuasive argument in many ways.

But let’s back up a step.

To reiterate, a history of cinema cannot be told…because there is a portion of that history which is MISSING.

This is a very important word here (and a very important term).

There are films which SHOULD HAVE BEEN MADE, but weren’t (by Hollywood).

And there are films which may have be made (by the Nazis), but as far as we know (factually) were not made.  They do not exist (officially).

Two kinds of films missing.

Hollywood was responsible for the Méliès portion.

Hollywood should have used its immense power (and magic) to save the Jews of Europe.

EVERY FUCKING FILM should have been about the plight of the Jews in Europe who had been rounded up.

But we know very well that that’s not what Hollywood did.

The Nazis were responsible for the Lumière portion.

As twisted as the Nazis were, there is no way in hell those sick fucks did not film (with their Agfa technology, etc.) what was going on in the camps.

No fucking way.

Of course they filmed.

Like a goddamned serial killer.

And it was of pristine quality.

So where the fuck are those films?

But, sadly, Godard is called an “anti-Semite” for asking about these films.

Very sad.

He is coming from a “pure film” stance.

He wants to see the films.

He wants the world to see them.

And so the history of cinema is incomplete.

There is a gap.

Irving Thalberg.  Howard Hughes.  CIA.  RKO.  Starlets.

Film directors have been projecting their fantasies onto the screen since the beginning.

Their perfect women.

Their dream lovers.

But you can’t approach film history without approaching Hitler.

Film was at such an important point in its development.

And along came Adolph.

Chaplin and Hitler overlap.

They have the same mustache.

The Great Dictator was a comedy…more or less.

But it was also an attempt (“essay”) to address Hitler’s presence on the world stage.

An attempt to repudiate Hitler.

And yet, Chaplin could not quite hit the right tones.

It is maudlin.

As a comedy, The Great Dictator is pretty superb.

But it hasn’t aged that well as a piece of poetic philosophy.

Not really.

In that moment, the great Chaplin was powerless.

But at least he tried.

He tried.

But something was missing.

The camps.

Direct reference to the camps.

Addressing the problem with no beating around the bush.

No horseshit.

We need to see the bodies rotting.

We have seen that.

But we need to see the gas chambers.

We need to see the German efficiency and precision.

We need to see their documents.

Their film documents.

No Hollywood recreation can convey what those mythical reels contain.

No backlot will suffice.

We have the propaganda films.

Leni Riefenstahl.

I think what Godard is saying is this…

Hollywood has, since WWII, had to live with the guilt of NOT DOING ENOUGH during the Holocaust.

At the time (while it was happening), it was not kosher (no pun intended) to address the camps.

The public needed uplifting fare.

And Hollywood provided.

Hollywood provided a service.

Entertainment.

But Hollywood (as an entity) was permanently cheapened by not addressing the deep philosophical issue of mass death…mass murder.

Hollywood could have yelled, “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

And, indeed, the theater WAS on fire.

But Hollywood said nothing.

Hollywood told jokes.

No medium is perfect.

Hollywood is people.

But as an institution, Hollywood was exposed as being essentially artless and vacuous.

There were exceptions.

Hitchcock (British…but part of Hollywood).  Chaplin (British…but part of Hollywood).

Nicholas Ray.  Erich von Stroheim (Germanic…but part of Hollywood).  D.W. Griffith.  Howard Hawks.  Orson Welles.

But WWII was also the death of European cinema.

This is a very important concept that Godard conveys.

Not only were European Jews liquidated by the Nazis, but European cinema was effectively liquidated by Hollywood.

Europe would never be the same.

Fritz Lang.  Jean Renoir.  Abel Gance.  Jean Vigo.  Jean Cocteau.  Roberto Rossellini.  Max Ophüls.

America won the war.

The Soviet Union also won the war.

Germany lost.

France was “liberated”.

Italy lost.

And as Europe was subsequently split in half (the capitalist West and the communist East), the hegemony of American film [Hollywood] spread.

At the end of the Cold War, that hegemony became complete.

And so Godard is lamenting the death of his national film industry.

Godard is Swiss.

But he is, in many ways, also French.

He is a French speaker.

His years of highest-visibility were spent in Paris.

And there is not really a Swiss film industry of which to speak.

French film died (“liberated”/occupied).

Italian film died (lost war…occupied).

German film died (lost war…occupied).

Scandinavian film died.

Everything was pushed out by Hollywood.

Europe was relegated to the the realm of “art film”.

European cinema was put in a corner.

The wrecked economies of Europe could not compete with the war-machine-rich studios of America.

America had the magic–the fantasy–the special effects–the Technicolor.

Weary Europeans wanted happiness.

And they bought into the American idea of happiness.

To the detriment of their own unique cultures and philosophies.

Europe became Americanized (at least in the realm of the cinema).

To be continued…

 

-PD

Sleeping Dogs [1977)

The year we were born.

My lady.

There are few things more odd and enjoyable than a New Zealand accent.

And few things more enjoyable than finally finding a decent movie after wading through piles of shit.

This is quite a good film.

And it starts off our survey of kiwi cinema.

Smith gets cucked, but he plays the Jesus figure at the end.

Profoundly weird.

Rebel without a reason.

The Wrong Man meets Godard’s Week-end.

Will we attack Iran?

And what about the “resistance” that Hillary’s loss spawned?

Sam Neill essentially plays Dennis Wilson.

Pacific ocean blue.

Operation Gladio.

Buried weapons caches.

This movie takes some really unseen plot turns.

Several WTF moments.

And the end we also get a bit of Jean Renoir.

“Boeldieu”, shouts Erich von Stroheim.

“Boeldieu!”

Dig through film history.

With me.

Lots of false flagging here.

Brenton Tarrant?

Not sure.

Real or fake?

Bloke had some odd travels, what?

Turkey.

North Korea.

Epic vomiting!

Fingers down throat.

Way to out-special New Zealand’s special forces.

Not a country particularly known for that.

Shaves his beard.

We pull for him.

Root for him.

Hitchcock’s mistaken identity foiled.

ANZUS.

1951.

Harewood Airport (Christchurch).

U.S. Antarctic Research Program (cover).

USAF Mt. John (Washdyke).

This was the intel as of 1974.

From a kiwi student newspaper.

Which segues into the communist guerrilla element of this film.

Which is to say, New Zealand probably did have some dumb fucks who wanted to fight the government.

AND…New Zealand (like most governments) probably has false-flagged when it’s convenient.

Thus we find out the meaning of Sleeping Dogs.

In a fucking motel.

Kiwi special forces driving Toyotas.

Warren Oates does a pretty great job here.

Godard might know him from The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond.

Smith (Neill) shows the idiocy of radicalization.

But also the sense that it makes.

Poor saps with bleeding hearts.

Just trying to do the right thing.

Just trying to preserve true justice.

In the face of dirty governments.

This movie does not disappoint.

For my money, it is better than Fitzcarraldo.

The RNZAF make sure of that.

Kudos to director Roger Donaldson on a job well done!

 

-PD

Sunset Boulevard [1950)

This is the story of O.J. Simpson.

This is the story of Phil Spector.

Too much foreshadowing?

Scramble.  Scramble.

Scramble the meaning.

This is Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon come to life.

Fifteen years before anger published.

In France they have Angers.

And every George is a multiple.

Georges.

But what passion!

Yes, dear friends…

Sunset Boulevard is one of the strangest films ever made.

If you want to know from whence Mulholland Drive came, start here.

SUNSET BLVD.

Mulholland Dr.

If you’re really daft (and I am), you’ll think you’re watching that guy who played The Professor on Gilligan’s Island in one of the best films you’ve ever seen.

But there’s a big fucking difference between Russell Johnson and William Holden.

Or is there?

Just let the wind blow through the bellows of the pipe organ for a moment.

And imagine yourself in a dream so dark it could be a nightmare.

But it’s merely spooky.

The great art.

Has mystery.

What was director Billy Wilder groping for?

Never mind, for a second, the bursting cast.

Every extra a novel in themselves.

Just the story of Sunset Boulevard is enough to make a thinking person stagger into the intersection on the Rue Campagne-Première.

But there are so many intersections…

Mon ami.

It starts bad.

Like a second-rate Raymond Chandler ripoff.

But it compels you to stay with it.

A little underwater photography.

Novel.

The adjective.

So much hinges on Paramount Pictures.

The gate.

The arch.

And how criticism can thwart a career.

The straw that broke the needle in the camel’s eye.

It’s like something out of Breathless or Dr. No.

The precipitous turn.

Kicking up dust.

Before the boulevard was broken dreams and crack vials.

Syringes.

Just ordinary fascism.

Triumph over violins.

And we trace the line.

A shoulder.

A chin.

A palazzo.  A collection of post-Impressionists.

Because we want to know.

For nothing could be more mysterious.

Lost a husband to the Spanish flu.

Lost two more, too.

But one lives as a ghost.

And his monocle groove is strangely vacant.

Erich von Stroheim.

Unreal.

Whether in a Jean Renoir picture or here.

Whether behind the camera or acting in his own film.

In two places at once.

Like Schrodinger’s cat.

But nobody remembers Schrodinger’s chimpanzee.

And a little coffin.

And the steps Stroheim has to take to stand in a hole.

This is the story of Michael Jackson.

This is the story of Emmett Miller.

Not gone, but forgotten.

And it is the true way entertainment worked.

When mass media was born.

At a million miles an hour.

1900.

Or 1898.

Churning out pictures.

From the dream factory.

And wax cylinders.

And who cares about these young girls…we can always find more.

But Buster Keaton sits in for Miller.

Because there is nothing more sad than a sad clown.

The waxworks…

The rogues gallery.

It could have been Elektra.

But it had to be Richard Strauss.

1909.  1911.

Great silence on one coast.

And great noise on the other.

Direct from Europe.

This is the story of Thora Birch.

The greatest star who ever was.

And I am just a humble servant.

Max.

There will be Max.

Always a sadness over beauty.

When beauty is counted in but one way.

One dimension.

3-D clustered, but without 4 time.

But you can’t bullshit a bullshitter.

And actors are all full of nothing.

Must empty out.

Each time.

To fully fill.

May the best shell win!

So that she stalks the shit outta him.

Like some Transylvanian octopus.

And Igor schleps his stuff in the middle of the night.

Like some dream from Dreyer’s Vampyr.

What the fuck?!?

Poor William Holden is living in the decline of the West.

The sagging tennis court.

The bowling alley in the basement we never see.

Because it would be like the Biltmore on hard times.

Truly grotesque.

Decay.  And decadence.

Taken separately.  Different connotations.

A piece of rotting fruit in the trash.

And champagne supernovas of drunken, naked excess.

But they are one and the same.

When rooted word-wise to rot.

Gloria Swanson is the hysterical car-wreck-of-an-actress here.

You can’t look away.

Bride of Frankenstein.  Hell, Frankenstein himself.  Sex changed.  Sexless.

More hideous internally than externally.

And more nuts than the peanut gallery of an old picture house.

But no locks.

Perhaps a lock of hair…

But no gas.

No blades.

No.

It’s quite a spooky thing to be trapped in such luxury.

Such trappings.

Camelhair.  Vicuña.

What the hell!

She’s paying, right???

Tails.

For godsake, man…Valentino danced the tango here!

But now the tarantula hums.

Manipulative receives new meaning.

An actress.  A star!  And that Roaring Twenties, gilded, cocksure, brassy optimism.

Unfazed by decades of disuse.

“She’s doin’ the ballet on/both of her wrists”

Goddamn…

If Echo & the Bunnymen were around in 1950…

William Holden has been sucked in.

To a vortex.

And it ain’t no fun.

No funny business.  No funnymen.

Plenty of echoes.

Of his past life.

Mingled with her omnipresent portraiture fecundating the stale mansion.

“He could die happily ever after”

Bob Dylan knew about the pillars.

And the pillory of fame.

And so C. B. DeMille was a natural choice.

To depict the heartbreak.

Of a washed up life.

Hate to break it to you, kid…

But the diva is in denial.

Yes, the bitch is back.

Take Elton and a whole gaggle of crocodiles…and the Isotta Fraschini with the leopard seats.

Several leopards died for your ass(es).

How’s the weather up there?

And so she rides a white swan because she’s born to boogie.

With the swagger of Bolan.

Norma Desmond.

Monomaniacal about beheading the past.

On a platter.

American montage shows the unwieldy devices–to make young again.

Strobo-oscillo-sonic skin tauteners.

Franju had a less frightening story sans yeux.

Face without eyes.

Ah! […]

But the eyes have it all!!!

The fire of once-great dominance.

Champagne.  Caviar.

The eeriness of Sunset Boulevard is that Gloria Swanson WAS once a great star (sort of).

And even more so, Erich von Stroheim WAS (REALLY FUCKING WAS) a great director!

And so Billy Wilder managed to tell their stories.

Only the names were changed to protect the guilty.

Devotion till the end.

Love for cinema.

Love for a woman.

A woman is a drum.

Where’s Duke Ellington when you need him???

Jealousy.

Jalousie.

Film noir.

Horizontal shafts of light.

But shadows all the more prominent.

This is our Rembrandt.

Our chiaroscuro.

How insensitive…

Norma with bitter, vindictive precision.

And then the curtain is pulled back on the waterworks.

And the fucking Pompidou explodes in hideous reds of dysfunction.

Yes.

Come and see where I live.

In a lonely place…

Maybe it’s better you don’t know me.

But he really wants to say, “Will you marry me?”

On this night.

What sadness.

We think such overwrought misery only exists in the movies.

But the intersections of real life sometimes make such tragedy possibly.

And we shouldn’t wish such on our worst enemies.

She can’t stand the shock.

But cinema is the ultimate beauty.

So fragile at the end…

We give thanks to see such a picture.

To see Stroheim one more time.

“Alright, boys…  Let’s rev up those cameras!”

To see the silent era stagger down the stairs one more time.

Like a wrought-iron flower.

With a green patina.

Nickelodeons penny on the dollar.

Kicked to the curb.

Save for Langlois.

She just needed one more shot at youth.

It was too much, too soon.

One last shot in the arm of that excitement!

That camaraderie of Hollywood.

Before it became a drag.

Her youth.

Memory is scary as hell.

-PD

Blind Husbands [1919)

Erich von Stroheim, like Lars von Trier after him, was not really a “von.”  Even as early as Josef von Sternberg directors were adopting (through hook and crook) the self-styled nobility of Stroheim in imitative honor.  The pioneer of this trend started his directing career with the film in question.  One wonders whether this movie also began the habit of filmmakers to shoot in (or depict) Cortina d’Ampezzo.  Through the years we would see both the Pink Panther and James Bond franchises gravitate towards the little Alpine village in the Dolomites.

One thing is certain:  after almost 100 years this story (also by Stroheim) feels modern and the direction is equally modern and stunning (especially for a first-time director).  Just two years later, Charlie Chaplin would begin (with The Kid) a string of self-directed features (with himself cast as the lead) which would rocket him to international stardom [the exceptions being A Woman of Paris (1923) and Chaplin’s last film A Countess from Hong Kong].  So one might argue that Stroheim started yet another trend (starring in self-directed features) which became inextricably integral to the development of film.  Later echoes would present themselves in the work of Orson Welles and François Truffaut (to name just two).

There are several innovative uses of the camera in this picture.  One, when Francelia Billington is combing her hair at the mirror, sees the focus go from her to her husband asleep in his bed.  Not content with this coup, Stroheim then has the husband morph into a memory of the young wedded couple in their happier, former days.  Another instance of ingenious directing comes when Billington is having a fevered nightmare ridden with guilt.  Stroheim (who plays The Other Man) appears as a disembodied, grotesque head.  As he smokes lasciviously from his long cigarette holder the dream sequence then cuts to his nicotine-stained hand and a solemn index finger which slowly comes to point at the dreamer.  Such imagery anticipates Hitchcock’s gun sequence from Spellbound (not to mention its dream sequence for which Hitch employed the design skills of Salvador Dalí).

Another poignant auteurist touch comes near the end when Stroheim (as actor) is stranded atop a mountain peak.  His dire situation is reinforced by the birds of prey which gradually start circling, yet we first only see them as shadows against the rock.

Most notably, this film was released just two months after the end of World War I.  Stroheim plays a Lieutenant in the Austrian cavalry (Austria-Hungary being one of the Central Powers battling the United States which was among the opposing Allies).  It was the assassination of an Austrian which triggered the war and the first shots fired were by Austrians on Serbians in retaliation.  Keep in mind that Blind Husbands is unquestionably a Hollywood production (Stroheim having emigrated to the U.S. in 1909).

Moving back to the theme of this film, one senses a shifting, secular morality pervading throughout.  Perhaps Stroheim was “urged” to make the whole thing a morality play, but he sure seems to be enjoying the role of the womanizing dandy.  The end of the film is not convincing enough to deduce that Stroheim really cared one way or another about the moral “lesson” ostensibly conveyed.  The only strange caveat is the shot of him (The Other Man) desperately praying atop the mountain.  That and, in my cut of the film, we never see Stroheim plunge from the cliff after having been attacked by vultures.  Perhaps I am still becoming versant in silent film and the fall escaped me.  Viewers with ADD stand no chance of making it through this “blockbuster.”  Those who have successfully absorbed the linguistic disconnect of Shakespeare from modern English will have a good idea of the patience it takes to delve into lesser known silent films on a regular basis.

-PD