The release of Jean-Luc Godard’s Historie(s) du cinéma on DVD in 2011 became something of a sensation in part because it took Godard over 20 years to complete. As Michael Witt fastidiously documents, the project interested Godard since the mid-’70s when he produced a hand-made 20 page collage vaguely conceptualizing its origins. Within it, Godard imagined ten one-hour video tapes being produced at the cost of around $60,000-$100,000. Half of the programs would be dedicated to silent cinema and the other half would be on sound. US, European, and Russian cinema would play a prominent role in his history. The tapes would then be sold for around $250-500 each. Godard considered his primary market US universities, which held the most robust film programs at the time and, more importantly, substantial budgets to purchase film-related materials (Witt, “Archaeology of ‘Historie(s) du Cinéma,” in Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, xxi).
Yet the first screening of Historie(s) du cinéma during the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and its later release on video in 1998 and DVD in 2011 revealed a substantially different vision than originally conceptualized. Episodes were now organized around specific themes like the metaphor of projection, cinema and war, cinema as art via Alfred Hitchcock, and so on. Montage became the primary mechanism of interrogation as the series jostled and re-assembled films of the past and present with one another through loose associational links or historical proximity. The soundtrack and voice-over offered additional associational links to complicate the visual terrain unfolding before viewers.
Godard was already concerned with cinematic history in Les Carabiniers (1963) in re-creating Arrival at a Train Station (1896).
Godard also re-creates the supposed reaction such audiences had at the time although no proof exists of this actually occurring.
A central key to help unlock the density of meaning and associations of Godard’s Historie(s) du cinéma is to be found in a series of lectures that he gave in Montreal from April to October 1978, which have not been fully transcribed until now with the 2014 English translation of them. Godard viewed the lectures as an incubator to publicly generate ideas regarding Historie(s) du cinéma. Furthermore, he envisioned the lectures as a co-production between the Conservatory of Cinematographic Art at Sir George Williams University that funded Godard’s talks and his production company, Sonimage. A year afterwards, a book was to be produced regarding his discoveries. But the lectures were terminated before completion due to a sudden loss of funding, and the book remained a fleeting goal as Godard grew distant from Serge Losique, his host and co-producer at the Conservatory.
In spite of their incomplete nature, the lectures not only illuminate the project that would come to full fruition 20 years later, but also provide an intimate professional portrait of one of the leading avant-garde filmmakers who was beginning to distance himself from his more explicitly political work of the late ’60s and early ’70s and to more fully interrogate his relationship with a capitalist cinema that he loathed yet intimately belonged to.
Historie(s) du cinéma shares deep affinities with another ambitious artistic/philosophical project that preceded it: Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. Although never completed due to Benjamin’s suicide in 1940, The Arcades Project consumed 13 years of Benjamin’s life. Similar to Historie(s) du cinéma, montage also became its operational principle as Benjamin sifted through the cultural detritus of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to juxtapose his findings in an experimental configuration that would shock readers from their capitalist malaise to expose the potential utopian configurations that lurked in the crannies of history and coursed through even the most mundane products of popular culture. Susan Buck-Morss notes the central questions that guided Benjamin’s use of montage within The Arcades Project: “Could montage as the formal principle of the new technology be used to reconstruct an experiential world so that it provided a coherence of vision necessary for philosophical reflection? And more, could the metropolis of consumption, the high ground of bourgeois-capitalist culture, be transformed from a world of mystifying enchantment into one of both metaphysical and political illumination?” (The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, 23).
Godard’s similar goals in Historie(s) du cinéma should not be that surprising, since like Benjamin, he was deeply influenced by Soviet montage and surrealism, two deeply political artistic movements that essentially believed that the re-ordering of the world and its images were necessary precursors to revolutionary transformation. If one could not see one’s world differently, he/she could certainly not act differently within it. Hence the issue of form remains a predominant concern for Godard throughout his lectures. He notes, “I think the most difficult thing to change is not content, it’s form” (268). Yet he defines form as not merely an aesthetic concern, but one that pervades our everyday rituals: “Forms: the way in which a government leader is greeted at an airport, or the way in which a baby is baptized, or the way people get married, which I think is still quite powerful. Places where people cling to a number of forms. And true change is when these forms change, and true non-change is when words change, when people say ‘socialist’ instead of ‘capitalist’” (268).
Montage served as a key device for Godard to disrupt the near stranglehold narrative has on commercial cinema. He lectures, “I’ve always been annoyed at having to do what people in the film industry or in real life call ‘telling a story,’ meaning starting at zero hour, creating a beginning and then arriving at an end” (67). Like the surrealists, Godard feels that narrative shackles cinema to cliché meanings and predisposed actions that images on their own can transcend. Many surrealists before him also rejected classic cinematic narrative by sporadically attending films midway into their showing, leaving after some time to then attend another cinema where they could spontaneously watch a new film that had already begun. Un Chien Andalou (1929) shows such a surrealistic outlook in action as the film dislodges its narrative through a gleeful tumbling of incompatible genres like horror and the emerging gangster film with doses of melodrama and pornography. This can also be witnessed in Rose Hobart (1936) where Joseph Cornell reassembles the B-picture East of Borneo (1931) to unmoor its mesmerizing visuals from the moronic plot of a woman searching the jungle to locate her husband.
Similarly, Godard’s 1978 lectures serve as a dry run for the montage principle that will guide Historie(s) du cinéma. Along with screening one of his films, Godard also plays various reels of other older films that he feels correspond to his own. For example, he screens excerpts from Dracula (1931), The Birds (1963) and Germany, Year Zero with his film Weekend since he feels that all the films address the monstrous. He observes the importance of montage in creating intellectual associations with Dracula: “So where are the monsters? Who are the monsters? It’s absolutely unbel—those big houses, Lugosi’s house, all the huge houses, the houses of Vanderbilt, du Pont de Nemours, people like that, that’s where they live … If I had seen Dracula all by itself, I could never have had that idea. But because I see it and I know that afterwards or just before I’m going to see Germany, Year Zero, I say to myself: ‘Well …” (309). In other words, by juxtaposing an excerpt from a horror film with that of a neorealist one, Godard is able to see how the phantasmic context of horror relates to the everyday horrors of capitalist exploitation.
Benjamin’s explanation of The Arcades Project to Ernst Bloch in 1935 encapsulates a similar goal found in Godard’s Historie(s) du cinéma: “I set forth how this project—as in the method of smashing an atom—releases the enormous energy of history that lies bound in the ‘once upon a time’ of classical historical narrative” (quoted in Buck-Morss 250). But instead of exploiting the potential contained within classical historical narrative, Godard’s main aim is to release the enormous energy found in cinema that has been constricted within classical cinematic narratives and rote accounts of cinematic history. He ideally would have liked to have achieved this by simultaneously juxtaposing film sequences directly against one another and minimizing his own discussion of them. However, since the Conservatory lacked such equipment, he had to engage in a more standard screening and lecture style. But regardless, he sees cinema’s main intervention in its discovery of montage, “which is to put something in relation to someone in a different way than novels or paintings. This is why it was successful, enormously successful, because it opened people’s eyes in a certain way” (217).
The Importance of Community
The Importance of Community
Along with attempting to locate the historical precursors to his own films and unshackle cinematic images from that of narrative, the lectures also reveal the burden Godard feels with being associated with the French New Wave and auteur theory. Godard sees the championing of auteur theory during the ’50s as a strategy used by himself, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and others to allow them to enter film production. Godard asserts, “We took the author’s name from the bottom and put it at the top. We said: ‘He’s the one who made the film’; meaning: ‘We’re the ones who should be making films. That’s how films should be made, and if that’s how films should be made and we’re the ones who say this is the way, then we’re the ones who should be making them” (358). Yet he laments, “It’s a theory that was useful to us, and I’ve had a lot of trouble shaking the effects: (359). The legacy of auteur theory particularly plagued him as he engaged in more explicitly political filmmaking where he wanted to minimize his authorial presence as well as undercut a polished aesthetic that could overshadow political insight.
Yet Godard also mourns the passing of the New Wave. He states during an early lecture: “The strength of our films at the time they were made and were successful is that they were films that were made … by people who talked about film amongst themselves and criticized each other’s work a little … This moment no longer exists” (21-22).
In many ways, he sees the early days of the New Wave as operating like that of the classical Hollywood studio system during its heyday where film suffused people’s daily lives. He claims that classical studio films are often better than present ones as “a result of the simple fact that they [the personnel] were paid by the day by the big studios and they punched in like a worker, whether they wanted to or not, and because they talked about things in the cafeteria with other people who did the same work. There was an average-level of know-how, an average harmony. You can criticize this, but it existed and it doesn’t exist anymore” (81-82).
In essence, Godard’s romanticizing of classical Hollywood and the early days of the New Wave reveals the importance of community for him, something he attempted to resurrect with the formation of the Dziga Vertov group with Jean-Pierre Gorin in the late ’60s, but a communal spirit never coalesced in the production of their films nor in its desire to reach more working-class audiences. For example, Godard states that he and Gorin made Tout va bien for the 100,000 Renault workers who demonstrated at Pierre Overney’s funeral. Overney was killed by a factory security guard. Godard recalls, “His funeral was one of the last great left-wing demonstrations, with around 100,000 people, Then afterwards there was a lull. So we said: ‘We’re making Tout va bein for the 100,000 people who went to the funeral … (T)he film was a failure because it had only 15,000 or 20,000 viewers” (103). Although Godard assumes that most of those viewers attended the funeral, this seems more wishful thinking than anything else.
Either way, by the late ’70s Godard had to confront that only his first film, Breathless, made any profits because it had the widest appeal. He mostly accepted this situation. To address larger audiences, he fully realized that “I would have to make the film in a way I don’t like in order to reach them” (104). But this also let him question the relevancy of his own work: “Then you realise you are truly all alone, and this is the real problem. Why should anything I do interest anyone?” (104).
Capitalism cannablizing itself at the end of Weekend (1967) as the wife eats her husband.
This appeal to niche audiences becomes even more problematic by the late ’70s with the emergence of the blockbuster film. Directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas haunt Godard’s thoughts like a bad dream: “But Spielberg takes the cake. You can’t even call him a coward. More like a swindler. At the same time, I admire his cunning. It’s a fine fifteen-million dollar swindle that brought in eighty million” (49). He continues, “What I wanted was to see an encounter of the third kind. But you don’t see—the film ends right there” (49).
The problem for Godard is not so much the “swindle” and stupidity that accompanies the blockbuster film, but the fact that such films make the production and distribution of smaller productions more difficult since they don’t hold the same box office clout and potential profits that producers now want to generate. Godard instead argues that “I think film and television should be more like a provincial newspaper. The students here, you publish a student paper, some students print a paper for the university. They don’t say to themselves: ‘This newspaper has to be distributed around the world.’ They accept that it remain internal. I think films are exactly like that. There may be some that are seen by everyone, but what is not good is to start with everyone from the beginning. I think it has terrible effects which people don’t realise” (111).
Yet such thoughts ran against the tides of growing media consolidation that would predominate throughout the ’80s to the present, making niche market films like the ones Godard produced even more difficult to finance. It is most likely that if Godard had not built up his name recognition during the ’60s, he would have never been able to make the types of films he produced during the ’80s and onwards. This growing constriction on his filmmaking abilities by new economic circumstances gets repeated time and again during his lectures with the mantra: “And what became my rule of thumb, which is simpler and lets you do something else, is to do what you can, and not what you want. To do what you want out of what you can, to do what you want out of what you have and not dream about doing the impossible” (18). This is still the philosophy of most independent filmmakers.
Yet despite seeming out-of-step with the times in terms of the avant-garde films he creates, Godard like many other experimental filmmakers like Chris Marker recognized the promise of emerging video technology. He observes, “Video is interesting. It could be interesting, because of the fact that you see the image right away. The technical relationship, and the technical hierarchy aren’t the same … Because in video the cinematographer sees the image right away, at that point he’s no longer a specialist with a trained eye” (230). This sense of feedback that video produces was explored earlier in the decade by video guerrilla groups within the United States like the Videofreex and Top Value Television who would immediately playback footage of those they recorded to demystify the experience and earn a sense of trust.
Video, for Godard, in many ways became the new site of collective media production that the classical Hollywood studio system and the early French New Wave once represented. He states, “Two people working together creates a very interesting relationship I find, and video lets several people be a part of an image. You’re forced to be more numerous because you see the image right away” (231). Video, therefore, allows for a more communal form of production that extends media-making beyond the expertise of a few select technicians.
In the age of YouTube and social media, Godard’s comments prove prescient as video technology converges with other everyday forms of technology like cell phones and watches. Yet with the increasing portability and decreasing price of video technology, collective production becomes less necessary as it was during the ’70s where expensive, unwieldy equipment naturally lent itself more to group structures.
Perhaps most fascinating, Godard’s lectures occur during a rupture within the global cinematic landscape. The age of the blockbuster had just seized hold, making the type of intimate and avant-garde cinema that Godard practiced increasingly difficult. Media consolidation and the rise of film festivals like Sundance and Tribeca further marginalized anti-narrative filmmaking from theatrical distribution. Yet the promises of video that Godard traces at the time speaks to a more affordable and accessible technology that will challenge traditional cinematic practices and eventually provide an alternative distribution platform over the internet as connection speeds exponentially increase by the ’00s.
Like all good histories, Godard’s lectures not only reflect upon the past, but utilize the past to help anticipate the future and seize the utopian potential of the present. Not coincidentally, Walter Benjamin also shared the same goal in his Arcades project. He utilized the past to trace where future emancipations might occur, not in order to resurrect the past in the present, but instead to use the outlines of the past to detect new utopian formations. We witness how Godard’s lamentations over the passing of community of the studio system and the early days of the French New Wave directly connect with the newly emerging community he sees being forged through the use of ascendant video technology. The utopian dimensions of the past get rebirthed in a new technological form of the present.
Needless to say, I’m touching on only a few of the remarkable insights that Godard’s lectures hold. Michael Witt’s introduction to the lectures and the history of the making of Historie(s) du cinéma in Introduction to a True History provides an excellent in-depth context that I have not read elsewhere. Even Timothy Barnard’s note on the text’s translation offers a critical understanding of how it differs from and triumphs over earlier, partial transcriptions.
Overall, the form of the lecture style is well suited for Godard. Just as his films proceed in fragments in order to engage viewers, the lectures hold a similar fragmentary nature that force readers to draw linkages between Godard’s thoughts and further flush out what they might mean. Introduction to a True History, in other words, doesn’t simply present Godard’s thoughts in easily digestible forms, but emulates in the lecture format the very type of montage approach that Godard celebrates in his cinema and would become the driving force behind his Historie(s) du cinéma. It is easily one of the defining texts on cinema of the late 20th century and a rather remarkable work of modernist experimentation in its own right.