Film

Jean-Luc Godard: A Montage of Attractions

Jean-Luc Godard

The montage approach that Jean-Luc Godard celebrates in his films would become the driving force behind Historie(s) du cinéma.

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).

Next Page
Music
Music

Chewing the Fat: Rapper Fat Tony on His Latest Work From Hip-hop's Leftfield

Fat Tony proves a bright, young artist making waves amongst the new generation of hip-hop upstarts.

Music

The Bobby Lees Strike the Punk-Blues Jugular on Jon Spencer-Produced 'Skin Suit'

The Bobby Lees' Skin Suit is oozing with sex, sweat and joyful abandon. It's a raucous ride from beginning to end. Cover to cover, this thing's got you by the short hairs.

Music

Khruangbin Add Vocals But Keep the Funk on 'Mordechai'

Khruangbin's third album Mordechai is a showcase for their chemistry and musical chops.

Music

Daniel Avery's Versatility Is Spread Rather Thin on 'Love + Light'

Because it occasionally breaks new ground, Daniel Avery's Love + Light avoids being an afterthought from start to finish. The best moments here are generally the hardest-hitting ones.

Music

Buscabulla Chronicle a Return to Puerto Rico in Chic Synthwave on 'Regresa'

Buscabulla's authenticity -- along with dynamite production chops and musicianship -- is irreplaceable, and it makes Regresa a truly soulful synthwave release.

Music

Why Australia's Alice Ivy Doesn't Want to Sleep

Alice Ivy walks a fine line between chillwave cool and Big Beat freakouts, and her 2018 debut record was an electropop wonder. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, she tries to keep the good vibes going with a new record decked out in endless collaborations.

Music

12 Essential Kate Bush Songs

While Kate Bush is a national treasure in the UK, American listeners don't know her as well. The following 12 songs capture her irrepressible spirit.

Books
Featured: Top of Home Page

'Breathing Through the Wound' Will Leave You Gasping for Air

As dizzying as Víctor Del Árbol's philosophy of crime may appear, the layering of motifs in Breathing Through the Wound is vertiginous.

Books

'Perramus: The City and Oblivion' Depicts Argentina's Violent Anti-Communist Purge

Juan Sasturain and Alberto Breccia's graphic novel Peraramus: The City and Oblivion, is an absurd and existential odyssey of a political dissident who can't remember his name.

Books

Five Women Who Fought the Patriarchy

Whether one chooses to read Square Haunting for the sketches of the five fascinating women, or to understand how misogyny and patriarchy constricted intellectual and public life in the period, Francesca Wade's book is a superb achievement.

Reading Pandemics

Parable Pandemics: Octavia E. Butler and Racialized Labor

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, informed by a deep understanding of the intersectionality of dying ecologies, disease, and structural racism, exposes the ways capitalism's insatiable hunger for profit eclipses humanitarian responses to pandemics.

Film
Film

The Cyclops and the Sunken Place: Narrative Control in 'Watchmen' and 'Get Out'

Hollywood is increasing Black representation but Damon Lindelof and Jordan Peele challenge audiences to question the authenticity of this system.

Film

Director Denis Côté on Making Film Fearlessly

In this interview with PopMatters, director Denis Côté recalls 2010's Curling (now on Blu-Ray) discusses film as a "creative experiment in time", and making films for an audience excited by the idea of filling in playful narrative gaps.

Film

Rediscovering Japanese Director Tomu Uchida

A world-class filmmaker of diverse styles, we take a look at Tomu Uchida's very different Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji and The Mad Fox.

Film

Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in 'New Jack City'

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"

Recent
Music

Chewing the Fat: Rapper Fat Tony on His Latest Work From Hip-hop's Leftfield

Fat Tony proves a bright, young artist making waves amongst the new generation of hip-hop upstarts.

Music

The Bobby Lees Strike the Punk-Blues Jugular on Jon Spencer-Produced 'Skin Suit'

The Bobby Lees' Skin Suit is oozing with sex, sweat and joyful abandon. It's a raucous ride from beginning to end. Cover to cover, this thing's got you by the short hairs.

Books

'Perramus: The City and Oblivion' Depicts Argentina's Violent Anti-Communist Purge

Juan Sasturain and Alberto Breccia's graphic novel Peraramus: The City and Oblivion, is an absurd and existential odyssey of a political dissident who can't remember his name.

Music

Daniel Avery's Versatility Is Spread Rather Thin on 'Love + Light'

Because it occasionally breaks new ground, Daniel Avery's Love + Light avoids being an afterthought from start to finish. The best moments here are generally the hardest-hitting ones.

Music

Khruangbin Add Vocals But Keep the Funk on 'Mordechai'

Khruangbin's third album Mordechai is a showcase for their chemistry and musical chops.

Music

Buscabulla Chronicle a Return to Puerto Rico in Chic Synthwave on 'Regresa'

Buscabulla's authenticity -- along with dynamite production chops and musicianship -- is irreplaceable, and it makes Regresa a truly soulful synthwave release.

Film

The Cyclops and the Sunken Place: Narrative Control in 'Watchmen' and 'Get Out'

Hollywood is increasing Black representation but Damon Lindelof and Jordan Peele challenge audiences to question the authenticity of this system.

Featured: Top of Home Page

'Breathing Through the Wound' Will Leave You Gasping for Air

As dizzying as Víctor Del Árbol's philosophy of crime may appear, the layering of motifs in Breathing Through the Wound is vertiginous.

Music

12 Essential Kate Bush Songs

While Kate Bush is a national treasure in the UK, American listeners don't know her as well. The following 12 songs capture her irrepressible spirit.

Music

Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish Replace Form with Risk on 'Interactivity'

The more any notions of preconceived musicality are flicked to the curb, the more absorbing Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish's Interactivity gets.

Music

Martin Green's Junkshop Yields the Gritty, Weird Story of Britpop Wannabes

Featuring a litany of otherwise-forgotten budget bin purchases, Martin Green's two-disc overview of coulda-been Britpop contenders knows little of genre confines, making for a fun historical detour if nothing else.

Reviews

Haux Compellingly Explores Pain via 'Violence in a Quiet Mind'

By returning to defined moments of pain and struggle, Haux cultivates breathtaking music built on quiet, albeit intense, anguish.

Reviews

'Stratoplay' Revels in the Delicious New Wave of the Revillos

Cherry Red Records' six-disc Revillos compilation, Stratoplay, successfully charts the convoluted history of Scottish new wave sensations.

Reviews

Rising Young Jazz Pianist Micah Thomas Debuts with 'Tide'

Micah Thomas' Tide is the debut of a young jazz pianist who is comfortable and fluent in a "new mainstream": abstraction as well as tonality, freedom as well as technical complexity.

Music

Why Australia's Alice Ivy Doesn't Want to Sleep

Alice Ivy walks a fine line between chillwave cool and Big Beat freakouts, and her 2018 debut record was an electropop wonder. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, she tries to keep the good vibes going with a new record decked out in endless collaborations.

Books

Five Women Who Fought the Patriarchy

Whether one chooses to read Square Haunting for the sketches of the five fascinating women, or to understand how misogyny and patriarchy constricted intellectual and public life in the period, Francesca Wade's book is a superb achievement.

Film

Director Denis Côté on Making Film Fearlessly

In this interview with PopMatters, director Denis Côté recalls 2010's Curling (now on Blu-Ray) discusses film as a "creative experiment in time", and making films for an audience excited by the idea of filling in playful narrative gaps.

Music

Learning to Take a Picture: An Interview With Inara George

Inara George is unafraid to explore life's more difficult and tender moments. Discussion of her latest music, The Youth of Angst, leads to stories of working with Van Dyke Parks and getting David Lee Roth's musical approval.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.