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).