About two hours into Histoire(s) Du Cinema, I finally had a small epiphany moment with Late Godard, a period that begins with this mammoth work and continues into what I’ve seen from the 90s and up to Socialisme. Late Godard isn’t popular with most folks who fondly remember his 60s films because he largely abandoned narrative. He’s not an avant-garde artist either, or at least in a way that where his work isn't a complete breakdown of form (See: Brakhage, Snow, Dorsky). Instead, it’s now clear to me that Godard is trying to write philosophy in the same way that Kant or Hegel or Hume write philosophy. But instead of the pen, his choice of means is cinema, where he can use the image and the juxtaposition of image to create his dialectics stronger than words could do—perhaps the closest thing to the hopes of an intellectual montage as theorized by Eisenstein. Some would call this thus an essay film—a term I must admit I still don’t have a strong hold on, so I will avoid it (Andrew Tracy provides some fantastic thoughts here on the essay film).
Thinking of Godard as philosophy gives us some easier access points into Late Godard and specifically Histoire(s) Du Cinema. Firstly, it makes me more forgiving in how inaccessible the film can sometimes be, whether by its references to events, films, and people we might not understand (Kant’s Third Critique makes numerous references to his contemporaries, and yet we can still understand his view of judgement without reading those works). Perhaps it also makes more palatable the fact that not everything—heck, at least a third of the film—remains untranslated from French. Plenty of philosophical texts I’ve read will quote Latin or Italian or what not and expect that the person reading such a work is familiar with these languages. Godard does that too—it’s frustrating to someone as naïve in other languages as me (I wrote down about 10 oft-repeated words from the film in my notebook to translate after), or that I have no idea who some of these people who appear in the frame with Godard are, but it has its justification.
The “Godard as philosophy” tenet also means reserving judgment of the work in ways that I think we might approach other cinema, whether narrative or avant-garde. During the beginning to part 4A, Godard goes on a long rant about the tyranny of governments, who justify murder but are no different than the anarchic man who murders. Godard has his reasons, as all political philosophers do, and I strongly disagree with his view of government. But I also feel the same way about reading some of the more tenuous views of Plato or Machiavelli. What I’m more interested in while watching Histoire(s) is that it’s central problem: did cinema ultimately fail the 20th century? Did we fail to properly answer the question of “what is cinema”? Although for some reason many had told me this work essentially came down to that essential famous quote from Godard about the failure to record the images of the Holocaust, I think there’s much more going on here that cinema’s failure to record.
Godard essentially places cinema between two tracks—art and technique. Both fascinate and frustrate him. It’s clear Godard loves art and cherishes it deeply—he constantly putting various cinema images along side various paintings dating back to the Renaissance to his contemporaries. But he’s also frustrated by the tyranny of art to represent reality and how cinema took off on that track as well. The magic of Ophuls and Nicholas Ray, the transcendent moment of Wayne lifting up Natalie Wood in The Searchers (and Wood’s screaming reveal to her mother in Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass—heard but curiously unrepresented by image)—Godard feels deeply about this art, but he also knows it is a lie; that cinema began as a technique, a recording device pioneered by Muybridge’s studies to capture reality and investigate. This fallacy too—the photograph is a technique, not reality, and even in the pornography Godard occasionally cuts to, allows us to see it as false. Photography is something that always has a perspective, but we are told that it can exist as truth, as an objective document. But to ignore the question of truth—to only embrace cinema as art or entertainment—is just as problematic.
The question of entertainment is the question of Hollywood, addressed thoroughly in Movement 1A and 1B, perhaps most notable by the voice of Jack Benny saying “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrnhart” from Lubistch’s To Be or Not To Be over images of the camps. I don’t agree with Godard’s take on Hollywood and Thalberg, but I don’t think he totally agree with himself either. Trying to think through this, I think Godard's favorite moment in his hatred for Schindler’s List is the red coat, because it showed the artist, not the artist’s false depiction of a so-called reality. What is this mystery of cinema? This is the question that haunts the filmmaker, the one that he can’t answer, so he rambles through the memories of his past life in order to see if he can come any closer to answering the question.
There are many major images that stick out through Histoire(s) Du Cinema, starting with the man himself, sitting solemnly alone among books, reels of film, and his electronic typewriter. Histoire(s) is a film that could only be made by a hermit, who is left scattered with images of the 20th century and trying to pick up the pieces. Smoking, always staring off toward some distant space, recalling things he clearly loves (“Le….Regle…Du…Jeu”) before finding his footing in the strangeness of the flashing juxtaposition, the images emerge out of each other. We constantly return to the title, broken down into other words and syllables; flipped around as if meaning can be derived by looking at it backwards. More than anything else, we remember the rewinding and reeling of filmstrips on his machine, as if finding cinema at the molecular level will reveal its truth (the film begins after all with Jimmy Stewart and his binoculars). Godard slows down, overlays, and is doing everything he can to find the hidden meaning. He’s no longer a filmmaker or cinephile,1 he’s a archeologist, searching within the images to see if this mystery of cinema—a 19th century idea that could have promised some sort of utopia only led to mankind’s most disastrous century.
I think its telling that Godard keeps coming back to only three of his own works: his most self-reflexive (Contempt), his politically salient (Week-End), and his most philosophical (King Lear—a work about a rebirth of art’s first image). In the final moment, Godard finally admits what he’s been hinting at all along. He’s aware of his influence on cinema history, on his works of “art” embraced around the world, and I think he feels embarrassed that he didn’t do more, that he made self-reflexive works but not self-inquisitive. “It was me,” he laments in the final frames. This is not a work that condemns the 20th century; it’s a work condemning one’s like work. Even Lear’s narrative sensibilities, however strange they may be, is in some ways perhaps a failure of Godard to not embrace to radical possibilities of cinema as he does by creating philosophy here.
A long-standing debate in film reviewing, criticism, and academia is the idea of the “good” work. Every cinephile or critic I know who has talked at length about the film’s structure of narrative, imagery, editing, themes, or more to someone outside of their profession has certainly that question then asked: “…so you’re saying it’s a good movie?” It’s a question we can sometimes loathe, but it is a question worth reckoning with. Academia tends to ignore this question—a work is worth writing about if it exposes a certain facet of political, sociological, or ideological history or life. But academia is also prone to thus find itself writing about the irrelevant to find something relevant—to using capital T Theory to justify to study of work. The critic (as opposed to the film reviewer, who only writes about the elements that are good or bad in a work) lands himself in the middle of this. He can write long about a work’s thematic, narrative, and aesthetic construction, but unlike the academic, he is ultimately answering a question about whether the work at hand is relevant, important, worth seeking out and exploring for whatever reason. The critic may lament himself as a purveyor of taste, but this is a good thing. To place B above A, to argue for the merits or demerits that a work does expose something, is a good thing, and the great critic can be self-evident enough without having to write, “this is a good work” or any such equivalent.
Histoire(s) Du Cinema is a film, a work of film criticism, and a work of philosophy. Is it a good film? Yes. Why is it a good film? Because it is a philosophy that investigates things that are important, and because it opens up dialogues through an aesthetically ambitious style of filmmaking. The title is not History of Cinema, and contains nothing similar to the narratives created in the texts of Bordwell and Thompson, or even the excitement of making (albeit extremely tenuous) connections between radically different works as Mark Cousins’s Story of Film has done. Instead, it is histories—a plural—about the tensions we’ve created in finding cinema’s own trajectories, ones that are dialectical in nature and seemingly irresolvable. It is a good film because it leaves us with more questions than answers; it does not teach us how to view both history or cinema, but teaches us how to question it.
1Although this is nowhere near the point of Histoire(s), I’m frankly a little shocked at how someone who made films in Sonimage in the 1970s and has staunchly placed himself against Western society has such Western tastes. I saw maybe one image of a Kurosawa film, but nothing from China, Hong Kong, Latin America, Africa, or the Arab world. I recall him saying some fine words about Kiarostami back in the day, but at least the cinema he presents in this work strikes me as a very narrow view of cinematic history, especially one that in some way promises multiple histories.