Sunday, 20 June 2021

Histoire(s) du Cinéma: Viewing Notes

Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1998, eight parts, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

From its start, the series makes audible the sound of technology from various periods: Godard's typewriter, his squeaky marker pen, the sound of the projector; levels mixed too loud, delay on voices, sound effects, snippets of the classical music canon, pop songs, noises. Godard repeats a number of key ideas several times across the opening episodes, sometimes verbatim: like musical themes coming around, sometimes as obvious recapitulations, at others as ghostly half-echoes; visual and aural puns (words split, truncated, divided) emphasizing first one then another part of a combined, often contradictory meaning. Making use of video to conduct an autopsy of cinema, the series develops the notion of cinema as out-of-time, fated, cursed; the forces of the modern are beholden to the nightmare of the past, borrowed costumes of present and past in mutual disguise. The roots of all modern technology were developed in the 19th century; the 20th century merely provided the technical means to execute them (whether these be projection or imperialism). Photography developed as compensation for the freezing and totalisation of all relations under the sign of capital--the technology for colour photography existed, but it was developed in black and white ("the colours of mourning"). Rather than releasing that which photography had frozen, cinema was a melancholy reenactment of that freezing. Cinema came along as a further method of mourning; technicolour ("the colours of funeral wreaths") is not celebration, but denial. Meanwhile, video and television have supplanted cinema's faux-cosmic possibility, boxing it up, condensing it, and have erased cinema's overwhelming time of the sublime, where a Proustian temps retrouvé be enacted beyond the scope of language ("cinema exists for the words caught in the throat"), condensed and controlled through fast-forward, rewind etc (video's revenge on cinema enacted in the very form of this film--see Jihoon Kim's article on Godard and video). So this is a further act of mourning, made on the periphery of the end of the Cold War: a flattening and totalisation. 

1(a) Toutes les Histoire(s) 

All the stories, all the histories, all at once: the episode, and the film as a whole, begins with simultaneity, with too much all once, visually and sonically. The opening minutes feel as if the tracking shot of the traffic jam in Weekend or its corollary, the assembly line in the car factory of British Sounds, had turned into an instant pile-up, every frame superimposed over the next. Nonetheless, a lot of this episode feels like throat-clearing (sometimes literally--a sound effect that will predominate in the much more aged voiceover, Godard wheezing and coughing, of Le Livre D'Image/The Image Book thirty years later). Godard repeats the history/story/stories pun of the title--Godard's story, the story of cinema, of history in general? The viewer spends the opening minutes acclimatising to method; the method is musical, in a sense; themes appearing, developing, crossing over: counterpoint, dissonance; but also the logic of the jump-cut, the tape splice, what musique concrète in music (or hip-hop sampling, plunderphonics, etc) and the Nouvelle Vague's separation of the elements of film-making accomplished in film. A dissection that is also a building up: accretion, bricolage, pile-up. Irving Thallberg as the epitome of invention--200 movies in his head everyday--and of despotic megalomania, cinema as dream factory, as illusion, as schizoid form--Howard Hughes' mania. Images of resistance and suffering--particular that of women--from Soviet and Third Cinema struggle from under the weight of these images, even as their heroisation contains its own problematics. (Godard's vision is here, as, as others have noted, almost exclusively that of a Western cinema, the 'Second Cinema' of Europe and of America with walk-on parts for Glauber Rocha but little else.) The sudden flash of corpses, the grasping of hands at guns or straws. 

1 (b) Une Histoire Seule

Dedicating this episode to John Cassavetes and Glauber Rocha, Godard here seeks to move beyond the Hollywood productions excoriated in the preceding episode, joining these icons of US independent film and of the attempt for a tricontinental Third Cinema (Rocha's debate with Godard, his cameo at the crossroads in Vent de L'Est sampled here). Scepticism about the possibility of cinema as medium was built into it from a start: its pioneers thought that it was a trick form, a parlour game, a fairground show. They were right and not right. The story of cinema alone, a history alone--cinema's connection and disconnection to world history--the role of newsreel. George Stevens filming the European camps in 1945--cinema as record; but is filming alone cinema? Reality and illusion. Cinema's aim to be more real than life. Godard looks up, off screen, at the screen, reads two books at once, at times types out a script we neither hear nor see with the exception of grunted words. 

2(a) Seul le Cinéma 

If the previous episode presented "only" a (hi)story--a single (hi)story, a (hi)story alone--this episode promises to dedicate itself only to cinema, to cinema alone, its uniqueness a particular or privileged access to knowledge as a well as an escape from the reality T.S. Eliot thought "mankind" could not bear much of: not so much head in the sand, but a voyage abroad, the narrative of national founding occurring first through the voyage (Ulysses to Aeneas, Greece to Troy to Rome; burning cities, boats, sacrificial pyres from which new stories flare up). Cinema as the only medium that could express certain relations, conjunctures; that enabled Godard to access history even as it consistently falsified it. Two principal frames for this episode, made nearly a decade after the first two and, though half the length, notably slower in pace. A chain-smoking Serge Daney (brand: Marlboros) interviews a chain-smoking Godard (cigars) about the project, how it sought to place Godard himself in the story of cinema, how one might begin speaking about this particular form and its relation to history. A teenage girl (Julie Delpy) reads from Baudelaire's 'Le Voyage'--Ulysses' voyagers set sail from the homeland, witness catastrophe, lay the grounds for the femme fatale stereotype, escape through intoxication, proto-cinematic dreams. The children from Night of the Hunter escape Robert Mitchum in a boat; cinema is cast adrift in the childlike world of imagination (Laughton's magical nighttime landscape, frogs croaking, eddies in the water, moonlight in the reeds, a whispered lullaby) but the logic of plot, narrative, and society must catch up. Behind-the-scenes footage of the filming of Le Mépris, the crew's dialogue in Italian; Godard giving Fritz Lang a line of Brecht to read; film history on film history. 

2(b) Fatale Beauté 

The second part will continue the female narrator's explorations of beauty, storytelling, dream, escape; this time, though, the focus is Proust, introduced by Godard: Albertine as the icon of lost beauty kept imprisoned: aesthetics and jealousy, the rage of vulnerability, art as fetishisation and reification of its objects. It's not a smell or a sentence or a piece of music that triggers involuntary memory and the re-finding of time--time's retrieval contains its 'trou', its gap or absence, its void, the way that Godard finds the emptiness within a shot that in context is given a panoply of meaning, the gap within a crowded scene, remixes them across time, puts them in dialogue. Godard starts early on that cinema could have been about flowers, babies, and so on, but it became about death. Eros/thanatos merge as icons of Hollywood martyrdom like James Dean brood in frozen still images, and the ever-present images of historical catastrophe--Vietnam, the holocaust, what I think is the First Intifada--allegorise this doubleness of spectatorship--most notably, an image of a little child walking past a field of bodies, apparently unconcerned, into which images of escape and fantasy (a woman clinging to an impossibly high streetlamp) enter, like one image emerging from the burning embers of another (Godard says that cinema comes from burning, a Promethean destructiveness that this repeated trope of emergence--a kind of joke about dissolves, wipes, fades, and the like--frequently enacts), more so in this episode than previously. Godard jokingly references the scopophilic and gendered nature of film viewing, a cap on his head, cigar in his mouth, sitting shirtless at his typewriter, his jaw dropping; images of female bodies and of the motif of hands (hands think, Godard states) grasping, groping, gesticulating: a visual equation between the gestures of power (fascist demagoguery, the salute and the raised arm) and sexual conquest? The episode's concluding section features a relatively fixed camera as an actor reads out statements on art and beauty: given the density of the preceding material, it feels like a moment of utter stillness, the suspended time that cinema always seeks and always rejects. 

3(a) La Monnaie de l'Absolu 

A template for these films: Goya's Saturn eating his children intercuts in stroboscopic fashion (with Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes), as Godard's voiceover is delivered with little more than a whisper, describing atrocities, the hypocrisy of governments not held to human standards, the horrors of war. Again, the relation of cinema to reality and fiction: we exaggerated these atrocities, the child was not tossed from pike to pike but merely bayonetted once, the village was not destroyed in a couple of hours but a couple of days. The complicity of French actors and filmmakers in the occupation; a train ride to Berlin to take part in a film project; the ruins of the war meant that the only national cinema of any value (Godard's axis is, as ever in this series, firmly Euro- and US-centric) was that of Italy--Rome: Open City was not made by those in uniform; a curiously sentimental montage of moments from neo-realism under a crooned Italian song plays things out. These episodes are much slower, more reflective than what's gone before.

3(b) Une Vague Nouvelle 

Almost no footage from actual French New Wave films here; instead, the films that inspired them. Beginning backwards; it ends with Godard's ruminative homage to Jean Langlois, founder of the cinémathèque where the directors of the Nouvelle Vague encountered formative and obscure films; the cinema Godard describes here, he says, is the unknown one, the unseen one, the films only known by legend rather than actually watched; an alternative current (bodies emerging into or falling out of rivers; a recurrent visual rhyme throughout these late episodes). Of course, I knew all these people, he ends--Truffaut, Demy, Duras--as their faces flash past, elements of hero-worshipping or name-dropping, of cinematic nostalgia (Godard himself once more at the centre) overpowered by a sense of mourning something lost. 

4(a) Le Contrôle de l'Univers 

4a) begins with a political / historical meditation--Europe is divided between undeveloped states and states with a revolution which enables them the comfort of waiting without hope for the inevitable misery, the only remaining link. Auteur theory rears its head, as the great directors come up on screen, one by one, having followed on from female writers (Virginia Woolf central among them). The figure of the (male) auteur becomes the ultimate in this 'control of the universe', both a counter-force to and reflection of the mendacious power of state, propaganda, government (the recurrent images of suffering--the camps, the Warsaw ghetto, Joan of Arc in Dreyer's and Rossellini's films). And so to Hitchcock, whose spectral voice floats up--the greatest, Godard says, because he made you remember objects (the wine bottle or the key in Notorious, the bus in North by Northwest), elevated image beyond plot, beyond ideology--he succeeded where even dictators failed, but this was an empty victory, for even if 'billions' do remember the bottle, the key, the bus, what does this do? Cinema, as the title cards flash it up, is cursed, forgotten, unknown ("maudit, oubliée, inconnu"), the words "histoire du cinéma" broken down to "né a toi"--so yet, the viewer, birth, promise, the philosophical dialogue slowly read out which suggests cinema as a kind of lover ("beauté fatale"). In what may be the series' most startling image, Hitchcok's birds fly/explode out of Marilyn Monroe's head, a by now familiar repertoire of clips--The Searchers, James Stewart and Kim Novak in the water in Vertigo--flash past, Godard's voiceover increasingly ruminative, his cigar-chomping presence replaced by the sound of his voice, the series as if winding down, muted and melancholy, the flashed repeated phrases now more on screen than in Godard's voiceover, the projector noise and extraneous noise of the earlier episodes instead replaced by bursts of music as punctuation and hushed voices, visual and verbal noise reduced to a kind of muted flashing, flashes in the fog. 

 4(b) Les Signes parmi nous 

The longest of the 1998 episodes, again as if winding down: once more, the focus on hands, hands reaching out or collapsing, hands that think. 1920s and 1930s vampire movies keep appearing, haunted monsters: Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, and in particular, Murnau's Nosferatu. From Rear Window, James Stewart looking through his camera in rear window looks into Hitler, who has morphed out of Charlie Chaplin. This recurs more than once as kind of tic or trope: Stewart peering through his binoculars, stand-in for the spectator, the director--but what he sees is revealed to be images from the camps, or images of a preening uniformed Hitler--framing and peering at atrocity. Cinema here is the fascinated and complicit peering on at horror, powerless to do anything. But that's not all it is. The final episode tries out some other metaphors and parallels--histories of cinema, stories of cinema, alternative pathways taken or not taken. The title cards present an oblique fable about a man who comes to a village, selling stories: they think it's the end of the world but it's the sunrise: the man is cinema. Echoing the unseen film from the Langlois episode (3(b)), here, the conceit of the impossible film, the 'other cinema', that which can't be written, like the invisible matter that scientifically makes up the universe's gravitational forces. The question is when to begin and end a shot. Godard asks, over an image of Maurice Blanchot, if time preserves cinema or cinema preserves time; the episode, and the film as a whole, ends with Godard, via Borges, describing himself as someone who wakes up from a dream of paradise still clutching a paradisal flower. And, for Godard, cinema remains this flower. 

(Notes drafted January 2021)

No comments: