Histoire(s) du Cinéma
1988-1998Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Serge Daney, Julie Delpy, Jean-Luc Godard
ld films, newsreels, pornography, paintings, photographs, soundtracks, quotations, classical music, jazz music, pop music, intertitles, subtitles, written literature, voice-overs of celebrities (Hitchcock in an interview, Julie Delpy in a script for the movie), voice-overs of poetry, and footage of Godard himself at his editing table, muttering about the lost paradises of Hollywood and the recovered hells of reality: Histoire(s) du Cinéma, 264-minutes and eight-parts long, might just beat that other brilliant collage, Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, as the best movie of the ‘90s. Critics talk about the brilliant use of off-screen space in the films of Jean Renoir and Joseph H. Lewis, but of narrative filmmakers, still too few (only Olivier Assayas leaps to mind) have really exploited what Chris Fujiwara labels “off-screen time,” those gaps that displace us in time like off-screen space helps place us in settings, first exploited by Jean-Luc Godard in the jump-cuts of his debut feature, Breathless. Whether Godard himself has or still counts as a narrative filmmaker is a useless debate; his Histoire(s) du Cinéma is, in any case, both an experimental essay about some narratives of the 20th century and a game of connect-the-dots that gives us theoretical points and points in time, and asks us to fill in the history. At times, the point might simply be to evoke some of Godard’s strange subconscious associations, as Jacques Tati’s pastoral comedy Jour de Fête flickers in and out with tacky hot tub porn, and at others, to brandish clever juxtapositions, as a picture of an Oscar statue turns into a picture of Oscar Wilde. Mostly, though, Godard is attempting to examine a history that never quite happened, not only in the fictional narratives of the old cinematic masters, but in a reinvented history in which, if we’re to trust Godard, the naked bodies of the death camps have led to sadistic porn. It is an impossible history, in other words, in which “Poetry is resistance,” art is as good as reality, and images can redeem the reality they depict. Each age, to reverse Michelet, invents the last—and this is Godard’s invention.
A history, Godard calls it, of the night: of the invisible causal strands that can only be evoked by juxtaposing the events they hypothetically connect, and of the real-life events that can only be evoked by fictional representations. What isn’t invisible is imagined; but really, like his hero Hitchcock (who, Godard tells us, succeeded where Hitler failed, in realizing his fantasies and taking complete control over the universe), Godard asks us to believe in a sublime fantasy that he recognizes is realistically absurd, as he admits that images have lost nearly all redemptive power in an age of television that familiarizes us to real horrors in small pictures, while cinema’s big screens (he narrates) once made people cry over everyday fictional dramas. As a video itself, made for TV, Histoire(s) is automatically another of Godard’s eulogies for film, with constant reminders that all is simulated. Godard turns the sounds of his typing into a background rhythm driving his montages, blatantly distorts his pictures with his own video technology, so that blue splotches follow the clothes of now black-and-white dancers in An American in Paris, and, flip-book like, slowly flickers shots by as though he were reinventing 18 frames-per-second silent cinema even while he breaks down the illusion of continuity to reveal it as nothing more than a mechanical effect. But the flicker is a reminder of the truth: the fact that half of the time spent in a movie theater is unknowingly spent in the dark is almost certainly the parallel for the climactic story of the scientist who discovered that half of the matter of the universe is invisible. Thus, says Godard, “phantom matter was born.”
A history of fiction, and a fictional history, Histoire(s) is, then, a history of phantom matter: of movies (nothing more than light, Godard tells us), of the long-gone past (“O homecoming!” goes one typical refrain), and of the dead (genocide is so unreal, it’s a hypothetical “question”). They converge—in the Holocaust. By now, World War II seems to have become something like Godard’s primal scene, as his daily source of guilt, and as an invisible black rabbit hole of horrors that he can’t help both imagining, and imagining himself somewhat responsible for. Godard spends the first ninety minutes (which open with Rear Window and close with Vertigo) grumbling that cinema was unable to portray the Holocaust when it happened, and unwilling to prevent it; never mind the redemptive power of images to atone for events of the past, says Godard—the point is that they couldn’t even change the events of the present. The cinema may be able to realize Hitchcock’s fantasies, but it certainly couldn’t prevent Hitler’s.
To trust the scholars, Godard feels so much personal guilt over cinema’s shortcomings because he equates himself entirely, at this point, with the cinema itself. He has fashioned it into his own private language and mythology, though it is one that almost entirely excludes the reality of everyday living (unless that reality is editing films). Or any historical reality at all. Godard delivers up old stories, but he deliberately falsifies many of his anecdotes, and repeatedly contradicts himself, as when he says that England—Hitchcock’s homeland—never produced anything of interest. Yet Godard’s footage from fictional movies betrays real history: not only that this archaeologist’s archival stock is itself of historical interest, but that, unlike Godard’s movie, nearly all these frequently popular films depicted or spoke to a contemporary reality. As for Histoire(s), a quite lively movie about how “life never rendered what it stole from film” is ultimately sealed off from life. Godard’s jumpy aesthetic, grabbing at time and crackling like fireworks, actually seems to owe a good amount to MTV, but it could as easily be argued that his juxtapositions are outgrowths of the hyperlink, popularized well after he began the project in the late 80s. Even if he’s still the only person capable of reinventing cinema, as he once said of Nicholas Ray, it’s no longer Godard’s goal to change future history, but to change old history instead.
And this is where Histoire(s) fails brilliantly, and deliberately. “Everything can be done except a history of that which is done,” Godard quotes at one point. For the term “history” implies a fatalism in which one thing has led to another; Godard, however, like a Billy Pilgrim using cinematic montage to break the historical bonds, tells us that “I need a life to tell the history of an hour.” Ultimately, his history can’t even be told, never mind invented. Like Proust (who makes a cameo), it’s the best Godard can do to simulate recovery of lost times and beliefs in a movie that’s somewhere between a history and a story (“histoire” means both), an essay and a song, a narrative and a poem, a reality and a fantasy. The crash-course in Godard’s mind—his mechanical ballet—ends with a euphoric last testament that may be quoting Borges. “If a man passed through paradise in his dreams,” Godard says in a robotic growl, “and received a flower as proof of passage, and on waking, found this flower in his hand, then what is there to say?” In the end, in this one-time fantasy, reality may die but, even if they’re recognized as such, fantasies live on. “I was that man.”
Histoire(s) du Cinema is finally available on Region 2 DVD.
By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-06-08