Jean-Luc Godard, at 73, is one of Europe’s most prolific contemporary artists.footnote1 In the six years since the release of Histoire(s) du cinéma, his eight-part videographic history of cinema, and history of the twentieth century through cinema, he has gone on to produce an astonishing quantity of work in a variety of media, thus confounding those critics who thought his historical project some sort of testament. Much of this recent work has been made in collaboration with his long-standing companion, the photographer, filmmaker and writer Anne-Marie Miéville.footnote2 It includes four video essays, all closely related in formal conception while diverse in topic and tone: The Old Place (1999, co-directed by Miéville), a set of dialogic reflections on the state of art at the close of the twentieth century; L’Origine du vingt et unième siècle (2000), a chilling personal vision of the birth of the twenty-first century out of the slaughter and trauma of the twentieth; Dans le noir du temps (2002), a philosophical evocation of the last moments of youth, courage, thought, memory, love, silence, history, fear, eternity and cinema; and Liberté et Patrie (2002, co-dir. Miéville), a playful adaptation of Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz’s 1910 novel Aimé Pache, peintre vaudois, in which the duo deploy Ramuz’s fictional alter-ego, the painter Aimé Pache, to reflect on their own artistic trajectories and the Franco-Swiss dimension to their work.
In addition, Godard has published several books of ‘phrases’ derived from his audiovisual productions, reproduced in the form of continuous prose poems, together with a book-length transcription of his dialogue on cinema and history with Youssef Ishaghpour, where he pursues many of the lines of thinking distilled into Histoire(s) du cinéma.footnote3 He has also made two feature films: a graphically arresting poetic meditation on war-time resistance, and artistic creation as resistance in the age of spectacle, Éloge de l’amour (2001); and an elegy on war, Notre Musique (2004), which brings together his now familiar found-footage collage practice with a fictional restaging of the European book salon organized annually since 2000 by the André Malraux Cultural Centre in Sarajevo, featuring the participation of writers such as Pierre Bergounioux, Mahmoud Darwish and Juan Goytisolo. Finally, he found the time to act in Miéville’s Après la réconciliation (2000); to film and edit Champ contre champ, a contribution to a forthcoming collective cinematic portrait of Paris; and, perhaps most intriguingly, to prepare for his much-anticipated gallery installation, Collages de France, due to run at the Pompidou Centre for nine months from October 2005 to June 2006.
Beside the unusually wide range of roles often assumed by Godard—entrepreneur, director, performer, scriptwriter, dialogist, editor and publicist—the most memorable qualities of his work are perhaps its poetic density, formal rigour and crystalline intensity. Equally striking, however, is the sheer variety of media in which he is now working and the ease with which he moves between them. ‘Everything is cinema’, as he is fond of saying. Or, as he put it in a singularly prescient account of his artistic practice in 1962:
As a critic, I thought of myself as a filmmaker. Today I still think of myself as a critic, and in a sense I am, more than ever before. Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed. I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in novel form or novels in essay form: only instead of writing, I film them. Were the cinema to disappear, I would simply accept the inevitable and turn to television; were television to disappear, I would revert to pencil and paper. For there is a clear continuity between all forms of expression. It’s all one. The important thing is to approach it from the side which suits you best.footnote4
In the intervening period, as cinema has mutated, Godard has indeed gone on to experiment with different media, including television and the written word. While it is tempting to read the diversity of his output as a reflection of the fragmentation, dispersal and renewal of cinema as it encounters new media and finds fresh outlets, such as the internet or art gallery, identification of Godard with cinema has tended to obscure the individuality of his project, and the fact that he is as much a multimedia poet in the manner of Jean Cocteau as a feature-film director in the lineage of Hitchcock or Hawks.
Histoire(s) du cinéma provides a good starting point for rethinking Godard as a multimedia collage artist, partly because its use of video to process and blend film clips, photographs, paintings, cartoons, drawings, voice, sound, song, music and literary texts is the logical extension and most extreme manifestation to date of his long-standing exploration of the medium as a quasi-scientific tool for the dissection of existing representations. But Histoire(s) du cinéma is not only the title of the eight-part, four-and-a-half hour video series released by Gaumont in 1998; it also designates the four art books published the same year in Gallimard’s prestigious Blanche collection, and the box set of audio cds issued by ecm Records in 1999. In addition to these three principal articulations, and setting aside a completed but hitherto unreleased ninety-minute ‘best of’ compilation commissioned by Gaumont for theatrical distribution, Le Moment choisi des Histoire(s) du cinéma, the project has circulated in various forms: published working documents, drafts of the initial episodes (early versions of Chapters 1a and 1b were presented at Cannes in 1987 and broadcast in France in 1989), television broadcast of the whole series in France in 1999, and the voluminous critical discourse spun by Godard around the work in written texts, interviews and public appearances throughout the two decades of its gestation. These multiple forms of the project offer a set of key perspectives—video art, graphic art, sound art, and criticism—in which to reassess the specificity of Godard’s work.
A glance at a filmography is sufficient to complicate straightforward identification of Godard with cinema, at least in the sense of feature films shot on celluloid and projected in darkened theatres. In the past three decades, he has made nearly twice as many works on video as on film, not counting the thirty-two constituent episodes of his major video series: Six fois deux (Sur et sous la communication) (1976, co-dir. Miéville); France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1979, co-dir. Miéville); and Histoire(s) du cinéma. The displacement of 16mm by video in the early 1970s as the privileged medium in his practice for essayistic experimentation produced a string of exploratory forms, from the preparatory sketchbook or ‘video scenario’ (Scénario video de Sauve qui peut (la vie), 1979) to metacritical essay (Scénario du film Passion, 1982) and televisual anti-documentary (Soft and Hard, 1985, co-dir. Miéville). Two of Godard’s most tautly composed stand-alone video pieces of the late 1980s, however, On s’est tous défilé (1988) and Puissance de la parole (1988), together with the initial drafts of Chapters 1a and 1b of Histoire(s) du cinéma, signalled a marked intensification of his creative investment in video, and in the corresponding rigour with which sound and image were treated videographically. Since then video has come to occupy a role as central and highly cherished as 35mm in his work, and all of his audiovisual output, irrespective of medium, holds its own whether projected, broadcast or scrutinized on video or dvd.