It is unusual to be thrilled by a list, especially one as apparently standard as the oeuvre of an artist at the end of a book about him. But the pages Michael Witt has devoted to ‘Works by Godard’ at the end of his Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian paint an unfamiliar portrait, completely changing our conception of a man usually thought of as the director of Breathless, Alphaville, Pierrot le fou and Weekend. Witt’s list includes these, but also all the rest: scripts, videos, press catalogues, trailers, books, invented interviews and texts reflecting on his own practice. To see Godard foremost as a multimedia artist sheds an entirely new light on his work. The importance of his feature films is not diminished; they now appear as early stages in a much longer, ongoing journey motivated by a central concern: what are the possibilities for genuine communication? Over the years he has looked for the answers in different mediums, using a range of tools, from scissors and glue to photocopiers, found footage, photographs, tape recorders, digital cameras and now 3d. Witt tackles his subject, in what is his first sole-authored book, in such an unfussy manner and without the elliptical quality tainting much Godard commentary—artsy, complicated prose trying to compensate for a kernel of confusion—that the experience of reading Cinema Historian is like a door swinging open.
The central subject of the book is Godard’s personal and poetic reflection on cinema and history, Histoire(s) du cinéma, first released in 1998 as a four-and-a-half hour video series. As evoked in Witt’s title, this epic work is about cinema’s own history, and most of the material comes from stories told by it on the big screen. But Histoire(s) is also a running commentary on the telling of world history, and how it might be re-envisaged through the use and montage of cinematic forms. This combination of cinema and history is one of the defining features of Godard’s oeuvre, and Witt chose this work as his focus because he considered it the theoretical and material culmination of Godard’s ‘self-appointed mission’ to explore the possibility of genuine communication ‘against the backdrop of the flood of reproductions in circulation on television, in the mass media, and on the internet’. Formally speaking, Histoire(s) is divided into eight parts of varying lengths, some less than 30 minutes and others nearly an hour, all weaving back and forth through the films of the twentieth century; the mood and themes change, but there are recurring motifs, underscored by an idiosyncratic account of the birth, brief life and, in Godard’s view, protracted decline of cinema.
In his opening pages Witt gives a useful breakdown of Histoire(s) and in doing so provides us with a roadmap for navigating through the series. He argues that the first two-part chapter, made up of episodes 1a (51 mins) and 1b (42 mins), is the cornerstone of the work. 1a, ‘Toutes les histoires’ presents in condensed form ‘the principal lines of thinking that run through the remainder of the series’: the great promise of cinema and its catastrophic political-aesthetic decline. In 1b, ‘Une histoire seule’, Godard examines his own place within the history of cinema, and pursues some theoretical reflections on cinema’s defining characteristics. The subsequent six episodes are ‘localized case studies’: 2a, ‘Seul le cinéma’ (27 mins), unfolds the metaphor of ‘projection’, already introduced in 1b; 2b, ‘Fatale beauté’ (29 mins) explores cinema’s relation to beauty; 3a, ‘La monnaie de l’absolu’ (27 mins), focuses on the representation of war, with particular reference to Italian neo-realism; 3b, ‘Une vague nouvelle’, offers a personal account of the French New Wave; 4a, ‘Le contrôle de l’univers’, is a meditation on Hitchcock as one of cinema’s great artists—‘he made difficult, sensitive, mysterious and successful films that didn’t follow a recipe’, Godard has said, and ‘that’s extremely rare’. The final section 4b, ‘Les signes parmi nous’ (38 mins), is both ‘a sombre, intimate self-portrait’ and a meditative stocktaking on the work as a whole.
Running throughout, as Witt puts it, is ‘a three-way tension between a bleak overarching narrative of cinematic decline, the vitality of the crystalline forms through which that narrative is expressed, and a recurrent thematic emphasis on artistic metamorphosis and renewal’. Already the youngest of the arts, cinema was ‘the child that turned out bad’: it failed to live up to its historic responsibilities. There are also, however, moments of resurrection—one of the recurrent motifs in the series along with fire and sacrifice—to suggest that Histoire(s) is not just a tragedy in eight acts, but also an exploration of the possibilities of image-making in the context of such powerful and negative influences.
On first viewing, Histoire(s) is a breathtaking ride through cinema’s history, or in Witt’s more seductive description, ‘an audiovisual tapestry of astonishing sumptuosity’. One problem with this sumptuous tapestry is how hard it is to talk about: the viewer is left with feelings and impressions, and perhaps a sense of illumination, but these are all frustratingly resistant to linguistic expression. The ‘dense texture and serpentine forms’, Witt ventures, ‘are closer to those one more readily associates with poets and musicians’, recalling modernist modes of serial and fugal composition. Because text, commentary, sound and image co-exist or cut into each other all the time, describing isolated passages rarely manages to satisfactorily capture their spirit or our experience of watching them. The five-minute homage to Hitchcock, for example, is suddenly announced in the middle of 4a by a black screen and the inter-title l’artiste flashing up between images of Robert Bresson, Fritz Lang, Eric Rohmer. Hitchcock’s voice then comes in, giving a definition of the art of cinema, quickly overlapped by another commentary from Godard, and then another, while clips of Hitchcock films are at the same time shuttering across the screen. The sequences we are watching do not match the commentaries, but 30 seconds later the scenes under discussion do appear. On the soundtrack, samples of music increase in intensity, creating a crescendo effect with new inter-titles flashing and Godard whispering praise for the director. We can only absorb all this in snatches and, using the elements we manage to retain, try to impose our own interpretative logic upon it. The effect can be exhilarating, but only if we abandon the attempt to grasp the totality of the material—the rush of images, music, text to read and overlapping spoken dialogue, in complex internal relation to each other—for our own critical reflection.
This immediatist, non-reflexive reaction is the desired effect. Godard said he wanted to generate feelings, not words, so as to touch something deeper and essential in his viewers. Histoire(s) ‘should emanate directly from the combination of images and sounds rather than from an explanatory or interpretative text written about or imposed on them’, he told Eric Hobsbawm in 2000 during a panel discussion with other historians to mark the work’s release. The task of the spectator, Witt elaborates, ‘is not necessarily that of understanding but rather of hearing, receiving and “seeing” the effects of his compression and concatenation of his disparate source materials in the intuitive, emotional and visceral way one might experience a piece of music’.
Cinema Historian has the big ambition of changing the way we see Godard as an artist. Witt sets about doing this in a nuts-and-bolts fashion, taking apart Histoire(s) in all its forms. He examines the origins of the series in the 1970s, exploring the parallel works made during the decades of its gestation, and the models and guides—artistic, historical, philosophical—with whom Godard maintained real or imaginary dialogues, and whose ideas fed into the final series. Further complicating our grasp on Histoire(s) is its various manifestations: as videos, books and cds. These have all come out at different stages and none replicates exactly the contents of the other. Witt deals with this with aplomb, treating the books and cds as fundamentally different objects from the audiovisual series rather than simple offshoots. Histoire(s) is not solely an audiovisual series, he says, but ‘a more complex integrated multiform work’. Looked at in this way, we see a multimedia artist at the height of his powers, not casually spinning off a book or soundtrack from a video series, but literally transforming each into striking works of graphic design, iconographic criticism, and experimental musical composition.