After decades in which inscrutable titles signed Godard popped up as regularly as clockwork in the film festivals, while the image of their maker deteriorated from rebel into dirty old man, if not technologically obsessed sage, it is stunning, leafing through the filmographies, to remember how much these films counted as events for us as we waited for each new and unexpected one in the 1960s, how intensely we scrutinized the political engagements of the Dziga Vertov group, with what genuinely engaged curiosity we asked ourselves what the end of the political period would bring, and later on what we were to do with the final works of the ‘humanist’ period, where they came from, and whether they meant a falling off or a genuine renewal.
Throughout all this we were entertained or provoked by the increasingly ignoble ‘thoughts’ or paradoxes which either demanded meditation or inspired a mild contempt, tempered by the constant reminder that visuality, if it thinks, does so in a way not necessarily accessible to the rest of us; while his films went on ‘thinking’ in chiasmatic images: Belmondo imitating Bogart, Piccoli inviting Bardot to use his bathwater (‘I’m not dirty’), the world conquerors exhibiting their picture postcards, Mao’s Cultural Revolution taking the form of the most infectious music, the world ending in a traffic jam, a character scarfing up yoghurt with a finger in the bathroom, two African garbage collectors reciting Lenin, our favourite film stars baffled by their new roles, an interpolated series of interview-interrogations in which ten-year-olds are asked about class struggle, and fun-loving models, about the latest decisions of the CGT, ‘la musique, c’est mon Antigone!’ – narrative deteriorating steadily all the while only to end up in 3-D or in images as thick as butterflies in front of the face.
All this then building inexorably towards the final impertinence, in an unmistakable voice now indissociable from his idea of pedagogy: namely, that History is (nothing more than, nothing less than) the history of cinema. Well, why not? If everything is narrative, always mediated by this or that picture on the poster, as in the battle cuttings of the hell sequence of Notre Musique (2004), the images themselves have to fight it out, like people chasing each other, shouting and jumping into cars – along with their distinctive historical styles – silent or sound, black and white or technicolour; maybe this is all he knows of History anyway, what he calls cinema.
And alongside the history of cinema, there is the history of a film, where does it come? From the images themselves, as he extracts them from the most sublime of his later films, Passion (1982), unfolding itself into the even more sublime lineage of Scenario du film “Passion” (1982), which, out of the Mallarmean blank page (or plage, or grève) a young woman appears who tries to start a strike (grève). In that case, there must follow the factory she strikes against, along with its owner, and then his wife, and then the hotel she runs. And finally a mystery guest from some place beyond the film, himself trying to make a film with a narrative, himself plagued by images, the world’s great paintings, tableaux vivants of the world’s great paintings, reconstructions in miniature of their architecture – Jerusalem through which the crusaders ride, driven forward by Dvorak’s inexorable piano concerto, just as the potential film’s producer is harassed by unwilling bankers and money-lenders. The would-be foreign director is as disabled as the other characters (stutter, cough), he cannot return the love of any of the women, he cannot turn these images into narrative scenarios, he finally gives up and goes home to History itself (Poland and Solidarność). So now the film becomes an allegory of the new Europe and its ‘peu de realité’: great actors stand for France, Germany, Hungary, Poland (the great traditions) with a presumably Swiss director; fundamental themes like love and labour can never be represented; great paintings are as mute as The Voices of Silence Belmondo reads in the bathtub; but Godard has his scenario, he can now begin to film his fiction film.
Scenario now rewinds the tape, runs the whole thing backwards, breaking the fiction back up into its component parts, lingering over the images, superimposing them, returning to origins, identifying the origins of itself. So now: two films about the same thing, two films sharing the same body = Cinema. Cinema, film’s mirror stage.
Cinema equals visuality, sounds, words (with glimpses of money), it is life itself or living as such, everything is cinema. Maybe the late films try to climb back down the other side, begin with the narrative, the scenario, and then tear it apart, with raucous glee give us the pieces in joyous collision, punctuated by raw gunshots, silent films with sound, history going backwards.
He lived, ate, breathed, slept movies. Was he the greatest movie-maker of all time? A party game question. What he was, if anything, was Cinema itself, cinema rediscovered at its moment of disappearing. If cinema really is dying, then he died with it; or better still, it died with him.
Read on: Michael Witt, ‘Shapeshifter’, NLR 29.