Jean-Luc Godard True History of Cinema and Television book reviewCaboose Books’ edition of Jean-Luc Godard’s Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, translated and edited by Timothy Barnard, collects the lectures that Godard delivered between April and October 1978 at Concordia University’s Conservatory of Cinematographic Art. The lectures, as Barnard and Michael Witt detail in their introductory essays, grew out of an earlier collaboration between Serge Losique, founder and director of the Conservatory, as well as the founder of Montreal’s World Film Festival, and Henri Langlois; Langlois had lectured at Concordia in the 60s and 70s and was to return in 1977, but passed away in January of that year. Godard and Losique’s collaboration effectively replaced Langlois’s planned lecture series, but was also used by Godard to develop an already-existing project for a video series about this history of cinema. This project, of course, would eventually develop into what we know as Histoire(s) du cinéma, which Godard completed twenty years later.

Jean-Luc Godard True History of Cinema and Television book review

Jean-Luc Godard in Breathless (Godard, 1960)

The collaboration between Godard and Losique never produced the intended video series, and indeed, as Barnard notes, Godard’s conception of the final product that could emerge out of the lecture series clearly changed as it proceeded. Losique could not offer the technical means that Godard believed necessary to create his history in images; first, a less ambitious video project that would utilize the lectures as voice-over was planned, and then this too was finally replaced by plans for a book (pp. lxxii-lxxiii). While a book (Introduction à une veritable histoire du cinéma) did emerge in 1980, edited by Godard and published (in French) by Albatros Press in French, it eliminated remarks from Losique and the audience, and was riddled with transcription errors. Barnard’s volume is thus not a translation of the 1980 text, but rather a re-transcription and translation of the talks in their entirety, with a meticulously detailed account of his sources and working methods provided in his introductory essay.

Whereas the filmmaker had editorial control of the 1980 volume, which places it among works “authored” by Godard, here we get a faithful, unrevised record of the talks themselves. There is surely much to be gained from this approach, as we see not only Godard’s words themselves, but more often than not also the context in which they arose – we thus more clearly see Godard thinking and a process unfolding in time. The sense that we are dealing with a process rather than a polished text is underscored by the fact that Barnard’s sources are incomplete (there are frequent breaks and inaudible passages in the video and audio recordings of the lectures); it is thus often unclear what Godard is referring to, or what questions he is answering, yet this disjointed rhythm serves to make the text characteristically and fittingly Godardian (not that a more complete account wouldn’t have been desirable).

Michael Witt’s introductory essay (much of which will be familiar to readers of his Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian (1)) suggests a reading of the lectures as a phase in the genesis of Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998).  The essay, however, despite being an invaluable and succinct account of the Histoire(s) project, says oddly little about the content of the lectures themselves, and devotes most of its time to later developments. This approach risks casting the lectures as a kind of exercise or sketch for what was to come, encouraging the reader to approach them in an overly teleological manner. Again, there is nothing to object to about the essay itself, but one questions its appropriateness for this volume.

If not (or not only) a stop on the way to Histoire(s), then, how might we approach the lectures?  As with most things Godardian, they present a number of highly productive difficulties and paradoxes. Each lecture/discussion was preceded by a screening either of two complete films (one by Godard and one by another filmmaker, in the case of the first two lectures only) or a series of single reels of other films, followed by a film by Godard. Seeing and speaking are thus clearly separated, as Godard did not have the means to pause and speak about the films as they were being shown. The format of the lectures themselves thus forces us to grapple with the relationship between words and images, as Godard acknowledges from the outset: “You can see a film and then talk about it, which is what we’re doing here, but it’s a pretty poor work method.  We have to try to do something else. But we may not be able to do this right away.” (p. 8) (2) Even the assembly of the film reels themselves seems to be far from ideal: as Godard notes throughout the text, he was often unable to get a copy of the film he sought, nor does he seem to have in any case chosen which reel would be projected. Furthermore, it appears that he sat out much of his own course, as he often asks which scenes were shown in the morning sessions. The lecture series thus presents us at the outset with the Godardian tropes of failure and impossibility, yet the director remains committed to making the best of things: “you can’t answer in words. You could answer with – if the words came after an image and then again before another image […] But we have to do something just the same.” (p. 22)

This “something”, it seems to me, is a decision on Godard’s part to avoid any serious attempt to talk about the visual elements of the films screened, as though deferring any such discussion until it can be carried out with and through images. In most cases he says little to nothing at all about the clips screened; while there is more discussion of his own films, this too tends towards the abstract rather than to the concrete. Yet this does not mean that what we get here is a missed opportunity or a failed project. On the contrary, it is perhaps the single most valuable text ever produced on Godard’s ideas about cinema, his own working methods, and most importantly, his way of thinking. Godard’s speech is at once erratic and brilliant, befuddling and breathtaking in its dense, free-associative flow. This, of course, makes a transcription a considerably difficult task, as Barnard describes in his introduction with a combination of passion and insight that makes it clear that he has spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to figure out how to make Godard speak.  He succeeds brilliantly, capturing the director’s idiosyncratic rhythms and avoiding the traps of producing either an overly-faithful and messy transcription or an overly-polished written text.

The value of the lectures lies not only in their content, but also in Godard’s candid and unevasive manner, not to mention his palpable enthusiasm for what he is doing. (3) As for what Godard actually says, it would be nearly impossible to give a comprehensive account here. As Witt’s introduction leads us to expect, many ideas that would later hold a central position in Histoire(s) are clearly articulated: for example, the connection between Nazism and Hollywood spectacle and the star system (p. 59), the notion that “everything is a document” and that these documents form a kind of archival memory (p. 275), editing as the specific “discovery” of cinema (p. 217), cinema as a form of prophecy that reveals “forms” in their “embryonic” stage (idem.), the narrative of sound cinema as having betrayed silent cinema, and the related conviction that cinema still contains within it traces of how history might have proceeded differently (p. 128).

Jean-Luc Godard True History of Cinema and Television book review

Two or Three Things I Know about Her (Godard, 1967)

There are other themes here, however, that are more unique to this particular text. Viewing his films with an audience leads Godard to frankly reflect on his past, taking a critical and lucid approach towards his personal life (he admits his own fascism and sexism), his films (many of which he dismisses as of little value, such as Une femme mariée [1964] and Made in USA [1966]), and perhaps most importantly, towards the French New Wave more broadly. Godard connects the collegial atmosphere of Cahiers du cinéma to that of the old Hollywood studio system, finding in both a form of social interaction central to the creative process (pp. 21-22). Yet he likewise acknowledges the New Wave’s pretensions to a kind of complete individual sovereignty as a delusion of grandeur and of being “above the law”, which obscured both cinema’s collaborative character and its inescapable rootedness in economic processes and relations of production (p. 32).

Given that they were delivered while Godard was still working in television (and prior to his more unequivocally critical attitude towards it in the 1980s), the lectures also offer great insight into the medium’s enormous importance for his work. Indeed, many of the central concepts dealt with here – above all that of “communication,” to which I’ll return shortly – are explicitly connected to television. Television is cast as reinvesting the image with the kind of “seeing” function (dependent on what is seen in common, as a society) Godard attributes to silent cinema: “Television is so powerful precisely because everyone can see, because everyone has a TV and can see at the same time.” (p. 60) Even more important, however, is the sense in which TV, Godard explains, led him to reconceptualise the relationship between filmmaker and spectator: “The fact that you have a TV set at home makes you like other television viewers; if you make a film you have a representative of another TV viewer in the form of your TV set.” (p. 86) When working for television, Godard can not but think of his actual neighbours: “I know that [the town butcher] is going to see it.  Because I work in television, I know that he is going to see the image I make, and I know that his son goes to school with my daughter.” (p. 87) It is at moments like this, when Godard begins to explicitly connect image-making with relationships, that we approach the dominant theme of the lectures, as I’ve suggested with the quote that provides this review with its title: cinema is what keeps us from being alone, and what allows for the overcoming of solitude through communication.

Jean-Luc Godard True History of Cinema and Television book review

Six fois deux: sur et sous la communication (Godard/Miéville, 1976)

For the Godard of 1978, a film can have no higher purpose than that of being an act of communication, but of course his definition of this term is highly idiosyncratic. Communication, for Godard, must be founded upon both a distance and a presumed similarity between the filmmaker and the spectator (or between any two parties, for that matter); speaking of the low audience figures for his television program Six fois deux, he remarks, “We didn’t register, yet even so there were 200,000 to 250,000 viewers, and I’ve never had 250,000 viewers. At that point, I say to myself that these viewers are people who, in some aspect of their daily lives must resemble me a little.” (p. 229) To communicate with those one resembles is also an act of displacement, not only of the message but of oneself: to communicate is “to be neither the bow, nor the person who shoots the arrow, nor the person who receives it, but to be the arrow. And writing, making a film, thinking and speaking are the arrow.” (p. 197) While there is nothing particularly remarkable in asserting that people need communication, Godard’s insight lies in connecting this need with a need for images; in television, he explains, you can ask the viewer questions like “Do you need an image in your life? Do you sometimes need photography? Do you take photographs, and when you do, why?” (4) It is this fundamentally Bazinian notion – that for whatever reason, human beings have a deep need for images – that provides the core of Godard’s case for the importance of cinema.  Yet this need for images has been and is largely exploited, as they are used to “blind” us rather than to allow us to see and communicate. The political, the personal, and the cinematic are thus for Godard essentially the same thing, and he reveals here perhaps more than anywhere else not only why we, but also why he needs the cinema.

We could briefly summarize Godard’s characterization of this need as follows: the image is not a form of self-expression in any romantic sense (as he characterizes the New Wave), but rather a means of understanding the world through the world, not by placing oneself at its centre but by seeing oneself displaced in the image, in finding that “these traces resemble us.” (5) By looking at images that we make of ourselves and of one another (and hardly any image will not be one of these things), he argues, we engage in a process of correction through which we are able to construct something approaching a coherent mutual self-definition. (p. 78) Cinema becomes a means to locate oneself but only when others, not just those existing but throughout history, have been located as well: “viewers need them, but why do filmmakers need to make a film? […] To read a map in order to travel; so I make my own map.” (p. 85)

But again, if this map is ultimately something more like Histoire(s) and less like these lectures, they are relegated to a secondary or supplemental position, in which “real” communication takes place elsewhere.  In reading this text, though, one has the overwhelming sense that communication – in its full Godardian sense – is indeed taking place. In Godard’s speech we see not some ossified idea (what Godard would call a “law”) being “expressed,” but rather a movement or process that produces the idea, which does not pre-exist it. As such, the idea is not always clear, not because it is needlessly obscure or poorly articulated, but because, as Barnard notes, “Jean-Luc Godard speaks a language all his own.” (p. lxxxiii) As we read his speech, then, we must both overcome a distance – a distance that exists between all of us but is usually masked by social convention, but retained here in such a way that Godard’s “strangeness” (he calls himself an “alien” several times in the text) in fact facilitates rather than obscures communication—and recognize ourselves. Godard’s speech thus functions like his cinema. If he laments his inability to write the history of cinema through cinema here, he succeeds in making another sort of cinema through his own speech: an image of the self-as-process, as fragmentary text, in which we not only recognize ourselves but also a mutual need that Godard, perhaps more than any other filmmaker, attempts to address without presuming to satisfy. Barnard’s feat in assembling this formidable volume has been to facilitate the process of communication that Godard began, to help the arrow fly farther and reach more people than ever before. A True History of Cinema and Television is not only a landmark in Godard scholarship, but also a deeply moving text in which Godard takes on a profoundly Socratic character, not just in his questioning of the most seemingly self-evident elements of our existence and his insistence that all knowledge must also be self-knowledge, but also in the palpable love that he conveys towards his partners in dialogue, namely all of us.

Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, trans. and ed. Timothy Barnard (Caboose: Montreal, 2014).

 

Endnotes

1. Michael Witt, Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

2. There are two issues at stake here; first, whether one can actually speak about a film (rather than deal with it through an image-based form of discourse), and second, the more purely technical problem of how best to show film excerpts. As Godard notes in the first lecture, “What is interesting is to see something and then to see another close-up, but at the same time” (precisely what he and Anne-Marie Miéville had been experimenting with in video throughout the 1970s), “[The history of cinema] should be the simplest thing in the world, because it’s just images, like a photo album. This photo album exists, but the means for flipping through it aren’t possible.” (p. 10)

3. One audience member who had seen Godard speak in Venice in 1973 mentions how much happier he seems, to which the director cheerily responds, “I have a new outlook on life…”. (p. 288)

4. Questions like this are abundant in Godard and Miéville’s 1976 television series Six fois deux: sur et sous la communication.

5. Godard seems to be implying that the viewer’s self-recognition in a film depends on both film’s status as a popular art (i.e., one that is of the people and hence speaks to them) and the capacity of photography to create images that both physically look like the viewer but also, in a Bazinian sense, retain the ontological imprint of what they have recorded. Just as importantly, though, the traces we find in photographic images are not completely recognisable, but rather force us to see ourselves differently: “[Cinema] is much more interesting than literature or anything else, because these traces resemble us […] I think we’d all be interested in seeing the history – if, every time we looked in a mirror, man or woman, a little automatic thing took a photograph […] This would be an interesting history for people. They wouldn’t entirely recognise themselves. […] I think there would be people who wouldn’t simply see an exact copy of their face.” (p. 129)