Histoire(s) Du Cinéma
(History Of Cinema)
The candidate for this concluding part of the Godard marathon couldn’t be anything other than Godard’s magnum opus History of Cinema (1988-98) – a one-of-a-kind film that isn’t like anything seen before, even by Godard’s standards. In what I like to call “Stan Brakhage meets Sergei Eisenstein” kind of cinema, Godard completely does away with the need for a film camera as he employs loads and loads of footage from the most obscure corners of film history to express his ever-baffling, ever-revolutionary ideas and eventually reconstruct history – of art and of time itself. His editing prowess coupled with his oceanic knowledge of art and history result in a barrage of images, sounds and texts that anyone calling himself a Godard scholar, leave alone film scholar, would hesitate to come forward. Nevertheless, History of Cinema remains an immensely enriching experience for those who are game and those who earnestly try to get a whiff of what Godard is getting at.
Though the film as such is considered an eight part series that Godard gradually completed within a span of 10 years, the sharing of thematic and formal content among the film is so strong that any demarcation between the segments seems valid only for documenting purposes. Each film is as much tied to the others as it is singular – an idea that carries over to the commentary on cinema that Godard delivers – Cinema as an art that is as much connected to the preceding arts as it is unique. He regularly intersperses critical works of painting, sculpture, music and photography with entities of pure cinema as though suggesting that not only does cinema bear a definite relationship with them, but also that history repeats itself in one form or the other. As a result, the tracing of history of cinema necessitates a journey back not just to the year of the Lumiéres but much before.
If we had to single out Godard’s most favorite quote it has to be the misattributed Bazin one: “The cinema, substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires”. And this is where the series kicks off. Cinema as a substitute for our dreams – the dream factory. Godard explores the meaning of “dream” as interpreted by the two functioning extremes of cinema then. He presents the occident interpretation as one that had converted cinema into a portal offering an alternate reality, a second life, to the audience whose “dreams” were the fodder for the larger-than-life images that the films projected -one that continues till date. He crosscuts this with the adversarial position taken up by the Russian giants whose visions/dreams of the society after the 1917 revolution were the primary driving force that prompted the directors to make films that could make audience act and think, not get addicted to. Godard contrasts these notions and movements and laments the death of the latter while reconstructing fragments from pivotal moments of history and cinema.
In the centenary film Lumiére & Co. (1995), the filmmakers were asked a question: “Is cinema mortal?” If Godard had been asked the same thing he would have most probably said that cinema is already dead – killed almost as soon as it was born. In History of Cinema, Godard puts forth the idea, or rather the bitter truth, that cinema had infinitely more potential to influence history than any of its predecessors, but was ruthlessly narrowed down to a medium that tells “stories”. That, in an attempt to reproduce reality to utmost perfection, filmmakers have put on it a fake fabric of synthetic morals and eventually pulled over it a world of spectacle so as to mask the blunder. He argues that cinema could have prevented unfortunate tragedies and averted genocides rather than merely crying over damages dealt and observing helplessly the misery of its subjects.
And in resonance with this ideology, instead of bemoaning what is lost and what could have been, Godard anticipates the death of cinema (He apparently asked Henri Langlois to burn the archives). Death, so that it can rise again from the ashes. “Art is like fire. Born from what it burns.” says Godard and that is precisely what he desires – Cinema to go down with all its exploitations and restrictions and rise in its purest form. Back to infancy, so that it can learn everything out of free will, without rules and without vanity.
Having said that, Godard also calls for a preservation of cinema and hence a preservation of history, for cinema has recorded both beauty and atrocity with equal emotional bias, if not with justice. True that cinema has always been a runner-up to history, but at least it has mirrored history to some extent. But unlike traditional methods that document history as a direct function of time, Godard attempts to reconstruct history as seen in retrospect. He utilizes existing film fragments to fabricate various histories of film – the one that was and the ones that weren’t but could have been. He examines how cinema could have been made independent of historical accounts and even made to influence them. In essence, he projects history backwards to uncover the history of projection. Godard examines such dualities in a number of places in the film – Infancy of art and art of infancy, newness of history and history of news and reality of reflection and reflection of reality – employing a variety of footage ranging from newsreels to pornography.
Godard elucidates this servile relation that cinema bears to history using images of dictators and authoritarians. He highlights how the visual medium itself is being manipulated by a few people in power and how in turn, modern cinema manipulates the audience. Godard reproaches this moral policing and expresses his disapproval of the hypnosis that the TV-driven audience is subjected to. He appeals for a cinema that provokes but doesn’t direct, a cinema that gives you options but doesn’t select one, a cinema that makes you think and doesn’t think for you and a cinema that is only complete with its audience. As he quotes in one of the segments, “Cinema does not cry. Cinema does not comfort us. It is with us. It is us”.
There is an intriguing recurrence of the image of human hands in the film. Godard urges artists to think with their hands – their real tools that have the potency to both create and destroy, to beautify and to horrify, to document and to change. He argues that these are the instruments capable of changing and redefining history and it is the weakness of the mind that hinders the possibility. This motif is punctuated by quintessential Hitchcockian and Bressonian images of hands and their gestures that carry with them an air of graceful individuality. And amidst this theory, Godard expresses his deep admiration for Hitchcock and Rossellini (especially Rome, Open City (1948)).
It is naturally impossible to grab every reference and idea that Godard throws at us. Hence, History of Cinema becomes a film that one should watch multiple times with considerable spacing. Without doubt, uncovering each layer of its text, sound and image to see how Godard has constructed the history of cinema, just in order to rebuke it, is a progressive task that becomes possible only with much exposure to all the six arts that precede cinema. I, for one, am going to visit the film every year trying to gain something more out of every time and get a glimpse into the esoteric world that is Godard’s.
That brings me to the end of the series. This has been one heck of a ride for me – exploring a world that almost no one talks about. I must thank everyone who has been visiting the blog, especially Nitesh, Ed and Shubhajit who have presented some very interesting and illustrative facets of Godard’s ever-baffling works. And Godard himself, for I’ve never become so tired after watching a film. To get a measure of that, I spend around 3 hours watching an 80 minute film! His films extract so much out of you that following 1% of Godard is much more enlightening than absorbing 100% of the others. I do hope that I get my hands on more of his films some time in the future.
Of course, I have missed out on more than a dozen worthy Godard films and shorts including Here and Elsewhere (1976), the bizarre Keep Your Right Up (1987), the radical King Lear (1987), and the more recent Our Music (2004). I hope I can cover them in the Flashback series or elsewhere.
Till then, au revoir and a happy new year,
Le Petit Soldat