The Image Book

“Before the talkies, silent films had a materialist starting point. The actor said: I am (filmed) therefore I think (at least I think of the fact that I am being filmed), it’s because I exist that I think. After the talkies, there was a New Deal between the matter being filmed (the actor) and thought. The actor began saying: I think (that I am an actor) therefore I am (filmed). It’s because I think that I am.”

– Letter to Jane (1972, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin)

 

“The fact remains that, thanks to machines, and in reference to the domination of the realm of images in our societies of spectacle, never have as many deaths been filmed as in last five or six years. The corpse has become a more familiar, more ordinary image and is often not even an object of attention. A particular mise en scène, spontaneous or arranged, is needed, the shadow of a history must float over the corpse of this dead child, face against the sand, for the mediatic vortex to get going.”

– Daesh, Cinema and Death (2016, Jean-Louis Comolli)

 

“What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.”

– King Lear

 

In the beginning was the image, until it was tainted and supplanted by the word. Or so suggests Godard’s latest work, The Image Book, in which the filmmaker militates for the image against a world enslaved by words. It’s a full circle of sorts for Godard who has always alerted about the treachery of images and their power to deceive and corrupt. It’s also a full circle in a formal sense in that, after the digital cinematography of Film Socialism and Goodbye to Language, The Image Book harks back to his monumental Histoire(s) du Cinéma, and is made almost entirely of pre-existing footage and sounds. The footage and sounds, to be sure, are heavily manipulated – colour-saturated, over-exposed, slowed-down, chopped-up and noise-fed to a point of nonrecognition – but the film still remains a classical collage work deriving its meaning chiefly from the association of disparate elements rather than from the elements themselves. Montage is Godard’s primary form of thought.

Image and words: Godard’s eternal preoccupation are brought into conflict right in the first two shots of the film: a detail – the upward pointing finger of John the Baptist – from Leonardo’s painting followed by a text excerpt from Georges Bernanos’ Les enfants humiliés. As a hand goes over a reel of film on an editing table, Godard’s voice echoes: “Five fingers, five senses, five continents of the world, five fingers of the fairy. Together they make the hand. And man’s true condition is to think with his hands.” To think with his hands, by the way, is what Godard appears to be doing in the publicity spot he made for the Jihlava Film Festival: scrolling back and forth through the photos on his iPhone, as the voice-over rolls back and forth in response. And what is scrolling through a photo album but a form of ‘manual’ editing? Montage is Godard’s primary form of thought.

Five fingers, five senses, five parts in The Image Book. The first part, titled REMAKES/RIM(AK)ES pits images against words: images that speak truth, words that lie and kill. Shots of soldiers abusing a captured woman while the voice-over states that they are reviving a Vietcong combatant for interrogation. Shots of suffering and atrocity cut to Godard’s voice reading a Joseph de Maistre text hailing the divinity of war. In cinema, too, the images were mute until words came along to subvert their material, polysemous reality. Also in focus in this part of the film is the way cinema and war have fed off themselves and off one another, remade each other: Vietnam war footage, Les Carabiniers, shots of shark-faced jets from World War 2, Jaws, Blood of the Beast, images from the Holocaust. As Jean-Louis Comolli has written about at length, its precisely Hollywood spectacle that Daesh recruitment videos try to emulate and Godard acknowledges this perverse response of reality to his lament that cinema has never caught up with history by juxtaposing shots of soldiers drowning rebels in Paisan with clips of Daesh drowning its captives.

The second part of the film opens with shots from Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Continuing with de Maistre’s text Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, Godard overlays its potent call for arms and doomsday prophesying with images of brutality and violence fictional and documentary. Words being on the side of war, it would seem, could only be given the lie by images of war. Like Lear choosing the seductive beauty of painted words over reality, history has been led astray by those wielding power over language. As the third section of the film implies, image, on the other hand, has always stood for hope and survival. A compilation of train footage through history – rather conventional given it’s Godard – the central part of the film takes the symbol of Western technological progress and the proto-image of cinema – the moving train – and reflects on how the same entity that helped civilizations thrive also culminated in Auschwitz.

The fourth part of the film, named after Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, mounts a frontal attack on the machinations of language in the form of law. Sandwiching Montesquieu’s dreams for a harmonic state-subject relationship between Victor Hugo’s rather graphic description of state atrocities in Serbia, Godard underscores the normalization of violence and imperialism through the language of law. “The Law is always prepared to lend you a spare brain in order to condemn you without remorse,” wrote Barthes, “the spectacle of a terror which threatens us all, that of being judged by a power which wants to hear only the language it lends us.” At one point, Godard follows up a frame from Histoire du cinéma that says “montage interdit” (editing prohibited) – Bazin’s famous maxim – with excerpts from La Marseillaise and a shot from Gus van Sant’s Elephant where we see the school shooter firing at a victim in the same frame. This, perhaps, is also a joke of sorts for Godard, who was always a champion of the classical decoupage and editing in opposition to Bazin’s long shot filmmaking. As Comolli demonstrates, the “montage interdit” maxim now lives most emphatically in Daesh’s videos that show the executioner and the victim in the same frame.

The final portion, its title and some of its images drawn from Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, trains its attention entirely on the Middle East – a subject of the filmmaker’s interest since long – albeit a fictional Middle East, a lost paradise. It’s an unusual passage for Godard, excerpting Egyptio-French writer Albert Cossery’s An Ambition in the Desert at length for the voice-over (spoken by someone else) and illustrating it with assorted documentary and cinema shots from the Middle East. The story, that of a Machiavellian emir who tries to stage a fake revolution in his oil-bereft Middle-Eastern country in order to attract Western attention, is interspersed with thoughts about the world’s political indifference to Arabs, the failures of Middle East itself to escape Western imperial forces and counter Daesh’s worship of the Word (Daesh’s production of images, of course, stems from its virulent anti-idolatry). An explanation of counterpoint in music finds echo in a title card containing the word ‘Palestine’ in Arabic and Hebrew overlapped.

Another joke perhaps: the film’s end credits roll five minutes before it actually ends. Godard, who’s regularly been said to retire since Film Socialism, follows the credits with key images from the film, now played without the context, as though to finally liberate images from the debilitating stronghold of words. “Word and image” reads the final title card, reversing the card “image and word” shown at the beginning of the film. In the film’s final words, pronounced on the soundtrack over a black screen, Godard repeats to a coughing fit a quote from Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance: “Even if nothing turned out how we’d hoped, it would not have changed what we’d hoped for.” The final images that follow, in turn, gives us a long, mute excerpt from Ophuls’ Le Plaisir, a masked Jean Galland dances himself to exhaustion. It’s a pure image, silent, beautiful, self-sufficient and liberated from the need to “speak up” – a return to cinematic zero of sorts that’s always been the filmmaker’s objective.