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A Sublime So Familiar

Because, of course, we think in terms of masterpieces and we feel that here is a man who has the gifts for masterpieces. But maybe he hasn’t; maybe he has artistry of another kind.

—Pauline Kael, on Jean-Luc Godard, 1966

Jean-Luc Godard—like Andrei Tarkovsky—makes you peer more intently at the screen. Their films seldom wash over you; they contain you, sweep you along (or lose you entirely), demand that you watch more closely, pay more attention. As with no other directors, we feel their presence in the lens. While Tarkovsky makes the camera the seeing eye of his mystical soul—an eye that turns everything it embraces into all the metaphors each object/moment might contain—Godard’s camera seems the sharp point of his questing intellect. And nobody has a sharper intellect than JLG.

His brainiac detachment led Godard to abandon conventional narrative so many years and as many films ago (he’s close to 90 now—movies, I mean. In age, he’s only 73). It also led to a self-imprisoning thicket of Maoist horseshit, from which arid, tortured documents emerged for what seemed like forever: humorless, didactic, claustrophobic, formally groundbreaking, brilliant of course, and yet so limited. It was a tiresome decade and among the most disappointing career turns in cinema.

Jean-Luc Godard in Notre Musique © Les Films du Losange.
Jean-Luc Godard in Notre Musique © Les Films du Losange.

When Godard grew out of making manifestos, for which he was always too smart to manifest the indignant self-righteousness required, he turned to a lexicon of his genuine passions: light itself, cars moving in traffic, the merging of video and film, how the technological demands of moviemaking intrude upon/nourish the story being told, and capturing the ineffable. Godard explores these passions with a poetic, incantatory grasp of image and montage that no other filmmaker possesses. Using this lexicon, JLG seeks to manifest the sublime.

Being Godard and half French, he could hardly pursue the sublime without viewing it through the prism of many ravishing close-ups of many fabulous babes. Babes in a Godardian mode, naturalement: with eerily singular beauty, an upper-class air of profundity, great reserve, low, calm voices, understated grace, all gazing at the world with educated severity across a vast, tragic divide. And so, despite having surpassed both plot and Mao, the old boy proves immune to neither romance nor lust. The high-mindedness with which Godard presents these babes might be annoying in another director, but for him they serve as a leavening, proof that however abstruse his intellect (and it’s beaucoup abstruse), Godard remains human.

Startlingly, it’s his humanity that motivates Notre Musique. Fabulous babe(s) included, Musique finds Godard in a mood not usually associated with his astringent, rigorous, neither mystical nor especially compassionate temperament: forgiving. Here JLG explores atrocity and what comes after—the glamour of war, the degradation of war, the perseverance of the intellect in the aftermath of horror. In contradiction to his previous film—2001’s Eloge de Amour—Musique takes the form of an essay.

Film still from part 1 of Histoire(s) du Cinema by Jean-Luc Godard.
Film still from part 1 of Histoire(s) du Cinema by Jean-Luc Godard.

Eloge was pure transcendence, consisting of seemingly disconnected images that coalesced into an emotional narrative far beyond anything as simple as “what happened next.” Way back when, Godard talked about 1 + 1, his conception of editorial montage: an image plus another plus the viewer responding, creating his/her own connections and absorbing the next image into that equation. Eloge was the apotheosis of 1 + 1, moving not from plot point to plot point but from image to image, elevating you with such simple beauty and making you sob in the theater for no discernable narrative reason. In these last few years, Godard has pierced a veil, moved on to another level of consciousness. He’s traveling in Borgesian territory, where the effects of the tale cannot be traced to the method of its telling.

So Musique feels like a retrenchment, a less important, less profound exercise. The formal structure Godard lays over his story (claiming chapter headings from Dante’s Inferno) seems undergraduate, an overreaching to conceal this film’s lack of complexity. The first chapter, “Hell,” is a montage of images of war, both real and from the movies. No, that’s not right: Godard’s point is that all these images are from the movies. Some are fictive and some are not, and thus the horror/glamour of war blurs in our consciousness. There are moments in this montage that could only come from Godard (he represents the Apocalypse by the climax of that most apocalyptic noir, Kiss Me Deadly); the rest, however cool, could have been made by any sophisticated film student with a superior movie collection and Final Cut Pro. Still, it must be said, nobody else could paint fragments of music over this montage with Godard’s grace.

“Purgatory,” the second and main segment, is set in Sarajevo, which for JLG incarnates the possibility and impossibility of the multicultural interaction we all must embrace if not to be destroyed by it. Much of this chapter features Godard sitting beatifically with a big fat cigar stuck in his mug while around him philosophers philosophize and fabulous babe(s) deal with their philosophical crises. Musique is a film of horizontal forms; the sublime moments come from those shots of streetcars passing and cars on the move through nighttime traffic that have enthralled Godard since Le Petit Soldat. Why they’re so deeply moving and exquisite, I couldn’t tell you. When the camera turns to the vertical, the world loses its sublimity. Around the horizontal action of life continuing are the vertical reminders of death: the mountains from which Sarajevo was shelled, the carbonized carcasses of bombed-out high-rise apartments, the rebuilt office towers we saw spitting flames a moment or two before (through the gift of montage). Though the philosophers get off a couple of great aphorisms, and the babe suffers in her severe high-minded way, Godard’s fallback onto essay, onto a direct presentation of ideas, makes Musique feel something like an exercise. (It almost goes without saying that Godard’s B+ work outshines pretty much everything else in the theaters—it’s only by his rarified standards that Musique misses the mark.)

As always, JLG throws in a couple of half-baked ideas that not only undermine his better ones but also remind you just how annoying he can be. In this case it’s an ill-advised mixing of the oppression of Native Americans with the ethnic hatred of the former Yugoslavia. When fine-faced Native American actors stand in regal tribal-dress splendor beneath the rebuilding of the Mostar bridge, you can’t help but feel that, however noble his motives, the maestro is en train de se branler.*
This feeling is underlined during the final chapter, “Paradise,” which is set in heaven. Amusingly, our first glimpse of heaven seems to be the same verdant dale in which Eve Democracy was interviewed nearly 40 years ago in Godard’s 1 + 1/Sympathy for the Devil. In heaven, Godard succumbs to the obvious. In case we don’t get the joke about U.S. Marines guarding heaven (and since when did Godard give un baiser** about whether we got his jokes?), JLG plays the Marine Hymn on the soundtrack to clue us in. It ain’t his finest moment.

*busy jerking off

**a fuck

“Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be.”

—André Breton

But MoMA, bless its heart, is presenting Godard at his best. On January 10 and 13, MoMA’s Premieres series will screen Histoire(s) du cinema, Godard’s four-part meditation on the history of cinema in France and the world. A sort of Holy Grail for Godardians in the three years since its creation, Histoire(s) has never been shown with English subtitles in America. On January 16, MoMA presents all four chapters in one showing; but that would be only for the most committed and iron-assed cineastes. Or for those, like me, who need to see Godard’s new work more than once to have a clue of apprehending it. Weirdly, as with Tarkovsky, every time I see a new Godard film I sleep through part of it. I dream it as I sleep and awake feeling as though I’ve missed nothing, but I need that second screening to keep my eyes open all the way through.

And sure enough, Godard’s Moments choisis des Histoire(s) du cinema—his 2004 84-minute commentary upon and distillation of the longer Histoire(s) that also screened at MoMA—had a similar effect. Little wonder, since it’s among Godard’s most dreamlike, avant-garde, and least conventional works. It’s also among his most willfully beautiful. There are no intact scenes or sequences from any recognizable movies. Instead, to create his meditation on the history of cinema and thus, of the previous century, Godard blends stolen cinematic moments with stills (from films, from the news, from who knows what) with video effects (chromo-keyed fades, multiple images overlapping, varying levels of transparency between images, text merging with and separating from images) with overlaid video that JLG shot himself. Plus fabulous babes, too. Two of the few recognizable shots in the 84 minutes are close-ups of a breathtaking and very young Julie Delpy and others of a bowl-cut brunette of great French sophistication and intellect. Godard must adore her, because he grants her more unfractured screen time than any other image.

In Moments Godard explores what film archivist/commentator Guy Greenberg accurately characterizes as Stan Brakhage territory: the world of linking one abstracted, disconnected yet spiritually imbued image with another to produce the most concrete emotional effects. In rejecting conventional narrative or the film-clip approach of Martin Scorsese’s histories of American and Italian cinema, Godard makes plain that cinema, whether documentary or dramatic, is a self-enfolding dream all its own, a world of mythology, with all the comfort and terror that mythology provides.
As Godard’s meditation/reflection progresses, it takes on an increasingly elegiac tone, and in the end, Godard sees himself fading with the century, a century he depicts as barely distracted from its preoccupation with violence by the cinema Godard so loves. That Godard shows so few clips from dramatic films, and so many from documentaries of war, suggests that this violence more accurately incarnates the mythology of the century than all the groping after reality its movies pursued.

MoMA showed admirable curatorial grace in screening Moments on the very day the museum reopened. Godard has always been the most modern of filmmakers; what he does is the vanguard. ’Twas ever thus, even if 84 non-narrative, wrenching, hypnotizing, vanguard minutes narrated in a sonorous voice might take a little work to stay awake through. Whether we can grok what JLG is after in Histoire(s), or how long it will take us to do so, are secondary questions.

“I want a sublime so familiar that each will be tempted to believe he would have discovered it easily himself, although few are capable of discovering it.”

—Jean-Luc Godard



David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 04-JAN 05

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