Last night I began to undertake Jean-Luc Godard’s epic Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1998; eight parts; 266 minutes), which has recently enjoyed some renewed attention after breaking onto Sight and Sound’s poll of the best films ever made (placing at #48) and getting a snazzy DVD release from Olive Films. Coming as it does out of Godard’s difficult and uneven late period, it’s a film that I approached with some hesitance. But I found Part I to be nothing short of revelatory. It’s an essay-film, to be sure, but one that’s so intoxicatingly constructed that it never feels pedantic. Godard suggests ideas through washes of film images, spoken and written text, dialogue, and music, all of which are layered to dazzling effect. A single shot may contain one or two overlaid film images, stamped with a word or phrase, overdubbed by audio footage from another film altogether, and often underscored by an unrelated piece of music. Film clips in Part I come from A Place in the Sun and The Rules of the Game; Germany Year Zero and Gilda; Battleship Potemkin and An American in Paris; Red Hot Riding Hood and Day of Wrath (and several dozen others). Musical selections range from Stravinsky to Leonard Cohen, Carmen McRae to Beethoven. The density of Godard’s palimpsest frequently overwhelms the viewer; I found myself wanting to stop, to linger on a particular image, to pause to identify a shot that looked familiar but on which I couldn’t put my finger. But since this seemed to me to be all part of the intended effect, I let Godard’s dream-history of the cinema continue to unfurl.
I’ll be checking in here over the next two weeks or so with a few thoughts on each of the film’s eight parts—though, in keeping with the film’s fragmented, chaotic structure, my thoughts will likely be halting, tentative ones. In Part I, “Toutes les histoires,” Godard begins by interrogating the very notion of cinema history by arguing instead for a plurality of cinema histories, and by proceeding to play with the meaning of such a term: “histoire(s) du cinema.” Cinema has histories; it is also of history, marked by the history of the twentieth century. It bears history’s traumas. Films become historical records, artifacts, archival objects. The archive of film history from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s contains footage of Hitler, of the death camps, but also of Rita Hayworth and Bogart. How to understand this relation of cinema to history? German cinema is particularly bound up in a history that Godard knows to be poisonous, shameful. French viewers, having been subject to a German history violently imposed upon them, experience German cinema in a way that is colored by that history. A French audience watching a German film from 1935 not only encounters a document from the annals of cinema’s history but also comes up against the presence of other histories as they have been preserved and recorded on film. Godard doesn’t make any sort of simplistic argument about “giving up” German cinema, which would constitute a traumatic loss of its own. What he does argue for is an acknowledgment, a registering, of the histories that play out in front of and on the sidelines of the film camera—of what the images reveal and what they obscure.