Godard, Warhol, and the cinema of attractions

Earlier this week I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, finally playing here in Boston.  It’s a masterful film, one that resembles Godard’s other late-period work in its density and difficulty but that experiments with form in ways that feel refreshingly playful and comic.  It may be the most vital film Godard has made in many, many years—certainly his best since the completion of Histoire(s) du Cinema in 1998.  (I’ve gone back and added it to my list of favorite films from 2014.) 

Goodbye to Language must be approached as an experimental film in which Godard uses repetition, recitation, and citation rather than plot, character, and dialogue, and in which we are continually prevented from getting swept up in the conventions of narrative cinema.  Godard teases us with the fragments of a narrative (a couple, a house, a dog) as if daring us to relate to them emotionally before yanking them away, much in the same way that he introduces, then cuts off, fragments of music on the soundtrack.  Since the beginning of his career Godard has systematically taken apart and reassembled the elements of cinema in order to get us to think about how they work.  The difficulty of Godard, especially the late films, has to do with his denying us the things that we are accustomed to hanging onto when we watch movies. 

But where Godard’s other late-period films sometimes risk collapsing under their own intellectual weight, Goodbye to Language is light and fleet.  (It runs a mere 70 minutes.) It’s a film in which Godard recovers the innocence of the cinema by returning us to cinema’s origins: his use of 3D—which is sometimes sophisticated, sometimes whimsical, sometimes direct—seems designed to recreate the experience of seeing film itself as if for the first time.  The very act of looking at a flower, a dog, a naked body becomes endlessly fascinating.  These were the subjects of the very first films made by Muybridge, Edison, Smith, and the Lumiere brothers at the end of the nineteenth century.  As Tom Gunning has argued, the visceral appeal of these films had less to do with telling stories or communicating ideas than with involving audiences in the sheer power of the image, and with using the “magic” of cinema technology to defamiliarize recognizable subject matter (animals, machines, the human body).

By sheer coincidence, I watched Andy Warhol’s Outer and Inner Space (1966) shortly before seeing Goodbye to Language.  The two ended up making an ideal double feature.  Warhol’s film is a kind of palimpsest in which images of Edie Sedgwick are repeated and overlaid to dizzying effect until, one by one, each layer ominously fizzes out.  Outer and Inner Space has to do with issues of celebrity, stardom, and reproducibility in ways that Goodbye to Language does not, but the two films put us under the spell of the cinematic image in ways that hearken back to the actualities of the 1890s.  The Warhol film says: look at this specimen of human beauty.  Look at her face from the front.  Look at her face in profile.  Look at how she laughs.  Look at how she sneezes.  Sedgwick’s sneezes late in the film recall Fred Ott’s Sneeze, Thomas Edison’s four-second-long film from 1894, in which a seemingly unremarkable bodily function becomes a site of cinematic spectacle.  Both Outer and Inner Space and Goodbye to Language trade on the magic of seeing the ordinary with new eyes.

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