Stereo sound hard-panning left and right, songs cutting in and out, incomplete subtitles, footage warped and effected, recolored, switching to the wrong aspect ratios on purpose, speed-adjusted and frame-by-framed, interlacing, watermarks. He’s taking the “I invented the jump-cut” thing a little far, with an entire movie of technical errors.
Doc footage of horrors to people and animals. Obviously there’s a point to distorting and mutating the film footage and in flipping between fictional and actual atrocities. “This is the law of destruction of the living. Every being must be sacrificed,” says gravel-voiced JLG, or at least that’s what the subtitles tell us he’s saying.
The nature of art and war are covered, briefly. Focus on Russia, trains, physical film apparatus, the Muslim world. Named/numbered chapters, but I’m not sure they help anything. Politically, he seems to be in a terrible mood.
You do eventually drift into its rhythm, or its lack of rhythm. Towards the end it feels like he might start telling us a coherent story about a would-be conqueror named Sheik Ben Kadem (“but the world wasn’t as simple as his dream” sounds like Adam Curtis) illustrated by the jumble of sources he’s been establishing… alas, JLG is just reading scraps from a 1980’s novel, and the subtitles lose interest in following him.
It’s such a homemade UFO, I’d believe you if you told me he made it alone in a weekend, or that it took many years with a team of researchers.
These are films that ignite every interpretative impulse in our brains without satisfying our desires to be passive, unproductive viewers; they do not give clarity or any obvious avenues through the deluge of information, even if they make us feel as though, were we smarter, more knowledgable, bilingual cinephiles, we would be able to do just that. It’s in this way that Godard’s films also invite us to improve ourselves, something I think very few other artists achieve.
Many years ago, Godard attempted to create a style of cinema that could inspire revolutionary change. At this point, he seems to not only regard such a thing as impossible, but also regards cinema as a tool of violence and colonialism. In the film’s longest and most lucid section, he argues for the Arab World as a lost paradise hurt by western intervention, and cinema as a tool of oppression (in his narration, he says something along the lines of “all representation is violence”). He doesn’t seem to draw a distinction between classical Hollywood cinema, news footage, Blu-Rays, and amateur cell phone video — he suggests they have all basically been flattened into the same thing.
In his comparison of war footage and fictional violence, Godard posits the old problem: which representation is the original, and what inspired what? The connections are pre-cognitive and deeply intuitive, posed as questions, and (like so much in late Godard) recall Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. How have images — both “cursed” and “blessed,” in the current parlance — dipped and ducked into the unconscious across the ages, forming something like a universal art history?
If, as Godard intones early on, pledging allegiance to the ideas of Swiss cultural theorist Denis de Rougemont, man’s condition is indeed “to think with hands,” then what happens when cinema subverts or displaces that tactile state? When a hand becomes, as in Godard’s famed aphorism, “not a just image, but just an image”? When real violence becomes conflated with the violence of representation? In a choice that will strike some as crass at best, and exploitative at worst, Godard continually rhymes the two, in one instance placing gruesome footage of ISIS throwing bloodied bodies into the water against the scene in Vertigo (1958) in which Scottie rescues Madeleine from the San Francisco Bay. The ultimate point that Godard arrives at here, though, is fairly direct: which is that cinema—even revolutionary, politically minded cinema—has not clarified, but obscured the reality of the Holocaust and other attendant horrors, and instead contributed to a larger confusion, an effective “flattening” of reality. (That the clenched fist of revolution is here traded in for a raised index finger is instructive.)
The Image Book ends with another display of madness that would be a more than appropriate sendoff for the French New Wave figurehead’s restless career. Taken from Max Ophüls’s Le Plaisir, it’s a sequence of a man dancing and spinning around furiously until, finally, he falls down. This moment also serves as a canny reminder that, whatever effort it takes to understand the exact nature of the work that Godard is doing here, he’s also exerting that effort with us—and he seems to mind not at all if he collapses in the process.
As a memorial screening, I watched one JLG short film per decade…
Une Femme Coquette (1955)
Agnès writes a letter to a friend to confess cheating on her husband, having witnessed a discreet prostitute picking up men from the street and wondering if she’d have the courage to do the same. The woman is portrayed as complicated, and the men (including JLG himself) as impulsive dickbrains. The filmmakers bring Guy de Maupassant’s apartment-balcony story outdoors, showing off Geneva parks, bridges and birds. Ten years later, Masculin Féminin was sold as an adaptation of the same story before being completely rewritten.
From the Paris vu par anthology, which people say is quite good overall but I’ll watch the rest some other time. In very mobile long takes, Monica comes to her bf’s metalworking studio to tell him about a delicate mixup: she’s sent two telegrams to her two men and mixed up the addresses. He doesn’t buy it and kicks her out, so she runs to her other metalworker bf’s place. Both guys are caught up in their work and don’t stop to listen to her. Seems she didn’t mix up the addresses after all, and Roger also kicks her out. Some tech issues here, a bad post-dub, but cute.
Brief, noisy apartment scene, filmed mostly from behind the actors, to sell aftershave. You can’t tell a whole lot from my unsubbed copy but apparently that’s Juliet Berto and they’re arguing about Palestine, haha. Don’t know whether this aired, but it made some quick cash for the Dziga-Vertov Group.
Puissance de la parole (1988)
The Power of Speech is the opposite of Goodbye to Language. Filmmaking apparatus, overlapping hypnotized dialogue, a bitter post-breakup conversation transmitted through 1980’s phones and satellites. Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan songs, used less abruptly than in the later features.
Strobing edits (cutting between sky/water/volcano looks cool) and space-age philosophy. I’ve always liked movies where two people speak abstractly at the shore. A couple of Rivettian ghosts on the beach: Warok and a Gang of Four lead. “No thought can perish, so no act is without infinite result.”
L’enfance de l’Art (1993, w/ Mieville)
A woman reads to a boy, a book about revolt and revolution, while violent battles and children’s games go on around them. Nice string music, an action scene, a bazooka.
Liberty and Homeland (2002, w/ Miéville)
I did not realize Godard had a 9/11 film, or that he ever used dub music in his work. Male and female narrators go off about France and art, finally settling on a story of a (fictional) painter. Blending sources with different aspect ratios, extremely enhancing the colors – it was all there 20 years ago.
Remerciements de JLG (2015)
Godard totters home muttering in scraps and quotes, falls down, and delivers a speech from the floor about cinema and the lack of it, gets up to his desk and talks politics and poetry – all this in five minutes.