Whatever else it may be, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (now available on DVD from Artificial Eye) does not resemble the afternoon bill at the old Plaza or the new Cineplex. He first thought of creating a history of cinema in 1978. It would be told, he said, ‘archaeologically and biologically’. In spite of the metaphors, the plan seemed conventional enough: an account of movements and techniques, of changes of ‘cultural terrain’. The result was a book, Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma, based on a series of talks Godard gave in Canada, where he discussed quite a few of his own films in relation to the work of selected classic directors: Lang, Dreyer, Minnelli, Resnais, Rossellini, Eisenstein. Certainly all of these directors recur in Histoire(s), as do many of Godard’s own long-serving ideas. But the form is different: an intense and intricate video essay that looks forward (or across) to Chris Marker’s Immemory (1998), released in the same year that Godard finished Histoire(s). Except that Godard doesn’t have the riches of digital storage, or the luxury of alternative tracks through the archive. In this sequential sense, its inevitable placing of one frame after another, the work can be thought of as a movie after all.
It uses text, voice-over, moving pictures, stills, paintings, engravings, cartoons. We see the witch in Snow White and the corpses piled up at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück; plenty of Goya, Seurat, Manet; Kim Novak almost drowning in Vertigo, the old major dying in The Magnificent Ambersons; Ivan the Terrible and Stalin; Hitler in one frame immediately followed by James Stewart in another, focusing his camera in Rear Window; an extraordinary bit of cross-cutting between a dance scene in An American in Paris and a black-and-white film of an execution, followed by a repeated shot of an engraving, a Rembrandt self-portrait, black eyes staring, face frozen. This man really does seem to have seen what we have just seen.
I’m naming names because that seems to be the quickest way of conveying something of the effect of what’s on the screen, but gesture is also misleading, because for every film or painting or citation I recognise – with or without the help of the handy book version of Histoire(s) – there are dozens I don’t know, and this kind of ignorance, if we can relax enough to let it work on us, becomes part of the freshness of the experience: seeing, not seeing again, or clocking the reference. It’s important, as Colin MacCabe says in Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70 (2003), not to turn our viewing into a guessing game.
We see Godard sitting at his electric typewriter, smoking a cigar. He is murmuring titles of novels and movies, staring into space. If there is an archaeology here, it is an archaeology of mind, the apparently disordered rescue of a lifetime’s memory of film. At another point, and for quite some time, Godard is interviewed by the critic Serge Daney, who does most of the talking. ‘The New Wave,’ Daney says, ‘is perhaps the only generation which found itself in the middle of the century and the cinema at the same time.’ Godard was lucky, he adds, to have ‘arrived early enough to inherit a history that was already rich and complicated and shifting’. When Daney remarks that the cinema is ‘the affair of the 20th century’, Godard mildly corrects him: ‘It’s the affair of the 19th century which was resolved in the 20th century.’ We begin to see where we are. Histoire(s) du cinéma is among other things a wake for the cinema. ‘So it is,’ we hear on the soundtrack close to the end, ‘that the art of the 19th century, the cinema, created the 20th century, which on its own existed only a little.’
There is a great deal of visual play with words. The letters of ‘histoire’ are shifted to reveal ‘toi’; of ‘cinéma’ to reveal ‘né’; a ‘historien’ becomes a ‘histo rien’, presumably some sort of actor of nothing. There are also ‘cinémoi’ and ‘do re me fatale’. Most disturbing of all, perhaps, in a section about Auschwitz and the Vichy government: the French word ‘jamais’, ‘never’, becomes a German word followed by a French one – ‘Ja mais’, ‘yes but’. The context suggests that too many people were saying ‘ja’; had forgotten their ‘mais’. A shot of French actors in the 1940s, on a train heading for Berlin to make a movie, is juxtaposed with a shot of Irène Némirovsky, whose train was headed for another place.
Histoire(s) du cinéma has eight ‘chapters’. The longest is 51 minutes, the shortest is 27 minutes. The titles of all eight appear in each one, flashing on the screen like a kind of announcement, a literal reminder of where we are and what else there is. The titles are ‘All the (Hi)stories’; ‘A Single History’; ‘Only the Cinema’; ‘Fatal Beauty’; ‘The Currency of the Absolute’; ‘A New Wave’; ‘The Control of the Universe’; ‘The Signs among Us’. Another title, not assigned to a chapter, flashes just as often as the others: ‘The Response of Darkness’.
The first chapter is the most coherent and the most persuasive, the second closest to a slide-show, setting a slow reading of Baudelaire’s poem ‘Le Voyage’ to a series of images. It’s my impression that Godard gets angrier and more strident in his views as the series goes on; more solemn too, but that may be the effect of the increasing amount of voice-over space given to Alain Cuny, a fine actor if you like that kind of thing, but a man who always makes the mere time of day sound like the low point of a Greek tragedy. But every chapter is pretty gripping, has surprises. More than once, we come across the scene from the end of Ford’s The Searchers, where John Wayne catches up with the girl who’s been stolen by the Indians. We think he’s going to kill her, because he hates the idea of contamination, however innocently incurred. He picks her up and everything changes. He carries her back towards home, all bigotry and danger effaced in a moment of human magic. But what is this scene doing here? It is, I think, the gloomy Godard’s own image of hope, sudden, irrational, radiant.
There is a split idea of American film all the way through Histoire(s). Godard’s heroes include Irving Thalberg, producer of, among other films, Ben-Hur, Flesh and the Devil, The Merry Widow and A Night at the Opera, and Howard Hughes, aviator and solitary. And Hitchcock, of course: ‘the only poète maudit to be successful’. Hitchcock succeeded, we learn, where Alexander, Julius Caesar and Napoleon failed: ‘in taking control of the universe’. But there is also a sense that America, and American film, are the great forces of evil in the world, and Godard’s own manifest affection for so many movies just disappears into his phrase-making. ‘The Americans have made publicity films. The English have done what they always do in cinema, nothing.’ It’s true that French commerc-ial cinema doesn’t fare any better in this account, and only the Italians are truly praised: ‘Italy has reconquered the right for a nation to look itself in the face.’ Still, America is also accused of ‘ruining all the cinemas in Europe’, and the same animus, now surely rather antiquated, governs all Godard’s remarks about television. This is a man who is making a video work that is a sort of successor to the cinema as an art form, as well as an act of mourning for it. But he sees the art form itself only in its old purity, the New Wave that died without getting old.
There is a reason, then, for trusting the images rather than the text, and Godard is right to speak as fondly as he does of montage. My guess is that collage – that is, disparate still pictures juxtaposed in a single frame – takes much more space and time in Histoire(s), but the haunting moments all come from Eisensteinian montage, the placing of images in sequence. I’ve mentioned one or two instances, and here’s another. Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun fades into a shot from Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, which gives way to Nosferatu, only to return to the Rossellini film and the great, desolate moment when a boy throws himself to his death from a high floor of a bombed building. We make what we can of this; but certainly the shift from glamour to horror to history shakes us up, and perhaps only the cinema, or a certain view of the cinema, can shake us up in this way.
It’s worth remembering this possibility, in the face of the nostalgia that invades the Histoire(s) more and more as they go on. Right at the end, narrated over a still of Godard’s staring face on which a yellow flower is superimposed, we get a story borrowed from Coleridge via Borges. Actually as MacCabe reminds us, Coleridge had got it from the German writer Jean Paul. Godard adds a touch of Whitman at the end: ‘If a man crossed paradise in a dream and received a flower as proof of his passage, and on his awakening he found that flower in his hands, what should we say? I was that man.’ He bears the proof of a real paradise, but that paradise is in the past, as paradises always are.