Video and Television
And if cinema today still works on television, it's because television itself has no love. . .. On television, you can find power in its pure state, and the only things that people like seeing on TV at all are sports and cinema films, and that is because they seek love...
-Jean-Luc Godard, 1983
Godard's interest in video, including mass-market television and offbeat "video art" formats, did not grow into a strong preoccupation until the middle of the 1970s. This makes him something of a latecomer to the field, since alternative or "guerrilla" television had already picked up a good deal of steam among American artists and activists.
It goes without saying that his tardiness was not caused by timidity or conservatism. The main thing at issue was his longstanding loyalty to the apparatus of motion pictures: the professional 35mm equipment he had worked with during most of his career, and the flexible 16mm format (carrying many of the benefits associated with portable TV equipment) used for many of the Dziga-Vertov Group films.
His first production using video as a major tool was Numero deux in 1975. This was a full five years after the American video underground had started its efforts to satirize, subvert, and ultimately replace the establishment-bound institutions of commercial TV, inspired by the countercultural mood of the 1960s in general, and the writings of fashionable theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller in particular.2 Some of these TV guerrillas wanted to produce in-depth documentaries and "specials" that would promulgate their radicalized views on specific social and political issues. Others wanted to produce regular series or miniseries that would challenge conventional notions of TV programming as a whole. Once he embraced video, Godard wanted to do both; and within the next five years he did, also finding time to pioneer a whole new genre - the video scenario, a short work made as a commentary or supplement to a 35mm feature. He may have arrived at the video party late, but once in the group, he made his presence forcefully felt.
Godard's video productions, many of them codirected or otherwise aided by Mieville, have been as controversial as his films. Some critics damn them with faint praise, saying his turn to video has mainly been a savvy economic move, allowing him to make individualistic works without too much financial risk. Others praise them with faint damns, regretting the reduced image quality of his video pieces compared with his "real" movies, yet acknowledging that video's flexibility and malleability make it useful for personal, spontaneous creation. Still others see them as the last refuge of a marginalized artist whose eccentricities have sadly limited his access to mainstream production, distribution, and exhibition.
There is some truth in each of these views. The image quality of video is indeed inferior to that of movie film,a lthough the medium compensates for this by allowing a range of manipulations and "special effects" that are relatively simple to accomplish. It is also true that video encourages low-budget production, but this should enhance rather than diminish its prestige, since it allows for an individualism and experimentalism that adventurous filmmakers have found increasingly hard to practice, especially since cultural politics turned more conservative in the 1980s and 1990s, reducing financial support (and ticket-buying audiences) for innovative work.
Godard himself has lent credence to the notion that video offers a haven from the slings and arrows of commercial cinema, characterizing himself as an incorrigible experimenter who will never be the kind of media celebrity he could have become if he'd pursued a more conventional path. As an artist who has made the sociocultural margin his home, he appears to have realized at some point, he can't profess too much surprise at finding himself a marginalized artist. He amplified on this at a 1995 press conference, giving it a distinctly positive spin: "I am something of a loner.. . . I've always considered myself marginal. In a book, the primordial space is the margin, because it joins with that of the preceding page. And you can write in the margin, and take notes, which is as important as the 'main text.'"
Godard's admirers have long maintained that, under the influence of his strong creative personality, the margin becomes the center when he is occupying it. It is certainly true that his excursions into video have helped legitimize that medium as a valid option for serious artistic expression.
Conversely, video has served him well - not only as a flexible, lowbudget medium for some of his more audacious ventures, but also as a new arena in which to pursue his longtime fascination with spontaneous creation and (always at the top of his agenda) challenging commonsense notions of socially productive art, entertainment, and communication.
Asked by an interviewer about his growing interest in video during the mid-to-late 1970s, he responded with a revealing statement, noting that when a technology is new,
it is less rigid, and there are less instructions from the police, the law or circulation. There is not less law, but it hasn't been made, it isn't written down. It is before the written.... You have no rules so you have something to live with, you have to invent some rules and to communicate with other people. ... I was interested because there were no rules. . . . You have to findr ules in yourself and when to work more or to love.
When he observes that the "law" governing new technologies is "before the written," Godard recalls his desire to capture a state of innocence and innovation that stands above or beyond the everyday realities of our socially conditioned world. His affection for light-gathering and soundrecording equipment with not-yet-written rules is clearly connected to his quest for perceptions that predate "beginning was the word" consciousness, to cite Stan Brakhage once again. Approaching a new audio or video technique, Godard can be imagined asking the question posed by Jules the gardener: If nobody labels it or gives it a name, what then is this phenomenon? One possible answer: whatever we choose to make of it. As Godard said of video in another portion of the interview just quoted, "I don't know why I got interested. Maybe because it wasn't run by movie people so there was no law. So I was authorised."
The idea of video as an escape route from "law" crops up more than once in his statements over the years. Speaking in 1993 of his "videoscript" for Passion, Godard says, "I have always been against writing. It represents the laying down of the law," which becomes "fixed and constraining" like a straitjacket. "I want to work like a painter with images and details," he adds. "Delacroix painted five hundred hands before drawing a full human figure." And later, "The scenario should be an inquest, an investigation, not a certainty, a written law."6 Video thus represents a way to evade the coercive tendencies of the written word, allowing the artist to circumvent verbal preconditions and draw upon visionary resources that are comparatively free of well-worn sociocultural habits. Godard's engagement with video was not sudden or arbitrary. It emerged from tendencies that were already visible in his filmmaking, and picked up strength from two further developments that touched his life, one personal and one political.
The personal development has been pithily described by French critic Philippe Dubois, who notes that "the appearance of video in Godard's work corresponds fairly precisely to the appearance of Anne-Marie Mieville in his life and work."7 Mieville has been less public than Godard about her background, although it is known that she is also Swiss; that she had a brief singing career in Paris during the 1960s; and that she acquired some filmmaking experience before joining her new companion - who shared her urgent interest in the Palestinian crisis - as still photographer for Tout va bien, and then helping him establish the Sonimage production company.8 Serving as cowriter and (usually) codirector of his next several projects, she helped him appropriate video as a weapon against what they perceive as the cultural degradation and dehumanization caused by contemporary society's mass-media blitz, a major contributor to which has been (ironically) video itself.
The political event was the 1974 election of Valerie Giscard-d'Estaing as president of France, bringing a series of liberal reforms that included the decentralization of the Organisation de Radio et Television Francais - which regulated broadcasting activities - into a number of smaller units with some degree of independence from one another. This allowed Godard and Mieville to make a coproduction deal with the Institut National Audiovisuel, calling for two miniseries that would certainly not have seen the light of day under France's previous media regime.
Even before video became a primary concern for Godard and Mieville, the first three filmst hey worked on together dealt as much with questions of media and communication as with the sociopolitical problems that appear to be their main subjects. This is conspicuously true of Here and Elsewhere in 1974 and Comment ga va in 1976, which discuss how mass media transform our perceptions of globally important events and concepts; it is more subtly true of Numero deux in 1975, which shows (indeed, reproduces) the impact of media technologies on emotional dynamics within a household. The filmmakers' goal in these works, as Dubois summarizes it, is to respond "m images and sounds to the set of questions that address why we no longer know how to communicate, speak, see, and think, and how we can still try to speak and create with images and sounds." Among their key devices are various forms of direct or spontaneous address, manipulation of the image by electronic means, and experiments in slowing and "de-composing" the image, thus reducing its power to mesmerize and confuse.
In retrospect, the three films that launched Godard's collaboration with Mieville seem like relatively straight continuations of the Dziga-Vertov Group's overall project. Their political overtones are overt, and their styles make absolutely no concessions to popular movie conventions. Godard and Mieville readmitted a certain degree of mass-market appeal in 1979 when they gave Sauve qui peut (la vie) a reasonably linear story, along with movie stars and a great deal of truly sensuous cinematography; such later works as First Name: Carmen and Detective continued this trend, mixing a few crowd-pleasing ingredients (dramatic acting, narrative suspense, etc.) with the unusual and demanding elements that were obviously their primary interest. This phase of their partnership also produced a pair of large-scale experiments that stand with their most audacious achievements. These are the video series coproduced by Sonimage for broadcast by French television: Six fois deux /Sur et sous la communication, six episodes made in 1976, and France I tour I detour I deux I enfants, a dozen episodes made in 1977 and 1978.
Although these programs have baffled media critics unfamiliar with Godard's avant-garde sensibility, thoughtful observers have noted the essential point about them: They do not represent an effort to employ or exploit television, but rather to intervene in the cultural scene that TV has dominated throughout its reign as the world's most pervasive and influential communications medium. Godard is not "moving into television" with the hope of revitalizing his career - if that had been his goal, he could surely have found more realistic ways of approaching it! - or of "reforming" an institution sunk so deeply into triviality that even commercial movies appear sophisticated by comparison. His aim is to radicalize popular attitudes toward TV by pushing to the limit the elements and capabilities that he finds most potentially valuable within it. These include
• the closeness and potential intimacy between the medium and its viewers, who consider the TV screen a comfortable part of their everyday surroundings;
• the extended time frame of the TV series, which allows a set of subjects to be explored for hours and hours without necessarily seeming odd or long-winded;
• the ease with which images and sounds can be handcrafted via advanced video technology;
• and, related to all of these, the unforeseen possibilities that might arise from defamiliarizing the taken-for-granted ordinariness of the medium itself, and of the questionable social structures it currently mirrors.
Instead of spinning stories, inventing characters, and diverting viewers from the cares of the day, therefore, Godard and Mieville use television as a sort of scientific probe. Their method is to fill the living-room TV set with faces, bodies, and voices taken from ordinary life, and allow the personalities, histories, mannerisms, and other traits of these persons a dignity and attention that conventional programming would never have the patience or imagination to allow. It's unlikely that the artists expect a large number of viewers to sit and consume this slowly evolving material with the same avidity granted to traditionally "entertaining" shows; but they do hope spectators will realize that as a component of contemporary life, TV should not merely echo but actually absorb and embody contemporary experience. We should be able to switch on the tube, that is to say, and find our world encapsulated there in all its unadorned actuality. If the planet's most powerful medium is to discover the truth that existence precedes essence, then the sheer presence of material reality must precede the artificial constructions and definitions that conventional television (like conventional cinema) works so hard to bestow on it.
To understand the aims and accomplishments of Six fois deux and France/ tour/detour/deux/enfants, it is helpful to recall a slightly later work that comes closer to those programs in spirit than any of the other films made immediately before and after them. This is (ironically) the only filmo f the period that does not carry Mieville's name in its credits: Passion, the 1982 drama that investigates painting and mise-en-scene as intently as First Name: Carmen explores music and as intuitively as Hail Mary burrows into religious material.
As noted earlier, Passion chronicles the experiences of a filmmaker named Jerzy as he directs a movie involving soundstage re-creations of great paintings. Near the beginning, a worker on the film-within-the-film mentions the "rules" of cinema - presumably the very rules that drove Godard to experiment with video, which he considered free of regulations and constraints. "There's a story, and you have to follow it," says the worker, in tones resembling those of Betty Berr, a host of the France/ tour/detour series. Jerzy then appeals to cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who momentarily becomes a character in the film, reassuring Jerzy that cinema has no rules - yet mumbling a bit later that there are two rules: "minimum effort canceled by maximum nuisance."
All this is clearly meant to seem more sardonic than serious, especially since Jerzy is having great trouble holding his production together, much less creating motion-picture art. The mood turns more earnest, however, when he starts working with a video recorder. Two scenes involving Jerzy and his video setup help us understand Godard's own attitudes toward TV technology.
The first comes shortly after a factory worker, played by Isabelle Huppert, observes that work and pleasure are similar since they share the same gestures. This casts light on Godard's theory of acting, which refuses sharp distinctions between different categories of behavior. It also shows his continuing (Marxian) distaste for divisions of labor, which inevitably divide the human spirit, too.
Back at Jerzy's place, Jerzy and an actress played by Hanna Schygulla watch a videotaped scene from the movie they're making; the scene involves Hanna, an unnamed male actor, and an operatic voice halfheartedly synced with Hanna's lips. "It's our work," Jerzy reminds Hanna, who appears reluctant to view her image on the screen. "Love working, work at loving - show me the difference," he then says to a telephone caller.
Meanwhile, the video scene runs on and on, as if it were not an episode in a drama but some kind of interminable home movie. Hanna, never becoming comfortable with it, keeps grimacing and giggling. What emerges from this moment is Godard's idea that the duration and intimacy of video allow representations of living, loving, and creating to overlap with our off-screen lives more obviously and definitively than happens with any other medium. Indeed, televised material can seem to the viewer as persistent (and embarassing) as "real life" itself. The main difference between TV and existential reality, it seems, is that TV focuses our attention on details of experience that ordinarily get lost in the multilayered shuffle of everyday activity.
The other relevant scene comes during a part of the movie when Jerzy is arguing with film executives who can't understand why he doesn't tell stories like a normal director. Transfixed again by Hanna's video image - framed in a tight close-up, she speaks about "talking to myself" and "traveling into myself" - he spools the cassette forward and backward, muttering a few words over and over: "Don't forget me. . . . I'm forgetting you." On one level this seems contradictory, since film and video work against forgetting, capturing images with a permanence that memory can't equal; but the moment has a deeper meaning, since Jerzy's manipulations of the video image give it an ephemerality that underscores its artificial nature. It is not Hanna who shimmers and flickers before him; it is only Hanna's image, and the harder he tries to grasp this, the more he risks letting the real Hanna slip away from consciousness.
As television producers, Godard and Mieville take their cue from two notions suggested by these scenes: (a) TV is the most lifelike of media and therefore the most unlike traditional means of expression, with imperatives and potentialities all its own; and (b) TV's vivid yet transient nature makes it a particularly seductive competitor and a potentially insidious substitute for the complex authenticities of actual experience.
What's needed, Godard and Mieville conclude, is a Brechtian television that presents itself not as a replacement of but rather a complement to the existential world. TV shows of this sort would not take the viewer out of reality - the goal of "escapist" entertainment - but would exist alongside that reality, opening our perceptual lives to new possibilities rather than sucking our attention into a commercially driven "vast wasteland."
The term "antitelevision," meaning "a complete turning of television conventions against themselves," aptly describes the Sonimage approach in Six fois deux and France I tour /detour.11 These programs challenge TV norms in many ways - replacing the tube's usual noise and chatter with intermittent stretches of silence, for instance, and developing material in fits and starts ("stammering") that deliciously subvert commercial television's "natural" flow of consumer-friendly sights and sounds.
In many respects, however, the shows don't so much invert the medium's normal functions as place them between ironic quotation marks. One sign of this is the fact that Six fois deux and France I tour I detour both fall into TV's most commonplace format: Each is a series, meant to appear in living rooms week after week with reassuring regularity. Each also makes extensive use of on-camera interviewing, putting its own spin on this common device but reproducing it all the same. These and other similarities with mainstream TV indicate the producers' desire not to ignore the habits cultivated by broadcast video but rather to employ such patterns for their own purposes.
Although their goal is to recast television in a radically new form, moreover, they do not claim definitive answers as to exactly what this new form should be. Accordingly, they try to make viewers (along with other figures in the media industry) question basic assumptions about the very notion of television as it has hitherto existed. In each series, what they create is an attempt at a TV show, to borrow one of Godard's favorite formulations from bygone days. More precisely, it is an attempt at a new conceptualization of the medium, intended more to open minds than to gratify eyes and ears. The results of this intervention are as drastically different from mainstream norms as any of Godard's theatrical films, including the movies of the Dziga-Vertov Group, whose essayistic structures remain a source of energy and ideas for the TV ventures. It should also be stressed that Six fois deux and France I tour I detour are not intended as models for other producers to imitate; even Godard and Mieville stayed with series TV for only a short time, soon swinging back to feature-film production and nonseries video.
Of the two series, France I tour I detour I deux I enfants is more germane to Godard's overall trajectory, because (as Colin MacCabe has accurately noted) it gets beyond the lingering political preoccupations of Six fois deux, pointing less to Godard's polemical past and more to an aestheticized future in which the everyday world will be mined for instances of beauty, mystery, and transcendence. If this enterprise goes well, video will become "philosophy as chamber music" and series TV will be reborn as simultaneously "a novel and a painting," as Godard said in 1980.
This is at once an exhilarating new goal and a characteristic result of Godard's longtime quest to reinvent reality in his own romantic terms. His hope for the mid-1970s television work is nowhere better expressed than in the mid-1960s film 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her, which I have cited earlier: "My aim: for the simplest things to come into being in the world of humans, for man's spirit to possess them, a new world where men and things would interrelate harmoniously." Weekly television is a promising venue for bringing together the world of things and the world of human agency, since it combines the serial form of the nineteenth-century novel (always one of Godard's great loves) with the perceptual precision afforded by the most modern audiovisual tools. It is an excellent forum for the "passion for self-expression" that Godard admits to in the 2 or 3 Things commentary, where he gives himself one of his most accurate signatures: "writer and painter."
Describing his approach to Six fois deux and France I tour I detour, Godard said he "functioned as a network programmer, that is, by making a programming grid." This is technically correct, but Godard is being at least partially ironic when he uses the lingo of institutional TV in such a deadpan manner, as if he had merely aimed to hammer together a professionally acceptable series. The significant thing, of course, is how he and Mieville used their "programming grid" once it was sketched out. Conventional programmers fill their allotted time slots with "content" of various kinds - fictional or nonfictional, live or prerecorded, and so on - that combines the reassuring consistency of a standardized product (pretty much the same from one broadcast to the next) with the refreshing novelty of whatever small variations the programmers allow into each individual segment. Perhaps the most important single innovation that Godard and Mieville brought to this process was to minimize the notion of content - or rather to undramatize it, allowing the simple existence of human activity on the tube to constitute the "compelling interest" that viewers presumably demand.
The format of Six fois deux is as regularized as its title, presenting six "movements" of two sections each - the first exploring a social or cultural issue from a generalized or theoretical standpoint, the second focusing on some individual whose life somehow illustrates or intersects with the concerns that have been raised. The format of France/tour/detour is more elaborate, but just as predictable in its overall shape. The main "characters" are a boy and girl who take turns "starring" in each half-hour segment. The basic ingredients are (a) electronically altered views of the child's daily life, (b) an interview with the child, conducted by Godard off camera, (c) an oblique commentary on all this by two "hosts" in a studio, (d) a short video-essay relating to some aspect of the episode's theme, and (e) more commentary by the hosts, leading to an inconclusive ending that points toward future developments with the words, "That's another story...."
Viewing these episodes for the first time, one might think Godard has lost his longtime interest in spontaneous expression. Each program seems locked into the same rigid mold as the others: same format, same hosts, even the same words at certain key moments. To some degree, this impression is correct. Determined to wring new possibilities out of TV's most familiar properties, Godard and Mieville confront the challenge of standardized programming head-on, making regularity and repetition a part of their own plan. They recognize that television is a ritual experience. In ordinary TV the purpose of the ritual is to mesmerize us with "entertaining" trivia. By contrast, Godard and Mieville see the ritual of the halfhour segment as a liberating concept: Giving each episode the same basic structure is like recognizing that a typical day, a typical year, or a typical lifetime has a basic structure that can either be resented as a confining straitj acket or - taking a more positive attitude - be valued as a known, dependable framework within which we're free to explore, experiment, and daydream as we wish.
The overall shape of France/ tour/detour can certainly be compared with a day or a lifetime. The series moves through a wide range of activities and interests that engage most ordinary children, from school and family life to sports, music, fashion, even history and politics. However, this more-or-less linear development is balanced by the repetitious structure of the individual programs, as when each one begins with everyday images "de-composed" by slow-motion photography, and finishesw ith a promise of more to come ("That's another story... .") as if the hosts were parents reluctantly closing their storybooks but assuring us that the cycle will continue on its steady, reliable course.
Like the individual movements, the series as a whole also subsumes its linear elements into what ultimately becomes an orderly cycle, reinforced by having the first and last episodes begin with one of the children preparing for bed. Indeed, the series may be viewed as a recurring dream that sloughs off the purposeful agendas of conscious life - including the conventional TV shows that influence our minds - and lets us wander through various nooks and crannies of everyday existence at a leisurely pace geared to contemplation rather than accomplishment. The first segment of the first episode guides us clearly in this direction. "Preparing your body for the night," the voice-over says. "Uncovering a secret, then covering it up again. The beginning of a story, or the story of a beginning. To slow down is to decompose."
What must be decomposed is not only the imagery of ordinary television but also the mental habits that superficial entertainments plant and cultivate within us. Faced with the predictable, antidramatic events of France/tour/detour, we may pay full attention if we choose, scrutinizing the words and gestures and expressions of the people-just-like-us who appear on screen. Alternatively, and just as legitimately, we may treat the TV set as the piece of furniture it is, glancing at its contents when they interest us and ignoring them otherwise. Or we may alternate between these possibilities. The only option not available is the one conventional TV pitches relentlessly at us: being drawn into the hypnotic grip of false "realities" chosen not for their "truth" or "beauty" but for their compatibility with commercial needs.
All this having been said, it must now be added that the regularity and predictability of the episodes are actually far from hostile to Godard's perennial love of spontaneity and improvisation. Indeed, the very sameness of the week-to-week structure enables him to experiment in fresh ways with "last-minute focusing," as he dubbed his ever-flexible style back in 1962.15 Taking a hint from Godard's jazz references in Hail Mary and elsewhere, we might say (as with narrative-film procedures cited in the previous chapter) that the standardized shape of each episode serves the same function as the underlying chord structure of a bebop composition: It provides a basic framework that's familiar to artists and audience alike, and thus enables the performers/producers to take off in any direction they desire with no fear that communication or understanding will break down.
To use another analogy, the rigid "rules" of the series serve the same purpose as the genre conventions that Godard employed in his early films - the gangster genre in Breathless and The Little Soldier, the musical genre in A Woman Is a Woman, the science-fiction genre in Alphaville, and so forth. These provide a reliable, ritualized base upon which the producers can extemporize as they wish. At times Godard and Mieville work within the conventions they have chosen, respecting the time-tested links between these protocols and enduring human interests and values. At other times the artists eagerly subvert those same conventions, foregrounding their weaknesses and turning them back upon themselves in the sort of aggressive parody called detournement by members of France's radical Situationist movement, which shared Godard's hostility toward the modern "society of the spectacle," as theorist Guy Debord called it.
It is a wish to capitalize on both of these implicit models - improvisation and detournement - that leads Godard and Mieville to some of their fundamental choices in France I tour I detour, such as the decision to focus most of its attention on the children of a middle-class family. True, the depiction of domestic life in France I tour I detour veers far from the narratives found in ordinary shows: There is no story to shape the school and household events that dawdle along from week to week; parents are rarely glimpsed; the children spend large amounts of time on mundane activities like eating, doing homework, and responding to meandering questions from an interviewer we never see. Still and all, everyday family life provides the backdrop for a great deal of commercial TV, and Godard knows that a certain portion of the French viewing audience can be depended upon to watch for at least a little while when family-related images flicker across the living-room screen. During this time, as during a bop composition or a genre movie, any reasonably attentive viewer will always have a basic grasp of where we are (a TV show about kids), what's going on (commonplace situations at home and school), and what the time frame is (a half-hour per show). Within these parameters, Godard and his collaborators can improvise, ruminate, and free-associate with a fair degree of freedom before commercially conditioned viewers start switching their dials to something more conventionally entertaining.
Spectators who share the producers' interest in freeing TV from its traditional formulas have greeted this experiment with applause on the in frequent occasions when it has been publicly screened. Those with no such interests have found themselves bored or befuddled, but their unexamined notions of TV programming have received a bit of salutary shaking up for however long they did stay tuned. By the mid-1970s stage of their careers, it's unlikely that Godard or Mieville expected viewers in the latter category to emerge much changed from a momentary encounter with improvisatory, norm-challenging television. Surely a few seeds have been planted in a few receptive minds, however, and certainly the gesture of contesting consumer-driven TV has had sociocultural significance beyond the number of spectators measured by ratings-survey statistics.
Video work by Godard and/or Mieville has taken sundry forms in the years since Six fois deux and France /tour /detour, still their most audacious forays onto the turf of commercial television. In 1978, shortly after those ventures, the pair returned to the arena of international politics by arranging with the government of Mozambique to work on a multifaceted project that involved TV production - five hours of programming called North against South was envisioned - as well as surveying the country's own capacity to develop TV communications, and empowering residents to operate video equipment for their own purposes. More recent years have seen everything from videotaped interview sessions - such as the rambling Soft and Hard (A Soft Conversation between Two Friends on a Hard Subject) and the concise /. L. G. Meets W. A. (Meetin' W. A.), both produced in 1986 - to two treatments of film history that couldn't be more dissimilar: the lean 2 x jo Years of French Cinema and the extravagant Histoire(s) du cinema.
Linking a good deal of the video work, emphatically excluding the Histoire(s) du cinema series, has been a desire to take advantage of the spareness and economy (aesthetic as well as economic) that video readily provides. This ties in with Godard's abiding wish, encountered so many times in these pages, to evade the seductive superficialities that make conventional cinema a diversion rather than an education, an enlightenment, an epiphany.
It is true that his films of the 1990s, from Nouvelle Vague through For Ever Mozart, have a sensuous quality arising from their saturated cinematography, rich if cut-and-spliced musical tracks, and appealing performers (even when, like Alain Delon in Nouvelle Vague, they are shot more like objects than personalities). Still, this sumptuousness arises from Godard's effort, first crystallized in the "sublime" trilogy, less to exploit the physicality of cinema than to undermine it by segmenting, fragmenting, and collaging it in ways that suggest - and even produce - the metaphysical dimensions that increasingly preoccupy him. Video works like the mid-1970s television programs, J.L G. Meets W.A. (Meetin' WA), and 2 x 50 Years of French Cinema represent the other side of this coin, as he strips away superficially enticing moments in hopes of finding a "zero degree" of cinematic language - an objective dating back (with different sets of inflections) to the Dziga-Vertov Group films and even to The Little Soldier and portions of Breathless. The goal of this effort is made clear by an exchange I cited in the introduction to this book, between Emile Rousseau and Patricia Lumumba, the punningly named protagonists of Le Gai Savoir, near the beginning of that movie. "I want to learn," says Patricia, "to teach. . . that we must turn against our enemy the weapon with which he fundamentally attacks us: language." Emile agrees, adding, "Let's start from zero." Patricia then refines their task by asserting that "first we have to go back there, return to zero," a process that will mean dissolving "images and sounds" in order to grasp how these are constituted and capitalized on in the modern world.
As noted in Chapter 5, this invocation of "zero" has much in common with that of cultural critic Roland Barthes, who coined the expression "writing degree zero" in his 1953 book of that title. In describing a "colourless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordained state of language,"17 Barthes is testing a possible resolution of certain tensions that have emerged in modern literature - tensions between writing as communication, using language to engage the attention and action of one's reader, and writing as silence, probing the limits of language (Robbe-Grillet, Camus, Burroughs, et al.) as a pathway to interiority, desublimation, and ultimately the transcendence (or eradication) of verbality itself.
As he explores this "style of absence," Barthes is not so much advocating its usefulness as teasing out whatever theoretical possibilities it might contain. Like him, Godard finds it seductive as a concept but problematic as a model for actual practice, which helps explain why he has oscillated so frequently between the minimalist tendencies of, say, France I tour I detour and the more effusive qualities found in, say, the "trilogy of the sublime" films. Even in works that approach a zero-degree style through deliberate flatness and repetition - much of France I tour I detour, for instance - he often balances his cinematic spareness with prolix linguistic highjinks. What he seeks here might be called a colorless visual technique - not literally colorless, of course, but one that denies ordinary pleasures to achieve a Brechtian emphasis on intellectual content - coupled with a verbal radicalism that strives not so much for absence as for a mercurial, ungraspable fluidity that offers precisely the liberation from "pre-ordained language" of which Barthes wrote.
The results of this endeavor are works that fuse the image-wary iconoclasm found in his career by some critics (such as Angela Dalle Vacche) and the language-wary semioclasm found by others (such as James Monaco) into an unprecedented whole. Godard embraces this fusion for many reasons; as we have seen, there are complex motivations behind nearly all of his artistic decisions. Before closing this study, however, I would like to suggest that his evident hostility toward preordained languages (visual and verbal) might be productively explored in the terms of French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, who argues that male children resolve their prepubescent Oedipal crises (giving up desire for the mother, accepting the prohibitive Law of the father) by submitting to a Symbolic order represented by the preexisting domain of language. This is the very domain that Godard's twin "clasms" so vigorously contest in a valiant effort to regain the Utopian "zero" of presocialized plenitude, boundlessness, and freedom. Evidence of such unconscious struggles is as easy to find in his work as are the obliquely Oedipal cinematics that often embody them - from the partial erasure of grown-ups in France I tour I detour to the videographed abjections in Numero deux and the key moment in Sauve qui peut (la vie) when the character named Paul Godard stands before a blackboard emblazoned with the words "Cain et Abel /Cinema et Video."
Cain and Abel were brothers as well as rivals for the affection of a paternal deity, and Godard seems to regard cinema and video as the same complements and opposites, partners and competitors, potential lovers and possible annihilators of one another, depending on whose "laws" are governing their technologies, their economic structures, their relationships with producers and consumers. At some moments Godard has turned to video as a path to renewed flexibility and productivity, and at other times he has returned with unabashed eagerness to luxuriant 35mm cinema. In the magnificently abundant Histoire(s) du cinema he succeeds in having it both ways, assembling a history of film in a video format that coaxes extraordinary crispness, precision, and sheer beauty from that medium, and demonstrates that breaking the laws of standard either/or production can open new horizons hardly dreamed of in the past. Here and elsewhere in his work, Godard's ever-shifting efforts to slip around the "laws" of creating, writing, naming, social conditioning, and other common practices of our complicated era produce some of the most profoundly personal yet richly communicative moments ever to grace the film or video screen. In the end, what has drawn so many devotees to his videos and movies is not the proliferation of intricate psychological clues, or the allure of a Beat-like spontaneity, or the prospect of a verbal-visual purity that might cleanse moving-image expression of its many sins. Rather, it is the boundless creativity of a dedicated artist (with gifted collaborators) who has refused to budge from the socioaesthetic margin despite the allure of a mainstream career that might once have been his for the asking. In the 1990s, as cinema has moved toward its second century, his most ambitious efforts have again moved in a sensuous direction, and it is possible that Histoire(s) du cinema will prove the most enduring of his many monuments. All that appears certain as he approaches a half-century of cinephilia is that his cameras will stay busy, his imagination will stay alert, and his sensibility will stay as ornery as ever.
"I live on the border," Godard told critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in a 1980 interview18 that illuminates his lifelong refusal to settle for film or video, images or words, France or Switzerland, stories or essays or experiments too singular to be named. "Our only enemies are the customs people," he continued, "whether these are bankers or critics.... People think of their bodies as territories. They think of their skin as the border, and that it's no longer them once it's outside the border. But a language is obviously made to cross borders. I'm someone whose real country is language, and whose territory is movies."
David Sterritt/ The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (Seeing the Invisible)
Leave a Reply.
Christopher Vitale - Towards a Cinema of Affects: A Manifesto, Part II – Characters, Objects, Plots, Settings
Christopher Vitale - Reading Cinema II, Part III: Noosigns, Lecto-signs, and the Cinematic Worldcreating for a People Yet to Come
Nina Power and GEOFFREY NOWELL-SMITH - SUBVERSIVE PASOLINI: 'LA RICOTTA' AND THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW