Thoughts On: Histoire(s) du Cinéma - Godard's Failed Time-Image


Histoire(s) du Cinéma - Godard's Failed Time-Image

Thoughts On: Histoire(s) du Cinéma (Histories of Cinema, 1988-1998)

An expansive experimental film by Jean-Luc Godard. To see a bigger post including closer looks at each of the 8 parts, click here.

What is Histoire(s) du Cinéma? This is a far better question than, "What is Histoire(s) du Cinéma about?", or, "What does Histoire(s) du Cinéma have to say about cinema and history?". This is because Histoire(s) du Cinéma is probably the greatest expression of 'Godard' as an auteur, a film movement and a genre of cinema.

In my view, Godard takes the combined spirit of Bresson, Murnau, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, etc. and uses it like a frustrated teenage boy uses his hand: to strike out at the world and to beat himself off. As we discussed when looking at Pierrot Le Fou, a key component of the auteur theory is the recognition of the director (or the figurehead of a production) as having the ability to expand cinema by constructing a cinema on their own. This implies that, just like there is the romance and action genre, and just like there is the German Expressionist movement and the French Impressionist movement, there is the cinema of Kubrick and of Vigo. The cinemas of auteurs are separate and individual forms of cinema themselves because the auteurs represent and manifest their own conventions and structure. Thus, you can only truly understand Cries and Whispers, Persona, Autumn Sonata, etc. by understanding, at least in part, Ingmar Bergman.

What separates the likes of Bergman and all of those that Godard's reveres - Hitchcock, Truffaut, Bresson, Vigo, Dreyer, Murnau, etc. - from himself is the fact that these auteurs create structures and conventions to make films that transcend the basic conception of cinema as 'moving pictures' and so create narratives of transcendent quality whilst he does not. Godard, as he reflects upon in Histoire(s) du Cinéma, rightly identifies that these auteurs make their cinema through a concentration on form. However, Godard is wrong in suggesting that style, as a manifestation of formalism, is everything. In fact, it shocks me to hear Godard imply that the mentioned great filmmakers are all about style - we all, after all, know what "style over substance" means.

Style, for the likes of Bresson, clearly sets a road for him to access a higher form of communication. In such, his ascetics reduce cinema to its simple components (though, not to the degrees that constructivists such as Snow and Warhol would manage) so that profound truths emerge from his images like the word of God is often said to have come from the humblest of places: Abraham, a seeming man-child, Christ, a mere carpenter, and Mohammad, an illiterate. Style is then what gives the auteur power just as it gives a genre and a movement power. However, this is only true when style is used as a ladder to reach a place other people cannot access.

Godard has his ladder. His style is founded on this idea that style is everything - and thus his films are all surface, reflexive and focused on their contrivity - but also the idea that content should be inaccessible. This is the part of Godard that he developed so well, but all for nothing. Following in the footsteps of Bretch and those like him - Beckett for example - Godard sees truth to come from "alienation". (It was Bretch who theorised the "alienation effect", which is a technique that makes the familiar strange so that we can see normality from a different, alien perspective). However, whilst we may look at Beckett's Waiting For Godot and see absurdity used to strike an audience with meaning (that Beckett would then refuse to comment on), Godard himself is absurd, he does not utilise absurdity. In such, Godard's style is a synthesis of Vertov and Bretch in that he constructs a cinema with focus on the control of the filmmaker and the virtue's of cinema's eye whilst pointing at the fact that he is in control as to push you further away from perceiving and understanding his content in a direct manner. As a result, Godard's cinema is one that he rules over as an absurdist god, and that the audience is not allowed to understand the true of mechanics of. After all, if we were given the illusion that we understood Godard, we would only be fooling ourselves into perceiving a lie or half-truth.

Ignoring his implicit propositions, to understand Godard's cinema we then only need to see it in opposition to the meme-ified sentiment of Denzel Washington's character in Philadelphia who insists that people 'explain things to him like he's five'. This is an idea that manifests itself in many different places - even Einstein apparently said "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother" - and all it means is that true communication is predicated on simplicity and directness. And I believe this is what the cinema of Bresson captivates. Whilst Bresson sacrifices emotions and traditional drama for his ascetic simplicity, he maintains an ability to express great profundity if we understand his cinema to partly be an impressionist one which we must bring ourselves into. As a result, a five-year-old may not be able to understand Bresson, but the five-year-old within us certainly does. This means that our basic understanding of the world, once we conceive of its greater complexities, is the structure through which profundity streams; we can see greater truth if you appeal to our most fundamental believes and perspectives.

With Godard, there is no simplicity; he doesn't believe in it and this is precisely what Histoire(s) du Cinéma is a statement on: instead of commenting the history of cinema with facts and simple explanations, he creates a cyclical, meandering and abstract cine-poem. This refusal of simplicity suggests that Godard thinks the world cannot be understood and articulated in simple terms - and he constantly repeats this sentiment with the idea that cinema does not speak; it must communicate post-linguistically. However, in refusing to explain his ideas as if to a five-year-old (like, I believe, Bresson does to a degree), Godard also refuses to let us interpret his work. In such, I find it impossible to analyse Histoire(s) du Cinéma and find profundity. Does this simply mean that I don't understand his cinema? Maybe. But, if this is true, why can I enter the cinemas of Bergman, Tarkovsky and Buñuel, whose cinemas are more complex than Godard's, and emerge with some sensation of profundity?

Because there is this discord, because Godard's complex style does not give birth to truth or any sensation of profundity, I think that he is a terrible filmmaker. Whilst there are certain shorts of his that I like - In The Darkness Of Time for example - I like these as abstract films, not necessarily as films of Godard. This is true of Histoire(s) du Cinéma; I do not like Godard's presence as an auteur, but there are fleeting seconds in which I see some abstract sense in. However, now we have loosely defined the cinema of Godard and its downfalls, what specifically is Histoire(s) du Cinéma?

Histoire(s) du Cinéma is a poem of sorts that explores history, cinema and its connection to humanity. This is all sculpted by constant aphorisms, quips and non-sequiturs by Godard through montage which formulates his entirely surface approach to cinema. Godard's abstract montage is one that is full of evocative ideas and images that fail to be represented by its ultimate synthesis; there is no true whole or union, abstract or not, that emerges from Histoire(s) du Cinéma. In such, whilst I can partially summarise Godard's work, everything I have and will say will not fully describe or prepare you for what it actually is. Watching Histoire(s) du Cinéma, you will be lost in the sprinting spotlight of Godard's consciousness as it rapidly moves through time. It is because you can't think of previous moments, scenes and parts in relation to one another with any truly satisfying outcomes that this is impenetrable and inarticulable. One of the best ways to define Histoire(s) du Cinéma is then through the concept of the time-image.

Gilles Deleuze is a thinker we have touched on before, and I always have to preface his mention with the fact that I don't believe I fully grip his ideas. Nonetheless, I can make an attempt to boil his ideas down to their most basic principals without the nuance, detail or complication that Deleuze gives them. In his first book on cinema, Deleuze essentially redefines the idea of 'motion pictures'. In such, he suggests that people think of cinema as made up of 24 frames fluttering by in a second. Moreover, he suggested that this was wrong. To Deleuze, cinema was not a system of moving pictures, but movement-images. Thus, he attempts to re-articulate our understanding of cinema with emphasis on its ability to move through space not manifest an illusion of movement; movement-image defines cinema through motion. In his second book, Deleuze discusses the time-image. This is opposed to the movement-image slightly as images of this class are not focused on space; it does not necessarily matter what occurs and where with time-images. Time-images are defined by their presence in time - not space. As a result, time-images transcend basic ideas of cinema as plot-driven and realistically grounded via form and content; they are predicated on cinema's ability to transcend itself and language by utilising time (and so may be used to describe the cinemas of Tarkovsky, Jodorowsky, Lynch, etc.).

I'll stress again that I don't fully understand time-image. However, I believe that we can see Godard's cinema, through Histoire(s) du Cinéma in particular, as being defined by Godard's own time-image. In such, as well as alienating his audience and complixfying cinema, Godard attempts to keep us running at the same pace as him through time. As a result, I think it would be disingenuous to pause Histoire(s) du Cinéma and analyses it frame by frame. This is because such a notion defies his idea of cinema; he is in complete control and so what he presents is the final product and how you should see his film. To pause Histoire(s) du Cinéma and to reflect upon what you have just consumed before resuming then seems to be against its conventions. Thus, Histoire(s) du Cinéma is defined primarily by its movement through time; time-image. And so it is from this position that we can understand Histoire(s) du Cinéma to be a study of time-images and a film all about taking an audience through time in a way that, in Godard's hopes, exudes greater truth.

Histoire(s) du Cinéma as a time-image experiment is, in my view, the best way in which it can be framed. However, it is a failed experiment. I do hold some sympathy for Godard here and so am somewhat appreciative of being able to experience his film as it does challenge ideas of cinema. Moreover, I think, despite how much I dislike him, he is a very important figure in cinematic history. I nonetheless think that all of his ideas on what cinema is as they are presented through Histoire(s) du Cinéma are nonsensical and provide no fruits. With that said, have you see Histoire(s) du Cinéma? What are your thoughts on all we've discussed?

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