Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they attempt to dissect a movie that’s a dissection of movies.
In the #48 (tied) movie on the list, Jean-Luc Godard chops up cinema’s past in order to praise and bury it by relegating it to histories.
But why is it one of the best movies of all time?
Landon: So I have a few initial reactions to Histoire(s) du Cinema as a whole before we get into what Godard might be doing here and there across the project, and they have to do with the film’s relationship to and place in the S&S list at large. As we go about this list, I can’t help but integrate the list’s unintended “vision” of great movies into our discussions, as much as I try to avoid doing so.
Godard’s film is clearly a work about cinema, yet it seems to deliberately avoid marking itself as a “film:” it’s an assemblage of existing footage and superimposed texts, with some recorded moments shot on video, and is divided into 8 parts shot over a decade. In order to talk about the history/histories of cinema, Godard for some reason saw fit to move away from the idea of “film” as represented across this list.
So how exactly might we categorize Histoire(s) du Cinema itself? A documentary? An avant-garde history lesson? A mash-up? Did Godard pave the way for YouTube and Fair Use here?
Scott: He paved the way for YouTube certainly, but he maybe wouldn’t have gotten much steam on this project if he’d made a sculpture or oil painting celebration of cinema.
But there’s something kind of magically impossible about making a movie about the entirety of movies – and to the blend of ego, abiding love and expertise it takes to attempt that kind of undertaking.
Landon: And one thing that’s really interesting about this project (I hesitate to say “movie”) is that Godard puts that front and center; he expresses a tortured love for cinema, his own ego and films often provide the lens for his history, and he does something completely different from a linear and completist history. It’s the opposite of, say, an organized and lucid list of canonical films.
He admits from the get-go that an objective and comprehensive history is impossible if one has truly invested their lives in it.
Scott: So how much of this is a genuine cinematic project and how much of it is a fan film by a famous, skilled fan?
Landon: It’s definitely a film about Godard’s own subjectivity, but in that way I think it’s revealing as a whole because it highlights the subjective nature of writing and understanding history. You and I didn’t grow up experiencing films in their chronological order – we explored across the board in a way that eventually developed a sense of a larger scope. A linear, coherent history of a medium that one can put so much into emotionally and intellectually arguably isn’t well represented by a cogent linear timeline.
This film in a way collapses film history, makes it this weirdly transportable simultaneous moment. It’s easily the most postmodern work we’ve discussed.
What do you think of the line between this as a work of cinema and as a work of Godard?
Scott: I’m not an expert on his work, but Histoire(s) du Cinema feels like it doesn’t have a director – like it sprang forth from the head of whatever Greek god’s name makes the best movie pun.
Landon: “Potatoes Are Ap(p)e(a)ling” was the name of that god.
Do you say that because this film has no direction, feels haphazard and unfocused?
Scott: Not exactly that, although I imagine trying to create a coherent history of any art (even the youngest) would be like organizing the ocean by drop size. The benefit of having it all free-floating is that you can structure it based on emotional tones instead of something inhuman like calendar dates.
Godard is like Rob in High Fidelity organizing his records autobiographically.
Landon: And it really seems to portend and be the starting point for so many other collage movies made since – far more lucid, if still very inventive works like The Story of Film and Room 237. But in the 1980s, few well-known filmmakers were using video, or existing footage (which became big in the avant-garde well before YouTube). Now all of this is our playground.
Scott: If only Jean-luc Godard were alive today to toy around with…oh, right.
Landon: His next film is called The End of Language. In 3D. Seems like a natural point to arrive at given this trajectory. What do you think about the ambivalence in the film’s oh-so-punny title? Is Godard attempting a single history of cinema, trying to cover many stories, or both?
Scott: He seems pretty straightforward about the impossibility of the task he’s joyously taking on – never without a sense of humor.
Plus, he’s also an artist discussing an art that he is attempting to further. The title isn’t just a remark on where film has been, but an acknowledgement of where it will go. And that it will go. Meanwhile, a new Histoire(s) could be made purely from movies made between now and when the first installment was made. Now, it’s not nearly the only mash-up of film history. It’s practically its own genre.
Landon: One of my favorite quotes from here is “No activity will become art before its time is over,” which speaks to the point that all art comes after the artistic process, and the need to say something through the art. Art is in itself that way dead, never present, already entombed as objects of history.
He relates this more pointedly to cinema when he says “Cinema was not protected by time; it is the protection of time.” What we see in films is a record of an artistic event that happened in the past. In addition to predicting and etching where cinema will go, I think he’s saying cinema essentially is history beyond writing a history of it.
That’s why we see so many WWII images alongside stills and clips from Classic Hollywood films and Godard’s own work. As if to ask, how much of history have we understood through cinema itself?
Scott: Right. The shadow of a shadow. Maybe we should find someone who’s never seen a movie and show them this one to ask them for their impressions on the art. What does a movie about movies have to tell us about movies? Can we ever get a complete picture of anything this way? What does that say about baseball or the Civil War or Ken Burns?
Landon: Maybe it’s best to think about it in terms of the difference between learning American history in primary school and learning American history later on. Once you get the basic array of events, then you can problematize them, look at them in more complicated ways, like moving from a basic textbook to Howard Zinn. But in Godard’s case, he isn’t simply looking at it from a different perspective, but making a scrambled postmodern soup from it.
Scott: The tastiest kind of soup.
Landon: It’s a reactionary history, one that wouldn’t exist if a conventional history weren’t already in place.
Part of me would love for this to be our record for later beings of what cinema was, but it is by design an anti-starting point. Jonathan Rosenbaum called this Godard’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” He was referring to its playfulness and its impenetrability but also…nobody should start reading Joyce with “Finnegan’s Wake.”
This is a self-selecting film if there ever were one.
Scott: And total cinephile bait.
Landon: But another context that’s important here is Godard’s own prior role in shaping cinema history so many decades ago. Godard started a career in film writing when popular cinema was not taken seriously, and was instrumental in mobilizing a form of film writing that treated cinema as an art form – this before he and his contemporaries became filmmakers. So many decades later, cinephilia became institutionalized and organized through university classrooms, video stores, and lists such as the one we’ve been discussing here. This film, I think, is in part about the limitations of conventional film histories. Imagine Ken Burns revisiting The Civil War, but remixing it and abandoning his style.
And even though it was made decades ago, it seems to present itself more as an ending point of film history than a starting point. A mash-up video eulogy to cinema.
Scott: There are a lot of elements to the experience, and it’s a rich/rewarding experience in the same core way that any non-fictional film’s focus should delight fans of that particular focus.
I hate that I’m always the one to point to it, but part of the reason this film is so fascinatingly dynamic is because it’s also a blank slate for us to paint our own experiences onto.
Landon: It’s not a complete work in any conventional sense, but a text that’s wide open.
Scott: Even with the text on the screen, it’s greatly contextless, offering ideas but mostly leading the parade. Here are all these beautiful images, here are all these beautiful scenarios, isn’t film amazing!
Landon: I’m beginning to think that Godard would like cinema to end with his own death. His entire filmmaking career has been about cinema, and he’s managed to find places to go after a project like this. He has more films in the top 50 than any other filmmaker, which I think is less a measure of comparable talent and more a testament to his mammoth role in shaping film and the ways we think about it.
There are so many films and filmmakers that we’ve discussed on this list that were featured and clipped into Histoire(s), and one way of seeing this list is to say that it’s Godardian: perhaps experimental filmmakers like Martin Arnold and Bill Morrison have done more interesting things with existing film footage (they have), but Godard’s subjective relationship to film has extended far beyond himself. It’s a cult of personality that has demonstrated what it means to be an omnivorous cinephile.
One who can get away with saying stuff like, “Alfred Hitchcock succeeded where Napoleon and Hitler failed: by taking control of the universe.”
Scott: So, a really great fan film?
Landon: Superb fan fiction if I’ve ever seen it that gazes into the vast navel that is cinema.
Scott: You know, he would have been near a traditional retirement age when making it – do you really think it could have been a farewell to art for him?
Landon: I think so, but Godard has also been making “last movies” for the better part of his career since, and his upcoming one sounds little different. He’s staging a long farewell to a medium he can never say goodbye to or pull himself away from.
Scott: Every time he thinks he’s out…
Landon: …he thinks of doing a remix of Godfather Part III.
Scott: This is a gorgeous trip through a half-day of footage, but I really am serious about finding someone not all that interested in movies and having them watch it (and report back).
Like with most passions, it’s a case of the pastor preaching to the converted. Except it’s in a church where we’re all facing the same direction.
Landon: I am fascinated to hear the results of this experiment.
So this is the God’s Not Dead of the church of cinema?
Scott: “We showed Histoire(s) du Cinema to 100 non-cinephiles and you won’t believe what happened next.”
Landon: Cinema Is(n’t) Dead.
Scott: I know I’ve hung back a lot in this conversation, but it’s because of a combination of mutually exclusive, converging realities – there’s far too much to say about this movie and nothing really to say at all. It’s pure experience.
Landon: It’s fragmented and directionless, yet decidedly so. A superimposed history. And like so many of his other films, it’s playful with a touch of anarchy.
Scott: He’s using other peoples’ art to make a statement. It’s a cinematic mix tape. Maybe the best.
Next Time: Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers