Jean-Luc Godard in conversation with Serge Daney
Originally published as ‘Godard fait des Histoires’, in Libération, December 26, 1988. Translation published in Raymond Bellour and Mary Lea Bandy eds., ‘Jean-Luc Godard son+image 1974-1991’ (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992).
In 1989, French television viewers will see the first two parts of ]ean-Luc Godard’s series Histoire(s} du cinema. The idea for the series is not new – it dates back to when Godard taught film courses in Montreal. It took shape when the television station Canal + (with a four million-franc budget) signed an agreement with Godard, soon after it began broadcasting. After a period of development, the project has become a reality. In Rolle, Switzerland, Godard is face-to-face with his memories, his idees fixes, and the material he has patiently gathered. Downstairs is the video equipment he will use to render his “(hi)stories” visible, and to enable himself to improvise from a single word, connecting, reconnecting, and disconnecting the strands of his obsession. Upstairs, there are the printed material, the books, the film journals, and especially the famous yellow notebooks in which Godard tirelessly catalogues the photos he looks for and those he finds by chance. The filmmaker is recounting how it has been with his beloved cinema. Less a history of the cinema than history through cinema, Godard’s fundamental premise hasn’t changed: the cinema has always sought only one thing – montage -something twentieth-century man has desperately needed. This history will not be told verbally, instead it will be constructed using cinema’s own materials: the image (still or moving), music, words and wordplay. Alone at last with the century’s mementos, Godard looks more like an athlete or dancer in training than like an artist above the fray. I fwe were in the Middle Ages, he would be a Renaissance man, between art and science.
This interview took place December 3, 1988, in Rolle, Switzerland. It was an ongoing interview, filmed in order to serve eventually as an educational supplement to the series Histoire(s} du cinema. What is printed in bold type summarizes passages of our conversation; the quotes that follow are moments we selected in which Godard best defined his work as a historian.
The interviewer began by saying that he wasn’t surprised that Godard was asked to do the Histoire(s). There are many good reasons for choosing him, and it could only have been done by someone from the Nouvelle Vague generation, which was situated simultaneously in midcentury and midcinema – neither too early nor too late. This was the only generation that had the opportunity to think of itself “historically.”
It’s the only way to do history, that’s what I would say. I think this was the only way for me to realize that, while I had a personal history as an individual, had it not been for cinema, I wouldn’t have known that I had a history of my own. It was the only way, and l owe it to the cinema.
The greatest history is the history of the cinema. It’s a nineteenth-century concern resolved in the twentieth. It’s greater than the others because it projects, whereas others reduce themselves. When Foucault wrote Madness and Civilization, he reduced insanity to this (Godard points to a book). When Langlois projected Nosferatu and in the small village where Nosferatu lived you already saw the ruins of Berlin in 1944, a projection took place. So, to put it simply, I say that it’s the greatest history because it can project. Other histories can only reduce themselves.
My goal, then, alas (laughter), is like that little poem by Brecht: “I examine my project carefully: it’s unrealizable.” Because it can only be done on TV, which reduces. Or which projects you, the viewer, bur then you lose consciousness, you’re rejected. Whereas in cinema, the viewer was attracted. But we can make a memento of this projectable history. It’s the only history that projects, and it’s all we can do. But it’s the greatest history and it’s never been told.
With the triumph of the audiovisual media, “cinematic” films are beginning to all look alike. Yet, contrary to what must have been the case for the Nouvelle Vague, it’s more and more difficult today to organize this impressive mass of films into a linear history. The feeling of time – with a before and after – has changed.
I only came to this idea of coming before or after very late. When Rohmer, who was a professor at the time, used to talk about Flaubert, he knew that, logically, Flaubert came after Homer or Saint Thomas Aquinas. But when he saw Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life and a film by Murnau, I’m not sure that he talked about them with the clear notion that Ray came after Murnau.
The cinema was a place, a territory. What I remember most about the screenings at avenue Messine is that it was a place without history, and I think that must be what completely overwhelmed us. It wasn’t even the discovery of a new continent…. There was an unknown feeling, in the strict sense of the term. We had never seen anything like it. A world with no history, but that spent all its time telling stories.
What was very powerful was that this had nothing to do with reading. This saved us, because we had all wanted to write a first novel (we were of our time). I admired Astruc tremendously because he had done it, and Rohmer and Gegauff too…. But what we felt in front of projected films – that there was nothing more to write – saved us. And writing was terrifying. How could you expect to write better than Joyce or Rilke? In the cinema, though, it was allowed. We could do things with no “class,” with nothing, with neither head nor tail. Just the fact that they were made that way meant something, whereas in literature and even in painting, there were norms, and judges who judged. I think there was this feeling of freedom. A man and a woman in a car – once I’d seen Journey to Italy, I knew that even if I never actually made films, I could. It wasn’t that this made me equal to the greats. It was more that the fact of just being able to led to a certain sense of dignity or whatever.
The interviewer insists. We can no longer experience things that way, and, at the same time, cinema’s heritage now seems crushing. Is doing the history of it today a matter of passing along a toolbox in anticipation of a new questioning (that other-younger-people will carry out)? Or are we satisfied to say: Here’s what’s been seen, what was visible, and here’s what I was the last possible witness to?
It would probably be more along the lines of your second point…. I believe in man as long as he creates things. Men have to be respected because they create things, whether it’s an ashtray, a zapper, a car, a film, or a painting. From that standpoint, I’m not at all a humanist. François (Truffaut) spoke of “auteur politics.” Today, all that is left is the term “auteur,” but what was interesting was the term “politics.” Auteurs aren’t important. Today, we supposedly respect man so much that we no longer respect the work and in the end we can only respect man with words, and we don’t even respect the words. Except for serious people, like Dolto or others who are less well known. The only people I know who respect the work as much as the man tend to be women. Because for them, due to the fact that they produce children, there’s parity between the man and the work, an equilibrium, a democracy. For a man, there is none, except by a continual back-and-forth. I believe in the works, in art, in nature, and I believe that a work of art has an independent purpose that man is there to foster and to participate in.
So I would say, rather, look, there’s something that existed and that was relatively unique – cinema. Things like that must have happened four hundred million years ago (give or take two or three thousand years), when Mycenae disappeared or a certain kind of animal or vegetation. And there was something then, an image, an image that was only a movement. And that image was telling us something that we didn’t want to hear. So we preferred to talk over it instead. From this point of view, if you will, the work, for me, is the child and the person is the adult, the parent. And something happened – the child showed his parents who they were, and talked about himself at the same time! And the parents didn’t want to hear about it and got frightened. It was the only time in the last four hundred million years that a certain way of telling stories was “history.”
But to see this, you have to display it, do what Lévi-Strauss, Einstein, and Copernicus did. If you say that around 1540 Copernicus introduced the idea that the Sun no longer revolved around the Earth, and if you say that a few years later, Vesalius published De corporis humanis Fabrica, which shows the inside of the human body, the skeleton, and écorchés, well, then, you have Copernicus in one book and Vesalius in another…. And then four hundred years later, you have François Jacob who says, “The same year, Copernicus and Vesalius … ,” well, Jacob isn’t doing biology anymore, he’s doing cinema. And that’s all history really is.
Just as when Cocteau said, “If Rimbaud had lived, he would have died the same year as Marshal Pétain.” You see the portrait of the young Rimbaud, you see Pétain’s portrait of 1948, and you put the two together, and there you have a story, you have “history.” That’s cinema. The only thing I would want to say to someone is, “Cinema alone….” In fact, I begin with a chapter entitled “All the (Hi)stories,” then I continue with “Only One (Hi)story/One Lonely (Hi)story.”Then “Cinema Alone,” which means “Cinema alone has done that,” but, also, “Cinema was very alone, so alone that … ”
Once again, it’s art and science. Can we integrate them so easily?
Wait, we’ll discuss that later. But first, there’s this superambitious idea I have, a theory, a theory not even Michelet had when he wrote his History of France! My idea is that history is alone, it’s far from man, that’s it. And that there’s something that stays strictly within the cinema, and that’s montage. My idea as a practitioner, a gardener, of the cinema, was that one of cinema’s goals was to invent montage, as I just described in a simplified way with Copernicus and Vesalius. That’s montage. For example, what’s the difference between the current president of the French Republic, François Mitterrand, and General de Gaulle? Personally, I would say that if cinema, as a scientific tool, wanted to show the difference, it would say this: It’s about two Frenchmen who had a territory, and there was a war and invaders. At one point, one of them was taken prisoner, and began his rise to power by escaping and returning to France. The other one, on the other hand, escaped France and went abroad. That’s the real difference. What was called cinema had always been looking for things like that.
The word “montage” has been used a lot. Today we say, “Eisenstein’s use of montage, Welles’s, Bergman’s, or else the absence of montage in Rossellini’s films …. But the cinema never found montage. Something disappeared when the talkies came in and language, words, took over….
It’s obvious when you watch an anchorwoman speak about Afghanistan and the commuter-train strike and things like that. If the cinema had been able to grow up and become an adult – instead of remaining a child managed by adults – she would talk about them as if they were Copernicus and Vesalius, and that would be clearer.
What’s left of the cinema, then, isn’t even a great idea like that of montage, but a movement toward montage?
That was looking for montage. In fact, I’ll demonstrate this, since it can be shown with its own elements. When Griffith invented the close-up, he wasn’t trying to get next to an actress, as legend maintains. He was trying to find a way to bring together something close and something far away. As for Eisenstein, he discovered the angle shot. When you look at his best-known films, at the famous shots of the three lions in October – well, if the three lions create an effect of montage, it’s because there are three angles, not because of the editing. The Germans, who didn’t use montage, worked from more distant elements – sets, a world-view, lighting…. But they were looking for something, we can’t say what that was today, but it was something that hadn’t existed anywhere else, and that went without “saying,” so to speak. That was the tremendous power of silent films.
My idea is to say: There, that’s what cinema was. The fact that we see it, that we can still project it, it’s like when Schliemann discovered some ruins and said: “Well, Troy must have happened there.” That’s the way it is.
The history of a failure, or a failure so grand that it’s still worth telling, even though everything’s been buried?
Language, speech, and the press came along. And with them came what happens when we “say” something and we’re not cured of language yet (except when we say it because we’re very sick and we have to see an analyst and the analyst is a good doctor). There’s a great battle being waged between the eyes and the tongue. Only Freud, or people like that, whom we tend to ridicule these days, tried to see it differently.
The fact that my father was a doctor probably unconsciously led me to this. Because language says right away: It’s sinusitis, it’s montage. With the cinema, there was a sign that something was possible if we took the trouble to call things by their name. That it was a new way – that no one had ever seen before – of calling things by their names and that was also broad and popular because it needed a public immediately.
Faced with all these medical metaphors, the interviewer returns to the charge. Ought we to compare art and science to this extent?
Cinema is an art, as science is an art. But then something else happened, along with communications, with technique. Technique in an operational, not an artistic, sense. Not the movement of a watch made by a little Juras craftsman, but one hundred twenty million Swatches. The Telecoms and semaphores, they were born at the same time as foolishness, as Madame Bovary. Flaubert described it.
Science is like art, it’s the same thing. And at a particular moment in the nineteenth century, science – not art – became what then became known as “culture” – because the word didn’t exist before then. And when that happened, science became something else. Little by little, cinema, which was a popular art, and perhaps because of this popularity, but especially because of science, which had developed in the meantime, gave birth to television. But television isn’t art, it’s culture, commerce, and broadcasting.
Can we say that cinema is the compunction of the audiovisual media?
Yes. But who called cinema “art” anyway? Only Westerners. It’s interesting to approach the history of cinema as the last chapter of the history of art, which itself is the last chapter of a certain kind of Indo-European civilization. The other civilizations didn’t have art. Not that there weren’t potters in China, or novels in Japan and Mexico, that’s not what I mean. It’s that the idea of art is European. It’s no surprise that people are talking about Europe today, since it’s about to disappear.
So, cinema is art. We used to oppose art and business when some people were turning this art into a business. But our argument with Hollywood has always been more along the lines of: Gentlemen, you should behave more as Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard did toward Cézanne, or the way Theo van Gogh did toward his brother. You shouldn’t act from a purely commercial point of view, because as soon as you commercialize art it becomes something else – culture.
We – the Nouvelle Vague – were the only ones who said that American cinema was art. It was hated sometimes. Bazin conceded that Shadow of a Doubt was a good Hitchcock film, but not Notorious. As a true social democrat, and deeply secular, he found it utterly despicable that such a wonderful mise-en-scene could be done for such a “worthless” subject. But only the Nouvelle Vague was able to say that there is art in certain things that are diverted from their object (or subject) by the big corporations. And then there came a time when the big corporations – like the great feudal
lords – commanded the great poets. As if Thalberg had spoken to Stroheim the same way Julius II spoke to Michelangelo: No, paint this angel’s wing like this, not like that!
No, only the West had that idea. It’s given it up, maybe out of masochism, I don’t know. Cinema was even a movement toward other civilizations: when you see a Lubitsch film, what does it tell you? It tells you something that you’d find in The 1001 Arabian Nights. Other art forms didn’t do this. They were strictly European, but at a certain moment, under the influence of cinema, they changed. Picasso’s African period happened at a time when there was cinema. Not because of colonialism, but because of cinema. Colonialism already existed in Delacroix’s time, but he didn’t paint paintings influenced by Arabian art.
Cinema is a visual medium that, I think, was never allowed to find its own language. It would have developed its own language based on some process or another, but not on something like … L’Evénement du jeudi! And Mallarmé, who wrote about the blank page, surely he thought of that just after seeing one of Feuillade’s serials. If there were an inquiry into what Mallarmé did the day he wrote about the blank page, well, I say we’d find out that he’d come out of a Feuillade film. I could even tell you which episode – “Tragic Error”!
A certain feeling of belonging to the world has vanished. Cinema had adopted us, it took care of us, rather as if we were foster children. But television divides us into factions, or else speaks to us as if we were powerless adults.
But cinema didn’t fail, its parents did (if we think of cinema as childhood). That’s why it was so popular. Everyone can like a van Gogh, but then someone invented a way to spread van Gogh’s crows everywhere (albeit in a somewhat less terrifying form), so that everyone loved them and felt close to them.
Cinema was like the earth. Then came television, which was the invention of the plow. If you don’t know how to use it, the plow is a bad thing. If you don’t know how to till the earth or grow this or that kind of wheat. But television became a whole other thing. I believe the cardinal points have been lost. Cinema had done East and West, from Moscow to Hollywood, with Central Europe in between (because that’s where cinema comes from, only from there). There’s a great axis – like this. Cinema is made to spread out, to flatten. I always compare it to the court system: you open a file, that’s cinema (Godard opens a file). And then you weigh it…. It’s like a novel, because the pages are consecutive. But because it’s visual, there’s the weight of a page and the weight of the next page…. And then there’s something else: its direction, that is to say, its cardinal points. Now, television falls back on East-West, and doesn’t go North-South; yet, it was up to television to do North-South. That was what cinema couldn’t do, hadn’t to do.
Television, on the other hand, has to have its day, however stupidly. The other day I was watching a documentary made by a pretty good producer – Marin Karmitz – about Françoise Dolto. She was interviewing children, and there wasn’t even a whole question, nor the child’s whole gaze, nor the child listening. And this was Dolto! The government won’t subsidize even fifty of her centers, but it will give her fifty medals of the Legion of Honor. When that happens, Dolto’s written message can no longer get through, because language has become something else. If you publish Dolto in L’Express, she doesn’t come across, something else does. On the other hand, the child stays sick.
Do we want the child to stay sick? I think so. The Nouvelle Vague was actually exceptional because it believed – because it followed Langlois and others before him – it believed what it saw. That’s all.
The Nouvelle Vague is the only generation that saw the encroachment of television upon cinema (and vice versa). But in the beginning, there was a kind of happy incest. The great filmmakers (Rossellini, Renoir, Welles, Hitchcock) weren’t against television, on the contrary. It wasn’t until later that things went bad.
You shouldn’t confuse the soil and the tool. Television isn’t soil, it’s a tool. When the tool becomes the soil, the result is AIDS. Personally, I think we will eventually cure cancer, but that we don’t really want to. It hasn’t been proven that we wanted to, nor that we know how to see. When François Jacob examines lymphocytes, antigens, antibodies – whatever – and he isn’t doing what he did when he related Copernicus and Vesalius…. When he doesn’t open to a page of Chandler, John Le Carré, or Peter Cheyney’s early novels (the ones where you really see how cells, spies, and codes work – you see, they’re even the same words)…. All I can say is that’s where you have to look. And you, François Jacob, with your own individual genius, you should say other things – that’s where you’ll find the vaccine, or the start of a vaccine. If you don’t do that, you won’t find it. Do cinema! But when he goes to the movies, what he likes is That Murderous Summer, so … (laughter).
Television gives us little news about the world, and even that is from a narrow, provincial point of view … which was less true of cinema.
For me, this became clearer when I noticed, after a certain number of years, that they hadn’t shown the concentration camps. That they had talked about them, generally, but not shown them. I became interested, undoubtedly because of what you were saying, because of my guilt, my social class, etc. But the camps, they were the first thing that should have been shown, the same way Marey showed how man walks with his chronophotographic gun, or something like that. They didn’t want to see them. And that’s where it stopped and I thought, the Nouvelle Vague wasn’t a beginning but an end.
Cinematic language has always developed in wartime, but after 1945, after the first great “private” spectacles, the camps, cinema no longer developed.
Italian neorealism was the last twitch, and the Nouvelle Vague, which came from Italian neorealism, was the twitch of a twitch. Then there was Fassbinder, who I feel stood alone. Like Anthaeus, who was big and strong, and tried it in his own patch, in his own garden…. And when Fassbinder died, the elders pretty much did, too, Rossellini, Hitchcock. … But they died “in their art,” if you will. I hope to study that in a chapter entitled “L’Industrie de la mort,” which is the story of the death of one of the greatest creators of forms of the modern world: Hitchcock. When you see a car, a tram, a man entering, or a chase in Topaz or in Frenzy, and you watch the beginnings of all that in The Thirty-Nine Steps, you see a world that has “turned.” This is the world that I think Fassbinder was trying in an extremely voluntaristic way (wrings his hands) with a very correct purpose, which was to make films about Germany, because he was German. He died of a kind of overdose of creative obligations. And after, came what we know today.
Cinema looks at the world less, but it’s been focusing on the world’s “signs” for a long time.
Cinema has always looked at the world less than it has looked at the world looking at it. And when television came along, it quickly replaced the world and
didn’t look at it anymore. And when you watch television, you don’t see that television is watching you. But when Ingrid Bergman hides a key in her hand, that key looks at you. And that happened at a time when we didn’t want to see the world in the state in which the camps had left it.
Cinema disappeared at that moment. It disappeared because it had foretold the camps. Chaplin, who was a unique case, known as no one has been known, Chaplin, whom everyone believed, well, when he made The Great Dictator, they didn’t believe him. They could have believed him at least a little. And when Lubitsch dared to say, “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt,” people said: What are you talking about? Give him the hook! Even though he was Jewish, an immigrant, and if anyone had ever proved himself in comedy, it was him. All of a sudden, people didn’t laugh anymore. Something happened there.
Retrospectively, that’s when I told myself that as a director, a maker of films, I’m in occupied territory. I’m in the Resistance. I do it more or less well. I’m probably like René Hardy or Trepper, like in those novels I like so much, where you work for all sides, without really knowing which anymore. We’re in occupied territory. In my opinion, when Lelouch is successful, he’s an Otto Abetz to a resistant in France. And Tavernier is a Vichyist, in my opinion. It was from this point of view that I wrote to Malraux – and God knows I admired Malraux, and still do – about La Religieuse. I wrote, “I am writing you from a faraway place – Free France.”
But because, in spite of it all, this isn’t a real occupation, we’re a little marginal and broken-down. That’s why sometimes we have to say: Let’s try again. We always question ourselves at the end, well, at the dawn of the twilight of our lives. That’s when we ask ourselves to which (hi)story do we belong….
Fear. It’s a word that comes up a lot, as often as the medical metaphors. Fear of seeing, fear of not seeing, fear of seeing what others have seen, and the desire to see it, etc.
Personally, I’d say that seeing can only be peaceful. When a child is first able to see something in focus, there’s something peaceful about it. The same goes for speaking. On the other hand, saying is not the same thing. I would compare looking and saying, and seeing and speaking (or singing). The desire is there. It’s peaceful, but at times a struggle, for example, a suffering like what a mountain climber feels when he’s climbing, a diver, or a lover leaving. I’d say that’s what rights are, and in rights there’s the notion of duty, like the line dividing two parts of an iceberg…. It’s the duty to say in the course of a patient’s treatment, the duty to look into the recovery that is extremely painful. Even though I’m the son of a doctor, it’s hard for me to go to the doctor because then you have to say and look, and you have to confront that with seeing and speaking. (In a way, my problem is that I use my duties too much and my rights not enough.)
Cinema started out silent, and was very successful. Sound, just like color, had always been an option. They had their own processes, even if they weren’t technically perfect – which they still aren’t…. But they didn’t want sound. Mitry and Sadoul described how Edison came to demonstrate his talking cinema, but it was already under way at the Grand Café. First, there were twelve disciples, then thirty, forty, then four hundred million. It wasn’t until later that we wanted talkies, which is, moreover, fairly well explained by social circumstances. Talkies came at a historical moment, when Roosevelt spoke up, democracy spoke up and said: New Deal. And after a few stock market crashes, Fascism spoke up, and Hitler said what he said. It’s “saying,” but a wrong saying that took over. It wasn’t Freud who took over in Germany, it was Hitler (yet, they were neighbors and lived only a few streets apart).
Despite the Spanish Inquisition, the Napoleonic Wars, despite everything, there had been some not insignificant humanistic achievements. And in order to preserve them – despite the absolute horror of the concentration camps – what had to happen was that, for once, seeing and saying become one and that then other goals be redefined. And only cinema could do it. Yet literature had done it. There were absolutely fantastic books that are quite forgotten today, like David Rousset’s. But it must’ve been my filmmaker’s unconscious that led me to search in this direction, since my personal history, in terms of class, religion, childhood, had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Do you think that because cinema didn’t know how to bear witness when the times called for it, that it will wither away?
It’s not a matter of bearing witness. It’s because it was the only instrument – no microscope, no telescope, only cinema. I’ve always found something touching in the work of a director I only sort of like, George Stevens. In A Place in the Sun, there’s a deep feeling of happiness that I’ve rarely encountered in other films, even much better ones. It’s a simple, secular feeling of happiness, one moment with Elizabeth Taylor. And when I found out that Stevens had filmed the camps and that for the occasion Kodak had given him their first rolls of 16mm color film, that explained to me how he could then do that close-up of Elizabeth Taylor that radiated a kind of shadowed happiness….
Since we’ve been talking about the problematics of “need,” what would an “image need” be like today?
There is a desire for images, as the only things that have satisfied that notion of identity that became so fundamental toward the end of the nineteenth century. Today, even a believer who goes to pray still feels like an individual and not like the people Malraux spoke of and who used to listen to Saint Bernard. I think there’s a need for identity, a need to be recognized. For example, if I see an image of you, I don’t say it’s an image of Toubiana, and in the fact of “recognizing” there are both the point of view of the scout on an exploratory mission – like Davy Crockett in John Ford’s films and a feeling of recognition, in the sense of gratitude. We are grateful to the world for recognizing us and for allowing us to recognize ourselves, and I think that, until the camps, cinema was the identity of nations and of peoples (who were more or less organized into nations) and that after the camps, it sort of disappeared. I deal with this in a program, program 3B, “La Réponse des ténèbres“, which talks about war films and says, more or less, that cinema is primarily a Western art form, made by white guys. And when I talk with Anne-Marie (Miéville), whose family wouldn’t let her watch films, except for Westerns, which she hated … still does today, even John Ford’s, she has trouble with all those men on horses, all those guys….
And all of this to say: Why was there no cinema of the Resistance in 1940-1945? Not that there weren’t some Resistance films, on the Right and the Left, here and there, bur the only fiction film of the Resistance that resisted America’s occupation of cinema or a certain standardized way of making films was an Italian film. Italy, the country that had fought the least, that had suffered a great deal, that lost its identity, and that took off again after Open City. But that’s the only time. The Russians made propaganda films or films abour martyrs, Americans made advertisement films, the English did their usual thing, Germany didn’t know how to make Resistance films, and the French only made prisoner-of-war films. The Polish are the only ones who tried twice in a row to make films about the camps: Munk’s Passenger (which was never finished), and Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage.
Well, for a long time, cinema represented the possibility of being part of a nation, yet remaining itself within that nation. All that has disappeared. If people still like cinema today, it’s more the way the Greeks liked the stories about Zeus. If they like Belmondo’s films – not mine or Straub’s, because they’re not shown – if they still like the idea of films on television, even if, or especially when, they’ve been cut, it’s because there is a faint memory…. We don’t have our identity anymore, but when we turn on the television, there’s a vague little signal that tells us that maybe we do have one. And then films will disappear from television.
We talk more and more about “images,” but we know less and less what we mean by this expression.
We use the word “image” even though that’s not what they are anymore. One image leads to another, an image is never alone, contrary to what we call “images” today, which are sets of solitudes connected by speech that, at worst, is Hitler’s, but that will never be Dolto’s, Freud’s, or Wittgenstein’s. Americans are more accurate, more pragmatic: they say “pictures,” which is also the term for photos. And for film they say “movie.”
Let’s get down to specifics. How did Godard organize his (Hi)stories? To begin with, what’s his game plan?
My [hi)story of cinema begins with a chapter called “Toutes les histoires,” lots of short (hi)stories where you can see signs. It goes on to say that this [hi)story stands alone, the only [hi)story there has ever been. So – you know how unbounded my ambition is – I say it’s not only alone, but also the only one there ever will be or that there ever was (later, it won’t be a [hi)story, but something else). It’s my mission to tell it. It’s my preacher side coming out, if you will; this is what I preach.
And then there are instead some specific studies cut in. There’s one I called “Fatale Beauté,” in remembrance of a film by Siodmak with Ava Gardner, called The Great Sinner, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. The idea is that, for the most part, it’s been men that have filmed women, and that’s proved equally fatal to this (hi)story….
Then, there’s a more practical study that I’ve always wanted to do and that can be done with video. I call it, inspired by Malraux, “La Monnaie de l’absolu.” It’s an attempt to do a visual critical study. I once did it in a program using the war as an example. I was saying: This is how a great filmmaker like Kubrick showed the Vietnam war and this is how a Cuban documentary filmmaker showed the same war. You judge; you look.
And then I derive some ideas. For example, I took René Clair’s Quatorze juillet, then I read three lines of yours about the film, and then I asked: How could he say this? Is that right: While Pola Illery is doing this and Annabella is doing that? Can this really be described like that? No. So, I say that Serge was stricken for a split second by the ultimate evil.
One segment, which I’ve mentioned before, is called “La Reponse des ténèbres.” It examines why Italy made the only Resistance film. Then there’s another about montage called “Montage, mon beau souci,” which comes from an article that I had written in all innocence but that I don’t understand very well today. The idea is that, just as painting succeeded in reproducing perspective, cinema should have succeeded in something, too, but was unable to, due to the application of the invention of sound. But there are traces of it….
Then, there’s a last chapter called “Les Signes parmi nous, ” which I mentioned before, and that says if you film a traffic jam in the streets of Paris and if you know how to see it (not just me, but Francçois Jacob and I) we discover – if we know how to see – a vaccine for AIDS. “Les Signes parmi nous” is a novel by Ramuz that I’ve always wanted to do: a peddler arrives in a little village above Vevey and announces the end of the world. There’s a terrible storm for five days, then the sun comes out, and the peddler is kicked out. The peddler is cinema!