Histoire(s) du Cinema
(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1989-1998, BetaSP, 315 mins.)
histories of the cinema
with an s
all the histories that might have been
that were or might have been
that there have been
-- Jean-Luc Godard, Histoire(s) du Cinema
I can only talk about what has moved me or intrigued me. I can't really be objective here.
-- Martin Scorsese, A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
In 1995, Martin Scorsese issued an ambitious documentary series timed to coincide with the centennial of cinema. It arrived with the unwieldy, yet accurate title A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. Commissioned by the British Film Institute, the 225-minute, five-part series consists of film clips, interviews, and on-screen commentary. I've watched it three times now (in the theater, on video, and on DVD) and I've made an effort to see as many of the films he mentions as possible, from Force of Evil to Bigger Than Life. (The BFI also commissioned a 51-minute doc from Jean-Luc Godard called 2X50 Ans de Cinema Fran/ssais.)
The entire time I was watching the eight-part Histoire(s) du Cinema, I kept flashing back to the Scorsese series. If I had to pick a favorite, it's the one I'd choose, but that isn't really fair, because whenever I found myself making the mental comparison, it was because of the differences between the anthologies rather than the similarities. At heart, A Personal Journey is a Ken Burns-style documentary. Godard and Scorsese look at some of the same films, most of which are from the 1920s through the 1960s--Duel in the Sun, The Searchers, The Band Wagon, etc.--and yet the results couldn't be more diametrically opposed. In other words: apples and oranges.
I can't, for instance, refer to the Godard series as a film, because it was shot on video, and JLG uses the format as if it were a canvas. While he has described Histoire(s) as an "essay," he cuts between film clips, paintings, and newsreel footage as if each were a daub of paint. (He uses music in the same way.) He superimposes some images, doesn't identify the bulk of them--so you can't always tell what's "real" and what's "fake"--and sprinkles a bewildering array of words over the entire concoction. As with his narration, most aren't translated. I know a little French, but it didn't help much. Sometimes I could tell what he was getting at, sometimes not.
Here's an example. During the montage created by combining footage of concentration camp victims with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951), Godard notes that "if George Stevens hadn't been first to use / the first sixteen milimetre colour film / at Auschwitz and Ravensbruck / there's no doubt that / Elizabeth Taylor's air of wellbeing / would never have found a place in the sun." Sounds disturbing, doesn't it? It is. There are many more such purposefully jarring juxtapositions throughout the series. ("What's real and what's fake" indeed.)
Watching Histoire(s) is a bizarre experience no matter how you approach it, and I can't quite compare it to any other I've ever had. While Jonathan Rosenbaum has likened it to reading Finnegan's Wake, to me it's more like staring at a Jackson Pollock painting. For hours. The more you look, the more you see. But what does it all mean? Consequently, it isn't for the casual film fan and, at the press screening, there were a few walkouts (one gentleman left after 40 minutes, two others left around the two-hour mark). While watching it, I felt more frustrated than anything else, but it's the kind of sensory overload that really gets the old synapses firing.
Part of that frustration came from Godard's cheap shots at America, TV, and Steven Spielberg (see In Praise of Love for more on the latter). Yet he has a point: "but otherwise the cinema is an industry / and if the first world war / had enabled the American cinema / to ruin the French cinema / with the birth of television / the second would enable it to finance / that is, ruin / all the European cinemas." Ouch. Later he says, "the two big stories / have been sex and death." Better yet: "stories of beauty, in a word / beauty, makeup / at bottom the cinema isn't part / of the communications industry / or of show business / but of the cosmetics industry / the mask industry." He's got a point there, too. (Thanks to the NWFF for the translations; according to Rosenbaum, Histoire(s) is in seven languages.)
So my first reaction was negative, but the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with Godard's achievement. His series may not be personal in the same way as Scorsese's, but it's just as passionate-"f one can use such a word to describe the notoriously prickly Godard. When he says "if there were no cinema / I wouldn't know that I had a history," you know he means that literally (and Scorsese probably feels the same way). I still haven't decided whether I "liked" Histoire(s), but it definitely provided me with new ways to look at the films he explores--of which there are hundreds--and, more importantly, new ways to look at "cinema" in general.
Note: Histoire(s) du Cinema has never played Seattle before. Due to rights issues, this may be your only chance to see it on the big screen. Next up: Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, another monumental cinematic achievement-"n very different ways!
Histoire(s) du Cinema plays at the Northwest Film Forum on Mar. 17-18, Fri. at 7pm (Part 1, 148 min.); Sat. at 7pm (Part 2, 117 min.). Between Mar. 17-22, they will also be screening Band of Outsiders, Weekend, In Praise of Love, and Every Man for Himself, which isn't available on video and features one hell of a cast: Jacques Dutronc, Isabelle Huppert, and Nathalie Baye. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill. For more information, please see www.nwfilmforum.org. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.