Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Jean-Luc Godard has been bitter and angry for a long time about what he sees as the “failures” of cinema. The famed French director, who perhaps was the biggest name in cinema during the 1960s, has long since turned his back on narrative filmmaking, and become an avant-garde filmmaker. To be fair, had he never made those films in the early to mid-1960s – really most of his films from Breathless (1960) to Weekend (1967) – he would still be an important filmmaker in avant-garde circles. Yet, if it wasn’t for those early films, Godard would not command the respect he now does. Whenever he opens his mouth to insult a filmmaker – a favorite target of his has been Spielberg (although, most of what Godard has said about Spielberg is so outlandish and ridiculous that it masks any legitimate criticisms he may have), everyone listens. When he makes a film like Film Socialism (2010), it becomes the most talked about film at the Cannes Film Festival – where normally a film that like wouldn’t even play there (you can argue that’s either a good or bad thing). There seems to be two camps on Godard – those who think he has done very little of value since Weekend, and those who think that Godard is still a genius, still far ahead of the curve, waiting for people to catch up to him.
For the most part, I consider myself to be in the former camp. Breathless (1960), Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Contempt (1963), Band of Outsiders (1964), Pierrot Le Fou (1965) and Weekend (1967) are all legitimately great movies, and even if I didn’t think Made in U.S.A. (1966) or 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) were great (or even that good in the case of 2 or 3 Things), they was interesting and intelligent films. This period was so prolific for Godard that I still need to see some fairly major works from it –A Woman is a Woman (1961), Alphaville (1965), Masculin-Feminine (1966) – chief among them. Given how much I hated Film Socialisme (sorry, perhaps I should say I just don’t get it, but in all honesty, when I read the reviews of people who claim it to be a masterpiece, I wonder if I perhaps walked into the wrong theater, because what I saw was an incoherent mess, not some profound statement on anything) and some of his other “late period” films, I cannot imagine wanting to see them above the films he was making in the period where he made several legitimate masterpieces.
All this is a very long introduction into this piece which is about Godard’s magnum opus – Histoire(s) due Cinema, an eight part (or four part, with each part having an (a) and (b) if you want to get technical), four and a half hour epic, which he made and released slowly between 1988 and 1998. Normally, I would have rather watched one of those 1960s Godard films I still haven’t seen rather than this opus – but the film ranked in the top 50 films of all time on the 2012 Sight and Sound Critics Poll, so I bite the bullet and settled in for what I assumed would be a VERY long night.
But I was pleasantly surprised by Histoire(s) du Cinema. I’m certainly not saying that the film is for everyone – it clearly isn’t, and is more of an avant-garde art piece than anything else – but I was fascinated by the film. The film is technical marvel – a masterpiece of montage – as it brings together clips from cinema’s past, and makes startling connections, and wholly new images out of them. Yes, the film is still a long sit, and yet it was never less than fascinating – even when it enraging, which it often was as Godard’s contentions and opinions about cinema are often at complete odds with my own, or self-aggrandizing, which it is nearly constantly for parts of the movie. In Godard’s view, of course, only someone in the New Wave could tell the story of cinema history – meaning only he can – and that the French New Wave was the greatest thing that ever happened to cinema – again, meaning he was – and since then it has been a long, slow death march. He pretty much argues that cinema is already dead – but of course, only Godard is smart enough to see it.
But I can disagree with a movie, and still find it interesting – and Histoire(s) du Cinema is certainly interesting. It’s not that I didn’t know that Godard was an egomaniac when I sat down to watch Histoire(s) du Cinema, or that he wasn’t going to argue that cinema has failed – he has been arguing that for years. And Histoire(s) du Cinema is the type of film that only someone who at one point completely loved cinema could make. Godard’s movie knowledge is unquestionable, and his disappointment in cinema’s “failings” is genuine, even if I think more than a little of that disappointment stems from the fact that so few people followed him when he broke away from the mainstream.
It should be noted that this isn’t a standard issue cinema history documentary – for that, watch Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Film and My Voyage to Italy, both of which are excellent, both for film buffs and newcomers. No, to truly understand Godard’s film, you have to know a lot about cinema before you sit down and watch it – there were times when I was completely overwhelmed by what was being thrown on the screen. To add to the confusion, the version I saw had sparse English subtitles – but I think the important parts are subtitled (I was never very good at French in school, but I remember enough to be able to piece together much of the non-subtitled, oft-repeated phrases).
Histoire(s) du Cinema is finally a love letter to, elegy of and condemnation of cinema, from one of its sharpest minds. I may not like much of Godard’s later output, but I have never doubted that he is, on some level, still a genius – even if I think he has bought too much into his own myth (no one thinks Godard is a genius as much as Godard does). The film is never less than fascinating, even if it does begin to repeat itself after a while. At four and half hours, this is a VERY long sit – and most audiences will grow restless. I do not think this is the masterpiece that its most ardent supporters do, but for what it is, Histoire(s) du Cinema certainly deserves to be more widely seen than it has been (part of that is undoubtedly do to the rights issues of using all those old clips – this held up the DVD release for years apparently). I cannot think of too many people that I would actually recommend sitting through this film to – it requires a patient audience member, willing to indulge Godard – but if the film sounds interesting to you, than I certainly think you should see it.