Bright Lights Film Journal

The Misery and Splendors of Cinema: Godard’s Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinéma

“Godard 24 times per second”

“I need a day to tell the history of a second, a year to tell the history of a minute, a lifetime to tell the history of a day.” That’s the film artist’s dilemma, or one of them, according to Jean-Luc Godard in his intense and visually stunning Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinéma. With the authority of his half-century of filmmaking, from his jump-cut debut Breathless to last year’s Dantean Notre Musique, Godard here compresses into 87 mercurial, stimulating minutes his decades-in-the-making labor of love called Histoire(s) du Cinéma, which otherwise runs to eight parts and exceeds five hours. What he has produced is less a summary than a tasting menu of the greater work, his attempt to place cinema “against the unfeeling vastness of time.”

Seated at his electronic typewriter (already an extinct technology), the seventy-something Godard, arguably the first citizen of Planet Cinema, looks lean and hungry as he collapses together key moments and telling snippets from cinema’s first century to compose this rhapsodic essay film, at once an ode, a meditation, and a personal epic of the transformative power of the moving image. Elegantly assembling clips that rhyme, allude, and counterpoint, his scaffold of film references evokes to critic Craig Keller the prose complexities of Finnegan’s Wake. When besieged Spanish Loyalists fight for their lives in Man’s Hope, when the newly accepting John Wayne lifts Natalie Wood in The Searchers, when the windmill reverses direction in Foreign Correspondent, these images form a kind of collective filmic unconscious that Godard dubs the Misery and Splendors of Cinema.

The past survives in the art it created, so in this newly dawned millennium, images from The Docks of New York and The Bicycle Thief and The Barefoot Contessa materialize like relics surfacing from a lost world, a paradise of beauty and truth peopled by giants. Yet with true Godardian mischief, the director tweaks history by creating invented scenes from imaginary films.

Ever the film critic who measures artistic distances (“For every 50 DeMilles, how many Dreyers?”), Godard summons up auteurist gods like Borzage, Hollis Frampton, and Paradjanov, but especially and recurringly Hitchcock, whose voice overlays Godard’s own at one point, as the Frenchman slows the motion of the falling wine bottle in Notorious until it shatters frame by frame on the cement floor.

This finds Godard at his most romantic: successively tortured, exalted, and aroused by beauty, yet too exacting and urgently modern to turn his pantheon into a mausoleum. In the unique power of 35mm projected onto the big screen, his celluloid images bloom in opulently saturated crimson and bold yellow and glowing emerald. The ravishing video color-smears that ended Éloge de l’Amour are surpassed here by images of gloriously sensual hues and textures that slide past, flicker, resolve into ingenious photo-collages, and then stream in rhythmic overlapping dissolves (Eisenstein’s name provokes the film to whir into fast-forward). Yet the visuals serve Godard’s autumnal end statement, where tributes to departed artists like Rossellini, Demy, and Becker (“They were my friends”) and to landmark critics like Lotte Eisner, Jay Leyda, Andre Bazin, and Serge Daney run alongside melancholy reflections on the fate of his New Wave movement (“Our only mistake was to think it was a beginning”).

Of course, as he agitates our preconceptions, the ever polarizing Godard can turn prickly, becoming a demanding scold who’s difficult to love, inflaming vulnerable viewers with his maddening paradoxes and poetic aphorisms (“Only the Hand That Erases Can Write”). Reflecting on art, politics, and television, he prods at our limits with guest readings of cerebral texts, by Julie Delpy for one, and a deliberately provocative sound design that at one point blithely overlaps two narrators speaking different languages. Short of fusing himself into the celluloid, Godard does what he can to immerse himself in cinema’s promised immortality, bathing like Fritz Lang’s Siegfried in the blood of the beast. Screenings are rare, but no one concerned with the art form should miss this core statement by one of its most groundbreaking masters.