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Shopping for Christmas presents in a book store in the Latin Quarter, I remember leafing through a collection of the century's best photographs as taken by the French Associated Press. In the collection was a shot taken not long after the end of the Second World War, its subject a group of protestors marching in the Paris streets. Together holding a banner in lead of the march were a group of young and well-known French film stars. The cause of their protest was the encroaching American studio system, which, by locking in distribution rights in the lucrative French market, was consequently eliminating jobs for French actors. Their banner indicated the importance of preserving French culture. How surprising, I thought, to view this evidence of perceived Americanization appearing some 60 years ago.
As French cinema culture developed over the coming years, American films remained common fare (though native film made up the bulk of titles) for the French, who would use their own critical standards to judge the successes and failings of Hollywood. As the French New Wave took root in the fifties, the auteurs associated with the movement set out to break Hollywood conventions, and financially supported by the Gaullist government, managed to reclaim for France some of the cultural ground previously held as lost to the studio system. While not overly successful on a commercial level, the French New Wave helped establish cinema as a recognized medium for art, and gave breath to cinematic criticism.
It follows that Jean-Luc Godard, preeminent auteur and co-founder of the French New Wave, is among the best-qualified voices to comment on a century of cinema, to probe its root elements and map its future trajectories. Since the days of Godard's breakthrough À bout de souffle, he has been recognized as a cinematic pioneer, his critical vision already articulated in the Cahiers du cinéma, those blueprints of the New Wave, which he edited. Now, in a conversation with keen critic Youssef Ishaghpour, Godard attempts to get at the artistic potential of audio-visual media. These elucidating conversations draw on the entire canon of film as they critique Godard's own art, a recent project of incredible density entitled Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Cinema: The Archaeology of Film and the Memory of a Century is ostensibly a companion to this difficult and difficult-to-locate series in which Godard once again pushes the accepted boundaries of the cinematic medium.
Histoire(s) du Cinéma remains unavailable in the U.S. due to the nature of the work, which layers image upon image, often combining the overlay with text (in French) slogan-like admonitions or references to cinema, literature, and popular culture. Though almost impossible to translate, an abbreviated version of Histoire(s) has made its way onto screens in a select few American fine arts museums. However, even if you never have the chance to see the work (I count among my friends only one lucky viewer), it remains in many ways remarkable to glimpse in the readily available paperback version of Cinema, Godard's unfolding vision, his preconceptions and limits, and his constant challenges to the current and long-established commercial hierarchy.
Setting out to read Cinema can be slightly jarring at first, as the book is laid out in the form of a conversation between artist and critic. For fans of Godard, however, a lack of narrative structure is presumably not a problem, and Ishaghpour does an excellent job shepherding the conversational flow toward key ideas, probing the sometimes recalcitrant Godard on significant points. As in such chapters as "Only Cinema Narrates Large-scale History by Narrating its own History," the dialog plunges into some depth, "excavating", in this case, various historical traditions to get at cinema's unique societal commentary. Ishaghpour and Godard point out the strange reciprocation between the history that frames film and the film that frames history:
"YI: You say Italian cinema is the identity of Italy, because Italy's new identity was formed at that time, formed in the Resistance.
"JLG: In the French Resistance as it really was, they were all men and women. I'd rather say boys and girls because they were all very young. They all had lovers or sweethearts. None of that exists for historians; they don't mention it. You don't imagine things like that in daylight; only cinema could do it. There must have been betrayals, jealousies, stuff like that. But for historians none of that exists, so it's pretty weird history they write about..."
As in any extended and authentic conversation, Cinema contains the occasional non sequitur, and the spontaneity and verbal nature of the exchange occasionally make for some challenging reading. But the main attraction of the book is revealed in its ideas, which repay rereading with a rare profundity. Godard and Ishaghpour go back and forth at the significance of philosophic and poetic tradition to cinema, playing devil's advocate to history and each other in wondering what a transcription to film of various thinkers might be like. Ishaghpour plays a strong counter-balance to Godard and is unafraid to challenge his ideas or probe the validity of his contentions.
"YI: These days there's no discussion between philosophers, painters, or writers...
"JLG: It's because of television and computers. It's the triumph of Edison, because Edison wanted cinema for one person at a time, while Lumière...All those philosophers, it's a pity they didn't make cinema... Deleuze was tempted, but instead of making a film, he wrote `a book about'...
"YI: Oh come on, that's not how films are made. Deleuze could never have made films. You don't cobble yourself into a philosopher or film maker just like that, it takes years and years of work, and gifts as well.
"JLG: But he could have collaborated...
"YI: But the results of such a collaboration would have been appalling! There's no shortage of examples...."
Godard contends that the French make the best critics, because they're so argumentative, a statement that would be tough for anyone who isn't French to find a counterpoint to, at least on the basis of this book. Though questions often lead to more questions, the arguments made throughout the book are generally well-formed, salient, and accessible. Picking Godard's brain, and gaining a window into his art, is a real pleasure and one that will necessarily lead to further investigation of the artist's striking statements. Ultimately, Cinema is a rigorous and timely discussion that will appeal to artists of all stripes, especially those interested by the development of film's perspective, technique, and idealistic spirit. However, if you are looking to agree with everything you read, I would suggest that Hollywood studio execs might further peruse.