Histoire(s) du cinéma 1A & 1B

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1988)


Tales from the Crypt

I think the best way to look at these programs is to enter into the image without a single name or reference in your head. The less you know, the better.

– Jean-Luc Godard (1)

Whereas the historian uses intermediaries, the cinephile experiences only symbiosis and immediacy. The former produces knowledge, the latter is seeking a communion.

– Jean-Louis Leutrat (2)

On the basis of known projects of certain film directors, it is possible to dream of the history of film as it should have been, that is, the true history of film!

– Pierre Rissient (3)

Cinema lore is full of tales of directors who nurse pet projects for years, even decades, before they get to make them – or else they take their mad, impossible dreams with them to the grave. Jean-Luc Godard is, essentially, not a part of that particular cinema history. He has always been presented (and presented himself) as an artist of impulse, spontaneity, casualness; more like a jazz improviser or an action painter, he swiftly begins a new project before the last is barely cold.

The eight-part television series Histoire(s) du cinéma has a special place in Godard's career quite simply because it is the only work that he nurtured, worked on and revised over a period of twenty years. And, once completed, he explained it in every possible public media forum and distributed it in multiple formats: on video, in book form, and the entire soundtrack released on CD.

The story begins in 1979, with a series of talks in Canada later transcribed and collected under the banner of an Introduction to a True History of Cinema – 'true', because it is told, constituted in the very 'evidence' of images and sounds (Godard's famous reproach to Pauline Kael: "Bring in the evidence", don't just write about it). (4) At that point, Godard had begun to intuit that an "invisible", hitherto untold history of cinema was embedded in the very "geology and geography" of films themselves (5); also that "a solidarity exists between the history of cinema and history itself: the latter is required in order to tell the former". (6) A third dimension of the project, in this inaugural phase, was blatantly personal: to review his own work and somehow make sense of it within this broader picture.

By around the mid '80s, Godard had cooked up a fully grown thesis about the intimate interrelationship of cinema and history; it is set forth, in all its strangeness and excess, in the first two episodes of Histoire(s). In a nutshell, cinema begins in all its splendour – in 'all its stories' (toutes les histoires) – with a magical, projective, redemptive function: like Alyssa Milano on Charmed, it sees into the future and warns of the storm clouds to come. Cinema is still, in this phase, attached to reality, the "little brother" (7) to what Godard labels History in its old, pre-postmodern, master-narrative, capital-H conception, a 'sole history' (une histoire seule) – a History overwhelmingly defined in terms of global trauma (wars, ecological disaster, capitalist exploitation, communist slaughter). At World War II, Godard's cinema history assumes its Biblical Fall from grace: with the coming of the concentration camps, cinema loses its link with Time and reality; recording nothing and sensing little, it traffics only in its own desperate evasions and illusions.

So much for the thesis, as Godard has patiently and repeatedly outlined it. The actual audio-visual documents that make up the Histoire(s), however – a pedagogy without papers – are nothing if not cryptic. It is entirely possible to watch any episode of the series and not immediately grasp what Godard is ever 'saying'. His essayistic form is like no other; it proceeds via images, puns, quotations, associative flashes, rude superimpositions, dazzling montages, oceanic tides of sound and music.

It is easy to overestimate Godard's status as an intellectual: books for him are titles, covers, disembodied phrases or buzzwords, spines on a shelf (as his obsessive browsing in 1A makes clear). As a historian he is equally open to suspicion; under what he considers the keywords of History – resistance, occupation, exile, and so on – he merrily confuses and conflates anything and everything. (8)

Yet we risk missing the true power of these Histoire(s) if we do not tune in to their fundamentally double nature – as both thesis (a historian producing knowledge) and autobiographical poem (a cinephile seeking communion). Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote of the first French TV screenings of episodes 1A & 1B in 1988 (9) that "one feels cast adrift in a private reverie (...) a kind of shorthand synthesis of (or desperate aide-mémoire for) what we've already forgotten, or at best, like Godard himself, only half-remembered". (10)

So what we see in the series are not encyclopedic traces of 'world cinema history'; Godard falls far short of that ideal. Rather, it is one man's history, his 'secret cinema' of formative viewing experiences, personal illuminations and epiphanies. That is why so many of the filmic references in Histoire(s) gravitate around the Cahiers gods and fetishes of the '50s (Bergman, Preminger, Ophüls, Hitchcock ... ), why his own films need to be inserted so prominently into this history, and especially why Henri Langlois is evoked as a primal father-figure, that gentleman of the Cinémathèque who seemed to contain "all the memory of cinema" and who let others see "the revolution that might be effected in the aesthetic of moving pictures by this new vision of its historicity". (11) It was apparently Langlois himself who first imagined the Histoire(s) project.

Godard courts grandiloquence – but who better to try it on? – when he now proposes himself as this quintessential 'man of the cinema', the filmmaker-cinephile whose lifetime spans that of the medium in which he works. This is the very essence of Godardian melancholy (also adumbrated in JLG/JLG in 1995), the wellspring of its urgency and pathos: this sense that cinema will die with him. Hence the massive self-commemoration which Godard (ever the showman) launched dead-on-time at the close of the 20th century via the epic diffusion of the Histoire(s). But we would be cynical to not also see Godard's gesture of humility and self-effacement in all this, and the inherent precariousness of his autoportraiture.

For the cinema is "transitory, ephemeral" (12), written on the wind; inscribed only in fleeting traces, some disconnected images and sounds, and sentimentally overloaded, scrambled memories. Cinema is hard evidence, but only fitfully can it serve as a testament; death is too much at work there. It is the form of this remembered, necessarily scrappy, haunted, sad history which Godard evokes in all the prodigious techniques of his Histoire(s) du cinéma.

MORE Godard: À bout de souffle, Aria, Contempt, Hélas pour moi, Soigne ta droite, For Ever Mozart, Masculin Féminin, Éloge de l’amour, Vivre sa vie, Sauve qui peut (la vie), Made in USA, Film Socialism, Tout va bien, Alphaville

© Adrian Martin October 2000


1. Michel Ciment and Stéphane Goudet, "Entretien: Jean-Luc Godard", Positif 456, February 1999, p. 57. back

2. Jean-Louis Leutrat, "Traces that Resemble Us: Godard's Passion", Sub-Stance 51, 1986, p. 37. back

3. The Most Important and Misappreciated American Films Since the Beginning of the Cinema, Royal Film Archive of Belguim, 1977, p. 71. back

4. Cf. "The Economics of Film Criticism", the transcript of a public discussion between Godard and Kael, Camera Obscura 8/9/10, Fall 1982. back

5. Godard quoted in Leutrat, p. 38. back

6. Leutrat, p. 43. back

7. Godard quoted in Histoire(s) du cinéma, supplement to Cahiers du cinéma 537, July-August 1999, p. 3. back

8. For example, when the Positif interviewers press Godard to justify the "semantic and geographical slide" between "the German occupation of World War II and the American occupation which, according to you, followed it", he simply replies: "That's how I see it" (p. 56). back

9. Godard re-edited these first two episodes when he reached the end of the series and packaged it as a whole. back

10. Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Criticism on Film", Sight and Sound, Winter 1990/1, p. 54. back

11. Jean-Luc Godard, "Speech delivered at the Cinémathèque Française on the occasion of the Louis Lumière Retrospective in January 1966: Thanks to Henri Langlois", in Tom Milne (ed.), Godard on Godard, London: Secker & Warburg, 1972, p. 236. back

12. Godard quoted in Leutrat, p. 38. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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