A certain style of modernism in cinema: Seven extended propositions on Godard
(revised and expanded, 4/2/17)
-Godard, like Shakespeare and Beckett, Cezanne and Malevich, Schoenberg, and others, is Greenbergian in being committed to the notion that the most important task of an artistic work or oeuvre is to explore inventively the signifying potentialities of its form and medium. When to this is added only the more (today) banal principle that an artwork must be critical (socially), the result, based on recognition that artworks are analogical or allegorical transmutations of social reality into formal meaning, is that art can be most interestingly political through an extreme formal rigor that attempts to identify and develop the at once expressive and critical, world-disclosing or world-forming, potentialities of the medium.
-Godard views cinematic mise-en-scène as fragmentary rather than organic and totalizing (presenting the singular image as Gestalt), and so for him any théorie des ensembles (set theory) must be a théorie des éléments d’ensembles, of discrete elements that can be combined and recombined. Indeed, in mathematics we can say with Badiou that he is closer to category theory than set theory, but this is imprecise as cinema, as Deleuze has certainly shown above all, is wholly sui generis in its forms and so still does not have its mathematization, which, if performed, would (as Noel Burch attempted to do in Theory of Film Practice) describe all of its meaningful formal possibilities. (Godard’s first film, Operation Concrete, prepares the way, as it is an allegory of cinema as machine for putting the fixed in motion, creating finally this machine and its agencement of the image itself). The rule of what can be linked is not spatial or temporal proximity let alone theme pertaining to preexisting project or situation (as in most drama and dramatic stories as we know them), but significance, with no rule predetermining the kinds of elements or relations. Cinema has no signifier in quite the way that alphabetic language does with phonemes and morphemes, and indeed Godard has more than any other filmmaker sought to identify what comparable such elements might be, and explore their combinatory possibilities, though in a way that is conceptual rather than musical (or affective thereby). His genius is analytic more than synthetic.
And this is why the principle of Godard’s poetics of cinema is montage. (It can also tend to flatten the sequence of images, as in La Chinoise, where this seems to be an effect of a “revolutionary” and subtractive reduction to what is primary, including in both theme (the question of how to be “revolutionary,” and of the gesture of creative novelty that is not pure negation; or even, to anticipate a certain Heideggerian line of thinking mostly developed later and more in Italy than France but from which Godard was never far, how to be “effective” given the nihilistic character of the vulgar Marxist notion of (intellectuals becoming activists) “putting theory into practice”) and colors, as in color theory or the French national tradition). This would come to mean the juxtaposition of any and all signifying elements of a film (image, sound, word, etc.) so as to provoke thoughts that are questions. (Even if the grammatically structure of the questions as presented has the extreme simplicity of two, or more, elements in juxtaposition, like a pseudo-sentence composed simply of two nouns; though with the difference that the “words” can be anything, anything that can be presented as combinable or juxtaposable fragment and thus as evidently signifying). This is how and why cinema for Godard is “a form that thinks” more than, or “above” (in addition to) being “a thought that forms” (that is a given, but is also the principle of artistic creation as fabrication of given situations, offered to the viewer, as formational, identificatory, and affective in essence (and not just as forming the significant and signficational (when combined) elements and fragments). And this drove him to make very ample citations and uses of ideas (which must be used as fragments, never attached to authors, just as what characters say and do is detached from any situation or project they believe themselves part of) without ever becoming programmatic. In retrospect, we can see that this was true even in his “Marxist-Leninist” period (where, in retrospect, the now programmatic ideas are the background for a questioning of cinema’s possible modes of inquiry). On this basis, film art can be minimalist or baroque or anywhere in between.
Beginning with its one essential element (beyond the merely formal and mathematical unity of the frame, as sub-perceptivally recognizable discrete elements of identical shape and duration, and any content whatever, linked in perfect continuous series defining the film’s duration absolutely; of course, video works without this, and maybe its fundamental principle is a continual visual noise composed of patterns of lines, since a television is fundamentally just on or off, which makes matters simple for those who like America’s drug guru Timothy Leary, were content to perform the defining binary gesture of incantation), the image or shot, film aesthetic and film form for Godard is essentially fragmentary. A narrative sequence that develops a character or a story with his destiny is not a totality of which elements of film form are fragments; rather, it itself can only make sense as a fragment. Which is why characters are not in stories than envelop them like tragic or comic destiny, but stories are ideas in which they figure, for themselves, or author and viewer. Resnais developed this in a different way, and Ruiz took it further in his theory and films, but Godard did most to invent it (Resnais and Ruiz thought stories, suitably rendered multiple and contingent, were the essential limits of cinematic form, while for Godard it is the idea of image, sound, and concept or phrase all considered as singular (image, concept, no matter, for concepts are in an imaginary space and time here and images are treated as conceptual or signifying). In a strict sense, this makes Godard narrative cinema’s most consistently “radical” framework, for he always goes to the roots. (And he has the essentially French idea, married to his French Swiss Protestant moralism, that “revolutionary” names an absolute formal and thematic recommencement at zero following a set of negations that are as totalizing in what they reject as possible. Here too he most resembles in philosophy Alain Badiou, in Being and Event.) And for this reason Godard from his first film “Operation Concrete” on is essentially an essayist. Narrative is reconfigured into essay. It is a form the thinks in a conspicuous way that requires minimizing all affective aesthetic (sensuous) absorption on the part of the viewer.
This Brechtian dialectical notion of meaning is semiotic in treating images as analogues of signifiers: without depriving them of their iconicity or allowing them to be in essence referential, the film text is semantically desaturated so that the viewer is provoked to thought rather than absorbed by involvement. It is Cartesian doubt with the reassertion of certitude (I see, therefore I know) always deferred.
The montage aesthetic involves a search for identification of elements. Cinema does consist of the elements of the frame (trivially) and the shot, but the image is not elemental and has no discrete semantemes. Montage, however is a juxtaposition of signifying (significant) fragments. At the level of story, character, and dramatic conflicts, a cinematic poetics than depends on finding discrete elements will seek to extract from more continuous movements of characters in/as stories gestures and statements, mere components of actions and discourses, that may signify by themselves or in any arrangement by juxtaposition whatever. This favors characterizations which have the artificiality of cliches and stories that are more like fragmentary images of movements rather than a continuous movement whose duration is equal to that of the film. That is, the montage aesthetic favors an extraction of the discrete significant image from a continuous trajectory, and this favors the famous European modernist “art cinema” self-conscious artificiality. It also favors the transformation of stories into essays, and that is why Godard, beginning in a profound way as early as as La Chinoise, was destined to move increasingly in this direction. Fortuitous development for an artistic practice that sought to problematize not dramatic situations in favor of conflicts manifested as between persons but the aesthetic forms themselves that, through their massive dissemination as, along with popular music, the most important popular art form of the time (as well as through their resemblance to advertising) had come to seem often to thoroughly mediate our self-understanding, in a very different way than the novel and classical music had once done (in the previous century). For at root, Godard always wanted more than anything simply to problematize the given (that given character of social life). Almost uniquely, he sought to do this through blatant or theatricality or artificiality of the presented rather than an aesthetic strategy of absorption (or “identification”) and affection that normally seems to call for works of organic totality, no matter how much scenes and settings are radically transformed (as in Welles or Antonioni).
Godard would come to be in search of, not a lost time and set of places, but constructible ones, in cinema, as a form that thinks; in search that is of the manner of thinking proper to cinema (and to the spaces and time of our world, which cinema seems unable to ignore or leave alone). Instead of telling the right stories (which would then have to be ornamentally illustrated, as in most narrative cinema) or even showing the right things in the right way in order to present an idea (the general idea of the essay film), he wants always to make the film that thinks (itself, the world, us) in the way that film uniquely can. And he is Cartesian to doubt that this is possible and doubt it enough to, as Beckett put in Worstward Ho, fail again better.
-The persistent theme he has pursued is the question of the artist’s relationship to our late capitalist society.
Yes, there is in this an affinity for the tragic consciousness of the intellectual artist (like Ferdinand in Pierrot le Fou) who mourns (and fears perhaps that women, that other love object, “only want to live” and be happy, like Marianne in that film or Madeleine in Masculin Feminin, but also Anna Karina in Une Femme est Une Femme and Vivre Sa Vie, a question that is of course far less misogynistic than one might suppose)
some lost world such as the France of the Third Republic (Malraux, Faure, Péguy, de Rougemont, all historians of art and culture and dear to him) or (very dear) the would-be revolutionary aesthetics of Walter Benjamin that while celebrating cinema as the art of modernist and avant-garde fragmentation and disenchantment par excellence, also looks backward for its “messianic” potentialities that can but be glimpsed in fragments, in an age when aesthetic wonder (aura) and “experience” as it was once known in storytelling, the novel, or the classical music so dear to Godard seem to have disappeared. But here Godard is far more hopeful than Benjamin: while he cannot fail to view the century of cinema and those other factories for the displacement of bodies and the desire to live which were called camps of “concentration” (vs. diaspora, dissemination, diffusion, exile?), yet he has always been animated by hope that cinema will, even beyond the poetic desire to create finally the juste image of “the time of redemption,” show us how to think, in and about our time, and its places, and us in them, placed inevitably as people always are, through the means and media of our time, if for no other purpose than to invent and discover (in-venire, come upon, find, as we know from the medieval love poets culminating in Dante, patron saint of Italian cinema), la vita nuova. Which can of course only be not ici but ailleurs, à venir, dans l’avenir. And can it be that cinema can do this even better than the novel, let alone music and cinema, which I suspect, alone, cannot?
-Godard’s anti-capitalism is Protestant. That is, secular, disenchanted, critical, and moralist. Not very tolerant and indulgent. Truffaut and Cassavetes were indulgent; Warhol in a way (but that depersonalized the personal in a way that ultimately celebrates the quotidian in an irony beyond all moral judgment; but this is a poetics of absorption rather than distantiation); Godard, no. It is the decisive element in his many representations of media representations of the female body and his uses (always sympathetic) of the figure of the prostitute. He does love women, is not actually troubled at all by traditional ideas of beauty linked to virtue as well as youth, but hates it when women are used and hates it when they let themselves be. The figure of the pornographic image is the very idea for him of the ugly, while the figure of the prostitute is the ultimate figure of the exploited worker, and, often invoked, she is always portrayed with sympathy; in 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her, she is an alter ego as figure of the intellectual person whose thought is an approach to her way of living and fully identified with it. And so it is but a seeming contradiction that his films can seem both quite feminist and misogynistic. (Yes ,Madeleine in Masculin Feminin is shallow, a happy consumer product producing happiness as such a product, but she survives and says “J’hesite” at the end while he falls out of the picture (the falling not pictured) as a French Communist Party militant cinephile nearly reduced to the absurd as just an obsessional man and awkward would be beau parlor in the French style. His “political” masculinity has no where to go, like cinema for Godard a year later at the end of “Fin de Cinema” Weekend, while she, more hopefully, is uncertain, like the director.)
-Godard is a critic who finds it hard to believe in anything, including people, because of the degree to which our media saturated culture so thoroughly forms people’s self-understanding. And he of course opts for something other than belief, at least in people, at least in the ordinary sense.
-This is also a reason why for him the structuration of narrative and character cannot be taken for granted. He problematized notions of narrative and character through strategies of reflection, placing the given in doubt. This is a very different aesthetics from early Resnais, who multiplies and remixes narratival sequences so as to restore to the powers of imagination and thought the lived experience still present in memory. (Godard, as is well-known, represents forms of representation, the European art film strategy of foregrounding the artifice to provoke the spectator’s thinking rather than, as in the dominant American tradition, concealing it so as to most effectively saturate the viewer’s experience of story and character.)
-Most great artists of the last hundred years can be divided between the critical and the visionary. Visionary cinema privileges mise-en-scène over montage, while critical cinema, when the thought is not implicit as allegory, as in many American films, tends to privilege montage. Antonioni is visionary, as is Picasso. Godard like his favorite author Brecht is critical. But he has always sought l’image juste and considers this hope a Benjaminian redemptive project: “The image will come at the time of the resurrection.” (Though of course we are not yet in that time).
In art, conceptual and propositional oppositions tend to become chiasmatic: A is in relation X to B, or else B is thus to A, but then again, this opposition becomes reduced by reversal and indistinction. Examples include the personal vs. the political (which is a subset of which? The chiasmus (see Godard’s spoken poem that accompanies the image of the cup of swirling coffee as allegory of the universe) poses the question of each pole if it is not also the other) or Godard’s declaration in Histoire(s) du Cinema that film can be “a thought that forms” or “a form that thinks”; this distinction of critical and affecting, or theatricality and absorption, includes within it the possibility of the visionary, which is the invention through aesthetic form of a new form of life through a new or reconfigured way of seeing. Godard thinks this the hardest thing, and yet the lyricism that is found only on occasion in all of his films evidences his profound concern with the iconic quality of word, sound, and image, and this is why he considers an image itself, a signifying element of an artistic oeuvre that is composed of fragments, to be the matter of an ethics, even a morality. Yet, his is not a redemptive project (see Leo Bersani, The Culture of Redemption, on this in the realist and modernist novel) because he refuses the temporal structure of narratival expectation for the right ending and the ressentiment that underlies it. Which is why all of his uses of theatricality are essentially and purely cinematic. Sometimes explicitly, as in “Two or Three Things I Know about Her,” possibly his greatest film, but always, he is asking, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” of every presentation. Ultimately he is asking, “What is a film?” (The question of the subject, artist or viewer, can only be posed within the artwork, because on its terms all character or personality as well as every project or story, is a signifying element in an artwork; we don’t tell stories, our stories tell us, and identity is an artifact in a discourse). And this question is singular but said in many ways as he has done in all his films beginning with “Operation Concrete” (the cement machine is allegory of the cinematographic one). There is no way to ask this ontological question of art without asking existential and ethical and/or political questions about ourselves the viewers, and an artist asks them in this way alone, knowing that Parmenides is right that thought and form, our sole access to what is or is there in the “real” of our experience as natural, social, historical embodied situated beings, that these are the same from the point of view of any possible sense or understanding, and this indeed is a tautological and necessary truth. Forms of being can be revisioned and critiqued through a careful formation and reformation of forms of the perceptible and sensible, in film of the visible, audible, readable. And that is art’s utopian or messianic project.
The practical question is why have so many been so influenced by Hitchcock, Welles, Antonioni, and others who may be thought of equal genius, and so few by Godard? Certainly, in art, majorities, which here especially can only be silent, never rule. (The film distribution industry like the art market determines nothing but only ratifies, and unreliably).
Perhaps because, for essentially commercial reasons, cinema as an industry has still not abandoned the beautiful for the interesting, as art began to do after Duchamp and even after Courbet’s Origin of the World (where the viewer’s anxiety, evoked in a most particular way by the female nude, is not of the absence of a presence making possible enjoyment of experience (castration understood sensuously or aesthetically) but the fully revealed presence of the corporeally abject, and a scene presaging the greatest horror of the century to come, which for Godard in Histoire(s) du Cinema failed to film the putatively unrepresentable horror of radical evil. And its figures not of will and (“another”) mastery but of abjection and the figure of the Musselman (in Primo Levi and Agamben) which is that of a banal living on or surviving that is forced into being guilty for its finding impossible care and will, or thought as practically-oriented or teleological deliberation. The advent of the correct image will be at the time and in the place of the most fully realized thought. This thought need not master all that has been experienced and can be known (like Sartre’s Self-Taught Man or the Alpha 60-like archive we now have of all statements and visible actions and gestures gives us, or rather all who seek knowledge and thus mastery, that), but only that which is represented, recollected, reconfigured, rethought of simply thought, now in the time of that crisis of our Being-in-the-world that the century from the Bolshevik Revolution to now has presented or demanded from us the right imaginary (imaged) thought (statement). Cinema’s great maxim, which explains the Antonioni (and Chekhov) direction as much as the Godard (and Ibsen) one, must be Aristotle’s, in the opening sentence of the Metaphysics (translation modified): “All persons by nature, or in essence, desire to understand, that is, to make sense of their experience, and the clearest evidence of this is the delight we take in our senses.” Understanding is the thinking through and of experience, which is essence perception. And so thought is cinema.
This is in contrast to Platonic mimesis (representation as identity in form) (and the “Cave” model of “enlightenment” as perception transformed into thought, as knowledge (representation of what is as the truth that is “fact,” or evidence, representation of the seen) that is the property of those who know (and see clearly and not confusedly, as in St. Paul).
This is the path that painting and literature would take after the Industrial Revolution and the invention of photography, and that cinema, still tied to theater and the realist novel, largely failed to make. But Welles and Antonioni do so by transforming the forms of cinematic space and seen scene, while Godard like Eisenstein and Vertov does so through something not unlike a “dialectics,” which transforms the experienced and habitual (remaining in this way Platonic, as did Heidegger, who as much as Benjamin is the philosopher most clearly present behind Alphaville and 2 or 3 Things at least) into the thinkable through a problematization that is essentially discursive, without, to be sure, in any way abandoning the vécu or perceptival and “lived” (though what this means has changed) character of experience, which cinema, in fact, cannot do. As it is always, whatever else it is, beyond all representation or allegory of “experience” hors film, in a non-cinematic, always not-yet or quite, aesthetic totalization as artwork that the “lived” necessarily has, of the always already informe or non-yet-formal of the formally destined, and plastic, or formational and transformational, character of our Being-in-the-world that is always too early and too late, in excess of itself, and so improper and fated to displacements, presentation of a visible, that is thus always object at once of faith and doubt. This is its great formal limitation which is also its greatest condition of possibility.