However curmudgeonly some of us would prefer to characterize Jean-Luc Godard, his knowledge and understanding of how new technologies affect cinema and television media—and what new technologies are available—could rival the savviest of tech bloggers and AV-heads. The reason for this is pretty simple: Godard has often been, since his first short films in the mid 1950s, at the forefront of changes in the various media. When he wasn’t happy with what the available hardware could do for him, he designed—or commissioned the design for—something new. When it first became a viable resource for filmmakers in the 1970s, Godard saw video as a way to fulfill the hopes he’d long held out for montage, but weren’t possible with normal celluloid, or if they were possible, the process to actualize his ideas was too time-consuming and expensive to suit his means.
For Godard, montage had to be patterned after his thoughts (or they were his thoughts), taking his already distinctive predilection for repetitions, backtracks, and free association to an advanced level. Video afforded Godard, as it now affords countless amateur and professional editors alike, a tremendous reduction of the most cumbersome aspects of post-production. Primarily, the span of time between thinking of a splice and making a splice has been reduced significantly, thus imbuing such connections and conflations with a degree of spontaneity that had previously eluded traditional processes. Many commentators have concluded that this has led to a “cut happy” culture of movie editing, but in Godard’s case, it led to a second creative wind from the 1970s onward.
Conceived as early as the 1970s, begun in earnest in the 1980s, the eight-episode, 266-minute Histoire(s) du Cinéma was completed in 1998. The title is one of Godard’s famous puns (puns for the 81-year-old filmmaker being, indeed, a most serious business), as it could mean either “Stories of Cinema” or “History of Cinema,” depending on whether you add the “s” or not. This simple act of indefiniteness, a conscious decision to choose both choices, right from the title of the series itself, is key to understanding what Godard is after, what he’s been after from Breathless through Film Socialisme, which is to invent a way of telling stories/histories (which are one and the same, but different) in accordance with some other wisdom besides the received one. Godard has been described as “difficult” more times than almost every other filmmaker put together, but once you understand that one, elemental aspect of his grand design, scaling the wall of something like Histoire(s) du Cinéma doesn’t seem quite as daunting a task.
With that, one is encouraged to wade through Histoire(s) du Cinéma like a memory pool; if I may be permitted a (possibly sacrilegious) reference to the Harry Potter series, it’s four and three quarter hours in the pensieve of a great wizard, a swirl of his precious images, bitter regrets, recriminations directed outward and inward, even his mistakes and misjudgments. Godard’s conflations and free associations, the rhythms of which result in sequences that sometimes make Histoire(s) du Cinéma seem like a trailer for itself, encourage the viewer both to ponder the substance of a given frame, as well as think quickly as it dissolves into another. Sometimes ghost images remain, calling to mind the “persistence of vision” concept that supposedly allows the human eyes and mind to process motion pictures, as well as that of the palimpsest, a scroll on which successive texts are written across the still-visible erasures of past texts. This applies to the sound field as well: snatches of movie music and dialogue, Godard’s narration, and—in the interest of making the means of production part of the show—the insistent whirring and whining of tape spooling backward and forward at Godard’s workstation, the clicking of his typewriter, all contributes an added dimensionality to each segment of Histoire(s) du Cinéma, but only insofar as it obeys Bresson’s decree to avoid having picture and sound do the same job.
Speaking of Bresson, the Pickpocket director’s famous “Notes on the Cinematographer” (not a reference to the director of photography on a movie set, but rather one who operates the “cinématographe,” making images as only those machines can make them; the Lumière cinématographe could do double duty as camera and projector) has a key structural similarity to Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Bresson never created a handbook that could explain his style, but “Notes” locates his observations on sound, image, actors, and other cinema-related matters in one place, free of the dictatorial through line of a linear guide. Like “Notes,” Histoire(s) du Cinéma doesn’t construct an overarching argument as one would marshal armies to win a war, but instead spins miniature theses and conjectures as a deluge of scholarly, cinephilic, and pedagogical ideas, a termite course of study, in the area of cinema history and (de)construction.
Unlike the mass-market imperative of high-definition video in mainstream cinema, which requires video to look like film, Godard's video looks exactly like video (in all its history-specific incarnations), and exploits all of its allegedly primitive, undesirable characteristics, such as tracking, interlacing, oozing colors, and artifacts. Probably the best way to watch a series like Histoire(s) du Cinéma is on a video console, from a high-quality Beta tape, but Olive Films did an excellent job preserving all that's "uncinematic" about Godard's protean history lesson. The precision of imprecision has never been more crucial to a DVD transfer, and, though you might not expect it, Godard's maelstrom of montage effects taxes the upper limits of interlacing more than an equal number of hours of NASCAR races, and I could not detect any evidence that Olive had done anything less than a superlative job with this two-disc set.
None to speak of; it's here that Olive might have taken the opportunity to commission a critic like Jonathan Rosenbaum or Richard Brody (whose painstaking, project-by-project bio-/filmography Everything Is Cinema includes several expansive chapters on Histoire(s) du Cinéma alone) to write an essay that might help contextualize Histoire(s) du Cinéma, perhaps to prime adventuresome cinephiles, those who can't claim veteran status regarding the director's frequent opaqueness, getting ready to dive into the set for the first time. Also, while English subtitles are a godsend for American viewers who've only been aware of the series through unsubtitled or under-subtitled presentations at universities and rogue art-house theaters, or its only previous official release in the U.S., as a set of audio CDs accompanied by a multilingual translation book, the job of subtitling is only "pretty good" compared to what is very likely a Herculean task of decrypting all the spoken and printed words and word fragments, exploded and shape-shifting title cards, and then providing the viewer options with his DVD remote to activate only the portions of the translations he may want to see in any given moment. (As it stands, the Olive discs do not permit the subtitles, adequate as they are, to be turned off.) The prohibitive nature of such a feat would require something like a fully interactive, web-based interface of hyperlinks and search engines; only the Japanese release of Histoire(s) du Cinéma, in CD-ROM format, enabled hyperlink-like access to helpful footnotes.
Thanks to Olive's superb production of Godard's epic/history/essay, their DVD release is truly a myth come to life.