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Review: Michael Witt’s Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema Historian

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Review: Michael Witt’s Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema Historian

While Daniel Morgan’s fantastic 2012 book Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema devotes a significant portion of its pages to Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Michael Witt’s Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema Historian offers a book-length study of this singular work, filled with color still frames and images, in what’s unquestionably the most comprehensive English-language examination of Godard’s endlessly complex work of video historiography.

Such comprehension doesn’t solely result from close readings, however, as Witt goes to extensive lengths to tease out the theoretical, historical, and even autobiographical details which enveloped Godard during the film’s construction. In taking his study to these lengths, Witt probes the ontology of Godard’s work, suggesting the film as a work of film history, above all else. That is, Witt seeks to legitimate Godard’s role as a cinema historian, even at the expense of elevating him as a “cinema poet,” as has often been the claim. Godard, himself, rejects the notion that Histoire(s) du Cinéma is an “audiovisual poem,” and has remained insistent that his work is more concerned with the intersection of poetry and history, rather than being exclusively a work of either. Witt carefully examines Godard’s claims in this regard, the film’s use of montage, and even Godard’s vehement hatred for television (he once referred to it as “absolute evil”) as a means to move past simply an identification of references within the film and toward a polyvalent illumination of Godard’s multifaceted intentions.

In order to comprehend Godard’s cinema, Witt claims, it’s first necessary to understand precisely how Godard defines the cinema. For Godard, cinema is a specific art movement that has only seen actual flourishing within a few moments in world history. Godard’s constructs his definition of cinema around “the interrelationship of films, national identity, and the construction of nationhood.” Since Godard heavily equates cinema with montage, he’s only willing to concede that a true “cinema” existed during Russia in the 1920s, Germany between the wars, Italy after WWII, and in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s. Witt is careful to elucidate Godard’s potentially slanderous claims by further explaining Godard’s insistence between a difference in “films” and “cinema.” Films can come from anywhere and, for Godard, there are many great ones—those of Kenji Mizoguchi or Carl Theodor Dreyer, for example. However, these films weren’t made as part of either unified “national” effort (Italian neorealism, being Godard’s key reference point) or a community that shares a “cafeteria,” to use Godard’s own metaphor (the French New Wave being the exemplar here). However, the French New Wave, according to Godard, was ultimately not the beginning of a new cinema, but the end of cinema altogether: it’s death, which Godard has been claiming at least as early as the last frame of 1967’s Weekend.

In order to comprehend Godard’s cinema, Witt claims, it’s first necessary to understand precisely how Godard defines the cinema.

Witt’s approach to these fascinating claims risks becoming abstracted from Histoire(s) du Cinéma and, at times, the analysis drifts in immediate relation to illuminating that film. However, Witt’s insistence on delving into Godard’s interviews, writings, and philosophical leanings consistently finds rerouting back to the film, even if indirectly, since Witt’s overriding thesis is that to understand Histoire(s) du Cinéma, we must first understand Godard. Thus, a late chapter details Godard’s tumultuous relationship with television. Even though Godard worked on television projects at times, his ultimately “deep suspicion of the superficiality, uniformity, and deleterious effects arising from the manner in which it has habitually been organized and used” is suggested as an emergent antagonist for Godard throughout his films, even visible as early as 1961’s A Woman Is a Woman. Furthermore, a sample from Godard’s Meeting Woody Allen, from 1986, is given, in which Godard goes so far as to suggest that “the shots of the New York buildings that you love” from Hannah and Her Sisters is rendered as such because of television’s unconscious influence upon Allen (“radioactivity” is Godard’s metaphor)! Allen responds: “This I don’t know. It’s too difficult to question. It’s too hypothetical.”

For all of Witt’s stockpiling of various sources of information into potentially explaining Histoire(s) du Cinéma, little comes of it by way of Witt’s own views, which are curiously, and almost comprehensively, omitted throughout. That is, in contrast to Allen’s claim that Godard’s question is “too hypothetical,” Witt refrains from actually moving his personal take in any direction other than neutral, detachedly offering the information in as structured and navigable an order as possible. That achievement, while accomplished and commendable, strikes an oddly impassionate tone for an author writing about one of the most passionate filmmakers to ever live. For example, Witt details a segment from Histoire(s) du Cinéma which shows “industrial exploitation of the female body,” specifically a sequence of Tippi Hedren in Marnie being observed by Godard’s own superimposed face. However, Witt leaves the matter there and neglects to complicate the sequence by discussing either Godard’s own complicity in the image or Godard’s reverence for Hitchcock, whom he’s quoted calling later in the book “one of the century’s great artists.” How is one to reconcile Godard’s simultaneously unflattering and celebratory gestures towards Hitchcock? Unfortunately, Witt attempts no such reconciliation, opting instead to leave interpretive gestures aside.

Witt’s more detached look at Histoire(s) du Cinéma ultimately reads exhaustive, but only so revelatory, since significance is a question consistently given short shrift. One might be lead to suspect that a kind of hushed hagiography is in play, as Godard’s plentiful contradictions and radical-cum-absurd statements about art and representation rarely rouse Witt to call them out as such or, even, address their radicality and potential implications. If Witt’s findings are ultimately too muted for perhaps the cinema’s most trailblazing and rebellious practitioner, then at least the book’s vibrant color images and solid blue pages add the verve, making Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema Historian the best-looking film-studies text in recent memory. But as Godard himself would likely attest, looks can be deceiving.

Michael Witt’s Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema Historian is available now from Indiana University Press; to purchase it, click here.