In his now canonical 2001 book The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich makes a connection between cinema and painting—how the kino-eye becomes the kino-brush—to explicate how digital imaging becomes an arduous process, to be carried out one frame at a time. Daniel Morgan makes a comparable claim in Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema, evaluating Jean-Luc Godard’s late oeuvre as a break from a Bazinian conception of cinema (photographic realism) and, in conjunction with his embrace of video, a move toward aesthetics—a cinema oriented around the creation of images over narrative, per se. Working extensively with four Godard films (though he mentions far more) and drawing from a plethora of theoretical and philosophical lines of argumentation, Morgan’s dense analysis seeks to function as the definitive work on Godard’s purportedly “post-political” foray into formalism, demonstrating that, contrary to prior critical work, Godard remains stridently political, investigating cinema as living history and consistently questioning what cinema is, was, and will become.
Also like Manovich, Morgan divides his book into six chapters, each with subheadings to organize the significant amount of topics pursued (“Reference Without Ontology” and “A Moving Image of Eternity” are my personal favorites). In lesser hands, the topic could easily become unwieldy. Morgan, however, wields just fine, navigating provocative claims (the critical turn against Godard’s 1980s work was due to a feeling of betraying the “political modernism” he had ascribed to just a decade prior) with clarity and, best of all, a rigorous logic that his lucid prose is able to explicate on both micro and macro levels.
Chapter one does something every cinema book should do: provide a brief history on the line of argumentation. Morgan adeptly traces aesthetics in film studies from its role in legitimating the art form, to New York’s Museum of Modern Art establishing a repository for cinema as art, to Laura Mulvey “attempting to overturn the entire tradition of aesthetic evaluation.” Finally, Morgan ends with scholar Dudley Andrew’s mid-’80s proclamation that “aesthetics has dropped from film vocabulary.” Establishing the history enables Morgan to claim his stakes, brilliantly using Keep Your Right Up (1987) to show how Godard uses focus pulls to draw attention not to the images, but the look of the images—their “experiential dimension.” Morgan is quick to point out, however, that his readings are not formalist in the sense that they draw on the more classical, Russian formalist school. Rather, he wants to attune the viewer to the way such concerns generate a particular, distinct experience within the viewer. If, as Godard says, “those who are politically aware are rarely cinematographically aware as well, and vice versa,” then Morgan, taking Godard’s lead, wants to show “that ethics and aesthetics allow for very different sorts of miracles.” The work of aesthetics in Godard is invariably bound within the project itself, rather than an adjacent or peripheral matter or topic of discussion.
Subsequent chapters highlights Godard’s use of nature in Passion (1982) and First Name: Carmen (1983) as it relates to Hegelian principles, to explicate how nature is caught up within history and politics. Instead of the Kantian sublime, Godard embraces shared iconography (the affinity between ocean waves and a traffic jam), which can be evidenced in Passion through its intersection of labor and art. Likewise, Nouvelle Vague (1990) is extensively discussed under a variety of headings, in part due to its departure from Godard’s engagement with nature, but also extending into discussions of industrialism and the romantic couple within Godard’s late work. Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991) also receives a rigorous examination, including, but by no means limited to, Godard’s effort to intertwine history and the altering status of natural landscape. Providing various models of landscape type in one paragraph, discussing a Brechtian staging by the Berlin Wall in the next, Morgan depends on readers to maintain pace with his seemingly ad hoc critical mode, rapidly shifting gears and settling tangential issues, but rarely in a manner that feels forced or adjacent to the overall line of inquiry.
However, there’s nothing introductory about Morgan’s work; his monograph is for those interested in engaging with not just Godard, but aesthetics, in general, on an elevated theoretical plane. Frequently intersecting with philosophy (Morgan holds positions in both the film and philosophy departments at the University of Pittsburgh), no discussion better reveals these disciplinary principles than his prolonged, absolutely comprehensive examination of Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988). Morgan posits that films are able to raise and answer philosophical questions, but is wary of aligning the two since “there are deep limitations in conceiving the relation of film and philosophy as dependent on the filmmaker’s intention to do philosophy.” In turn, something like Histoire(s) du Cinéma must not be exclusively evaluated through its indexical capabilities, nor the multitude of potential motivations that would invariably, reductively explain Godard’s montage strategies. Instead, Morgan traces a modernist lineage (he makes explicit the error in deeming Godard postmodern) that holds the potential to function as a methodology for comprehension unto itself.
Impressively managing these various lines of argument, Morgan concludes: “For Godard, cinema is—and has to be if it is going to retain any importance—responsive to changes in the historical world, to the technologies of image production and viewing, and to the histories of cinema itself.” Indeed, his comprehensive claims align nicely with French writer Louis Aragon, who once said: “The Cinema, for me, was at first Charlie Chaplin, then Renoir, Buñuel, and now Godard.” Morgan shows us why Godard, who’s currently entering production on his 100th film (in 3D no less), still is.
Daniel Morgan’s Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema was released on November 22 by University of California Press. To purchase it, click here.