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Late Godard And The Possibilities Of Cinema (#110 of 2)

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

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

Very Different Sorts of Miracles Daniel Morgan’s Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema

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Very Different Sorts of Miracles: Daniel Morgan’s Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema
Very Different Sorts of Miracles: Daniel Morgan’s Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema

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.