PRINT October 2000


Jean-Luc Godard

ECM RECORDS' IMPOSING, slipcased five-disc sound-track album to Jean-Luc Godard's four-and-a-half-hour Histoire(s) du cinéma video project (1988–98), complete with four hardcover books of images and text in three languages—all for a list price of $180—is the last word in dolorous mood Muzak. Godard's eight-part Histoire(s) is his gnomic farewell to an art form—remixing and cross-referencing a century's worth of film to evoke cinema's obsolescence at the same moment its visual traces have replaced memory and history alike. Cahiers du cinéma was thrilled by the sound track's possibilities: “Every cultivated person will feel compelled to have these CD-books as a portable audio memory, an accompaniment to every moment of their private life.” Imagine jogging to Greek choruses of old movie dialogue, dining to ambient snatches of Hindemith, Nico, Bernard Herrmann, and Godard's click-clacking typewriter, dancing with yourself as JLG whispers pillow talk like “histoire de la solitude/solitude de l'histoire” in his best Pepe-le-Pew-does-Leonard-Cohen voice.

The governing idea here is Genius, the notion that the filmmaker's brilliance is so pure that it transcends even the need for film—Godard the Composer making montages of overlapping sounds, Godard the Philosopher of movie metaphysics (“Alfred Hitchcock succeeded/where Alexander, Julius Caesar, Hitler, and Napoléon/had all failed/By taking control of the universe” ), Godard the Poet giving us his melancholic-choleric Waste Land. There is a fascinating perversity to this, as in the director's beautiful, self-negating latter-day films: One of the four or five greatest poets of the moving image no longer trusts his own imagery. So as Histoire(s) du cinéma unfolds, its unreliable narrator is revealed to be a mere shadow of his youthful self, an ancient relic directing his own eulogy in the guise of civilization's, as if Godard had cast himself—or, better, Orson Welles—in the Fritz Lang role as ruined monument to the past In a remake of Contempt (1963). Coming from radio, Welles was the first grand master of film sound, and here Godard seeks a return to the womb of the wireless, a world uncontaminated by the maddening sensuality of celluloid. (What chance did Karl Marx's new Adam stand against the apple of Rita Hayworth's thighs—“Put the Blame on Mame, Boys” indeed.) In Histoire(s), there is an inexorable drift toward the Wellesian cosmology. Godard talks to us (or to himself and his ghosts) from the little Swiss Xanadu to which he has retreated, fantasizing Howard Hughes as the producer of Citizen Kane, imagining cinema's family tree dying out like the Ambersons.

But just as Welles's The Trial (1963) trumped Godard's Alphaville (1965) in advance (beating the Nouvelle Vague devil at his own games), John Zorn's 1985 suite “Godard” managed to sum up just about the entire sprawling body of Histoire(s) before the fact. And did so in under twenty minutes, crosscutting between skewed voices, noises, electronics, a dozen jostling styles of music. It lacks the contemplative tone of the Histoire(s) box set, and the lovely if contextless stills (more than 300 of them are reproduced in the books), but the album offers compensation in the form of Zorn's 1987 classic, “ Spillane”—a work that says more about “the stories of all the films/that were never made” than all Godard's ponderous murmurings. If Histoire(s) weren't presented so immodestly (all the texts, stills, and more besides might have fit on a single CD-ROM; the videos themselves could probably be squeezed onto a two-sided DVD), it would be easier to love. As it is, a baby monolith for the ages, the artifact is simply too bourgeois to live.

Howard Hampton writes frequently on film for Artforum.