PRINT February 2001


Jean-Luc Godard

WHEN THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART commissioned Anne-Marie Miéville and Jean-Luc Godard to create a “reflection on the arts” (and by implication the museum itself), one would have thought the venerable institution was asking for it. But aside from a few oblique jokes and Godard's reference to “the people in New York” who wanted something particular from him “but didn’t know what,” the two collaborators seem to let the Modern off the hook In The Old Place, a forty-seven minute video completed in 1999 but only now premiering, on February 23, at MoMA. The problematic known in the Anglophone world as “the Museum” doesn’t seem of much interest to Miéville and Godard. The modern museum, rather sadly for these modernist sensibilities, has really become an Old Place—along with the art, the movements, and indeed the century of which it was part. But in any case, the museum as such was never central to that story.

The movie palace once was. Cinema is for Godard not only the art form of the twentieth century but its very essence, a Hegelian condensation where the truly historical was expressed and could thus be grasped. Video, by contrast, is for Godard a medium for critique and for critique alone. On offer here, then, is a visual and aural “essay”—somber, beautiful, wistful, at times nigh-on nostalgic—on art, truth, history, and end(ing)s. The subtitle, a typical pun, sets the tone: “Small Notes Regarding the Arts at Fall [sic] of the 20th Century” refers at once to season, end, and (the) Fall. The autumnal is everywhere in evidence, though Godard (even in his own autumn) is too funny and ironic to let things get altogether sepulchral. Profuse with references, quotations, juxtapositions, and free associations of varying degrees of obscurity, the “exercises” of The Old Place are a set of “constellations,” to use the Benjaminian notion the authors advance in a sequence about “stars” (real stars, satellites, the star of David, movie stars, great paintings, and so on). Another framing device turns on the different meanings of légende—legend, tale, inscription, caption, explanatory key. The finale here is in fact at once a tale and a key.

A dense procession of morphing images, voice-overs teeming with literary and philosophical quotations, and solemn music, The Old Place invites deciphering—not summary. To decipher is, of course, to provide more captions in the legend that is “Godard.”

Anders Stephanson is James P. Shenton Associate Professor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University.