FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Vol. 4 No. 7, March 2000

 


 

Paul Sutton

More Histoire(s) du Cinema?

 


 

 

 

Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki

_Speaking about Godard_

New York: New York University Press, 1998

ISBN: 0-8147-8066-0

243 pp.

 

'I claim, for the image, the humility and the powers of a madeleine'. [1]

 

_Speaking about Godard_ appears, somewhat unusually for an academic book, to have no immediately identifiable thesis beyond the obvious proposition that Jean-Luc Godard is, or rather his films are, a worthy subject of speech. Many academic texts suffer, of course, from just such an occurrence, despite their best intentions to the contrary. However, what may be problematic for others, is here rather refreshing. Silverman and Farocki meditate upon a number of Godard films (eight in total), voicing their thoughts in relation to recurring themes and to specific shots, which they subject to detailed and close reading. [2] The two authors manage to communicate a sense of love for the cinema -- a cinephilia -- to the reader or listener of _Speaking about Godard_. They are able to translate (some of the time) their academic and formal passion into an inspiring and thought provoking dialogue.

 

However, despite the pleasurable fact that this academic text steps outside the academy, _Speaking about Godard_ is by turns both a fascinating and infuriating book. Infuriating primarily because it is a book that should have been a film. The dust-jacket blurb tries to collapse the distance between these two media, asserting that, 'as it takes us through Godard's films in real time, _Speaking about Godard_ conveys the sense that we are at the movies *with* Silverman and Farocki'. Clearly their analysis, lost on the uninitiated, will provoke a retrospective reconsideration of Godard's films for those already familiar with them. However, as one reviewer has noted: 'The problem is that, for anyone with less than total recall, exactly what they are talking about is dependent on their description, introducing a new and intriguing level of distortion' (something that for me remains in the context of Godard a rather frightening prospect). [3]

 

Books on film are always faced with the problem of representing, for their readers, the films being discussed; generally they accept the inevitable fact of their inability to do this in anything other than a cursory fashion and instead rely upon the reader to have seen the film(s) in question. _Speaking about Godard_, however, seeks to escape this trap of representation: its dialogic structure anticipates bringing the object of its discussion into view; its descriptive narrative strives to visualise specific sequences for the viewer. The failure of these narratives in _Speaking about Godard_ is ultimately demonstrated by the recourse to stills used to reinforce the verbal discourse, stills that serve simply to demonstrate the impossibility of the project. Despite these difficulties, this project remains nonetheless a fascinating one; however a filmed version (not without its own sets of problems of course) might have been more desirable and may well have worked more effectively.

 

Constance Penley argues in her foreword that: 'Yes, the movement of Godard's films does get reduced to 'stills' in this book, but the lovingly detailed descriptions, demurring, qualifying -- make them move again' (viii); and that when Silverman and Farocki speak about Godard, 'they are concerned above all else with the *performance* of the text, with the unfolding, over time, of that complex and never-to-be-repeated structure of inimitable sounds and images that comprises each of his films. Farocki and Silverman attempt to do something that has seemed nearly impossible: to theorise through description' (xi).

 

Perhaps, Silverman and Farocki's project was to point to precisely this impossibility; perhaps it was their intention to demonstrate the difficulties inherent in such a project, the futility of attempting to re-write or re-narrate Godard critically, in a series of eight dialogues. And, in a sense, if the book achieves nothing else it provokes the reader to go back to the Godard films and view them once again, reminding the reader of the potential value and importance of the Godardian project. Here, however is my second difficulty with the book: the choice of Godard's films. Although Penley introduces the collection, the authors themselves offer no motive for their study of Godard, or for their choice of his films. If the project is partly to demonstrate the value of Godard, why omit some of his more popular work? Why omit _A Bout de souffle_ or _Pierrot le fou_? Both of these films are technically innovative, complex meditations upon the cinema, however both are also humorous in an easy fashion, both are popular. This is not to say that there is no comedy in later Godard, but simply to suggest that these earlier films are to be valued for their innocence and irreverence -- Godard before he becomes a ponderous intellectual, Godard before he began to take himself as seriously as some of his commentators. The Godardian humour that remains in his later films is of course one that is often directed unflatteringly at intellectuals themselves, however Godard seems to have become increasingly blind to the ambiguity of his own position.

 

Godard famously asserted that 'to write was to make films'. [4] I suspect that Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki might well concur with this statement. The text, _Speaking about Godard_, is in a sense both about the making of eight films and a kind of making of film itself. Their analysis -- conducted, one imagines, in front of a flatbed -- allows them almost simultaneous access to and commentary on the films examined. The reader of their text however has, as Nick Roddick has suggested, to reconstruct the films for him or herself on the basis of the Silverman/Farocki 'madeleine'. Whilst potentially problematic, this is no doubt intentional, for one of the chief concerns of the book (and an aspect of Silverman's previous book, _The Threshold of the Visible World_) is memory and its relation to cinematic spectatorship and identity. _Speaking about Godard_ is concerned, notably for me, with questions of memory and translation; it is also concerned with gender. The idea that writing about film is in a sense a way of making film seems also to relate to comments made by Laura Marks at the 1998 Screen conference concerning the inverse possibility, i.e. that one might 'write' about film filmically, by making films/film essays. Godard himself is of course a powerful film essayist and it is a pity that this text didn't 'write' itself filmically; it is an *essai* perhaps, but not an essay . . .

 

A successful filmic meditation upon the work of Godard, by contrast, is Hal Hartley's short _Theory of Achievement_ (1991), a most effective film that speaks both about Godard and to Godard, more particularly to a specific Godard film: _Le Mepris_. It mimics and parodies this film by reproducing elements of its visual style, instantly recognisable as Godardian (noticeably aided by a range of signifiers of Frenchness -- aspects of costume, accordions, etc.). Certain shots come directly from _Le Mepris_, and the composition, mise en scene, and music all serve to recall this particular film. Hartley even goes so far as to include a Godard character (the Godard of the 60s), who provides one of the other characters with their intellectual narrative. Hartley's film interrogates the visual style of _Le Mepris_ as well as parodying the content, opening up a critical dialogue with _Le Mepris_, challenging its portentousness and its pseudo intellectuality. _Theory of Achievement_ speaks more eloquently about Godard and about _Le Mepris_ than any critical commentary. It lays bare for the viewer, in a humorous manner, Godard's attempt to critique bourgeois culture, but demonstrates clearly how Godard himself is simultaneously reinforcing this culture, indicating how his very seriousness and the purposefully inaccessible and unpleasurable nature of his work positions it in precisely the position that he seeks to critique. (Of course Hartley is hardly mainstream but there is a sense of critical comedy to _Theory of Achievement_, which is not present in _Le Mepris_). Hartley's film with its clear referencing of Godard, may however need to be viewed in relation to Godard's films and it is here perhaps that the inevitability of 'dialogue' becomes apparent. [5]

 

Godard, then, is a problem (at least for me). He is without question an important film maker, perhaps for some the most important film maker of them all. However the problem, the sacrilegious but undeniable problem, is that his films are frequently unwatchable, and self-reflexive enough to make writing about them a more or less pointless exercise. The early, well-known films, undoubtedly afford viewers the sinful pleasures of Hollywood and genre, pleasures often puritanically denied by the condescending, didactic, you-don't-know-how-to-read-a-film avant-garde, but the later, more politically self-aware films wear their concerns so visibly that the exercise of 'anal yses', seems precisely that. [6]

 

So far I have described the infuriating, however there is as I suggested much in this book that is fascinating and rewarding. An admirer of the work of both Silverman and Farocki, there is an astuteness and intelligence to their analyses that is productive and enjoyable. The dialogues themselves are curiously affecting, personal, meditative; often, though not always, they manage to escape the language and pedantry of the academy. Ultimately it becomes clear, as Penley suggests, that 'these dialogues are love letters' (xi). Godard may not be to everyone's taste; he may not be as significant a cinematic figure as these two authors claim, however there can be no doubting their cinephilia, their cinematic love. And ironically it is precisely this cinephilia that becomes the ultimate subject matter for the book and therefore it seems entirely appropriate that the project should be concerned with recall, with memory. The eight dialogues, these 'lovingly detailed descriptions', trace perhaps the story of their own _coup de foudre_ or love-at-first-sight of the cinema. Both authors speak of their return to Godard in this text and as they consider the question of memory and of re-transformation -- particularly in the chapters dealing with _Le Mepris_ and _Alphaville_, one can't help but think of their dialogue as a kind of analytic session. It may be that neither of them sits in a position of authority but the joint 'becoming' of their narration feels very much like a construction in analysis . . .

 

Ultimately this book will be of use to those seeking to read astute analyses of specific Godard films. My advice for those seeking an equally astute and somewhat less dry approach to Godard and to _Le Mepris_ in particular is to watch Hal Hartley's _Theory of Achievement_.

 

Bolton Institute of Higher Education, England

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Chris Marker, _Immemory_.

 

2. The films discussed are: _Vivre sa Vie_ (1962), _Le Mepris_ (1963), _Alphaville_ (1965), _Weekend_ (1967), _Le Gai Savoir_ (1968), _Numero Deux_ (1975), _Passion_ (1981) and _Nouvelle Vague_ (1990).

 

3. Roddick, Review of _Speaking about Godard_, p. 31.

 

4. Godard cited in Cerisuelo, _Jean-Luc Godard_, p. 9. 'Criticism was our training in mise en scene . . . To write was to make films', my translation.

 

5. Hartley's film parodies excessive performance and intellectual posturing and as such, of course, may be viewed and enjoyed in its own right.

 

6. Silverman and Farocki's chapter on _Weekend_, entitled 'Anal Capitalism', explores Godard's intertitle, 'Anal Ysis' (87).

 

 

Bibliography

 

Marc Cerisuelo, _Jean-Luc Godard_ (Paris: Editions de Quatre-Vents, 1989).

 

Chris Marker, _Immemory_; see <http://cs.art.rmit.edu.au/marker>.

--- _La Jetee: Cine-Roman_ (New York: Zone Books, 1992).

 

Nick Roddick, Review of _Speaking about Godard_, _Sight and Sound_, vol. 9 no. 5, May 1999.

 

Kaja Silverman, _The Threshold of the Visible World_ (New York and London: Routledge, 1996).

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000

 

Paul Sutton, 'More Histoire(s) du Cinema?', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 7, March 2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n7sutton>.

 

  

 

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