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Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema
By Daniel Morgan
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Work of Aesthetics
1. FILM ART?
If my argument is for the importance of aesthetics within Godard's films and videos since the late 1980s, two kinds of questions quickly arise. First, if I am taking a tradition of philosophical aesthetics to be not only an interpretive framework but also explicitly present within these works, what evidence is there in the films and videos? Where does this concern manifest itself? Second, if aesthetics is as prominent as I am claiming, why have critics by and large failed to bring it up, much less discuss it as a central orientation?
Though the primary purpose of this chapter is to work through the first question, to begin to discuss the place of aesthetics in Godard's late work, I'm going to start with the question about criticism, the question of why aesthetics has rarely figured in writing about these works. To a certain extent, I think this is a mistaken, if natural, way of phrasing the question. Aesthetics may not have received explicit attention in critical writing on Godard's late films and videos, but a range of associated terms (natural beauty, form, free play, and so on) are staples in the discourse. Yosefa Loshitzky, for example, discerns in Nouvelle vague a sustained treatment of natural beauty: "Nature is celebrated through adoring shots of the Swiss forests, lakes, and meadows which serve as contrapuntal points of reference to the decadent world of the power-lustful industrialists." But something is lost in the shift from aesthetics proper to terms that have been historically associated with the discourse of aesthetics. When Loshitzky talks about natural beauty, she treats it as a topic—in the way that industrial production and finance capital are treated in the films—that Godard has an opinion about. Thus, she concludes her discussion by noting: "The biblical, edenic associations of the garden emphasize the religious, utopian dimension of nature, envisioned by Godard as the last resort from late capitalism." From an observation about the presence of images of nature, Loshitzky draws a set of conclusions: to work in terms associated with aesthetics is to be uninterested in questions of history and politics, even to evince an idealist or conservative position.
I'm going to spend much of this chapter laying the groundwork for a more expansive and intricate account of the role of aesthetics in Godard's films, one that encompasses modes of perception and experience, judgment and knowledge, and is wholly intertwined with history and politics. But what's needed is more than a revisiting of Godard's late work. The terms of criticism deployed in response to it emerge out of a long-standing tradition within film studies, one that minimizes or rejects aesthetics as a category of valuation. It's a tradition in which Godard himself played a prominent part. Getting clear about the nature of Godard's cinematic project in the late 1980s and 1990s will require working through and undoing central elements of this critical legacy.
The place of aesthetics within film history, and within film studies as well, goes back to the first decades of the twentieth century. As film was struggling to be recognized as a genuine art, more than a mere recording of the world or a form of "canned theater," film critics and theorists frequently made use of terms from aesthetics to demonstrate the medium's artistic legitimacy. Film had emerged not in the context of high artistic culture, the spaces of the theater and the museum, but rather at the fairground, in the vaudeville theater, and in the traveling exhibition. As Tom Gunning argued, early films functioned as a "cinema of attractions": their appeals were predicated less on traditional artistic values than on the creation of sensory thrills, new experiences, and a direct solicitation of the viewer's attention. For this reason, early film has often been described as opposed to the bourgeois world of artistic cultivation. At a certain point, though, this began to change. In the 1910s, the period of "narrative integration," a number of filmmakers and critics sought to raise the standard of the cinema, to improve not only the films being made but also the character of the audiences watching them. They sought, in short, to give film the status of the other arts.
Two basic strategies for this effort emerged. The first was articulated by D.W. Griffith in the wake of the controversy over The Birth of a Nation (1915). Decrying its censorship, Griffith argued that cinema's status as a legitimate art form was bound up with debates over the freedom of speech. Labeling cinema a "medium of expression," he wrote, "A people that would allow the suppression of this form of speech would unquestionably submit to the suppression of that which we all consider so highly, the printing press." This is the core of Griffith's argument: censorship of the press is forbidden by the Bill of Rights; the cinema is a "pictorial press"; therefore, the cinema cannot be censored, because it is on par with the printed word. As a result, Griffith concluded that "the development of the moving picture industry constitutes the birth of a new art," and so can claim the protection the law gives to artistic productions.
The second strategy had to do with cultural legitimacy. Anton Kaes argues that, in the period from 1909 to 1920, "cinema felt pressure to legitimize itself vis-à-vis literature as the dominant medium" in cultural life. As it developed its own theaters and new forms of technology, cinema was able to "edge into a competitive relationship with mainstream literature, especially with the novel (which offered ready material for cinematic representation) and with the theater (which lost famous directors and actors to the new medium)." One version of this was the German "kino debatte" that Kaes describes; the more famous effort to integrate theater and film involved the French films d'art, in particular the use of actors from the Comédie-Française to create prestige productions (such as L'assassinat du duc de Guise [Charles Le Bargy, 1908]).
Early theories of film emerged in the context of this debate. As Noël Carroll remarks, "The philosophy of the motion picture was born over the issue of whether film can be art." One example of this position was Vachel Lindsay's 1915 proclamation, "The motion picture is a great high art, not a process of commercial manufacture." Another was Hugo Münsterberg's use (in 1916) of the conceptual framework of Kant's theory of mind to explain the power of films to produce new kinds of (what he took to be almost unimaginable) experiences. A decade later Béla Bálazs invoked the terms of classical aesthetics, drawing in particular on Lessing's Laocoön, to argue that film needed to develop into "an autonomous art ruled by its own laws." Rudolf Arnheim also used Lessing as a reference in his description of the rules of art specific to film. The point for both Bálazs and Arnheim wasn't simply that film ought to be accorded the same respect as theater or painting in order to enable the appropriate appreciation; rather, the fact that a film could be treated in terms of aesthetics meant that it was on equal footing with the other arts. This line of argument finds its culmination in the art film, which, Dudley Andrew argues, "wants to make us choose to enter the theater just as we decide to go to a concert featuring Beethoven's sonata opus 111."
The tendency to argue for film as high art, and to do so on terms drawn from aesthetics, had important consequences for later conceptualizations of film. One of these consequences involved the creation of the first institutional film collections. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art, along with the more specialized Anthology Film Archives, established a repository of the art of cinema, including experimental works as well as the films of Griffith, self-conscious cinematic "art" as well as that of Hollywood directors. Haidee Wasson has chronicled MoMA's efforts to raise cinema to the status of a genuine art; similarly, P. Adams Sitney described the Anthology Film Archives as being "made to formulate, acquire, and frequently exhibit a nuclear collection of the monuments of cinematic art." In France, a similar role was played by the Cinémathèque Français, founded by Henri Langlois and Georges Franju. (I discuss its importance for Godard in chapter 5.) Other nations, including Germany, Italy, and Japan, also established similar institutions in the middle of the twentieth century.
Perhaps inevitably, the institutional celebration of film as an art and the linking of the terms of aesthetics to this project generated a movement away from this critical tradition. In 1954, for example, François Truffaut set out the parameters of the nouvelle vague in a denunciation of the "tradition of quality" in French cinema. Although Truffaut did not call for the wholesale elimination of aesthetics or art, he argued vehemently against using other arts to add to the prestige of film. His goal was a reorientation of aesthetic value, an end to adapting works of "quality" for the screen in favor of a cinema that would be truer to the authentic possibilities of the medium itself. Truffaut was only an early marker of this criticism. As filmmakers and theorists began to disavow art cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, they rejected the terms of aesthetics altogether. When Laura Mulvey argued in 1975 that the role of criticism was to destroy "pleasure, or beauty," her intent was not to provide a new account of aesthetic value but rather to overturn an entire tradition of aesthetic valuation. The political rejection or suspicion of aesthetic criteria exemplified by Mulvey's early work permeated a wide range of critical methods. Saussurean structuralist semiotics, as it was picked up in film studies, turned language into the central model for analysis, bypassing considerations of aesthetics by turning the viewer into a decoder of a text. Psychoanalytic accounts of cinema either described film viewing in terms of theories of individual development or explored analogies (between the screen and a Lacanian "mirror," for example) to understand the social function of cinema. And "apparatus theory" rejected the indeterminacy of aesthetic considerations in favor of an analysis of the viewing position created by the combination of a camera based in Renaissance perspective and the spatial arrangement of theatrical exhibition. These critical methods became sufficiently prominent to allow Dudley Andrew, in 1984, to say with assurance, "The word 'aesthetics' has nearly dropped from the vocabulary of film theory."
Taken together, these methods constituted a movement that D.N. Rodowick has labeled "political modernism." Rather than drawing on a tradition of art cinema, filmmakers and theorists claimed a lineage defined by left-wing criticism of mass media. The suspicion of artistic "aura" that had been voiced by Benjamin and Brecht in the 1930s returned as an argument that film ought to function as a form of "ideology critique" of and through its own institutional position. This meant not just advocating radical political goals but also exposing the conventions on which "bourgeois cinema" was based, from narrative patterns to the material status of the image—an effort to unlearn, decode, and reject the habits viewers had gathered from "naïve" moviegoing. Political modernism thus rejected not only Hollywood cinema but the art house tradition as well, a position voiced most explicitly in Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino's call for a "third cinema."
Godard's films from the late 1960s and 1970s were not simply part of the burgeoning growth of political modernism. His work in these years and the production methods he employed served as one of its primary models. Of particular importance was the way Godard sought to find a cinematic form that would be adequate to the political concerns he wanted to express and at the same time tried to discover a politics that would be adequate to the formal innovations he was exploring. As he noted, "We have not yet learned to watch and listen to a film. And therein lies our most important task today. For example, those who are politically aware are rarely cinematographically aware as well, and vice versa. Generally it's one or the other. As for myself, I owe my political formation to the cinema, and I think this is comparatively rare at present." This line of argument emphasized systems of media as the central place for political interrogation, suggesting that filmmakers face a moral and political imperative to challenge and upend the familiar systems of representation and production on which they draw. Le gai savoir (1969) may be Godard's most explicit version of this project, with its self-proclaimed mission to "start from zero" and construct a new, and free, language of image, text, and sound.
It's hard to overstate Godard's influence on film theory in these years. Partly, this influence had to do with the films themselves, the way they articulated a pressing political need to rethink the basic elements of film practice. But it correlated with other historical changes as well: while these films were being made, and in the wake of their influence on international film production—an influence that was intense and deep, although not quite as widespread as the influence of his films of the nouvelle vague period—film studies was emerging as an academic discipline. I suspect there's something to the thought that trends in film studies respond to the films of the time (or perhaps to the films just before their time), and so the rise of "theory" in the 1970s built on the foundation laid by Godard's work a few years earlier.
While there have been recent attempts to "reclaim" art cinema from accusations of its cultural and political conservatism, I am concerned here with the way the legacy of political modernism shaped the reception of Godard's films and videos from the 1980s onward. It was precisely the importance of the Groupe Dziga Vertov films for a generation of filmmakers and scholars that led to the subsequent charges of nostalgia or naïveté against Godard's later work. Reading critical pieces from the 1980s and 1990s, one is often struck by a tone of betrayal and the repeated description of Godard's later films as amounting to a withdrawal from the political concerns that motivated his turn away from art and aesthetics in the first place. Frequently, the criticisms are expressed in terms of a fall: having once been at the vanguard of a cinematic and political movement, Godard's films and videos now evince little or no interest in those commitments. His films, that is, explicitly draw on and endorse a tradition of high art and culture (painting in Passion, music in Prénom Carmen, theology in Je vous salue, Marie, literature in King Lear) in a way that directly goes against the grain of the films from the previous decade.
This criticism is further grounded by an apparent correlation with biographical facts. In the wake of the failure of his collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin and the dissolution of the Groupe Dziga Vertov, as well as a devastating motorcycle accident, Godard founded a new studio, Sonimage, with Anne-Marie Miéville in 1972. He did so, however, not in Paris but in Grenoble, eventually moving to the Swiss town of Rolle in 1977. MacCabe argued in 1979 that this geographical shift changed the nature of Godard's interest in both cinema and politics: "Sonimage's move from Paris to Grenoble and then to Rolle becomes the analogue of confronting the solitude that cities impose but disavow.... [This position's] weakness is its concomitant refusal to consider the possibility of the creation of social meaning, of the grounds of social action." As MacCabe sees it, Godard's move marks a turn away from a belief in the importance of political action, a turn represented by his embrace of the idea of solitude. Like Rousseau's solitary wanderer, Godard withdraws in self-imposed exile from Paris to Switzerland in order to free himself from the complexities of the world of history and politics, the world in which public events take place. Away from the urban centers of Europe, he seems comfortable in a role as a cinematic and political outsider.
To an extent, this reading is born out in Godard's work. His collaborations with Miéville during the 1970s, for example, frequently turn toward the question of the home. At times, as in Ici et ailleurs (1974), this is figured as simultaneously national and domestic: about the role of France in producing images of non-Western struggle and about the role of the household in maintaining the political order. Elsewhere, as in Numéro deux (1975), the focus is on the family unit itself: the relation between industrial and domestic work, the tensions between generations, and the sexual manifestations of larger social and political frustrations. While overtly political, these films eschew Godard's earlier commitments, exhibiting suspicion of any demand to place film in the ser vice of revolutionary activity.
Excerpted from Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema by Daniel Morgan. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
1. The Work of Aesthetics
2. Nature and Its Discontents
3. Politics by Other Means
4. Cinema without Photography
5. What Projection Does
6. Cinema after the End of Cinema (Again)
What People are Saying About This
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