For Ever Godard, June 21 – 24, Tate Modern, London
For Ever Godard, a conference held at the Tate Modern on June 21 through June 24, gathered together an impressive array of scholars and critics associated with the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard in particular and cinema in general. Among them were Mary Lea Bandy, Raymond Bellour, Ian Christie, Elizabeth Cowie, Peter Harcourt, Colin MacCabe, Annette Michelson, Laura Mulvey and Jonathan Rosenbaum, to name but a few. Most presentations and discussions were bilingual, available simultaneously in French and English. This permitted the conference to underline the contributions of a new generation of French writers, already established in France, such as Nicole Brenez and Antoine de Baecque and to include a number of emerging scholars from France, Canada and England and such as Laetitia Fieschi-Vivet, André Habib and Muriel Tinel.
The organisers, Michael Temple, James S. Williams and Michael Witt, projected, as part of the conference, extracts and short works by Godard – largely unavailable, especially to English-speaking audiences – such as The Old Place (with A.-M. Miéville, 2000), Changer d’image (1982), Le Rouge (with G. Fromanger, 1968) and On s’est tous défilé (1988). The conference accompanied the first major British retrospective of Godard’s work, held at the National Film Theatre. I arrived in London from a week-long seminar at the Centre culturel international de Cerisy-la-Salle in Normandy, lead by Claude Murcia and Pierre Taminiaux on ‘cinéma, art(s) plastique(s)’ at which Godard’s work had been a major topic of discussion. I had reached a point at which I thought that nothing new could be said on this topic. I was wrong. The genius of the conference lay in the way that the organisers brought a new set of issues, often unanticipated, to bear upon critical discussion about this major director. A massive undertaking, this event will set the terms of the debate around Godard’s films and videos for the next decade.
We, all of us who had come together for this conference, felt the significance of this gathering and of its task. As we crossed the Thames approaching the Tate Modern, as we passed from the city into the museum, a sense of awe came over us, overwhelming as we entered the cadmium red theatre, the Starr Auditorium, in which we convened. A number of questions hung heavy in the air – questions that had animated discussions in film scholarship over the last two decades. What does it mean to make films after the end of cinema, when even filmmakers prefer video to film? What can we say about cinema in general, a film in particular, a film by Jean-Luc Godard even more particularly, in an era in which interpretation and taste have been called into question? What is the role of the filmmaker? What is the role of the critic, of the scholar, in such a climate?
Antoine de Baecque set the tone of the conference in his intervention, “Godard in the Museum”, the first in the conference, after the introductory invocation. (1) De Baecque, editor of the Cultural section of the French leftist newspaper, Libération, and director of the recently formed Musée du cinéma project at the Cinémathèque française, discussed the implications of a new alliance between cinema and the museum. According to de Baecque, Godard, who has always been interested in museums and has depicted them in his work, implicitly recognises this new regime. Through the process of representation, Godard both encourages this alliance and destabilises it. The fact of this alliance seemed undeniable housed as we were by the Tate Modern itself. Placed in the museum, the cinema moves out of the realm of popular culture and into the realm of art. It becomes an object in the museum but also re-constitutes itself as a museum that revisits the six arts of classical aesthetics. Through citation, cinema may re-play the great works of the past, of painting, of sculpture, of architecture, of landscaping, of poetry and of music. Godard himself places a special emphasis on painting. Debate around the specific terms of this alliance continued to emerge throughout the course of the conference sparked by Chris Dercon’s careful comments on de Baecque’s remarks during this first panel; however, the conjunction museum/cinema constituted the irrefutable ground of the discussion.
The projections testified to the way in which this notion of museum was linked to a sense of nostalgia. I more than once recalled a passage from Jacques Aumont’s Amnésies: Fictions du cinéma d’après Jean-Luc Godard (Paris: P.O.L., 1999). This volume is described by its author as an essay written in sympathy with the series Histoire(s) du cinéma, which Godard completed in 1998, after working on the project for more than a decade. Aumont notes that this series, shot on video, a compilation of footage, commentary, sound and music, was made for television and that though about cinema, the series is made ‘after cinema’, underlining cinema’s status as the art of the past. More poignantly, he comments that projecting these pieces on a large screen is yet another nostalgic moment, if a brilliant and stunning gesture. This sense of brilliance and of nostalgia for an art of the past, that of cinema, permeated the experience of the conference.
In the course of the conference, two distinct tendencies emerged, two ways of confronting the loss of cinema as we once knew it. In the cinema of the past, we viewed film as a projection in a dark room characterised by an uninterrupted flow of images and sound, by a specific set of relations between the object (film) and its spectator. This cinema as an experience has been rendered somewhat obsolete by television, video cassettes, DVDs and the internet. These two responses to this loss of cinema, these two strands of thought, might be described as formalist and philosophical. The formalist tendency appeared grounded in a desire to describe in as much detail as possible the processes and gestures of the film itself as an object and a medium. The formalist gesture sought to isolate and to understand the specificity of film as art, and its transformations as Godard moves from film to video. Analysis constituted an attempt to capture the weight and the portence of that art – of that which only cinema can do.
We recall here that chapter 2A of Histoire(s) du cinéma is called Seul le Cinéma – translated as The Cinema Alone. (2) We might equally translate this phrase as ‘only cinema’. This attention to the composition, rhythms, and movement of the film, its specificity (‘only cinema’), characterised the contribution of Adrian Martin, who spoke to us eloquently on the topic of Godard’s lyricism in “Came So Far For Beauty”; however, it was equally apparent in talks by feminist scholars such as Janet Bergstrom (“Nature in Godard’s Remakes: Digressive Thinking in Images”) and Vicki Callahan (“On the ‘Sacred’ and Cinematic Vision in the Films of Jean-Luc Godard”), who also focused on the formal aspects of Godard’s work.
In particular, Callahan’s ‘feminist curiosity’ (to borrow from Laura Mulvey) was awakened by Godard’s continued involvement in the representations of Woman as a figure, a trope, an aspect of what Annette Michelson at the conference’s conclusion will refer to as Godard’s ‘iconophilia’. Callahan’s discussion, nonetheless, emphasised the formal play of his image and sound. Similarly, Laurent Jullier’s rich and provocative investigation of music (“JLG/ECM”) underlines Godard’s manipulation of sound as a medium. Of special interest to Jullier were the transformations undergone by the soundtrack when divorced from the image and released as a CD, as is the case with a number of Godard’s works, most recently, Histoire(s) du cinéma. This last has been distributed as a series of books, videocassettes and CDs.
In this context, within this first formalist tendency, one of the most notable events of the conference was the intervention of Gérard Fromanger, French artist. Fromanger directed a film, Le Rouge (1968), which also bears the ‘generic’ title Filmtracts no. 1968, on which Godard served as technician. Fromanger as an artist was deeply involved in the 1968 political movement and is known, among other things, for his posters of flags. He recounted that during this period Godard came to him requesting that he explain how he had made his painting of the French flag, in which colour seems to run, to escape the geometric forms designed to contain it. Le Rouge, a rare print belonging to the artist himself, documents this flow of pigment, of cadmium, across the page, a field of colour in movement, the process of painting captured by cinema. Fromanger spent six months teaching Godard to draw, testifying to Godard’s fundamental interest in the plastic arts as specific media.
This piece demonstrates Godard’s willingness to pursue a given idea in the form of a given medium through its most extreme, here minimal, incarnations; however, this same period during which this film is made is also associated with Godard’s most obvious involvement in a discourse of ideas. This was near the beginning of his politically oriented filmmaking. Yet for many critics and scholars present, a position clearly articulated by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Godard’s most political films are not those that attempt to give voice directly to a given political discourse. According to Rosenbaum, speaking during the conference’s final session, Godard’s thought as a filmmaker is most evident in those films and works in which he sees his function as that of an artist (as opposed to activist, for example). This reflection on Godard’s role as a filmmaker/artist is directly tied to what I consider the second most significant analytic trend manifested in the conference.
This second tendency revolved around Godard’s status as a filmmaker who thinks, the filmmaker/philosopher, the mirror image of the filmmaker/artist. Here of crucial importance was the sustained interest French philosopher Gilles Deleuze maintained until his death in Godard’s oeuvre. Trond Lundemo, in “Index and Erasure: Godard’s Approach to History”, argued for the importance of Deleuze’s work to an understanding of Godard’s approach to history. Equally influential, however, in discussions that followed this line of analysis were the writings of German essayist Walter Benjamin. Film theorists such as Monica Dall’Asta in a paper titled “Godard and his Angel” posited an intimate relationship between Godard’s archaelogical project, especially in Histoire(s) du cinéma, and Benjaminian approaches to history, an approach that undermines the concept of History as it is canonically defined. Leslie Hill, similarly, in “A Form That Thinks: Godard, Blanchot, Citation”, investigated the relations between Godard’s concerns and those of the French writer Maurice Blanchot.
It would be a mistake to see these two tendencies as distinct. Scholars such as Christa Blumlïnger in “On s’est tous défilé” and Vinzenz Hediger in “A Cinema of Memory in the Future Tense: Godard and the Logic of the Movie Trailer”, in a section called ‘Figure’, teased out the connections between Godard’s stylistic concerns, experimentation and invention, and his philosophical preoccupations. The same might be said of Nicole Brenez’ intricate, erudite and complicated analysis in “The Forms of the Question”, in which she posits the question as “one of the strongest formal tendencies of Godard’s work as a whole”. Near the conference’s end, the French theorist and writer, Raymond Bellour, in his conversation with the British film critic Chris Darke on the parallel careers of Serge Daney and Godard, highlighted one of the strongest connections between what I have called two trends. These are perhaps more cogently two discursive threads that tie together critics and scholars who are thinking about Godard thinking about cinema.
According to Bellour, both Godard and Daney, who is considered the most important French critic of his generation, attempted to understand what cinema was, and what it might become by passing through television. For Godard, this project was one marked by mourning and melancholy; for Daney, the possibility of cinema, albeit transformed and displaced, remained. Preserving and cultivating that possibility and the new directions that this might take, however marginal it became, were of paramount importance to Daney. Godard, in contrast, looked to the past and, one might say, developed an aesthetic that folded upon itself, that mourned an object that once might have been called cinema. In this sense, Godard’s act of preservation is profoundly related to his interest in the formal concerns of cinema as a medium and as a mode of thought. The Godardian act of preservation is a gesture that attempts to catalogue and index the gestures of cinema as a means of arresting and capturing what cinema once was, of possessing it if only as a memory.
Bellour’s intervention illustrated then what might be termed a third tendency in this conference, that of juxtaposition, of montage, in which the work of Godard is laid alongside the work of others. Godard’s work was compared to that of Chris Marker (by Catherine Lupton), to that of Aby Warburg (by Maurizia Natali), to that of Claude Lanzmann (by Libby Saxton), to that of Walter Benjamin (by Domietta Torlasco). The very inscription of the conference’s title ‘For Ever Godard’ written out by the major supporter of the conference, Agnès Troublé, the woman behind the clothing line agnès b., her label itself in the same hand, suggests yet another set of juxtapositions – between the work of fashion and the work of art, between low and high culture, between consumption and inquiry – juxtapositions that mark Godard’s work from its inception.
For me, the conference did not end with the last session, however majestically chaired by Jonathan Rosenbaum, however compelling the comments of its participants, Thomas Elsaesser, scholar, Jean-Michel Frodon, critic for Le Monde, and Annette Michelson, historian. The next day I and James Williams met with a young Japanese scholar from the University of Tokyo, Junji Hori, in the café of the National Theatre. There on his laptop computer he demonstrated a pilot DVD that was part of a longer project that had been previewed during the conference. Hori is a member of a research team of five Japanese scholars who were compiling an annotated DVD version of Histoire(s) du Cinéma. At a given moment in the film viewed on DVD, the screen presents the viewer with a menu of up to four options. By clicking on an option, the viewer can read an annotated account of the linguistic, cinematographic, iconographic or musical citations made by the film. The project is supported by the Japanese distributor of Histoire(s) du cinéma who is banking on the popularity that Godard enjoys among contemporary Japanese cinephiles.
The distributor hopes that these last will purchase the set of annotated DVDs once the work of the research team is done and coded. We were especially impressed by the analysis done by Hori himself on the textual and cinematographic citations, also published separately. The Gallimard-Gaumont edition (Paris, 1998) of Histoire(s) du cinéma includes lists of works quoted established by the film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz; however, Hori goes beyond these schematic lists by indicating the precise locations of each moment at which a given work is cited within the film-text itself. The index is cross-referenced such that the citations can be sorted chronologically, or grouped according to common origin. This enormous task had been undertaken and completed by a young scholar who is commencing his dissertation on the representation of history in film.
Transformed into an object of individual consumption, the cinema has, notwithstanding, been preserved for yet another generation. The café in the museum becomes the museum in the café. Cinema awaits its spectators wherever they choose to transport it, forever new, ever Godard, cinema forever.