Michelangelo and Ulysses came home from the war with knapsacks bulging, bearing the reward for hardships suffered and inflicted. “We promised you the world,” the soldiers boasted to their wives. “Here it is”–and onto the kitchen table they spilled a heap of picture postcards.
This scene, from the 1963 Les Carabiniers, seems in hindsight the true starting point for Jean-Luc Godard’s art. Breathless is immortal, A Woman Is a Woman continues to delight, Le Petit Soldat forever marks Godard as combative and political; but Les Carabiniers, among the early films, most clearly announces “the image” as a primary subject of his work.
Not “images,” as you might expect from a maker of moving pictures, but “the image.” The wildly assorted photographs that Michelangelo and Ulysses slapped down before their wives resembled a primitive travel montage, run so slowly that the frames were visible one by one. This retarding of the flow has become a recurrent device in Godard’s late work, starting about fifteen years ago with the series Histoire(s) du cinéma. He sometimes makes a point of holding apart the binary elements of filmmaking, shot and reverse shot, rather than letting them merge in the viewer’s mind. In place of persistence of vision, he gives you resistance of vision.
In his new film Notre Musique–a work of art too tender, sorrowful, gorgeous and profound to be harmed by us critics, with our heavier kind of slowness–Godard demonstrates in person how to pull apart a montage. In a quasi-fictional scene in which he speaks to a small and rather distracted young audience, he holds up a pair of frame enlargements from Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday–one of Cary Grant barking into the telephone, the other of Rosalind Russell yakking back–and notes that the two shots, which ostensibly depict warring opposites, are basically identical. (“It proves,” he says, “that Hawks didn’t know the difference between a man and a woman.”) Never mind that this observation, if taken at face value, would be bogus; in His Girl Friday, the pictures move and so are not identical at all. But Godard at this moment is not particularly interested in Hawks. He’s instructing us in how to read Godard, who thinks in bigger units than most other filmmakers can handle. He treats set-ups, sequences, even whole character arcs as if they were discrete images, to be flashed before you dialectically like shot and reverse shot.
The biggest dialectical opposites in Notre Musique, standing symmetrically at either end of the film, are the sequences titled “Hell” and “Heaven.” It’s the first that reminded me of Les Carabiniers, despite the fact that the montage here runs at full speed and beyond. Godard’s “Hell” is a staggering ten minutes of found footage, collected from fiction films and documentaries alike and spliced together with a lifetime’s skill to show the horrors of war. Flashes of white light; a quick view of celluloid, colorfully decomposing; the booming attack of a piano’s bass notes. A woman’s voice says, “And so, in the age of fable, there appeared on earth men armed for extermination.” They appear: Civil War soldiers from The Birth of a Nation running in from the left of the screen, African warriors from Zulu rushing back at them from the right, Crusaders, GIs, samurais, guerrillas, an entire battlefield’s worth of medieval figures stabbing clumsily at one another. Fire and smoke erupt skyward from bomb blasts, again and again. Naked, skeletal corpses flop down into a ditch. “Forgive us our trespasses,” the voice on the soundtrack prays, “as we forgive others–and no differently.” Children beg. On a 1940s street kneels a woman (an accused collaborator?) silently pleading before a man in uniform.
If the Michelangelo and Ulysses of Les Carabiniers were right–if an image is a real possession–then this initial, infernal section of Notre Musique shows us something we own collectively, as heirs of the twentieth century. God knows, we’ve paid to receive it. Maybe one picture postcard of this “Hell” was shot on the spot, by a newsreel cameraman, and another was concocted on a movie set by Oliver Stone; but as Godard flips through them, these views add up to a single picture, globally produced, which is highly characteristic of our age and amply deserves the name it gets.
What image of “Heaven,” then, have we collectively inherited from the age of moving pictures? One that’s far more cryptic, according to Godard. The closing section of Notre Musique is gently paced, in counterpoint to the frenzy of “Hell.” The basic technique is the tracking shot, not the montage; the colors are those of nature in its freshness–green forest and blue water–and not in decomposition. Perhaps most important, we are now in the company of one identifiable protagonist, a young woman, who wanders past US Marines (alert but pacific) and frolicking nudes and someone reading a French translation of a novel by David Goodis. Settling down by a lakeside, our new Eve bites into an apple, with no apparent ill effect.
Whereas Godard’s “Hell” is an image of something dreadfully familiar, made up of horrors that require no further explanation (and that flash by with the speed of television, as if the remote were in the hand of an angry God), his “Heaven” seems truly alien, since it borrows nothing from the celestial fantasies of popular movies, or from the devotional paintings that have given cinema its white robes and golden harps. The kitsch certainties of a Green Pastures would have posed a false opposition to Godard’s “Hell.” The real counterimage must be undecided, and open to the imagination. The lake you see in “Heaven” surely stretches beyond what’s visible at the top of the frame, the new Eve’s ramble must somehow go on after the apple is bitten, but Godard quietly refrains from showing how either would continue.
This is the neglected legacy of another type of image-making: the mobile, evocative, observational mode that André Bazin praised in his essays half a century ago, and that is still occasionally practiced today, though not by anybody whose films top the weekend box office. Godard’s “Heaven” represents, among other things, an abandoned paradise of long takes and unforced meanings–a paradise that remains accessible to anyone who cares to enter, although it’s routinely ignored by advertisers, propagandists and popcorn-sellers.
It is also rejected, to a certain degree, by Godard himself. He may respect the cinema of the steady gaze, but in his own perverse way he is a recidivist of montage, always looking to strike up contrasts between shots, or sequences, or character arcs. Between his “Hell” and “Heaven” falls “Purgatory,” by far the longest section of Notre Musique and the one that’s layered most insistently with doubled images.
Set in Sarajevo during a literary conference–a real one, which Godard has in fact attended–“Purgatory” brings together a variety of actual and invented people to sift through the aftermath of war and perhaps imagine (as Spanish author Juan Goytisolo says amid the rubble) a “creative revolution” of a force comparable to that of the negative revolutions that strike all around. As the section title implies, the characters are in a place of transition, where they may find gestures of reconciliation at every turn: interpreters carrying thoughts from one language into another, an engineer (Gilles Pequeux) reconstructing the Old Bridge at Mostar, a young Israeli journalist (played by Sarah Adler) respectfully interviewing the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in a Holiday Inn.
Not that reconciliation is achieved. The Israeli journalist also wants to talk with the French ambassador (played by Simon Eine)–to hold “just a conversation” with him, about the Palestinians and Israelis–but he refuses. To speak openly, for him, would be to lose the ability to act. Another young Israeli (played by Nade Dieu)–a near-double of the journalist–trails Godard to his lecture in Sarajevo and makes a video of him. She seems to want to unite the word and the act; but she can’t do it and still remain in this world.
If this description of “Purgatory” sounds cryptic, please blame me and not Godard. Notre Musique is a direct and heartfelt film, by his standards. As usual, he’s quotation-mad; but since the authors of the literary texts are now often present on the screen, reciting their own words, the word soup has thinned out considerably. The characters in “Purgatory” are good company (even grizzled old Jean-Luc himself), and the tone is light enough that an impromptu dance can break out at a diplomatic reception. For the people with whom I’ve discussed Notre Musique, only one element seems to weigh down the film: the Indians (George Aguilar and Leticia Gutiérrez). What the hell are they doing in Sarajevo?
Being outsiders, that’s what. The Native Americans stick out in Notre Musique as bizarre and inexplicable presences–but that’s appropriate, since they literally have no place in the discussion. Although they are inextricably bound up with Europeans through their history (much as Palestinians are bound up with Jews), the Indians are shut out, by definition, from something called “European Literary Encounters.”
The problem that Godard poses here, as I understand it, is one of recognition. He knows that movie audiences–that is, most people in the developed world–have seldom truly seen an Indian. Instead, they have looked at Wild West projections: images that mirrored their Euro-American authors, as Rosalind Russell mirrors Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, and so set up a false opposition, rather than a real dialogue. In much the same way, Palestinians are made into the false mirror image of Jews. (“The world isn’t interested in me,” Mahmoud Darwish tells his interviewer. “It notices me only because it is interested in you.”) The great trial of this “Purgatory,” then, is to recognize the other person and not just oneself; to discover a shot and reverse shot that are truly different; to locate the opposite riverbank so we can begin rebuilding the bridge.
Godard tells us nothing new, in other words. Nothing that we can afford to ignore, either, even for one more day.
So I come back at last to Ulysses and Michelangelo–characters who, in Godard’s account, always come back anyway. One of them survived battles and monsters and brought home a tale to tell. The other (to quote his sonnet) lived in hell and painted its picture. We know very well what these two characters have to show us of the world; it’s our legacy, which we have no good reason to disown.
But if we could slow down the torrent of images–perhaps just by shutting our eyes and thinking for a moment–what new thing might we discover in the gap between the pictures? Godard, though stuck in purgatory, bets there’s something more to see in that darkness. And even though Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is entirely absent from this film (a striking omission, given Godard’s lifelong love for his work), there also might be something new out there to hear, a sound we ought to recognize but don’t.