“I’m always surprised to see what I do,” Jean-Luc Godard admits at the beginning of a talk delivered, nearly four decades ago, at Concordia University in Montreal. Could the single most influential filmmaker of his generation, who is still a provocateur at age 84, possibly be as baffled as we?
Surprised or not, Godard has never been unwilling to explain his ideas, which are, after all, the subject of his deeply idiosyncratic films. In April 1978, the filmmaker took a pedagogical turn, embarking on a series of screenings in which his own work would be projected in the context of various classic movies and historical events, such as the Algerian War or May ‘68. These screenings were followed by improvised, at times wildly free-associational, talks with the audience that Godard would refer to as “public self-psychoanalysis.”
One result of this course in Godardian thought, organized and coordinated by Concordia professor (and founder of the newly established Montreal Film Festival) Serge Losique, would be the epic, eight-part, made-for-TV Histoire(s) du cinéma, an inimitable, often-impenetrable stroll through cinema’s first century—a project the filmmaker first imagined as a book in 1969, began developing as a series of video essays sixteen years later and completed more than a decade after that. Another was Godard’s return to something like commercial cinema with Sauve qui peut (la vie). A third was the transcript of Godard’s disquisitions. First published in France in 1980, these have now been newly transcribed and translated into English by Canadian film scholar Timothy Barnard, as Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television.
For English speakers, Richard Brody’s biography Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, first published in 2008, has been something of a Rosetta stone, explicating the filmmaker’s professional and romantic involvements, identifying his nationalist and even anti-Semitic forebears, and making clear his political evolution and the centrality of World War II and especially the Holocaust to his thinking. (Cinema’s great blind spot, to Godard, was its inability to document the mass murder of European Jews.) As dense and confusing as it can be, Introduction to a True History is another such chunk of clarification, beginning with the title, with the nature of truth and the representation of history being Godard’s overarching preoccupations.
The Concordia classes came at a particular time in Godard’s career. He was, in collaboration with his new partner, Anne-Marie Miéville, heavily involved in television, having produced two series, Six Times Two (1976), devoted to nothing less than the political economy of the media image, and was preparing an even longer follow-up, the never telecast France/Tour/Detour/Two/Children (1979), investigating the structure of the French nuclear family. Indeed, the Concordia lecture-screenings were initially conceived as the basis for another multipart TV series.