Like a hacker stealing through the Internet’s back door, Godard rifled the pockets of other people’s creations to feed his own.
The film–maker, sarcastic as ever, would regularly denounce his own singularity and originality with his insistence that every other sentence in his screenplays had been written by someone else; another author, novelist, essayist or film character. His encyclopaedic project Histoire( s ) du cinéma — a vast Godardian montage in almost five hours and eight chapters ( “Toutes les histoires”, “Une histoire seule”, “Seul le cinéma”, “Fatale beauté”, etc. ) — was the crowning glory of this pillaging that is also the hallmark of a vision, a theory and a poetic art of high–octane collisions. Passages from films, literature, newsreels and scientific texts become the substrate for a giant transplant operation that stitches together snatches of images and phrases. Five hundred film extracts, one hundred and thirty paintings, around a hundred excerpts from the classical and contemporary music repertoire: as early as 1988, Godard was one step ahead of the online cocktail shaker and, like a hacker stealing through the Internet’s back door, rifled the pockets of other people’s creations to feed his own. Indeed, whether or not Histoire( s ) du cinéma could even be screened sparked a legal imbroglio with Godard asserting a quotation right for himself and others who, in the future, might wish to follow in his wake. “Authors have no rights, only duties,” was an oft–repeated phrase of his during the 2000s, winning the admiration of a generation of digital natives, accustomed to grazing information free of charge. “Like my uncle Théodore Monod, who collected stones in the desert, I’m interested in fragments of phrases, sentences, theorems … Derrida took blocks, he deconstructed; I do the opposite, I put pieces together. I put Artemis’ foot on so–and–so and it doesn’t go. Then I put it on Raymond Chandler and I think, maybe there’s a law there,” was another of his comments. He always insisted on these combinatorics; the abrupt and apposite rapprochement that short–circuits expectations to reveal a naked truth. We see it in the photos of his archives, in the accumulation of notes, images overlapped onto old master paintings, phrases left hanging, words scribbled out and endless books: ancient Latin translations mixed in with The Tunnel ( William H. Gass’s masterpiece of American experimental fiction ), a biography of Buster Keaton with A History of Mathematics. —›
“All my life, I’ve buried the past. From one day to the next, I cut all ties with my family and stopped sending news.”
But why such a jumble, why put such a distance between himself and his belongings, transmigrated to the depths of the countryside with only cows and an empty church for company? “All my life, I’ve buried the past. I started with my family. From one day to the next I cut all ties, stopped sending news, started a new life.” It’s a way of wiping the slate clean, an upturned table that serves another purpose, too: never to allow comfort or the accumulated slowness of a biography or an overpowering oeuvre to quiet the beast. Cut ties, clear the ground, pave the way. At the risk of ending up alone or misunderstood, a recurrent complaint of his. In later life, Godard has become a kind of hermit, shut off in his own world. Godard lost it on a regular basis. Early on, he fell out with François Truffaut, his friend from Les Cahiers du Cinéma and the Nouvelle Vague, who in 1973 sent him an explosive letter that portrays him as a terrorist diva: “You’ve been acting like a shit. [ … ] You’re the Ursula Andress of militancy, you make a brief appearance, just enough time for the cameras to flash, you make two or three duly startling remarks and then you disappear again, trailing clouds of self– serving mystery.” There would be other fallings–out. “The fact is that being in the presence of Godard is like being in the presence of Picasso. He’s come through his era, has taken it all upon himself, he’s shot through with its contradictions and outbursts, he’s tried everything, he’s absorbed everything, he’s been several film–makers, he’s had several lives, some simultaneously. He’s been inside cinema, he’s been outside, he’s been above and below, endlessly preoccupied with twisting it in all directions, drawing out a truth, an absolute, and this in a constant wrenching whose sometimes unintelligible echoes have never ceased to reach us,” writes the film– maker Olivier Assayas. Godard himself pretended to switch the light off, announcing the last film, the last impression, the last gesture, the last hope … Only to return, as he has again this year with a magnificent Livre d’image ( The Image Book ), scheduled for release in 2019.
“In the entrails of the dead planet, an antique mechanism shuddered. Tubes giving off a pale, flickering light awoke. Slowly, as though unwillingly, a switch changed position.” Imagine these words, the introduction to the screenplay for Film Socialisme, spoken over scenes filmed deep underground, in a cave after some future atomic war or alien invasion, opening with a shot of boxes and tapes piled high, cables, mouldy sheets of paper, cartons labelled À bout de souffle, Le Mépris, Une femme est une femme, Sauve qui peut ( la vie ), Soigne ta droite … whose provenance and significance, for the generation that survived, would become as fascinating and unfathomable as were, for hundreds of years, Egyptian writing in the pharaohs’ tombs.
An archive box containing the seminal “cahiers jaunes”, the early issues of Cahiers du cinéma.