Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998)

I don’t know where to begin with this, and I suspect neither will most people who watch it. My latest adventure in trying to “get” J.-L. Godard has ended in… something, I’m just not sure what. Maybe I should start by complaining about the DVD itself. Dear Madman people, why three discs for something that could’ve fit on two quite comfortably, even with Adrian Martin’s introduction? (For that matter, why so much more expensive even than your other three-disc sets?) Also, the subtitles identifying all the film excerpts and so forth? Terrific idea. I just wish you’d authored the discs so that you could actually switch to them while watching the film… as it is, the non-Francophone viewer has the choice of watching the film with subtitles to understand what’s being said and having to fend for themselves when it comes to identifying the visuals, or knowing what all the clips are but not knowing what’s being said about them. You can’t watch a bit, then flip to the other subtitle track to see what that clip was from. Irritating. Mind you, I’m not sure that I even did understand what was being said most of the time, and over a total running time of 266 minutes, that’s a lot of befuddlement. And the more of it I watched, the more I wondered if anything was, in fact, being said at all.

This piece makes the point about Histoire(s) not being a conventional documentary, which is undeniably true although it’s also a trite observation: no one familiar with Godard would’ve expected a conventional doco from him (and no one unfamiliar with him would probably watch this in the first place). It has a long history behind it; originating indirectly from a series of lectures he gave in the late 70s, it then took him until the late 80s to produce the first two episodes, another decade to finally unveil the remaining six, and nearly the same amount of time again to finalise the many and varied copyright clearances. This is a point I want to come back to. As I already noted, the finished work clocks in at 266 minutes, and no I did not take it in a single sitting, cos parts 1 and 2 on the first disc spun me out enough to realise that trying to take in eight episodes of this stuff in one hit would’ve been a fool’s errand. And then I decided yesterday that, since the remaining episodes were shorter than the first two, I might as well try watching the other 6 episodes in one go. I’ve done more foolish things in my time, but that was one of the sillier things I’ve attempted; by the time the last one came around, I think my brain had ceased to actually take it in.

Histoire(s), in short, is information overload in a box. This overload extends to the soundtrack, which sometimes has different things going on in the two stereo channels (incidentally, I used to wonder why the soundtrack of the videos was released by itself on CD without the visuals; now it actually makes sense), but mainly to the visuals. Godard utilises a large number of clips, and deploys them in a manner involving a lot of high-speed vision switching and mixing; on top of this (often literally), there’s an assortment of text, slogans, Godardian puns, film titles (though rarely the ones of the clips we see), etc. Then add the soundtrack to the mix, and finally factor in the need for subtitles, and no bloody wonder my brain near melted. Full of sound and fury, all right… but signifying what exactly?

As has been noted, the title itself is open to interpretation: histoire in French can be rendered either as history or story in English. And the brackets around the ‘s’, of course, muddy the waters just that bit further… story/stories vs history/histories of cinema… and yet, as is also rightly noted elsewhere, Histoire(s) is in no way a straight “history” of cinema, or maybe of anything (indeed, if you don’t come to it without a fair amount of prior knowledge, you won’t get much back from it). Story or stories of cinema, then? Maybe, but what ones? Jonathan Rosenbaum produced this piece when Histoire(s) was not quite finished, and he asked Godard about clips he couldn’t get, regarding which the latter observed:

If I don’t have it I take another one, and then I tell another story, more or less, with no problem. In the last episode, [4b], any shots can be good. I need documentary shots that are both strong and of no importance.

So if I’m reading him right, he didn’t seem to be concerned about what story he was telling. How are we supposed to understand Histoire(s), then, if the story doesn’t matter (and indeed had to be changed along the way when he had to remove bits he couldn’t get permission to use; I’m actually stunned by some of the things he did get away with)? Is there anything to understand? If Godard doesn’t seem too bothered about what he’s saying, is he actually saying anything at all? Rosenbaum points to Finnegans Wake as a sort of literary equivalent, noting that it’s better approached as poetry than as a linear argument, and that’s probably fair enough. Unfortunately, the poetry struck me as being as impenetrable as the argument… and the TCM piece I linked to above also points out the “quiz” aspect of the video (“name that film / director / masterpiece of world art”). Is there any more to Histoire(s) than this amusing parlour game? Obviously others, like Rosenbaum and indeed the TCM blogger, reckon there is. I don’t know if I saw it, and I don’t know if that’s because I’m too dense or ill-informed to get it, or because it’s not actually there.

I’ve taken hours to write what strikes me as being virtually nothing, because I know I don’t adequately understand the thing. Histoires(s) seems to have been designed to require multiple viewings; one to take in what Godard’s saying, then another one to take in what all the various film extracts, paintings, etc are (with help from this fascinating resource), and then at least one more to try and put them together and work out what Godard means by all of it, what if anything all this stuff is supposed to signify (particularly the pornography). One viewing really isn’t enough because there is simply too much to take in. Whether or not I feel like the effort in watching it again and again to try and absorb it properly will be rewarded is something I frankly don’t know, and I don’t suppose I’ll be trying that second viewing any time soon.

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