In 1986, Michelangelo Antonioni exhibited a series of still images in Rome called Le montagne incantate, Magic Mountains. He painted watercolours of shapes resembling mountains. Some of the images were constructed collages of painted paper. The shape of mountains suggested by the watercolours and collages were only that, suggestions, a possible, but not a certain figuration. At another glance, in another moment, they would return to being colours, volumes and tones.
It was the line between the figure and abstraction that interested Antonioni, a gap, infinitesmal, yet vast, and that made all the difference.
Antonioni photographed the images and in turn enlarged them. At a certain moment he stopped the enlargement. The result was the images in the exhibition: photographic enlargements of photographs of painted images.
The moment Antonioni chose to arrest the enlargement was the instant when the painted shapes resembled mountains. The moment was unstable. The resemblance assumed by the image never lost its origins as shape and colour nor did it securely retain its figurative presence because the image had a potential future. It could be further enlarged and thus the mountain that had taken shape become once again indistinct, only a trace, though different from the indistinct image that the enlargement had first altered.
Each enlarged image was multiple. It contained the other moments of itself, those not realised from the past and that had been traversed in the passage of the enlargement and those yet to be realised in an always present virtual deferred future. The past of the images never ultimately passed, since each image marked a return, and the future of the image was potentially infinite and boundless even to a void of total indistinction and perhaps beyond that too.
Though the enlargements figure a mountain, they relate not to mountains principally, but to the other images in the range of images in the sequence of images possible in any given enlargement. It is not mountains or the landscape of mountains that is signified or represented by the images. These are not the reality. The images are the reality. It is an image that is represented in the images, not mountains. If you ask what is signified, what is represented, you can only say, the image is represented.
Antonioni’s exhibit reminds me of the chronophotographs of Étienne-Jules Marey of the 1880s. Infinitesmal differences in movements of a figure walking, a bird in flight, a cat leaping, an animal bounding, a ball bouncing, an athlete jumping, recorded in light as so many overlapped moments of time. The fascination was in the difference, impossible to see, no more evident than the before and after of each image Antonioni enlarged, but nevertheless felt, touched and heard. The differences are like notes in a melody, a scale of changes, something listened to, a resonance felt, gaps and separations physically apprehended and also, wonderfully, magically, their returns, whirling, tracing and interweaving.
It is as if no image ever perished, as if ghosts of images revolved and wander about in perpetuity.
Marey was interested not in a synthetic reconstruction of reality, not in photographic reproduction, but in the analysis of movement. It was the writing and flow of movement, its rhythms and cadences that he revealed, and thereby its beauty. There was a potential in Marey’s experiments for another kind of moving image than the simulated one that became the cinematic image. It would have been an image in which what was represented, birds, animals, projectiles, athletes would be the measure, the ground of the image and not its illusionary end.
The cinema has used its means exclusively for this end. The potential of Marey’s work was for a cinematic image that might be freed from serving, or merely serving, the needs of representation, subject, story, narrative, and even further freed from an obligation toward reality itself. It was a potential liberty of forms that Marey’s extraordinary work promised.
Antonioni’s exhibit of photographic enlargements offers that freedom. The subject of the mountains is present, but the image as image is stronger and more insistent. The image is not to illustrate mountains, but to bring itself into existence by means of them and to enable one to see in that image an image of time.
Though the cinema comes after Marey, it would be wrong to regard his work chronologically. Only with the modernism of the cinema post-war, of filmmakers like Antonioni, was Marey returned to not as a precursor of the cinema as it became, its before, but as its future, its yet to be.
Antonioni made L’avventura in 1959. In it, the characters of the film disembark from a yacht onto a small mediterranean island between Sicily and the Italian mainland, Lisca Bianca, for an afternoon of wandering. The island is rocky, volcanic, faced by cliffs, washed by strong surfs and winds and with stupendous views of the chain of the Aeolian islands. When the characters gather to board the yacht again, one of them is missing, Anna, Sandro’s uncomfortable, anxious lover. The longest sequence of the film is the search for Anna on Lisca Bianca, nearly a third of it.
Anna is never found.
There is, on the one hand, the fiction, and, on the other, the location of it, the island. At times, momentarily, in the sequence, the camera seems to lose interest in the drama of Anna’s loss, for another drama, that of the island itself. It pauses on the shape of its rocks and hills, its grey, white and black tones, the sounds that issue from it, of birds, a motor launch, the surf, the air itself. You can touch the breeze in L’avventura, smell it, feel it like the rustling of leaves in the first films of the Lumières and later the sound of the leaves in the park in Antonioni’s Blow-up where strange shapes emerge. The island seems to be separate from the fiction, at least to one side of it, blank and indifferent, a reality within which a drama may take place, but one nevertheless not concerned with it. The island is not atmosphere, nor ornament, nor reflection of emotions, nor does it have a causal, temporal or linear relation to what occurs.
Quite simply, the island is there.
It is there, however, in a special way. While part of it adheres to the fiction as a location and part of it adheres to its own reality as an island, another part, particularly evident in those lengthy images of nothing but the island, the play of light and weather upon it, with no one looking, but the camera, that the reality depicted begins to dissolve, as surely as the mountains do in Le montagne incantate, rocks into tone and mass, light and shade sculpting volume, a rhythm of editing, the sense of time in the image, of duration, transformation, framing, these assert themselves. The reality of the island, separated from the fiction that is located on it, comes to be separated from itself, begins to pass into the abstraction of an image.
This movement, only temporary, always returning back to figuration, back to the narrative, to the fictional search for Anna, is infectious. The characters, their movements, faces, their arrangement in space, the timbre of their voices, the sounds of their footsteps on the uneven ground, the slight changes in their expression, their shiverings, the shape of their arms, their hesitations, these begin to have a fascination of their own, beyond sense, beyond the narrative, and thus, like the reality of the island that loses itself, their reality dissolves and is lost, as Anna has disappeared into the landscape and then into an image of absence, of nothing, these figures become ghosts, shadows, light. At that moment, the moment when the film begins to seep away, to disappear, the fiction and its characters come to belong to the cinema as images and sounds.
It is a turning point in the history of the cinema.
For the most part, landscapes are present in many films but their presence is marginal. Essentially, landscape in film is an atmosphere for story, a setting for action, there, but in the background. There is no film genre called landscape, as there is in painting, no more than there is a film genre of self-portraiture.
In painting, these genres have been crucial for modernism, landscape because it undermined classical rules, emphasised the uncertainty of a direct apprehension of nature and reality and dissolved a sureness of perspective and thereby the security of the viewer, and self-portraiture because of its attention to the act of painting and the presence of the artist in the frame, raising questions about perception, time, doubling, the relation of hand to eye, the point of view with which the subject was to be seen. Self-portraiture and landscape called attention to an ambiguous regard that overlapped and was contradictory, that of the artist and that of the spectator.
Whereas classicism presented a fixed view and therefore a secure one, these genres made viewing a problem. They created a new and more insistent subject, not nature, not the figure, not reality, but painting. As external references and relations ceased to be secure and the clarity of line and distance precarious and blurred, painting became the exclusive object of interest in painting.
While both genres can be discussed in their own right with their distinct histories and concerns, such discussions raise general issues about painting and modernism. Is not self-portraiture primarily a study of regarding, of the registration of regard, of the loss of perspective and thereby of illusion?
Similarly with film, to discuss the presence of landscape in film or portraiture in film raises questions about film as much as about these subjects.
The birth of cinema comes after modernism in painting. The crisis in vision that modern painting initiated was not foreign to the early cinema. To the contrary. The cinema, as painting did, played with variable distances, shifting perspectives, the effect of movement, the vagaries of time, the deceptiveness of views, the plastic properties of light. Even if the cinema was essentially mimetic and reproductive because it was photographic, its means of depiction were not in accord with an ordered ocular accuracy and objectivity. As different means of variation in vision were employed in the cinema and its illusionism exploited and compromised, means that paralleled work in painting, the cinema secured, or more accurately, domesticated, the crisis in vision made evident in painting by the cinema’s recruitment of images into the service of narrative. The ambiguity of sight and perception made manifest by painting became less ambiguous in the cinema because of its stories, stories that orientated and thus secured the viewer, protecting vision by a narrative and significant order. The dominance of narrative – its fatality – gave to the scenario, the writer, the word a dominant place that became particularly strong, particularly fatal, with the coming of sound to the cinema in the late twenties.
Two of the most visually powerful and disruptive means at the disposal of the cinema were the close-up and montage. The close-up violated perspective, compromised the illusionary deep space of fiction, transgressed the stability of scale. Montage offered the possibility of radical changes of view, of the condensation of time, the overlap of spaces and the creation of discords. Both were reduced, however, to serving narrative continuity. In the sound period, these means virtually disappeared except in certain genres, like horror. Looks were made internal to a fictional world, stabilised in medium shot, absorbed by the logic of shot/counter-shot in theatrical dialogue that became a rule seldom breached. The outside, the beyond of the fiction, the space where the fiction was marked, enunciated, produced, the place of the difference to the illusion of the fiction, was effaced. The subject of the cinema had become everything but the cinema itself.
It was apparent in landscape painting, specifically in France after 1830 that though nature was its subject, painting was not simply an instrument of record. Landscapes became a field to highlight painting, not to transcribe objective reality. The cinema in its relatively brief history, just a few years more than a century, has developed differently, toward record, representation, fiction and story. It has affirmed what modern painting, music and poetry have seriously questioned and called into doubt. As a consequence, the concerns of film history have been to study the development of narrative techniques and the concerns of film theory, with few exceptions, have been with matters of narration, content, drama, meaning, social significance. The cinema as practised, certainly as studied, has not been an essentially visual medium. It is extraordinary to reflect that most discussions of film have been insensitive, indeed increasingly insensitive, to the visual qualities of film and to its forms. While painting and its criticism has attended to materials, to formal structures and styles, to qualities, film and its criticism, overwhelmed by narrative, has attended almost exclusively to issues of culture and its significance, abstract structures, not the concreteness of film. The latter seems not only to have been forgotten, but avoided, as if a menace to culture.
As I said, there are exceptions contrary to a dominant a narrative tradition and to cultural and content analyses. The most striking examples are the French Nouvelle Vague and Italian neo-realism, and before these, the Soviet school of film-making in the 1920s, notably the work and ideas of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. And there are films, film-makers, other groupings as well that have not succumbed to the tyranny of narrative, but it is not these that have taken hold and not these that have engaged the interest of a prevailing and depressing cultural sociology.
D. W. Griffith is often referred to as the father of film narrative. Also, he was the first film-maker to have used the close-up and montage systematically, and both in the service of narrative composition. Griffith’s films were carefully linked continuous linear narratives but constructed on the basis of the inherent visual discontinuities of the close-up and of montage that together, visually and temporally, tended toward fragmentation, the reason Griffith was a model for the Soviet school. It was as if, with one hand, Griffith threatened coherence and, with the other, preserved it. Intolerance, for example, consists of four separate stories from different historical times with different characters, events and settings, intercut to produce a single story and an exclusive ethical lesson on the theme of intolerance that integrates the differences put into play. The diversity and shifts in position and perspective, narratively and visually, are important, but far more important, indeed their principal function, was to serve to heighten a final, delirious, ecstatic and erotic resolution.
The close-up is a radical break in scale. It can be – Eisenstein thought it to be – a visual shock. It disrupts, fragments, interrupts. Griffith exploited the disruption for dramatic ends, as dramatic emphasis, and thus repaired the break caused by the close-up by reabsorbing it into a cohesive narrative line. If the close-up compromised perspective, narrative restored it. Every Griffith close-up had a narrative justification, and thus, however visually jarring it seemed, it was nevertheless made by the drama of the narrative to be sensible and significant and to contribute to, rather than diminish coherence. For Griffith it was essentially a punctuation mark, to enhance, not dissolve sense, to theatricalise it.
Such punctuations are the stuff of melodrama.
A close-up, by effacing perspective, by bringing the spectator and the object near, sometimes too near, is more a physical than an optical experience, something to touch rather than regard, besides, the rapidity of movement in film makes seeing always a problem. Narrative provides the perspective that snatches the close-up from the brink of disorder it threatens to continuity and the lack of focus it menaces to vision.
After Griffith, certainly with the coming of sound, it would be the medium shot that would reign supreme and a montage where rules of continuity were made of iron.
The excitement of Intolerance and of the great epic films of Griffith, like Birth of a Nation, is a play between dissolution, chaos, disorder, on the one hand, and integration, adherence and resolution on the other, marked particularly by Griffith’s obsessive use of the last-minute rescue where elements and actions, far apart in time and space, come together, finally, at last, and literally, at the extreme terminal instant, just before everything could have, and nearly does, fall apart: the young girl not rescued, the young man not saved, the blossom broken. The excitement, achieved in the editing, of the alternation between integration and disintegration, resolution and dissolution, salvation and damnation, continuity and fragmentation, that occurs in the stories Griffith told and that he aligned with ethical issues of good and bad, are not confined to those stories or themes or ethical positions. They are at the heart of his method. That is why I have insisted on the Griffith close-up.
Griffith’s style of editing equally needs to be stressed. His montage established a continuity on the basis, as with most montage, of a discontinuity of shots in scale, framing and point of view and sometimes of action. Not only are his innocent heroines placed at risk, threatened with violation, but so too are his films. They also could fall apart, disintegrate into the fragments and diverse elements that composed them, be defiled. In the end, however, and Griffith’s finales are magnificent in what they bind together and overcome, all is made well, the young girl rescued, and the film rescued, virginity and seamlessness intact, all the more thrilling for the enormous risks that have been run. The possibility of disaster, stain and ruin was always there just on the other side of resolution. The continuity his montage sought was jeopardised by the extreme discontinuity that was its means. He accentuated the latter to enhance and strengthen the former.
Fragmentation is by definition incomplete, thereby still alive, still present, not yet gripped by the death of finitude. It is the severity of Griffith’s fragments in editing and in shot size that give his films their energy and drive as much towards their conclusion as by the resistance to it, the resistance to be closed.
It was as if the Griffithian system was forever threatened, on the verge of spinning out into devastation and chaos, and then it is snatched to safety like you might snatch a baby to safety who has been put into harm’s way, or left, abandoned, or about to be crushed. Ethically, it would seem, that the good for Griffith needed a constant shoring up, an interminable vigilance, a perpetual soldering of elements so that there were no tears left unattended, no rents in the fabric of order not sewn and diligently restored. It was precisely because the fabric was in danger of unravelling, by a thread left hanging – it was Griffith who, after all, had placed the young girl at the edge of a precipice – that a labour was required to maintain the cloth of the film intact.
The triumph of good would not be sweet if evil was a pushover.
The close-up is inherently unruly and irrational. It breaks the contours of vision and of narrative consistency. Once in play, it is a threat unless drawn in and knotted. And there is too, the multiplicity of elements in Griffith’s films – Intolerance is emblematic – not only of story but of scale, framing, line, movement. These have the capacity for combining in other, uncontrollable ways, graphically, musically, as oppositions. They were the paths taken by Eisenstein, rather than the singular ones, the linear logical ones, that Griffith arrives at in his finales and causes you and the film to arrive at, exhausted and relieved by the end of the ordeal.
The last-minute Griffith rescue is a serialisation of interruptions. The rapidity of alternations of the parallel montage of its elements and their accelerating tempo is a potential overloading: too much, too far, too frantic. Its music and excess belong to the melodrama. What if the pursuers take a wrong turning? What if the baby is not grasped into a saviour’s arms? What if the ice floe breaks up? These questions, directed not to content but to form are engineered to exasperation.
There is the potential in them for other intersections, other links and paths than the ones chosen, even senseless joins (montage can join any ends of film), surprising turns, different paths, a whirling in permanence of unfinished elements. Griffith sets in motion a series of dangerous paradigms, a verticality of metaphors only to come to rest in domesticated metonyms, the long thin horizontal line of the narrative, but the peril in which it is placed is never exhausted.
Griffith’s films are spectacles of irrationality, possibility, interruption, fragmentation, choreographed as rhythm, harmony, cadence and lyricism, so much so that if you begin to look, or better than look, feel and touch and listen to their music, it is this ceaseless work within them, their forms, that are stronger and more compelling than the fictional illusions they are meant to serve, as if the films have indeed, and contrary to intentions, broken their bounds.
Griffith was one of the great figures of the early cinema and of its modernism. He was a contemporary of Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, as the Lumières were of the Impressionists, and despite his sentimentalism, his racism, his fundamentalism, and despite and in part because of the melodramatic narratives he created, he belongs to modernism and is among its greatest artists.
Historically, Griffith has been recruited for one history, a history of narrative development, the dominant mainstream. I have sought to recruit him for another and in so doing to point to the flimsiness of that other history, the need to look elsewhere, not in the subjects Griffith treated nor his messages and themes, but in the subject film that he liberated.
JLG/JLG autoportrait en décembre by Jean – Luc Godard was made in 1995. The film takes place in Rolle in Switzerland where Godard lives and works and in his flat in Paris. The interior shots are in Paris, the exteriors in and around Rolle: landscapes of the woods in winter covered in snow and wintry scenes of Lake Geneva. There is, toward the end of the film, a sequence of landscape shots of fields not apparently related to the time at Rolle in December nor the place, except as a memory it calls up. The landscapes refer to childhood, more difficult to specify since all memory is approximate and blurred.
The past is never finished.
The film relies on two genres that belong to painting not film: the landscape and the self-portrait. Fictional narrative, as I have noted, has been the historical fate of the cinema. Godard’s film challenges that history, defies its fate. The choice of landscape and self-portraiture for his film is part of that challenge.
I want to make a detour, before I touch on JLG/JLG autoportrait en décembre, to the late 1950s and early 1960s and to the appearance of the French Nouvelle Vague. Central to the Nouvelle Vague was its cinéphilie, a love of cinema, cinema as cinema, not as illustration, story, meaning, theme, writing, scenario. It may seem strange that this Nouvelle Vague cinéphilie was primarily directed to the American cinema, to Hollywood, to Hitchcock, Preminger, Mankiewicz, Anthony Mann, Ray, Fuller, that is, to a narrativised, industrial, commercial, genre and star-based popular, realistic cinema, in short, to the studio system. What the critics, later film-makers of the Nouvelle Vague , such as Godard, celebrated in the American cinema was not its stories but its mise en scène , not its fictions, but the cinematic means that put them into play. These means seemed so perfect to them or had reached a stage of such complete perfection that the realism of Hollywood dramas and its spectacles veered, by virtue of their flawlessness, toward dream and hallucination. One part of that cinema, its realism, seemed to call up another part, its construction, and was, if not at odds with it, uneasy with it.
The American musical, especially, for the Nouvelle Vague , was the clearest example of the invention of a pure world of cinema, of movement, colour, line, excess and energy. Thus, from fictional reality to dream, the Nouvelle Vague shifted the American cinema towards style and form, to the specificities of film and that was what was loved, that is, truly and really, the cinema.
This critical position, that valued form, opened up the entire archive of cinema as a play of forms in its play of images and sounds. It was not therefore a cinema of representation so much as a cinema of mise en scène . This view had the consequence of denying not only the fatality of fictional narrative in the history of the cinema, but of all chronology. The past was no longer past, history no longer development. Nothing was left behind. The Lumières and Hitchcock were contemporaries as were Eisenstein and Godard. The past was now an archive of forms and an archive that lived, not dusty and mouldy, but fresh and, importantly, projected. The great institution of the renewal, of the past coming alive in the present, was Henri Langlois’s Paris Cinémathèque, the school and university of the Nouvelle Vague. No Sorbonne could ever have taught such valuable lessons.
The films of the Nouvelle Vague gathered up the past of the cinema and re-projected it in its own films, not simply as citations or nostalgia, but as a central part of the texture of its films. This had extraordinary aesthetic consequences. The cinema, as if overnight, was no longer about reality, but about itself, not about representation, but about a freedom of cinematic writing, an écriture , not the imitation of literature, but a new and splendid art. It seemed as if the Nouvelle Vague came before not after the Hollywood cinema, before Eisenstein, Vertov, Dreyer, Renoir, Lang, Murnau, because it was the Nouvelle Vague that gave birth and life to these figures, the youth of the Nouvelle Vague became its own father.
The cinema and its history were turned on their heads and that included the American cinema. The concern with form and the citation of fragments of film as form taken out of the continuity where these fragments of fiction once belonged, from out of the fictional worlds that had constructed and constricted them, out of representation, and brought them into the purely filmic world of the Nouvelle Vague films, not only subverted all finish and completion and wholeness, but set free forms of film, their scenes, sounds, images, and enabled them, and for the first time, to recombine, to overlap, to unleash an energy and possibility that had been denied to the past, but that the past nevertheless actively contained, like Francis Bacon returning to Picasso, more exactly Picasso coming alive in Bacon, part of a living museum. Finally, by means of this resurrection of the power of the forms of film, past and present, near and far, these times could now exist simultaneously in a new space and time, not of a verisimilitude, of fictional illusions, of make-believe depth, but the space time of cinema and so, as in JLG/JLG , Rosselini with Rozier and Ray and Godard and Bergman and each of these with still others back into the cinema and further back still into myth. And thus the loss of an historical perspective, or more precisely, the subversion of a certain historical perspective, resulted concretely in the films that came to be made, a disruption of the fatal perspectives of narrative and representation. This experience exactly paralleled an earlier one in painting, an earlier crisis in vision. Time and space in cinema was telescoped, condensed, set awry, the spectator caught in the time and space of images, within the archive, and in that gap now made evident between what a film represented and the representing of it, between its fictions and illusions and the reality of its fictional writing.
JLG/JLG autoportrait en décembre asks two questions. What is a self-portrait? What is a landscape? And in asking these, it asks another, what is a film?
The images of the film represent events in time, that take place: Godard at his desk, being visited, saying goodbye to the maid, watching television, drawing, reminiscing, taking a walk, remembering, speaking on the telephone, reading a book. But all these represented events have another time or times than their own.
Though images follow each other, each seems irrelevant to the other. There is succession, but no continuity. It is a succession of differences without apparent accords of logic, reason or causation. The lack of continuity refers each image to a range of possible narratives, but to none in particular, because to limit the image to a fixed continuity would be to undermine its existence, its life and continuation. Each image seems not only irrelevant to the image before and after it, but an interruption of these. Even strict succession is compromised because it seems arbitrary. It is perfectly possible that the events shown could occur or did occur in a different order than the order presented. Moreover, to even speak of an event is impossible because each image contains a series of events and locations for its images and sounds. In most cases, the images emerge from one place and time and the sounds from another, as separate as the tracks on which they are recorded. Because every event is dislocated from a continuity, though never completely (Godard is subversive not destructive), they appear as no more than themselves, at once immobilised, because they have been removed from continuous time but unfinished by the same token and also multiple, because they can be located in more than one space and in more than one manner. Tomorrow, the next day, the day after, they may return, slightly altered, but still there, like a brushstroke or a scraping of a knife across previous, earlier marks on a canvas, that defaces without removing, thickening with a further brushstroke of paint or thinning out, but never losing what was originally there if only as a murmur.
Godard’s images in this way never perish. They contain other images that they have resurrected that these may live again.
In JLG/JLG , Godard walks out along the shore of Lake Geneva. It is a day in December, the sun is shining, sailing boats bob and rock at their moorings. A page of Godard’s notebook fills the screen and on it is written the name ‘Roberto’. The crunch of stones underfoot are heard and with it the soundtrack of the end of Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà : gunfire, screams, shouting and the announcement that the war in Italy has ended.
Godard walks out onto a strip of land Other names appear in succession on pages of his notebook: ‘Jacques’, ‘Nicholas’, finally ‘Jeannot’. On the sound track, coordinated with the names, are the crunching of stones and pebbles. Godard can be seen at a distance, in shadow, almost in silhouette. And heard, successively, are dialogue fragments from Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar . ‘Jeannot’ refers to the little boy, Jean – Luc Godard, whose photograph portrait begins the film with Godard in darkness observing very near this image that is so distant.
Godard in the sequence by the lake is at some distance from the camera but the sounds of his pacing are close, palpable and physical. They can be felt in the throat, unlike what you see, though they come from far off, either the near/far of Godard’s pacing or the great far away of voices from the cinema’s past. Near and far are condensed, overlapped, but also clear and independent. They come together at a unique moment in time in the film that is their meeting ground, literally a space of voices and images. Each gathers strength from the other. The possibilities in them, not otherwise realisable, are freed and come to life. Precise in feel, the meanings are inexact and uncertain.
Manoel Oliveira in conversation with Godard: “What I love in your films is the clarity of their signs aligned to their profound ambiguity. It is what I love of the cinema in general, a saturation of magnificent signs bathing in the light of their absence of explanation.”
Where does the image of Godard by the shore of Lake Geneva come from? Where does this landscape come from? It is not original. Godard would say no image is. All images, he would say, are citations, all come from elsewhere than themselves, even the simplest, say the reproduction of a tree. Nor is an image evidently in the present. It contains other pasts like the films cited, but also other films not cited, but felt, and other images that could be in its place but are not, films that have been made and remembered and films that have not been made but are pressing. None of these images then are stable or fixed.
Could this landscape with a figure in the background be a transposed version that arrives over time of the Rossellini, of the scene of Germans shooting Italian partisans and American-British special forces on a spit of land in the delta of the Po Valley, that what you see is what has once before been seen and therefore you see it?
Or might it be a version of Isak Borg’s sight of his parents by the lake in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries , a vision of childhood from the perspective of an old man, a self-portrait in an image of time as JLG/JLG is a self-portrait and a portrait of time? And is this image not equally, because it belongs to a self-portrait in a landscape, a transposition of the images transposed in Vivre sa vie from Poe’s The Oval Portrait , from Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc , Zola’s Nana and Renoir’s Nana, and Godard’s Anna Karina?
In the dialogue from Ray’s Johnny Guitar , Johnny asks Vienna to affirm a love between them that had been. She repeats his words of love that he wants to hear. “Tell me you still love me like I love you. ” And Vienna answers, “I still love you like you love me. ” It is a picture of their love and their solitude and of the time between them, and of lovers on the run, isolated like Monika and her lover are in Bergman’s Monika , and as the lovers are in Pierrot le fou , marooned on an island of death.
The little boy ‘Jeannot’ in the portrait resembles the photograph of another little boy whose image Godard returns to in his Histoire(s) du cinéma , a Jewish boy, from the Warsaw Ghetto, his hands raised before a German rifle, sure to be transported to the death camps and murdered. Superimposed on the one boy, on the one experience is another, the son of a family of the Swiss haute bourgeoisie, the Godards, Nazi sympathisers, who turned a blind eye to what was occurring, as if it wasn’t and kept it from sight, away from Jeannot, this past and history. The obtuseness, the refusal is not only specific but timeless, belonging to myth and legend, to all fathers, all sons and the fragility and vulnerability of childhood. And that too returns to Bergman, to the little boy Johan in Silence, to Alexander in Fanny and Alexander that are self-portraits by Bergman, versions seen through time.
Perhaps it was not only his father, but all fathers who had done what his had done, who had covered over, covered up the past and thereby lived the present in the forgetfulness of a lie. Godard’s other father, was the Cinema that had captured him. Had it not too suppressed the past and instead played out its spectacles of fiction?
And thus, the presence of Rossellini in the image on Lake Geneva, and of Ray and Rozier and Bergman, have particular force, a fraternity of film-makers who became for Godard an archive of a fraternity of metaphors, metaphors and fathers who for once had told the truth, who realised what was best and most crucial in the cinema and thereby deserved respect and continued life.
Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers is filled with whisperings from the past, blurred, inarticulate, out of perspective, a verbal equivalent of shadows. Its approximations are never completed, its whisperings neither stifled nor clarified. The film takes place in an old manor house. The overwheming colour of the film is in a range of red tones, some of them grey and fading like death, impossible to forget.
In the film, one of four sisters, Agnes, having lived a life of pain, lies dying. The other sisters wait for her death. They have no generosity, no forgiveness, least of all for life and for themselves. Agnes, despite her pain and misery is filled with love and has no regrets, no bitterness, no accusations. Her past is filled with life and sunshine. Their past is grim and deadly. Her cries of pain and longing burst out upon the whisperings, repressions, lies, meanness of her sisters, a sign of her life in dying as they, the living, are signs of death in life. They mourn for Agnes before Agnes is dead and they mourn for life before it has been lived.
JLG/JLG is a film in mourning for the death of cinema. Godard has put on mourning clothes before the death has occurred The film is the mourning clothes. His radicalism that helped to bring about that death, is a response to the historical disaster of the cinema, its failure to seize possibilities, to speak the truth of the world and of itself, its failure to give life to its past. His radicalism consists in part in dismantling the rules that guaranteed perspective, sense, order, continuity, logic, that had characterised the cinema and its narratives, and to replace these with a cinema that is obscure, dense, labyrinthine and rich in possibilities and therefore rich with the past. The opacity into which his films disappear is the world of cinema, of its sounds and images no longer confined, falsely clarified, by the needs of representation or significance and therefore brought back to life as they travel towards their own and the cinema’s disappearance.
One of the most staggering images in JLG/JLG, toward the beginning of the film when Godard speaks of mourning before the fact, is of a red rug on a reddish brown floor, resonating with the cries and whispers of the cinema.
Created on: Friday, 30 April 2004 | Last Updated: 30-Apr-04