Scanning Godard

Adrian Martin

Uploaded 30 June 2000

Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki, Speaking about Godard . New York: New York University Press, 1998. ISBN 0814780660 (pb) 256pp US$19.00

David Sterritt, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible . New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521589711 (pb) 304pp A$34.95

Godard had a style and sensibility that appealed to certain anarchistic and youthful minds here (…). His form did it. It was his form, his style, his temperament – not the content of his films – that inspired the students of Columbia. But I don’t think Tarkovsky has that kind of electricity that Godard has. No one has; Godard is unique.
– Jonas Mekas [1]

Take Godard: effectively you cannot understand anything about Godard if you don’t realise that profoundly what this guy did was give you Matisse by the ton. A kind of frame at high noon, with no shadows, large flat expanses of bright colours and people pinned to that surface like very beautiful and moving butterflies.
– Jean-Pierre Gorin [2]
Autonomy is thus restored to each instant, which is thereby able to take on the full force of what existence offers to the perception in an instant, a season, a crisis.
– Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier [3]

There has been, of late, a curious confluence of critics around a very particular way of writing about films. I think of it as “scanning”. It involves the act of “running through” a movie, in writing, from start to end. This form has inevitably come into circulation as a result of those publishing initiatives centred on “single film” books – the various series published by the British Film Institute, Editions Yellow Now (historically the first of this type), Bloomsbury and Flicks Books, where essays between ten and twenty thousand words are devoted to the study of one film. Recent notable attempts at scanning a film from start to end include Camille Paglia on Hitchcock’s The Birds  (1963) and (so far the best, to my mind) Kent Jones on Bresson’s L’argent(1983). [4]

What is the contemporary attraction of scanning, as opposed to other, hitherto dominant modes of writing about film? I see it as intimately related to the rise of neoformalist approaches that stress the compositional elements of film, its “poetics” in a limited, sometimes solely technical sense (as exemplified by David Bordwell’s book On the History of Film Style ). [5]  Even those writers who may have little direct acquaintance with neoformalist critical literature have probably sensed, and instinctively joined forces with, a widespread resistance to the supposed “excesses” of previous work based on thematic interpretation and textual analysis.

Scanning resists excessive speculation. It makes a show of sticking to the traces, to the evidence on screen. It is deeply evocative writing, focused on what we can see and hear – and dramatic, too, since it imports something of the rise-and-fall, approach-and-reveal structure of the movie under discussion into its own trajectory. Scanning is about sensation and effect – the film as an object in motion acting upon the mind and body of the individual spectator or the mass audience – rather than about abstract themes or distant cultural contexts. It is mimetic, “real time” criticism, stressing all kinds of ‘surface’ properties that directly engage spectators (intrigue, mood, attractions), and playing out the temporally finite and celluloid-bound structures wherein these properties emerge, flower and die.

Scanning is syntagmatic rather than paradigmatic. It expands the film as it flows along with or beside it, allowing itself to make certain points or allude to contexts. But, essentially, it “sticks with” its object. And implicitly – by virtue of the critical form chosen – scanning makes a show of delivering to us the “whole” film (or near enough to it), and the totality of what it is to experience that film.

Now, all forms of critical writing are rhetorical. Writing up the analysis of a film involves both the careful selection of representative details, and the stringing together of an argument about these details in the story-form we call the essay. We pick certain scenes (or shots, gestures, motifs, etc) for analysis because they perform a rhetorical function within our argument – they sum up what we have seen in the film and discovered about it, they crystallise certain aspects of structure, style, theme or ideology, they strike us as the “fullest” moments whose tightly condensed logic we can thoroughly enjoy unpacking.

The order in which we unveil the filmic fragments we analyse – and, until the current trend began, this has rarely been a strictly chronological order – will depend upon the twists and turns we wish our argument to enact for the reader; as has often been noted, hermeneutic analysis has much the same impulse to thrill, and to uncover truth, as detective fiction. So, for instance, it is not uncommon in contemporary criticism – particularly in this era of cultural studies – to hold in reserve a final piece of textual evidence that dramatically turns an argument thus far elaborated totally on its head, revealing at last a subversive or contradictory or confessional tendency in the film under inspection.

Methods of critical writing that slice up a film and ceaselessly rearrange its pieces and levels, often multiplying the possible perspectives that can be taken towards it as they proceed, at least have this in their favour: they give a sense of what critics as different as Raymond Durgnat and Raymond Bellour have called the “volume” of a film, its capacity to exist and reach further and deeper than that simple, linear strip of chemicals unreeling for ninety minutes or so between projector and screen. [6]  Films rearrange themselves in our minds after we watch them, and even while we watch them; they race down into many strange and dimly accessible pockets of our being. Art objects are inescapably, even from a more neatly text-based or “structural” viewpoint, paradigmatic as well as syntagmatic: that is, their levels of effect and meaning are distributed right throughout the work in all manner of echoes, shadows, symmetries, suggestions and recapitulations.

The kind of analysis that sifts fragments in variable orders evokes a film as something that can be endlessly investigated, re-created, re-experienced. Criticism becomes the search for points of entry into a movie; and each fresh angle of attack re-invents, redraws the contours and economies of its object.

It is certainly true – as Bordwell witheringly demonstrated in Making Meaning [7] – that thematic and textual analyses are often as boringly predictable as the least inventive mystery story; the bases are loaded, the evidence is rigged, and the shock ending is broadcast from the first paragraph. But is scanning the best available response to this problem? I suspect that “scanners” imagine they are beyond the ruses of interpretative rhetoric – that they have found a purer, more empirically based, harder-boiled, more directly communicative method. But scanning is, from the outset, just as selective, and just as bound by the logic and structure of an argument, as any other form of critical writing. To think otherwise is to dupe yourself – and worse, to reduce the range of phenomena you can potentially explore in the film before you.

Scanning coincides with an increase in descriptive film criticism (fuelled by the reawakening of collective interest in such highly descriptive writers as Manny Farber) [8] , an outpouring of poetic license for all intents and purposes repressed during the days of hard theory. Some of this new work, inevitably, is waffly, purple prose straining for lyrical effect – but there are, as well, real breakthroughs and fruitful experiments emerging. However, on a “meta” level, it probably needs to be recognised that a predilection for description does not come without its in-built illusions, which writers can either recognise and work with, or ignore at their peril.

To put it bluntly, all description is fiction. In any single frame of a movie, there is an enormous amount of data that can be potentially described. Multiply enough frames to make up a scene or sequence, and description has reached the realm of the humanly impossible. All description is brutally selective. Moreover, it operates according to very specific principles of pertinence established (consciously or otherwise) by the kind of methodology, the kind of critical gaze, brought to bear. [9]

Description, in itself, is not a “position”. It can be bent to widely different projects and rhetorical forms. One popular mode of description, for instance, concentrates on the “through lines” of a sequence, the articulations and transitions from one gesture or shot or movement to the next; it tries to tease out the tension, dynamism, or what Jean-Luc Godard called the “current” animating a filmic passage. [10]  Another, more recent mode, subtracts the shot as a unit from the flow of a narrative or an articulated sequence, and mines it for peripheral, superfluous or incidental detail – an approach variously equated with surrealist irrationalism, postmodern “distraction”, and Farber’s ethos of “termite art”. [11] There is nothing inherent in descriptive critical writing that necessitates the adoption of a long-form scan.

By a weird coincidence, two recent books on Godard pick many of the same films to analyse [12] , and both use the rhetorical form of scanning. I admit to instant surprise and trepidation upon noticing this latter choice, because, of all directors, I would have imagined that scanning works least well on a collagist like Godard. (This is another inescapable fact about scanning, or indeed any specific rhetorical mode: it fits some works better than others.) But the decision to scan a few Godard classics that have already attracted reams of critical commentary obviously functions as a “throw of the dice”, an attempt to spark some new insights and generate a new way of claiming, perhaps honouring, these works.

So what do the old critical modes lack, what did they miss in Godard? There have been many descriptive, evocative, “termitic” and overtly literary attempts at Godard commentary; [13] but they have all seemed piecemeal, too fragmentary, not really managing to bridge the abyss between impressionism and solid, systematisable knowledge for more than a moment. On the other side of that abyss, there are the rigorous, textual analyses – more successful in pinning down the materialist strategies of Godard’s essentially “Brechtian” and dogmatic works than the elusive mysteries of the other two thirds of his output. [14]  Somewhere between pure, poetic effusion and the imposition of “codes”, various sorts of thematic analysis have struggled, valiantly or irritatedly, to make convincing sense of Godard’s work – and many such attempts conclude by giving up the ghost with a shrug. [15]  Godard’s movies have always posed enormous challenges to those who seek economy, logic, depth and richness in a film, since they fragment so readily under inspection according to traditional aesthetic criteria. (Try teaching a Godard movie: once you get past the usual generalities and contextual remarks, you will discover the films make for a frustratingly difficult “read”.)

However, it has never seemed enough, at another extreme, to simply champion Godard’s work as modernist anti-cinema, wilfully incoherent and subversive of this or that convention. [16]  Jacques Aumont was right to specify that Godard’s work until 1968 demonstrates a rigorous “displacement” of cinematic conventions (including those of ‘classicism’), “not a break, a rejection, or a departure”. [17] Perhaps an even more pressing reason why Godard’s work refuses to be sewed and sold as mere anti-cinema is that, after all, so many of us have, as film fans, lived these movies, taken the gestalt of their mood, sensibility and suggestiveness right into our beings. [18] There has to be some kind of richness there, surely – and it should, by all rights, be amenable to an analysis. [19]

Unfortunately, I cannot find such breakthrough analysis in either Speaking about Godard or The Films of Jean-Luc Godard. For me, these books serve as monuments to the current limitations and self-delusions of the temptation to scan – and they show, in the process, that scanning may not be the magic key to unlock Godard.

For analyses that presume, by virtue of their rhetorical mode, to capture everything that effervesces in these films, these books manage to illuminate or even annotate surprisingly little. Scanning here becomes a kind of fly-by parsing of plots, characters, certain strings of imagery, certain basic formal tactics, certain ideological and/or spiritual concerns arising from the perennial and ever-shifting “dare” of Godard’s cinema.

What gets left out? The answer has both syntagmatic and paradigmatic dimensions. Syntagmatically, in the moment-to-moment “fine grain” detail, we encounter an utterly predictable list of absences: the bewilderingly complex, multi-layered detail of the soundtrack; the specific (and often very odd) performance modes of gesture, posture, movement, speech; the precise rhythmic fluxes of the montage; Godard’s often unusual staging decisions (including what Alain Bergala explicated as the tendency to shoot the “other side of the bouquet”) [20] ; his eye for “total design”, whether in a set or on location, merging line, colour, tone and volume with a neo-painterly mastery (“Matisee by the ton”) to rival Antonioni or Tarkovsky. In short, and as ever, the intense materiality of Godard’s cinema, the action of form and style that thrills us so much as viewers and made his work so indelibly “cool” (these days, retro-cool) for multiple generations, forms the inspiration and the basis for so many subsequent individual styles (Skolimowski, Fassbinder, Wong Kar-Wai, Hal Hartley…).

The paradigmatic levels of Godard’s films – what we might call their poetic form – is even less well charted territory. These books fail to capture the rich polyphony of the best passages in Godard, and the global form that contains them in each work. Not much gets “folded” or cross-referenced by these scanning analyses; in-the-moment events register more than woven motifs. The unusual temporal structures of the films – in which space becomes “the image of a piece of time, of a fragment of life containing an inexhaustible totality whose slightest movements must be captured and put together” [21]  – are not explored. The gestalt of a Godard movie – how it rearranges itself and gels as an image, a sound, a mood and an idea in one’s head – is never even evoked, let alone unravelled.

The basis for not only appreciating Godard’s work, but also criticising or evaluating it, gets eroded by the act of scanning – although there is no good reason why this should be the case. In these books, everything in the films is lamentably equalised, and thus rendered rather indifferent in form, content and effect. The question never seems to arise, on the linear trail through the text, as to whether any one scene, in the achieved combination of its elements, is better, richer, fuller, more coherent or expressive, or better executed than any other scene. Godard’s craft, and also much of his art, thus disappears, and so does one of the principal and proper tasks of film criticism – since, especially with an avowedly “impulsivist” artist like him, one is obliged to sift and weigh the uneveness of the results. Like any film, a Godard film is a human artefact, a collective juggling of an immense number of variables within enormous, practical constraints – and thus an imperfect construction. These books tend to prop up, inadvertently, the “mystical” aura of old-fashioned auteurism (movies are things that pop directly out of god-like brains onto the screen), and rob us of “any sense of artistic production – the idea that films are made by film-makers, that music is composed and performed by musicians, and with this the idea that there is a relation between the skills and talents of these musicians and film-makers and the sort of pleasure that audiences get from music and cinema”. [22]

Of the two books, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard is the worse offender. Sterritt scans mainly in order to find references or allusions (artistic or cultural), according to a rather overworked tradition in Godardian criticism. Once he finds a reference, the ride stops for a little background explication of the likely “influence” that some artist, thinker or cultural movement had on the filmmaker. So, in this book, any glimpse of a movie poster, any spoken slogan, any book cover or title prompts a lame lecture on the Beats, Artaud, Kristeva and abjection, the Situationists… Sterritt’s descriptions tend to be maddeningly elongated plot synopses, and they exhibit awful, defensive tics that come from the author’s inevitable difficulty in pigeonholing the events of the movies within conventional modes of narrative action and character motivation. Either to avoid the implications of this problem, or to make light of such difficulties for the Hollywood-primed general reader, Sterritt resorts to silly jokes and journalistic patter, like an academic address peppered with misplaced asides: of Vivre sa vie (1962), for instance, he feels it necessary to comment that Godard “sees nothing odd in the notion that a working-class Parisian would select a religious silent film of 1928 from her local listings”. (71-2)

Meanwhile, Sterritt can fill a chapter on A bout de souffle (1959) – offering some striking general observations along the way, such as the description of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Patricia (Jean Seberg) as “continually trying on different poses, expressions, and intonations” (59) – without once mentioning the abundant confusion between Martial Solal’s score and a diegetic radio; or charting the re-invention of naturalistic dialogue in the form of a halting, ever-renewed, mutual interview or interrogation between the protagonists; or digging into the jaggedly lyrical forms of “visual study” hidden within the commonplace wisdom that Godard invented or exploited the jump cut; or describing the exact, boundlessly inventive ways in which the film places and moves its star bodies within everyday spaces.

Speaking about Godard has a greater number of original insights, and more sustained analytical highpoints. The book is worth consulting for a dazzling discussion of how Numéro deux (1975) constantly “resemanticises” its sexual and bodily fixations; for the way it returns Week-end (1967) to a ’60s art context of “happenings, pop art, improvisation” (98); for its proposals about how Vivre sa vie “accommodates relationships between the most divergent of terms, since it does not predicate those relationships on the basis of identity” (6), or how in Le mépris (1963) everyone and everything speaks through a postlapsarian or “fallen” language (35); and for surely the most detailed, patient and respectful treatment that Le gai savoir (1968) is ever likely to get. Through Godard, the authors rake over those monumental, historical legacies – feminist film theory and radical film practice, particularly – that have variously inspired, formed, troubled and blocked them. Silverman & Farocki’s book is a kind of reckoning with the “before and after” of May ’68, trying hard to find hopeful pleasure in the severest forms of militant unpleasure – and very like a Straub-Huillet film in the relentlessness and seriousness of this quest.

But a form of parsing or thinning-out is again the order of the day here – surreally so, since much of the text gives the appearance of a manic attention to unfolding detail. Chapters pass with scarcely a mention of either composed or “appropriated” music in the films, and the radical way Godard breaks up and places these passages. The most euphoric, dazzling and liberated sequences in Godard – “those rare moments of joy during which the editing becomes lyrical” [23] – are flattened in unimaginative, short-hand summaries: for instance, we read that Alphaville (1965) contains “a lyrical series of images of [Natasha], sometimes with Lemmy, and sometimes without” (79) – and that’s all! Although Silverman & Farocki are far less defensive of the conventions of narrative and versimilitude than Sterritt, they plod through the films primarily following the lead of a bland plot synopsis: “In the foyer of the Institute of General Semantics, Lemmy tells Natasha that he couldn’t understand Alpha 60’s lesson”. (72) A little old-style “impressionism” might have saved this reduction of the movies to screenplays-that-never-were.

Silverman & Farocki sometimes look back and forth from a scene, indicating threads of meaning in the process of being inaugurated, developed or brought to a close, but they never push their scanning to somehow cover the “global confrontation between all the discernible objects noticed by the audience” of a Godard film. [24] This is not to ask for a model of poetic form that proceeds according to the old-fashioned and essentially literary tenets of what has been caricatured as the “compare and contrast” school of cinema aesthetics, focussed mainly on themes, characters, stories and morals – a model which, as previously suggested, tends to become entirely deranged and unworkable when faced with a Godard movie. Rather, what we may need is a critical model more attune to the dynamic transformation of elements – all elements, both representational and figural – from one end of a film to the other, a mode of aesthetics firing at full force in Passion (1982), to which Silverman & Farocki devote a chapter. [25]

In the end, the rhetorical form of Speaking about Godard – a mock “dialogue” that has neither the spontenaity of speech nor the rigour of a collaborative essay – left me constantly suspended and dissatisfied. And the scanning is too often superficial, blind and deaf to the sensual materiality, poetic complexity and sheer, perverse fun of the texts in front of them. Once again, Godard’s films mostly end up serving – as in Sterritt’s book [26] – as a mere platform for theory-led “riffs”. In these years of the filmmaker’s densest, most cryptic “open form” works – a prolific period of film, video and publication that begins almost exactly where these books leave off, with Nouvelle vague at the beginning of the ’90s – Godard surely deserves better.


[1] “A Conversation with Jonas Mekas”, in Jonathan Rosenbaum, Film: The Front Line 1983 (Denver: Arden Press, 1983), 23.

[2] “Trains of thought: Jean-Pierre Gorin Interviewed by Rolando Caputo”, Filmviews 133 (1987): 13.
[3] Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, “Form and substance, or the avatars of the narrative”, in Focus on Godard, (ed.) Royal S. Brown (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972), 95.
[4] Camille Paglia, The Birds (London: British Film Institute, 1998); Kent Jones, L’argent (London: British Film Institute, 1999).
[5] David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).
[6] Cf. Raymond Durgnat, “Towards practical criticism”, AFI Education Newsletter 4, no. 4 (1981): 1-2, 10-11; Raymond Bellour, “Segmenting/analysing”, in Genre: The Musical , ed. Rick Altman (London: British Film Institute, 1981), 102-133. Durgnat’s recent book on WR – Mysteries of the Organism (London: British Film Institute, 1999) employs scanning as one thread within a superbly structured analytical collage; Bellour’s own essay in scan-mode, “Le film qu’on accompagne”,  Trafic 4 (1992): 109-130, on Ritwik Ghatak’s  Meghe dhake tara (1960), is unquestionably among the best of this genre.
[7] David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
[8] Cf. Farber dossier edited by Noel King in Framework 40 (1999): 9-68.
[9] Cf. V. F. Perkins, “Must we say what they mean?:Film criticism and Interpretation”, Movie 34/5 (1990): 1-6.
[10] Don Ranvaud, “An interview with Jean-Luc Godard”, Framework 21 (1983): 8.
[11] Cf. Greg Taylor, Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999).
[12][13] Two literary milestones: Aragon, “What is art, Jean-Luc Godard?”, in Focus on Godard, 135-46; and Pier Paolo Pasolini, “A desperate vitality” in Pier Paolo Pasolini: Poems, selected and translated by Norman MacAfee (New York: The Noonday Press, 1996), 149-77.
[14] Cf. Kristin Thompson’s chapters on Tout va bien (1972) and Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1979) in Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), 110-31 & 263-88; and Jacques Aumont, “This is not a textual analysis (Godard’s La chinoise)”, Camera obscura 8-9-10 (1982): 130-60. A detailed essay in deconstructive mode is Marie-Claire Ropars, “The graphic in filmic writing: A bout de souffle, or the erratic alphabet”, Enclitic 1/2, no. 5/6 (1982): 147-61
[15] Cf. Ian Cameron (ed.), The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (London: Studio Vista, 1969).
[16] Cf. Peter Wollen, “Godard and counter cinema: Vent d’est“, in Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies(London: Verso, 1982), 79-91.
[17] Aumont, “This is not a textual analysis”: 132.
[18] Cf Marc Gervais, “Jean-Luc Godard 1985: these are not the days”, Sight and Sound LIV, no. 4 (1985): 278-83. Incidentally, Gervais is, to my knowledge, the first critic post-Farber to forcibly put descriptive criticism back on the agenda, in his work on Citizen Kane (Welles, 1940) presented in a lecture in Australia, 1980.
[19] Among the best recent analyses of the poetic form of Godard’s movies: Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Le mépris(1963), Chicago Reader 5 September 1997.

[20] Alain Bergala, “The other side of the bouquet”, in Jean-Luc Godard: son + image 1974-1991, eds. Raymond Bellour and Mary Lea Bandy (New York: the Museum of Modern Art, 1992), 57-73.

[21] Ropars-Wuilleumier, “Form and substance”: 95
[22] Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Popular culture”, New Formations 2 (1987): 90.
[23] Ropars-Wuilleumier, “Form and substance”: 99.
Ibid, 95
[2] For a radically original and sophisticated account of Godardian transformations, cf. Nicole Brenez, “Le film abymé: Jean-Luc Godard et iconoclasme”, in De la figure en général et du corps en particulier (Bruxelles: De Boeck, 1998), 339-60.
[26] I consider the pros and cons of Sterritt’s book in greater detail in a forthcoming review (Cineaste, 2000).

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is all posts by Adrian Martin →