The Work of Aesthetics
1. Film art?
If my argument is for the importance of aesthetics within Godard's films and videos since the late 1980s, two kinds of questions quickly arise. First, if I am taking a tradition of philosophical aesthetics to be not only an interpretive framework but also explicitly present within these works, what evidence is there in the films and videos? Where does this concern manifest itself? Second, if aesthetics is as prominent as I am claiming, why have critics by and large failed to bring it up, much less discuss it as a central orientation?
Though the primary purpose of this chapter is to work through the first question, to begin to discuss the place of aesthetics in Godard's late work, I'm going to start with the question about criticism, the question of why aesthetics has rarely figured in writing about these works. To a certain extent, I think this is a mistaken, if natural, way of phrasing the question. Aesthetics may not have received explicit attention in critical writing on Godard's late films and videos, but a range of associated terms (natural beauty, form, free play, and so on) are staples in the discourse. Yosefa Loshitzky, for example, discerns in Nouvelle vague a sustained treatment of natural beauty: "Nature is celebrated through adoring shots of the Swiss forests, lakes, and meadows which serve as contrapuntal points of reference to the decadent world of the power-lustful industrialists." But something is lost in the shift from aesthetics proper to terms that have been historically associated with the discourse of aesthetics. When Loshitzky talks about natural beauty, she treats it as a topic-in the way that industrial production and finance capital are treated in the films-that Godard has an opinion about. Thus, she concludes her discussion by noting: "The biblical, edenic associations of the garden emphasize the religious, utopian dimension of nature, envisioned by Godard as the last resort from late capitalism." From an observation about the presence of images of nature, Loshitzky draws a set of conclusions: to work in terms associated with aesthetics is to be uninterested in questions of history and politics, even to evince an idealist or conservative position.
I'm going to spend much of this chapter laying the groundwork for a more expansive and intricate account of the role of aesthetics in Godard's films, one that encompasses modes of perception and experience, judgment and knowledge, and is wholly intertwined with history and politics. But what's needed is more than a revisiting of Godard's late work. The terms of criticism deployed in response to it emerge out of a long-standing tradition within film studies, one that minimizes or rejects aesthetics as a category of valuation. It's a tradition in which Godard himself played a prominent part. Getting clear about the nature of Godard's cinematic project in the late 1980s and 1990s will require working through and undoing central elements of this critical legacy.
The place of aesthetics within film history, and within film studies as well, goes back to the first decades of the twentieth century. As film was struggling to be recognized as a genuine art, more than a mere recording of the world or a form of "canned theater," film critics and theorists frequently made use of terms from aesthetics to demonstrate the medium's artistic legitimacy. Film had emerged not in the context of high artistic culture, the spaces of the theater and the museum, but rather at the fairground, in the vaudeville theater, and in the traveling exhibition. As Tom Gunning argued, early films functioned as a "cinema of attractions": their appeals were predicated less on traditional artistic values than on the creation of sensory thrills, new experiences, and a direct solicitation of the viewer's attention. For this reason, early film has often been described as opposed to the bourgeois world of artistic cultivation. At a certain point, though, this began to change. In the 1910s, the period of "narrative integration," a number of filmmakers and critics sought to raise the standard of the cinema, to improve not only the films being made but also the character of the audiences watching them. They sought, in short, to give film the status of the other arts.
Two basic strategies for this effort emerged. The first was articulated by D.W. Griffith in the wake of the controversy over The Birth of a Nation (1915). Decrying its censorship, Griffith argued that cinema's status as a legitimate art form was bound up with debates over the freedom of speech. Labeling cinema a "medium of expression," he wrote, "A people that would allow the suppression of this form of speech would unquestionably submit to the suppression of that which we all consider so highly, the printing press." This is the core of Griffith's argument: censorship of the press is forbidden by the Bill of Rights; the cinema is a "pictorial press"; therefore, the cinema cannot be censored, because it is on par with the printed word. As a result, Griffith concluded that "the development of the moving picture industry constitutes the birth of a new art," and so can claim the protection the law gives to artistic productions.
The second strategy had to do with cultural legitimacy. Anton Kaes argues that, in the period from 1909 to 1920, "cinema felt pressure to legitimize itself vis-à-vis literature as the dominant medium" in cultural life. As it developed its own theaters and new forms of technology, cinema was able to "edge into a competitive relationship with mainstream literature, especially with the novel (which offered ready material for cinematic representation) and with the theater (which lost famous directors and actors to the new medium)." One version of this was the German "kino debatte" that Kaes describes; the more famous effort to integrate theater and film involved the French films d'art, in particular the use of actors from the Comédie-Française to create prestige productions (such as L'assassinat du duc de Guise [Charles Le Bargy, 1908]).
Early theories of film emerged in the context of this debate. As Noël Carroll remarks, "The philosophy of the motion picture was born over the issue of whether film can be art." One example of this position was Vachel Lindsay's 1915 proclamation, "The motion picture is a great high art, not a process of commercial manufacture." Another was Hugo Münsterberg's use (in 1916) of the conceptual framework of Kant's theory of mind to explain the power of films to produce new kinds of (what he took to be almost unimaginable) experiences. A decade later Béla Bálazs invoked the terms of classical aesthetics, drawing in particular on Lessing's Laocoön, to argue that film needed to develop into "an autonomous art ruled by its own laws." Rudolf Arnheim also used Lessing as a reference in his description of the rules of art specific to film. The point for both Bálazs and Arnheim wasn't simply that film ought to be accorded the same respect as theater or painting in order to enable the appropriate appreciation; rather, the fact that a film could be treated in terms of aesthetics meant that it was on equal footing with the other arts. This line of argument finds its culmination in the art film, which, Dudley Andrew argues, "wants to make us choose to enter the theater just as we decide to go to a concert featuring Beethoven's sonata opus 111."
The tendency to argue for film as high art, and to do so on terms drawn from aesthetics, had important consequences for later conceptualizations of film. One of these consequences involved the creation of the first institutional film collections. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art, along with the more specialized Anthology Film Archives, established a repository of the art of cinema, including experimental works as well as the films of Griffith, self-conscious cinematic "art" as well as that of Hollywood directors. Haidee Wasson has chronicled MoMA's efforts to raise cinema to the status of a genuine art; similarly, P. Adams Sitney described the Anthology Film Archives as being "made to formulate, acquire, and frequently exhibit a nuclear collection of the monuments of cinematic art." In France, a similar role was played by the Cinémathèque Français, founded by Henri Langlois and Georges Franju. (I discuss its importance for Godard in chapter 5.) Other nations, including Germany, Italy, and Japan, also established similar institutions in the middle of the twentieth century.
Perhaps inevitably, the institutional celebration of film as an art and the linking of the terms of aesthetics to this project generated a movement away from this critical tradition. In 1954, for example, François Truffaut set out the parameters of the nouvelle vague in a denunciation of the "tradition of quality" in French cinema. Although Truffaut did not call for the wholesale elimination of aesthetics or art, he argued vehemently against using other arts to add to the prestige of film. His goal was a reorientation of aesthetic value, an end to adapting works of "quality" for the screen in favor of a cinema that would be truer to the authentic possibilities of the medium itself. Truffaut was only an early marker of this criticism. As filmmakers and theorists began to disavow art cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, they rejected the terms of aesthetics altogether. When Laura Mulvey argued in 1975 that the role of criticism was to destroy "pleasure, or beauty," her intent was not to provide a new account of aesthetic value but rather to overturn an entire tradition of aesthetic valuation. The political rejection or suspicion of aesthetic criteria exemplified by Mulvey's early work permeated a wide range of critical methods. Saussurean structuralist semiotics, as it was picked up in film studies, turned language into the central model for analysis, bypassing considerations of aesthetics by turning the viewer into a decoder of a text. Psychoanalytic accounts of cinema either described film viewing in terms of theories of individual development or explored analogies (between the screen and a Lacanian "mirror," for example) to understand the social function of cinema. And "apparatus theory" rejected the indeterminacy of aesthetic considerations in favor of an analysis of the viewing position created by the combination of a camera based in Renaissance perspective and the spatial arrangement of theatrical exhibition. These critical methods became sufficiently prominent to allow Dudley Andrew, in 1984, to say with assurance, "The word 'aesthetics' has nearly dropped from the vocabulary of film theory."
Taken together, these methods constituted a movement that D.N. Rodowick has labeled "political modernism." Rather than drawing on a tradition of art cinema, filmmakers and theorists claimed a lineage defined by left-wing criticism of mass media. The suspicion of artistic "aura" that had been voiced by Benjamin and Brecht in the 1930s returned as an argument that film ought to function as a form of "ideology critique" of and through its own institutional position. This meant not just advocating radical political goals but also exposing the conventions on which "bourgeois cinema" was based, from narrative patterns to the material status of the image-an effort to unlearn, decode, and reject the habits viewers had gathered from "naïve" moviegoing. Political modernism thus rejected not only Hollywood cinema but the art house tradition as well, a position voiced most explicitly in Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino's call for a "third cinema."
Godard's films from the late 1960s and 1970s were not simply part of the burgeoning growth of political modernism. His work in these years and the production methods he employed served as one of its primary models. Of particular importance was the way Godard sought to find a cinematic form that would be adequate to the political concerns he wanted to express and at the same time tried to discover a politics that would be adequate to the formal innovations he was exploring. As he noted, "We have not yet learned to watch and listen to a film. And therein lies our most important task today. For example, those who are politically aware are rarely cinematographically aware as well, and vice versa. Generally it's one or the other. As for myself, I owe my political formation to the cinema, and I think this is comparatively rare at present." This line of argument emphasized systems of media as the central place for political interrogation, suggesting that filmmakers face a moral and political imperative to challenge and upend the familiar systems of representation and production on which they draw. Le gai savoir (1969) may be Godard's most explicit version of this project, with its self-proclaimed mission to "start from zero" and construct a new, and free, language of image, text, and sound.
It's hard to overstate Godard's influence on film theory in these years. Partly, this influence had to do with the films themselves, the way they articulate a pressing political need to rethink the basic elements of film practice. But it correlates with other historical changes as well: while these films were being made, and in the wake of their influence on international film production-an influence that was intense and deep, although not quite as widespread as the influence of his films of the nouvelle vague period-film studies were emerging as an academic discipline. I suspect there's something to the thought that trends in film studies respond to the films of the time (or perhaps to the films just before their time), and so the rise of "theory" in the 1970s built on the foundation laid by Godard's work a few years earlier.
While there have been recent attempts to "reclaim" art cinema from accusations of its cultural and political conservatism, I am concerned here with the way the legacy of political modernism shaped the reception of Godard's films and videos from the 1980s onward. It was precisely the importance of the Groupe Dziga Vertov films for a generation of filmmakers and scholars that led to the subsequent charges of nostalgia or naïveté against Godard's later work. Reading critical pieces from the 1980s and 1990s, one is often struck by a tone of betrayal and the repeated description of Godard's later films as amounting to a withdrawal from the political concerns that motivated his turn away from art and aesthetics in the first place. Frequently, the criticisms are expressed in terms of a fall: having once been at the vanguard of a cinematic and political movement, Godard's films and videos now evince little or no interest in those commitments. His films, that is, explicitly draw on and endorse a tradition of high art and culture (painting in Passion, music in Prénom Carmen, theology in Je vous salue, Marie, literature in King Lear) in a way that directly goes against the grain of the films from the previous decade.
This criticism is further grounded by an apparent correlation with biographical facts. In the wake of the failure of his collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin and the dissolution of the Groupe Dziga Vertov, as well as a devastating motorcycle accident, Godard founded a new studio, Sonimage, with Anne-Marie Miéville in 1972. He did so, however, not in Paris but in Grenoble, eventually moving to the Swiss town of Rolle in 1977. MacCabe argued in 1979 that this geographical shift changed the nature of Godard's interest in both cinema and politics: "Sonimage's move from Paris to Grenoble and then to Rolle becomes the analogue of confronting the solitude that cities impose but disavow. ... [This position's] weakness is its concomitant refusal to consider the possibility of the creation of social meaning, of the grounds of social action." As MacCabe sees it, Godard's move marks a turn away from a belief in the importance of political action, a turn represented by his embrace of the idea of solitude. Like Rousseau's solitary wanderer, Godard withdraws in self-imposed exile from Paris to Switzerland in order to free himself from the complexities of the world of history and politics, the world in which public events take place. Away from the urban centers of Europe, he seems comfortable in a role as a cinematic and political outsider.
To an extent, this reading is born out in Godard's work. His collaborations with Miéville during the 1970s, for example, frequently turn toward the question of the home. At times, as in Ici et ailleurs (1974), this is figured as simultaneously national and domestic: about the role of France in producing images of non-Western struggle and about the role of the household in maintaining the political order. Elsewhere, as in Numéro deux (1975), the focus is on the family unit itself: the relation between industrial and domestic work, the tensions between generations, and the sexual manifestations of larger social and political frustrations. While overtly political, these films eschew Godard's earlier commitments, exhibiting suspicion of any demand to place film in the service of revolutionary activity.
This tendency increased when Godard "returned" to feature filmmaking in the 1980s, as a number of his characters evince a profound anxiety about their place in public or political life. The three films with which I am mostly concerned are not exceptions. In Soigne ta droite, "the Individual" worries about the way his identity is threatened by amorphous and impersonal forces. He shies away from figures of paternal authority, the dehumanization of rote manual work, and the negligence of political parties. In Nouvelle vague, Roger Lennox finds himself unable to comprehend the networks of financial institutions into which he has been placed, repeatedly rejecting the public roles he is given. In Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, Lemmy Caution struggles to understand the effects of the political movements that swept back and forth across Europe in the twentieth century-changes in which he played no role as a political actor-as he wanders through the ruins of its epicenter.
In these films, Godard repeatedly shows characters residing in private existence or expressing a desire to be in such a state. Critics have wanted his films to show that countering such a condition of isolation is important, whether politically or morally. But Godard appears unwilling or unable to do this. Soigne ta droite ends with a poetic meditation on myth and creation, spoken over a view of a sunset through the window of an uninhabited beach house; Nouvelle vague finishes with the central couple rejecting the demands of capitalism, not for political rebellion but in favor of the intricacies and intimacies of love; and Allemagne 90 neuf zéro shows Caution alone in a hotel room, isolated from a world that has changed without him. There is little to indicate that Godard sees solitude as a problem to be actively countered.
It's here that the traditions of debates over art, aesthetics, and film come together. When critics see Godard's turn away from public affairs, they also observe an increasing interest in the legacy of high art. As a result, a variety of discourses-solitude and politics, art and aesthetics-become mixed together, more or less equated. In this mixing, the terms and categories of art (and of aesthetics as well) are linked to Godard's turn away from political commitment; correspondingly, when he shows interest in art, he is taken to be withdrawing from the political world. An aesthete at heart.
Many of the arguments I will make in this book go against this way of thinking about Godard's late work. Rather than refuting the charges of these criticisms, however, I will try to redefine the basic terms of discussion, since it's in the way questions are asked that this particular line of interpretation gets going in the first place. Crucially, this involves understanding the place of aesthetics in Godard's late films and videos in a very different way.
2. The dialectic is interested in you
Part of the difficulty in coming to terms with Godard's late work is the desire to employ models of political cinema largely derived from the 1960s: as an instrumental support for a political movement or as a politically motivated deconstruction of a dominant ideology or paradigm. Godard's films and videos since the 1980s, however, follow a different model, oriented more by a project of historical understanding.
One reason for this change has to do with historical events. The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed the failure of revolutionary energy across international borders, coupled with the rise of right-wing figures, ranging from Reagan and Thatcher to Pinochet and Videla. In the midst of the reaction from the right, the self-evidence of what counted as political cinema was lost, and it began to splinter and dissipate. One of the major forms that political cinema now took involved a newfound engagement with history. In films such as Chris Marker's Le fond de l'air est rouge (A Grin without a Cat, 1977), cinema became a way to understand history, a tool by which history could be analyzed rather than changed.
Godard's late work is part of this tendency, as he explicitly takes up investigations into the way the contemporary world has arrived at its current situation, how its transformations should be thought about, and the role cinema can play in this endeavor. Put another way, his films and videos still involve questions that preoccupied him in the era of political modernism-questions about politics, history, and society, and about the place of cinema within them-but they are now cast in a different form and arrive at different kinds of answers. Godard's cinema follows a model that might be labeled "diagnostic," oriented by a concern with historical understanding rather than political transformation (perhaps reversing Marx's line about Feuerbach). The diagnostic model can be seen in the way many of his films use political events as their narrative frame: Chernobyl for King Lear, the fall of the Berlin Wall for Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars for Hélas pour moi (1993), Je vous salue, Sarajevo (1993), For Ever Mozart, and Notre musique. By explicitly positioning his films in relation to political events, Godard makes them available to be read as responses to those situations. He ensures that a given trope, technique, quotation, or image does not function in isolation, as a self-enclosed topic, but rather as an engagement, obliquely or directly, with a contemporary event or crisis. Taking a political cinema to define itself through its response to a situation may feel odd, especially given Godard's history as a committed filmmaker. Yet he has been attracted to this approach ever since the opening lines of Le petit soldat announced, "The time for action is over. I have aged. The time for reflection is beginning."
The diagnostic model provides a way to understand the role of solitude in Godard's late work. Rather than signaling a withdrawal from the social, political, and historical world, Godard uses the motif of solitude to engage with and rethink these very concerns. That is, the desire for solitude is treated less as a value in its own right than as a response to a political context, to the tragedies of the twentieth century and the anxieties that emerge forcefully toward its end. In each film, he articulates a public context that serves, with varying degrees of specificity, as the occasion for a withdrawal into privacy or isolation. Critics are right, then, to say that Godard is relatively uninterested in passing judgment on whether one should be in a state of solitude; he simply takes it to be the case that solitude is a comprehensible response to certain social and political situations. But this is not equivalent to a full-scale withdrawal from politics by the film itself: Godard uses solitude, or at least the impulse to seek solitude, as a diagnostic tool. The particular form that solitude takes can then be used to think through the public conditions that motivate it.
The first intertitle of Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, "Solitudes: un état et des variations" (Solitude: A State and Variations), already plays with the line between private and public, since a state (un état) is a category at once individual (a state of mind) and social (a nation-state). As the film goes on, Godard brings them together by developing the odd idea that the state, as a political entity, has achieved or desires to achieve the condition of solitude. (As he put it in an interview, "I did not want to make a film on the solitude of lovers or drug addicts. I found more interest in the solitude of a land [un pays], a state, a collective.") Late in the film, Caution remarks, "The dream of the state is to be alone; the dream of the individual is to be two," over a title that reads "Categorical Imperative." Unlike states, individuals are not described as seeking out solitude as much as seeking out one another. The suggestion here is that the state acts to rid itself of competing voices, the critique of individuals, since each time Godard uses these lines in a film he notes that their author was killed by the Nazis. More generally, Caution appears to be pointing to a familiar distinction between two models of society, one based on the organization of individuals and one based on the idea of a self-sustaining state.
Godard builds up to the relation between individuals and the state in a sequence that draws on some of the central political conflicts of the twentieth century. It begins with a title, "The Time of Contempt," and we are shown several clips of Nazi and Soviet soldiers accompanied by an audio recording from a Nazi-era radio address: "There is a whisper from every continent rising up against the Soviet Union." Caution's voice is then heard: "In this atmosphere I could not find my place. The Comintern was not what it had been in 1923 [the last year of Lenin's rule]." Godard then cuts to a bar, where people are drinking, talking, or staring into space; an early Marlene Dietrich song plays on the soundtrack, as if from a jukebox. The text Caution reads is from the autobiography of Jan Valtin, an active member of the maritime division of the German Communist Party from 1918 until his capture by the Gestapo in 1933. It's a reference Godard wants us to pick up on, since we will shortly see Caution seated at a table with Valtin's book in a French translation; another man at the table is reading the German edition. Caution continues in voice-over: "And neither was I the same youngster who had stormed police strongholds and fought behind barricades with a gun in my hand. Firelei [Valtin's wife] now meant more to me than Josef Stalin or the Soviet Constitution." From the standpoint of the 1936 Communist Party, the time of the purges, Valtin speaks wistfully about the incompatibility of a private life with the duties of a revolutionary. Godard's use of Valtin's text gives a particular slant to the film's depiction of the desire for solitude. The fantasy of a private life, as articulated by Valtin (via Caution), is treated as a disillusioned response to the history of left-wing or socialist politics in the twentieth century, whether in the 1930s or the 1980s. The implication is that fatigue with political action produces the dream of withdrawal, that it is not a simple indifference to politics.
Part of the force of this scene comes from the way Godard adapts a strategy from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978). There, Fassbinder explores how the drive for economic self-advancement in postwar Germany deferred or displaced a genuine acknowledgment of the nation's involvement in World War II. Among several techniques he uses to show this is the staging of famous radio addresses from postwar German political life against scenes of private activity, usually eating, thereby correlating personal lives with public events. The most shocking instance is when, late in the film, Maria Braun hears Adenauer's announcement of Germany's rearmament while she eats lunch; rising up from her table, she staggers to the side and vomits. Fassbinder suggests that the effects of unacknowledged and ignored political events exist not just in the social sphere but in the individual body; neuroses and other pathological or destructive behaviors are the result.
The bar scene in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro follows a similar pattern. Not only does it share with The Marriage of Maria Braun a color palette of browns and grays, but Godard also adopts Fassbinder's use of sound: we hear a radio announcement that German ships are being sent into the Persian Gulf to sweep for mines ahead of the upcoming invasion of Iraq, a controversial moment in contemporaneous German history. For the first time since the end of World War II, German armed forces were involved in an international conflict. As I will argue later in the chapter, one of Godard's main anxieties in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro is over the return to "normalcy" in German national self-identity, part of which involved its remilitarization.
But even though both Godard and Fassbinder use the responses and desires of individuals as a way to understand larger social and political changes, there is an important difference. Fassbinder focuses on the way individuals, immersed in private activity, register political events unconsciously; he is concerned with the dangers of failing to acknowledge the existence of a political world. Godard, by contrast, gives us characters all too aware of politics; Valtin's life constitutes the exemplary form of this position. In this way, Allemagne 90 neuf zéro uses political narratives and visual strategies from across the twentieth century to articulate a new crisis for political actors: the end of the socialist alternative, however compromised it might have been, that East Germany represented. And with it is a worry over the very possibility of political engagement.
Godard ends the scene on a somber note, suggesting that the desire for a private life separate from battles in the public sphere may be understandable on political grounds but is nonetheless an illusory fantasy. As Caution and the other man sit and read Valtin's book, we hear a phrase from Hegel spoken by the narrator in voice-over: "In following their own interests, individuals make history and are at the same time the means of something higher and greater, of which they are ignorant and which they fulfill unconsciously." Seen from a wider historical perspective, public and private are not separable realms but inextricably interwoven with each other. Godard suggests, albeit with a tone of sadness and resignation, that we are all, willingly or not, caught up in larger political movements and the course of (world) history. The desire for absolute privacy, for living a life not connected to public and political events, involves a fantasy that history continues to prove unrealizable.
Allemagne 90 neuf zéro may constitute the most complex and explicit negotiation of the political dimension of solitude in Godard's work of these years. But if Soigne ta droite and Nouvelle vague lack the brilliance of the later film, a similar structure of engagement with solitude is nonetheless present within them. The use of solitude in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro is not an isolated treatment so much as the culmination of arguments and experiments in the opening sequences of the two previous films.
Soigne ta droite begins with its title in white lettering on a black background, over which we hear the sound of a telephone ringing. This is followed by a series of aerial shots-a forest suffused with fog, fields, rural towns, and lakes-as a voice says, "At the end of the twentieth century, the Idiot's phone rang. He's through with work, about to spend a quiet evening, as one still can in some remote areas of Europe, lost between the forests of Germany and the lakes of northern Italy. That's when the phone rings ... just then!" A stranger is calling, saying that the Idiot's sins (unnamed but apparently many) will be forgiven if he makes a film and delivers it that afternoon; a car is waiting for him, so is a plane ticket; he is to leave immediately. Apparently, the icons of industrial modernity aren't so distant after all.
The opening scene presents the Idiot as a modern Rousseau, withdrawn to one of the few remaining "remote areas" in order to escape the presence of others, to achieve the "complete renunciation of the world." This turns out to be impossible, in part because people continually intrude on his solitude. Like Rousseau, he is disturbed, brought out, made to engage with the intrigues of the world once again. But the Idiot's desire for solitude is more a response to the public world than a flight motivated by private affairs and a feeling of persecution by one-time friends. Soigne ta droite gives this desire an increasingly broad motivation, culminating in Godard's extraordinary updating of the train scene from La chinoise. Instead of having Anne Wiazemsky and Francis Jeanson debate the validity of revolutionary terror, Godard shows a despairing conversation between two older men, both of whom are members of the Communist Party (or an equivalent organization). One is being taken to the border in handcuffs, where he will be sent away to be executed; their extended conversation revolves around the historical failure of radical politics and its misfiring attempts to incorporate radical art. (I discuss the train scene further in the next chapter.) In this scene, and in others throughout the film, Godard presents the public world, the world that surrounds individuals, as a profoundly unattractive place. The political failures of the twentieth century, seen from the vantage point of its end, have taken away the public arena in which the possibility for political action once resided.
The problem is even more explicit in Nouvelle vague. The appearance of the motif of solitude in the opening shots of the film marks a radicalization of the term: solitude becomes less a withdrawal from the public or social world than a flight from the physical world itself. Over a black screen with the film's title in white lettering, a male voice says, "But I wanted this to be a narrative [Mais c'est un récit que je voulais faire]. I still do. Nothing from outside to distract from memory." There is an initial confusion here. The deictic this in the first statement appears to refer to the film we're currently watching, but the verb is in the past tense: its author "wanted this to be a narrative." Although it might imply that the film Godard made simply isn't a narrative, "I still do" indicates that the speaker may instead be articulating a worry that it won't be one. (In some ways, this is familiar territory for Godard: what matters is less the content of a narrative than the desire for one.) At the same time, he suggests that the desired narrative might come from memory, the mind separated from the world present to the senses. Yet if memory, as represented by the black screen, is to be separated from the world ("nothing from outside"), then how should we understand that desire? Is the narrator fantasizing that, with our eyes closed or the screen empty, the world is shut out, and a narrative can begin that will draw solely on memory? Is the film, or the audience, to be blocked off to allow memory to emerge? Or is the film the source of that memory? However we understand it, the fantasy of memory quickly dissolves as Godard cuts from the black screen to a shot of a tree, branches overhanging a verdant field, with two horses grazing in the background (figure 3). It's a beautiful, almost idyllic, image-and emphatically part of the world. It's as if the world itself were insisting on its presence, refusing to let the narrator organize the film according to his dictates; it is this tree, here in the world (of the film) that matters. Any desire for absolute solitude is shown to be unrealizable, perhaps even undesirable. Do we want to lose the sensuous qualities of the world? Even if we do, can we willfully ignore them?
The interplay between solitude and world continues to develop over the next few shots. The voice-over immediately tries to reassert the power of narrative over the external world by drawing the tree into the terms of memory. It says, "I barely hear, from time to time, the earth's soft moan, one ripple breaking the surface. I am content with the shade [ombre]"-we go back to the credits, which now read "Alain Delon," the speaker of the voice-over-"of a single poplar, tall behind me in its mourning." If we must have something of the world, it will be only minimal. Again, Godard immediately shows the world (of the film) as refusing this desire, though now on different terms. There is a cut to a close-up of a left hand, horizontally extended from the left edge of the frame with its palm presented to the viewer. A landscape, as if from a painting by Poussin, recedes into the distance, while another hand, a right hand closed in a fist, comes into the frame from below and is enfolded within the grasp of the left hand. It's important that we can tell they are the hands of two different people: the placement of one hand into the other thus functions as an emblem of human connection, a sense of togetherness. It turns out that we need other people as well.
Nouvelle vague repeatedly returns to the image of two hands clasped together, generally using it to stand for a relation-of loving, caring, giving, acknowledging-between a couple. But if the image of hands functions as a refutation of solitude in the opening moments of the film, at other moments its significance is less certain. Seen under the auspices of a broader public world, the image of twoness, in its most basic form, suggests withdrawal from or indifference to that world, a retreat to interpersonal intimacy. Perhaps it suffices for our happiness to have one person who responds to us in an appropriate way; perhaps no political or social solution is needed. And yet a recurrent anxiety about the contemporary world runs throughout the film, as characters repeatedly express confusion about how to understand the economic and political system in which they find themselves. In one instance, a banker notes, "In the past, such rampant manipulation of credit and debit always led to major disaster," and wonders why this doesn't seem to be happening then. When placed in this context, Godard's interest in the form of twoness reads more as a calculated strategy in response to confusion and anxiety about the public world than it does as a reflexive withdrawal from that world. The difference is subtle but significant. In the absence of clear knowledge of what's happening or of what we should do, Godard stages a retreat in the direction of the couple, a retreat that occurs with full recognition of the complexities of the public world.
Across these three films, then, Godard gives multiple accounts of the nature of solitude, including a withdrawal from political action, the rejection of the social world, and a retreat to the romantic couple. In each case, the form of solitude depicted is predicated on the kind of situation being escaped. With the ravages of political activism, we have the fantasy of bourgeois privacy; with the impositions of the public world, we have social isolation; with the demands of finance, we have the solace of love. Importantly, in each film the flight into solitude is shown as failing to sustain itself. The terms of failure are different each time-Caution is still within the political sphere, the Idiot is made to face the world again, and Roger and Elena cannot escape entanglement with the intricacies of power and money-but the result is the same: solitude turns out to be impossible to achieve, much less sustain.
3. Making the stone stony
In turning from solitude to aesthetics, we run the danger of treating them as similar kinds of things and so carrying associations from one to the other. The risk is in, among other things, returning to the approach I criticized above, in which aesthetics is treated as a topic, and certain images are taken to be the entire content of aesthetics. But the move has two advantages. First, it allows aesthetics to emerge in a way that lets it function as a mode of analysis; aesthetics is not simply something in the film, but a way of thinking that does work for the film. Second, and more important, the investigation of solitude should rid us of the assumption that we know what the category of aesthetics means in these films. A guiding principle of this chapter, and of the book as a whole, is that the terms of aesthetics, at least as they operate for Godard, cannot be given in advance. This principle is largely methodological. Aesthetics is not so much a topic within a larger discourse as it is the very means by which that discourse is pursued. However, I'll also argue that aesthetics enters the picture in no small way because of Godard's sense that other methods of inquiry and analysis have reached a dead end or come up against their own limitations. In this context, he uses the categories and terms of aesthetics to reformulate basic questions of historical and political understanding, and he does so by exploring the resources of aesthetics in and through cinema.
I will begin by looking at a specific visual device employed by Godard throughout his late films. Starting with Soigne ta droite and continuing in most films he has made since, Godard makes prominent use of extended focus pulls. The attraction of this device seems to be primarily nonnarrative, as it brings out an experiential or perceptual register of the film, an aesthetic dimension that can then be mobilized for other and more extensive ambitions. In such moments when concerns about aesthetics become explicit, we begin to understand the work of aesthetics.
Godard's first use of an extended focus pull occurs toward the end of Soigne ta droite. The film has again returned to the recording studio where Les Rita Mitsouko are rehearsing a song. A voice-over, referring back to the train scene, remarks, "Then, I realized that, on the train, the policeman forgot to speak of the dead, forgot to say these simple words: 'Yes, what would we do without the dead?' That sentence should have been said near the border." On the word policeman, Godard cuts to a shot that resembles an abstract composition. Against the pale white and blue background of the sky, a dark band runs more or less vertically down the frame, slightly to the right of center; two faint and thinner horizontal bands run across the frame near the top and bottom (figure 4). Both horizontal and vertical bands are blurred, out of focus. As the voice-over continues, Godard gradually begins to bring them into focus, a shift that happens slowly enough that five seconds later we are still unsure as to the content of the image. It eventually becomes clear that we are looking at a wooden pole with strands of barbed wire attached to it, shot from below and framed against the sky (figure 5).
A second focus pull immediately follows. On the word sentence and when the first shot is finally brought into crisp focus, Godard cuts to another shot of barbed wire. Again, the wire runs horizontally in the foreground, but this time it's in focus at the outset, thereby directing our attention to the foreground. In the background, people seem to be seated in a disorganized cluster but are so out of focus that they appear almost as a spatial arrangement of colors. After a beat, the camera tracks slightly back and moves up, and the focus begins to shift. The combined camera movement and focus pull continue for several seconds until the background figures become clear: a group of people sprawled out in various positions on what looks like the bleachers of a sports stadium. By this time, the barbed wire has gone out of focus. Though it is still recognizable as a wire, the barbs are no longer emphasized, and so it resembles the other wire supports lining the aisles of the bleachers.
A scene then follows in which Godard juxtaposes statements about poetry, loss, politics, and sports (one man intermittently yells, "Go, Platini," as the sounds of a soccer match are heard) with the iconography of concentration camps (the jumble of bodies, references to Klaus Barbie and the Hotel Terminus). At the end of the scene, several minutes later, he begins another focus pull. Over a close-up of a young woman lying facedown on a bench, the voice-over from the beginning of the sequence is heard again: "And with a final piercing of the border of the dream, a final shattering of every sort of image, a last shattering of memory, the dream grew and grew with it. His thinking became greater than all thinking. It became a second immensity. It became the law that caused the crystal to grow, stated in crystal, stated through music, but over and above expressing the music of crystal." As the voice-over begins, Godard cuts to an out-of-focus shot of the sky. Barbed wire, in focus and running diagonally from the top left to the bottom right of the frame, is in silhouette in the foreground (figure 6). After seven seconds and on the phrase "a last shattering of memory," a focus pull begins, and, over the next eight seconds, the background comes into sharp focus. Several seconds later, as the voice speaks of "a second immensity," Godard begins a second focus pull, which slowly reverses the previous focus pull to place emphasis on the foreground and the barbed wire. The scene concludes with a pair of shots of the two musicians from Les Rita Mitsouko, bathed in shadows but looking up so that their faces are framed by light.
There's a strong temptation to think about these shots in thematic terms. On the basis of the content of the voice-over, the focus pulls lend themselves to a reading that draws on the interaction between sky and wire. The focus pulls on either end of the scene in the bleachers might be about the desire for, and the impossibility of, transcendence: a desire to escape a mundane and imprisoning world. The first shot of the sequence shows the sky in focus and the wire a mere blur, as if a visualization of what the voice-over calls a "piercing of the border": the shot seems to leap over the wire into the open expanse of sky beyond. Then, when the focus pull brings the wire into focus, the freedom and openness it suggested are shown to be an illusion. We didn't see the whole situation, and now we find that we are trapped, imprisoned. But in what? Behind what? Alain Resnais's Nuit et brouillard (1955) opens with a similar gesture, as peaceful landscapes that begin the first two shots are revealed as views from within a concentration camp. In the first, the camera moves down to reveal the barbed wire; in the second, the camera moves back and to the right to expose the location. Is that what's at issue in Soigne ta droite? Such a reading seems to receive confirmation in the second shot, which begins outside the wire looking in at the people in the stadium before a focus pull subtly erases the barrier that separates us from them; we, too, are inside the camp. Finally, the end of the scene manifests a similar dynamic when, after the shot of the prone woman, Godard cuts to a close-up of barbed wire. This time, the focus pull that follows feels as if it moves into the sky, toward escape and transcendence. But the subsequent focus pull again suggests that the feeling of escape was merely a fantasy; despite the longing and the dream that "grew and grew," we are still behind the wire.
I think this reading is inadequate: not that it's wrong exactly, but the level of interpretation is off. Before interpreting the scene as being about freedom and confinement, whether historically precise or general, we need to attend to the way the focus pulls emphasize and draw our attention to the look of the images, an experiential dimension they evoke and make explicit. In their formal structure, the focus pulls dramatize a movement against everyday and empirical modes of perception or cognition. At first, the blurriness of the image seems to present a barrier to any attempt to figure out what's on screen. Attempts to work through the puzzle end after a few seconds (the blur is held too long for it simply to be a matter of looking at an out-of-focus shot), and our attention instead moves to the way the image appears. In these moments of uncertainty, it's the look of the images, not what they represent, that becomes the attraction. Even when the focus shifts and the content of the shot is evident, the crisp appearance of the image stands in sharp contrast to the blurriness that came before; we remain at least partly at a level of basic visual engagement. And when there are multiple focus pulls within a single shot, we pay attention not only to the fluctuating appearance of the image but also to the changes occurring in the way we look at it. It's as if Godard were providing a narrative of vision.
A later employment of focus pulls in Soigne ta droite, taking place shortly after the scene with the barbed wire, makes this aspect of their use explicit. Two seated human figures, extremely out of focus, can be discerned facing front and toward the right in a medium shot; despite the blur, we can see that they wear dark coats and white shirts. Godard keeps the shot out of focus for almost fifteen seconds, and the duration of the sheer blurriness of the image eventually turns our attention to its formal composition. We notice, for example, the way light reflecting off a pair of glasses is transformed into an isolated globule of color, producing an otherworldly look; we see the abstract pattern of light and dark colors laid out across the frame. After fifteen seconds in which we have nothing to do but look, Godard begins an extended, slow, twenty-second focus pull, finally revealing a man and a woman sitting at a table, looking out in front of them. The final result is surprisingly mundane: the light on the woman's glasses, so fascinating when out of focus, is hardly noticeable now.
A concern with perceptual experience is present in a number of Godard's films since the 1980s. In his video essay, Scénario de "Sauve qui peut (la vie)" (1979), he notes, "What I'm trying to show you is how I see things, so that you can judge whether I am able to see, and what I have seen ... and you can see if I see something. I show if there is something to see and how I see it. And you can say, 'No, he's wrong, there's nothing to see.' So what I would like to show you is a way of seeing: for example, superimpositions, cross-fades, and slow motion."
This declaration of intent at the start of this period in Godard's career is important, and a brief moment from Hélas pour moi makes it clear that focus pulls can be added to his list of devices. The focus pull in that film takes place in a scene in which an investigator into a series of strange events talks with a visionary poet who may or may not have witnessed them (basically, the story of Amphytrion). A discussion of Gershom Scholem's notion of truth and its transmission ensues, during which the investigator remarks, "I don't see what you're talking about," to which the poet responds, "You said it just right: 'I don't see'; and yet I saw it. Or rather, heard it. That's how I'd say it." At this moment, Godard cuts to an out-of-focus image: a pattern of green shapes spreads across the screen, with a black band running vertically about two-thirds of the way to the right edge. Curiously, at first the shot goes even more out of focus, where it remains for seven seconds before gradually moving into sharper resolution: a woman in a black sweater is sitting on a stone ledge facing the left edge of the screen, a tree and fields behind her providing the green that dominates the composition. In perhaps the most striking aspect of the shot, red apples are being hurled into the air from the bottom of the frame-a young man, below the frame, is lying on his back juggling them-the sound of this activity making a harsh contrast to the serene visual composition. Coming directly after the question of what it means to see (and what it means to have seen something that may not have been of this world), the focus pull draws attention to the fact of perception itself.
Godard's use of focus pulls is neither simple nor trivial. Three theoretical accounts of what could be called "aesthetic perception" suggest themselves as ways to describe their work. One account is (roughly) Kantian and looks at the way the lack of focus constitutes a refusal or delay of empirical cognition. Rather than directly subsuming the particular appearance of the image under a concept, the ordinary way we recognize and identify objects in the world, the focus pulls force us to stay with the purely formal arrangement of the shot, the patterns of colors allowing for the "free play" of the faculties of imagination and understanding outside any determinate content. Another account derives from Russian formalist theories of the 1920s, describing the way the blurred images distort and "make strange" our habitual recognition of objects. Viktor Shklovsky describes how such devices are used: "In order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By 'enstranging' [sic] objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and 'laborious.' The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest."
Finally, there is a Heideggerian description, which likewise emphasizes the breaking down of our ordinary habits of encountering entities. For Heidegger, when things fail-when a hammer falls apart while hammering or when, as happens in Soigne ta droite, we are unable to recognize what we see-we don't simply become aware of the object in its objecthood. We become aware of the world as a whole in a new way, with a heightened consciousness. Ordinary events and objects may "light up" the world, but so may art; Heidegger calls this mode of awareness "disclosure."
This list of interpretive frameworks is not exhaustive, nor does it do justice to any of the accounts or mark one as being particularly apt. What it shows is that the work Godard does with focus pulls in Soigne ta droite falls under a description of perception-indeed, under several different descriptions-that stands in contrast to ordinary modes of cognition. The focus pulls highlight and articulate a phenomenological or experiential part of the film. In a sense, they have an almost didactic function. Godard forces his viewers to stay or tarry with the look of the image, to refuse (at least initially) the temptation to move toward more abstract interpretation, and even, at times, to refuse a move to a basic level of recognition.
It's important to be clear about the nature of this claim. I do not mean to make an argument for a formalist reading of the sequence or to say that this register of aesthetics has temporal or logical priority in our approach to moving images. Insofar as a "purely formal" element exists here, it is only analytically separable from everything else the film carries with it: concerns that range from the recognition of objects to the understanding of narrative to the development of larger literary and philosophical discourses. The point is that these focus pulls require a mode of attention attuned to the way formal concerns generate a certain kind of experience in the viewer. (It's also the case that this kind of feature in Godard's films is often overlooked in favor of their more overt intellectual virtuosity.)
In Godard's films since Soigne ta droite, he continues to use focus pulls to emphasize a perceptual or experiential register of film, but their function changes in each context. In Nouvelle vague, following the accident that starts that film's narrative, there is a cut to a shot of Roger, lying on his back; he raises his left hand and extends it toward the top of the screen. Elena's voice is heard: "How wonderful it is to be able to give what you don't have." As she says this, Godard cuts to Roger's isolated hand, turned away from the camera, rising against the background of a landscape covered in dappled light. Elena's left hand, also turned away, reaches in from the right. Roger says, "O, miracle of empty hands," which she repeats in Italian as her hand twists to face the camera and grasps his. Immediately, Godard cuts to an out-of-focus shot of cars driving down the highway at night. A quick focus pull of little more than a second brings them into focus, after which he cuts to a second out-of-focus shot of cars. This shot remains out of focus for six seconds before Godard cuts to a new scene.
The effect of the brief sequence largely results from the way Godard takes advantage of the lights of cars at night. When shown out of focus, circular globes of light seem to float in patterns on a black background, a reduction of objects to their primary and secondary qualities (shape and color) (figure 7). Only after the focus pull do we become aware that we are in fact looking at cars. (In the second shot, because this particular appearance is now familiar to us, we are able to recognize the spheres of light quickly for what they are.)
What Godard discovers in Soigne ta droite, and then confirms in Nouvelle vague, is something like the ease with which he can achieve a specific and dramatic visual effect. The focus pulls, after all, are little more than the exploitation of a basic technical feature of the camera apparatus: it isn't possible to maintain focus from zero to infinity. All that needs to be done is to find the right way of using this feature, and then Godard quickly, almost automatically, can generate a strong perceptual experience. The sense of ease is made explicit in Roger and Elena's dialogue before the focus pull, when they suggest that the capacity of two people to reach for and accept each other with "empty hands"-that is, without making demands on one another-is a "miracle." While this gestures toward the ethical difficulties of interpersonal acknowledgment, the focus pulls produce a simple moment of aesthetic grace. It's as if Godard were suggesting that ethics and aesthetics allow for very different sorts of miracles.
In Nouvelle vague, however, Godard does not rest with the success of the focus pulls; he extends the terms of their use to experiment with a different formal strategy. It's as if the quick focus pull early in the film is meant to bring his audience onto the same page-to inform them of his concerns-but also to remind himself of the ease with which film can access this aesthetic register. Having done that, he becomes interested in whether such an affinity between film and aesthetics holds more generally or whether the experiential effect of the focus pulls is limited to that device alone.
The new technique he turns to involves camera movement. Nouvelle vague is full of dramatic and extended tracking shots, but one stands out in this context. It takes place in the first third of the film, during one of the many scenes in which Roger and Elena stage a variety of poses and tableaux oriented around questions of submission and domination: who controls whom, who's watching whom, and so on. The camera repeatedly tracks back and forth between the room they're in and an adjacent hallway (where servants obliquely comment on their relationship), a movement that repeatedly crosses the (impossible) barrier of the wall between them. Suddenly, during one of the movements to the right, toward Roger and Elena, Godard cuts to a stationary shot of the lake, taken from above and fairly close to the surface, with the waves moving left. Because the shot is away from the shore, the waves do not break but appear instead as a succession of lines, their movement creating a visual effect that makes it feel as if the camera were continuing to move to the right. After fifteen seconds, Godard returns to the scene inside the house.
As with the focus pulls in Soigne ta droite, the temptation is to read this insert in thematic terms. The shot might be said to signify the indifference of nature to the human drama being enacted. Conversely, it might function as a pathetic fallacy, where the outside world responds sympathetically to the emotions of the characters. Again, I want to delay a drift into more abstract or allegorical interpretations. For now, it is sufficient to note that this shot of the water functions as the background to the work of the scene, a neutral starting point against which a subsequent shot of the water will resonate.
Several more of the back-and-forth tracking movements occur, during which new tableaux of control are presented, and then Godard inserts another shot of the water. Like the previous cutaway, this shot is taken from above with nothing but the water in the frame. At first, it looks as though Godard has simply repeated the earlier shot: the camera is motionless, but the waves move to the left in a way that creates an impression of a rightward movement of the camera. But then the camera suddenly accelerates to the right, and the waves appear to move even faster to the left. For several seconds, the camera speeds along the water, and we are caught up in the grace of the movement, then it comes to a sudden and grinding halt. After a moment's pause (figure 8), Godard slowly starts to move the camera up and to the left, tracking parallel to the lines of the waves. The effect of this movement, especially in contrast to the earlier static shot of the waves, is vertiginous. We go from speed to stillness in a moment, and then, when Godard changes the direction of the camera, we feel the movement of the camera again, but the waves, because the camera moves parallel to their line, remain absolutely still with respect to the frame. The world seems to spin on its axis; our external reference point in the shot suddenly feels unstable and fluctuating.
Godard's use of camera movement brings perception to the fore. The vertigo renders anything besides the interaction of the camera and the waves irrelevant for the time being; it's not implausible to think that, at the climax of the shot, we are less aware of the fact that we're looking at water than of the way the camera plays with a series of straight lines to produce an affective response. As with the focus pulls in Soigne ta droite, Godard discovers that a basic feature of the camera-in this case, its capacity to move-can be used to direct the viewer's attention to the embodied activity of perception.
Shortly afterward, Godard makes the affinity between camera movements and focus pulls explicit. After several brief shots that conclude the scene in the house, he cuts to another nighttime shot of out-of-focus cars. The shot is held that way for seventeen seconds, and then a nine-second focus pull brings it into crisp focus. Because we already know how to think about the focus pull-from Soigne ta droite and from earlier in Nouvelle vague-Godard's use of it here confirms the significance of the camera's movement over the water. The two devices are being used to generate a similar kind of response.
4. A mad enterprise
Since Nouvelle vague, Godard has continued to employ focus pulls in his films. In addition to appearing in Hélas pour moi, they are in JLG/JLG: Autoportrait de décembre (1995), For Ever Mozart, Éloge de l'amour (In Praise of Love, 2001), and Notre musique. It would seem, then, that in Soigne ta droite Godard discovered something that he took to be of importance, and I've been arguing that this has to do with the ease with which film can make certain aspects of aesthetics-namely, a kind of visual or experiential dimension-available for viewers. In later films, however, Godard begins to place the focus pulls more explicitly in the service of his larger creative and intellectual ambitions, as in the way Hélas pour moi uses the visual uncertainty created by the technique to highlight its larger ontological and epistemological questions about our relation to and dependence on the physical world.
Curiously, the connection between the experiential dimension of viewing and these larger ambitions is perhaps most evident in Godard's one film since Soigne ta droite that doesn't contain a focus pull: Allemagne 90 neuf zéro. In place of it, Godard employs a different technique: filming video images off a screen in a way that overtly emphasizes their different textures. This shift in media from film to video makes a register of perceptual experience evident, as the focus pulls do, but Godard goes a step further and explicitly uses this experiential dimension as a central part of an effort to understand the historical and political transformations of contemporary Germany. The attempt is ambitious, and Godard actually begins by worrying about whether film is capable of it at all.
Initially, Allemagne 90 neuf zéro looks as though it takes place in the same conceptual space as Soigne ta droite and Nouvelle vague. The film starts with a shot of a streetcar moving along an empty street, then shows the intertitle "Solitudes: un état et des variations," after which Godard cuts to a stunning shot of mist rising off a lake while cars drive by at the right edge of the frame. But Allemagne 90 neuf zéro quickly diverges from the earlier films. Rather than showing an individual attempting to seek out a state of solitude, it gives us the beginnings of a discourse on philosophy and art. The first words we hard are a voice-over, which wonders (quoting Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain),
Can one tell the story [raconter] of time, time in itself, as such and in itself? No, in truth that would be a mad enterprise-a tale [un récit] in which it would be said, "Time was passing, it was running out, time was following its course," and so on. No one of sound mind would ever take it for a narrative [une narration]. It would be almost as if someone had the idea of holding a single note or a single chord for an hour, wanting to pass that off as music.
In these lines, Godard seems to be referring to the kind of desire for narrative found in the opening moments of Nouvelle vague. But a different set of concerns is involved as well. Narrative here is not something exclusively concerned with memory, something irreducibly personal. It is compared to music, a shareable artistic form, and it also has to do with-this will become clear-the historical situation of the film itself.
Two things about this voice-over should make us pause. The first is that the remark about music conflicts with what we, and Godard, must know. Why shouldn't holding a note or chord for an hour count as music? Certainly, the work of composers like Cage and Reich fits this description. I suspect, though, that Godard is not stating his own view so much as marking the difference between two accounts of music (and art more generally). One, enacted by the voice-over, is predicated on a classical conception of music that emphasizes harmony, development, and tonality; it is an account of music on traditional aesthetic terms. The other, the position against which the voice-over reacts, holds the definition and primary content of a work of art to be conceptual rather than aesthetic. These are the terms of a modernist challenge to art, terms that Godard takes up throughout the rest of the film.
The second puzzle has to do with the remarks about time. The claim that telling "the story of time, time in itself" is senseless seems to be based on something like the following line of thought. To tell a narrative is to tell a story in time, to take time as the medium of the story. If we try to tell the story of time, we effectively place time into time-something that appears to be a contradiction or that, in the film's terms, constitutes "a mad enterprise." Of course, that doesn't mean it hasn't been tried, and I take it that we are supposed to recognize Hegel as the object of these opening lines. Part of this has to do with the way that "the story of time in itself" could be a rough description of The Phenomenology of Spirit. But the resonance also turns on Hegel's general importance as an intellectual figure, and as a theorist of history in particular, for Allemagne 90 neuf zéro: his philosophical project is what is being called "mad." The opening voice-over, then, presents us with a situation in which things we seem to want to do-have a good sense of what art is, be able to tell a story about time-are thrown into doubt. Neither art nor philosophy escapes worry.
Shortly thereafter, Godard returns to Hegel and appears to endorse his ambitions (mad enterprise notwithstanding) by quoting the preface to the Philosophy of Right. The lines are spoken simultaneously in German and French, the languages overlapping: "When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a form of life grown old. By philosophy's grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood." While the opening voice-over suggested that the Hegelian philosophical program is incoherent, here we find the opposing argument: philosophy, in fact, is what allows us to understand our world. Hegel provides one account of how this came to be in what's been labeled the "end of art" thesis.
Hegel's account is bound up with his conception of art as a cognitive mode that is part of a broader human (and social) project of self-understanding. While he sees considerations of (natural) beauty as involving only a formal dimension, he claims that genuine art gets at the real "content" of objects behind their surface appearance. Underlying this description of the role of art is a historical narrative. If art is meant "to unveil the truth in the form of sensuous artistic configuration," to make it public and shareable, this process does not follow the same path in every society. Partly the difference has to do with the nature of the truth being revealed. Hegel argues that art's greatest importance is within ancient Greek society, where the divine and the human were in close proximity; however, as the highest truths of later societies have become more abstract, religion and then philosophy are needed to represent them adequately. The cognitive value of art is thus pushed away from the center of social life. In the modern world, Hegel insists, "Art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past." This does not mean that art is no longer being produced, or that it does not fill an important social need. But Hegel maintains that art does not, and will not, matter in the same way. The result of this historical narrative is that philosophy, over and against art and religion, emerges as the most appropriate mode of self-knowledge in the modern, bourgeois world.
It's natural to think that Godard takes Hegel as a model for his own historical project. In the introduction, I noted Jameson's claim that Godard's films rise to the level of philosophy-they transcend their status as artworks-in order to provide an understanding of the world to the audience; they fulfill an essentially Hegelian project. But even as he draws on Hegel, Godard pushes against and beyond his account. As I will argue, the overall work of Allemagne 90 neuf zéro is to effect a reversal of the Hegelian position. This happens in two stages. The first involves undoing the assumption of the kind Jameson holds: that cinema, insofar as it operates in a reflexive and historical mode, has to take a nonaesthetic form. In Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, Godard presents film as the medium best equipped to serve a project of social understanding precisely because it contains aesthetic resources that allow for a mode of presentation that differs from philosophy.
The second stage of Godard's project involves a revision of the basic terms of the Hegelian project of social self-knowledge. When Hegel says that philosophy can understand a world only when its life has "grown old" and "cannot be rejuvenated," this implies that philosophy gains diagnostic value only at the end of a historical epoch, when meaningful development or change no longer occurs. Philosophy can then provide a coherent explanation of that history, a perspective from which the lived intricacies of history make sense. By contrast, Godard sees film as engaged in a history of the complex and changing present. The twentieth century is coming to an end, and Godard argues that only cinema, the central art form of the century, is positioned to understand the historical transformations taking place. Allemagne 90 neuf zéro sets out to provide an account of how this is possible.
5. The consolations of philosophy
Godard's argument is at once a criticism and a positive declaration of intent. To work this out, I'm going to focus on a sequence early in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro in which Godard suggests that philosophy wants to do something that it fails to accomplish and that film, precisely because of its affinity with a sensuous aesthetic dimension, is best equipped for doing. The articulation of this argument brings together the various elements dealt with in this chapter: the difficulties of public life, the vicissitudes of solitude, and the role of aesthetics in the ambitions of film. But it does so within a new set of concerns.
After the opening sequence of Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, Godard begins his first "variation" on solitude, "The Last Spy." Two investigators (Count Zelten and the unnamed narrator) search East Berlin for Lemmy Caution, whom they discover living above a hair salon. Caution is told by Zelten that the cold war has ended, that history has moved on: he is effectively asked to make sense of a new historical fact, to change the way he makes sense of the world. Godard has already quoted Hegel's pronouncement that philosophy helps us to understand a form of life only after the fact, after it has already "grown old"; here he gives content to this assertion about the source of and occasion for historical understanding. Caution tries to assimilate the fall of the Wall to an older worldview: "All the same, you have to admit that it's the triumph of Marx... . When an idea penetrates into the masses, it becomes a material force." (Is this a paraphrase of Gramsci on ideology?) Earlier, Zelten dropped a bouquet of flowers onto a fallen sign labeled "Karl-Marx-Strasse," said, "Happy unbirthday," and then kicked it. Now, he expresses mild skepticism toward Caution's pronouncement. The collapse of the Soviet Union's control over Eastern Europe, Zelten suggests, concludes the major narrative of the twentieth century. Conditions have changed, and a different way of understanding the narrative arc of history is now required; the explanatory power of Marxism ends along with the possibility of actually existing socialism.
Gradually accepting that the cold war is over, Caution wonders about the years that have passed him by. "What am I to do?" he asks, and we are given an intertitle: "Ô douleur, ai-je rêvé ma vie?" (O Pain, Have I Dreamed My Life?). Zelten leaves, telling him to fend for himself, and Caution, after chasing Zelten to the door, asks a woman in the salon to bring his lunch. Then, in a peculiar yet characteristic move, Godard strays from the narrative line. Instead of following Caution as he tries to decide on a course of action, the film cuts to a shot of an elderly woman having her hair done. Over this shot, Godard plays a German pop song, almost a show tune, whose lyrics run, "When a person falls in love / His heart soars like a dove. / It doesn't really matter why, / But the sun sparkles in the sky." The song fades into the background as we hear Zelten begin to recite Hegel in German: "For philosophy to make its stamp on a culture, a break must have first occurred in the real world [so muss ein Bruch geschehen sein in der wirklichen Welt]. Philosophy then reconciles the corruption begun by thought. This reconciliation takes place in an ideal world, the world of the spirit into which everyone flees when the earthly world no longer satisfies him." In the first sentence, right on break (Bruch), Godard cuts to a clip of people waltzing, dressed in formal and military attire of the Nazi era; the camera is just above head height. moving with and cutting between the dancing couples. But the clip is not simply inserted into Allemagne 90 neuf zéro. Godard films the image off a video screen in way that allows us to see or sense the texture of the video image itself: the flicker of the monitor, the pixels of the screen (figure 9). Through the same means, he also varies the playback speed, generating a kind of "stuttering" effect: the clip slows down, stops, and speeds up, drawing us into the movement of the camera as well as that of the couples. After the quotation from Hegel comes to an end, Godard cuts to a shot of a study, framed from outside the door; Zelten enters and repeats a line from his previous quotation from Hegel, now speaking in French: "Philosophy then reconciles the corruption begun by thought" (La philosophie alors concilie la corruption commencée par la pensée).
The fulcrum on which this sequence turns is the shift from the smooth flow of the film to the stuttered playback of the video footage. This videographic technique first emerges as part of Godard's formal vocabulary in France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977), continuing in his video projects of the 1980s and culminating in Histoire(s) du cinéma. But the manipulation of the clip in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro marks its first appearance in a film. The significance of the technique is further emphasized by Godard's coordination of the shift from film to video with the mention of the word break, as if to call attention to the formal rupture he causes within the world of the film.
The idea of the break is in fact the sequence's central analytic term, and three ways to understand it quickly suggest themselves. One involves Hegel's own account of history; the other two involve aesthetic considerations and align the shift in format with the use of focus pulls and camera movements in Soigne ta droite and Nouvelle vague. I'll start with these. The first has to do with the way the rhythm of the video clip produces a break in temporal continuity. Recall that the film's opening voice-over wonders if it's possible to tell the story of "time in itself"; later in the film, Godard returns to the topic (again quoting from Mann): "There is a difference between narration [la narration] and music. A piece of music titled 'Five-Minute Waltz' will last five minutes. That's it, and nothing else matters in its relation to time. But a telling [un récit] of an action that lasts five minutes could be stretched into a period a thousand times longer if those five minutes were filled with an exceptional awareness. And it can seem very short even though compared with its understood duration it is very long." On the basis of the distinction articulated here, one might read the video clip as following the model of narration. If, ordinarily, a shot has a continuous temporality (the model of the "five-minute waltz"), then the stuttering of the playback of the clip means that the duration of the shot is no longer identical to the diegetic time it presents. Time, in a sense, becomes a variable that can be expanded or contracted at will. And yet the model of music is present as well, highlighting a different set of formal attributes. There is rhythm here, not only in the movement of the dancers, but also in the variation of the playback, a suggestion of formal regularity that contributes to the expressive effect of the clip.
The models of music and narration are not mutually exclusive. Godard positions film between them, able to manipulate time but without the unfettered freedom of narration. By making the image dance to its own tune-in conjunction with but different from the movement of the dancers-Godard also pulls our attention to the sheer fact of that movement. The effect is to make the world of the clip embody the principles of a dance. It's not just that we see dancers moving in a certain tempo, following set patterns and rhythms; time itself comes to take on the semblance of a dance, with hesitations and accelerations followed by a smooth glide at normal speed. The duet between the dancers and the "stuttered" clip makes us physically follow and respond to the image.
The second aesthetic understanding of the idea of a break has to do with the way the introduction of video constitutes a shift in medium, effecting a break in the world of the film. Godard films the clip so that we physically sense its differences from the other images: the emphasis on the lines of the monitor and the attendant flattening of space draws our attention to the surface of the image. Rather than seeing "into" that world, we are invited to focus on its appearance. We become concerned with how the image looks, with the different textures of the video format, and, most important, with the rhythm of the stuttering effect.
The shift between film and video in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro thus emphasizes an experiential dimension of viewing, much as the focus pulls in Soigne ta droite or the camera movements in Nouvelle vague do. We are arrested at the moment when the shift occurs, struck by the sensuous qualities of the image before us. Unlike the two earlier films, however, Allemagne 90 neuf zéro explicitly ties the emphasis on perceptual experience to larger historical and political concerns. In part, this happens because of the very content of the image: a Nazi-era ball, danced by men with swastikas on their uniforms. But something else is going on, emerging from the way Godard insists on correlating the shift from film to video with the Hegelian account of a historical "break." For Hegel, the idea of a break is intimately tied to our ability to understand the progress of history, since only after a radical shift are we able to understand the significance of what came before.
I think Hegel is important to Godard for a specific reason, but perhaps the main reason why goes unstated in the film. Francis Fukuyama's 1989 essay, "The End of History?" had just provoked a set of discussions in Europe about the historical narrative into which the decline of the Soviet Union ought to be placed. Fukuyama drew heavily on Hegel to make his case, proposing that history had in fact come to an end when Hegel said it did, with Napoleon's defeat of the Prussian army in Jena in 1806; this event enabled the institutionalization of the principles of liberal democracy across Europe. Fukuyama argued that history there reached its end point, that the next two centuries were simply the process by which liberal democracy became universal-thereby ending the possibility for real historical change.
The recognition that Fukuyama, or at least the furor his essay caused, may be on Godard's mind helps explain the sequence from Allemagne 90 neuf zéro. The correlation of aesthetic and historical breaks now gains traction, forming an implicit critique that uses Hegel's own terminology to undermine his explanatory power. Godard's critical project is already taking shape in the juxtaposition of the passage from Hegel's Philosophy of History and the pop song. The comparison turns on the lyrics. From the perspective of the person in love, the mawkish sentiment goes, the world itself is brought into accord with his or her desires: "It doesn't really matter why / But the sun sparkles in the sky." At first blush, nothing seems further from Hegel, but the juxtaposition nonetheless suggests the terms of an affinity: it is located in the way Hegel describes philosophy as residing in a space above or outside the world, obtaining a perspective that allows for the discernment of order and harmony in apparently contradictory historical phenomena. The problem, then, is not just that philosophy might arrive too late to help us understand the changes in our world. Godard suggests that philosophy, insofar as it tries to make sense of and reconcile "breaks" by fitting them into a larger explanatory narrative, betrays something of the phenomena it attempts to analyze.
This point is emphasized through Godard's use of the clip of the Nazi-era dance. After all, it's not just any break that's at issue here-a moment when a contradiction in the social order emerges-but one that poses the strongest challenge to the explanatory narrative at hand: the rise to power of the Nazi Party. A Hegelian mode of treating the Nazi rupture in world history would be to move toward a higher reconciliation, toward a larger picture of history and its development; this would treat the break as a moment in the historical dialectic that eventually leads to a better social formation. Indeed, Fukuyama himself, while recognizing the potential challenge to his historical narrative, nonetheless argues that the traumatic events of the twentieth century-including the two world wars, the Holocaust, and Stalinism-function as the means by which systems other than liberal democracy were discredited.
Godard's citation of the Nazi era is not simply a reflexive gesture against this position-well, what about the Nazis?-but part of an attempt to negotiate historical concerns from the perspective of the film's present. In a sense, the main anxiety present in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro does not have to do with the historical fact of the Holocaust, the demise of East Germany, or the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It has to do instead with Germany's progress toward a unified federal state, a movement that at times appeared unaware of the historical legacy of such a national (and nationalist) ambition. A number of commentators, activists, and intellectuals at the time of unification-not only within Germany but across Europe-worried that Germans believed that, by virtue of the nation having been divided into two states for over forty years, a moral debt incurred with the Holocaust had been paid off. Frank Stern, for example, quotes a 1990 pamphlet on the subject of German moral and historical responsibility, whose author writes, "By means of hard work, a feeling of responsibility and good will ... the Germans have created the pre-requisites for the restoration of what Hitler destroyed: national unity." As Stern notes, at work here is a kind of moral calculation: "Nazi horrors and the Germans as victims after 1945 are weighed one against the other, suffering juxtaposed to suffering, an equation of victimization. In this view, the mass murder committed against the Jews of Europe has been repaid and 'recompensated'-what remains now as a task is the historical reassembling of a shattered Germany." In the position Stern criticizes, we can discern a strong Hegelian influence. The logic goes something like this: the rise of the nation-state produced genocide; this led to the division of Germany, the suffering of which balanced out the earlier crimes; as a result, unification is now possible, albeit on new grounds. Call it a resolved dialectic.
Godard's emphasis on the history of German militarism and aggression places him firmly on the side of those who worried about the historical significance of the move toward unification, seeing it, rather, as a move toward reunification. The danger, in this view, involves a perspective from which the twentieth century fits into and is justified by a larger historical pattern. Godard's work against this sense of order involves correlating the violence he does to the image-the "break" from film to video-with violence done in history, using the former to elicit and bring out the latter. The sequence from Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, in short, amounts to a refusal to let a claim to a logic of history, to a world-historical narrative, explain away the violence and suffering it contains.
At the same time, the shift from film to video goes beyond criticism. Through the emphasis on the idea of a "break" as something aesthetic as well as historical, Godard suggests an alternative to the postulate of an ideal reconciliation, an alternative to the historical framework Hegel deploys. He does this through the texture of the film image, using the manipulations of the image-the ambiguous temporality, stuttering playback speed, and shift in media-to give an example of what it is to stay or tarry with the experience of a break and thereby to understand something about it as a kind of phenomenon. Godard, that is, uses the qualities of this aesthetic break to model an experience of what it is to tarry with a historical break without immediately abstracting to a larger pattern. If Hegelian philosophy attempts to place events within a larger historical narrative, film, precisely because of its core affinity with aesthetics-an affinity Godard develops over the course of the three films from the late 1980s and early 1990s-is able to give us a better account of how and why the break itself matters. The work of the sequence is thus to show that, through the creation of aestheticbreaks, the right kind of social, political, and historical knowledge can be achieved.
The terms of this connection find additional support in the figure of the dance itself. Dance, it's important to recall, can be treated not simply as ornamental patterns but also as standing in for a vision of social order. A letter Schiller wrote contains a clear expression of this idea: "I know of no better image for the ideal of a beautiful society than a well executed English dance, composed of many complicated figures and turns... . Everything fits so skillfully, yet so spontaneously, that everyone seems to be following his own lead, without ever getting in anyone's way. Such a dance is the perfect symbol of one's own individually asserted freedom as well as of one's respect for the freedom of the other." This is clearly not the image of the dance in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro. Rather than harmony and play, a kind of formalized beauty, we have stuttered playback; rather than a distanced perspective, overseeing the patterns formed by the dancers as a collective, we are immersed in the visual breakdown of their individual movements. What was, in the diegetic world of the clip, a rhythmic and graceful movement is made into something distinctly messier: the patterns are broken down, disrupted by internal forces. Godard's manipulation of the video clip undermines a political ideal through aesthetic means. And so, we might think, it should be. The dance takes place under the aegis of a repressive state; we can take Godard to be arguing that the means for representing this world should be different from those that express Schiller's aesthetic and political ideal. Godard undermines an already undermined vision of politics.
By this point, we are in a better position to understand the terms of Godard's Hegelian/anti-Hegelian argument. When Godard cites Hegel, he does so with the intention of calling up the terms of his historico-philosophical analysis which he then manipulates to show the danger in attempting to press historical breaks into rational and teleological narratives. It's not just that we can't understand the Nazi regime properly unless we retain the experience of its status as a historical break. Godard implies that the content of that break makes explicit something that extends to all historical breaks, in particular the pressing questions of a post-Wall Europe, and that aesthetic form and experience can be the model for historical knowledge.
This approach recurs throughout Allemagne 90 neuf zéro. Indeed, we need to look only a little further into the film to find another variation. As Zelten continues to read from Hegel, this time in both French and German, Godard cuts to a series of clips staged against the quotation. The brief sequence runs as follows:
Philosophy begins by the destruction of the real world. [Cut to a clip of artillery firing at night: only the gun flashes are visible, though we hear sounds of distant guns. Then a clip of deportations.] Philosophy makes its appearance when [cut to a clip from Lang's Metropolis, where Maria is surprised by a noise in the catacombs and spins around] public life is no longer satisfying and ceases to interest people and when citizens [cut to a clip from Fassbinder's Lili Marlene, where she and a Nazi official mount a large staircase to meet Hitler; a Nazi flag is prominent in the background] no longer take part in the running of the state.
The choice of images here is not trivial (though it is not entirely surprising). Each clip shows a world that refers, explicitly or implicitly, to a moment when the historical present was treated as breaking sharply from its past: World War I, 1920s industrial poverty and quasi-socialist utopias, and World War II. Godard again contrasts philosophy's desire to resolve contradictions or "breaks"-to place them into a coherent narrative, as Hegel does by employing the device of the "cunning of reason"-with the way film can stay with and emphasize the experience of that rupture. In Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, film is presented as the best way to think about the changes taking place in Europe at the end of the twentieth century, as a medium that contains a unique and powerful set of tools for the task of historical analysis.
6. The classics always work
The terms on which Godard works through the relation between an account of history and the resources of aesthetics will be elaborated and developed throughout the rest of this book. Before getting into that, I want to look at two worries for understanding Godard's project as one of treating film, and its affinity with aesthetics, as a mode of historical knowledge. First, by taking the Hegelian project to stand in for philosophy-and for using a tradition of German idealism to define the terms of aesthetics-I may have ignored other philosophical intertexts in these films that serve different, and perhaps more important, functions. Second, film already had chances to function in this role, but its inability to do so, particularly with respect to the Holocaust, suggests that it lacks the resources necessary for such a project. The latter is Godard's own worry; the former is one that has emerged in critical responses to his films.
Godard's version of the relation of film to philosophy goes as follows: "It's evident that movies are capable of thinking in a better way than writing and philosophy, but this was very quickly forgotten." Before we assume we know what it is that film can do that philosophy cannot, what resources it has for "thinking in a better way," we need to answer a question that has been lurking throughout this chapter: What is Godard's conception of philosophy such that film can and should be differentiated from it?
Hegel's interest in the end of history and the role of philosophy certainly fits aspects of Godard's work, and the references to his work in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro suggest his importance. But, we might think, given the look and feel of the films themselves (stylistic virtuosity, nonlinear narrative structure, interest in surfaces, compulsive citational practices, and concern with aesthetics), Godard should really be associated with a different philosophical group. After all, one of the primary ambitions of a range of twentieth-century philosophers-from Wittgenstein, Benjamin, and Heidegger to Barthes, Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida-was to introduce just such an aesthetic dimension into philosophy.
Critical writing on Godard over the past twenty years has frequently tried to explain his work by reference to this cluster of thinkers. Histoire(s) du cinéma has been often equated with Benjamin's Arcades Project, and multiple efforts have drawn on Deleuze and other contemporary French thinkers. The desire to understand Godard in this way is hardly surprising. Not only is there a shared appreciation of the importance of aesthetic considerations to the work of philosophy; the connection, at least in the French context, is fairly direct. Since Godard's career is roughly coextensive with postwar French thought, he must have known about its various trends, and those who lived and wrote during this period were themselves certainly interested in Godard. Deleuze is a prominent example: not only did he write an article on Six fois deux (1977), but Godard figures prominently in his major two-volume work on film. (Even on the last page, Deleuze is still positioning his argument with respect to Godard.) For reasons like these, some critics have argued that Godard's late films constitute a fairly direct response to these movements and that he simply is a postmodern filmmaker.
While there are strong affinities here, the ease with which an equation is often made tends to obscure a more complicated relation. After all, Godard himself appears fairly indifferent to these thinkers and the schools of thought they represent. In fact, identifying any quotation from Godard's French contemporaries in his films is a difficult task. Given the sheer volume of quotations that litter his work, this absence should at the very least strike us as surprising.
It's certainly possible to argue that this tells us nothing about Godard's "real" views: he might repress these thinkers precisely because they are the closest and most significant influences (a version of Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence). Still, even if this were the case, we would need to account for Godard's avoidance of his postmodern contemporaries. They simply are not his interlocutors, not the texts his films draw on, and this is important for understanding what he takes himself to be doing. What needs to be accounted for-and what many approaches to Godard miss-is the way he exhibits a traditional or classical orientation toward European culture, reproaching Deleuze, for example, for "writing very badly." Jean-Louis Leutrat writes,
This predilection for "classical" writing (from what point of view is it possible to say that Deleuze writes badly?), accompanied by a less significant preference for traditional diction, draws our attention to an aspect of Godard's personality that we might have been led to neglect: his taste for "correct" language. His explicit reference in Le dernier mot to the seventeenth-century grammarian Vaugelas is revealing as well as amusing: "I am going away, or I go away, since both one and the other is or are grammatically correct, and is said, or are said."
In Nouvelle vague, a character appreciatively remarks on the stability of the French language, noting that another's bad diction can do nothing to spoil its purity. And in Prénom Carmen, Godard, playing a parody of himself, remarks, "No matter where and no matter when, the classics always work."
Hegel's prominence in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, and my own emphasis on his account of philosophy, should thus seem less odd. He exemplifies a particular kind of philosophy-systematic, oriented toward a truthful propositional description of the world-that sees itself occupying an important social position. If we take seriously Godard's claim that film can think in a better way than philosophy, an obvious response to that will focus on a sensuous or aesthetic dimension. The contrast here is not with Deleuze or Benjamin; they are not the figures who define philosophy for Godard. Instead, he articulates a set of resources that find their resonance in relation to a more traditional conception of philosophy, a conception for which Hegel serves as an exemplary representative.
7. Tu n'a rien vu à Hiroshima
The second worry for understanding Godard's project in the way I've been proposing is historical rather than theoretical, and it permeates Godard's work throughout these years. The worry is especially prominent in Histoire(s) du cinéma, in which Godard argues that cinema, at the height of its popularity, was given a chance to help audiences understand and respond to world-historical events; it could have made a public aware of the Holocaust as it was happening and perhaps brought about some good. Cinema, however, failed to do this and in this failure betrayed, perhaps once and for all, its obligation to provide an understanding of the world. Perhaps it was never capable of this task in the first place.
Godard's discussions of cinema's relation to the extermination camps emerge in the context of two cultural discourses. The first, most famously articulated by Adorno, is oriented toward culture as a whole: if Western culture was such that it could lead to the camps-or, in a less extreme formulation, if it did not have the resources to prevent them-then it must have an internal fault. The promise of an enlightened, liberal humanism was shown to be bankrupt, a standard example of which is SS guards listening to Beethoven while performing their duties. As a result, to resume prewar culture was to ignore the horror of the intervening years, to ignore that the very content of "how things were" was the problem in the first place. And yet to reject that culture was to refuse resources that opposed the ideology of the camps and thereby continue to show humanitarian culture to be impossible. For Adorno, both alternatives threaten a reversion to barbarism. He describes this situation as a paradox: "I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric ... the question of whether any art now has a right to exist... . [But] literature must resist this verdict, in other words, be such that its mere existence after Auschwitz is not a surrender to cynicism." In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno responds to this dilemma by advocating what he calls negative or black art: art that acknowledges the horror by refusing to affirm any given order, art that is always negating.
The second discourse, more concerned with visual art, challenges the very status and validity of images to represent the Holocaust. Since images are always about "this or that" particular thing or event, they can never adequately encompass the scope of what happened. This position has been advocated most forcefully by Claude Lanzmann, following his refusal in Shoah (1985) to show any historical footage of the camps on the grounds that it would necessarily misrepresent them. Lanzmann's position, whatever its merits, can lead to a dilemma about cultural production. Since we live in a world of images and these images are used for purposes of social self-knowledge, it seems irresponsible simply to cede control over their power. And yet how are we to make images in a way that does not betray what they are of? Adorno's paradox returns.
Godard's response to these aporias is to turn them into practical rather than skeptical problems. He repeatedly revises the terms of the debate, moving away from the question of whether one should make films that engage the Holocaust at all and toward the question of what lessons can be learned for filmmaking from the history of cinema's failed engagement with the Holocaust. In this, he isolates two distinct moments of failure. The first is that cinema failed to show the mass murder on its screens as it was happening, that it failed to document the atrocities. The second is that cinema, understood as a more general social institution,failed to recognize that it had actually foretold the camps on its screens before and during the war. Godard cites the rounding up of the ghetto inhabitants in Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), the references to "Concentration Camp Erhardt" in Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), and especially the hunt sequence in Renoir's La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939); the slaughter of rabbits anticipates not only the shooting of André Jurieu but also, Godard thinks, the mass murder in Europe. The claim is that, had people paid attention to images that were appearing on screens, they could have prevented the horrors that followed.
The analytic energy that results is only partly one of excoriation. Godard frequently uses cinema's historical failure as a way to ask a series of questions about what cinema was, what it can be, and what it is-that is, the resources cinema contains as an art, a technology, and an institution for understanding the world around us.
Much of this work finds its culmination in Histoire(s) du cinéma, the subject of the second half of this book, but it is present in equal force throughout Godard's films of the late 1980s and early 1990s. I have argued in this chapter that Godard develops formal strategies that emphasize a mode of experience correlated with aesthetics and then uses these strategies to think through historical concerns. The focus pulls and the breaks in media serve as an emblem for the larger project of these films, which is the work aesthetics does within and for his films. These strategies thus lay the foundations for the more systematic and expansive work Godard does with images, sounds, and texts, work I take up in the chapters to come.
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