Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1998)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #48 (tied with The Battle of Algiers)

"What is cinema? Nothing. What does it want? Everything. What can it do? Something."
- Histoire(s) du Cinema, Chapter 3A

Many of the key figures in the development of the French New Wave - filmmakers Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard, as well as theorist Andre Bazin - began their careers as film critics. Truffaut, for example, worked at the prestigious French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema when he collaborated with Bazin to create the guidelines that would define the movement. As critics, these filmmakers understood the thematic aspects of filmmaking, and thus created a movement that was a direct response to Hollywood tradition. In the tradition of the French New Wave, the director was considered the author of the film, with all other aspects of filmmaking channeled through their vision. It was as if to prove this theory that many of these critics became filmmakers themselves.

Perhaps none of this figures better exemplifies this idea than Godard. Godard's films, starting with his very first (Breathless, 1960), are designed to be anti-Hollywood dispatches that are unmistakably his, leaning heavily on blasé attitude and ironic recreations of Tinseltown iconography. The double- and triple-entendres stack up in his films, as he consistently references other films and ideas while subtly skewering them. Godard's grand cinematic project is, essentially, to question the concept of cinema itself, in an effort to better understand the possibilities that the medium affords storytellers and artists.


In none of his films is this more apparent than in Histoire(s) du Cinema, an eight-part video project that Godard began in 1988 and completed ten years later. Through each installment, Godard examines the history of cinema through abstraction, overlaying images and footage from hundreds of films onto re-enactments, recitals, and interviews. The density of the project makes it one of his most difficult films, as well as his longest.

The film explores film history in an unconventional way, yet Godard's Marxist reading of history and his positioning of himself as an active participant in its evolution going forward are what make it a truly fascinating document.

More after the jump.


Throughout the films, Godard repeatedly references Hollywood - specifically producer Irving Thalberg - as a disease that ruined cinema. In his voiceovers and video interviews, he claims that when cinema was "created" in France, it was a pure art form that could document reality and challenge audiences intellectually. Instead, the Americans latched onto it and turned it into a medium of frothy, empty spectacles that displayed no authorship. Hollywood turned art into crass commerce, as each film was an anonymously-created product with no purpose other than making studio heads filthy rich.

Of course, the actual history of film is more complicated than that. It should also be noted that there is a hint of cheekiness in Godard's rants, particularly in his declaration that "Orson Welles cares nothing about history" while later celebrating Welles' contributions to the form. But his "disdain" for Hollywood cinema is essential to the reading of film history that he presents: a Marxist reading that casts him and his fellow New Wavers as the victors in a struggle against artistic oppression.

The Marxist theory of history is essentially the foundation of communism. Divided into six stages, the theory states that society is fundamentally driven by material conditions - who has access to what materials they need and desire. History begins with a "primitive communism" in which materials are shared, but over time one class disproportionately controls access to materials. Eventually, the "have-nots" overthrow the "haves," leading to a new class of "haves" that will also be overthrown in time. Ultimately, as long as there are class divisions, there will be class upheaval, until society reaches a point where materials are once again equally accessible to all. This final stage is what Marx referred to as "communism."

Another way to think of Marxist historical theory is as oppressors versus oppressed. Those who have disproportionate access to materials are the oppressors; through their wealth they are able to dictate the rights of those who have restricted access to materials. This latter class is the oppressed. Over time, the oppressed will ignite a revolution, overthrowing their oppressors and becoming the new ruling class. However, according to Marx, they then will become oppressors, beginning the cycle anew. The only way end the cycle is to open access to materials to everyone without restriction.

In Histoire(s) du Cinema, Godard positions the French New Wave of the 1960s as a rebellion against American Hollywood cinema. In Godard's version of cinema history, Hollywood quickly established itself as the ruling class, crushing the brief egalitarian period of cinema's birth by monetizing the medium and turning it into an enormously-profitable business. Thus, Hollywood controlled the majority of the materials - in this case, films - leaving artists out in the cold while producers and studio bigwigs reaped their profits. Hollywood is considered a suffocating force distributing anonymously-made pulp to the masses, carefully removing any hints of artistry.


The French New Wave, then, was the revolution that overthrew the oppressive forces of Hollywood commerce. Godard argues that through their films, they were able to reclaim the materials that Hollywood controlled and introduce an alternative cinema, one in which artistry was of the utmost importance and the director was considered the author of the film. This was, essentially, the creation of auteur theory, and it wasn't long before its effect infiltrated their old oppressors. Godard references later Hollywood pictures as being inflected with New Wave touches, with filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola creating personal art within the Hollywood system. In his version, the New Wavers - including himself - are the victors of film history, fighting back to restore art to cinema.

Of course, there are flaws with this reading of history. For one, it ignores other developments around the world, such as Italian neorealism, Parallel Cinema in India, and the development of cinema in areas such as China, Japan, and the Middle East. It also over-simplifies the distinction between New Wave cinema and Hollywood cinema, failing to take into account the Hollywood pictures that did move the medium forward and the work of well-known directors such as Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks.

Yet Godard seems to have prepared for this, indicating that this is only one reading of film history. The title of the project itself is a double-entendre, as "histoire" can be translated as both "history" and "story," with the parenthetical "s" adding another double-entendre that suggests multiple histories or stories. In the overlaying of images and footage from Hollywood pictures with works from Carl Theodor Dreyer and other international auteurs, Godard not only creates the contrast that fuels his Marxist reading but also simultaneously gums up that reading, seemingly celebrating the very object he is destroying.

And ultimately, that's a perfectly fitting description of Godard's project as a whole. The majority of his career has focused on deconstructing Hollywood tropes, yet doing so has betrayed an admiration for those very tropes. His grand cinematic project has been a 50+ year dialogue with cinema itself. It makes sense that the capstone of his career would be a film like Histoire(s) du Cinema: a complicated, contradictory examination of a medium that continues to fascinate and confound with every new contribution.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Andrei Rublev (1966)

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