It’s easy to play down the importance of Histoire(s) du cinéma. It’s the one film from the later portion of Jean-Luc Godard’s body of work that is, generally speaking, as highly revered as his earlier, more accessible movies. It’s an undisputed classic of the medium, with its fate cemented in the most recent Sight & Sound poll, in which the film placed inside the top 50.
Produced in the decade between 1988 and 1998, but in the planning for around ten years earlier, Histoire(s) du cinéma spun from a spate of lectures on film that were delivered by Godard at North America universities throughout the late-1970s and early 80s. There’s a direct line through his area in that field and the films which immediately followed. The likes of Slow Motion, Passion, King Lear and Histoire(s) are connected by a line that runs from the director’s own thoughts and feelings towards the medium in the wake of the comedown from his more politically orientated works produced during the era before. It was via this series of lectures that Godard reaffirmed a love for the classic cinema, of sorts, with the form having fallen foul of him in the years that preceded.
Any exploration of Histoire(s) du cinéma is already fighting an uphill battle, given the nature of the piece. As is relayed in Michael Witt’s accessible and informative introduction to ‘Cinema Historian’, a new book that revolves around the role of Histoire(s) du cinéma within the body of work of Godard, the filmmaker himself stated that the key to the film itself was for it to succeed on the flow of the visual elements alone, it’s poetry reliant on its form. As Witt recounts, the meaning should “emanate directly from the combination of images and sounds rather than an exploratory or interpretive text written or imposed upon them”. While that point directly refers to the elements that make-up of Histoire(s) itself, it’s no great stretch to take this one step further and apply it to the work itself, especially when one takes in to account Godard’s latter day attitude towards such things. Critical analysis comes second to the immediate/emotional reaction and the thoughts and feelings provoked.
Similar to the way in which Godard composes multiple histories at his typewriter in Histoire(s) du cinéma, the director’s earliest (and perhaps greatest) weapon in cinema, Witt approaches the Godard film from a number of different angles. It’s at once both a history of Histoire(s) itself, as well as a critical evaluation of the project. Elsewhere it places the film within Godard’s oeuvre, and questions how that fits in alongside his role as an auteur. It examines the work in great detail, ultimately acting as a valuable disassociated (from an authorial point of view) textual accompaniment to the film, and makes for a necessary companion piece to Godard’s own written accompaniment on the subject, and his own ‘Cinema: The Archaeology of Film and the Memory of A Century’ from the turn of the millennium.
The not-so-populist, latter portion of Godard’s career has been well served of late, with Jerry White’s ‘Two Bicycles: The Work Of Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville’ and Daniel Morgan’s ‘Late Godard And The Possibilities Of Cinema’ emphasising a period previously ill-covered. Cinema Historian is a handsomely produced, welcome addition to the blossoming canon.