"From Hollywood to the Third World, from the mainstream, to the avant-garde, Godard’s name is perhaps the only one that occurs wherever cinema is discussed or produced. And yet he lives a life as far removed from the conventional image of a moviemaker as it is possible to imagine. For over a decade now he has based himself in the small Swiss village of Rolle, halfway between Lausanne and Geneva… Like a shaman he alternates between almost total withdrawal from the world and sudden blazes of interest. What enables him to escape his intense privacy is his obsession with the images and sounds of the cinema. It is this intensity of Godard’s commitment to the cinema that makes his life more than just a record of an extraordinary individual but also, inevitably, a history of European culture since World War II." – Colin Miles McCabe
histories of the cinema
with an s
all the histories that might have been
that there have been
tell for example
the stories of all the films
that never were made
Undeniably a work of enormous scope, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoires du cinéma eludes easy definition. An extended essay on cinema by means of cinema. A history of the cinema, and history interpreted by the cinema. An hommage and a critique. An anecdotal autobiography, illuminated by Godard’s encyclopaedic wit, extending the idiom established by JLG par JLG. An epic – and non-linear – poem. A freely associative essay. A vast multi-layered musical composition. Histoire(s) du cinéma is all of these. It is above all, a work made by a man who loves and is fascinated by the world of film.
For American movie critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, Godard’s video series represents the culmination of 20th century filmmaking, and is a work "of enormous importance": "Just as Finnegans Wake, the art work to which Histoire(s) du cinéma seems most comparable, situates itself at some theoretical stage after the end of the English language as we know it, Godard’s magnum opus similarly projects itself into the future in order to ask, ‘What was cinema”."
French journalist Antoine de Baecque sees in the Histoire(s) du cinéma parallels with another revolutionary moment in art history:
"I’m reminded somehow of cubism. 1907 and ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. Picasso would only unveil his painterly manifesto some 20 years later and yet one speaks of the work as something absolutely essential. To pass it over is to miss the century’s beginning. The same can be said of Proust or of Joyce. As for the Histoire(s) du cinéma of Godard, those who haven’t seen it won’t have understood our times. They’ll have missed the end of the century."
Or, as JLG observes, towards the end of the work:
when one century is slowly dissolving into the next
a few individuals transform the old means
of survival into new means
these are what we call art
the only thing that survives an era as such
is the form of art it has created for itself
no activity can become an art
until its epoch has ended
later this art will disappear
Histoire(s) du cinéma – as TV series/video essay – was made for Canal+, ARTE and Gaumont, from 1988 to 1998. The work subdivides into four chapters of two parts each. Of those four chapters,the first was broadcasted on five European channels simultaneously, the three others have been screened at film festivals. The series was shown as part of an installation at Documenta X, the interdisciplinary arts festival in Kassel, Germany, in 1997. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has screened each episode as it has become available.
"Exiled from a land of images"
The edition now released by ECM New Series is the first international edition of this major work and takes the form of a boxed set comprising five CDs with the complete soundtrack of Histoire(s) du cinéma and four books which include the full text of Godard’s narration, with German and English translations. The choice of music incorporated by Godard is a reflection of JLG’s continuing association with Manfred Eicher, ECM’s founder and producer. "Manfred began our relationship", the filmmaker has noted, "by sending me music. And after listening, I wrote to him and asked him to send me more records. I had the feeling that we were more or less in the same territory: he with sounds, me with images. The music he was sending made us feel like making a film, and I began to imagine things due to that kind of music. In fact, some of the records brought me to a picture called Nouvelle Vague and later other ones … Often the sounds gave us the feeling of being orphaned from images, or exiled from a land of images … it was like hearing music from films which didn’t exist."
In focussing upon the sound of the Histoire(s), ECM takes JLG at his word. Introducing Nouvelle Vague nine years ago, he made the observation, "If you see a Guitry film without the sound, it will be the same. My film without the sound will be improved. However, if you ‘see’ the soundtrack without the images, it will have an even greater impact."
ECM’s 1997 release of Nouvelle Vague as two compact discs brought about a reappraisal of Godard’s sensitivity to sound. To quote Cahiers du Cinéma: "The soundtrack is magnificent. The intertwining of the various forms of music, voices and sounds is one of the most extraordinary ever heard. We are invited to take part in an experience hitherto unknown. We are summoned to take the plunge into the world of musical découpages and literary montages… The listener hears interruptions, continuations, remote mixing, montage effects, echoes, repetitions, inflections, punctuations, rhythms, build-ups. The montage, the mixing. The shock, the fluidity… There is at long last clear proof for those who might still have suspected that Godard was not a composer in the complete sense." Gramophone, too, recognised the craft and the fluency of Godard’s sonic construction: "Shorn of visual distractions, the music assumes a programmatic role, often subverting the listener’s instinctive prioritizing of the music, dialogue or sounds: the screech of a car blends into a cello phrase; an assured bandoneon melody rises above dialogue and sound with an almost condescending grace." American magazine Jazziz was one of many that approved of the music’s intuitive flow, its "mysterious beauty and arresting power. Its audacious nature is akin to the exploratory visions of the best of jazz." In Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, in a piece headed "The Silence of the Sea", Michael Althen talked about the way in which the soundtrack could return the listener to his environment with an increased sense of wonder: "Now that one can concentrate on the sound one understands better how the world is sound for Godard and above all that sound is a world in itself. One has the strong impression that music is really everywhere in the air, if only one had ears to hear it. Everything that rings and swings, resounds and intones has its fixed position in the world’s orchestra
"I try to work not with an idea of vertical sound", says Godard, "where there are many tracks distinctive from one another, but horizontally, where there are many, many sounds but it’s still as though every sound is becoming one general speech, whether it’s music, dialogue or natural sound." With Histoire(s) du cinéma, the complexity of Godard’s audio "score" is intensified. The filmmaker’s narration drifts hypnotically over often densely-layered sound. Myriad snatches from the soundtracks of a century of movie making, multiple quotations, are interspersed or blended with the most diverse music and ambient sound. Amongst the many instances of music from ECM integrated in the work: the entire duration of Giya Kancheli’s Abii ne viderem (Chapter 4a), and Ketil Bjørnstad’s The Sea, excerpts of which recur frequently in chapter 4b. Attentive listeners will also hear fragments of Kancheli’s Liturgy and Morning Prayers, Arvo Pärt’s Passio, Te Deum, Trivium and Festina Lente, Heinz Holliger’s Scardanelli-Zyklus, viola sonatas of Hindemith as played by Kim Kashkashian, music of Gesualdo sung by the Hilliard Ensemble, David Darlings "Two or Three Things", Dino Saluzzi’s "Andina", Meredith Monk’s "Do You Be", and much more.
Music underlines the sense of the text or offers counterpoint, sometimes ironically. Sounds of the sea and the wind, bird calls and distant screams are heard. Pistol shots and the machine-gun rattle of the author’s electric typewriter…all are embraced in the protean, mutable flux of the Histoire(s). ("Emotion is engendered", as Claire Bartoli has noted, "by the very substance of the sound.") Other voices offer asides: André Malraux, Ezra Pound, Paul Celan. The plummy tones of Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock occupies a special place in JLG’s pantheon of film giants. "I put Hitchcock [into the Histoire(s)] because during a certain epoch, he really was the master of the universe. More than Hitler, more than Napoleon. He had a control of the public which no one else had. The public was under the control of poetry. And Hitchock was a poet on an universal level, the only poet maudit to have a huge success; Rilke wasn’t one, Rimbaud wasn’t. He was a poet maudit for everyone."
© 1999 ECM Records
Jean-Luc Godard: Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998)
The complete soundtrack of the video series Histoire(s) du cinéma, with Jean-Luc Godard’s narration, the participation of Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Anne-Marie Miéville and the voices of André Malraux, Ezra Pound, Paul Celan, and others. Godard’s montage also incorporates the music of Paul Hindemith, Arvo Pärt, Ludwig van Beethoven, Giya Kancheli, Béla Bartók, Franz Schubert, Igor Stravinsky, Johann Sebastian Bach, John Coltrane, Leonard Cohen, Otis Redding, Dmitri Shostakovich, Anton Webern, Dino Saluzzi, David Darling, Ketil Bjørnstad and many more.
Edited and produced for ECM New Series by Manfred Eicher. Stills from Histoire(s) du cinéma by Jean-Luc Godard. Soundtrack remixed for this edition by François Musy.
ECM New Series 1706-10 5-CD Set 465 151-2