Sunday, March 30, 2014

#500: Histoire(s) du cinéma

Directed by: JEAN-LUC GODARD
1998, TSPDT Rank #112

As I have now (finally!) reached the halfway point of my quest, I thought it would be a good time to watch Jean-Luc Godard's eight-part exploration and deconstruction of cinema's history. I bought a Region 2 DVD release of this work (on the Artificial Eye label) some time ago, watched the first two parts, and then forgot about the DVD and never finished it. Recently I remembered that I had that DVD, and it occurred to me that this might make a good candidate for my 500th film from the 1,000 Greatest Films list. I am glad that I had this notion, because Histoire(s) du cinéma did nothing but reinforce my fascination with the art of film. In fact, this seems to be the main motive behind the work as a whole - to look at cinematic history as a whole and attempt to appreciate all of the implications and meanings that go along with it. But by no means is this a cohesive, chronological history of cinema. It is a very personal work, in which Godard faces his feelings about the history of film, as well as his own place within it, head-on for the first time - after a career in which he has touched upon these feelings to varying degrees in almost every one of his films. Taken as a whole, Histoire(s) du cinéma is a complex, wide-ranging, and grandiose labor of love - and I don't think it would be out of place to call it Godard's magnum opus.

However, some of the parts can work just as well as standalone pieces. For example, the second part, "Une histoire seule" (aka "Chapter 1b") could have worked perfectly as a supplement on the (now out-of-print) Criterion edition of Contempt, especially since it prominently mentions the film and features footage from it as well. But I'm sure that licensing issues present major conflicts with these types of usages - in fact, it's surprising to me that Histoire(s) du cinéma was ever cleared for DVD release at all. It's a great thing to own on DVD though - the dense layering of both visual and auditory information throughout each part will probably lend itself extremely well to repeat viewings, and certain parts in particular will be works which I am sure I will revisit multiple times in the future. Some day I will probably watch the entire work as a whole again, but most likely not any time soon. Watching Histoire(s) du cinéma takes more energy and focus than most films do, but if you space the parts out over a few nights, it can be a very rich and rewarding viewing experience. It also helps to have at least basic knowledge of the French language and an appreciation for Godard's work before going into it - as without these traits I am sure this could be an extremely tedious and frustrating 4+ hours to sit through. But as someone who has soft spot for films which test the boundaries of the cinematic medium, I have an obvious affinity for what Godard has tried to accomplish with his films throughout the years - and his personality and idiosyncratic relationship with the cinema particularly resonated with me while watching Histoire(s) du cinéma.

From what I've seen of it, Mark Cousins' recent documentary series, The Story of Film, is an equally ambitious attempt at examining cinematic history in a more conventional and linear sense. That series might work as an interesting counterpart to Godard's extremely personal and experimental take on the subject. But as it is, Histoire(s) du cinéma is an unprecedented deconstruction of cinema history by one of the 20th century's most interesting and influential directors. Its subjective point-of-view works as one of its strengths, and might urge you to more deeply explore your own feelings about and relations to film, as it did for me.

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