by Nora M. Alter
Where is your authentic body? You are the only one who can never see yourself except as an image.
—Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
I know now that if I make a picture it’s just to speak about what I’m doing, about myself, but it’s also giving something to other people so that they can take a part of me.
—Jean-Luc Godard, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics
The shrill and raucous call of a crow is superimposed over an unpopulated, barren country field marked by a path leading into the horizon. Not only is the crow conspicuously absent on the screen, but its sounds are conspicuously disjunct, too loud to be part of the landscape. This sequence, sometimes with the muttering voice of the narrator superimposed, is repeated at irregular intervals throughout Jean-Luc Godard’s JLG/JLG--Autoportrait de décembre [ JLG/JLG—Self-portrait in December] (France, 1994). But how are we to interpret it? Is it primarily a visual, pictorial image of a now lifeless place? Or does the sequence prioritize the audial track, presenting a warning cry, or a portent? I want to suggest that, consistent with much of Godard’s work, this sequence does not hierarchize the aural and the visual. On the contrary, it fuses the two together as a sound image or rebus, and it is in this way that the sequence makes sense.
But my aim in singling out this part of the film is not to insist on its symptomatic layering. Instead I want to emphasize first the salience in both the audial and visual tracks of a pervasive funereal quality; second, the indexicality of a path that leads elsewhere and a sound that comes from somewhere else; and third, the manner in which this sequence epitomizes the overall project of JLG/JLG. I will not try to gloss these matters here; instead, I will move directly to the context of the film, and more specifically, its particular relationship to Godard’s overall body of work.
Jean-Luc Godard has consistently been viewed as one of the main practitioners and theorists of an alternative or countertraditional narrative cinema. His experiments with representations of history, truth, and fiction, media such as video, television, and film, as well as techniques such as collage and montage, and the interplay between sound and image tracks have led some to position him as “resolutely postmodernist.”1 Simultaneously he has been characterized as the “ultimate survivor of the modern.”2 No matter how he is identified, though, what cannot be disputed is the importance of Godard’s cinematic and video production in breaking new ground in representation and in creating new forms. And he has not slowed down. Following his political and highly experimental work with the Dziga Vertov group in the early 1970s, and his creation with Anne-Marie Miéville of the Sonimage workshop in the late 1970s, Godard today continues to search for new strategies of image production and consumption. In particular, he has experimented with video technology, with the interchange between video and 35mm film, and especially with how each of these media affects the representation of history, politics, and the self.
History has always been important for Godard, and his products of the late 1980s and early 1990s reinforce this significance. A case in point is his ongoing project Histoire(s) du cinéma [Histories of cinema], commissioned in 1988. Conceived with the approaching centennial of cinema in sight, this project is based on the premise that, for a history to be “true” (any history, but a fortiori cinema’s), it must be constructed not out of “illustrated texts” but from “images and sounds”: son+images. The result, as well as the later Allemagne 90 neuf zéro [Germany 90 nine zero] (1991), are richly layered palimpsests—collages of images and sounds. In these two films, the articulation of political, technological, and cultural history is ruthlessly simple: the death of cinema and the death of communism are intimately related; indeed, in a strange sense presented as “the same.” What is striking in both of these films is that Godard constructs a new formal style of image production, one that raises montage to a new level. He further complicates his theory of history by problematizing the role of the individual subject position or actant. Whereas in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro this appears in the character of Lemmy Caution and the philosopher “Siegfried,” in Histoire(s) du cinéma it is the shadowy figure of Godard with his voice-over dominating the soundtrack that guides the viewer through the barrage of images. In each instance, though, these characters are on the margins.
By contrast, in JLG/JLG the figure of the director, Godard, is the main focus in this hour-long self-reflexive study of the relation of the directorial “I” to image production, consumption, and history. But here, a word of caution, for despite the film’s autobiographical claim, already evident in the title, we must remain skeptical of the project, recalling Paul de Man’s warning that “just as we seem to assert that all texts are autobiographical, we should say that, by the same token, none of them is or can be.” The film at once synthesizes the themes and problematics of Godard’s earlier works (the history of cinema, distinctions between art and culture, the role of the individual, and, in more general terms, the vicissitudes of Western civilization), while at the same time presenting Godard’s theory of visuality and film today. Furthermore, like many of his recent works, JLG/JLG presents a constant self-referencing and intertextual dialogue with Godard’s entire oeuvre—thus a film about JLG is also a film about JLG’s films. But what are the characteristics of the category of self-portrait for Godard? How are we to understand this self-representation in JLG/JLG with the consubstantial presence of Godard in and as text? And to what extent is JLG/JLG in excess of the genre of self-portrait? I want to argue that Godard attempts to fuse the written/graphic genre (autobiography) with the visual genre (self-portrait), subtending both with a third mode: aural representation of an acoustic self.
In contrast to the innovative collage and montage visual experimentations and techniques of the Histoire(s) du cinéma video project, in JLG/JLG Godard returns to a more linear mode of visual exposition. But the innovative complexity of Godard’s films continues in the audial track of JLG/JLG, in which the representation of the self is rendered through a world of sounds, indicative of Godard continuing to fundamentally mistrust visual imagery (not a just image, just an image) and to privilege the aural.
That Godard decides to feature himself prominently in one of his films comes as no surprise, since his work anticipates this almost from the outset of his career. Indeed, he appears as an actor as early as his second film, Une Femme coquette (1955), and subsequently plays the informer in A bout de souffle [Breathless] (1959), the director’s assistant in Le Mépris [Contempt] (1963), Vladimir in Vladimir et Rosa [Vladimir and Rosa] (dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, France and West Germany, 1970), and the institutionalized film director “Uncle Jean” in Prénom: Carmen [First name: Carmen] (1983). Yet another celebrated example of the insertion of his physical body into his films is his contribution to the 1967 omnibus production Loin de Vietnam [Far from Vietnam], where, filmed behind a movie camera, he directly addresses the audience as “Godard the director,” discussing the frustrations and limits of the role of cultural worker within world politics. It is important to stress, however, that although Godard is immediately recognizable as himself in these films, he is still playing consciously scripted fictionalized roles. What is just as important, though rarely noted, is Godard’s predilection to cast the individual in world history both as fictional character and representative self. In Loin de Vietnam, for instance, and again in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, Godard presents a surrogate for himself as author/intellectual/writer accompanied by an attendant female muse. And even if he does not appear corporally or by proxy as image, his (disembodied) presence is easily recognizable in films such as Une histoire d’eau [A history of water] (1958), Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle [Two or three things I know about her] (1966), and Pravda (1969). For, as Kaja Silverman insightfully notes, authorial subjectivity is inscribed into the cinematic text not only in the iconic representation of the author (here Godard playing himself), but also in the voiceover. As evidenced by the never-realized project Moi, je [Me, I], Godard already had designs of making a film about himself as early as 1973. Furthermore, in J.L.G. Meets W.A. (1986) (where W.A. is Woody Allen), Godard uses the initials J.L.G. to designate himself, and Helas pour moi [Oh woe is me] (1994) has been received as a semiautobiographical meditation on his life and work. But JLG/JLG is Godard’s first unabashed attempt to represent himself filmically. The overlapping of the iconic presence of Godard (as author/director/actor) with an aural track of speech indexically pointing to the author/director induces the spectator/reader/listener to (mis)believe the veracity of the autobiographical claim: We see him and hear him, ergo the information presented must be true. But one of the root claims of Godard’s oeuvre is that cinema is a “dream machine,” an industry based on ideology, sleight of hand, and phantasmatic projection. His autoportrait, I am suggesting, is one of these projections no less for his than for our awareness of the fact.
From a slightly different perspective, many of Godard’s earlier films, though not explicitly signed as such, are (or can be read as) autobiographies. In this sense, it is as if Godard’s films enact Nietzsche’s sly remark that even (indeed, especially) when writing a biography one is actually being autobiographical, that one is, in effect, all the names of history. Godard does, after all, locate the “political” in relation to highly personal and subjective projects, at one point going as far as to assert that “the real ‘political’ film that I’d like to end up with would be a film about me.”8 This is a striking statement, one that is made only more complex by such later proclamations as the following from a 1988 interview in the Socialist newspaper Libération. While François Truffaut may have affirmed an “auteur politics,” Godard states polemically, “Today, all that we have left is the term ‘auteur.’” And yet, continues Godard, “what was interesting was the term ‘politics.’ Auteurs aren’t important.” But how, one may ask, do politics figure in this essay of self-(re)presentation?
Always one to play with traditional genres and to push them beyond their limits, in JLG/JLG Godard at once evokes the literary/philosophical genre of autobiography and the autoportrait, or self-portrait, category of painting. Indeed, Godard seems to privilege the latter, since he subtitles his film “Autoportrait de décembre” while the book version does not contain this subtitle.11 Furthermore, toward the end of the film he stresses, “Autoportrait pas autobiographie” [Self-portrait not autobiography].12 But in a seeming contradiction he also argues that “le papier blanc est le vrai miroir de l’homme” [blank paper is the true mirror of man].13 To be sure, JLG/JLG is set up like a book, opening with ruled lines of a schoolboy’s ledger upon which various words and phrases are scrawled, among others the months of the French Revolution, when there was an attempt to radically alter the order of things. And the pages are turned as the film progresses, culminating in a series of blank pages at the end. However, earlier in the film Godard explains, “Si J.L.G. par J.L.G. il y a que veut dire ce par J.L.G. il s’agira de paysages d’enfance et d’autrefois sans personne dedans et aussi de paysages plus récents oú ont eu lieu les prises de vues.” [If J.L.G by J.L.G. there is, what does this “by J.L.G. mean?” It will concern childhood landscapes both of yesteryear with no one in them, and also more recent ones where things are filmed.]14 Thus the filmed landscape plays as much a role in personal identity and memory as anything else, something that is further emphasized later in the film, when Godard notes that the word “nation” in French (pays) is contained within the French word for “landscape” (paysage). In short, for Godard the concept of landscape is loaded with meaning in terms of forming or constructing the social, cultural, historical, political subject.16 And it is in this sense that the link between national identity and cultural product (filmed landscapes) is forged, a connection that resonates with Godard’s pronouncements on national cinema, such as the following: “I think cinema was the identity of nations, of peoples (who were more or less organized as nations), and that since, this has disappeared.”
Forgoing the more flexible video technology, JLG/JLG is made in traditional 35mm film. It opens with the sound of a telephone ringing against a blank screen. As a poorly illuminated room comes into focus, the accompanying soundtrack is of children’s voices at play, followed by the credits. The first voice we hear is Godard’s, imitative of a breathless and wheezing Lemmy Caution in Alphaville, muttering as if to himself these opening words: “Exercice 174, procéder la distribution des rôles, commencer les répétitions, résoudre le problèmes de mise en scène, régle soigneusement les entrées et les sorties, apprendre son rôle par coeur, travailler à améliorer son interprétation, entrer dans la peau de son personnage.” [Cast the roles. Begin the rehearsals. Settle the problems concerning the direction. Perfect the entrances and exits. Learn your lines by heart. Work to improve your acting, get under the skin of your character.]18 And as an early childhood photograph of Godard slowly appears on the screen, ultimately filling the entire frame, he switches his tone of voice, now acting out the clichéd role of an old man ruminating on his youth in the third person. In this scenario, we recognize Godard’s disguised voice, but simultaneously are aware that he is playing a role. This slippage between fact and fiction, reality and simulacrum, is not surprising in Godard. On the contrary, it has characterized his work from its inception—a characteristic which may in part be explained by Godard’s “essayistic” mode of filmmaking. And just as the essay film challenges the generic categories of fact and fiction, so does autobiography. Indeed, we have come a long way since Philippe Lejeune’s initial search for a fixed definition of “autobiography”—one predicated on a heuristic contract that promises to deliver the “truth.” In opposition to this, today autobiography is commonly seen as exemplifying irreducible tensions between a lived life wie es eigentlich gewesen, and self-created fiction(s) of a narrating self or selves. In this sense, instead of trying to determine whether or not this is the “real,” it may be more productive to adapt Paul de Man’s argument that “autobiography is not a genre or a mode, but a figure of reading or understanding that occurs, to some degree in all texts.”This is, I am arguing, something that certainly takes place in Godard’s JLG/JLG.
In this complexly edited film, Godard meticulously constructs a richly layered aural palimpsest—one could even say a mystic writing pad. Quotations from philosophers and writers as diverse as Hegel, Stendhal, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Bernanos, and Giraudoux are juxtaposed with film clips and sound tracks from Godard’s own films, as well as from classics such as Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, a rich classical music sound track, and paintings, primarily of courtesans, by, among others, Velázquez, Boucher, Fragonard, Courbet, Manet, and Schiele. Amid the multitude of images and sounds, several major themes gradually emerge. At one point, the director, JLG, is visited by the “contrôleurs du centre du cinéma” (cinema center inspectors). At another, in the ultimate ironic gesture, JLG hires a blind woman to edit his films intuitively. Vision is thus completely undermined in relation to other senses. But while the film never lapses into randomness, it never totally resolves itself either; instead, it teases the viewer along cresting waves of delirium, and just when one feels utterly overwhelmed and about to drown, a partially delineated current spins one toward a new thematic connection.
The film is a labyrinth. One is continually confronted by the work of reading, listening, viewing, deciphering, and searching. Throughout, interior shots of Godard’s residence in Rolle, Switzerland, are intercut with landscape shots of a vast field, Lake Geneva, and a rough-hewn path that leads into the woods. As JLG aimlessly wanders on a spit in the lake—a more solitary walker than Rousseau—the exterior changes seasons. In one of the final scenes, set in winter, he encounters an old woman in black on a path that is said to lead nowhere: Heidegger’s Holzweg. This crucial image or trope, evoked by Godard in such earlier projects as Histoire(s) and Allemagne both visually and as writing across the screen—“chemins qui ne menent nulle part” [woodcutter’s paths that lead nowhere]—is Heidegger’s postwar trope for authentic, noninstrumental thinking in the fallen age of technology. But Godard has refunctioned this scene into an allusion to filmmaking as noninstrumental art, what he calls the exception, versus instrumental production culture—the rule. “Il y a la culture,” JLG maintains in a crucial segment of the film, “qui est de la règle qui fait partie de la règle. Il y a l’exception qui est de l’art qui fait partie de l’art.” [Culture is a question of rules. It is part of the rules. Exception is a question of art. It is part of art.]24 And he goes on to list elements of the rule: cigarettes, computers, T-shirts, television, tourism, and war. The segment ends with the high modernist statement that it is part of the “rule to want the death of the exception.”
In this connection it is as interesting as it is revealing to note the relatively vast array of media introduced by Godard in the film. This array ranges from photography (the film, after all, begins with the conventional autobiographical formula of the photo of the author as a young child), to painting, graphics, written text, video technology, and more. Indeed, in JLG/JLG we can see a product exemplary of what Rosalind Krauss, expounding on the theories of Michael Fried and Thierry de Duve, refers to as a “post-medium age” in which individual media implode “into a single continuum.” Alternately, though, we can begin to understand why Godard opted for 35mm film as the medium through which to represent himself if we follow Jameson’s argument that “whenever other arts are foregrounded within a film—and, generally visual, those can range from video to cuneiform, or, as here, from theater to painting—what is at stake is always some implicit formal proposition as to the superiority of film itself as a medium over these disparate competitors.”26 For we cannot fail to observe that despite JLG/JLG’s extensive referencing of other media, it still seems that Godard stands by his candid response to Colin MacCabe that the only way to counter the “structures of television” is “to make movies.”27 Which leads one to question just exactly what it is about the filmic medium that, even (or especially) for Godard in its death throes, still retains a superiority over all the other media?
But film is not the only medium whose death is being mourned in JLG/JLG—it also laments the “death of writing.” Indeed, the argument that we are moving from a literate society to one dominated by the image also runs through the film. And though cinema has often been cited as instrumental in this shift, arguments for the structural and syntactical similarities between the novel and cinema have been advanced by Marshall McLuhan and numerous others. In this respect, the autobiographical film can be considered part of the legacy of the literary genre of autobiography. And, by extension, Godard’s film therefore also constitutes an investigation of the death of literature. Interestingly, in what appears to be an effort to combat this occurrence, Godard publishes a print version of his film. He thereby firmly binds his film to literary creation through the publication of the screenplay, strengthening its position as a film for a literate audience.
Heavily scripted, Godard’s autobiographical essay is also a philosophical reflection on the reproductive medium of film, a preemptive performance of film criticism—a contemporary adaptation of Schlegel’s famous dictum: “A theory of the novel should itself be a novel.” In this sense, JLG/JLG challenges the institution of criticism as it inhibits and resists scholarly discourse, always already appearing to have done the critic’s work. Surely, it is in this way that one can properly begin to understand Godard’s claim that since his departure from narrative film he has considered cinema as primarily “an instrument of thought.
It is unnecessary to spell out the structural relationships between Godard’s son+image—a type of aural collage consisting of repeated or overlapping film clips, written or spoken poetry, philosophy, high and low literature, as well as paintings and visual citations functioning as rebus—and concepts such as Walter Benjamin’s “dialectical image” or Gilles Deleuze’s “image-events.” But, true to his nature, Godard does not always “footnote” his original sources, preferring to fuse them into his own sounds and images. (The book JLG/JLG gives a few citations in the form of proper names at the back.) Regarding Godard’s ubiquitous literary and philosophical allusions, the implied “reader” of JLG/JLG indeed seems required to possess a lycée, gymnasium, or British public-school education that is barely accessible in the United States or elsewhere, and is shrinking fast even in Europe. As such, Godard addresses at least two audiences: those who are in the know, who will recognize the references, and those who will not.
ly temptation may be real, and even pleasant, this pursuit is something of a red herring in the case of Godard’s play with allusions, which are at once playful but also exert their influence rationally and affectively. By the same token, even without trying to grasp completely the intertextual clarification of Godard’s every allusion, it is important to understand his basic structure of appropriation. Can intertextuality produce a pure son+image? Can a pure son+image produce indeterminacy? We get a glimpse of Godard’s response to such questions in a key section of JLG/JLG. Discussing image production, Godard presents a theory of montage in which the realities put together have to be both “lointains et justes” [distant and right]. If these elements do not have any relationship to each other, Godard suggests, then an image will not result. Godard then goes on to assert that it is not “brutale” or “fantastique” elements that will make an image powerful. Rather, a strong image is one in which “l’association des idées est lointaine, lointaine, et juste” [the association of ideas is distant, distant, and right].31 In a further sense, too, Godard maintains that this idea of montage is not one that is found only in the realm of visual imagery, but one that encompasses the aural realm as well. Thus the shrill sound of the crow against the barren, rough-trodden landscape at once alludes to Van Gogh’s last painting, Wheatfield with Crows (1890), while referencing the squawk of the crow in Allemagne 90 neuf zéro.
By design, then, Godard’s resulting son+image is impossible to fully absorb or comprehend at one viewing. Raymond Bellour’s 1992 observation in “(Not) Just an Other Filmmaker,” that in Godard’s films generally there are “four modalities that link text and speech to image, but also divide them,” is applicable to JLG/JLG. 32 According to Bellour, the first modality is “the book circuit,” the frequent shots of books as physical objects, including Godard’s personal library. Here, the “book is the object in hunt-the-slipper: you can hold certain moments of it, which you hold out to the other, your partner, as the spectator. You can expect a sort of grace from it, which is always deferred, since the real belief is the image—before which the text is lacking.”33 Second, there is “quotation, issuing from books on this side and beyond: on this side to mark how references spontaneously exercise memory and the body, like available traces; beyond, to create impalpable dissociations—to contain, to veil the image as such, which is at once too simple, excessive, immediate, and out of reach.” Third, there is another modality of textuality, Godard’s patented privileging of “text over image, ready-made texts—ads, signs, graffiti—all foregrounded by the framing of the image.”
And finally there are all the voices: those of the book and of quotation, and those of all the characters from whom Godard’s voice stands out more and more frequently and insistently. But all share with his voice the singularity of always addressing the spectator, at least somewhat— even when talking to a partner, whether on- or offscreen. Thus, they constantly double the film with a critical layer that isn’t commentary, since the voices remain engaged in the fiction. But the fiction is based, as much as or more on plot, on an analysis of the condition of fiction, the conditions of a possible (hi)story, in the context of images and sounds.