by Nora M. Alter
In this respect it is certainly interesting to note that one of the subtexts of JLG/JLG is to problematize vision and visuality generally. At one point in the film, Godard cites from Wittengenstein’s On Certitude: “Si un aveugle me demandait as-tu deux mains ce n’est pas en regardant que je m’en assurerais oui je ne sais pas pourquoi j’irais faire confiance à mes yeux si j’en étais à douter oui, pourquoi ne serait-ce pas mes yeux que j’irais vérifier en regardant si je vois mes deux mains.” [A blind man asks me: Do you have two hands? Looking at my hands would not reassure me. I do not know why I would trust my eyes, if I were in doubt. Yes, why wouldn’t I check my eyes by looking at whether I see my two hands?] This is followed by Diderot’s letter to the blind. And, complicating things even further, one of the last sequences of JLG/JLG ends with the blind film editor. Godard instructs her to count the frames manually, while he describes the scenes to her. Cutting and editing is therefore left to chance, the operative principle of an avant-garde legacy that can be traced as far back as Stephane Mallarmé’s late-nineteenth-century poems. Here we might recall Jacques Derrida’s observation in Memoirs of the Blind that a “hand is the very memory of the accident.”
At one point in the film Godard asks the blind woman to listen and identify a particular sound track. Perceptively, she replies that “c’est un film qu’on n’a encore jamais fait,” to which he responds, “Vous dites vrai mademoiselle, c’est un film que personne n’a vu.” [“It is a film that hasn’t been made yet.” “You speak the truth, Miss, it’s a film which no one has seen.”] Thus, in a complete inversion of the traditional production of film in which the image precedes the superimposition of the sound track, the viewer, like the blind woman, is presented with a film that exists only as a sound. Revealingly, despite her blindness, the woman adds that we are constituted by the visible, for it is the “visible qui est là-bas est simultanément mon paysage” [how the visible over there is also my landscape]. As Derrida notes, “Every time a draftsman lets himself be fascinated by the blind, every time he makes the blind a theme of his drawing, he projects, dreams, or hallucinates a figure of the draftsman or sometimes, more precisely, some draftswoman.”40 Likewise, Godard, the draftsman of the passing art of cinema, invokes the blind draftswoman and links her drawing to memory and mourning. For only blindness is capable of adequately penetrating mourning, piercing right through it as if interposing a mirror. Additionally, observes Derrida, “in the case of the blind man, hearing goes farther than the hand, which goes farther than the eye.” And let us not forget that it is acoustic memory and self that Godard composes.
It is in this scene with the blind woman that several disparate threads come together, linking the problem of visuality in an age of spectacle with the death of cinema. These threads produce tension between a certain skepticism on the one hand, and a glimmer of hope in the possibility of providing an alternative cinema on the other, one that will carry cinema into the twentyfirst century. Just as Histoire(s) du cinema is an ongoing project to which Godard refers as the last version of art as a “shroud,” or “piece of mourning,” for, and of, cinema, so too JLG/JLG inhabits this same quasi-Hegelian dusk of the end of art. And yet in JLG/JLG there is an interesting reversal to this funereal tone. Whereas mourning usually follows death, in his case it is the opposite: “Chambre noire, j’ai porté le deuil d’abord mais la mort n’est pas venue, ni dans les rues de Paris, ni sur les rivages du lac de Genève, lanterne magique.” [Darkroom. I first put on mourning, but death never came, neither on Paris’s streets, nor on Lake Geneva’s shores. Magic Lantern.] By framing this sentence with the camera and magic lantern—handwritten in the ledger book—Godard simultaneously produces an eulogy and an elegy not only for himself and cinema, but, even more ambitiously, for the history of Western civilization. Thus Godard intones over a photo of himself as a child, “J’étais déjà en deuil de moi-meme” [I was already in mourning for myself]43—where “self” includes, as always for Godard, an entire social and historical formation.
To see and to hear is to leave oneself momentarily, not always to return to one’s point of departure, indeed not necessarily to return at all. Toward the end of the film, Godard muses: “Le passé n’est jamais mort, il n’est même pas passé, moi, j’ai autant de plaisir à être passé qu’à ne pas être passé.” [The past is never dead, it hasn’t even passed. Yet I am as happy to be passed as not to be passed.]44 In this sense, JLG/JLG threatens to become a traditional creation or insurance of Godard’s own immortality. As he puts it, “Il faut que je devienne universel” [I have to become universal].45 Here we might recall a passage from de Man’s “Autobiography as Style” that uncannily evokes the elegiac tone of JLG/JLG: “Death is a displaced name for a linguistic predicament, and the restoration of mortality by autobiography (the prosopopoeia of the voice and the name) deprives and disfigures to the precise extent that it restores. Autobiography veils a defacement of the mind of which it is itself the cause.” If for Barthes a photograph of a person is spectral, a hauntology if you will, then Godard’s tack is to insert himself, his mortal corpse, into the history of film, playing an abstract role that will be substantiated in the ongoing project of Histoire(s) du cinema and that acts as a leitmotiv in Allemagne 90 neuf zero.
Put simply and assertively, death is the dominant theme in JLG/JLG. For, as Godard reminds us, his own mortality is wedded to that of film, and with the passing of the latter comes his own. Thus, the man who once described film as “truth at twenty-four frames a second” now merges into a medium that has proven to be as ephemeral as life. With death, of course, comes mourning, a solitary act of deep contemplation. As already implied, despite the brief appearance of other characters, JLG/JLG is a solitary meditation. In fact, I would go further and claim that although Godard surrounds himself with an audiovisual world rich with texts, this very populated space is also an excruciatingly lonely place. Indeed, “solitude” is a red thread in many of Godard’s works, as he often reflects on how ultimately “history is made” from a solitary position. And JLG/JLG, which ends with the words “un homme rien qu’un homme et qui n’en vaut aucun mais qu’aucuns ne valent” [a man, nothing but a man, no better than any other, but no other better than he], is no exception.
In view of the emphasis I have placed on the autobiographical elements of JLG/JLG, it is important to note that Godard himself tries to preempt this categorization by insisting that “si J.L.G. par J.L.G. il y a que veut dire ce par J.L.G., il s’agira de paysage d’enfance.” [If J.L.G. by J.L.G. there is, what does this “by J.L.G. mean?” It will concern childhood landscapes.]49 And yet JLG/JLG is often wrongly referred to by critics as JLG by JLG. 50 To which Godard objects: “There is no ‘by’ . . . If there is a ‘by’ it means it’s a study of JLG, of myself by myself and a sort of biography, what one calls in French une examination de conscience [an examination of consciousness and/or conscience], which it absolutely is not. That’s why I say JLG/JLG Self Portrait. A selfportrait has no ‘me.’ It has a meaning only in painting, nowhere else. I was interested to find out if it could exist in [motion] pictures and not only in paintings.”51 The reference to painting as a medium is prevalent in Godard’s films. Pictorialist scenes and the reproduction of paintings are featured in works as diverse as Pierrot le fou (1965), Passion (1982), Allemagne 90 neuf zéro (1991), and Histoire(s) du cinema (1989).52 This fascination with the painterly medium has led Godard to propose fusing painting with cinema, and to refer to himself as a “painter of letters.”53 We get a glimpse of the underlying reasons for this interest in an interview with MacCabe where Godard remarks, “Sometimes I prefer to look at faces or at things in paintings because I can look longer and there are more things to see than in a picture.” But the question of the difference between self-portraiture and autobiography is still an open one, as is that of the similarities and differences between these two modes of presenting the self.
The first and most obvious difference between a selfportrait and an autobiography is within the medium itself. On the one hand, autobiography is a form of writing—a writing of the self—the self created through a linguistic system. On the other hand, a self-portrait is an image of the self, a pictorial or sculptural recreation of the self. But we have yet to account for how the filmic or video self fits in, especially in films such as Godard’s where the graphic plays such a dominant role. Here, once again, we can fruitfully turn to the structure of painting to begin to understand Godard’s mode of working. As he notes,
What I like in painting is that it’s a bit out of focus and you don’t care. In cinema you can’t be out of focus, but if you add dialogue, if you show that in pictures, this kind of look at reality, then between your very focused cinematographic image and the words there is a land that is out of focus, and this out of focus is the real cinema.
Hence there is a perpetual though elusive presence of an aleatory gap between, and within, images and sounds that can be controlled and those that cannot. Godard’s recent works, for instance, neither reproduce the “actualities” of the mass media nor create a pure fiction; instead, they operate in the gaps, in the “betweenness” of both. The sound enters between the visual gaps and vice versa. Thus new images and/or concepts are created in the resulting audio-visual collage—images and/or concepts adequate to the multiplex historical and technological event.
The second important difference between the genres of self-portraiture and autobiography involves the element of temporality. Autobiography implies the study of a life over time, the reordering and the retelling of a narrative of one’s life, situating it across a trajectory of space and time. A self-portrait, by contrast, is inherently static and timeless, an icon frozen within a certain space and time. Stasis. And as such, it is not fortuitous that JLG/ JLG is an essay film, a category of cinema that, among other things, is very “writerly.” Alexandre Astruc, one of the early promoters of the essay film, introduced the notion of a camèra-stylo (camera-stylus) that would, in his words, “break free from the tyranny of what is visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing, just as flexible and subtle as written language . . . more or less literal ‘inscriptions’ on images as essays.” And Godard has certainly incorporated actual written or graphic inscriptions throughout his oeuvre, leading some to refer to him as the “consummate essayist.” Additionally, the essay film is further linked to the genre of autobiography by the term essay. For essay comes from Latin exagium, which means “weighing” or “assaying” and entails “to attempt an experiment”; in addition, essayis also related to the notion of conscious human agency, as in agent (via Latin ex-agere). Hence there is a link to autobiography as an open-ended experiment that is part objective assessment, part subjective projection, part consensual hallucination.
Let me now turn to an investigation of the sound track in order to bring out one of the most obvious differences (aside from the visual images) between the filmic and the written autobiography. (Hypertext will also reorient autobiography in this direction technologically, though it will not necessarily change the basic philosophical and hermeneutic problematic.) In Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, Barthes, the subject/object, addresses the inadequacy of the written text to represent his voice: “I try, little by little, to render his voice . . . but I fail to find any such thing, so great is the gap between the words which come to me from the culture and this strange being (can it be no more than a matter of sounds?) which I fleetingly recall at my ear.” Here we might recall that sound, for Godard, is at least as crucial as the visual image. He dubs his work sonimage to play on several connotations: sound image, his image, or meaning/sense image. This has led critics, such as Dragonetti, to refer to the primacy of music in Godard’s films of the 1980s as “legame musaico, implying both mosaical and musical.” The importance of the sound track for Godard resonates from as early as his first film, Opération béton (1954), an otherwise traditional documentary about the construction of a dam that is supplemented with the nonsynchronic music of Bach and Handel. And the 1961 production, Une femme est une femme, [A woman is a woman] plays against the conventions of the movie musical.
The year 1967, however, marks a watershed for Godard’s experiments with the sound track. In Week-end, the visuals are subordinated to the soundtrack,60 and in Le Gai Savoir [ Joyful wisdom] (1967), there is no plot relationship between sound and image at all.61 Furthermore, Un film comme les autres [A film like any other] (1968) is marked by the indecipherability of the simultaneous French/English soundtrack. In Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics, Colin MacCabe presents a plausible interpretation of the problematic of tension between the sound and audial track manifest in Godard’s films of this period. He notes that in traditional cinema there is “a fixed relation of dependence between soundtrack and image whether priority is given to the image, as in fiction films (we see the truth and the soundtrack must come in line with it) or to the soundtrack, as in documentary (we are told the truth and the image merely confirms it). According to MacCabe, Godard attempts to subvert this traditional relationship and instead puts the soundtrack in direct contradiction to the visual/image track. Accordingly, he links this to the influence of Maoist politics on Godard at the time and sees the following five films made while Godard was working with the Dziga-Vertov Group as illustrating this ideology: British Sounds [See you at Moa] (dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Henri Roger, France, 1969), Pravda (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Burron, JeanPierre Gorin, and Jean-Henri Roger, West Germany, 1969), Vent d’est [East wind] (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Gérard Martin III, France/Italy, 1969), Lotte in Italia (dir. JeanLuc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, Italy/France, 1969), and Vladimir and Rosa. However, MacCabe goes on to argue that although Godard firmly denies the possibility of a correct image, it is evident that he believes in the possibility of a correct sound: “The films persistently pose the existence of a correct sound and a new relation between sound and image which would produce the correct image to accompany it.” As such, sound becomes a corrective or a means to rectify the visual track in these early investigations. Though it can be said that Godard abandoned his practice of making overtly political films, he continued with his sound experiments. It is in this context that, after leaving the Dziga-Vertov Group, he formed with Anne-Marie Miéville the Sonimage workshop in Grenoble.
By and large, Godard’s problematization of the sound track continues to become more ambitious and complex. For example, in Prénom: Carmen (1983), he initially wanted the entire film to be an actual quartet. At around the same time, Godard starts adding to and inserting his old film soundtracks into his new films. Le Livre de Marie (1984), for instance, features sections of the soundtrack from Le Mépris, as well as scenes from the latter. Perhaps the most complex of his experimentations with the soundtrack is Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, which was awarded the Osello d’Oro award for sound at the 1991 Venice Film Festival. Symptomatic of his films during this period, the soundtrack produces various different levels of signification and reference through multiple layers of sensory source and recipient, subconscious and conscious perception, textual and intertextual referent, fictional and historical facts, and, ultimately, biographical and autobiographical traces.
But I want to return to how the themes of death and mourning are imbricated into the soundtrack of these recent films and JLG/JLG in particular. Provocatively subtitled “A SelfPortrait in December,” JLG/JLG is described by Godard on the dust jacket notes as “phrase unité du discours partie d’un enoncé généralement formé de plusiers mots ou groupe de mots dont la construction présente un sens complet phraser jouer en mettant en évidence par des respirations le développements de la ligne mélodique” [phrase-unit of the discourse, fragment of an enunciation of a statement usually composed of several words or groups of words, the structure of which presents a full meaning that is segmented and played out while stressing with the rhythm of breathing the development of the linear melody]. Indeed this stress on musical composition has been perceived by theorists such as Theador Adorno as an integral part of the genre of the essay. JLG/JLG is in essence a requiem, including musical tracks by Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Stravinsky, and other late romantics spliced in with Schoenberg. In this connection, it is insightful to consider Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe’s coupling of the autobiographical compulsion to musical obsession in “The Echo of the Subject.”66 Via a detour through Freud, Abraham, Reik, Mahler, Wagner, and Nietzsche, Lacoue-Labarthe postulates that the autobiographical compulsion is discernible in the audial before its specularity in the visible. Significantly, especially in the context of the present argument, Lacoue-Labarthe relates the impulse to autobiography to the practice of mourning—a phenomenon he calls “catacoustic,” a kind of “inner echo”:67 “Music, then, primes; it sets off the autobiographical gesture. Which is to say, as well, the theoretical gesture.”68 However, these gestures are set off and sustained by a prelinguistic spark, one “not strictly speaking . . . of the order of language.” The deep audial nature of autobiography is posited by Lacoue-Labarthe as a protoform of “otobiography,” another way of telling the Derridian biography of the ear. He refers to autobiography as “allothanatography,” arguing that “the biography of the dead other is always inscribed in an agon— a struggle to the death. . . . every autobiography is in its essence the narrative of an agony, literally.” And this term returns us to Godard, for whom mourning, death, haunting, melody, and “rhythm would also be the condition of possibility for the subject.”71 Which is to say, the uncanny subject of the self-portrait: subject to it as well as of it, its servant as well as its purported director, for the ultimate director of a film of life is death.
In the form of a conclusion, let us come to terms with just exactly what it is that Godard is mourning. For one thing, it is clear that he is in mourning for himself. For another, there is a mourning of the specter of cinema. Additionally, there is a felt loss for the possibility of art that pervades JLG/JLG. But toward the end of the film Godard introduces a new issue, a new layer, that of the European community (EEC), and the concomitant death of Europe. When he asks his maid, whom he misnames Adrienne, if she fears unemployment, she replies that she does not because “Monsieur [ Jaques] Delors a dit hier à la télévision que l’Europe allait construire de grandes autoroutes informatiques il y aura du travail.” [Delors said on television yesterday that Europe will build huge computer highways. There will be work for everyone.]72 Godard responds in turn with a citation from de Tocqueville, “Les grands brigandages ne peuvent s’exercer que chez de puissantes nations démocratiques où le gouvernement est concentré en peu de mains et où l’état est chargé d’exécuter d’immenses entreprises” [Great piracy can occur only in powerful democratic countries, where the government is run by few, and where the State is responsible for immense enterprises].73 For Godard, then, with the European community and the GATT accord all culture becomes a commodity or merchandise. Let us not forget that part of his “audit” in the film is conducted by a central film-control board, whose sole voice itemizing his life work is that of Cassandra. In response to her recitations he says softly, “Cassandre, Europe a des souvenirs . . . l’Amérique a des t-shirts . . . sur la convention de Berne et les accords du Gatt les film sont des marchandises.” [Europe has memories. America has T-Shirts . . . under the Bern Convention and the Gatt talks? Films are merchandise.]74 Soon thereafter he cites from a Russian journal of 1873, twice repeating that “l’Europe est condamnée à mort” [Europe is sentenced to death].75 Thus, by the end of JLG/JLG, Godard’s paysage, his landscape of personal memories and filmic ones, has changed. European countries are losing their individual identity, being unified as one, and on the edge of the new “European community,” what was once a unified country—Yugoslavia—has been wrenched apart in one of the bloodbaths of the 1990s. As Godard laments, “C’est alors l’art de vivre Srebrenica, Mostar, Sarajevo, oui, et il est de la règle que vouloir la mort de l’exception.” [It is thus called the art of living: Srebrenica, Mostar, Sarajevo, yes, and it is part of the rules to want the death of the exception.]76 The perennial question returns: What is the role of art in world history and politics? This topic is central to Godard’s 1997 film Forever Mozart.
In mourning for a lost place and thus a bygone era, near the end of JLG/JLG Godard inserts a sequence from the sound track of Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, where Lemmy Caution intones, “Pays heureux magique éblouissant, ô terre aimée où donc es-tu” [Happy, magical dazzling country, oh, beloved land, where are you now?]. And yet, plaintively, querulously, Godard pessimistically leaves the possibility for ultimate redemption open. For what emerges phoenixlike from the ashes of the funereal world he presents is wisdom. “La philosophie,” he proclaims in both JLG/JLG and Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, in what is clearly a paraphrase of Hegel, “commence par la ruine d’un monde réel” [Philosophy begins with the ruins of the real world]. And as the sequence that superimposes the raucous cry of a crow onto a scene of a now barren field allegorically suggests, according to Godard that catastrophe has all but taken place.