Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema.
By Daniel Morgan
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013
326 pp; $63 cloth; $26.95 paper
The Utopia of Film: Cinema and its Futures in Godard, Kluge and Tahimik
By Christopher Pavsek
New York: Columbia University Press, 2013
304 pp; $80.55 cloth; $26.55 paper
We have witnessed an unprecedented avalanche of "Godard Studies" in the past few years. Daniel Morgan's Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema and Christopher Pavsek's The Utopia of Film: Cinema and its Futures in Godard, Kluge and Tahimik are among a slew of monographs discussing Godard's work to appear recently, while at least two anthologies are also slated for release. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this phenomenon is the fact that the bulk of this scholarship focuses on Godard's "late" work--that period of his oeuvre beginning, by most accounts, in the early 1980s--which until recently had tended to be overshadowed by critical accounts of his Nouvelle Vague films.
Morgan, in fact, is singularly strident in asserting the value of this phase of the Godardian corpus, but at the same time he endeavors to highlight the limitations of a straightforward division of the filmmaker's work into chronological periods. Instead, his preferred method for delineating subdivisions in Godard's oeuvre is the "series," and he elects to home in on a particular series composed of the features Soigne ta droite (1987), Nouvelle vague (1990), and Allemagne 90 neuf zero (1991), and the monumental video work Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998). For Morgan, this approach allows him to "emphasize the way themes, visual strategies, motifs, and problems are worked through both within and across [these films]" and to place "attention on the question of why one particular work follows another" (19-20).
But some questions immediately arise: if his chosen series culminates in Histoire(s), why neglect works such as Scenario du film Passion (1982) and Les Enfants jouent a la Russie (1993), which seem much more intimately connected to Godard's historical project than Soigne ta droite and Nouvelle vague? Moreover, if the three features in question are so integrally linked to Histoire(s), why does Morgan's study end up adopting a diptych structure, rigidly cloven between discussions of the two?
Such niggling questions go unanswered, but this does not prevent the book from being a stimulating and compellingly argued contribution to scholarly examinations of Godard's work. While Morgan's approach clearly owes a great deal to the recent spurt of interest in the intersections between cinema and philosophy, he differentiates himself from many of these discussions by arguing that the philosophical significance of Godard's films lies not in their explicit nods to philosophical discourse, but rather in their subtler relationship to aesthetics. Morgan grants that the turn in Godard's work towards a preponderance of natural imagery and a concern with classical artistic production constitutes a distinct counter-current to the dominant, "anti-aesthetic" trend in contemporary art and theory, but he is firm that this does not represent a conservative move. Instead, he argues that Godard "draws on the terms and categories of aesthetics to rethink basic aspects of his cinematic practice, intellectual interests and political concerns" (13).
The first three chapters substantially follow this line. In the first, Godard's project is aligned with the German tradition of aesthetic theory--from Kant and Hegel to Heidegger and Adorno--and a parallel to the aporias that striate the thinking of these philosophers is found in a pair of signature techniques in Godard's formal repertoire: the "break" between media (switching from film to video, for instance), and the focus pull (transitioning from an out-of-focus blur to a sharply defined image). The second chapter proceeds to investigate the use of images of nature in Soigne to droite and Nouvelle vague, which suggest an Eliadean "rhythm of natural cycles," at odds with linear temporality. Morgan nonetheless rejects the idea that Godard is hereby generating an aesthetics of the sublime, and the third chapter, with its focus on Allemagne 90's footage of landscapes marked by both the environmental catastrophes of industrialization and the more imperceptible scars of human history, seeks to inject the "iconography of the beautiful" sketched out in the earlier films with a dose of "politics by other means."
This chapter thus forms a thematic prelude to the second half of Morgan's book, which analyzes Histoire(s) through two main optics, commendably presenting novel ways of looking at a work that has been subject to an outpouring of exegesis since its completion 15 years ago. In the initial chapter, Morgan's argument recapitulates Godard's deeply ambivalent attitude towards the indexical nature of the photographic image in order to claim that, for Godard, "photography has to pass through painting in order to become cinema" (155). The latter chapter, meanwhile, uses Godard's ample comments on the specificity of cinematic projection as a springboard for a set of ruminations about the formal mechanics operative in Histoire(s). This chapter, however, suffers from a lack of clear focus: Morgan strains to bring loosely connected concepts such as spectatorship, montage, and what he dubs "off-screen time" under the umbrella of "projection," and in doing so he ends up hypostasizing a term which tends to be used by Godard in a much more loosely metaphorical manner.
If the shortcomings of this chapter are so flagrant, then this is only because Morgan generally maintains a high degree of conceptual rigor, redolent of the analytic tradition of philosophy in which he is so evidently steeped, and which makes his work a distinct departure from the vast majority of academic discourse on Godard's films. Indeed, in perhaps his most striking passage, Morgan calls into question the very validity of the dominant line of thinking on Godard's late work--which seeks to relate it to the post-structuralist philosophy of Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida--and argues that "Godard himself appears fairly indifferent to these thinkers and the schools of thought they represent," while further claiming that "identifying any quotation from Godard's French contemporaries in his films is a difficult task" (65). Hs point is a crucial one, and we should indeed be wary of lazy efforts at equating Godard's work with that of an obvious coterie of his philosophical peers.
But it is no less true that the rhetorical method adopted by the filmmaker--involving word play, citation, metaphor, and obscure double meanings--hews much more closely to the playfulness of a Derrida or a Benjamin than to the logical exactitude of a Wittgenstein (who serves as the tacit model for Morgan's own mode of argumentation). This disjunction is most apparent in the paradoxical manner with which Morgan treats attempts to locate the "meaning" of passages in Godard's films: On the one hand, he explicitly claims that Godard "is not trying to communicate something directly to an audience, a message that could be easily deciphered if only we were in possession of the appropriate knowledge or code" (9). On the other hand, Morgan frequently ignores his own directive and seeks to ascertain the precise significance of a given shot, cut, or formal device, only to be invariably thwarted by the mercurially polysemic nature of Godard's work.
Pavsek likewise refrains from using the prism of contemporary French philosophy to view Godard's work in The Utopia of Film. Instead, the Frankfurt School forms the overarching theoretical framework for his study. Borrowing from Kluge (himself deeply indebted to Adorno), the writer posits the existence of the "utopia of film" by underscoring not only the "more explicit or conscious utopian pronouncements" made by a selection of contemporary filmmakers, but also those "other ways in which a utopian moment is encoded less explicitly in their work" (2).
Pavsek approaches this task from an unabashedly Marxist outlook, albeit one that has passed through the wringer of the Frankfurt school's skepticism towards the efficacy of politically engaged art. The central hypothesis of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory--that the utopian promise of a "reconciled society" can only be found in those moments when autonomous art formally departs from the diktats of the culture industry - is eagerly adopted by Pavsek, but the writer categorically refuses the ingrained despondency that suffuses Adorno's work. If this "optimistic Adornoism" sounds familiar, then it does not take us too long to locate the relevant maitre a penser: Fredric Jameson is frequently cited throughout the book, and the acknowledgements reveal that Pavsek studied under Jameson at Duke University.
As with Morgan, Allemagne 90 is a key work for Pavsek, but he opts to link this film with Godard's most recent work, Film socialisme--and it is precisely the term "socialism" which is of central interest here. Whereas Allemagne 90 elegiacally registered the demise of "really existing socialism," Pavsek, basing his argument on the Badiou lecture on Husserlian geometry briefly shown in Film socialisme, argues that the later film "calls for a return to 'socialism as origin'" (71).
As opposed to Morgan, Pavsek does not restrict his study to the sole figure of Godard, but expands his discussion to take in the work of the Filipino filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik and the German cinematic polymath Alexander Kluge. In Pavsek's account, Godard's deep-seated cultural pessimism functions as a "stand-in of sorts for Adorno," while Tahimik's work appears as that of a "Brechtian didact." In good dialectical fashion, Kluge's output, then appears as an "attempt to reconcile these two divergent impulses by combining Brecht's revolutionary didacticism with Adorno's skepticism" (17), and the chapter on Kluge is correspondingly the richest and most convincing section of Pavsek's book.
Reading these two volumes side by side inevitably yielded moments when they uncannily echoed each other, reflecting their near simultaneous publication. For me, the most striking of these parallels was their common discussion of Godard's citation of Hegel in Allemagne 90. Striking because, as a contribution to the spate of Godard scholarship mentioned at the start of this review, I recently wrote an article on precisely this matter. The vagaries of academic publishing mean that the anthology to which the essay was submitted (many months before these two books were published) will not be released until well after they have seen the light of day. Inevitably, however, the respective analyses on Godard's relationship with Hegel proffered by Morgan and Pavsek markedly diverged from each other, and both differ substantially from my own account - testimony, if any were needed, of the hermeneutic inexhaustibility of Godard's work.