Modernism/Modernity 8.4 (2001) 643-661
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Cinema Regained: Godard Between Proust and Benjamin
1. Godard's Trauerspiel of Cinema
In recent years, several screen adaptations of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu have been produced in defiance of the legendary difficulty of an enterprise that discouraged earlier directors such as Luchino Visconti and Joseph Losey. 1 In 1999, Raoul Ruiz completed Le temps retrouvé and, in 2000, Chantal Akerman's La captive enriched the growing Proustian filmography. Whereas Akerman successfully adapts just one section of the Recherche, Ruiz's movie more ambitiously dramatizes the entire last volume, thus attempting a synoptic recapitulation of the entire oeuvre. To make an adaptation of the Recherche may look like an act of hubris, yet, as Walter Benjamin remarks apropos of an imagined film production of Goethe's Faust, "the indestructibility of the highest life in all things" compels critical intelligence to regard the quality, rather than the principle, of a work. 2
Although Ruiz's effort shows many clever intuitions, such as its canny usage of superimposition to represent the intricate effects of involuntary memory, his film, in the final analysis, fails to convince. The reason for his failure has less to do with the a priori impossibility of filming the Recherche than with a literal-minded fidelity to his narrative model and a concern for décor d'époque, concern which unfortunately conveys the impression of a Merchant-Ivory period piece, or perhaps a minor Visconti costume drama. Moreover, the Chilean director's insistence on a surrealist manipulation of the image within a single frame (for example the scenes carpeted with upturned hats or populated [End Page 643] by mutiple Marcels) rather than on the organizing work of montage mistakenly results in an adaptation that reduces the Recherche--a novel whose very title suggests an operation of some epistemological importance--to a trivial dramaturgical puzzle. A better translation of the novel into the cinematic idiom would aim at a more figural or "involuntary" relation to the original, a reinterpretation through which the very temporal ground of interpretation would reveal itself allegorically. 3
Along these lines, a work that ought to be regarded as an "involuntary" adaptation of La recherche is Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma. The four-hour film, released simultaneously in France with a four-volume book interweaving text and stills, ambitiously attempts to reconstruct twentieth-century history and the very development of the movies through a collage of film traces. Godard worked upon this singular enterprise over a span of ten years from 1988 to 1998, and it at once constitutes a sort of archeology of the medium film and an act of recalling the twentieth century. 4 The result is a work divided into eight segments or, as Godard puts it, "constellations," bearing such evocative titles as "Toutes les histoires," "Une histoire seule," "Seul le cinéma," "Fatale beauté," "La monnaie de l'absolu," "Une vague nouvelle," "Le contrôle de l'univers," "Les signes parmi nous" (ACMS, 9). The different units vary in length and bear an often inorganic relationship to the central idea of the film. The titles and subtitles reappear as if refrains in a litany. 5 The final work consists of a dense montage of fragmentary movie sequences which is punctuated by the superimposition of flashing text, color schemes, paintings, and readings of literary works. Playing the role of Virgil, Godard guides us on our meandering way through an inferno of images while commenting in voice-over on the past as if from beyond the grave.
Melancholic in tone, Godard's Histoire(s) ought to be understood as a highly subjective response to the increasing obsolescence of a certain idea of cinema, call it "art cinema," the cinema of montage and mise-en-scène. Although computerized cinematography may in some sense represent the future of the form, it is evident that the digital image, as distinct from its celluloid variant, enacts a temporality of the perpetual present tense. Indeed, in so far as the digital image is removed from...