- What Has Come to Pass for Cinema in Late Godard
Utopia and its Passing
It might be useful to consider Godard's career as if it followed a somewhat disordered, almost reversed chronology than the transition from modernism to postmodernism. By this view, Godard's early films would be the properly postmodernist work, indulging in pure pastiche, working almost exclusively with surface play, chance, the fragmented and decentered subject, as well as reveling in the dedifferentiation of the categories of mass culture and high art. The euphoric celebrations of Westerns and films noir in his articles for Cahiers du cinéma would fit nicely with such a characterization, and the later remakes of his early work (the Hollywood version of Breathless with Richard Gere) as well as the focus of his contemporary postmodern followers on the films of the early sixties (Quentin Tarantino's obsession with the early Godard, most notably emblematized in the naming of his production company after Bande à part) would seemingly offer support for this periodization as well. Paradoxically, then, Godard's early period would usher in a political moment, an impulse thought to have been vacated in the postmodern. This moment of modernist engagement would be followed by his experiments with video and television, a medium chronologically much newer than cinema that would lead him into the past. For oddly enough, video would spawn the rebirth of cinema for [End Page 166] Godard, to which he would return in 1980, when he began to produce properly high modernist works. The films of the last two decades have much of the feel of "autonomous" works of art produced by a great master in his retreat, cut off from the world; his home in Rolle, Switzerland, has become his Pfeiffering, the rural, isolated abode of Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus. So it is that Godard finds himself, late in his career and by his account near the end of his own life as well as that of cinema itself, projected back into an earlier epoch producing Art in a medium which, as Godard himself has said, was hitherto unable to assume its status as art.1
Appropriately, then, Godard has found his way to something that one may emphatically call "cinema" at a time when it has become a commonplace to speak of its death, a topic about which Godard has spoken and filmed as much as anyone.2 Conventionally, this has been seen as a nostalgic or sentimental streak in Godard. Commentators regularly write of the elegiac or pessimistic tone of his late works, from Passion3 to Histoire(s) du cinéma and the more recent films, Éloge de l'amour (2001) and Notre musique (2004). Godard himself readily admits to such lamentations, but in an interview precisely at the beginning of this late period (1983) he has supplemented this view with a more optimistic one, even if he does continue to believe in cinema's passing:
It is true that for the cinema I have a sentiment of dusk, but isn't that the time when the most beautiful walks are taken? In the evening, when the night falls and there is the hope for tomorrow? Lovers rarely ever walk about hand in hand at seven o'clock in the morning . . . for me, dusk is a notion of hope rather than of despair.4
A hope always attends this gathering of the "shades of night," to paraphrase a favorite passage in Hegel that appears in Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro; this moment of an end, of a coming to pass of not only cinematic history but virtually all history, for Godard is not solely tragic, is not merely an experience or moment of irretrievable loss, but is shot through with a Utopian energy, a sense of openness and possibility from which something good can emerge. These two moments, of passing and Utopia, do not exist in a neutral, apposite relation to one another, but instead are inextricably, dialectically, intertwined. So it is that a profound sense of Utopia imbues even the most pessimistic seeming of Godard's films, including the two which I will focus on...