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Discourse 24.1 (2002) 113-119
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The Saint and the Heiress:
A propos of Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma
Translated by T. S. Murphy
"And if George Stevens hadn't used the first sixteen-millimeter color film at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück, undoubtedly Elizabeth Taylor's happiness would not have found a place in the sun." The viewer of Histoires du cinéma recognizes in this declaration Godard's manner of making incisive juxtapositions (rapprochements à l'emporte-pièce). And in this, undoubtedly habit has already had a share in things. She says to herself that it's indeed interesting that before tackling the cinematic version of An American Tragedy, George Stevens had accompanied the advance of the American army and filmed the death camps in cinema. But she adds here the feeling that, if Stevens had spent the war as an announcer in New York or a parachutist in Burma, this would have ever so slightly altered the way Elizabeth Taylor, in A Place in the Sun, portrayed the beautiful heiress overjoyed by her idyll with the young Rastignac played by Montgomery Clift. Having thus sorted things out, she awaits the provocateur's next telescoping and prepares herself to handle it in the same way.
But the director doesn't mean it that way, and a new image comes to bring literariness (littéraliser) to Elizabeth Taylor's place in the sun. She now appears to us shadowed, iconized in a circle of light that seems to outline the imperious gesture of a painted figure apparently descended from the heavens. Her suspended position would logically make her an angel. But the halo, the watchful expression and the red cape fringed with gold apparently belong to [End Page 113] a saint. The fact remains that saints rarely descend from the heavens, and one hardly sees why this figure, in which we recognize the hand of Giotto, defies the law of gravity for material and spiritual bodies.
Thus the pasting (collage) of the sacred painted image onto the profane film redoubles in its bizarreness—both visual and semantic—the excess of the conceptual pasting that connected the lightness of the star to the horror of Auschwitz and Ravensbrück. It's not a matter here, therefore, of one juxtaposition among others. Between the "excessive" conceptual pasting and the impossible visual pasting, the whole enterprise of Histoires du cinéma is emblematized. In the triangle that connects the cadaver of Auschwitz, the cinematic body of the star and the painted celestial apparition, the three major strands of Godardian construction actually come together in a knot: a thesis on what the century has done to cinema; a thesis on what cinema has done to the century; and a thesis on what makes up the image in general.
First the thesis on cinema in the century. If the Hollywood version of Dreiser's AmericanTragedy must depend on what Stevens saw and filmed in the death camps, the fact is that—contrary to what the title leads us to believe—Godard constructs one history of cinema and one only. Every history of cinema in this century—his century—is imperiously organized around the 1939-1945 war, organized around the Nazification of Fritz Lang's Germany and the collapse, in spring 1940, of Renoir's France, around Germany in ruins and the discovery of the death camps in 1945. The history of the two dream machines—Soviet and Hollywood—must find its truth in the European catastrophe. This truth seems to be, at first glance, a combination of two great theses: the Adornian thesis on the impossibility of art after Auschwitz and the Deleuzian thesis, which connects the crisis of the movement-image to the compromise between grand cinematic montage and totalitarian directing (mise en scène), and the Rosellinian advent of the time-image in the traumatism of defeat. Whatever the qualities of their guarantors might be, both the one thesis and the other have a weakness common to retrospective declarations of impossibility...