- Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema Historian by Michael Witt
Histoire(s) du cinéma, completed in 1998, can be seen as the apogee of the work of cinema’s most celebrated intertextual virtuoso — a sustained interrogation of what it might mean to write history/History through the moving image that is also a dazzling [End Page 585] exercise in juxtaposition and the cineast’s major contribution to film theory. Michael Witt has produced a superb introduction/companion to Godard’s almost four-and-a-half-hour text, which I describe thus since it is a film, to be sure (it has been shown in cinemas), but also a video essay and a sonic document available on CD as well as DVD. The guiding thread of Witt’s book can be summarized as the interaction between history and montage — the latter of pivotal importance for Godard ever since his 1956 Cahiers essay ‘Montage, mon beau souci’. Cinema for Godard is inextricably linked with history, and that linkage is produced above all by montage. Witt provides a thorough account of Histoire(s) du cinéma’s genesis and an erudite yet highly readable exegesis of its manifold narratives and ramifications. Godard’s pre- and intertexts, as so often, include the predictable (Henri Langlois, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir) along with the perhaps surprising (the German novelist Hermann Broch; Jacques Rivette rather than the frère ennemi Truffaut, seen by him as a lightweight; Malraux, whose role as political adversary has overshadowed his significance for Godard as aesthetic theoretician). Witt manages with admirable aplomb the delicate task of presenting Godard’s multifarious and frequently perverse text. His range of scholarship is remarkable and his lucidity exemplary. Projection is shown to be a key Godardian trope, referring obviously to the showing of films but also to ‘the projection by audiences of themselves […] and to the projection of the stories into the human psyche’ (p. 63). Witt’s work can be said to project Histoire(s) du cinéma to its readership in its multifarious guises, for Godard appears here not just as film-maker, but as historian, philosopher, and, above all, nostalgist, using new media to celebrate and mourn the old and perhaps even, in a truly Malrucian move, to bring about its resurrection. Witt’s apparatus criticus is splendidly comprehensive, with an exhaustive inventory of works by Godard and what is modestly described as a ‘select bibliography’ twenty-one pages long. The work is beautifully produced and — a sine/cine qua non in addressing these texts — excellently illustrated. Colleagues contemplating using Histoire(s) du cinéma in their teaching would do well to equip their students with Witt’s work before casting them adrift on the DVDs themselves.