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Camera Obscura 15.2 (2000) 75-103
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Mourning, Sound, and Vision:
Jean-Luc Godard's JLG/JLG
Nora M. Alter
Where is your authentic body? You are the only one who can never see yourself except as an image.
--Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
I know now that if I make a picture it's just to speak about what I'm doing, about myself, but it's also giving something to other people so that they can take a part of me.
--Jean-Luc Godard, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics
The shrill and raucous call of a crow is superimposed over an unpopulated, barren country field marked by a path leading into the horizon. Not only is the crow conspicuously absent on the screen, but its sounds are conspicuously disjunct, too loud to be part of the landscape. This sequence, sometimes with the muttering voice of the narrator superimposed, is repeated at irregular intervals throughout Jean-Luc Godard's JLG/JLG--Autoportrait de décembre [JLG/JLG--Self-portrait in December] (France, 1994). But how are we to interpret it? Is it primarily a visual, pictorial image of a now lifeless place? Or does the sequence prioritize the audial track, presenting a warning cry, or a portent? I want to suggest that, consistent with much of Godard's work, this sequence [End Page 75] does not hierarchize the aural and the visual. On the contrary, it fuses the two together as a sound image or rebus, and it is in this way that the sequence makes sense.
But my aim in singling out this part of the film is not to insist on its symptomatic layering. Instead I want to emphasize first the salience in both the audial and visual tracks of a pervasive funereal quality; second, the indexicality of a path that leads elsewhere and a sound that comes from somewhere else; and third, the manner in which this sequence epitomizes the overall project of JLG/JLG. I will not try to gloss these matters here; instead, I will move directly to the context of the film, and more specifically, its particular relationship to Godard's overall body of work.
Jean-Luc Godard has consistently been viewed as one of the main practitioners and theorists of an alternative or countertraditional narrative cinema. His experiments with representations of history, truth, and fiction, media such as video, television, and film, as well as techniques such as collage and montage, and the interplay between sound and image tracks have led some to position him as "resolutely postmodernist." 1 Simultaneously he has been characterized as the "ultimate survivor of the modern." 2 No matter how he is identified, though, what cannot be disputed is the importance of Godard's cinematic and video production in breaking new ground in representation and in creating new forms. And he has not slowed down. Following his political and highly experimental work with the Dziga Vertov group in the early 1970s, and his creation with Anne-Marie Miéville of the Sonimage workshop in the late 1970s, Godard today continues to search for new strategies of image production and consumption. In particular, he has experimented with video technology, with the interchange between video and 35mm film, and especially with how each of these media affects the representation of history, politics, and the self.
History has always been important for Godard, and his products of the late 1980s and early 1990s reinforce this significance. A case in point is his ongoing project Histoire(s) du cinéma [Histories of cinema], commissioned in 1988. Conceived with the approaching centennial of cinema in sight, 3 this project is [End Page 76] based on the premise that, for a history to be "true" (any history, but a fortiori cinema's), it must be constructed not out of "illustrated texts" but from "images and sounds": son+images. 4 The result, as well as the later Allemagne 90 neuf zéro [Germany 90 nine zero] (1991), are richly layered palimpsests--collages of images and sounds. In these two films, the articulation...