[Part of VARIABLES, a series of essays on the art and politics of Jean-Luc Godard]
To conclude my series of essays on Jean-Luc Godard, I’m posting a short video essay entitled VARIABLES, on the intersection between Godard’s style and his politics. Far more than allusions to literature or overt philosophizing, Godard’s art revolves around these two poles, the extent to which his experimentation with the language of film generates new ways of seeing the world. The video, using many of Godard’s own techniques of montage, explores how the connections, or variables, between his images constitutes the political dimension of this unique artist.
After watching the video, continue below to read more on these variables, rendered even more apparent in the wake of the revolutionary use of 3D in Godard’s new film, Goodbye to Language.
Jean-Luc Godard is commonly described as a political filmmaker, yet a political reading of the content of his films is incomplete at best and naively short-sighted at worse. If Godard is a political filmmaker, it’s not because of the radical and revolutionary content of his films, but rather because of the radical and revolutionary form of his cinema, a form which continually challenges the way we see. The common element of all of Godard’s films is the development of new variables governing the connections between images. Cinema has a unique power to challenge the way we see the world, and no filmmaker uses the language of cinema to break our habits of seeing the world like Jean-Luc Godard.
Throughout his career, Godard developed new ways of juxtaposing images, new collisions and chemical interactions between shots. From 1960’s Breathless to the dazzling use of 3D in Goodbye to Language, Godard has spent a career discovering new ways to exploit cinema’s gift of generating fresh connections among images.
From the vantage point of 2015, it’s now clear that the infamous jump cuts of Breathless which shook cinema in 1960 were more than efforts to trim the film’s running time or imbue it with a jazzy, improvisational feel. Instead, they were initial indications of a sophisticated and experimental approach of combining images. The jump cuts of Breathless fragment time, creating an unexpected and immediate juxtaposition of two images across a single take.
Twenty years later, in 1980’s Sauve qui peut, Godard’s technique of “decomposition” augments the jump cut to create yet another new montage effect within a single shot: instead of abridging time, the frame-by-frame motion in Sauve qui peut elongates it. Godard begins a shot and, in the middle of a motion such as riding a bicycle, slows the image down to the point of abstraction, pausing on individual frames to consider the reactions between two still images. The slow motion of Sauve qui peut creates some unexpectedly beautiful rhythms, yet it too is a politicized method of montage for Godard, breaking the image down to find something startling and new.
While Godard’s jump cuts and decompositions juxtapose images temporally, the superimpositions of Histoire(s) du cinema combine them spatially. This impossibly dense collage of images and sounds represents the apotheosis of Godard’s use of superimpositions, creating rich layered images by overlapping two or more visual elements. While a traditional cut allows the audience to infer a connection between images played one after the other, superimpositions allow Godard to modify and augment these connections live, across time. A superimposition of newsreel footage of bombers atop the characters of Hitchcock’s The Birds fleeing from an aerial threat, for example, suggests a potent visual analogy.
And with his newest film, Godard uses 3D to achieve a similar effect of layering. He doesn’t simply compose scenes in depth like, say, Avatar. Instead, he uses 3D to forcibly combine multiple planes of information within a single, improbable image. Like the superimpositions of Histoire(s) du cinema, the 3D of Goodbye to Language places two halves in dialogue with each other. By allowing one half, one “eye” of the two-part 3D apparatus to stray from the other, Godard disorients the viewer, uniting two different realities across a single image.
These innovative methods of montage show Godard’s interrogation and experimentation with the limitless possibilities of cinematic vision. Jump cuts, decompositions, superimpositions and 3D all create new relationships between images, and therefore new ways of seeing, new modes of vision that allow us to question how our perspective shapes our own understanding of the world. These variables that govern the relationship between images—not only photographs, but tangible images of the world—are the essence of cinema, and the powerful force the makes the films of Jean-Luc Godard political.