The Hand That Erases: Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988 – 1998)

It is now possible to hold Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema in your hand, after remaining a rumor in the years following its completion in 1998. It was caught in a snarl of copyright issues that lasted almost as long as the ten years it took Godard to make it, with Gaumont not able to clear the fusillade of music and film rights until 2007. Olive Films took the gamble to license the film for a U.S. DVD release, and now Godard’s grand cinematic convulsion can finally be grappled with in the relative privacy of your mortgaged home, starting today.

One of the first on-screen texts reads, “May Every Eye Negotiate For Itself”, and that is as good a guide as any for this deeply idiosyncratic history of moving images, which is also, per Godard, necessarily a history of the 20th Century. Throughout the 8 episodes (totaling 266 minutes), Godard provides densely and playfully layered super-impositions of film clips, paintings, newsreels, texts and voice-overs, attempting to create a dialogue between art and history, word and image. It is an overwhelming torrent of cultural material, which the viewer has to navigate for themselves. Approach with a computer close at hand (a necessity here to look up quotes and historical figures), and let your eyes wander, finding your own way through Godard’s argumentative thickets and ecstatic epiphanies.

I found my way in through pictures of hands. In Part 1 (Episode 1A: All the (H)istories), Godard slows down a shot from Fritz Lang’s M, in which a concerned citizen writes the eponymous chalked letter on his palm, which he will later smack on the back of Peter Lorre’s child murderer. The citizen discreetly wipes off his hand afterward. Layered over the image of this close-up is a paraphrased quote from 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart: “Only the hand that erases can write”. Godard lops off the last two words, “the truth”, not one to deal with absolutes. In its immediate context Godard uses this gnomic quote to express how works of art are capable of erasing their subjects. Who remembers the actual bombed landscape of a Basque town? It is only Picasso’s Guernica that lives on in cultural memory. Or, Godard continues, we forget Valentin Feldman (a French Resistance fighter executed in 1942) but remember Goya’s etchings and paintings of prisoners. In Part 7 (Episode 4A: The Control of the Universe) he spins a similar argument about Hitchcock’s work, that he was able to turn “shapes into style”, imbuing everyday objects with uncanny power. Godard claims we forget Ingrid Bergman’s motivations in Notorious, but remember the champagne bottle and key. The latter is arguable, but continues to set up the larger point of artistic erasure. All of it leads to the essential failure of the 20th century, of how the world, and the art inside of it, could not put a stop to the Holocaust.

Near the close of Part 1 (Episode 1A), Godard drops one of his most famous and controversial statements: “If George Stevens hadn’t used the first 16mm color film in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck, Elizabeth Taylor’s happiness would never have found a place in the sun.” After this statement, he superimposes Taylor over footage from the Holocaust, and then, in the middle of a devotional painting, with an image of Mary reaching her arms downward toward Liz. A bitterly ironic and startlingly beautiful image, as Taylor’s star power ascends to the heavens, with the image of the camps dissolving behind her. Godard has Stevens and Taylor commit the ultimate erasure.

As Mary’s hands grace downward in an embrace of the great Hollywood star, Part 2 (Episode 1B: A Single History) documents fissures and separations, cinema as the “history of loneliness/loneliness of history”. The defining image of hands here is a desiccated Giacometti figure; fingers pointed rightward, which dissolves into the human hand of a prisoner, touching the ground.  This segment begins with a flash of Gauguin’s painting of a French Polynesian woman, artist and subject separated by a wide gulf of race and culture. Godard then layers images of cinema’s capacity for depicting solitude, including clips from Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind and a long excerpt of Jennifer Jones crawling in the desert in Duel in the Sun. Images of people boxed in and controlled, the camera frame as prison.

Godard opens things up in Part 3 (Episode 2A: Only Cinema), which concerns itself with the technological wonder of cinema – what makes it unique. It opens with images of eyes, a woman at a microscope, a man behind a camera, and a giant Cyclops. Godard tries to provide context to these images, giving a disquisition on French mathematician and engineer Jean-Victor Poncelet, who provided the groundwork for projective geometry while inside a Moscow prison. Godard extrapolates that he came up with the “mechanical application of the principles of projection”, giving a scientific backing behind the microscope and camera, and provides a correlative to the Cyclops by using a long clip of the canoe ride The Night of The Hunter, including a shot of the monstrous Robert Mitchum performance. Godard has Julie Delpy, shown puttering around her Paris apartment, reading Baudelaire’s “The Voyage” over the clip from the Laughton film, which suitably enhances the movie’s infernal beauty. She reads, “The world is equal to the child’s desire, who plays with pictures by his nursery fire.”

It is with Part 4 (Episode 2B: Fatal Beauty) that Godard returns to the theme of an art that annihilates. Here it is the way men have devoured women in the arts over the centuries. In a discomfitingly funny bit, Godard is shirtless during this segment, wearing a tinted visor and smoking his ever-present cigar, looking like a dissolute Hollywood producer, as, I’m sure, he intended. It begins with a montage of women running and falling, from Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running to Anna Magnani in Rome, Open City, with a return performance by Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun. He ends this flurry with a return to the shot from M, and the art that erases, this time of feminine subjectivity. Returning to the theme of erasure, means a return to the horrors of the Holocaust. Godard speaks: “And Friedrich Murnau and Karl Freund. They invented the Nuremberg lighting, when Hitler couldn’t even afford a beer at a Munich café. With his table lamp casting a sufficiently Germanic shadow on the wall he says, “Dirty Hands.” This is an allusive reference to Siegfried Kracauer’s cultural study From Caligari to Hitler, which drew a line between German Expressionism and Nazism. Images of Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac flash by, followed by the text, “Think With the Hands”. In that movie, Veidt’s hands are transplanted from a killer, and he fears those hands might think to kill again.

This thought manifests itself differently in Part 7 (Episode 4A: The Control of the Universe), in which Godard shows an image of two hands reaching towards each other into a clasp. Over this, he says, “The spirit is only real when it manifests itself, and it manifests through the hand. Love is the epitome of the spirit. And the love of one’s fellow man is an act. Which means a hand held out. Not a covered feeling. An ideal that crosses on the road to Jericho, in front of the man robbed by bandits.” This is a hopeful vision of Palestinian-Israeli amity, the current crisis that he cannot allow art to erase. It anticipates a similar image of trapeze artists joining bodies in a segment on Palestine in Film Socialisme (2010), indicating that no matter how much art has failed him, he still stubbornly dreams of its triumph, of a hand that restores:

“If a man walked thru paradise in his dream, and received a flower as a sign of his visit, and found the flower in his hand when he woke up, what can we say? I was this man.”

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