Youssef Ishaghpour, an Iranian-born author and film scholar, once said that Godard wanted to live the history of cinema as a love story[1]. I would add that Godard’s films can be summed up as the ambitious and incomplete love story of the history of the gaze. But what was the essence of this gaze? Did it even have an essence? Did it tell stories of other gazes?  Did it stare back at us, returning the hungry gaze of the spectator?  Or was it a gaze which always looked diagonally, obliquely like an askance glance, an angled shot, which produced the impression of movement?

Godard famously argued that behind the true beginning of artistic montage was the angled shot. The emergence of Godard along with so many of his generation of filmmakers which has come to be known as the Nouvelle Vague (the French new wave) happened at a momentous time in the history of cinema, particularly the history of Hollywood.  By the fifties we see the appearance of a new world of images and communication, a rapid industrialization of images with the coming of television, which had already started to disintegrate the old Hollywood of the great auteurs. Hitchcock was the last of this generation who, as is well known had a profound influence on Godard’s generation. Godard called him the “perfect” film maker who embodied an old Hollywood which could compose “worlds” based on what Godard called “the philosophy of cinema.”[2] Therefore, the loss of the aura of old Hollywood with the coming of television was the perfect ground to question this philosophy of cinema and challenge the old masters.  It was an opportunity to carefully and painstakingly study the kind of worlds that the masters of Hollywood – Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks, etc. – had created so skillfully in order to de-construct them. Godard’s long period as a film critic, writing for Cahier du Cinema – a journal founded by another influential student of cinema, Andre Bazin – can be seen as the condition of possibility for such careful and attentive study of cinema.

As Godard once said, “we were born in the museum; we didn’t exist before that.”[3] The museum in question primarily comprises images from Hollywood that Godard sought to re-compose as a filmmaker, but only by taking them apart. This testifies to the love-hate relationship with Hollywood that marked his entire life. But more importantly Godard, like his friend Truffaut, anticipated a crisis; one could even say that they sought the crisis of the industrialization of images in order to question the aura of Hollywood.

As a filmmaker, Godard, more than anyone else of his generation, was concerned with the process of problematizing cinema and not merely imitating or re-producing one form of filmmaking or another. This was his singularity as a filmmaker. Take, for example, the exceptionality of Breathless (1960) with its constant references to Humphrey Bogart, to themes of crime and love, to car chases and murder. It feels like the work of an archeologist of cinema who wants to expose the very architecture of a great monument of cinema: the crime film. Here, Godard becomes the symptomatologist who associates images and words in new combinations, while dissociating them from earlier combinations like a clinician who discovers a new illness by rearranging existent symptoms. It is through such a creative rearrangement of existent images that Godard invites us to question cinema. And he makes such questioning possible by showing us how cinema composes shots, sequences, narrative and finally worlds. To think of the cinematic world using the cinematic medium: this is what Godard offers us. If Hollywood seduces us (or at least used to) by drawing us into the narrative worlds it composes, then Godard opens a different path to our desire for cinema. It traverses a terrain which rekindles our desire to know how cinema constructs worlds. Hollywood’s invitation to travel to the distant worlds that cinema composes contra Godard’s provocation to understand the method of composition of such worlds: this is at the heart of Godard’s relation not only to Hollywood but to the whole history of cinema. This is also Godard’s challenge to the desire for cinema

In the last chapter of Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema there are a series of images of women’s gazes in closeup while the invisible mass of the universe is left in the background.  Reminiscent of Manet’s use of the gaze, a painter whom Godard considered as one of the key figures at the origin of cinema, what is the ‘master of juxtaposition’ pointing towards through this association?  Is it the interiority of the gaze connecting with the cosmos? Is Godard trying to de-construct for us how cinema constructs worlds through the singular construction of perspectives? Is that what cinema does?  Godard once said “what is cinema? […] Nothing…, [but] it can do something”[4]. What can cinema do?  What is the possibility of cinema? These are questions we cannot help but ask ourselves when we see a Godard. Godard – a proper name which brings together a collection of images and sounds coming from elsewhere and arranged in a new fashion, which incites us to question.

This is what Godard continues to teach us: thinking the future of cinema by asking questions about cinema through cinema. How to make cinema into an object of thought and then how to think that thought cinematically? How to problematize cinema by using the cinematic medium just like Manet questioned painting through the very medium of painting thereby ushering in modernity in art. And that was also the essence of Godard’s politics of problematization.

To problematize the image is also to problematize politics in the anticipation of inventing a new one. Godard achieved this with the brilliance of his method of juxtaposition: of images with other images but also images with words/sounds. Like his notorious Maoist problematization of the cliché and of the rhetoric of Marxist representation in La Chinois.

As the French philosopher Jacques Rancière has pointed out, Godard sifted juxtaposition through a Marxist principle of representation, borrowed from Althusser, which calls for a praxis based on the “discovery and training in the meaning of the ‘simplest acts of existence: seeing, listening, speaking, reading”[5]. For instance, let’s take the scene in La Chinois when Henri drinks his coffee and butters his toast as he enumerates all the reasons to go back to the Communist Party. This is a kind of juxtaposition of words and images, which does not harmonize into a tragic or heroic representation of Marxism. It does not compose a unified world of Marxism where the image and the word become One in order to narrate the pathos or valor of revolution. It manages to divide or split that world into two, and yet bring them together in the same frame playing with the mise-en-scène. It helps us ask the question: What is Marxism as a unified concept? What is Marxism, which values itself as the response to all social and historical contradictions, while the frame disjunctively juxtaposes the words with the images. This is a highly sophisticated and careful cinematic use of the radical Maoist dialectic of one dividing into two. It is also a call to invent Marxism in the most essential and simple form of re-inventing a new dialectic.

“Film is the first art form whose artistic character is entirely determined by its reproducibility”[6]. With this diagnosis, Walter Benjamin came to the inevitable conclusion that, as a form of representation, film would always inhabit the ambiguous zone between art and industry, between revolution and counter-revolution, between fascism and communism, between thought and stupidity. In this sense, Benjamin sensed the technological reproducibility of the cinematic apparatus as the ultimate pharmakon able to turn cultural poison into a political cure, if used carefully. Rather than opposing it, as did his friend the philosopher Theodor Adorno, Benjamin saw the potential of cinema to compose a future, bringing into play a strange relation between the poison and the cure. Today, of course, we are becoming more and more aware of its poisonous nature. Godard sought to compose through his process of creative association and dissociation. Godard, the creative symptomatologist,[7] was looking for a new health of cinema.

Jean-Luc Godard’s death marks the closure of a sequence which began in the mid-fifties and concerned itself with how to question the composition of cinema. And, in questioning the very composition of cinema, a generation of filmmakers sought to compose new ways of looking at cinema, discovering its curative function beneath its poisonous one. Jean-Luc Godard was the most prominent of these new composers of cinema. Godard the cineaste, Godard the film critic, Godard the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, Godard the political filmmaker, Godard the friend of Truffaut, Godard the detractor of Truffaut, Godard the Maoist, Godard the historian of cinema, Godard the ontologist of cinema – these bits and fragments of his life, these disjunctive images which represent Godard, can be synthesized in this singular image-word: the “composer”.



[1] Godard, Jean Luc & Ishaghpour, Youssef. Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the memory of a Century. Trans: John Howe. (Oxford: Berg Publications, 2005), p. 61.

[2] Cinema, p. 65.

[3] Cinema, p. 71.

[4] Cinema, p. 82.

[5] Ranciere, Jacques. Film Fables Trans Emiliano Battista, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p.144.

[6] Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, and Others. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), p.28.

[7] Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts. Trans. Michael Taormina. (Cambridge: Semiotext(e), 2004), p.132.