There’s not a filmmaker alive that produces more self-doubt in my critical capacities than Jean-Luc Godard. My fondness for the filmmaker stems from his early work, yet it’s his post-millennium output that weighs most heavily in my consciousness. Particularly with his prior film, Goodbye to Language, the overwhelming sensory qualities of his collages are so imposing, so colossal in their implication that it threatens to obfuscate any attempt at understanding, refusing to be stripped down to a logline or synopsis. Godard’s work over the past twenty years sometimes seems to require a scholarly touch, which can reduce this faux-scholar to his knees as I vainly attempt to piece together fragments that sometimes never seem to build together to resemble a whole picture. And yet in piecing together the barrage of references, the geyser of history that composes Film Socialisme, Goodbye to Language, and now The Image Book, there’s something inherently calming about approaching the unknowable. There’s clearly a grand unifying theory, a string of anxieties and preoccupations that unite Godard’s later period work. But needing to have that explained isn’t necessarily the point; with The Image Book, Godard isn’t asking you to interpret the world, but rather suggests how imperative it is to actually change it.
The Image Book, like many of Godard’s previous essays, presents its thesis by remarking on the history of cinema and how it has served as a mirror to our present-day concerns. The string of images, united by vague narrative asides by Godard himself, present a myriad of actual war footage and cinema of the 20thcentury, blurring the line between what’s fact and fiction. There’s a strange sensory, endorphin rush during the moments where I saw Godard utilize a cultural image that I was familiar with and it’s during those moments when I found The Image Book absolutely riveting. The most striking image comes from his use of an ISIS propaganda video, where a series of beheadings have darkened a water stream red. This is then followed by a digitally retouched sequence from Vertigo, where Kim Novak’s character jumps into San Francisco Bay. The color matching involved and the subsequent suggestion on the alterability and subsequent alternating perspective of Western and Eastern images speaks volumes to how we (and certainly I) as a viewer have a series of mental images of Western iconography but a significantly reduced catalogue of Eastern images.
Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film has been on my mind for the past few weeks, and for better or worse, I considered its application on The Image Book. Given the trains that occupy numerous passages of the film, consider it the train of thought that I hopped aboard to make sense of Godard’s work. Reflexively, I considered how Godard breaks the film into chapters, and how so much of the initial passages suggest how the everyday – the confluence between media and history – have become blurred, cold, and indistinguishable. We’ve settled into our preferred mode of thought, isolated ourselves within our cultural enclave that perpetually treats any culture that’s not our own as the other. The prevailing “disparity” that occurs is one of anger, a sense of hostility between Eastern and Western sensibilities motivated primarily by a lack of understanding between both sides. But in the film’s final chapter, composing about half of The Image Book’s runtime, we consider a series of images from the Arab world that realign our perspective. As Godard alternates between pan and scan and original aspect ratio imaging, it becomes a matter of teaching yourself to question the images presented to you, consider their authenticity and whether or not they actually provide you with all the detail that’s required to make sense of the world. The cruelty, the coldness of the world that we occupy may always be pervasive, but we can inhabit something a little warmer if we make an effort to understand. Or empathy becoming awareness.