So many fascinating film clips, obscure and familiar, appear before our eyes in The Image Book that it is like a two-hour cinema survey class offering a cascading excess of movie history. The plot? That’s in the student/viewer’s mind — it’s whatever you have the political and sentimental wherewithal to make of this cavalcade in which film shots are juxtaposed with classical art, as well as with documentary and recent news video that even includes ISIS propaganda.
Who would dare such an exhibition except Jean-Luc Godard, the last surviving film master, a genius, and — as my Columbia University film-school professor Stefan Sharff insisted was most important to realize — an artist possessed of talent? Starting with Godard’s 1959 debut Breathless, his gift for composition and his sense of the relationship between the rhythm of visual images and intellectual movement have resulted in films that are always avant-garde yet fundamentally connected to the curiosity about human experience that made movies a popular art form.
The Image Book, his 47th feature, adds to that history by applying moral and aesthetic accountability — as a great filmmaker must do.
The word “accountability” is a modern euphemism for judgment — especially of those whose ideas you oppose. But Godard, the finest film critic who ever became a filmmaker (without feeling any difference between the professions), amply understands personal responses to film art. He specifically appreciates the images that move one’s intellect and one’s soul.
The Image Book is not just a fan’s collage, like those American Film Institute television polls or a Turner Classic Movies commercial pilfering the Hollywood catalogue. Among the many superb clips in The Image Book, Godard features the introductory sequence of Jacques Tourneur’s 1948 Berlin Express, in which famous actors portraying WWII exiles and refugees board a European transport vehicle, carrying their personal needs, fears, and secrets. Wes Anderson imitated this sequence in his best film, The Darjeeling Limited, yet Godard provides a millennial context in which the assorted characters’ personal concerns are seen in the midst of political strife. No new movie this century has been more pertinent or, ironically, seemed more intimate.
But The Image Book is no dry university lecture or showoffy film-nerd revue; Godard’s whispery narration sounds close and informal in the docent style he has used since taping himself at an editing table in his Nineties works JLG by JLG and Histoire(s) du Cinema, where he realized the importance of going back over film and art history to collect instincts and principles that were vanishing. (JLG by JLG appeared in 1994, the same year as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, film culture’s next modern turning point, the beginning of the devolution.)
It makes perfect sense that The Image Book opens the same week that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its embarrassing list of sub-mediocre nominees. The fact that cinema seems about over as a relevant art form is the film’s subtext. Godard, coughing at the video console, mixes nostalgia, documentary, and political contemplation. It’s a memorial but also a warning. His awareness of how technological changes have affected the way movies are presented and consumed allows Godard to show the intellectual distance between artistic response and spiritual necessity. The ISIS footage and an excursion into Arab culture and politics derive from both his global awareness and modern anxiety.
As Godard’s montage moves from culture to culture, through different eras of reportage and make-believe, The Image Book considers nothing less than the irony of classical art in competition with political reality. It’s a poetic analysis that achieves its power through metaphor and allusion, linking not-random images to specific mythic resonance: There’s the breathtaking “Lie to me” scene from Johnny Guitar; personalized literary references to Orpheus returning from his long journey; Henry Fonda discovering a law book in Young Mr. Lincoln, then pacing a jail cell in The Wrong Man; a lance piercing the body of Fritz Lang’s hero in Siegfried, then a similar lance thrown through Jean Cocteau’s body in The Testament of Orpheus.
Godard describes how images like these “dazzle our eyes with the transformation of reality,” but then his global sophistication forces him to structure his survey so that Western culture (“Under Western Eyes”) faces the incursion of the Middle East (“Arabia: Lost Paradise”). This section introduces a different montage style — disquieting images of deprivation, terrorism, Arab porn, female subjugation, even Obama smiling with a Saudi prince — that combines exoticism with agitation. (“Why dream of being king when you can dream of being Faust?”) Godard’s international-politics montage reaches for some kind of elusive, prophetic meaning. It’s facile at a higher level than other political punditry, but it’s also personally accountable and expressive — as when new shakey-cam technology is linked to his own hand painting a landscape.
Many of the clips here are presented as degraded video images, conceding to public-domain neglect as well as lamenting the clarity lost to memory (the mind’s book of images). Still, these vaguely recognized shots can be as stirring as the Fauvist saturation of modern video clips such as velvety blue waves crashing into distant beach buildings viewed through sea mist.
The Image Book shows Godard’s yearning for cinema’s bequest and his belief in its nearly exhausted potential. The supernal image of a heavy ceremonial book from Eisenstein’s magnificent Ivan the Terrible is a key visual quotation, and by the time Godard quotes Ophuls’s Le Plaisir, this survey film — and what it says about our spiritual, political future — becomes simply overpowering.