Videograms of a Revolution: Jean-Luc Godard’s “The Image Book”
The Image Book (2018) begins with a simple declaration: “The world’s masters should be weary of Bécassine, she is silent.” This indictment of apathy immediately establishes Jean-Luc Godard’s latest as a work of socio-political urgency, a forceful plea for Western audiences to wake up from their culturally conditioned complacency and address the multifaceted atrocities that continue to be perpetrated globally. The Image Book is a deeply angry film, first reflecting on the most heinous injustices of the 20th century before going on to rail against the continuation of imperialist violence in the modern world. In terms of tone and tenor, it most closely resembles the “Hell” section from Notre musique (2004), though here it is stretched to feature length.
The Image Book continues Godard’s late-period fascination with the media-archaeological essay format — a mode Godard first employed in his monolithic series Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1989–1999) and has incorporated in every one of his subsequent projects. Godard once explained the ability of the film camera to radically alter our perception of history: “In ‘normal’ history, one can’t project, because it’s not projectable; one has to codify in one form or another, write, make manuscripts; whereas here it would seem that all one has to do is reproduce.” As the 20th century was constantly captured by both photographic and motion-picture cameras, its development was inscribed in film form. Godard’s radical works of historical montage reconfigure these images in order to aid a greater understanding of the socio-political processes that shaped the 20th century — and provided the bedrock for the 21st. Deeply influenced by 1920s Soviet film theorists, such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, Godard perceives montage as being the essence of cinematic form. Therefore, The Image Book rejects the emphasis on explanatory voiceover that dominates most documentaries in favor of crafting arguments solely through the juxtaposition of different images. A rapid-fire onslaught of narrative film clips, documentary images, and paintings are brought together in a dense visual collage, and Godard has employed creative editing tricks (color saturation, slow motion, digital noise, shifting aspect ratios, etc.) to abstract them, often beyond easy recognition.
Godard organizes this stream around a delicate five-part structure. “Remakes” revolves around the notion of Occidental history being a never-ending cycle of imperialist violence and capitalistic injustice; “St. Petersburg’s Evenings” surveys the failed revolutions of the 20th century; “Those Flowers Between the Rails, in the Confused Wind of Travels” is a montage of Western images of trains, exploring the close connection between the development of mass transportation and cinema; “The Spirit of the Law” juxtaposes Western aspirations of justice, social progress, and democracy with the horrors and corruption upon which modern capitalist society was built; and “The Central Region” zeroes in on the Middle East as a perpetual victim of Occidental exploitation. At the center of The Image Book is a simple question: why do acts of oppression, cruelty, and violence still continue to be perpetuated in a time when we have the tools to film such injustices en masse? The railways, like cinema, were established as the primary symbols of modernity, positivism, and social progress, yet, instead of bringing about beneficial socio-political change, the 20th century abounded in grand geo-political conflicts. The train, after all, soon became a symbol of the Holocaust, and cinema’s inability to warn the world of the Nazi regime was, to Godard, its great moral failure. Grand aspirations of multiculturalism and internationalism were lost in the haze of state violence. One of the film’s most poignant moments features a clip from John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) in which the titular hero optimistically outlines the tenets of a just system of democratic law, before contrasting them with images of imperialistic violence being committed by the U.S. government in the Middle East. Once an idealistic system for bringing order to society and determining right from wrong, the legal system has since been employed by the state as a means to justify imperial expansion and cultural colonialism. The cinema, once perceived as a tool to educate the masses, has been corrupted by capitalism into a means to sedate the population.
The final section concentrates on the Middle East as the frontline for contemporary colonial violence, which Godard connects to a violence of representation. Godard juxtaposes familiar, Westernized images of the Arab world (such as Syriana and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi) with a number of authentic Arab films that have eluded the Western-dominated canon: Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014), Cairo Station (1958), Jamila, the Algerian (1958), Chaos, This Is (2007), Wanderers of the Desert (1984), etc. The fact that the latter category is mostly comprised of movies that will be unfamiliar to the viewer is revealing of the cultural erasure of Middle Eastern cinema in the Occident. The clips culled from Hollywood cinema code them as a threatening and alien Other, revealing the extent to which representations of the Middle East are manipulated so as to heighten the paranoia of the public for political purposes in the post-9/11 world. These images are placed alongside footage from European news stations reporting on Middle Eastern warzones, thus highlighting the ability for supposedly neutral documentaries to present a skewered, warped image as artificial as anything you may see in the multiplex. Such transmissions transform overseas atrocities into empty spectacle for easy mass consumption, usually framed through justificatory rhetoric that encourages the public to support pre-emptive wars.
Godard’s historical project, then, connects the contemporary “war on terror” to a long history of Occidental violence and thus frames the demonization of Arab culture in the West as the modern re-configuration of a neo-colonialist ideology. Clips from Godard’s early work Le Petit Soldat (1963) — a piercing critique of France’s actions in the Algerian War — feature heavily here, as if to suggest how little relations between the West and the Middle East have progressed in the past 60 years. In highlighting the ability of popular imagery to obscure the true nature of geo-political relations, The Image Book forces its viewers to become aware of Orientalist impulses that ran rampant throughout the history of Western cinema. Such a project is comparable to the form of analysis employed in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, a study of the Algerian war that sought to train “the eye of the western colonizer in the process of looking at the colonized in order to expose the psychosexual fears and fantasies on which that gaze is premised.” Like Fanon, Godard encourages the viewer to self-reflexively explore their own gaze and the way it has become socially conditioned to project a falsified, de-humanizing view of the Other.
As always, however, Godard’s tone is far from despairing; The Image Book ultimately aims to educate the audience in the mechanisms of the filmed image as a means to aid them in breaking from the colonial visual paradigm. The Image Book functions, above all, as a plea to understand, to become aware of the power of the image, to break away from passive image consumption and realize the role they play in socially conditioning political viewpoints. The feature’s final passage explores the positive power of cinematic form as a way to analyze the social hierarchy and hence encourage the viewer to take a more active role in committing to future revolutionary action. The credits of the film include a lengthy list of cinematic and literary sources, among those included is simply “you”; this is a generous act which implies that Godard is handing over power to the viewer and hoping that they will take what they’ve seen, go forth, come to a greater understanding, and shape the world anew. It is only through an openness to difference and alterity that the colonial barriers can be broken and a true multiculturalism established. The final shot is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful in all of cinema: the first episode of Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952) in which an old man wearing a mask of youth dances frantically around a ballroom until he gives in and keels over. It’s an image that exquisitely sums up Godard’s continued activism and vitality — against all odds — as he edges closer to his 90th year.
Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book opens at Manhattan’s Film Society of Lincoln Center on January 25, 2019.