Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the films of Jean-Luc Godard would not be surprised that the eternal enfant terrible of France’s New Wave has turned his survey of the cinema of the 20th century into one long Godard movie. Indeed, his admirers would have expected nothing less.
His 260-minute “Histoire(s) du Cinema,” which the UCLA Film Archive screens in two parts Friday and Saturday, is not like any other history of the cinema, such as Martin Scorsese’s masterly, straightforward survey of Italian films (“My Voyage to Italy”). Throughout its entirety, Godard’s “Histoire(s)” verges on the surreal, a soaring collage of clips, stills, images of great paintings, classical and modern, accompanied by passages of music and dialogue.
“Histoire(s)” seems at once deeply intuitive yet bristlingly intellectual; Godard has given free rein to his vast knowledge and imagination, resulting in a deluge of visual and aural associations, yet there is always a sense that he knows exactly where he’s going. For him the contemplation of the history of the cinema, the great 20th century art form, becomes a way of commenting on the century’s catastrophes and follies. “Histoire(s),” made between 1988 and 1998 for French television, ends on a note of pessimism, more for the world than for the movies, that strikes a most timely note.
It has a tremendous evocative power, typical of Godard’s best work, and, as he always does, Godard trusts to the viewer to make connections as best he or she can. It’s a good thing the film has such visual and emotional effect because Godard’s characteristic superimposed printed declarations are not translated into subtitles, and the observations Godard and others, such as the late actor Alain Cuny, make on the soundtracks are only partly rendered into subtitles. There’s no question that many ideas are lost in translation, but “Histoire(s)” is available on DVD accompanied by Godard’s text in German and English as well as French.
Godard pretty much restricts himself to the classic American, French, German and Italian cinemas, and, while devoting a section to a most eloquent tribute to Hitchcock (“the only accursed poet who was successful”), dismisses the British cinema as “nothing.” Naturally, the more familiar a viewer is with the works from which Godard quotes the more rewarding “Histoire(s)” will be -- never mind that in watching it Godard himself has said, “The less you know, the better.”
It is the selection of clips and their juxtapositions that enable Godard to impose his vision of the cinema, eternally driven by sex and death -- or on another level, love and mortality -- upon the images created by others. It’s hard to imagine anyone else so persuasively suggesting that Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and Cyd Charisse in the Mickey Spillane spoof “The Girl Hunt” dance sequence from Vincente Minnelli’s “The Band Wagon” are equally sublime, although they are.
“Histoire(s)” is a work of shimmering, incandescent beauty, typical of Godard’s films, that in turn sets off his ever-deepening concern over the horrors and injustices of the world, with an emphasis on World War II, especially the Occupation, and the present. He relates newsreel shots of French stars boarding a train for appearances in Germany with cattle cars transporting Jews to concentration camps and hails Italian Neo-Realism, beginning with Rossellini’s landmark “Open City” and “Germany Year Zero,” as the only cinema to respond to the death and destruction of war.
Godard selects more images from Fritz Lang -- “Siegfried” in particular -- than any other director, and shows Lang, playing himself, directing in Godard’s film “Contempt.” He hails most all the other giants -- Renoir, Ford, Griffith, Welles, Antonioni, Visconti, etc., and takes note of Irving Thalberg and Howard Hughes -- and also Soviet Russia’s innovative Kino Pravda. He doesn’t quote John Cassavetes but dedicates his first chapter to the director. As always, Godard’s plethora of ideas and declarations is charged with paradox.
Of watching movies he remarks, “How marvelous to be able to look at what you cannot see.” While evoking film’s spiritual power, he declares that “cinema, like Christianity, is not founded on historical truth. It supplies us with a story and says: Believe -- believe come what may.”
Ultimately, Godard casts himself as a Proustian figure, seated at his typewriter, beginning his own search for times past.
“Cinema is neither an art nor an industry but a mystery,” he says. Of cinema, born in the 19th century, flourishing in the 20th, Godard concludes, “No activity can become an art until its epoch has ended.”
Jean Luc Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’
Where: James Bridges Theatre, Melnitz Hall, UCLA campus, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood
When: Part 1, Friday at 7:30 p.m.;
Part 2, Sunday at 7 p.m.
Price: $8 each evening
Contact: (310) 206-FILM, www.cinema.ucla.edu