The history of the cinema, in the hands of Jean-Luc Godard, becomes an overarching essay on the aesthetic impulses of the 20th century of Western civilization. Told in eight parts, this 2-disc set runs 266 minutes, divided into chapters that run anywhere from 26 to 51 minutes. Godard's project was 30 years in the making, beginning with a series of lectures the filmmaker delivered in Montreal in 1978 that were published in book form in 1980. Originally, the plan was for the book to become a 10-part video series for television. In 1987, the first two parts were presented at Cannes, but it took more than a decade for the other sections to be completed, making up this eight-part work in its finished form. Bits and pieces of the Histoire(s) du Cinéma videos have been findable over the years to assiduous researchers and Godardophiles, and the entire set became available in France in 2007. This month, Olive Films has released the entire package on DVD with English subtitles, and finally, Godard's long-anticipated treatise is available to the American consumer.
Godard has always been the great essayist of the cinema, using his later films idiosyncratically to explore his social and cultural obsessions. Ever the postmodernist, Godard plays on the French word for history, histoire – which in its plural form takes on a sense of multiple stories rather than a single history – to indicate the variety of approaches to his survey. Images, sounds, and music from numerous movies are intertwined with images from the histories of art and literature. Dissolves and superimpositions present a movable feast of ideas and impressions. Few filmmakers apart from Godard would be able mount a discourse on the 20th century's art and thought process as broad and extensive as this. Viewers who have never cottoned to this filmmaker's many philosophical dissertations may regard Histoire(s) du Cinéma as another mighty gust of blowhard air (or perhaps a wind from the east?). But there is no denying Godard's aphoristic quality as a narrator and guide. Freely associating, reaching for ideas unspoken, contradicting himself, and reshuffling the deck, Godard presents his thoughts as a bottomless reservoir. They prick our consciousness and allow new ideas to seep into the fissures.
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