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Godard in the Gallery: Story of a Ruination

 


Imagine that the exhibition was perfectly set up, and the doors are just about to be opened to the public for the launch. Suddenly, a plane unexpectedly crashed into the main gallery area of the Pompidou. Total and complete devastation of everything inside. Godard takes a peek inside at the mess. Then he says: ‘Open the doors anyway’. That’s Voyage(s) en utopie.

– Nicole Brenez, personal conversation, 2006

 

In his European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood, Thomas Elsaesser describes Jean-Luc Godard as ‘forever engaged in work-in-progress, to be torn up by his next film’. (1) In the most extreme instances, Godard has not hesitated to erase his work in progress before moving on to his next project – in order to offer up the resulting ruin as an instructive spectacle. It is a punk-style gesture – bordering on career suicide – immortalised in his version of King Lear (1987), where a couple of scenes of Norman Mailer as Lear (acting alongside Molly Ringwald!), caught on camera in the few days before the literary superstar stormed off the set never to return, are faithfully preserved in the so-called ‘finished product’ as evidence of (as repeated intertitles put it) ‘a film shot in the back’.

 

It is often facilely remarked, in relation to episodes like this, that Godard likes to play the artist-victim. But it would be truer to say – in the lingo of Australian university student assessments – that he is a proud DNS (Did Not Submit) artist. Particularly when the power-structure involves submission to either a producer or an institution – and it is intriguing to gauge how often Godard either courts or accepts ‘institutional command assignments’ (from museums, French Telecom, the British Film Institute, the department store Darty …), only to grandly subvert them.

 

At the time of the completion of his epic Histoire(s) du cinéma series in 1998 – spanning TV, CD, VHS, book and DVD versions – Godard seemed set on monumentalising himself and his achievements. His 2006 show taking up three large rooms of the Centre Pompidou, Voyage(s) en utopie, JLG, 1946-2006 gleefully reversed that trend. The show was a deliberate mess, and was, at the time, greeted as something of a scandal in Paris – ‘an abandoned show inside an unfinished one’, as one wag journalist put it. But in such ruination lies Godardian glory.

 

The backstory goes something like this: for several years, Godard worked with Pompidou curator Dominique Païni on an ambitious project called Collages du France, which was to comprise nine rooms, each with its own ‘nationalistic’ theme (such as sport). (2) Godard intended to make a new feature-length film/video work for each part of the installation – eventually resulting in, at least, the 55 minute Vrai faux passeport (2006) and two short Prières pour refuzniks (‘Prayers for Refuseniks’, 2006). After a split with Païni and other powers-that-be at the Pompidou – allegedly over the demand to Godard to scale down the project – he slapped together a provocatively ragged substitute, subtitled the ‘search for a lost theorem’.

 

As one index of what happened to the specifically filmic ambition of the project – and Godard’s reaction to this loss – some unfussy footage of his cat wandering around his house took pride of place amidst the clips installed in the space.

 

Ragged is truly the word for Voyage(s) en utopie: all the electronic cables were exposed, multiple unused digital monitors sat forlornly in corners, piles of rubble were spread about, and – best fun of all – there were numerous drawings stuck around the walls, showing the original plan for the exhibition and slashed through with giant ‘X’ marks in texta (even the pens themselves are preserved at the entranceway to the show – but discreetly glued down so that viewers cannot prolong the act of defacement). Taking up much of the exhibition floor space were bizarre maquettes of the nine rooms, sometimes piled willy-nilly upon each other.

 

It was hard to make much coherent sense of the exhibition, and the general reaction of visitors seemed to be either a genial or frazzled bewilderment (the multilingual ‘comments book’ out front made for particularly enjoyable reading) – although it did turn out to be, by the end of its run, an enormously popular attraction with Pompidou audiences (attendance figures were extremely high). (3)

 

One room essentially appeared to be a savage satire of bourgeois luxury – slick French super-productions and standard TV broadcasts on top-of-the-range monitors share the space with equally plush beds and furniture – plus, in a kitchen area, a deceptive ‘table top’ which was actually a screen that surpriseed the viewer with a hardcore porno loop. The middle room juxtaposed clips from Godard’s films (captioned with words like ‘metaphor’) with an assortment of foliage and plants. A model train set (carrying bananas and other odd objects) took us, via a hole punched unfussily in a Pompidou wall, into the most cryptic, intriguing and developed room: a series of ‘infernal machines’ pitched somewhere between a torture device and the cinematic apparatus – with a Matisse painting placed, so casually you almost don’t register it, down one end.

 

Overall, one was struck by the harsh, political tenor of the show: closer to his dogmatic days as one half of the Dziga Vertov Group (the reputation of these works in now in the ascendant thanks to a Spanish DVD box-set from Intermedio) than to the elegiac tone of the Histoire(s) – although a series of classic, mainly lyrical extracts already mined for that project (from films by Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Sergei Parajanov, Nicholas Ray, etc) make a sentimental re-appearance.

 

One specific juxtaposition is, in this light, particularly striking, and Godard glossed it in his press statements during the first weeks of the exhibition. What appears to be a typically splendid, formation dance number by Gene Kelly and friends from On the Town (1949) is offered by Godard as proof of a grim, desperate, mechanistic, neurotic American society – as opposed to the wild, nutty, freeform, seemingly spontaneous and highly individualistic dance outburst in Boris Barnet’s By the Bluest of the Seas (1936), a true cult film for the early 1950s Cahiers set. Like many Godardian ‘free associations’, it is strained but, in motion and up on the walls of the show, wholly convincing – at least for the time it takes to play through, and that it is the only time for which, in a profound sense, Godard presumes he has a hold on his spectators.

 

Although the conjunction is (one assumes) entirely coincidental, Godard’s deliberate train-wreck of a show virtually assumed the status of a parody in relation to the much tidier exhibition three floors up, the vast Movement of Images – Art, Cinema. That exhibition was designed as an ambitious curatorial manifesto by the Pompidou to announce, at last, the historic ‘marriage’ of film and art. An introductory text writ large on the walls brazenly informed us of the death of cinema – at least in its classical set-up of projector, darkened room and captive audience – due to the advent of digital media: now, it declared, cinema is free to enter the museum-gallery space as art, while the art of the twentieth century and beyond must be rigorously rethought in terms of the material categories that cinema has bequeathed us.

 

So Movement of Images was a conceptual show, organised around block-words like movement, succession, montage, light, time, colour … plus (a little uneasily) narrative. The curatorial thesis was so broad and sweeping as to be inarguable – yes, of course, Cubism, Land Art and Pop Art are rather ‘cinematic’ – and yet it remained strangely dissatisfying, rather than (as it is surely designed to be) edifying. The show also unwittingly deconstructed itself by presenting Nan Goldin’s slide-show-with-music Heartbeat, undoubtedly its most successful and popular piece, in exactly the ‘darkened cinema cube’ way it suggested has already passed away!

 

This was an oddly old-fashioned and hermetic exhibition. The history of avant-garde cinema displayed along the walls of its long corridors – it is depressing to watch the crowds streaming past them with hardly a moment for a sidelong glance, largely ignoring the seats on offer for more contemplative viewing – is overwhelmingly fixed on a canon of European and American greats from Duchamp to Brakhage, just as the art history resembles the Cook’s Tour of a first-year university textbook.  Some of the ‘landmarks’ of the ongoing film/art liaison of the past three decades – like British video art pieces of the early ‘80s – have faded very badly in their aesthetic impact.

 

Not only is much of the world missing from this history, but so is much of cinema: didn’t we all agree long ago that Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953) or John Ford’s The Searchers (1955) are cinema art too, on par with the highbrow classics as well as the hardline structuralist-materialist experiments? Movement of Images was too formalist (in the worst, narrowest sense) by half.

 

You had only to pop back into Godard’s chamber of horrors to see musicals and Westerns intermingling with agit-prop and avant-garde – and to be reminded that any kind of history (artistic, political or cinematic) is a thoroughly messy, ceaselessly contested affair.

 

NOTES

1. Thomas Elsaesser, European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam University Press, 2005), p. 41.

 

2. See Antoine de Baecque, ‘L’expo Godard, compromissions impossibles’, Libération,12 July 2006.

 

3. See the extensive documentation of the exhibition in Rouge, no. 9 (2006).

 

© Adrian Martin May 2011


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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