For pretty much the entire 20th century, the term cinema referred to a few monolithic screens that received projected light; it now refers to a bunch of different screens that themselves project light. Digitization, which turns movies into streams of binary code, has brought about the standardization of the moving image -watching a feature in a modern theatre isn’t all that different, on an ontological level, from watching something on a TV or a laptop or a phone. And these devices allows the viewer to bend the film to their will, enabled with the power to pause and rewind and adjust the size and even switch through a bunch of other tabs while watching. While many filmmakers and critics have eulogized the passing of the old ways (“the death of cinema” has long been a buzz term), it is arguable that just a handful of filmmakers have dared to explore the contemporary infrastructure of cinema; questioning what it means to create cinema in a culture saturated with high quality images and its changed the way our minds consume them.
Godard – whose conception of post-millennial cinema is something akin to an immense audio-visual overload – is one of them. His recent films have been constructed as oceans of disparate images and voice-overs and title cards pieced together into poetic, associative collages that riff primarily on the ideas of cultural appropriation, the increasing integration of cameras into everyday life, the inability of language to articulate the complexity of thought, Godard’s struggle to reconcile a love of the image with an awareness of its shortcomings, our tendency to use pop images as a basis for our private lives, the ways in which fiction intertwines with real history in the public imagination and the issues that arise during the process of transforming lived experience into art. All of these films have been met, upon initial release, with the kind of widespread hostility that’s come to characterize critical reaction to Godard’s post-60s period, with most pans accusing them of being wilfully obscure and hostile to its audience. Such arguments, however, misread the nature of the films. Godard’s recent films don’t close off, they invite in; they’re not meant to be rigorously decoded, but luxuriated in. There are few filmmakers who are so open.
Roughly halfway into Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love, there is an edit that stands, in my eyes, as one of the most astonishing cinematic moments of the new century thus far. The film is split into two parts, the first shot on grainy, monochrome celluloid, and the second on smeary, consumer-grade digital video – which was, at the time, still considered a distinctly low-grade medium incapable of recreating the pictorial quality of film. The film section concludes with a lengthy close-up of a paperback, the rough texture of its cover so tactile it feels like you can run your fingers over it. In one harsh cut, we’re taken to a view of a beach at magic hour, DV’s limited capacity to capture light rendering it a hyper-saturated landscape; the colours vibrating and running into each other to create an effect similar to fauvism. Juxtaposed with the first section’s more classical style, it’s is initially jarring, but it quickly takes on a strange kind of beauty on its own terms. Released in 2001, In Praise of Love manages to reflect on the century of cinema that’s passed while also looking to its future.
This sequence perfectly expresses Godard’s desire to treat every one of his films as a reaction to the landscape of cinema at the time of its making. In this sense, his most accomplished modern film is Film Socialisme, which takes the democratization of the cinematic image as its subject. Accordingly, it’s constructed almost entirely of footage shot on HD cameras of vastly varying quality – ranging from mobile phones to the kind of camera used to shoot live TV shows. The sound design is similarly messy, often filled with static and the sound of wind interfering with the recording devices. The result is a smeary, non-narrative DV cacophony, rife with pop imagery, goofy non-sequiturs (the llama at the petrol station), super-impositions, bad puns and clips from other films.
Out of his exhilarating mess a point gradually emerges. The film begins as an enquiry into the boundaries that now separate mainstream and amateur cinema in an age in which anyone can pick up a camera and produce high-quality movies to circulate online or piece together a video essay out of illegally streamed Welles films, and comes to the conclusion that not a whole lot does. The main barrier, the film ultimately suggests, is a pretty arbitrary one – copyright. Two of Godard’s recent public pranks – his decision to post the entirety of Film Socialisme sped up as a 4-and-a-half-minute video to YouTube before its Cannes release, and his tongue-in-cheek endorsement of a notorious movie pirate – are telling and not only because they act as reminders of the director’s rarely-mentioned oddball sense of humour and playfulness (the llama at the petrol station). The commoditization of art unavoidably colours the way that an audience perceives it (why we are so ready to recognize pictorial beauty in the former but not the latter?). It comes to the conclusion that the only sensible response is to explicitly give the image over to the viewer entirely, to be endlessly re-purposed and re-interpreted. This is Godard at his most optimistic, mourning the loss of tradition while playing around with the tools of new media.