Image Book, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/01/19 11:16:07
(Worth A Look)
It is indeed fitting that the first thing that we see in “The Image Book,” the latest provocation from the cinema’s longest-running enfant terrible, Jean-Luc Godard. is a collection of hands that kicks off with a look at da Vinci’s “St John the Baptist.” That is because this film, more than any that I can recall seeing of late, feels more like the product of one person laboring to create a distinct and utterly unique piece of art in as single-handed of a manner as possible. This is a film that is so personal and utterly unconcerned with even the most basic formalities of conventional narrative filmmaking that even fans of the generally inscrutable filmmaker may find themselves trying to figure out what it is all supposed to mean. Hell, I consider Godard to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and even I am fairly certain that I would fail miserably if I were charged with properly describing and explaining every aspect of this defiantly dense effort. That may be true—as I fear that this following review will unfortunately demonstrate—but that doesn’t mean that it is not an exhilarating hurricane of sound, vision and heady thoughts that is as powerful to experience as it is elusive when it comes to summing it all up afterwards.Eschewing even the vague stabs at conventional narrative filmmaking that he has utilized in many of his recent works, “The Image Book” is an actor-free 85-minute-long collage of images taken from paintings, documentary footage, YouTube videos and clips from any number of well-known films (including a number from Godard’s own filmography) linked together by a halting narration from Godard himself and brown up into five separate sections. “Remakes” includes snippets from a number of classics, including “Kiss Me Deadly,” “Vertigo,” “Johnny Guitar” and Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” alongside moments of real-life violence and horror in order to suggest the increasingly fraught line separating real life and reel life. (In one of the wittiest juxtapositions, a shot of a WWII fighter jet morphs into the shark from “Jaws” with such sudden abruptness that it almost feels like a dream.) “St. Petersburg Evenings” is essentially a Russian-themed response to “Remakes” that takes its imagery from their own canon of classics. “Those Flowers Between The Rails, In the Confused Wind of Travels” focuses on cinematic images of trains as a symbol of the social and technical advances of the 20th century and how they became perverted over time—the clips here range from the early works of the Lumieres to views of the trains heading towards the death camps of WWII. The increasingly pessimistic “Spirit of Laws” uses clips from “Young Mr. Lincoln” to symbolize the Western ideal of law and order and sources ranging from news footage to clips from “Elephant” to show how they too became corrupted over time.
The fifth and final segment of the film, “La Region Centrale,” is pretty clearly the one closest to Godard’s own heart—it takes up nearly all the second half and is by far the most detailed section of them all. While the previous segments focused on how violence, both in real life and in popular culture, not only expanded in unthinkable ways in the 20th century but also managed to present itself as a terrible but undeniably alluring commodity, both in literal and ideological terms, that everyone seemingly wanted a piece of for themselves, this final movement finds himself meditating on the Arab region’s rich cultural heritage, especially in terms of cinema, and how it still remains an unknown quantity to an outside world whose sole exposure to their cinema probably spans the gamut from ugly Hollywood families to uglier ISIS videos. Here, he presents a sort of alternate history that weaves together clips from Arabic films and documentary footage of the Arab Spring that have been wedded to a narration taken from narration lifted from “Une Ambition dans le Desert,” a satirical 1984 novel about a sheik whose region contains no oil to speak of and which is therefore of no interest to American interests.
Needless to say, “The Image Book” is not exactly a walk in the park and even those with a fondness for Godard’s not-exactly viewer-friendly late-period works may find themselves increasingly baffled as it goes on—if they manage to stick it out to the end, that is. (Needless to say, anyone who has never seen one of his films before should not look to this as their long-overdue entry point.) Those who are more familiar with his oeuvre will recognize themes and ideas that he has explored in some of his past works, such as his musings on Hollywood, the Holocaust and the Arab world. Even those people, however, may find themselves lost in the thicket of editorial conflations on the screen and enigmatic musings on the soundtrack. To help ramp up the confusion factor even further, there are large portions of Godard’s gravelly narration that go untranslated, leaving them a mystery to those who cannot speak French. Unlike many filmmakers, who have something to say and will not rest until you know exactly what that is in unsparing detail, Godard presents his material in such a determinedly oblique manner that it renders conventional analysis a moot point since virtually every thing that is seen will have a radically different resonance to each individual viewer.
And yet, while I did find myself frequently baffled with what was going on during each of the three times that I watched “The Image Book” before even attempting to write about it, I must confess that I was never bored by it for a second. Visually, the film is striking throughout in the way that Godard plays with the images, either by using artfully degraded clips or by smearing them with vivid colors, so that even the most familiar moments of the Western cinematic canon on display here look as abstract or unfamiliar as those from the Arab world that he presents later on. There is a rough and ready aspect to the entire film stemming from Godard’s hands-on editing style—gaps between the images and the sound and odd shifts in the presentation style—that give it a strangely appealing feel, the sense that, for all of the cool intellect on display, that this is the work of a person with something to say and not just another piece of product. As for the final segment of the film, his genuine fascination with Arab cinema and culture and his amusing decision to place it in a fake historical context that many Western viewers could easily mistake for the real thing leads to one of the most engrossing stretches of filmmaking that he has come up with in a long time.Some of the reviews of “The Image Book” have suggested that have looked at it in the context of it being the potential final statement of his long and illustrious career. From a practical standpoint, I suppose this perspective does make sense—the man just turned 88 and has been directing films for about 60 of those years—and the film does indeed examine themes and concerns that have cropped up in his work throughout that time. Even the basic form of the movie, which recalls his landmark series “Histoire(s) Du Cinema,” finds him looking back instead of pressing forward as he did with his ground-breaking use of 3-D in his previous feature, “Goodbye to Language.” (It is probably no coincidence that the da Vinci painting that he uses as a touchstone is believed to have been his final work.) However, this is by no means a film in which a veteran filmmaker is simply resting on his laurels while offering up easy callbacks to his previous triumphs. Strange, angry, audacious and downright perplexing at times, this actually feels more like a first project from an ambitious young artist determined to present their vision of the world entirely on their own unapologetic terms and if the end result is sometimes baffling beyond belief, it is still a moviegoing experience unlike anything else that you are likely to experience anytime soon.
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