Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jean-Luc Godard & Jonas Mekas on Film and Photography

“This is what happened: in the small hours of the 20th century, technology decided to reproduce life. And so photography and film were invented.” Jean-Luc Godard

A week ago while visiting a friend’s studio I came across a copy of Histoire(s) du Cinema by Jean-Luc Godard. I did a quick internet search for the book and it happened that a local Brooklyn bookshop had a copy (at a reduced price to boot) so I picked it up.

The publisher Gallimard published this companion book to Godard’s eight part 260 minute film in 1998. The book (and the film in the first place) is at once a celebration of film, a critique of film, a description of post World War II humanity and self portrait that raises many issues concerning the merging of art, culture and history. By use of still images in montage and text, we are thrown into a world where Godard bombards us with imagery meant to provoke. Cinema (and photography) is both an art and history combined.

Within the film and book, Godard seems to be questioning cinema’s (photography’s) roll in documenting the atrocities of the twentieth century. We come across him using images of Hitler, of Robert Capa with a camera (the documentarian), war photos from Luc Delahaye, and a multitude of images from cinema depicting atrocities from war films.

Since film and photography has only the potential to provoke and not prevent, what is our real relationship to these images? The presumption of purpose is a cry of protest that will cause action against such horror. When we fail to act, are we just documenting in some perverse fashion our inability to peacefully cohabitate? Recording history? George Rodger photographed piles of bodies from concentration camps during WWII, Gilles Peress photographed piles of bodies in Rwanda, and now we have plenty of images of bodies from Iraq and Darfur. Do images like these have a “freshness date”?

Are we spellbound by the spectacle but removed from its power because of the screen or piece of photographic paper? Some argue that with the proliferation of violent imagery on television and the web, audiences have been desensitized to the horror of such imagery. We do not process it in the same way that we once did (possibly to keep from going mad). Would this mean that our morals and ethics have been curiously altered partly because of photography? If we see something, identify it as being wrong, and then continue busily with our everyday life without acting, are we experiencing a lapse of ethics? Ethics do not end with thought after all.

On a lighter note…

Another book that slows film down to still frames to document history is Jonas Mekas’s Just Like A Shadow published by Steidl in 2000.

Jonas Mekas is one of American avant-garde cinema’s most important practitioners. Known for always having a 16mm film camera at arms length, he is a diarist of his life from relationships and family to friends and, by default, the New York art scene. This vertical format book reproduces strips of film taken from his completed films so that we see several frames of images. The book takes on a similar construction to his films that often cut together lengths of footage in the camera to poetic effect. At once still and perceived as in motion, these “new” images create poetic relationships between the individual frames.

Many well known faces appear in the footage: Warhol, Nam June Paik, Robert Frank, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Nicholas Ray, Salvador Dali, Jackie Kennedy. All are recorded with the same fame stripping, straight forward documentary style. He has referred in interviews to wanting to capture “the essence of what is there.”

The book is nicely designed and produced and contains an interview with Jonas by Jerome Sans.

Book Available Here