‘The Image Book’ criticizes representation of Middle East

Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, "The Image Book," received its North American premiere at the 56th New York Film Festival, with cinematographer Fabrice Aragno in attendance.

Jean-Luc Godard is dancing himself to death. At this point in his career, approaching 90, with over 50 feature films and countless other media more or less available for consumption, new projects from the Nouvelle Vague’s most irascible auteur tend to be met with preemptive eulogizing and general dismissiveness from devotees and detractors alike. Godard—one of the most significant filmmakers in the history of the medium—with each new film either succeeds in outpacing himself and others, or reveals a clueless lion lost in the grain of the digital age. It all depends on whom you ask. But as he continues to innovate and frustrate with each turn, never has Godard fallen short of eliciting the kind of reaction that has sustained and continually refilled his Myth.

If one affords Godard that modicum of self-awareness which he, and his films, are so frequently (and often retroactively) granted, then his newest, “The Image Book” (“Le Livre D’Image”) strikes one as something of a polemic—occasionally wading into self-parody—on the forced destabilization of the Arab world by Western powers and their images. It explores how the Middle East has only ever been received by the West through a relay of distortions— through images of violence of varied origin. An essay film that utilizes clips ranging from the Lumière cinématograph to the iPhone, “The Image Book” recapitulates and reconstitutes actuality footage of atrocities, pairing them with the images those events inspired. This makes for gruesome viewing. Quite early in the film, intercutting Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Sálo” with the verité footage of the Holocaust that informed it, Godard positions cinema as a witness to history just as it counterfeits and copies it—the actuality and the Myth.

Godard’s statement is a primer for the film’s footage of the Arab world, which juxtaposes images created by Arabs themselves with those manufactured by Hollywood within a Western framework. These images, when they arrive for the Western viewer, undeniably evince a sort of ready-made mode of representation—an inevitable lineage, a cultural sign full of meaning—a Myth informed by all that came before. “The Image Book,” divided into five sections like the five fingers on a hand—the film’s opening shot—lifts and deploys its questions of representation with varying degrees of success. Where this turns from interesting to nauseating is when Godard’s politics, which are under-thought at best, bleed in, without follow through, to the film’s organizational schemata.

For non–French speakers, approximately every other line of voiceover (which is often heard in multiple, layered echoes) is subtitled personally by Godard himself. Its images—which are distorted, overly saturated husks of their sources (and are at one point linked nonsensically to the aimed, colorful anarchy of Matisse and the Fauve project)—fly past the viewer with the familiar rapidity of one surfing through the camera roll of one’s phone. For this reason, “The Image Book” is a film suited not for the theatrical space but for the small screen. It is a film for the laptop, or for the iPad or iPhone—the images necessitate a smaller, personal environment. Let the laptop become the editing table, to which Godard so frequently cuts. Hold these moving, changing images as close as possible to your face.

Samuel Fuller’s 1982 film “White Dog” is best remembered for its troubled, suppressed release in the United States, and for its didactic central metaphor. Here is a film about a canine that has been trained to viciously maul—and kill—Black Americans on sight. Despite the near-fatal attacks and occasional murders, the dog’s owner refuses to euthanize the creature and opts to have the animal retrained by professionals (with no success). The film queries whether it is possible for racism to truly be unlearned, after it has rooted itself in the mind of the individual. And if not, does one destroy the very being perpetuating it? What aligns Fuller and Godard’s films— aside from their didacticism—is in how the central metaphor trains the audience to type and objectify, to immediately suspect and foreshadow, to dehumanize and to render as an image the inevitable victim depicted on screen. The cinema-goer has been trained to do this. In “White Dog,” after the film’s cards are played and its stakes are clear, one has become hyperaware of the Black American as little more than an object of violence. Godard, attacking representation in the culture of images with his typically disorienting freneticism, alerts the audience to this hyperawareness—the kind created and propagated not only by news media, but by social media as well—of one’s immediate associations of the Arab world and its denizens with moments of calm ceding to sudden tragedy, as seen (reported) through the eye of the digital camera. Machine guns gunning, bombs exploding—sounds superimposed overtop calm streets in the Middle East. One expects something to happen, but it never does. Before the bombs, everyone in the image is a suspect, commodified by complicity in an invisible crime from here and elsewhere.

Apart from the ever-shifting dialogue on issues of war and representation—which are frustrating and revealing in equal measure— one wonders why Godard bothered to make the film, especially when it reads as a reiteration or footnote to his four-hour, eight-part image essay “Histoire(s) du Cinéma.” “The Image Book” opens with a hand, a crop from Da Vinci’s “Saint John the Baptist,” put impossibly to motion by harsh video grain. Emerging from the bottom of the frame, pointing to the top, is an alert not of what is coming, but rather of what is above and forever out of reach. Is the hand pointing to something divine? The true human condition, Godard posits, is to think with one’s hands. “The Image Book” is a film in which the entirety of cinema passes before one’s eyes, in which the train that arrives at La Ciotat station departs with the same moral indifference for Auschwitz. Godard cuts to digital images of his hands working with celluloid at the flatbed editing table. “The Image Book” begins by the positioning the image—and the history of images—as something malleable, complicit in the reality it fabricates. The film ends by advancing this idea outside of the frame and onto the hands—the self—still the creator and master of images, of history. What do we do with our hands? Do they know not what they do?

But Godard has said all of this before. He is convincing, but he seems lost. At least he knows it. The film ends on the sublime—from Ophuls’ “Le Plaisir.” A man, dancing until he drops dead. A woman’s shocked reaction. End.

From Kino Lorber, expect “The Image Book” theatrically in New York next spring. Keep an eye out for the film as a traveling museum exhibition.

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