“When a century
slowly dissolves into the next century,
transform means of survival
into new means
It’s the latter that we call art”
If the ‘image’ be considered the “means of survival”―survival of information, survival of culture, survival of the very memory of the human race―then according to his own quote above, Godard’s The Image Book should find its place amongst the purest of the purest expressions of art. Like his mentor André Bazin did with his seminal essay The Ontology of the Photographic Image, more than 50 years ago, Godard too examines the very nature of moving images and their potential for conveying information and emotion, stripped of the support typically provided by narratives, characters, a synchronized background score et cetera.
But with The Image Book, Godard goes a step further. He deliberately interjects a seemingly-coherent stream of images with an abrupt cut, interrupts his own voiceover with music and silence, plays around with a meticulously selected montage of clips from older films ― violating any and every sacred classical rule of filmmaking developed over 120 years of cinema’s existence. His subtitles cover every alternate spoken sentence (with a few exceptions), meaning that about half of the spoken voiceover is lost to people who don’t speak French, in his continued attempts to reject the confines of language itself (“But the words will never be language”) and shift entirely to the domain of visual communication. The violence in his collage of images is visibly reflected through his violent cutting, jolting us viewers every time we start getting comfortable within a pattern, forcing us to sit up and regard anew the images he wants us to see. He projects his various conflicting feelings regarding the breadth of issues he presents, from the representation of the Middle East to the ills of capitalism, by bleaching his frames of color and altering their morphology any way he fancies.
The film is precisely what it claims to be, an Image Book. A collection of images taken from the pages of history, but each of them bastardized and assigned new roles within an absurd cinematic language borne of Godard’s passion and anguish. There isn’t much use in lingering on the ‘meaning’ or pondering on the ‘why’s but makes more sense to examine the ‘how’s ― How does Godard’s choice of a certain image relate to what he’s saying? How does a certain clip taken from a film make you feel when juxtaposed against the one preceding it? How does his use of music and silence complement his disjointed visual symphony? Like the true provocateur that he is, Godard raises a sea of conflicts, questions, and reactions but refuses to provide any closure.
Needless to say, this is a film that demands multiple revisits to be appreciated in full measure, a film that goes beyond simply being an experimental product of filmmaking and becomes an experiment involving the very grammar of cinema itself. It is a film that directly challenges the way we have been conditioned to read audio-visual information and process it. It is a film that I won’t be assigning any rating to because, as a wise man once said, “It would be like assigning a rating to a sunset or a heartbeat.” Rating any film is an act of comparative evaluation and, as anyone who has seen The Image Book would understand, it just doesn’t make sense to compare this one with anything that has preceded it.
Conventional expectations typically placed on films to entertain or engage or move the viewer would make little sense here, since it is clear that Godard’s aims (whatever they may be) were far from ensuring any sense of satisfaction or contentment. If anything he’d probably have enjoyed seeing his audience sit in sheer bewilderment in front of The Image Book, haplessly grasping at their old trusted tools of film reading and analysis―which would inevitably fail them―before being forced to unlearn and adapt anew, in their struggle to process this new alien language thrust before their eyes; like a child on their first visit to the movie theater.
“Why dream of being king, when one can dream of being Faust? But nobody dreams of being Faust anymore, and everyone dreams of being king.”