Combustible Celluloid
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With: n/a
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 266
Date: 19/03/1998

Histoire(s) du Cinema (1998)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Only Cinema

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many cinephiles are familiar with the work Jean-Luc Godard turned out between 1960 and 1967, fifteen remarkable films, some of them crime-themed, like Breathless and Band of Outsiders. Some of them commented upon film genres, and upon film itself. Godard's later work became more difficult to see, both in terms of tracking them down and in terms of sitting through them. This awesome movie, running over four hours and made in eight parts between 1988 and 1998, is no exception. But it may be the culmination of Godard's career.

Godard, of course, began as a film critic for Cahiers du Cinema; he was known for his boldly political statements within the confines of cinema. As a filmmaker he continued that strain. With Histoire(s) du Cinema, he has turned in his greatest work of criticism. It's maddening and brilliant, pure Godard. To break it down, most of the movie consists of clips or stills from notable films, usually two extreme examples juxtaposed against one another. Godard sometimes appears on camera and sometimes narrates, usually repeating ideas or phrases several times. (For some reason, he uses the clacking of an electric typewriter as a sound effect, which can be quite annoying.)

The result is not like any kind of "thumbs up" or an appreciation of great movies. Godard is burrowing inside images, talking about multiple meanings (sexual, political, international, etc.), and even the meanings that are not represented. The title itself has several meanings -- history of cinema, story of cinema, more than one of each -- which covers just about everything, and nothing. The film ostensibly traces things like Italian Neo-Realism and Hitchcock, but not in any way you might anticipate. It's a bit cranky, but it's a never-ending barrage of ideas that -- even if it often flies right by -- will sometimes stick in a most profound way.

The movie has been unavailable for years due to the voluminous number of clips, stills and music cues that needed copyright clearance. I have no idea how Olive Films did it, but here is the entire movie, in a new DVD box set, on two discs, just in time for Christmas. If you have a brainy movie buff in your family, this is a perfect gift.

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