“And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.”
– John Berryman, Dream Song 14
A man and a woman are talking. They discuss Plato, maybe, or Sartre. It doesn’t really matter. Or perhaps it does; perhaps it is of the utmost importance. The sounds of water, bubbling over rocks, can be heard somewhere, distant. The moment crackles and splits, suddenly lost. A swell of music. We are unsure what we have just seen. It is not clear if it ever, genuinely, happened. This continues for 69 minutes.
There are two monumental experiences in the act of watching Goodbye to Language; you feel at once greatly liberated, as if anything, suddenly, were creatively possible. Yet, almost as abruptly as this sensation has swept over you, rapturously, a sense of suffocation creeps in. As one character states: ‘the two greatest inventions: infinity and zero‘. And you, as a viewer, Godard’s only true character, are constantly, painfully aware of the dichotomy between the two, just as you are never swept away in the film, or its language. It is obvious, starkly obvious, precisely because it constantly draws attention to itself, that you are watching created images, images intended and designed to be analysed. “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality,” declares the opening text. And imagination, it seems, is the perpetual understanding that this is a kind of treatise on the possibility of creation. As such, it cannot, by its very nature, be conceived as reality. Or if it is intended to be reality, it is a vision of our deliriously heightened modern understanding of it; fucked, scrambled, ruptured and, again, fucked.
Nonetheless, you will want particulars, cause and effect. I cannot give them to you. There seem to be repetitions on a theme, characters mirrored and refracted, performing identical behaviours. There is violence, blood in a sink, Metropolis and endless punctured conversation; every tangled thing skittering through the mind of anybody who has ever, seriously, read books. If you have seen Godard, in any form, you will recognize much of this: it is the birthright of the poet who wants to be a philosopher, blending the two universes of his being until things emerge, pulped and bloodied. He polemicizes on Hitler, the state, human objectivity; rhetorical questions overwhelm; ideas expressed, unexplored, passing in whispers on the wind. Anything important, a murder even, happens off screen; try following this narrative, Godard seems to be taunting, as a man muses ‘thought declares itself in poop‘, all the while taking a (comically dubbed) shit.
Return to the man and the woman (or maybe there are two). From Breathless on down, this is Godard’s great theme. They have sex, maybe torment each other, physically, beyond the confines of the frame. Anything else is inconceivable. And even this theme, and the others, seem intentionally hackneyed; the truth is that there is no grand metaphor, no intention to scrabble in the human question. Take Godard’s representations of nature: filming forests, rivers, swaying trees with such crude instruments as a camera phone. This is misrepresentation. This is intentionally inauthentic, amateurish; the only symbol worth following in this labyrinth of light and noise is the medium itself. The human inability to represent beauty, or even to communicate our own desires, leads to incoherence, he seems to want to say, and the incoherence is the very intention. Sound and image are incomplete, and words mean, yes, nothing; we are back at Babel.
Godard is an old man. He has realised that things are impossible to make sense of. He has trumped Antonioni and it has only taken him 55 years. And he is either, the bastard who started it, calling the death-knell on cinema, or else shooting it in the arm with some kind of dreadful chemical.
I haven’t even scratched the surface. There are also long, numberless scenes involving a wandering dog. Watch this film.