Les Arbres du Cinéma

You are currently viewing Les Arbres du Cinéma

Three artists foreground how fruitful and fun a vision of art without boundaries can be

One of the richest events at this year’s Berlin Film Festival occurred on its literal fringes. In association with the festival, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt presented the second staging (since its debut in Nyon in 2019) of Sentiments, Signes, Passions. The exhibition, curated by Godard’s frequent, late-in-life, collaborator Fabrice Aragno, stemmed from and expands on Godard’s 2018 film The Image Book, a collage mediation on the nature of images, words, hands and politics. 

Despite the weighty and voluminous nature of Godard’s legacy and the film’s contents and footnotes, the exhibition did not have a sense of overbearing monumentality, possessing instead a playground-like quality. The work effectively branched out and looped, towering up and up. Describing Aragno’s work, Godard likened it to growing an ‘arbre du cinema’ out of his images, and the exhibition was constructed as a choose-your-own-intellectual-adventure. A maze-like topography of shelving and furniture, with only a few, solid dividers, the space was kaleidoscopically littered with lone examples and piles of books and pictures and an omnidirectional arrangement of screeners and speakers atonally firing off visual and audio excerpts from films, television, and other sources, with Godard’s own voice also intermittently intoning. 

While wandering through this strange, cluttered, and half-finished-seeming entity, one is met with a gallery of loaded objects, figures, and shadows, recognisable not only from The Image Book but Godard’s other video palimpsests, such as a ruminative Henry Fonda in The Young Mr. Lincoln (1938) and Goya’s haunting Black Paintings. The impression this all gives is of a fruitful wavering between abstraction and intimacy, with the more schematic, black, box-like parts of the exhibition implying some symbolic space — the recesses of Godard’s mind, perhaps, or the purgatory of the 20th century, with the scraps and totems of bloody and accelerative history, its pages, sounds and visions, reverberating and colliding across a blank canvas. In the more well-furnished and lit parts of the exhibition, the impression is altogether cosier, as if one has been invited into the artist’s domicile, littered with the fuel and offshoots of his labours. 

The presentation of Godard’s artistry and inner universe of associations and annotations, as chopped and screwed and something you can wander through at your own pace — rather than a feature film, a single object made according to a fixed shape and length — plays to Godard’s strongest qualities. It is developed from a significant insight, which has become the core of his work and play, and could be described with a repurposing of that over- and mis-used McLuhanism, that ‘the medium is the message’. In relation to Godard’s life and work, it means an accretive awareness that the invention of moving images not only meant the birth of a single, new medium called cinema, but also the emergence and proliferating birth of a new means of communication called images, as expressive as the written word and increasingly dominant. Godard has been aware of this remarkable transformation, and has tapped into it, since before he made his very first film. Yet since his use of video in the mid to late 70s, and later digital, it has become an even more prominent factor and thrust in his work. Across a nearly half a century long array of experimental and narrative ‘films’, long and short, TV series, video works, tributes, festival trailers, interviews and, now, an exhibition, Godard has been engaged with the ceaseless process of creating and repurposing, and therefore testing and stretching the limits of a new language. A grand project that is less valuable for any individual messages it imparts than it is as a guide and sounding board for the way moving images can not only reflect and fantasise reality, but also function as a tangible mode of thought, unbound from any single form or set of rules — a process that need not be solemn or sanctified, but can in fact be handmade, humorous and open.  

Such ideas of intellectual and artistic activity as a potentially free-form process of fun and games, not restrictive or beholden to power, are alive in Mitra Farahani’s film See You Friday, Robinson (2022) whose premiere at the Berlin Film Festival was tied into the opening of the exhibition. A co-producer on The Image Book, her work as a director is dominated by concerns with framing and divulging artistry. This epistolary film was born out of her desire to orchestrate a meeting and a correspondence which had at this point never happened, even though such meeting, on the page, would seem to be inevitable. 

Ebrahim Golestan and Godard were both subversive men of letters turned filmmakers who loomed large over the intersection of modernist cinema and radical politics during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. Godard’s transition from Cahiers du Cinema critic to leading and prolific figure of the French New Wave, paralleled Golestan’s own trajectory as a journalist and writer of fiction, who became an important figure in Iran’s subversive and modernist Mowj-e No film movement. From 1957 and through the 1960s, he directed several, formally imaginative and politically nonconformist documentary shorts, such as A Fire (1961) and The Crown Jewels of Iran (1963), and demonstrated a distinctive conception of realism with his feature, Brick and Mirror (1965). Though often working with private and government funding, Golestan was a pioneering, independent force, producing his own work under his company Golestan Film Studio, through which he also produced, and co-wrote, The House Is Black (1962), a masterpiece by the great poet Forough Farrokhzad. 

Having not only transitioned from writing to filmmaking in the same period of time, both Godard and Golestan radically changed their tact in the late 60s, in collision with politics on a national and international scale. Film after film, Godard was drifting further left. His engagement with the Vietnam War, the mass direct action of May ’68 and his interest in Maoism sprung a shift to militant, collaborative filmmaking in the form of the Dziga Vertov Group. For Golestan, his openly left-wing views and antagonism with the Shah’s regime led to a period of exile in England, from the late 1960s and into the 1970s. He eventually returned to Iran to direct his second feature and last ever film, The Ghost Valley’s Treasure Mysteries (1974). Its banning led to Golestan’s permanent relocation to England and a definite end to his work as an active filmmaker. By that point, Godard had reinvented himself anew, with the Dziga Vertov Group dissolving and the beginning of his work with video, and his partner, Anne-Marie Miéville. 

Once both Golestan and Godard have agreed to Farahani’s proposition, the means of communication and rules of engagement are established. An email will be sent every Friday, with the author alternating between Godard and Golestan, therefore giving them each a week to think of a reply and to further, or diverge from, its thesis. Though the written word is first established as their medium, Godard quickly pushes proceedings into a multimedia terrain. His epistles look like digital incunabula; compact and mysterious jumbles of aphorisms, quotations and images that eventually progress to short film segments, starring Godard and shot by him and Aragno.  

Their communication in the film initially proceeds as a strange piece of detective nonfiction — an association later made somewhat explicit. Golestan is like an investigator, a voluble and, relative to Godard, open and no-nonsense intellect who we see openly discussing Godard, his messages and their possible intent. His inquiry is such that he even attempts to psychoanalyse his interlocutor’s very particular obfuscating nature, which he varyingly puts down to his catholic upbringing or attempts to elucidate by asking Farahani for more personal details. Where in Switzerland does he live? Does he live with a woman? Golestan prefers to write out his emails rather than spell them out in images, and takes a more inquisitive and reflective approach. Godard, on the other hand, remains an elusive quarry. His epistles provoke discussion while revealing nothing — at least nothing direct — about himself, nor his opinion of Golestan and the contents of his correspondence. This oppositional nature does not only have its roots in the disjuncture between these two men’s differing ways of thinking, approaches to this endeavour, and personalities. It also comes down to the conditions of the film’s production and Farahani’s rubric in framing these different filmmakers. The majority of the film is situated within Golestan’s company and home, and therefore more aligned with his point of view, Godard’s presence largely restricted to those curated fragments which are delivered, piecemeal, to Golestan’s inbox. Early on in the film, we get a strong impression of the more public and outgoing Golestan and his life, the ins and outs of his Sussex mansion, where he lives with his wife, his work which involves writing, other correspondences, preservation work on his films and attending retrospectives. We also hear more of his thoughts on a variety of subjects, delivered in a scattered form or fleshed out. 

There’s a shift, however, once Godard moves away from his image and text collages, towards sending film segments and images featuring himself. Golestan takes a less examining approach to that process, adapting to and going with its associative flow. Godard’s life opens up in these segments, his performative style reminiscent not only of his prior, comic use of his own persona, such as in Keep Your Right Up (1987), but also, with his air of candidness, of Luc Moullet and Jacques Tati’s onscreen appearances. His errant mind is embodied and humanised in a heightened state of normalcy, as seen in segments where Godard returns home, puts the football on the TV and hoovers up some crumbs off a carpet, or one extended shot where he makes his way upstairs. The latter is done slowly, with the aid of a makeshift support rope, with the clear, strenuous nature of this task, evident in Godard’s audible huffs and puffs. It is later followed by one of the more moving moments of the film, where the two titans find humbling, common ground in their shared mortality, expressed by exchanging images showing them both in hospital, dishevelled and undergoing treatment. 

Farahani skilfully navigates the changes in nature and tone of their correspondence, expressively imbibing and mish-mashing the respective styles of two artists who varyingly converge and diverge in both technique and sensibility. She employs Godard’s rupturing, classical music queues and Golestan’s mixing of documentary and realist forms with expressionism, switching between naturally or plainly lit scenes and more overtly stylised, specifically gothic lighting and staging. She also adopts both filmmakers’ destabilising approach to language and montage. This hopscotching between filmmaking as a concerted mimicry and more simplified, direct moments, refutes both easy nostalgia and its overly stringent rejection. Instead, by evoking the style and spirit of their work past and present, and putting them in concert with them in their twilight years, Farahani emphasises the tension between the different potential ways we may view and understand Godard, Golestan and their work.

The film climaxes with an online call between the two pen pals, in which Golestan asks Godard if he still believes in cinema. Godard refuses to give an answer, because, with “all respect” to Golestan, it is a “police question.” It’s an echo of an earlier moment where Golestan received a call from a PHD student, asking if he would agree to an interview on the topics of artists who died young, before their prime, and those who stopped producing early yet continue to live. The request leaves Golestan disgruntled, not only over the limiting nature of such categories, but also due to the implication that, since he has ceased to publish for a public, commercial eye, he must have ceased to work altogether. By the end of the film, both artists have found, through communicating with each other and through Farahani’s project, a profound instance of creation that isn’t conventionally rubber-stamped, ‘authored,’ or given a price-tag. Instead, their evolving conversation, in all its fricatives and friction, is a work of art in and of itself. 

Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. The managing editor of Ultra Dogme and a contributing editor to photogenié, he also sits on the board of the Spilt Milk Music & Arts Festival and writes for Electric Ghost, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook and Sight & Sound.