Blood on the Tracks

Godard scours our bombed-out library to find 'Notre musique'

There's no living filmmaker who compares to Jean-Luc Godard--at least not one whose oracular bent is supported by his stature, and by the decades of association we have with his earlier work. But another name does spring to mind. The gnomic personal mythology, the restless need to reinvent himself, the work composed of snatches of remembered culture: Does anyone else hear the music of Bob Dylan's second coming (or third or fourth?) in the wintry splendor of late-period Godard?

Having shaken off almost anyone who'd still holler for the early stuff--except for those fans who cling to him like barnacles through each new shift in identity--Dylan now makes art out of scraps: ancient bromides, old Tin Pan Alley standards, Delta blues, passages and titles of arcane books now fractured in memory. Ask him to tell you the future and he opens up the Old Testament and the 1905 Farmers' Almanac. For Godard, too, the world is a bombed-out library--a cinematheque in ruins. In his career's waning light, he has made elegiac, magisterially broken movies from the shards that rain from the sky.

I won't belabor the comparison by calling Godard's Notre musique his Time out of Mind. But if ever a filmmaker conjured the benumbed calm of "walking through streets that are dead," Godard does in his 90th (!) film, a threnody for peace, cinema, and the voices of the vanquished. Like his previous feature, In Praise of Love, it's a patchwork of film clips, literary allusions, and historical citations, fastened by dialogue that sometimes suggests the output of a random aphorism generator. And yet the severity of Love has given way to something almost like serenity--or the stillness in the aftermath of a cannon blast.

Notre musique is a kind of fugue on the theme of opposition: not just enmity, but defining poles of basic existence--the relationship between light and dark, reality and imagination, rubble and rebuilding. The film is divided into three segments--or "kingdoms." The first, "Hell," is a dialectical firefight between real slaughter and fake war drama that gives the writing and erasing of histories the force of tectonic upheaval. The second, "Purgatory," set in ravaged Sarajevo, forms a way station of tentative reconciliation before the unearthly paradise of the final segment, the stunning "Heaven."

Stylistically as well as thematically, Notre musique is a sustained movement from violence to calm. (Ever the astute film critic, Godard keeps "Hell" moving at Michael Bay velocity; the sun-dappled "Heaven" is like Blissfully Yours.) The editing rhythms in "Hell" recall the famous moment in Godard's My Life to Live that visually evokes machine-gun fire. It takes Godard roughly 10 minutes to encapsulate human warfare. Monkeys flail in a river (Aguirre, perhaps?), then Marines wade ashore, in two shots that last less than a second. So much for evolution. An atrocity exhibition of 20th-century horrors follows, vying for posterity with clips from Zulu and Battleship Potemkin, histories officially endorsed by the winners. The effect, immediate as calamity, is one of cumulative darkness both literal and figurative: the fog of war.

The darkness relents, if not lifts, in the movie's longest section, "Purgatory." Though set at the epicenter of another of the 20th century's proliferating genocides, it's shot through with cautious optimism. Godard's modern-day Sarajevo is a common ground, not a killing ground, where the world's citizens try to neutralize the politics of victimization and oppression. It's the site of a literary conference during which a Spanish author (novelist Juan Goytisolo as himself) meets with fictitious Native Americans in the ruins of the public library, far from the ghost of Columbus. It's a no-man's-land where an Israeli journalist (Sarah Adler) hopes to find a "place where reconciliation was possible," not another irresolvable Palestine, and where her Russian-Israeli doppelgänger (Nade Dieu) brings the movie's allusions to Hamlet to their despairing end: to be or not to be.

Winding through this landscape is the figure of Godard himself, owlish and bespectacled, seen early on nursing a foot-long stogie he might've bummed off Sam Fuller. His hopes for Middle East peace seem slim but faintly hopeful--or at least more hopeful than he seems to regard his continued relevance. The movie's centerpiece is a dazzling lecture in which Godard breaks down cinema (yet again) to its atoms of composition: "shot and reverse shot," Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, the thing and its opposite, just like the celluloid negative that produces an image filled with light. "Go toward the light and shine it on our night," he commands his listeners, who sit bored and twittering. Somebody has a question: Will those little digital cameras save the movies? Godard sits silently in silhouette. Nostradamus gives an audience and all anybody wants to know is who'll win tomorrow's football game.

As befits a movie (and a career) so obsessed with claiming the equality of text and image, Notre musique practically demands separate viewings--one for the bristling thicket of Godard's interlocked provocations, one for his still mesmerizing command of montage and movement. But that doesn't mean he'll get them. To converts won by the Band of Outsiders reissue, In Praise of Love resembled something smashed on the ground and imperfectly reassembled, no matter how beautiful and wounding its jagged pieces. Notre musique is much more linear and thematically accessible (it's amusing to note how many reviews use the word "lucid"), but it's still hard to sort out the many unidentified literary figures. The movie won't placate critics who can't stand Godard's use of characters as philosophical mouthpieces, or who don't have the time to unpack arguments as dense and spiraling as supernovas. People love a seer--until he starts to look beyond them.

We will not get back the man who made A Woman Is a Woman and Masculine-Feminine: He is no longer here. His characters will not sing out "New York Daily News!" on the Paris streets again or hand-jive an impromptu Madison. Instead, we have this stubborn soothsayer who's interested in the there and then only as it relates to the here and now. But if we listen closely, we sense that he's making music as strong and passionate as that of his youth, our youth. Just like the guy a few years back who sang, "Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain/Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain." In Notre musique, it's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

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