Jean-Luc Godard’s “The Image Book” is a sprawling mash-up of movies from across the history of the medium, set to the legendary filmmaker’s lyrical voiceover, and many audiences at the Cannes premiere were caught off guard by the overload of reference points. While not as much of a conversation-starter as his innovative 3D effort “Goodbye to Language,” the 87-year-old Swiss-French director has certainly crafted a provocative, boundary-bursting cinematic achievement as only he could. Cineastes will get chills from the mere glimpses of “Johnny Guitar,” which Godard first celebrated in references to the movie from the first decade of his work over 50 years ago.
But one clip struck some viewers as strange even by Godardian standards: a fleeting, lo-res shot from “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” Michael Bay’s 2016 war movie about the attack on the American compound. Like much of what we see in “The Image Book,” the shot lasts no more than a few seconds, and it shows an armed, bearded man firing a bazooka at an unseen target. Since much of Godard’s voiceover finds him ruminating about the current state of the Arab world (and its neglect), one could easily write off the fleeting visual as one of many random images in this dense collage, which uses existing images as shorthand for a range of ideas about modern civilization.
But Godard, who is reportedly frail even as he keeps busy from his home in Switzerland, materialized at Cannes with a hilarious FaceTime appearance at the festival’s press conference. So of course somebody asked him about the Michael Bay thing. However, when Vulture reporter Kyle Buchanan approached the microphone hovering just below an iPhone screen — where the wizened auteur appeared as a cropped digital image that wouldn’t look out of place in one of his late-period productions — he pled innocence. “I don’t remember that film,” he said. “I think if I inserted that footage there, it’s because it contains something I didn’t find anywhere else.” But when Buchanan pressed the filmmaker, noting that “13 Hours” appears in the credits for his new movie, Godard concluded, “I don’t think that these images come from that film.”
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In his report of the encounter, Buchanan muses on whether the incident was “a credits snafu” or “maybe he was just having fun with me, and Godard is a closet Bay head.” The truth: “The Image Book” does sample Bay’s film, as I confirmed with Nicole Brenez, an experimental film professor at the New Sorbonne University who served as a consultant on the project since 2015, when Godard first started working on it.
“I guess Jean-Luc totally forgot the origin of the shot,” Brenez wrote me by email, two days after she walked the red carpet as one of the representatives for the film attending in his place. “He watched thousands of movies, read thousands of texts, and experimented with dozens of editing strategies. So, in the process, one can forgive him for having forgotten a source he wasn’t really interested in.”
Ohhhhh shit there’s video of me asking Godard about Michael Bay pic.twitter.com/ozNJaCwg2j
— Kyle Buchanan (@kylebuchanan) May 13, 2018
Ultimately, Godard’s integration of commercial cinema in “The Image Book” doesn’t correlate with his personal feelings about any specific reference point, and asking him to explain any specific clip misses the broader point: “The Image Book” doesn’t deal explicitly with filmmakers or filmmaking eras like his free-ranging eight-part “Histoire(s) du cinéma” project; instead, it operates as a kind of holistic statement on a media-saturated age, when humanity has been overrun by capitalist fantasies. “13 Hours” provides just one example of the deleterious relationship between religion and war, just two of his many targets, and he didn’t have to know the movie or the director to find an entry point for his argument.
Ultimately, searching for specific answers in Godard’s work can lead to frustrating dead ends. Having abandoned traditional narrative approaches ages ago, his recent projects work as extensions of his freewheeling intellectual proclivities, and they usually contain a kind of poetic frenzy that defies precise explanation. “All the images, sounds, and the relationship between them are so numerous and intense that not only is nothing arbitrary,” Brenez wrote me, “but nothing is unequivocal. There is a rhizome of meanings in each new relationship. I’m not a specialist of religion, but the closest model for me seems to be the Torah … even if Jean-Luc probably never opened it.”