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9-11 minutes

From Cineaste, Fall 1998. –J.R.

Speaking About Godard

by Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki; foreword by Constance Penley. New York/London:
New York University Press, 1998. 245 pp., illus. Hardcover: $55.00, Paperback:

Negative Space: Manny Farber at the Movies (expanded edition)

by Manny Farber; preface by Robert Walsh. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. Paperback:

Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki’s dialogues about eight features by Jean-Luc
Godard, stretching from Vivre sa vie (1962) to Nouvelle vague (1990), is a book
I’ve been awaiting ever since coming across its sixth and seventh chapters, on
Numéro deux (1975) and Passion (1981), in issues of the journals Camera Obscura and
Discourse, respectively. The two best critical studies I’ve encountered anywhere of
these difficult, neglected masterworks, they manage to account for a great deal of
what’s going on in them, metaphorically, ideologically, and intellectually, and the
graceful division of labor between the two critics as they proceed through the
films — roughly speaking, a dialectical exchange between Freud (Silverman) and Marx
(Farocki) — makes the process of their exploration all the more illuminating.
Silverman, a film theorist who teaches at Berkeley, and Farocki, a German
essayistic filmmaker with over seventy films to his credit, are both primarily
concerned with what these two films mean, and they attack this question with a
great deal of lucidity and rigor.

Unfortunately, these turn out to be their best chapters, perhaps because

challenging films of this kind turn out to be ideally suited to the authors’
methodology. And on balance, Speaking about Godard has more to say about Godard’s
thought than about his esthetics. (In this respect, it has a dialectical
relationship to the extended treatment of Godard in Gilberto Perez’s invaluable The
Material Ghost, which significantly fails to mention either Numéro deux or
Passion.) I was immediately put off by a howler on the first page, when Silverman
remarks of Vivre sa vie, “The film ends with a two-minute long close-up of [Nana's]
corpse, which has been brutally reduced to a few seconds in the American version.”
Even if one accepts the premise that our final glimpse of Anna Karina is a close-
up, my version of the film on video, coming from a Japanese laserdisc, ends just as
abruptly as what Silverman calls “the American version,” and so do the versions
I’ve seen in Europe.

Three pages later, describing the film’s opening scene — a dialogue in a cafe
between Nana and Paul (André S. Labarthe) — Farocki says, “The exchange at the
counter represents a conversation of perhaps twenty minutes, but it summarizes the
events of three or four years.” The entire scene, in fact, lasts less than seven
minutes, over five of them spent at the counter, and if by “represents” Farocki
means “condenses” — implying an abbreviation of a longer scene that we don’t see —
then surely more of an explanation is required.

The other films selected for analysis are Contempt, Alphaville, Weekend, and Le gai
savoir – a good representative choice — and the usual method is to move through
each film from beginning to end, which makes this book especially suitable for
classroom use. As Constance Penley puts it in her foreword, when Farocki and
Silverman speak about Godard, “they are concerned above all else with the
performance of the text, with the unfolding, over time, of that complex and never-
to-be-repeated structure of inimitable sounds and images that comprises each of his

Penley is also insightful about the particular talents and investments that Farocki
and Silverman bring to their work. But I’m less convinced when she asserts that
“this book is by, for, and about unabashed cinephilia,” because a comprehensive
grasp of film history and the history of film criticism — both of which play
substantial roles in the meanings of these eight films — is what I find most
lacking in this book. As astute as the authors often are about Lacan and Althusser,
Descartes and Rimbaud, and various paintings, they don’t have anything substantial
to say about Godard’s complex and singular flair for critically citing and cross-
referencing other films in his images: the roles played by, say, German
expressionist cinema in the lighting and iconography of Alphaville (which they link
exclusively to film noir), or Fritz Lang’s overhead angles in the framing of
certain shots in Contempt. For all of Farocki’s sensitivity as a filmmaker to the
implications of cinematography, lighting, and editing, he still has a tendency to
favor political discourses over images.

Still, there’s much to be said for the advantages proposed by this book for lively
conversation over monologues, especially when it comes to a mercurial figure like
Godard. And much the same can be said for the eight additional pieces included in
the invaluable expanded edition of Manny Farber’s Negative Space, seven of which
are cosigned by Patricia Patterson, despite the fact that only the last of these
takes the explicit form of a dialogue — a remarkable forty-four-page interview with
Farber and Patterson by Richard Thompson, originally published in 1977, that for me
represents perhaps the most exciting piece of freewheeling film criticism ever
published in English.

In its original 1971 edition, Negative Space was already a sturdy classic,
representing a quarter of a century of Farber’s pioneering, radical exploration of
film art that took in everything from Warner Bros. cartoons in 1943 to Godard,
Michael Snow, and Luis Buñuel in the late Sixties — with remarkable studies of such
figures as Preston Sturges, Val Lewton, Howard Hawks, and various actors in
between. Seeing this art as part of a much larger world is central to Farber’s
gift. The energy of the writing is often as pungent as Sixties Godard, and what
matters most about it isn’t the accuracy of every detail but the aptness of the
overall drift. A characteristic sentence from Farber’s 1957 “Hard-Sell Cinema,” and
one that happens not to be about movies at all: “Without the human involvement and
probing of Parker’s sax-playing — the pain-wracked attack, as well as the
playfulness and sudden spurts of wildly facetious slang — Getz turns the baritone
sax into a thing that can be easily mastered, like a typewriter.” The fact that
Stan Getz actually played tenor, not baritone, pales beside the insight into two
jazz styles and what it implies, and the fact that this observation gets sandwiched
between remarks about Twelve Angry Men and Larry Rivers’s painting without causing
any bumps in the argument is probably even more important.

As Robert Walsh points out in his helpful new preface, Patterson — an artist and
teacher like Farber — “began collaborating informally” with Farber on his essays in
1966, originally without credit, and “had an ever stronger hand” in the pieces
written from the late Sixties onwards. Though Farber already wrote in a polyphonic
style to begin with, Patterson’s contributions only added to the layered density of
the prose and the positions and approaches taken in these later forays. The
fireworks that resulted have never been seen before or since — taking in subjects
as diverse as Raoul Walsh (in the best piece ever written about him) and Godard,
Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Nicolas Roeg and Marguerite Duras, Taxi
Driver and Jeanne Dielman, the team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and
the Westerns of Anthony Mann.

As in Farber’s earlier solo efforts, what emerged as definitive in their efforts

wasn’t the goal of total explication — the effect achieved in the Silverman-Farocki
readings of Numéro deux and Passion — but the articulation of their collective
voice and the model it offered of total engagement with their subjects. In its
dizzying swerves from approval to abuse, from long-shot survey to close-up
observation, their dissection of Taxi Driver as both art and as social act is an
awesome act of scrutiny, but it never fosters the illusion of being exhaustive.

Developed concurrently with this couple’s careers as painters and teachers, these
sparkling essays are a good deal more concerned with pedagogical and political
matters than Farber’s previous criticism, yet they never succumb to either the
theoretical jargon or the anti-art positions that were being developed in most
branches of academic film study around the same time. In contrast to the desire to
settle issues and evacuate mysteries that informs most university prose then and
now, Farber and Patterson are interested mainly in raising questions and then
following them down whatever garden paths these questions suggest, taking in all
the ensuing scenery. Though twenty-one years have passed since the last of these
pieces was written, there isn’t a more up-to-date book of American film criticism
in print.

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