The link between the Western and Arab worlds is investigated in The Image Book, a feature-length video essay by the French-Swiss iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard. It assembles a vast swathe of footage, spanning from the birth of Cinema to present-day iPhone video, using montage in a way that feels completely unique to Godard himself. Sadly for us, he may be the only person who will enjoy it.
At every juncture, The Image Book does its best to be completely unwatchable. Replete with jump cuts, sudden changes in music, repetitious images, low-grade resolution, ratio changes, and relentless voiceover, it does everything in its power to put the viewer off from enjoying it. If Godard wanted to, he could’ve put this vast amount of archive footage to good use, making a film that actually forces you to contemplate or be involved in what is going on, but he is far more interested in alienation — a Marxist sympathiser, he takes Brecht’s concept of the verfremdungseffekt to its most radical degree. Yet Brecht had concrete aims with this technique, wanting to make the viewer think critically about concepts such as oppression and hegemony; Godard on the other hand, seems to be doing it just to test our patience.
He provides most of the voice-over for The Image Book, spouting out rambling thoughts about wars in St Petersburg and Doha, the nature of reality and cinema, and the limits of language. These words are provided in surround sound, panning across the auditorium in order to lodge Godard’s voice right into your brain, but little of what he says has been designed to make any sense. It feels more like he assembled random quotes from a series of books, then spliced them altogether. He has been guilty of this before, but when he inserted these aphorisms into his characters from the 60s, at least it felt like an expression of their personality, and was situated within a very specific and interesting context. Here, he rather resembles a drunk guy on a late-night train who mutters stuff understandable only to himself.
You could argue that The Image Book is trying to show how Western cinema has reinforced an essential distance between the Occident and the Oriental world, thus leading to problems the Middle East faces today. Images of vintage Western actors dressing up as Arabs seems to stress the Otherisation of the native that leads to the oppression. But Godard never seems to show a positive version of the Arab world itself — preferring to endlessly loop bombings and Isis killings instead. This simply turns his critique into the very thing he is (supposedly) railing against, fetishising violence as the defining characteristic of the region.
Jean-Luc Godard has been doing exactly what he wants for a very long time now. Spanning from his debut with Breathless in 1960 to the present day, his films have reinvented the very rules of cinema. By the end of the 60s he’d had enough with traditional narratives, and later made his work directly political and abrasive. With the 80s came the rise of video, popular because it meant that filmmakers could shoot on the cheap — it became used mostly for pornography and was popularised by the early films of the Dogme 95 movement. Thankfully, that low-grade equipment was quickly replaced by the rise of digital cameras; maintaining the cheapness of the material but with high-quality images. Regardless, though Godard can use digital if he wants to assemble large amounts of footage together, he still prefers terrible video transfers that are awful to look at. This kind of intense stubbornness has defined him as an auteur, and is really his greatest trait. The Image Book, nonetheless, belongs in a museum.