“If an image, looked at separately,

expresses something clearly,

if it includes an interpretation,

it will not transform itself in contact with other images.

The other images will have no power over it,

and it will not have power over other images.

No action, no reaction.

—Jean-Luc Godard, King Lear (1987) (and elsewhere)

We are on the way to montage. But before trying to say what montage is, we should step back and ask: what makes it possible? What must an image be, if it can be combined with other images? Will any image work, or are there certain kinds of images that lend themselves to montage?

“Montage” simply means “construction” or “composition,” and it is not restricted to cinema. For our purposes we can say that it happens whenever we make something out of what we see, piecing images together while breaking them up. By giving the interplay between each image and all the others a particular shape and trajectory, the process of montage constructs a special visibility and makes it last, if only for a little while.

The lines above, spoken in English by Godard, are drawn from Robert Bresson’s Notes sur le cinématographe. Bresson’s book is a compilation of aphorisms, slogans and verbal sketches, encompassing philosophical observations, personal exhortations, and story ideas, all taken the “log books” he kept between 1950 and 1974. In this clipped and gnomic form, Bresson’s Notes resembles nothing so much as a book of spiritual exercises for aspiring filmmakers. This particular aphorism dates from 1950-58.

On this account, images acquire their power not because of their inherent qualities, but because they prove themselves to be transformable, that is, because they can enter into relations of composition with other images. This claim must be surprising to anyone who has admired a particular shot in a movie for its pictorial qualities; it is hard to resist the idea that a great film would be one where every shot could stand on its own. (The photographic ideal dies hard.) Yet any image that presents itself as self-sufficient—one that offers up its own meaning, that tells you everything you need to know, that can be taken at face value—will be useless for the purposes of montage, that is to say, for cinema and for thinking.

In an earlier aphorism, Bresson explains: “An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact with other colors. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation.”  Just before the passage quoted by Godard, Bresson proposes a  “Cinematographer’s film where the image, like the words in a dictionary, have no power and value except through their position and relation.”

Even after we have grasped the principle that images are irreducibly multiple, dynamic, and changeable, there is still something enigmatic in these suggestions. We are being warned that the impotence of images arises exactly where they seem strongest: when they bring us a clear message or when they dazzle us with their beauty. On the contrary, Bresson asserts, images must not be too “definitive.” When expression leads directly to interpretation, the image claims too much attention for itself and thus is immediately exhausted. How, then, can images evade this kind of fatal clarity or affective overkill, without succumbing to the opposite problem, vagueness and incoherence?

How can images be made, so that they will make themselves available to other images? How can we tell which images will transform themselves “in contact with other images”?

It might seem obvious that film directors compose their images in order to assemble them into “strong” montage sequences. That is what the vast majority of films offer us: there is not one image out of place. To the degree that every image aligns with the next one along a well-marked path—guided by the overarching unities of narrative, genre, design, etc.—such films will present themselves with built-in interpretations, which the spectators will be more or less able to recognize every step of the way.

In opposition to that way of working, we have to proceed as if it is possible to practice montage without the advance guarantees of formulaic composition. In that sense, montage can be a radical experimentation, in which we discover which images are strong enough to overcome aesthetic and semiotic inertia by seeking only the strongest combinations. Each image, no matter how definite, will acquire its force only when it is seen in the midst of other, equally provisional, images.

It is a question, as Dirk Baecker said to Alexander Kluge, of what the images know: “What does the image know about the next image, what does every shot of a film know about the next shot, which is only possible when this or that has been shown before?” Baecker insists that Godard makes every image according to the knowledge that he can find a way, however unexpected, to put them together. Kluge replies: “Godard puts incompatible images next to each other in the hope that meaning will arise out of the gaps between them.”

Perhaps neither of these positions is quite correct. No image really “knows” what is coming, even if Hollywood tries to make images that never fall off the rails. But that does not mean that images “know nothing” before they are assembled by montage. Every image anticipates the next, although the next does not always arrive, just as every image remembers the last, even when it was never there.

***

Quotations from Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, trans. Jonathan Griffin (Copenhagen: Green Integer Press, 1997) pp. 20-1.

Quotation from Dirk Baecker and Alexander Kluge, Vom Nutzen ungelöster Probleme (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2003), p. 141-2.

Godard uses Bresson’s note again in Histoire(s) du cinéma, episode #1B, where it is read on the soundtrack by Julie Delpy. Unlike King Lear, this citation includes the final line: “It’s definitive and unusable in the cinematographer’s system.”

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“An image isn’t strong

because it’s brutal or fantastic

but because the solidarity of ideas

is far-reaching and fitting.”

—Jean-Luc Godard, Passion [1980] (and elsewhere)

Among Godard scholars, these lines have attracted a great deal of attention; some are even tempted to read this statement as a distillation of Godard’s late aesthetic. We do not need to pursue such arguments here, but it will be worth lingering over the details of the text, because every word counts.

The lines have a long history. Godard has adapted them from a short text titled “L’Image” by Pierre Reverdy, first published in Reverdy’s journal Nord-Sud in March, 1918. Reverdy would include them in his collection of aphorisms and apothegms, Le gant de crin, published in 1927. Between its first and second publication, “L’Image” was quoted favorably in André Breton’s (first) Manifeste de Surréalisme in 1924, ensuring that Reverdy would gain fame as a kind of proto-Surrealist. Neither Breton nor Godard quotes the entirety of the text; in fact, as we will see, Godard varies the quotation in significant ways over the years. The lines quoted above comprise the fifth section of “L’Image,” which are used (according to Michael Witt and Antoine de Baecque) six times in Godard’s work between 1980 and 1998. In King Lear [1987] and (perhaps) elsewhere, Godard quotes the earlier sections of “L’Image” as well—up to this sentence, but not beyond it.

Obviously, this is a touchstone text, as both Francophone and Anglophone critics have long pointed out. But the translation of the key words has been quite uneven. Here’s the French original:

“Une image n’est pas forte parce qu’elle est brutale ou fantastique—mais parce que l’association des ideés est lointaine et juste.”

As I read it, the crucial distinction is between “brutale ou fantastique” on one hand and “lointaine et juste” on the other. For the first pair, nearly everyone translates “brutal or fantastic,” which works just fine. But the second pair is much more slippery. Usually it is rendered “distant and true,” but sometimes it is “distant and just,” or “far-reaching and true,” or “distant and valid,” or something else. Godard himself, delivering the line in English in King Lear, says “distant and true.” And in Histoire(s) du cinéma, part 4b, he alters the line by repeating the word “lointaine,” opening a distance through the repetition itself.

But “distant and true” does not sound right. In trying to understand the whole sentence, we should notice that these two pairs of adjectives do not refer to the same things: “brutal or fantastic” refers to “an image,” while “lointaine et juste” refers to “the association of ideas.” So we need to ask: what does “association” mean?

Astonishingly, Godard changed this word (and this word only) in his first citation of Reverdy (in Passion): here the phrase becomes “…the solidarity of ideas….” The switch from “association” to “solidarité” changes the way we hear the words “lointaine et juste.” A solidarity is more likely to be “far-reaching” than “distant,” and more likely to be “just” or “right” than “true.” Yet these translations do not quite touch the key point: “juste” is neither a moral nor a legal judgment, but rather a quality of a particular connection or relationship. It implies that we know the difference between more or less “juste.” It could be translated as “appropriate,” but perhaps even that word seems too rule-bound, too proper. A strong image creates its solidarity of ideas according to immanent criteria of composition, without reference to transcendent principles or idealist norms. So let us say that an image is strong because the solidarity of ideas is far-reaching (it crosses distances) and fitting (it remains close to its circumstances).

Like knowledge, a strong image reaches out; like love, it holds near: sophia + philia.

***

Now we can return to the entire quotation from of “L’Image,” as recited by Godard (in the role of Professor Pluggy) in King Lear:

“The image is the pure creation of the soul. It cannot be born of a comparison, but of the reconciliation of two realities that are more or less far apart. The more the connections between these two realities are distant and true, the more it will have emotive power. Two realities that have no connection cannot be drawn together usefully. There is no creation of an image. Two contrary realities will not be drawn together. They oppose each other. One rarely obtains forceful power from such oppositions. An image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic but because the association of ideas is distant and true.”

This passage both varies from Reverdy and chooses unexpected translations in significant places, but I want to point out just one word: reconciliation. It translates “rapprochement,” which is famously rendered as “juxtaposition” in Seaver and Lane’s version of Breton’s Manifesto. To see an image as a juxtaposition of two realities is already to give a definite—and awkward— shape to the whole operation. However much that word might seem appropriate for Breton’s poetic method, it seems quite wrong here. It is important to see that “rapprochement” belongs to the same semantic cluster as “association” and “solidarity”—all of these words are trying to designate what kind of a link or bond holds a strong image together, or more simply, what gives an image strength.

I want to suggest that Godard’s choice of “reconciliation” for “rapprochement,” like his substitution of “solidarity” for “association,” gives Reverdy’s somewhat mystical phrasing a more distinctly materialist slant.

For the sake of simplicity, we can reformulate this line of thinking in a threefold series of distinctions:

1. At the most general level, images are relations: they appear only in and as relationships;

2. In certain specific instances, images create solidarities or associations of ideas;

(corollary: Brutal or fantastic images do not create such solidarities)

3. When the solidarity of ideas is far-reaching and fitting, the image is strong.

The task of images, then, is to create relationships between different “realities” by deploying the force of emotions and ideas, which are themselves generated by the work of images. (In other words, there is no point in asking which came first, images or ideas or emotions: all belong to the same creative process, the making and unmaking of “force.”) In the lessons to come, we will examine how this strength can be cultivated through the practice of montage, which might be defined (in light of an earlier lesson) as the ethical and political procedure where we learn to replace vague ideas with clear images.

***

Out of the ever-growing scholarship on these issues, one essay deserves special notice: Michael Witt, “Montage, My Beautiful Care; or Histories of the Cinematograph,” in The Cinema Alone: Essays on the Work of Jean-Luc Godard, 1985-2000, eds. Michael Temple and James B. Williams, (Amsterdam University Press), 33-50.