From the archive
Last week, Macy Halford, my colleague over at The Book Bench, wondered “What Kindle Wants,” in which she expressed her preference for physical books over the electronic kind. She wrote, “What I as a reader need and desire is a technology with pages and a cover and heft that can be marked up and placed on a bookshelf and kept forever.” She’s in good company. In June, 2000, when I interviewed Jean-Luc Godard at his office in Rolle, Switzerland, for a Profile of him that I wrote for this magazine, he spoke to me of his dissatisfaction with something that did not yet exist: e-books. The subject came up when he explained that he preferred to edit video with analog rather than digital technology, because, he told me, with digital technology, “time no longer exists.” And the example he gave me came not from the cinema but from literature and what he called “the electronic book.” He got up from his chair, brought a book from his bookshelf, and brought it back to his desk.
“What I call time is this,” he said, as he opened the book and flipped its pages back and forth. “For the electronic book, there’s this”—he pretended to press a button on the table. “If you want to go backwards, you do this”—he flipped pages. “With the electronic book if you go backwards you do this”—he tapped the table.
“And even this will be a problem,” he said, “because you’ll be on this page, O.K., and then you’re reading, I don’t know, ‘War and Peace,’ by Tolstoy, then you’re there at the battle of Borodino, or at the battle of something-or-other, you’re at the death of Prince Andrei, and then he remembers when he was at Austerlitz. You’re there, and then you want to take another look at the page where he was at Austerlitz. O.K. With an electronic book, how do you do it?”
I said, “You type it in.”
“You type ‘Austerlitz’ and you see it immediately. But first you have to remember ‘Austerlitz,’ right? Because if you remember a thought or an emotion that is a little vague—right? If you do this”—he flipped pages—“it’s something else altogether. Because when you do this”—flip—“you’re here; you want to go to Austerlitz, which is there, so you do this”—he flipped pages again. “Then suddenly you stop, you see something else, then you forget Austerlitz and you start to read that other thing, but with this”—he tapped the table—“you won’t do that. Thus the entire past disappears—something disappears. O.K., is it good, is it bad, I don’t know. But in practice, it’s not good.”
The “in practice” part he was referring to, of course, is cinematic practice. “There’s less thought, there’s more time, therefore there’s less cinema,” he said. “There’s less cinema, and all movies resemble each other, they’re all made like this”—he tapped the table. “So there may be some very beautiful images, some very beautiful things, but it’s harder to make good movies than before.”
Which may, in part, explain why it takes Godard longer to make films now—there were three years between the completion of “In Praise of Love” and that “Notre Musique,” six years between the latter film and “Film Socialism“ (which was at the New York Film Festival last fall). He’s using digital technology now—and, filling the time that’s saved with thought, making the past reappear.