Arriving in the U.S. nearly a decade after its completion, Jean-Luc Godard’s monumental six-part essay film–cum–incantatory tone poem — originally conceived as JLG’s response to the 100th birthday of cinema — stands as a pivotal, summary, perhaps even climactic, work in its maker’s career, and thus in the history of film. Through a barrage of visual and musical quotations, and using some of the most complicated and evocative montage of his career, Godard addresses — passionately, sometimes pessimistically and always with his characteristic slyness — the cinema that intoxicated him as a child, that he upbraided and fetishized as an iconoclastic young critic, and that he almost single-handedly revolutionized as a filmmaker. Everything Godard considers is part of one gigantic, category-smashing continuity of ideas and images: film, art, literature, music. He can leap from 19th-century French painting and the rise of industrialism (“The 19th century, which invented every technique, also invented stupidity . . .”) to cleverly shuffled clips from his personal masters (Nicholas Ray, Jean Vigo, Von Stroheim, Griffith, Hitchcock, Dovzhenko and Robert Aldrich) and, of course, his own movies — all interleaved with Gaugins and Giottos, cheesy porno footage and newsreel images from the 20th-century atrocities that Godard accuses the cinema of being unable or unwilling to record or prevent. (For example, we see Errol Flynn, then the slogan “CAPTAIN BLOOD,” then Hitler himself — connections, connections!) Always we return from these rhythmic, free-associative digressions to the director smoking cigars in his book-filled study, intoning the chantlike, quasi-poetic aperçus that redirect and revivify his discourse. The density of JLG’s editing, his eye-opening juxtapositions of image against sound — and, through his many back-and-forth lap dissolves, of image against image and sound against sound — repeatedly amaze you with their shocking inventiveness. At one point, a Monet painting of a sylvan stream appears, then footage of German soldiers fording a similar stream in the summer of 1940, while the flickering dissolves make it seem as though the Nazis are invading Giverny itself — a staggering metaphorical violation in Godard’s eyes. There is a bracing provocation like this every other minute in Histoire(s), a film packed with astounding assertions, moments of searing poetry, and tart political analysis. It takes five hours to watch, but a lifetime may be needed to ponder and plumb its seemingly bottomless, but ultimately fathomable, depths. The superlative for once is fully warranted: masterpiece. (UCLA Film and Television Archive; Chapters 1 & 2 — Fri., Feb. 10, 7:30 p.m.; Chapters 3 & 4 — Sun., Feb. 12, 7 p.m.

—John Patterson

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