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The Image Book, a dense and difficult cinematic essay by master filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, opens at the Aero for an exclusive one-week engagement. In this addendum to his Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard mines the history of the medium for resonant images and transforms them, in a kind of found-footage experiment, into a digital collage. The associations that arise from the novelistic juxtapositions of these images come so quickly that it's impossible to absorb or comprehend them all — their meanings are so private that they are bound to elude even Godard's most steadfast followers.
The cine-essay is divided into six parts, and the early sections seem thematically bound by the concept of suffering. We see the horse from Franju's Le Sang des bêtes, the prisoner being tortured in Rossellini's Rome, Open City, the young men buried up to their necks being trampled by horses in Eisenstein's ¡Que viva México!. How can cinema, Godard seems to ask, possibly bear witness to the vast panoply of misery in the world?
And then there is the director's own voice — baleful, portentous, uttering borrowed phrases such as “Heaven can only be soothed with blood.” The narration suggests nothing so much as an anguished idealist — Godard was a socialist for much of his life — coming to the realization that human beings cannot govern themselves. “One is never sad enough for the world to become better,” he laments.
The final section has to do with the visual representation of the Arab world, and seems inspired by a recent visit to Palestine. “Can Arabs speak?” Godard wonders. He mixes footage he shot (or oversaw) with images from cinematic depictions of the Middle East: Pasolini's Arabian Nights, Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu. “I prefer poor people because they are the defeated,” says the voice on the soundtrack. And then, more cryptically, “As far as I'm concerned, I'll always be with the bombs.”
As a work by one of the cinema's towering geniuses, The Image Book demands to be seen, maybe twice, by any self-professed cinephile. Yet one is apt to feel chagrined that Godard, now 88 and living in Switzerland, seems to be asking the same questions that have bedeviled his entire career without arriving at any answers. For all of his lived experience, he seems to be living on a continuous moral loop, like an endlessly unspooling roll of film. Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; through Thu., Feb. 21, 4 p.m., 7:30 p.m., 9 p.m.; $15. (323) 466-3456, americancinemathequecalendar.com.