Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville’s “The Old Place,” a mid-length video commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, concerns art and its place in history. Pic contains enough food for thought to cater a scrumptious banquet for the intellectual elite, with ample leftovers for the common man. “Place” is a series of “exercises in artistic thinking” — a phrase which could also describe Godard’s body of work. The film bears a 1999 copyright date, but preemed at the Cinematheque Francaise, Paris, in February 2001 to cap the archive’s tribute to MOMA’s film collection; it was screened at the museum itself not long after.
Mostly solemn, but with flashes of visual whimsy, pic indulges in a flood of wordplay. Ponderous? You bet. But this patented Godardian assemblage is also lilting and profound.
The co-helmers take turns narrating, sometimes using their own reflections and observations (“We paid a photo agency 2,700 francs for the right to show you this photo” — of a vulture waiting to eat a starving child); but more often they recite quotes, aphorisms and lengthy texts from a wild and woolly cross-section of poseurs and bona fide deep thinkers. A cynic might say that Godard and Mieville took MOMA’s $500,000 and spent it on quotation marks.
Their astute borrowings culminate with a tale that explorer Richard Burton collected in his travels, of a creature who lives on the staircase of a tower. The critter is inert, and prone to different levels of frustration, until a spiritually enlightened visitor climbs to the top.
The two filmmakers are livid that documentary evidence of atrocities can be enlarged and labeled as art. (Godard’s disgust at Steven Spielberg making “Schindler’s List” is well documented.)
Though their own venture is sometimes akin to a slide show, it’s thoughtfully augmented by footage from the realm of truth-at-24-frames-a-second.
Some of the filmmakers’ juxtapositions are poignant, others seething, some quite funny. Pic cuts from concentration camp footage to a scene from “Rebel Without a Cause.” There’s also footage of Sharon Stone saluting the crowd at Cannes that cuts to Nazi Youth giving a similar salute. (Stone, by chance, is on this year’s Competition jury.)
“Poisoned by photography, painting commits suicide,” opines Godard. Wide-ranging source music provides extra layers of erudition.
One seg titled “Lost Illusions” muses on space travel and the sum of human knowledge, suggesting the message carried to the cosmos should be: “Project a Griffith Film Once a Year.”
From cave paintings to advertising, art and imagery are sorted through and held up against nature. Much as the helmers love movies, music, painting, sculpture, literature and philosophy, the raw magnificence of nature always wins. Man-made art can be terrific, but nature’s handiwork is better. Nobody emerging from a dark auditorium in the Palais des Festivals onto the Cannes beachfront on a sunny day could argue with that.