The final shots of the post-modern film sum up, for me, the commentary that fascinates Jean-Luc Godard; the image cuts back and forth from Woody Allen speaking dramatic lines in his film editing studio to different artistic film shots. One in particular, the slow-running horse, strikes me as part of Godard’s project of cultural references. The ability to catch on film something the naked eye cannot see is epitomized in the running horse. Eadweard Muybridge once settled a gentleman’s bet between Leland Stanford (then governor of California) and his friends. The wager was $1 and the question was whether or not horses lifted their feet entirely off the ground while galloping. With $25,000 and the ingenuity of a railroad’s engineering team, Muybridge was able to capture on film the gait of a running horse.
Why, then, would this image sit inside this strange, postmodern interpretation of King Lear? In my opinion, it is because Godard is reaching to the edges of how we value both language and image. Deconstructionist theory works to break away from a binary system that values a word/image understanding of thought. Instead, the signifier and the signified are more complex than absolutes, and their meanings shift depending on context, history, beliefs, etc. Muybridge’s work with the horse stemmed from questions about artistic renderings of reality. How true to its subject matter was, for instance, George Stubb‘s painting of a galloping horse? Underneath this question is an attempt to assess “real” depiction over those that are “inaccurate,” thus bolstering a position that sees art as a reflection of reality, of something that can be known accurately.
Godard, however, seems to push us away from this understanding of art. His Shakespeare is one that has inherited ties to the 17th-century playwright, but is himself lost in the vastness of the film, with voiceovers drowning him out and the landscape offering him to clear path with which to take. Godard’s visual interpretation of King Lear prizes sound, movement, and visual contrast over word. He has stripped away the set, the scene, the play itself, and contemplated what this play really means to its audience. What elements do we value? Why do we still read it? If all of culture was lost, why would we scramble to rediscover the lost Shakespeare? The answer, Godard seems to say, is because we value words over visual. His visual representation of this play forces us to want the words to make more sense, for the title to align itself with the content, and the
Bringing this back to Muybridge’s horse, Godard inclusion of this cutaway brings attention to the question of accuracy in art. Many viewers and reviewers have been bothered by Godard using the title “King Lear” but giving us this strange, multilayered piece seemingly only vaguely connected to the original text that we so highly prize. But, this set-in reference may help us understand the larger purpose of the film. Godard has been quoted speaking about the importance of text, but here he is, pulling the substance so far away from the text it is almost unknowable. This, I think, is because the horse with its awkward trot in Stubb’s painting is as important, if not more important, than the accuracy Muybridge sought to uncover so the art world could be “set right.” Like our conversations about King Lear by William Shakespeare, we have to see Godard’s piece as an attempt to visualize the truth, depth, and meaning of an experience based solely on words. What is Lear when you remove the text? What do we have if we try to only have the visual? Godard seem to think that what we have is something that still yearns for the text, running through strange forests and sipping coffee in hotel bars striving to pull it from our memory so we can once again get it down on paper.