Wednesday, April 17, 2013

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967)

Another foray into the inimitable world of JLG.   As per usual, the experience is a mixed bag: flashes of greatness amid turgid longueurs.  While I don't doubt JLG's brilliance, I'm not as dazzled by it at as the man himself evidently is.  There has never been a cinematic genius as omnivorous or as preening as Godard.  Watching his movies can bore you to tears, blow your mind, and leave you fighting for air.  He ingratiates himself at every opportunity, and not just his voice, but him - this slightly disheveled, maniacally intense, chain-smoking-sunglasses-wearing Frenchman -  and it can be positively creepy.  He can be like a child, tugging at your pant cuffs for attention, or a like a pretentious older brother, pontificating about things you've never heard of.  A great connoisseur of beauty, Godard is an expert seducer, but he is also part of the long, sorry history of French "theory" - the postwar literary/philosophical tendency towards politically murky, irrational, obfuscatory rhetoric.  He fits strikingly well as the cinematic avatar for the peculiarly French phenomenon of the Rock Star Philosopher.   Granted, he's much better than the rest of them, and very much his own creature.  But he is as much a product of his culture as he is a self-conscious creator of it, and sometimes, in the pilings-on of quotations, digressions, and diagetic disruptions, one can see, through the cracks, an ugly penchant for intellectual posturing.

Note that I'm not making the simplistic critique of JLG as the chilly intellectual, lecturing us mere mortals from his ivory tower of cinema.  There is plenty of feeling is Godard's films, once you start figuring out where to look for it.  And he does rather forcibly declare his views, but it is always far too personal to fit the bill of a "lecture."  Godard is never interested in instruction - he is always interested in expression.  He is a collagist, or, if you like, a precursor of remix culture.  His curiosity is encouragingly catholic, at times even un-discerning in its range.  Depicting the rot of French intellectual culture is yet another manifestation of a man who makes himself transparent through his work.  Godard, like any good artist, is a sponge, and his super-absorbency means that we're going to get a particularly close view of the culture from which he's expressing himself, warts and all.  If the experience drags - and man, how it can drag - it usually isn't too long before he quits vamping and finds something else of interest to train his camera-eye on.  A Godard film is like improv theater.  Making it up as he goes is part of the thrill.

And then there's the anger.  2 or 3 Things is a breathtakingly anguished film; at times, it seems as though the director is running entirely on spite.  His view of modern society is delightfully acerbic, and he manages to save it, somehow, from outright cynicism.  My impression is that Godard is far too restless to settle into the stasis of cynicism; his camera, like his mind, and always looking for the next topic, the next avenue of inquiry.  In this film, he hits blind alley after blind alley, finding despair in almost every instance of modern life.  The horrors of imperial war are being played out on the radio and in magazines.  People everywhere are accepting with apparent indifference the predations of high capitalism: low wages, shitty housing, endless advertisements, and the overwhelming grind of dehumanization through consumerism.  JLG seems particularly obsessed with this theme - the way in which people are made into objects.   It keeps coming up in the film, especially relating to women.  Secretaries, whores, housewives, retail clerks - and these are the ones lucky enough to have jobs, and thus purchasing power, and thus identities.  Is what JLG seems to be saying.

Of course, it's more than a socio-political critique.  It doesn't take long before JLG goes cosmic, in the films probably most memorable scene, a series of philosophical ruminations play out over an extreme close-up on a cup of coffee.  We watch as the swirling bubbles form galaxies, and listen to the anguished, hushed whispers on the soundtrack.  Something about identity, words, existence, and so forth.  The image is stunning, and the words are pretty banal - but they are earnest.   To me, the ruminations on language are the most threadbare moments in the film, and they become a nuisance pretty quickly.  On one level, this a byproduct of not knowing French, and having to read these dense little packets of words while watching the images (which are usually excellent) is a chore.  Perhaps if I understood the words as I heard them, it would be a different story.  And it's not as though every phrase needs to be individually untangled and understood - they can only work as an auxiliary to the tapestry of image and sound that are the primary focus of Godard's vision. To me, they seem to function best on the level of texture.  Part of the experience of any Godard film is a willingness to sift through the ephemera; it's a fool's errand to expect every piece to add up to the whole, especially on a first viewing.  If you don't take well to the ample sprinklings of hardcore semiotics or philosophy of language, just leave it alone.  Concentrate on the images and you'll have no less rich an experience.  Godard's movies are eminently well-served by the era of digital video - repeat, rewind, re-view at your leisure.  And for all of the philosophical (and pseudo-philosophical) density, it's not as if the man is incapable of being lucid, and even poetic.  See the sequence at the garage, where we hear on the soundtrack, over a string of glittering images: "I'm seeking a world where men and things live in harmony - such is my aim.  It is as political as it is poetic.  In any case, it explains this longing for expression."  Indeed it does, about as well as it explains his sorrow, his anger, and his fortitude. 

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