Wednesday, July 29, 2009

ON "MUCH BELATED" DVD: 2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER (1967)

White watching Jean-Luc Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, I began to realize how much this transitional puzzle of a film satisfied the many intellectual gaps that, I feel, hinder the intentions of the modern documentary. Needled throughout 2 or 3 Things is a hushed and whispered narration/monologue from Godard himself ruminating on his favorite post-New Wave topics: economics, language, war, America, sex, and politics. In this diced up monologue - more an internal conversation than a soap box diatribe - Godard invites criticism not only from his viewers but from the narrowly drawn characters on screen. Godard's verbalized observations, quotes, repeated questions, and knee-bent philosophizing (of both the pop and collegiate kind) provoke thought in this open forum of fictional film, a blasting contrast to documenatries that simply cheerlead to the already devoted. The answer to the documentary's limitations lies in narrative film.

The "her" in 2 or 3 Things is Paris, circa 1966, a city still steeped in fashion and culture but stunted and stunned by a slowly progressing industrial landscape where stiff high-rise buildings house families and couples in tight spaces versus the lavish landscaped flats of Bardot and Piccoli's cozy life in Contempt. Cutbacks on state spending has forced Parisians to look for more work (what a concept!), which in turn has opened-up a Belle Du Jour-type job option for the movie's main MILF Juliette (Marina Vlady). But while decrying a government and marketplace he sees as discompassionate, Godard also spoofs his peer's (and his own) self-imposed problems, culminating in a wash of subtle, oddball humor that ranges from a meter man walking in on Helena Bielicic's bath time, to a john offering up cat food as payment to a pimp/babysitter for some "pussy", to a pair of pseudo-revolutionary buddies scanning classified conversations of LBJ in a room filled with materialism.

"Modest" may seem like an odd adjective to use in conjunction with the name Jean-Luc Godard, but the more I make my way through this great director's career, I truly think it's starting to fit. While Godard's self-confidence is unquestionably about as high as an filmmaker's has ever been, a careful examination of his work and interviews reveals a man so confident with himself that he can freely offer up where he is limited or when he is wrong. The title "2 or 3 Things I Know About Her" is an admission of limitation in itself. Godard, the narrator, unleashes his sometimes caustic, sometimes pensive feelings about Paris and its place in the world, all the while acknowledging that he really only "knows two or three things" about his beloved city. It's a naked, up front, and refreshing card for a political artist to play. Godard is by no means discounting any of his deep-in-the-gut feelings, but he's telling us he's not the authority either.

The style of 2 or 3 Things foreshadows the cinematic technique that Godard would eventually perfect in his under appreciated masterpiece Passion, where mixed-up juxtapositions of imagery and sound fold in on themselves to create a new language of film. Watching 2 or 3 Things today - an unbelievable forty-two years later - still presents a challenge, a jolt to our media consuming instincts that anticipate consonant ebbs and flows and cyclical storytelling. But it's a welcome jolt, a slap that comes with respect for you-the-viewer because Hollywood sure doesn't anymore. Sure, maybe it's too late some forty-two years later, but in just 87 minutes (you hear that Orphan? Eighty-friggin-seven minutes!!!) Godard reminds us of the significance in being an active viewer, and that - no matter what David Thomson says - a film can be just as rich and unfolding and layered as a great novel.

10 comments:

FilmDr said...

A great novel? I thought 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her had its points as a sardonic cinematic essay, but Godard does a better job photographing the impersonal cityscape than he does bringing his characters to life. Why is he whispering, anyway? Why all of the emphasis on the constellations in a cup of coffee? I found the movie awkwardly static and difficult to sit through.

Ed Howard said...

Great review, Fox, I totally agree -- I think this is one of Godard's masterpieces, and I'm glad the new DVD is going to make it available to so many more people. It's especially perceptive how you pick up on Godard's self-critical streak, which would become increasingly important throughout his later 60s and 70s films, reaching a climax with Le gai savoir and the Dziga Vertov Groupe films. This is what saves Godard's political work from being didactic or overbearing: one gets the sense that he's not preaching so much as asking questions, bringing up issues that he wants people to think about and engage with, just as he's engaging with them. Even when Godard briefly became a devoted Maoist, clearly a rather unfortunate political choice, he retained this intellectual curiosity and quick-wittedness.

As FilmDr says, it's more an essay than a novel, true, but what's wrong with that? His characters are intentionally subsumed in the city and in his structure of digressions. It's a film that plays quite a bit with the conventions of the narrative film: the fact that he keeps reminding us we're watching an actress rather than just a character, for example, should tip us off to the fact that Godard's not looking for conventional realistic character development. This is truly one of the best films in a career filled with great works.

Fox said...

Film Dr & Ed-

I probably wasn't too clear (not uncommon), but what I meant to express was that diving into a film experience like 2 or 3 Things - and then doing it again and rediscovering new things and subtexts - can be like diving into a novel.

Fox said...

Why is he whispering, anyway? Why all of the emphasis on the constellations in a cup of coffee?...

Film Dr-

I took the whispering as if Godard was having an internal monologue with himself, as if someone put a bug in his brain and we're listening along. Not all of what he says is eloquent or fresh or profound (he even repeats himself), but I think it's honesty.

As for the ECUs of the coffee and cigarette, well, I think Godard just finds those to be compelling images. As with everything in the film, I think we can all intrepret their meaning (if any) of what Godard wanted them to mean.

Me? Well I kind of thought the shot of the milk and sugar in the coffee creating a kind of "galaxy" image was just funny. Here you have a guy spouting coffee-shop philosophy while staring into the abyss of... a cup of coffee. I think there is a lot of subtle humor to 2 or 3 Things, and that moment was humorous to me. Although, I can completely understand someone having a totally different interpretation.

Fox said...

Ed-

I completely agree with all that you said about Godard and politics (though I didn't like La Gai Savoir as you did), and I think it's sorely missing from our film artists today.

I picked on docs in my review, but I think political narratives suffer from a similar tunnel vision. For example, take Michael Clayton (with its rant against corporatism) or David Zucker's An American Carol (with its rant of every liberal cliche from a conservative's perspective). These films are like stone statues. They don't want to hear anything different, and they don't care. Because of that, they don't engage me as art.

I think La Chinoise is one of the best political films ever made.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your answers, Fox. I think my main problem with this movie is Godard's tendency to turn things into abstractions. He satirizes commerce, notes the commodification of women, and theorizes throughout, but I prefer Godard's earlier more "philistine" work.

Fox said...

Film Dr-

I hear ya, and don't get me wrong, as much as I worship Godard, I do think he does crawl up his ass at times.

It's interesing how we have different readings of these scenes (neither one of us being wrong). If I didn't think Godard was having fun - or being funny - with some of the material here, I might agree with you that some of this stuff is just stuffy intellectualism.

You also bring up something that I wasn't really considering until I posted on this and then we started our comments, and that's the "commodification of women" message. I'm not one to sling around these types of charges loosely, but I do think someone could argue about some sexism in this film on the part of Godard. Yes, he gives it to both sexes, but the women in this movie seem especially disposable.

Maybe, as you said, that's just his commentary, and I'm just totally off here, but did either one of you guys (or anyone) think that some of Godard's questioning to the women seemed kind of... I don't know... condescending at times?

Ed Howard said...

Fox, I agree with what you say about Godard having fun and being funny. It's too often ignored considering Godard's reputation as a stuffy intellectual, but he's made very few films in which his sense of humor doesn't play an important role. He's just such a playful filmmaker, which is certainly one explanation for those gorgeous closeups of cups of coffee and cigarette tips. Another explanation is Godard's insistence here on the democracy of images, the idea that an image of a person is no more worthy of consideration than an image of an object. Why not film buildings, and leaves moving in the wind, and whatever else catches the imagination?

As for the sexism question, there are certainly Godard films where his attitudes towards women are problematic. I'm not convinced this is one of them. In fact, I see this film as a warm-up for the Anne-Marie Mieville-inspired feminist sentiments in later films like Numero deux. One of the threads running through the film is the objectification of women as sexual commodities, their identities considered unimportant -- this is most apparent in the scene where the prostitutes' customer makes them put bags on their heads and run around. Godard would revisit this idea in Sauve qui peut (la vie) at the beginning of the 80s: that's another film in which sexuality is a fetishized, ritualized commodity, where powerful men force women to enact demeaning rituals. Godard is criticizing this treatment of sexuality as a power struggle rather than a potential for connection between two people as equals.

Rick Olson said...

To commodify is to classify ... commodities require clear identities. With the ongoing commodification of Hollywood, films must have a clear identity. Thus, "Michael Clayton" is a film that rants against the corporations, without much nuance, that's the way it's marketed. Films that reflect the ambiguity of life, like Godard's, don't "succeed" by Hollywood standards for just that reason.

Fine review of a movie that I have yet to see; I need to gird my loins, as I do every time I watch a Godard, and put it on my Netflix queue.

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