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.