Welcome to Godard 101, an unofficial and unaffiliated online undergraduate seminar where Ben and I take on the great man and his works, doing our best to understand how Jean-Luc got from there to here. First up, Ben and I took a look at Breathless, the film that, along with Francois Truffault's 400 Blows, blew the roof off the joint back in 1960, kicking off the Nouvelle Vague and recreating cinema. Pretty heady shit. Then, we reviewed A Woman is a Woman, which you can find here. This was followed with an examination ofTo Live Her Life, Contempt, The Little Soldier and Band of Outsiders. Most recently, we looked at Alphaville and I did a solo turn with A Married Woman and The Riflemen. Then Ben returned, and we took a look at Pierrot le Fou, Masculin Feminin and the last Godard-Karina collaboration, Made in USA. Next up: the film that Ben and I both agree is the best of the diverse lot that make up the Godard 101 syllabus. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France, 1967, Godard)
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France, 1967, Godard)
Going in to GODARD 101, of the two or three things I knew about him, this title was one of them. Had I heard of it years ago, as a kid, not so long after it came out, discussed by the same radical university types sitting in our living room that showed me Alphaville up at the student union? Or did the title - catchy in its own right - stick with me after just recently re-reading that J. Hoberman's Harper's review of a Godard bio, which put GODARD 101 in the curriculum for me in the first place? Doesn't matter either way. Because both ways signal the greatness of 2 OR 3. If that self-professed revolutionary milieu was chewing over the film back in the day, they were right to. And if Hoberman continues to hold to this day that it is an outstanding cinematic work, he is right to.
2 OR 3 is "The Portrait of the Artist as an Activist; "unto, "The Portrait of the Activist as (Just) an Artist". Godard is critically interrogating his own agency as a whole. The activist is being held inactive politically, so the artist is at least active about this artistically. Not surprisingly, gone is the cute self-citation as a mocking replication of the history of movie-making, the circular signification of prior significations without concern for an original reality prior to the image. Now, there's an almost traditional need for a reliable epistemological framework. And just as old-fashioned, there's a near desperate frustration with uncertainty about how to begin getting a handle on this. For no amount of sophisticated entertainment can provide what is required by the contemporary situation.
The auto-declarative anguish of the director is all the more pronounced for him expressing it in terms of political outrage that is itself excruciatingly hamstrung by introspective philosophic doubt. The latter is often addressed by way of monological inquiries that just about junk entirely any pretense of artistic artifice. Yet, they never stop being aesthetic objects presentedmis-en-scene. The film gives the impression that the director is bursting at the seams to produce a work of non-fictional agit-prop, but cannot allow himself to engage in direct propagandistic communication. So he continues to craft a movie as he knows how to do. Except now the deconstructive approach to what constitues a "movie" is being determined not as a formal game but instead as a necessity of content. There, I said it. The sense of political urgency about the state of the real world is driving 2 OR 3, however embodied in a theatrically staged statement on celluloid.
Simply in terms of the topic, 2 OR 3 is a companion piece for To Live Her Life insofar as it also follows a prostitute. Whereas the former plainly showed a story of downward mobility, however, the latter depicts a scenario about maintaining a middle class standard of living and the modern lifestyle according to consumerism. Related to this - and for the first time in a Godard film - attention is given to nuclear family life, with parts of no trivial import assigned to children, including heavily-loaded lines spoken by one of them. The upshot of this is that prostitution is generalized onto the society as a totality, not as a metaphor but as a literal model of capitalist culture. This comes off as anti-American, especially with respect to the imperialist project in Vietnam, but the critique is clearly aimed at the very ethos of the system.
How the film makes the impression it does, I wish I could say. For all of it's excessively egg-headed soul-searching at a sometimes remarkably abstact level of discourse, it is somehow staggeringly poetic. For all of it's sheer intellectual wordiness, not to be confused with dramatic dialogue, the visual compositions and juxtapositions are absolutely essential elements of the meandering symposium, and they have genuine beauty. In this department it doesn't hurt that the camera is often pointed at a good-looking woman, of which there are more than two or three in 2 OR 3. This should not suggest that the film has an exploitational sexist gaze - no wait... it has precisely this; but simultaneously as it does, it exposes the illegitimacy of this, shows it to be exactly the prostitution general to the culture that is reducing all social relations to shopping and all communication to advertising.
On the technical side, just as in Alphaville it is a stroke of genius that the voice of the computer is some guy with phony vocal cords, in 2 OR 3 the director supplies - as he so often does in his films - voice-over comments, but this time he does it differently and the difference makes all the difference, eh? He whispers. Fucking brilliant. The effect is off the chart. He sounds like a person worried that the CIA is tapping the phone, as well as a guy afraid of his own voice at full volume, as if hearing his throughts objectified so bare would just be too much to bear.
This is the first Godard film I have seen that I believe I will have to see again. Not because I enjoyed it more than all of the others. Far from it. There is a quality about it that prevents me from feeling attracted to 2 OR 3, honestly, a terrible dullness. Yet, this very sensibility strikes me as a marker of numbness, of a false passivity in the face of not knowing how to break through the alienation of urban cubicles, from the blocks of apartments to the TV sets in each cell or even just yet another booth in a diner. Of not knowing how to photograph an image with a meaning that can be trusted and acted upon. Of not knowing how to stop the napalm. Maybe it's just the fits and starts of GODARD 101 that make me cautious now, but I strongly suspect that 2 OR 3 is the real deal, profound art.