Thursday, May 17, 2007

Paris In Pictures: New Wave Visions of the Modern City pt. 4

Two or Three Things Godard Knows About Language

“I examine the city, its inhabitants, and the bonds between them as closely as a biologist examines the relations between individuals and race in evolution. Only thus can I tackle problems of social pathology and formulate hope for a genuine new city” - Narrator

The opening credits of Two or Three Things I Know About Her feature an inter-title that informs the viewer that the word Her refers to the Paris region, while it also refers to the main protagonist and the actress playing her. This concept – the suggestion of dual intendment behind a word – is crucial to the film. Like in Mon Oncle, Two or Three Things offers a semblance of a narrative: the film follows a day in the life of a suburban housewife who practices prostitution part-time in order to afford luxuries that society deems necessary. Through herstruggles to stay on top in life, the film explores mankind’s relationship to language, semiotics and meaning.

Two or Three Things opens with the image of a large highway construction site. The interminable racket of modern development heard over the credits is hushed as a voice over begins, outlining history and establishing philosophical viewpoints. Both of these elements remain constant throughout the film. Godard offers documentary style visuals of the physical growth of Paris; giant cranes and dump trucks, unfinished highways over dilapidated homes. The construction seems daunting, as modern buildings and work sites seem to tower into the sky, envelope older cityscapes. The fact that these are actual shots of Paris reinforces the cinematic idea of injecting symbolism onto reality, an idea that plays a crucial role in the film. How do we accept cinematic representations as being ‘real’ when the basic properties of film automatically convert all images into symbols? Godard plays with this idea by showing these construction sites, presenting them as they exist, but over-scoring their presence, having them appear monstrous and dwarfing. Thus the audience understands both what is ‘real’, and the critique of progress the images present.

A similar example of this idea can be found at the beginning of the film when the main protagonist, Juliette, is introduced. The voice over first introduces her as the actress Marina Vlady. Then the scene repeats, reintroducing her under her characters name. This demonstrates how the cinematic medium converts what is real into a symbol; Vlady is at once her real self, and her fictional cinematic counterpart. As Allen Thiher points out, this allows Juliette, as a cinematic character, to have multiple voices: “On one level she speaks as a fictional housewife-prostitute in a non-reflexive manner. On a second level she examines her language and uses self-reflexive language. This level leads to a third where she tests her language against her environment, which often shows how absurdly incongruous her language is with regard to the images that present her situation” (958).

From here, Godard is able to disregard conventional cinematic standards for conversation and allow the character to slip out of a scene and impose additional commentary. This, coupled with the film’s documentary style approach, grants access into the thoughts of both major and minor characters, almost in a novel-like fashion, highlighting the shortcomings of language and the cinematic medium.

For example, in the scene in the shop where Juliette purchases a new dress, the camera picks up the banal chatter of several young girls. In one shot, the camera stops and focuses on a girl, who says “I have a date with Jean-Claude at 8. We go to a restaurant, sometimes a film.” This part of the scene appears like a documentary, the camera focusing on the girl as if it were asking her a question.

However, when Juliette speaks into the camera seconds later, it becomes clear that Godard is not interested in the banality of the girls conversation, but rather their inability to fully communicate due to the consumer-based, degrading environment surrounding them. “I know how to talk. Let’s talk together,” Juliette begins. “Together is a word I like. Together means thousands of people, perhaps a whole city. No one knows what the city of the future will be like. Part of the wealth of meaning it had will undoubtedly be lost. The creative and formative roles of the city will be taken over by other forms of communication. Maybe… television and radio…Vocabulary and syntax, consciously and deliberately.” This reflexive speech seems to draw on the Parisian girls inability to discuss anything real. And yet, the speech itself seems equally disgenuine, clearly scripted. The following shot of a trashy paperback shows Godard is commenting on the way language seems to have piggybacked off of a massified culture. Language is no longer an effective mode of expression, because it has been commoditized, marketed, and consumed.

To be continued..

Check out Paris in Pictures parts 1,2, and 3!

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