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!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Paris in Pictures: New Wave Visions of the Modern City pt. 3

Sterility is a major theme throughout the film. The old sect is constantly littered with garbage; a man is put to the seemingly never-ending task of sweeping, and can be seen constantly, but contently, attempting to clean up after his fellow townspeople. Madame Arpel is obsessed with cleaning as well, but their overly aseptic home provides her with little opportunities for any actual work. So, she can be seen constantly scrubbing windows that are already clear, objects that aren’t dusty. The best example of this comes in the Arpels introduction, in which she can be seen washing windows, pulling at creases on her husbands suit, fixing his tie, and scrubbing strange objects: a plant, the front gate, her sons briefcase, the car. Everything she touches she has to give a good once-over with her washcloth. Madame Arpel especially treats her son, Gerard, with a germicidal zeal. “Gerard, don’t mess up your room! Take off your shoes and wash your hands!” she tells him when he enters the house. Gerard can be seen rubbing his feet furiously on the mats outside, and his mother, dressed like a nurse in a long white coat and blue gloves, sprays him with a large hose.

Sterility can be found in the kitchen as well. The Arpel’s modern home allows them to cook without ever touching the food. Cooking is impersonal, handled at a distance by buttons and machines. Madame Arpel flips a grey, sickly-looking steak by pressing a button under the stove; she butters a pan by spraying it with a hose-like object. This is shown in stark contrast to the way food is handled in the old town. The local market features carts of vegetables and fruits fingered by all sorts of people; an old woman picks up a head of lettuce, weighs it in her hand, and puts it back for a different piece. Later, a man grills meats and sweet bread for children on a large wooden cart, handling the food with a charred spatula. The children accept readily with their hands.

This idea of sterility stems from the Arpel’s obsession with status. Madame Arpel gives three separate tours of the house in the film, each time pointing out insignificant objects and highlighting the ultra-modern aspects of the space. One object, a ridiculous looking fish-shaped fountain, is particularly telling of this obsession with status. Madame Arpel rushes to turn it on whenever someone enters the gate. However, if it’s not someone she is trying to impress (Hulot, peddlers), she shuts it off in disgust. Likewise, Monsieur Arpel’s car is an object of status. However, once it enters the main road, we that everyone in town owns a car that appears only slightly different. The cars show that the modern society upholds an ideal of massified individualism funneled through consumerism.

It would appear that Tati is making a concrete criticism of modern society – that so-called ‘progress’ leads to disconnect with humanity, with an over-emphasis on status quo – however, that’s not entirely the case. While the characters in the old section are presented as livelier and less preoccupied than that of the new one, there is no evidence to show that the residents of the modern world are discontent. In fact, it would appear that the Arpels are perfectly happy in their tech-savvy world. Likewise, Hulot’s inability to adjust to their world stems not from his disinterest, but rather his lack of familiarity and physical awkwardness. We must, then, view these people as social types, representative of ways of being and not specifically critical of any particular way of life.

It is only in Gerard, the indelible young nephew of Hulot, that we see any true character-based critique of the modern society. Gerard seems stifled by the trappings of his parent’s modern ways, and is sternly attached to the lackadaisical Hulot; he prefers the simplistic toy presented to him by his uncle to the complex motor engine given to him by his father. When in the modern home, Gerard appears despondent, bored, and lifeless. He seems to desire nothing more than to join the group of mischievous troublemakers who play freely in the old town; and, when he finally does join their company, his face exudes pure joy. Here, Tati presents perhaps his most biting criticism: that the shiny conveniences of modern life stifle the imagination of youth.

Check out Paris in Pictures pt. 2 and pt. 1!