How does Godard use language to de- and re-mythologize the city of Paris in Alphaville? The assigned article (“Postmodern Dilemmas”) will help to answer this question.Post one paragraph
How does Godard use language to de- and re-mythologize the city of Paris in Alphaville? The assigned article (“Postmodern Dilemmas”) will help to answer this question.Post one paragraph
Postmodern Dilemmas: Godard’s Alphaville and Two or Three Things That I Know about Her Author(syf $ O O H Q 7 K L K H r Source: boundary 2, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Spring, 1976yf S S 4 Published by: Duke University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/302733 Accessed: 25/02/2009 12:10 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR’s Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR’s Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=duke. 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For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected] Duke University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to boundary 2. http://www.jstor.org Postmodern Dilemmas: Godard’s Alphaville and Two or Three Things That I Know about Her Alien Thiher Jean Luc Godard is perhaps the most representative of postmodern film makers, at least in so far as his works reflect the anguish and contradictions of an artist who, motivated by the highest ethical seriousness, has attempted to go beyond the impasse of his own beliefs. On the one hand, Godard has found himself forced to accept the postmodern canon that we might define as the view that mimesis can be no more than a representation of itself, a laying bare of its own genesis, or a critique of those conventions that would claim to represent some substantial reality transcending the act of representation itself. Every act of representation must designate itself as such or lay itself open to the charge that it is merely a naive construct that has no consciousness of the way in which it creates the reality that it offers as a mere duplicata. Any work that purports to represent a transcendental reality ignores that reality exists only as perceived in the act of representation. On the other hand, Godard has struggled constantly to go beyond the solipsism that such a canon implies, for he believes that one of the hopes for man’s survival lies in the discovery of new mimetic modes that 947 could be an adequate representation of the social reality that Godard sees destroying us with increasing rapidity. The film maker must therefore seek to find new documentary modes that, lying beyond the antinomy fiction/reality, will allow the unmediated seizure of social reality and, with this new consciousness, political action. Godard’s decision to embrace Marxist-Leninism at the end of the sixties, after he had become probably the most influential avant-garde film maker in the world, was thus a decision to repudiate the entire body of work he had created until that time. It seems clear, however, that his conversion to Marxism was motivated by the same ethical concerns that underlie that earlier work. Marxism would hopefully enable Godard to come to an adequate form of praxis by offering finally an adequate means of accounting for the discrete and absurd phenomena that his camera had been recording from Breathless (1959) through Weekend (1967). Marxism would offer a grasp of the totality that stands in such direct contrast to the discontinuous fragments that Godard had been able to film, for, in Godard’s eyes, his work of the sixties could only be viewed as a series of failures. Yet, as each successive, self-consciously Marxist film has shown, it seems dubious that Godard’s attempt to utilize a Marxist conceptual framework has enabled him to overcome his – and our – postmodern predicament. Godard’s instinctive reaction to his predicament has been to use ironic or what we can call pop modes of representation to compensate for what appears to be the impossibility of an unmediated seizure of reality. Pop art springs from a recognition that all forms of representation are ideological and mythological constructs. Having lost its belief in any form of “realistic” mimesis, pop sensibility then self-consciously creates works that are essentially ironic works about other works, ironic representations of representations, or mythic formulations of myth. This is most noticeably the case with Godard. At the same time his works attempt to represent the daily bric-^-brac and destructive trivia that make up our urban civilization, they are also films about other films. Humphrey Bogart and automobiles, Buster Keaton and brassieres – pop and documentary: these are the two inextricably interrelated poles of Godard’s imagination. For this reason a study of two of his pre-Marxist-Leninist works that offer these two modes in a fairly pure state may contribute a good deal to an understanding of Godard and of the postmodern search for new mimetic forms. Alphaville and Two or Three Things That I Know about Her, both films that deal explicitly with urban reality, correspond to the two categories of pop and documentary. Moreover, both films deal explicitly with the rapport between image and language, the problem that throughout the sixties became increasingly central to Godard’s work. In La Chinoise this problem is stated as one of confronting “clear images” with “vague ideas,” an approach that seems to show that Godard held a belief 948 in the possibility that the image might offer a direct appropriation of social reality if only there were an adequate linguistic means of making the images “talk.” Having embraced Marxism, having found clear ideas and coherent language, Godard could reformulate the problem in Pravda (1969) as one of confronting clear concepts and confused images. One may well doubt that Godard can continue to accept this solution, for his images in Pravda suggest that the contradictions may well lie in the conceptual realm: his images show that socialist workers can quite clearly drink Pepsi Cola and manufacture artillery shells for the North Vietnamese at the same time. In any case, the relationship of image and language is central to Godard’s attempt to find new modes of representation, and this is quite clear as early as Alphaville (1964). Marxism offers a language that is entirely adequate, in its own terms, for the representation of social reality. Alphaville and Two or Three Things both point to how Marxism came as a logical solution to the crisis Godard had been living throughout the sixties, for both films present the city – Paris – as the crucible in which language is ground up, altered, emptied of meaning, and, finally, placed in the service of totalitarian repression. Alphaville presents Paris in terms of a totalitarian future that is really a pop vision of the present, whereas Two or Three Things is an attempt to offer a documentary view of the present that contains a nightmarish future within its ongoing mutations. In either case there is a nearly obsessive ethical concern with language, for Godard believes that man’s freedom is coextensive with his language’s capacity for representation. According to the mother who replies to her child’s question in Two or Three Things, language is the house man lives in. As a language Marxism has, in a sense, come to replace the ambivalent nostalgia that Godard felt for American cinema, such as we see in his portrayal of Fritz Lang in Contempt (1963). Lang is both the Olympian figure for whom classical European culture is an adequate means of accounting for human experience and the very embodiment of that era of American cinema when, in naive terms, there was total harmony between cinematic language and the experience it sought to represent. Godard’s dedicating Breathless (1959) to Monogram Pictures is thus both a form of nostalgia for a bygone language and a pop form of filmic self-reference. Alphaville is Godard’s most consistently pop film in this respect, and it does a great disservice to the film to try to interpret it as a vulgarization of, say, Orwell or Huxley. Alphaville stands in much the same relation to American cinema as Lichtenstein’s works stand in relation to comic strips, though the film has thematic elements that considerably enrich the purely pop dimension. For example, Alphaville, today’s Paris and the intergalactic imperialist of the twenty-first century, is the city where language is reduced to functional constructs that the city’s computer mastermind can deal with as it manipulates the city’s inhabitants in the name of “logic.” Godard’s computer Alpha 60 is an image taken 949 straight from popular mythology in which science and the possibility for totalitarian thought control are closely linked together. Cybernetics can only be the workings of the evil deity in the Manichean universe of popular mythology. On the other hand, the computer’s “Bible,” a dictionary from which useless words are regularly pruned in order to reduce the range within which men can feel and think, reflects the anguish Godard feels before the increasing inadequacy of a language that must cope with technological society. In Alphaville we find that the limits of experience have come to be defined by comic strip language. The comic strip side of Alphaville could be taken for a Brechtian form of “distanciation,” for it is evident from the film’s beginning that ironic distance must be maintained throughout the film. Otherwise, what is one to make of a film in which Lemmy Caution, the French Mickey Spillane, drives into Alphaville in a Ford “Galaxy” (though it appears to be a Lelouche Mustang) that has just traversed intergalactic space? This city of the future is clearly contemporary Paris, though Raoul Coutard’s camera offers us a night shot of the elevated Metro that effectively transforms the present into a fantastic future worthy of a secret agent on a mission. After checking into a hotel, where this hard-boiled private eye passes himself off as a reporter for “Figaro-Pravda,” Lemmy is led by a brainwashed Seductress to his room. Pop references now abound as Lemmy shows that he is worthy of his legend. He shoots an intruder after beating him up, pays homage to Humphrey Bogart by reading The Big Sleep while doing target practice on a Playboy fold-out, and, de rigueur, drinks whisky. Science, comics, and film provide us with other pop references as we learn that Lemmy is on a mission to inquire into the activities of a Professor von Braun, once known as Leonard Nosferatu, before he was banished by the Outerlands and began his work in Alphaville. Moreover, it appears that Lemmy was preceded on this mission by Dick Tracy and Guy Leclair, the French Flash Gordon, both of whom may have perished in the ghetto of Alphaville reserved for deviates. It is evident that we are in a world of purely ironic pop mythology where Lemmy Caution, pop hero equipped with only his .45 as a weapon against malevolent fate, is pitted against the absolute evil that pure logic and intelligence, endowed with no human qualities, generates with gratuitous malice. At this point we might well ask ourselves in more specific terms what is the importance of pop conventions as they are used as a postmodern mode of representation. In the case of Godard his work is clearly permeated by an admiration for the naive harmony that exists between certain popular modes of representation and the world they mythically present. Godard is quite serious when he expresses his esteem for John Wayne. At the same time Godard is in revolt against the destruction that popular myths work on language and image. No film maker shows greater anguish when confronting the popular mythologies 950 and those forms of popular discourse that manipulate us and undermine our capacity for perception. The discourse of comics, magazines, popular films, and advertising images, this discourse of simple violence, sexual exploitation, and created desires, is, for Godard, the discourse of a totalitarian world in the original sense of the word: it is a totalizing discourse that excludes all others as, in its total coherence, it places all language in the service of an economic system that functions with no other end than its own perpetration. Godard’s revolt thus raises the following question: when confronted by a totalizing discourse and the myths it produces, how can one find a language that this discourse cannot recuperate and utilize? It is now only too obvious that the anti-discourse of the counter-culture could be quickly integrated into Madison Avenue’s advertising myths – as Godard seems to show in the sequence in Weekend (1967) in which his hippy guerrillas depend for their sustenance on bourgeois tourists. One strategy of revolt is to destroy this discourse by forcing it to designate itself as myth, or, as Roland Barthes has demonstrated in Mythologies, to transform popular myths into self-designating myths. We can begin to understand the functioning of pop art and its irony when we see that the destruction of popular myth can be brought about by mythologizing these myths in their turn: It thus appears that it is extremely difficult to vanquish myth from the inside: for the very effort one makes in order to escape from its stranglehold becomes in its turn the prey of myth: myth can always, as a last resort, signify the resistance which is brought to bear against it. Truth to tell, the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce artificial myth: and this reconstituted myth will in fact be a mythology. Since myth robs language of something, why not rob myth.1 Barthes’s analysis of contemporary popular myths, calling in the fifties for the existence of pop art several years before pop art became one of the major forms of postmodern contestation, points to a way of understanding how pop is a mode of artistic resistance. Myth is a form of discourse and can be analysed in fairly simple semiotic terms. Let us consider first a fairly simple mythic image such as that of a soup can or, as in Alphaville, a whisky flask, images that might be called minimal units in an iconic mythic discourse. In itself such an image is semantically poor, since it is merely a sign possessing its immanent sense (or denotation) that refers to nothing beyond what is represented. Its meaning is limited to that of being a simple container, holding a certain liquid of given properties. A myth is created when this simple iconic sign, 951 joining signifier and concept in itself, is transformed into a signifier that refers to a larger, mythological discourse. When the image of a soup can is reproduced in the context of an advertising poster or when the image of a whisky flask is used in the context of a gangster film, the image’s meaning is appropriated by a mythic function, and the image comes to signify a realm that transcends the object’s immanent meaning. The soup can, to use this rather celebrated example of banality, comes to signify the world of supposed convenience, ease of living, and painless culinary expertise that modern capitalism packages for us. Lemmy Caution’s whisky flask, especially in a French context, is even richer in mythic connotations – think of all the whisky that is consumed in New Wave films. Among other things, it refers to the mythic realm of fast living, modernism, amoral adverturism, to a rejection of provincial modes of life, as well as to the sophistication, manly force, and spontaneous living it offers. When the image of a soup can is reproduced in a context that can add self-reference to its mythic signification, such as in a painting, or when a whisky flask is used as a signifier in the context of a film that self-consciously signifies the entire realm of detective films, then a third link is added to the semiotic chain. In effect, the artist has taken the mythologized sign and appropriated its sense so that it refers back to the realm of mythology. The referential chain turns back upon itself and denotes its own functioning. The myth is still there, but it is designated as such and, ultimately, reduced through the designation as pop to a non-signifier. Images of objects, or iconic signs, are not the only elements of discourse that can be converted into mythological signifiers. Consider, in this respect, the comic strip hero or, as in Alphaville, the secret agent or detective. In himself, be he Steve Canyon or Lemmy Caution, the hero functions as a narrative agent in a simple, linear intrigue. As the agent of narration he is endowed with those properties that allow him to resolve the narrative problematics generated usually by various evil forces whose function is to create conflict and bring about suspense. But myth quickly appropriates this simple narrative function and converts the narrative agent into a signifier that designates a very complex mythological realm. The detective, the secret agent, this socially marginal figure, comes to designate a mythical realm where a popular ubermensch signifies the necessity for violence, the superiority of white men over evil, lesser races, the justification of basically petit bourgeois ethical notions about retribution and justice, while at the same time he represents the joys of vengeance, murder, sadism, gratuitous violence, and degraded eroticism. It is perhaps because of this mythic realm that so many pop artists have been attracted to the comics. In no other form does the ideology of the lower middle class express itself with such abandon. Lemmy Caution is thus both a mythologized mythical figure and a hero in the service of the language that can destroy totalitarian 952 repression. These two aspects overlap, for as a signifier of myth, Caution destroys his own mythic functioning. Yet, Godard obviously believes that the primordial violence that Caution represents can be put in the service of a revolt against “repressive logic” or, more properly, against the conventions for representation that high culture prescribes. Caution is thus an ambivalent figure, both a creation of pop irony and a subversive force that defines itself as sheer energy in revolt against the canons of repressive culture. This ambivalence characterizes much of pop art, for it is evident that many pop artists have also seized the pop mode as a means of fighting against the dominant artistic conventions of official culture. The ironic glorification of popular myth thus turns not only against the myths themselves, but also against the enshrined cultural values of modernism. To offer one example in this respect, let us consider the way the pop artist can use the cartoon strip hero or the uni-dimensional tough guy of popular detective films. The glorification of the cartoon strip here, for example, is emblematic of the postmodern artist’s refusal to accept various psychologisms as the basis for characterization. This desire to reject various narrative codes and mimetic conventions has an ideological aim. Brecht might be again invoked here, for he seems to have foreseen this postmodern rejection of depth of character, or what we might call the modernist myth of profundity, when he noted that cinema by its very nature was evolving modes of representation that would be antithetical to bourgeois notions concerning mimesis: In reality, cinema needs exterior action and not introspective psychology. And it is in this sense that, by provoking, organizing, and rendering automatic certain needs on a mass scale, capitalism acts in a quite simply revolutionary manner. By concentrating exclusively on “exterior” action, by reducing everything to processes, by no longer recognizing a mediator in the hero or in man the measure of all things, it is demolishing the introspective psychology of the bourgeois novel.2 Godard has gone at least one step beyond this notion of process as the basis for characterization to the extent that in many of his films his characters try to find their identities in a preexisting popular model that is derived from film – usually with disastrous consequences. Belmondo’s imitation of Bogart in Breathless and the way the “band” imitates Billy the Kid in Band of Outsiders reflect Godard’s refusal of psychologism at the same time they show Godard’s use of pop to be a form of ironic critique. With Lemmy Caution, however, Godard has for the first time used a popular hero whose mythic existence completely determines his identity. Caution is also Godard’s only successful hero. 953 Lemmy Caution is not entirely a comic strip hero, as we see when he tells us that not only is he on a mission but that he is also making a Journey to the End of the Night. This reference to the novel by Celine, whom Godard had already consecrated in his Pantheon of culture heroes in A Married Woman (as well as later through long quotes in Pierrotle fou), shows that Caution is more than an agent for ironically celebrated violence. He is another of Godard’s characters who carry a heavy valise full of the debris of past culture and who never hesitate to pull out the famous quote when necessary. In effect, they carry with them the language of the past that, usually in vain, they try to wield as a defense against the present. Few critics writing in English have noted that a great deal of Caution’s speech, especially when he confronts the computer Alpha 60, is made up of famous quotations. When asked what he felt on passing through Galactic space, Lemmy summons up Pascal: “The silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” He becomes a Bergsonian hero when Alpha 60 asks him what is his religion: “I believe in the immediate data of consciousness.” And he quotes Eluard, the surrealist poet, when he declares that it is poetry that turns night into day. The function of this language seems double. On the one hand, within the context – Lemmy Caution attacks Alpha 60 with Bergson and Pascal – the pop myth is underscored and even further emphasized by the immediate incongruity. Within this pop context, on the other hand, the language itself is set in relief and designated as the language of culture. The language is used to signify not what it means in itself but rather the myth of culture itself. There is no doubt that Godard has a great deal of sympathy for, or, more precisely, respectful nostalgia about the monuments that high culture preserves in testimony to its ability to account adequately for human experience. His films are full of references, usually ironic but often nostalgic, to this enshrined culture, to Homer and Vivaldi, to Mozart and Rembrandt. But it is a mark of Godard’s postmodern sensibility that he takes his distance vis-a-vis official culture by using it only as a form of self-reference, and thus mythologizing it with self-conscious irony. The most problematic aspect of Alphaville, however, is that this film does seem to propose a language that is adequate at least in so far as this language offers a form of resistance to Alpha 60. This is the poetic language of Eluard’s Capitale de la douleur (The Capital of Pain). Lemmy receives a copy of Eluard’s work from Henri Dickson, the old and tattered secret agent who appears to have preceded Caution on his mission to Alphaville and who dies, in a form of suicide, by trying to copulate with a Seductress. As he dies Dickson tells Lemmy to overcome Alpha 60 by causing it to destroy itself. It is language that is the key to this mission, for the computer must be short-circuited by a language that defies the rational order of its circuitry – presumedly by the language of poetry, or by the language of surrealism, the poetry of antirationality. 954 One way in which to look upon Godard’s use of Eluard and surrealist poetry is to consider Lemmy Caution on one level as something of a surrealist hero. Surrealism’s essential goal, as Andre Breton formulated it, is to find that mode of expression that can unite the subjective world of desire with that exterior world which, when reified by the categories of bourgeois rationality, becomes known as objective reality. If one follows this interpretation, then one might consider Caution, as some critics have, as an agent in the service of desire, as a representative of a rebellious id that seeks to destroy the repressive super-ego, or Alpha 60, and its repressive order. Or, without taking such an allegorical view, one might simply see that Godard is using surrealism to vouchsafe his own rebellion against the ossified modes of representation he finds in bourgeois culture. Moreover, it would seem that Godard is exalting, in a Marcusean sense, a language of negation that proclaims the primacy of human affectivity in the face of functional thought. Eluard’s importance here, then, is to suggest that there is a language that can express desire as a form of liberation. From another point of view, however, surrealism is a language of the past that believed in the adequacy of the expressive means at its command. Surrealism is a modernist movement precisely in so far as it saw language, among other means of expression, as being commensurate with the task of expression that it gave itself. Language as well as the image could express, according to Breton, the “true functioning of the mind,” an optimistic view that we might well consider as another version of the modernist credo of epiphany. Surrealist revelation is, of course, different from other modernist forms of revelation in that it promised more than a mere expansion of our perception. It aimed at a transformation of the nature of our experiential reality, and in this, surrealism joins those heroic ideologies of the thirties for which Godard at one time felt a good deal of regret. In Le Petit Soldat (1960) Bruno wishes he could return to the thirties when, for instance, the Marxist revolutionary Malraux or the fascist revolutionary Drieu La Rochelle could find an ideological discourse that was both heroic and historically relevant. In Les Carabiniers (1963), however, we see that a revolutionary ode by Mayakovski does not stop Michelangelo and Ulysses from assassinating a member of the resistance, and we may doubt that Godard’s transforming his whisky-drinking secret agent into a surrealist poet is more than another ironic strategy, more than another homage to a language of the past. The liberation of desire does, however, lead to a demonstration of what might be the harmony that would result if image and language could coincide in a moment of adequate expression. We see this in the montage of shots in which Caution and Natasha seem to dance together as she recites an accompanying text that, though reflecting motifs taken from Eluard, seems to come from Godard’s pen. Juxtaposed against a series of intercuts that show the arrival of the police, this montage creates an image 955 poem in which Godard, echoing surrealist myth, shows the couple to be the locus of salvation: More and more I see the human predicament as a dialogue between lovers. The heart has but a single mouth. Everything by chance. Everything said without thinking. Sentiments drift away. Men roam the city. A glance, a wind. And because I love you everything moves. . . . This sequence ends with Natasha looking out into the city, with Capitale de la douleur pressed against the window. She seems to enact an Eluard text by pressing “her forehead against the pane” (“le front aux vitres”), as if she were looking through the transparency of adequate language in which desire and expression would be in harmony. This lyrical evocation of what might be a moment of adequate expression gives way quickly to a pop denouement in which the secret agent is the avenging force who brings about the final judgment on Alphaville as he destroys the diabolical scientist, the computer, and all the malignant, mythic powers that the recurring formula E=mc2 signifies. This pop eschatology points to the dilemma Godard faces in having recourse to popular mythology. Pop art is ultimately a form of anti-mimesis that can only designate the disfunctioning of received codes of representation. In Alphavile Godard has placed in question those codes that in effect limit our perception of urban reality, but ultimately his representation only turns on other representations, designating them for what they are and thus demystifying them. Alphaville is a successful film precisely because it accepts the limits imposed upon it by preexisting popular myths and then subverts that discourse with an irony rarely found in film. Yet, for Godard, this subversion of discourse could only be the first step in the creation of new forms of discourse that could adequately account for the destructive urban reality that is proliferating like a cancer. There are no Lemmy Caution figures to save us from the Alphavilles we have constructed – only bewildered film makers who, having seen that we do not even see what is about us, must struggle to find ways to represent our own reality to us. Alphaville is thus the negative moment in a creative project that demands that one at least attempt to find a way of overcoming our lack of adequate discourse. That attempt came two years later, in 1966, when Godard made Two or Three Things That I Know about Her, a film which is immediately linked to Alphaville in so far as it purports to represent an urban reality that Godard characterizes as resembling increasingly an enormous comic 956 strip. Though Two or Three Things is an attempt to create documentary modes of representation, it bears much in common with Alphaville. Godard’s documentary Paris often seems to be a product of science fiction in which machines have become autonomous beings that, like strange insects, appear bent on imposing their will as they wander about the urban landscape. Night shots of Paris in Alphaville bring out the dehumanizing anonymity of urban structures. In Two or Three Things what Godard calls the “gestapo of structures” no longer hides its destructiveness. As red, white, and blue dump trucks and cranes crawl across devastated building sites and freeways, as jackhammers beat a din into our ears, we realize that in this film even more than in Alphaville he has turned “familiarity into awareness” by stripping it of its inconspicuousness through what Brecht called “alienating the familiar.” Yet, once one has revealed the aberrations inherent in the daily experience of the urban dweller, there remains the task of explaining them. Two or Three Things is thus a film that relentlessly pursues the familiar, the banal, the quotidian in an effort to find modes of representation that can go beyond mere revelation of the incongruous. To accomplish this Godard does center his film on a narration, for the film purports to tell the day in the life of a suburban housewife who practices part-time prostitution in order to pay for the necessary luxuries that the society of affluence expects her to consume. There is perhaps an element of pop in this choice of a topic taken from a weekly magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, which is perhaps part of a larger ironic stance Godard adopts as regards the necessity of providing a narrative line at all in a film that seeks to lay bare the essential structures of urban society. Yet, it is also evident that prostitution has obsessed Godard since he began making films. Prostitution, be it presented directly as in My Life to Live (1962), or indirectly as in the case of the Seductresses in Alphaville, is more than a banal fact of social reality. For Godard it is a privileged metaphor that expresses a fundamental truth about the nature of contemporary social relations as well as the degradation the individual must suffer when she seeks to accommodate herself to those relations. The attempt to describe a typical day of a lower-middle-class housewife who sells herself in order to buy Vogue dresses, pay the electricity bills, and meet the payments on her husband’s car is the point of departure for the investigation of a web of relationships that are connected at least metaphorically, if not by some network of absolute laws. Godard’s working premise seems to be, however, that there is an ensemble or totality that, were he able to find the proper modes of representation, would be revealed as underlying all the disparate phenomena that his camera lays bare. Language itself seems to point to some such unity underlying the discrete appearances we see. For instance, Juliette, the prostitute housewife, lives in a grand ensemble, a huge complex of suburban apartments where, as in so many box-like 957 dormitories, the inhabitants of the city are “together” when they are not at work. The ensemble is thus a new form of urban organization that capitalism has produced. Ensemble also means “together,” or the parts united as a whole, and yet this is the paradox of the grand ensemble: that men are housed together but are separated from each other in ways that would have been inconceivable in older forms of urban organization. In this ensemble the camera reveals only disparate parts, no wholes. How does one go from this fragmentation to what Godard notes is the mathematical sense of ensemble, to the “total structures where the basic human units are governed by laws that go beyond them, precisely because these are lois d’ensemble,” or laws that govern a total set of individual phenomena? Godard thus starts with the hypothesis that such laws exist, though at the same time he knows that he will be able to reveal those laws only through the invention of cinematic modes of representation that can grasp them. And ultimately we might well suspect that Godard, again caught up in the postmodern dilemma, really believes that these laws will exist only as a function of new modes of representation. Thus his camera constantly lays bare images of incongruity and destruction. Yet, there appears to be no underlying explanation, no laws, no linguistic mediation that can account for them. Much of the frustration that Two or Three Things produces comes from the tension the camera creates. Godard’s camera unmasks the appearances of banality and forces the viewer to face a chaotic world that is, in effect, his daily world. But the viewer – and the film maker – wants to find a significance in them that transcends mere chaos. Godard sees language as bearing a heavy burden in this task. One has the feeling that at times he wants indeed to shift the burden from the camera to the spoken word, though Godard’s interrogation of language is also part of the postmodern questioning of the possibilities of all forms of representation. In fact, it is this constant questioning of language, this constant juxtaposition of clear but inarticulate images with confused concepts, that endows Two or Three Things with its most persuasive force. To accomplish this interrogation Godard has borrowed, in an entirely self-conscious way, certain Brechtian concepts of acting, for each actor, reciting his role and questioning his words, often joins the narrator in this process of weighing the adequacy of language. Juliette (Marina Vlady) is the most important character in this respect, since we follow her from her morning chores, throughout her day’s activity, until she and her husband go to bed in their HLM, or housing project apartment (HLM or “hopital de la longue maladie” as it is called in Alphaville). Godard first introduces Marina Vlady as an actress and then, repeating the same words he used to describe her as an actress, immediately introduces her again as Juliette, his fictional protagonist. From the outset Marina underlines the Brechtian character of this refusal 958 of traditional mimetic illusion by telling the spectators that her task is “to speak like quotations of truth. Papa Brecht used to say that. That actors must quote.” Godard’s refusal of fictional or theatrical illusion reflects his basic interrogation of the very possibility of filmic representation. This basic questioning aims at more, therefore, than inducing a critical state of awareness on the part of the viewer. First, the explicit joining of the real actress and the fictional protagonist points to a specifically cinematic dilemma Godard must face as a documentary film maker. By its very nature cinema converts every image it offers into a sign that in the filmic context becomes charged with semantic density of varying degrees. The postmodern film maker, and Godard in particular, is often painfully aware that film offers no neutral view of some reality that preexists its filmic appropriation. The very fact of filmic appropriation means that the filmed object is converted into an iconic sign. A real actress, even if she retains her identity in the film (which in point of fact she does), becomes a protagonist who has, in a broad sense, a symbolic function. In one sense film automatically converts the real into the symbolic material of fictions even though the image continues to denote the real. Godard has shown his awareness of this problem in nearly every film he has made through ironic forms of self-reference that both underscore the fictional nature of the work and attempt to destroy the generation of fiction. With regard to his refusal to generate fictions one might consider his part of the collective work Far from Vietnam (1967). In this documentary he refused to do more than film himself musing on the impossibility of filming images that could have any pertinence, or rather, the only relevant images he could show would be those depicting the anguish of the film maker trying to find images that might be more than private fictions. In Two or Three Things Godard accepts this dilemma by beginning the film with a self-referential demonstration that shows how the film converts the real into the symbolic, how Marina Vlady remains Marina Vlady at the same time she becomes a filmic sign and a fictional protagonist. Marina-Juliette can thus both act and reflect on her role as an actress as well as her role as a fictional protagonist. Godard allows her to participate in the questioning of the possibilities of representation, particularly with regard to the language she uses. Juliette has at least three voices in this film, or if one prefers, she speaks on three levels. 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 a 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. The film thus becomes a documentary or a self-denying fiction about an actress representing herself as she struggles to represent a fictional character to the second degree. 959 To see how these three voices interrelate, let us examine the scene that takes place in the Vogue shop where Juliette goes to select a dress that she will pay for later with her afternoon’s earnings. Godard immediately places the possibility of language in question by increasing the noise level to such a point that one must strain to hear the words above the roar of automobiles and machines. In terms of decibels the sound is probably not any louder than the noise one might hear in a good many Parisian streets. It is, however, considerably louder than the background noise allowed by cinematic convention for the naturalistic mimesis of daily reality. By disregarding this convention Godard does more than merely represent a sociological average concerning street noises. He endows the sound with significance not only by making communication impossible but also by violating the code for naturalistic mimesis. Through this violation the noise becomes a sign that designates the malfunctioning of the entire mimetic project. This malfunctioning is also underscored by the moments of absolute silence that Godard uses to punctuate the bedlam. The opposition of noise and silence sets up the context in which each comes to represent a form of failure both in the world and in the attempted representation of that world. Against this backdrop Juliette inquires about the various dresses offered for sale. Her first speech constitutes the non-reflexive level of discourse. Our first impression is that at this level Godard is making a more or less straightforward documentary, since her speech seems to reflect the daily language of a typical housewife. It is the language of utter banality. Godard also uses the other actresses in the shop to create this documentary impression. For example, in this scene a sales girl turns to the camera and, as if replying to some sociological questionnaire, tells us: “I’m leaving at seven o’clock. I have a date with Jean-Claude at eight. We go to a restaurant, sometimes to a film.” The camera’s presence is thus acknowledged as being there, as an agent that solicits language. But Godard’s interest in their speech goes far beyond a merely documentary interest in the typical. He is using Juliette, the shop girls, and the prostitutes to reveal the limits of consciousness that everyday language seems to impose. One is reminded of the Seductresses in Alphaville and their mechanical “I’m very well, thank you, not at all.” Like these pop characters, the Parisian shop girls are locked in trivial forms of discourse that are totally incommensurate with the environment that surrounds them or with the degradation they undergo in their daily life. Language is here used to signify its own inadequacy, not through its primary meaning, but by its semantic nullity. In contrast with this language stands Juliette’s examining her language and her role from within. As she examines dresses, Juliette weighs the language she must use: “Yes, I know how to speak…. All right, let’s speak together (ensemble). . . . Together. . . . It’s a word that I like very much. An ensembfe, that’s thousands of people, a city perhaps….” 960 Implicitly, refusing theatrical illusion, she uses language reflexively. There is a poetic tension in this metalinguistic quest, for the noise level increases and, at this moment, her speech is juxtaposed against a quick shot of a freeway exit framed against a clear blue sky. The tension between image, noise, and language continues as Juliette faces the camera and speaks to us directly. Now there is no attempt to produce theatrical illusion, as the actress questions the possibility of mimesis itself. Godard thus presents his actress as she tries to cope with the language she must speak: “No one today can know what the city of tomorrow will be. A part of the semantic richness that belonged to it in the past. . . it’s going to lose all that, surely . . . surely. …” We see the third level of language appear at this point in this scene when Marina-Juliette begins to spout a verbiage that undermines itself by its own incongruity. This language might be called the language of culture, or at least a pastiche of language that is offered to us by the official explicators of social and cultural life. Juliette in this speech beings to undo her meditation with the word “perhaps” coming after the certainty she expressed with “surely”: “Perhaps. . . .The creative and formative role of the city will be assured by other means of communication . . . perhaps . . . Television, Radio, Vocabulary and Syntax, knowingly and deliberately….” The sudden insert of the paperback cover of Psychologie de la forme, taken from the inexpensive Gallimard series called “Ideas,” shows that Godard is, as in Alphaville, again ironically playing with what we have called the myth of culture. Juliette’s language seems to have become a canned imitation of the language of the paperback culture that is marketed everywhere in the same manner as Vogue dresses. And this language, too, seems radically inadequate in this clamor and tumult where a pretty robot can give a resume of her life by saying that, basically, she does “a lot of banal things.” Juliette is not alone in this testing of language, nor in her failure ultimately to represent her coming to terms with her role of representing herself as an actress. Godard, a French intellectual who consumes far more paperbacks than his actress-housewife, forces his own language as film maker to confront the cinematic image. This critique of language becomes quite explicitly a critique or a questioning of the relationship between the image and the word in the cafe sequence in which Godard’s camera, using extreme close-ups, transforms the swirling foam that forms on the surface of coffee into something that could be likened to an image of the cosmos or perhaps of the intercellular world that the cinematic “biologist” tries to study. In any case, the camera has taken one of the most banal objects of daily reality and converted it into an ambivalent sign that Godard, in his role as film maker, tries to translate into verbal language. Much like Juliette questioning her language from within, Godard thus begins this scene by asking how he, a documentary film maker, can give an adequate account of the simplest object, be it a women’s magazine or the surface of his coffee. 961 Godard’s instinctive reaction is to draw upon the cultural categories that the culture of the past, that culture marketed in paperbacks, proposes. As his camera focuses on an “object,” his commentary rapidly becomes something of a parody of his own search: Perhaps an object is what allows to connect… to go from one subject to the next, thus to live in society, to be ensemble. But, since the social relation is always ambiguous, since my thought divides as much as it unites, since my speech brings near through what it expresses and isolates by what it does not say, since an immense gap separates the subjective certainty I have of myself from the objective truth that I represent for others, since I never cease finding myself guilty whereas I feel innocent….. The coffee foam and black surface fill the wide screen, and Godard’s language seems to have all the relevance of a dialogue lifted from an intellectual comic strip. Mixing Baudelaire’s ironic lines from “Au lecteur” (mon semblable, mon frere . . .) with a non-sense use of Sartrian categories of being and nothingness, Godard throws out a pop mixture of cultural cliches that can barely be heard above the noise of a pinball machine. The iconic sign successfully resists any attempt at verbal translation, while Godard’s verbiage finally turns back upon itself, designating itself as inadequate. Throughout Two or Three Things the symbols of culture – paperback covers, famous quotes, even the idea of questioning language itself – that Godard uses as compositional elements are essentially self-referential and, as signifiers, thus turn back on themselves to designate their own failure to mean. This attempt to mythologize the myth of culture finds an ironic analogue in the presence of Bovard and Pecuchet, Flaubert’s mad cataloguers, in the long scene that takes place in the cafe where Juliette’s husband waits for her. Compilers of the word in every form it has taken, Bovard and Pecuchet cull one sentence after another from books in an attempt to create the absolute book, the total encyclopedia. Here the cultural myth of adequacy turns against itself as an absolute impossibility. Moreover, Bovard and Pecuchet’s attempt to find a means to represent the totality of culture seems to be an ironic analogue to Godard’s own attempt to represent the ensemble of urban reality. Godard’s ironic self-depreciation thus continually undermines his own mimetic project. In this respect, it would appear that he cannot really rid himself of his postmodern disbelief in any form of cultural absolute except, perhaps, that of impossibility. In spite of his stated desire to be a cinematic sociologist, we see that he does not believe in any motivated form of representation. Every attempt at mimesis is belied by the gratuity 962 that underlies the effort to organize a discourse that purports to offer a unique truth. There is no unique reality to which mimesis would conform, but only so many arbitrary representations of reality which are, in effect, only so many different constructs. Thus Godard offers the sequence taken in the service station as another self-conscious demonstration of the impossibility of finding the discourse, the exact organization of images and language, that will reveal the essence of even the most banal of Juliette’s daily experiences (and what is more Flaubertian than this quest for essence?). Godard begins this sequence with another ironic demonstration of the ambiguity of “signs,” for a “Mobil Protects” sign is juxtaposed with a shot of a car whose fender has been bashed in. It seems as if Godard must first assure us that language is corrupted before he goes on to show that cinematic forms are also inadequate. This sequence then breaks down into a series of disparate juxtapositions of advertising signs, Juliette, her car, her husband, etc., while Godard wonders aloud how to relate them so that signification will emerge from the filmic discourse he might construct. Though each image may have an immanent sense if taken in itself, Godard’s Joycean desire to encompass the totality, his attempt to find a significance that transcends the details that should make up an ensemble, leaves him grasping nothing: “Why all these signs among us that end up making me doubt language and which submerge me under meanings, by drowning the real instead of separating it from the imaginary?” Godard’s premise, perhaps in nearly Hegelian terms, is that the real must be more than the mere aggregate of disparate signs and images presenting service stations and Austins, trees blowing in the wind, and a pretty housewife who prostitutes herself. Yet, his camera, with diabolical consistency, seems determined to prove the contrary. Two or Three Things That I Know about Her is, then, a documentary about a film maker and some actors who tried to make a film about life in contemporary Paris. It is obliged, however, to be only the attempted representation of that representation. The documentary founders on Godard’s epistemological uncertainties, not the least of which might be the necessity of infinite regress. For if the validity of an act of representation can only exist in function of another act of self-representation, then this act of auto-mimesis can only exist in function of another act of representation to the third degree, and that only by another to the fourth degree, etc. in the face of this uncertainty and failure, Godard’s recourse is to use ironic self-consciousness, which in turn leads him back to the creation of pop modes. There is no infinite regress, since Godard’s representation, in representing itself in its circularity, by designating itself as failure, turns itself into another pop mode of mimesis. Two or Three Things is ultimately as much a pop work as Alphaville in that it mythologizes its own postmodern myth of the impossibility of discourse. 963 Yet, this self-representation of failure is also an ethical act. To represent failure is, by implication, to proclaim the need for a praxis that would create a world in which the lost harmony of language and referent would be recovered. Failure here is a form of praxis, but it is a difficult one, and perhaps this is why Godard has come to prefer his own version of Marxist commitment to the politics of pop. None the less, Godard’s disasters cry out for a world where human discourse is adequate to man’s needs. Or as Godard himself expresses it in Two or Three Things That / Know about Her: The birth in man’s world of the simplest things, man’s taking possession of them with his mind . . . a new world where men and things will know harmonious relations. That’s my goal. It is as much political as poetic. It explains, in any case, the rage to express. Whose? Mine. Middlebury College NOTES 1 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), p. 135. 2 Bertolt Brecht, Sur le cinema (Paris: L’Arche, 1970), p. 180. 964
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