Friday, July 6, 2012

John Bredin: 2 or 3 Ways Godard Taught Us How to Speak and Live

2 or 3 Ways Godard Taught Us How to Speak and Live
by John Bredin

I highly recommend Jean Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her to shy people. To those poor souls who, like my former self, have had their speaking agency crippled, reducing them to verbal mice. Such radical withdrawals from the speaking world are often the result of being smothered by a patriarchal, authoritative and oppressive family, school system, or society. In my case, it was all of the above.

Mindful of the healing and transformative power of art, for the reticent of speech I bring a message of radiant hope: a nugget of cinematic wisdom distilled from what critic J. Hoberman calls Godard's greatest masterpiece. (As founder of the French New Wave movement in modern cinema, Godard is, arguably, one of, if not the most important, avante garde filmmaker of all time.) Deciphering lessons from Two or Three Things which, in a burst of validation from the zeitgeist for its continuing relevance, Film Forum in New York City screened both last fall and this spring you might be inspired, like I was, with the epiphany that it's not too late for you to achieve the exalted state of verbal freedom; the intoxicating, liberating, yet simple pleasure of being able to share (in a calm, thoughtful and nuanced manner) the cognitive and affective music of your soul with others.

In Two or Three Things Godard offers humanity nothing less than a filmic template for bold and authentic communication in the world: an aesthetically rich and pedagogically fertile piece of language curriculum that bears repeated visits. Without exaggeration, I'd call it a Linguistic Declaration of Independence. Notice, if you will, how the film celebrates the miraculous potential of spoken language, while at the same time interrogating it in what linguists refer to as a meta-talk, or talk about talk fashion often through the power of amazingly simple, wonder-provoking phrases.

For example, whenever Juliette the bored housewife who moonlights as a prostitute addresses a person, the camera, or thin air with a random thought that just popped into her head (I know how to talk; Let's talk together; Together is a word I like.) or when Robert, Juliette's husband, engages in that remarkable see-saw dialogue with a strange woman in the café (Say words; Do you know what talking is? Talk about something interesting.); or the pretty girl at the bar, whose deer-in-the-headlights narration of the simple details of her life startles us with its unassuming transcendence (I like to take walks, ride my bike for fun, go to the cinema two or three times a month. I like books); or when Godard himself, intoning with his whispery, philosophical voiceover, decides to interject a thought or two because he's the auteur (filmmaker as author) and can talk whenever he damn well pleases we're treated to a model of the magical possibilities of human speech.

Shy people, take notice.

Sometimes we become shy (and I myself still feel shy at times, depending, naturally, on who I'm with, or the situation), better still, let me phrase it a different way: we say that we're shy, or inarticulate, or afraid to talk, when in reality we're simply numbed by over-exposure to the prepackaged speech of movies and television shows: talk that's fakely fluid in the Hollywood sense. After watching actors speak brilliantly, dashing off hilarious applause lines as if they were talking naturally when, in reality, they spent days or weeks memorizing a pre-written script by comparison, our own conversational offerings might appear flat and boring to us. Certainly too, in a media-saturated age such as ours, because of our overexposure to glib, slick, oily-tongued, sonorous anchor people and celebrities, one could easily see how a person might get the false, even monstrous impression that this is how real people should talk. Unable to achieve such a bizarre standard of faux eloquence in our own speech, we clam up.

Philosopher Maxine Greene, critiquing such indurations in the mundane, talks about the need to resist passivity, to, partly through reflective art encounters she says, escape submergence in the everyday, the routine, the banal. Such submergence ought to include our current mass drowning, if you will, in a sea of pop cultural and media kitsch: a filling up of our heads, like the white cream inside a Twinkie, with a combination of advertisements, pop cultural fluff, and the grave pronouncements of the talking heads. Might such an inexorable assault on our cognitive and aesthetic apparatus tamp down our capacity to generate our own unique and creative thoughts, disabling our ability to write (and speak) our own essays to the world?

Godard offers us a cure to such a paralysis of language in Two or Three Things: an extraordinary pastiche of verbal and visual images, philosophy, and politics, that many critics have likened to an essay on film. As essays go, of course, it's worth noting that the traditional, written kind from the celebrated classics of Montaigne (Of Experience) and Emerson (Self Reliance) right up through today's brilliant NY Times pieces by Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and occasionally I'll grant, David Brooks offers one of the most powerful and flexible vehicles to tell our stories and richly express the complexity of our thoughts, questions, wonderings, and theories on any given topic.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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