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Sex and travel

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Friday, Feb 13, 2009

I went to see Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her last night and left fairly perplexed. His films are frustratingly discursive that they seem haphazard (and half-assed) to me while I’m watching, but then afterward, I usually find that there was something to it after all if I can force myself to think it through.


In 2 or 3 Things, as in many other of his 1960s films, Godard starts with the idea that being an attractive woman in the city is a very mysterious proposition. He can’t bring himself to then demystify femininity; instead he intensifies the mystery, revels in it, seems to honor it, which makes his films seem sexist. A specific type of young Parisian woman becomes the generalized Other that is longed for but impossible to apprehend. If I were a woman, this would probably irritate the hell out of me. But Godard, to his credit, seems interested in further questions the derive from this ideal he can’t quite relinquish: What if you are that Other? What is the other for the Other? Are women their own other, doomed to spiral into narcissism? Or do they withdraw into some deeply inaccessible inner space within urban modernity that can only be caught in oblique, accidental glimpses, in the interstices of everyday life.


That idea warrants Godard’s strategy of just sort of following women around town rather than fashioning a plot. Of course, he’s adopting Brechtian techniques, eschewing tried-and-true methods for drawing viewers in (making us like characters and care about a suspenseful story) and instead making efforts to heighten our discomfort and our awareness of conventions. So 2 or 3 Things begins with the actress Marina Vlady introducing herself to the camera as herself, quoting Brecht on how to read dialogue as if it were being quoted, and then introducing herself again as the character she is supposed to be in the film. But she is never wholly one or the other; she is both playing herself and a role at all times, both the subject specified in the script (assuming there was one) and her objective self. So it is for women in cities generally. They are intensely objectified by the attention they attract in quotidian urban life and serve as fantasy objects, occasions for dreams of escape, akin ultimately to consumer goods, with which Godard juxtaposes them, especially in 2 or 3 Things. (The film closes with lights dimming on an array of branded products laid out in a kind of graveyard.) Living with that burden, women must at the same time fashion their own means of escape, in part to preserve their own subjectivity. So in the film, Vlady is often speaking out existential riddles and philosophical speculations in the midst of pursuing stereotypical female activities—washing dishes, shopping for a dress, putting on cosmetics, getting a haircut at the hairdresser’s, taking care of children, and so on. Frequently these question the role of language in framing desire and limiting our ability to know ourselves, as Godard cuts to advertisements, and other signs with words printed on them, cropped to be meaningless and without context. The language through which we know ourselves is being denatured, afflicted with unsettling meanings by its commercial use. And women, the implication seems to be, are acutely aware of being both signifier and signified, of being the subject and object of discourse, with their essential being strewn between these dichotomies, impossible to resolve.


Godard ups the ante considerably on this female subject/object problem by making the women in the film prostitutes (more sexism), seeming to suggest that all women are confronted with the issue of whether to exploit their objectified femininity. Through their scrutinizing gaze, men have turned women they see in the city, on the street or in the cafes (where someone is inevitably playing pinball), into consumer goods. To make the connections explicit Godard has the women sell sex, which seems to stand in for feminine mystery, and escape generally, for the men who purchase it. Godard memorably illustrates this in a ham-fisted (yet awesome) scene in 2 or 3 Things when a john (wearing an American flag T-shirt) has the women he’s hired wear airline-issued carry-on bags on their heads. In an earlier scene, the rooms of a brothel hotel all have cheery travel posters on the walls. Sex and travel are brought together in the commercial exchange for a woman’s time and attention, and thereby made into manifestations of the same male desire for novelty and mystery.  (In one telling non sequitur, a man in a cafe—named Bouvard, one of the clownish autodidacts in Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet—calls out an order for mystery-flavored ice cream.)


If sex is the degree zero of desire in Godard films—the essence or representation of all the other forms desire takes—then prostitution is emblematic of the general corruption and exploitation of desire in general by social institutions, by capitalism as a system. It’s a somewhat hackneyed metaphor for what consumerism does to desire, how consumerism “solves” the problem of desire. It sells us inadequate substitutes for that fulfillment while convincing us we don’t want the entanglements that go along with pursuing true desire. Desire requires our full vitality and presence; consumerism tells us we can’t live up to that standard and it’s easier and just as well to have prostitutes, tourism, brand-name goods, etc., instead. It’s fun to visit jouissance, but you wouldn’t want to live there.


So the real subject of the film is how to preserve true desire and find it within the quotidian in modern city life. Women, he seems to suggest, have an inside track on this. But alongside that theme is some inchoate material about Vietnam and something about suburbanization—the film charts Vlady’s journey from the banlieu on the outskirts to Paris and back, and frequently the camera lingers on highway construction sites and brutalist apartment towers. The city as a technology for facilitating social exchange, a whispered voice-over tells us, is being replaced by new media—television, telephones. We would now add, the internet. But in these films, is the city the last hope for nurturing real desire—a place where spontaneous social interaction can be fruitful; where we are not stuck permanently in predetermined ruts that make desire beside the point—or is it one of the earliest first technologies for replacing desire with alienation and convenience, one that is now being supplanted and perfected in new media? Maybe I need to watch Weekend to get to the bottom of that.

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