ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

2 or 3 Ways Godard Taught Us How to Speak and Live
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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.


Kudos to Philip Lopate for helping to rescue the neglected essay, in his brilliant 1994 book, The Art of the Personal Essay, from its banishment to fustiness by a century-long assault of the school marms with their torturous rules. No doubt it was the dreaded assigned high school essay with its rigid topic sentence/ five-paragraph/ conclusion format, and the false division of writing into creative (fun) and expository (boring) categories that killed the essay for most of us via Pavlovian association to a painful, angst-inducing classroom exercise. Pick ten people at random and ask them to write an essay. I could just about guarantee, nine of them will be so paralyzed by negative flashbacks to high school so fearful of making a mistake they won't know how to begin.


Progressive English educators (myself included: I teach writing at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College) though marginalized in the academy and public school systems, have been making slow inroads in transforming the consciousness of how the writing (or speaking) of our essays might be re-imagined. Oftentimes, for example, after one of my students tells a fascinating story in class, or utters any kind of interesting discourse of a particular length, I respond by saying they have just produced an essay in the air. (these are the same students who, if I assign them to write an essay, often cringe.) Had a tape recorder been on when they spoke, I go on to elaborate, they could now simply transcribe the text of their talk and allowing for some edits and revisions Poof!.they'd have an instant essay in a can, just add water!

Keep in mind also that, in the same way traditional schooling turns us off to writing, it also produces a fear of oral expression. In a typical classroom, the teacher hogs up most of the talk time anyway usually in a droning lecture format merely granting the students a brief cameo utterance here or there to identify right or wrong answers. This produces fearful, stilted student talk. It also allows little practice for real world type conversations to emerge: in a natural, humane, non-scripted, non-linear, and idiosyncratic manner. As Godard himself would probably suspect, there is, most likely, a political motivation behind the school system's seeming goal of disabling conversational agency, and short-circuiting the verbal eloquence, of the masses. In his 1998 book Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives, Theodore Zeldin nails it when he says the powerful have always known that they are threatened by conversation.

No doubt the elites are afraid (and rightfully so) that if more people learned how to speak their minds freely and powerfully, they might transform America's political culture: weaning it off its dangerous subservience to corporate profits; an unfortunate sine qua non which, judging from the current financial meltdown and deepening recession, has proved to be a disaster. Inspired by Godard's incendiary fuck you to corporate capitalism in the final scene of Two or Three Things when products like Dash and Lava and Tide appear as a cemetery on the green suburban lawn those of us who care about social justice might be inspired to begin a dialogue about ways of repairing the hyper-consumerism of our own time.

One idea might be to attend a worship service of Reverend Billy, the 2009 Green party candidate for mayor of NYC who is also a cutting-edge performance activist in the historical tradition of Augosto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. Reverend Billy (really artist Bill Talen) may be the most interesting, and effective, critic of consumerism in the world right now. With a feature documentary film under his belt, 2007's What Would Jesus Buy?, an attempt to rescue Christmas from its near drowning death in a sea of over consumption, he regularly takes his anti-consumerist message artfully, and hilariously, on the road to public places around the world; including inside the evil empire of Starbucks, where he likes to perform cash register exorcisms: quickly, before the cops arrive! The good Rev is working hard to achieve the reality of Godard's cemetery of the products. In such a world one could imagine language becoming free again, released from the shackles of corporate-controlled media, politics, and education.


Alas, there is also a small but heroic effort afoot inside the schools mostly underground and guerilla-style to empower students verbally by freeing them to write and speak about what matters most to them. At the very first international conference of English teachers held in Dartmouth, Massachusetts in 1966 (ironically, the same year Two or Three Things I Know About Her was released) the Australian and British teachers astonished their American colleagues with their emphasis on a personal growth model for language education: emphasizing the need for students to read and produce texts (both written and oral) that are relevant to the them, as part of their own vital search for meaning in the world. Hmmm. This sounds a lot like how the characters in Two or Three Things approach the act of talking: in particular, how they gear their conversation projects into the world to satisfy their own curiosities and quests for truth; unconcerned about how absurd they might sound to others.

Without too much of a stretch, such a meaning-making approach to language pedagogy might be called Godardian, an auter-like invitation for students to open up self-directed creative spaces for dialogue. This contrasts markedly with the American fixation on a prescribed from above regime of kill-and-drill style dummy runs and endless testing: a snooze-inducing, agency-disabling, zombie-making, shy people-producing method that discourages honest expression and, despite the revolution in English teaching that has swept England and Australia, is still sadly stuck in place like barnacles to the hull of a boat in the American public schools.

John Mayher, a retired NYU professor and internationally recognized leader in the effort to reconceptualize the teaching of English, noted in his 1990 book Uncommon Sense: Theoretical Practice in Language Education that since all writing is creative if it is genuinely committed to discovery and expression of the writer's meanings, the distinction between creative and expository writing is probably a hollow one. Raise your hand, now, if you can recall even one example from high school when you were encouraged to write a truly creative personal essay: to wild out on the page, if you will, in the meandering, collage-like manner Godard employs in Two or Three Things? The kind of written essays you might find, for example, in Jonathan Lethem's 2005 collection The Disappointment Artist: which feature an idiosyncratic blend of personal life and popular culture that one can picture a typical English teacher red-inking as too subjective (don't laugh, my CUNY students victims of the troubled NYC public schools often approach me tremblingly for permission to use the word I in their essays, having been punished by teachers for the crime of expressing their personal opinions) or too focused on frivolous art: i.e., comic books, pop songs.

One of Noam Chomsky's greatest discoveries as a linguist (in addition to his profound insights as a political theorist) is the revelation that our language system's most spectacular characteristic is, now brace yourself for the beautiful simplicity of this: its innate creativity. Translated, this means that the possibilities inherent in human language expression are endless: in either written or verbal form. In other words, after you initially greet a person on the street and say hello or hey what's up? (standard formulaic greetings) the potential creative variety of utterances that might come out of your mouth next (be they banal, mildly interesting, or wondrous) are get ready for your soul to rejoice: infinite! Naturally, this also factors in the multitudinous range of body language gestures and tones of voice you might employ (as the actor of yourself) while speaking.

So, oh ye person of little faith in your talking ability, take heart that the number of things you might humanly say during your next conversational encounter (stored in your mind, body and soul now as verbal potential energy) approaches or exceeds the grains of sand on all the beaches in the world, the shapes and patterns of all the snowflakes that have ever or will ever bless the frozen winter earth with their quiet magic, or diamonds twinkling in a pitch-black country sky, ala Van Gogh's "Starry Night." This miracle of creative infinitude in human speech is hinted at in Two or Three Things: a kaleidoscopic, carnivalesque parade of verbal expression that (like a Robert Rauschenberg collage) playfully invites you to join it.

I believe that the tongue-tied among us (which, as I said before, includes myself at times) might become more fluid talkers, more willing and able to engage in social discourse, be it at cocktail parties, with passing acquaintances (or strangers) in the street, or, for the more civic-minded, expressing ideas at public meetings by recalling Godard's essayistic vision of transcendentally flowing, agency-filled talk in Two or Three Things I Know About Her. This work of filmic art has an alchemical (and, I would even say, magical) transformative power: to open a field of possibility for more creative, and confidant, ways of engaging verbally with the world. Especially if we realize, and appreciate, the aesthetic dimension of our articulations in particular if viewed through a Godardian lens however long and looping, short and fragmented, or strangely surreal our verbal offering might be: since all three of these conversational categories are given their full artistic due in this film.


Summoning imagination, we might pretend there's a movie camera hidden behind the bush or in the café (perhaps manned by Godard himself) the next time we have the urge to reach out and say something to our fellow alienated human: even if it sounds a little bit crazy. Perhaps we'll be nudged closer to conversational action if, at this moment of fruitful potentiality, we recall the famous cosmic coffee cup scene. Evoking the birth of the universe in the magical image of cream swirling and bubbling as it dissolves into a rich brew of steaming, dark brown coffee, Godard's discourse intervention reminds us that as science advances and distant galaxies are at our doorstep, my brother and sister are far away.


Since Godard has done the work of naming the problem of human isolation so beautifully herein one of the most powerfully aesthetic scenes in all of cinema now it's our turn, if inspired and aroused to action, to help repair this problem. So, if we decide to go for it, we ought to let our spoken essay fly, be it as short as a poem, or as long as a treatise. At the very least, we should get our first drafts off the launching pad. We can always revise them later, as they emerge organically, an artistic pas de deux between us and our partner in talk, a piece of spontaneous, improvised social theatre: just like Robert and the woman in the café. Reaching for courage, and rejecting the limited ways we were taught to use language in school, we might dare to be our own auteur: of conversation, yes, but also of community building, democracy strengthening, and human connection.

This might be a fertile moment for us to begin, as we are always beginning again, freshly and anew, like the bracing air following a spring rain the essay of our life. Applying this same essay/ auteur theory to other aspects of our existence (such as our career, art projects, teaching projects, political work, friendships, and even romantic endeavors) we might be inspired to free ourselves, like Godard, to strike out in bold, new, radical and unexpected directions. To create our own New Waves.

Works Cited
Chomsky, N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965.
Emerson, R.W. Emerson: Selected Essays. (original publication date, 1841) New York: Penguin Classics, 1991
Greene, M. Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995
Hoberman, J. The Village Voice. New York, Feb. 2009
Lethem, J. The Disappointment Artist. New York: Vintage Press, 2005
Lopate, P. The Art of the Personal Essay. (a Teachers & Writers Collaborative book) New York: Anchor Books, 1994
Mayher, J. Uncommon Sense: Theoretical Practice in Language Education. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton? Cook Publishers, 1990
Montaigne, M. D. Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays. New York: Penguin Classics, 1993
Zeldin, T. Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives. London: The Harvill Press, 1998.

I>Two or Three Things I Know About Her
. A film by Jean Luc Godard. Rialto Pictures, 1966
Produced by Morgan Spurlock. Directed by Rob Van Alkemade. Featuring Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. Warrior Poets Releasing, LLC. 2007

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244