Movies are like food. What's perceived as good isn't the same for everyone, and it isn't even the same for each of us sampled on different days. A person don't have to give up what he or she already likes in order to discover something else. Therefore, even though I'm going to guess that you hadn't planned on this trip into French New Wave cinema when you started reading, check out this five minute clip from Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 movie Two or Three Things I Know about Her. I don't like to make it a general habit of focusing on a bit of media out of its proper context. But this scene strikes me as something representative of a much larger idea. It's also happens to be beautiful on its own merits.
I've read about this scene before, but I must sheepishly admit that this scene and the entirety of the movie from which it's excerpted has always been a yawning hole in my cinematic background. By now I'm assuming you've clicked the link and watched it. One of the things that grabbed my attention even before its famously existential coffee moment is the fabulously sculptural way Godard arranges his space. Twenty seconds into the clip we see a man and two women at a corner banquette in a Parisian cafe. The nearly perfect balance of their triangular sculpture is as much a part of the overall narrative as the individual characters themselves. Even if we know nothing about the movie, nor the stories of the characters it contains, we immediately feel a smart tension in this image, the three players each in their own worlds, all balanced spatially in the shot. The geometry of the scene tells us that each plays a role in the other's life; without one, the triangle would collapse.
Godard deftly deftly directs us to the contents of a magazine one person is reading by showing us one of the actor's eye lines-- that is, the direction the character is looking. It's too easy to poke fun at the avant-garde voiceover that immediately follows; if that's what you're doing, cool it for a second and listen again! This isn't twenty-first century irony; this is an actual idea, fresh from the moment it emerged into the culture.
The shots are tight, whether framed on the magazine pages or on the faces of the characters. The minute vibrations of the carefully handheld camera place us directly in the scene, at the table. But it's the movie's sound in cinematic collaboration with the picture that makes this special. Television would not ordinarily try something so experimental, so unrealistic. Television pretends to be real life, even if it sets its stories on distant planets or gilded cruise ships. Cinema has the freedom to think differently.
The background sound drops away, replaced by our narrator's interior monologue, whispered no less. Could we declare this the exercise of a showy young auteur, a self indulgent artistic stunt? Sure. But listen to what the narrator says and watch his characters embody the space.
"Maybe an object is what serves as a link between subjects, allowing us to live in society, to be together." We see coffee stirred in a cup, a froth of bubbles spinning on the surface like galaxies, like dancers, like flower petals in a stream. The monologue muses about objectivity and subjectivity, about finding a place for oneself in a world in motion, in relationships of all kinds. That first line, about objects serving as links between subjects, is as much about human relationships--intangible things, but still objects philosophically--as it is about the value and aesthetics of those relationships--the biggest subject in most people's lives.
"Say that the limits of language are the world's limits," it continues, "…and that when I speak, I limit the world, I finish it….But if by chance things come into focus again, it may only be with the advent of conscience. Everything will follow from there."
No wonder this man is whispering. It's challenging to discover the universe in a coffee cup, to say nothing of confronting your own mortality in a Parisian cafe.
Now look: I like a spandex superhero movie as much as the next popcorn chomper, and I'm plenty geeked about Double-Oh-Seven and a band of long-marching hobbits heading my way. But here we see a collection of washed out close ups and stirred coffee and Parisian faces and cigarette smoke and I feel my blood accelerating. Artistic invention is not always about light and color and movement. Sometimes it's about noticing the most essential details in the world right in front of us, and then taking the time to wonder about it all. Those observations take moments of focus sometimes, and any subsequent wonderment takes internal resolve. Most of us do not want to spend precious personal energies to question our place in the universe when we stir our morning cuppa joe. But there is easily as much surprise, energy, amazement, and daring romance in the keenly observed real world as there will ever be in the manufactured life of our fantasy creations.
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