Disjecta membra: Goodbye to Language

It begins with a color-splattered scene from a war movie, followed by a cut to Jean Arthur (still looking miscast) in Only Angels Have Wings. Allusion, repetition, disjunction — it must be a Jean-Luc Godard film. With his fetish for the striking color abetted by 3-D technology that’s impossible to duplicate at home, Goodbye to Language is the most ravishing looking movie of 2014 and probably 2015. Even less tethered to narrative than his projects of the last quarter century, Goodbye to Language also says goodbye to anything resembling a coherent philosophy, unless the director’s fascination with entropy counts and it might. His ideas you can fit on the head of a pin, Orson Welles once said. But that’s taking him too seriously. For Godard, the glamor of ideas attracts him.

Although the film divides into “Nature” and “Metaphor” sections, Godard’s interest in superimposition means that both parts bleed into each other. There’s an infidelity, conducted in hotel rooms with the TV on and by a couple wearing cool matching fedoras because why not. At a street fair the curious hold copies of m>The Possessed, Levinas, and Ezra Pound’s treatise on usury (an exampmle of that Godard verisimilitude: book carts are the only places I’ve seen that misbegotten but fascinating book). Discussions about Hitler and the French civil code, formed at the height of the Terror in 1793, follow. “The law that denies its own violence cheats,” says the older man involved in the tryst. When the husband threaten to shoot the lover in a public space, Godard as hinted superimposes lover and husband. Sound will disappear. A mutt, a marvelous camera object, dominate the last third of this seventy-minute film.

Two viewings later Goodbye to Language looks like poppycock to me, but it’s Godard’s poppycock, and his determination to force the audience to imagine connections between the disjecta membra of his references and images is still charming and worth more viewings. If you watched Film Socialisme, Notre Musique, In Praise of Love, and his nineties films you’ve learned to get off on his hijinks. I’m aware, however, that Goodbye to Language is the sort of movie whose methods, failings, and failure to appreciate the methods amount to massive concession to the director — honor thy failure as thine hidden intention, said one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies flashcards. Godard’s a smart guy who deserves smart exegesis. Because he likes allusions, I’ve got one too. Here’s what Geoffrey O’Brien said last fall:

Right at the beginning, Godard saw movies for what they were—a visionary apparatus for transforming and reexamining reality that had been coopted by corporations and turned into a commodified system of signs, a drug, a soma made up of glamour, narrative tension and placating resolutions. That’s what a mainstream movie functionally was: a formulaic emotional machine built toward a reassuring end. So like any good Brechtian, he began, in Breathless (1960), by adopting a rote genre plot-line and then for all orthodox intents and purposes ruining it, disrupting the diegesis and creating a self-conscious “movie-movie” world that was as charmingly realistic as it was obviously fake. Godard knew right away that the capitalistic form of movies—the shape of their narratives, always resolving and satisfying—was a lie. This transcendent lantern-light was being defined, by profit, as being an enveloping cataract of reassuring answers, like a bullshit religion. So, he decided his movies would not be answers, but questions. Experiments.

Have at it.

Goodbye to Language is available on demand.

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