by Marc Olmsted
My best laid plans couldn’t seem to catch a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language in 3D. But see it I did, my odyssey to his odyssey.
For the most part, little can get me to the big screen 3D blockbusters anymore, and if I do see them on DVD or cable, it hardly seems to matter whether a manhole cover or a piece of space debris looks like it might fly off the screen into my eye. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is the only film that seemed to actually use 3D effectively in recent memory, but it served more as a layer than an actual added dimension. Even Gasper Noe’s Love, certainly worth seeing but the least interesting of his four features, didn’t seem to lose much in 2D, though I would certainly have seen it in 3D if possible. One could tell that Noe had meticulously composed proscenium frames to give depth and some sort of virtual reality, but even his jokey 3D schlock-homage of a penis spurting jizz up to the lens was still ultimately as uninteresting as Andre De Toth’s 1953 House of Wax paddle ball “comin’ atcha” (though I doubt De Toth was interested either, a fine director of films like Crime Wave and Day of the Outlaw). Still, Noe’s 3D jizz was a post-modern pun, referencing the one expectation that 3D itself has always generated: you can almost touch it.
It was clear to me that Godard used 3D in Goodbye to Language only because some sort of virtual immersion was not possible yet. He was pushing film as far as he could, making his efforts known by tweaking video footage into lurid over-saturation, almost suggesting he shared Noe’s interest in DMT psychedelia (though I’m sure Godard finds such matters even more retro nostalgia than 3D itself ). Thus Godard’s use of 3D, much like his feelings about Hollywood, is a double-edged sword. 3D’s surprising recent staying power is as seemingly unshakeable as a smart phone’s regurgitation of the latest selfie. So Godard recognizes that image may be slowly replacing language in a literary or narrative sense. In some ways the conclusion mirrors Jarmusch’s fears of literary death in Only Lovers Left Alive. But Godard suggests more than that. If language is built on concept, image is based on a simpler, earlier mental cognition, a substrata of raw perception. It is less a dumbing down as a deconstructing back.
Does Godard say goodbye to language out of his own sense of mortality, now in his mid-80s? Yes, but as with all things Godard, it is also a cultural goodbye. Where do we go from here? Still showing himself to be the old hetero horndog, he manages to get attractive women to walk around naked. It is another goodbye. But it also suggests the inevitable hello that is constantly first and foremost in any virtual reality speculation: sex. What language would be needed then? Better off with a grunt or a groan for a name, as Brando said in Last Tango in Paris.
Yes, it all interconnects. I managed to find a friend’s lover who had a 3D TV, but then learned after I bought the 3D blu-ray of Goodbye to Language that I would also need to get a 3D blu-ray player. Ordinary blu-ray players wouldn’t work. The lover watched 3D “on demand,” he didn’t use a dvd player at all.
The man obsessed. I bought a cheap used 3D blu-ray player. $45 on ebay from someone who’s idea of a best offer was to come down a dollar. Not affordable reality to an old bum like me. How Gibsonesque. I’d try to resell it anyway…
I revisited my friend’s lover, and in my space-time journey, they had recently married. I was the 4-D Man. I unpacked the player only to find it was broken. The tray opened and closed like a mad cuckoo clock.
Bummed, but not broken myself, I decided I’d take the 3D DVD to Best Buy and ask for a demo. It took a number of people to make it happen. It was a capsule version of my own experience – no, the regular blu-ray player wouldn’t play it etc. I observed the weird caste system, the lowest in blue, the braniacs in black that flitted about like the Brahmin caste, the middlemen in ties. A strange pair of women in identical white shirts and black pencil skirts, at least one of them with a zipper up the side, carried clipboards and spoke in what sounded like Russian. They each had long straight hair and pale vampiric complexions. They were striking, but had no confidence in their appearances, as their wounded looks betrayed. They seemed the corporate version of sex traffic.
When the film finally came on, I stood with the employees, a Latino in tie and the hipster black with New Wave dreads standing straight up. The hipster was in blue, but his sharpness had already promoted him into being part of things. He knew at least as much as the salesman. (I doubt the pay was compensatory.) At first both were puzzled by the cryptic statements flashing by, the black cat asking me to explain. I really couldn’t, though I wore my Burroughs t-shirt with “Language is a Virus from Outer Space.” That seemed explanation enough. What was the biggest surprise is when Godard cut from his found footage and oversaturated video to a simple straightforward narrative around a book stall. “Holy shit!” said the black hipster. “Language,” the Latino warned. Language, indeed. A table from the screen poked into our laps. Godard repeated a number of ordinary camera set-ups that stretched out at us “This is more 3D than any Hollywood blockbuster!” the Latino salesman enthused. A tired, older, fat white man in tie came over to see what the shenanigans were about. He didn’t seem to know who Godard was. None of them did. He went away. The display screen would periodically revert into a programmed movie from Best Buy. The Latino salesman had to override it. There was no canceling it. But Goodbye to Language was temporarily jamming the signals. Towers, open fire! I watched for as long as I was allowed, probably 15 minutes. It was enough to completely reverse my opinion of what I thought the film was. Meanwhile, the last images I got to see were newsreels of Hitler. “Hitler invented nothing new.” said the female narrator. Neither has Trump. I nodded at the hipster grimly. I left, grateful we didn’t get to the sex scenes. That would not have gone over in Best Buy.
Finally, my writer wife Suzi Kaplan Olmsted called in a favor to her brother. Tony. Tony Kaplan had received an M.A. in Film from Stanford and now shot the live interviews for DVD extras on Pixar’s animated films. He made very good money for this. I had an M.A. in Film from San Francisco State University and the most film-related money I received this year was selling my one-sheet of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (a film Stan Brakhage recommended, by the way). The poster didn’t quite pay the rent that month. But neither Tony nor I wished to change places.
Pixar DID have a big 3-D blu-ray screening room.
We came on the lot of Pixar after 6pm, a gated village that would undoubtedly mirror the economic future of the U.S. Keep out. We showed our IDs and signed non-disclosure agreements. (So I won’t be able to tell you about that Behind the Green Door reboot with dinosaurs.)
We met Tony at the Steve Jobs building and moved on the screening room.
At last! A huge screen in 3D! Godard’s anti-virus now slowly unfolded within Pixar. Could Pixar survive? Again, I was astounded at the choices Godard had made, how the most obvious images were the very ones he had been most interested in – these were the breathtakingly “normal” shots that had elicited “Holy shit!” in Best Buy. By “obvious,” I mean that Godard chose to use 3D to actually reproduce some sort of ordinary reality. In their success, they were both striking and a comment on what 3D usually sought to do – which was to somehow threaten you with its invasiveness. Godard never does this. Instead, he repeatedly offers tableaus you can step into. To a certain degree (and guessing what it looked like in 3D), this is what Noe seemed to have tried to do at times with Love, a film that already reminded me of some of Godard’s earlier ruminations on the sexes.
I also realized there were actually two different actresses that looking very much the same with the even similar brunette haircuts. On the big screen, one with s prominent cleft-palate scar was a comment itself, both on language and conforming beauty. This same actress was shown in two different lightings within the same room, one in which her legs seemed streaked with veins, perhaps hairy, and in another lighting, smooth like alabaster. In fact, the second viewing of Goodbye to Language in 3D offered so many layers, some of them actual science fiction (a quote from Clifford D. Simak and A.E. Vogt’s Null-A cover prominently in close-up) that it seemed impossible to take in everything, the second viewing suggested that multiple viewings would have to be necessary, and even more rewardingly, a transcript of what was being said. The titles were explicit: 1 – Nature, 2- Metaphor, 2-D, 3-D. AH Dieux. OH Language. “The image murders the present,” a voice said.
There is, in fact some sort of deconstructed violence with a gun and blood that suggests previews to a Sam Fuller film, particularly Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (perhaps Sam’s wiggiest). Oh yes, and Mary Shelly writing Frankenstein in period clothes, while poet Shelly brandishes a cane (in fact the twenty-somethings we saw at the film’s beginning, the real seers of tech) Meanwhile, in the “future,” a woman in voice over says she is going to see a screening of Frankenstein, and Metropolis is one of the films that plays on the big screen of the TV that’s always on in a flat we return to again and again.
Also previously overlooked in importance, a delightfully even-tempered mutt takes on the Godardian equivalent of Bresson’s donkey in Au Hasard Balthazar (don’t worry, this animal gets off easy, and gets some of the best laughs). The dog seems the most prepared for a future that Godard admits he has no idea about. An unseen male repeats, “I am at your command.” I wanna be your dog. Goodbye to Language IS funny, as Godard himself is. There is the scatalogical humor of discussing existentialism with very audible pooping and farting. I thought of All the Way, the recent HBO movie on LBJ that would not allow the same noises to be heard out of Bryan Cranston’s ass sitting on the toilet.
And finis. I had really enjoyed this second viewing, a movie I almost immediately wanted to see again. [I later allowed myself to read David Bordwell’s essay on the film after I completed everything above – Bordwell says there are two COUPLES – I couldn’t tell the male actors apart, natch, nor could my wife, who said later “if language is stripped from image, does it really matter who we are?” Bordwell also recorded the dog’s name: Roxy, a rescue mutt. Was this a reference to the generic movie theater name?]
Tony Kaplan, on the other hand, had this to say, beginning by holding his middle finger to the now-blank screen.
“Fuck you, Godard!”
Further: “Absolute psychobabble drivel.” “Amatuerish.” “The least erotic nudity I have ever seen.” “Commentary on what it means to be an art film. If you get the joke, the joke’s on you.” Tony thought this last statement came from Derrida. Or maybe Foucault. Let me know if you find it. I couldn’t. But Googling Derrida and Foucault is further proof on interconnection. The movie doesn’t end. We star in it.
Tony posited defiantly, “What would you think if this was shown without you knowing it was Godard?” I thought about that. I decided that I’d think, “this is a lot like a Godard movie.”