The Wave Surfs Me


— Scotty Barnhart

“every event changes my daily life”
– Jean Luc-Godard narrating 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)

I once suffered as a pharmacy technician.  I was Chaplin’s factory worker in Modern Times (1936), who tightens the nuts of steel plates while loosening those of his own mind and soul.  I’d clock-in stressed out, then proceed with my own previously designated, mind and soul-loosening tasks.  I wasn’t even adequately trained to perform them.  Nonetheless, I had to perform with efficient precision.  The computers enforced this (much like Chaplin’s omnipresent President, I had my own Alpha 60 and Hal 9000): a late assignment burned red off the monitor, my performance recorded as improper, my “errors” logged forever.  These “errors” tended to materialize as grumpy, incompetent customers and drug addicted regulars exacerbated my angst.  Looking back, I probably did deposit some of my mind or soul into those vials.  Indeed, like Chaplin’s factory worker, pulled through the cogs and wheels of the Electro Steel Corp.’s Machine, the computers pulled me in.  Every shift began with printing my “credentials”—a small slip featuring a randomized barcode and my initials—to access the computers.  I was reduced to a receipt.

What led to this nightmare?  Well, I graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in English from Davis & Elkins College (a very un-nightmarish experience), but underwent a pre-mid-life crisis before graduation.  Though accepted to M.A. programs in my discipline, I decided I didn’t want to study literature professionally.  I needed to step back and re-evaluate how my interests and talents might align with a future career.  Never far from my reflections was my love for cinema.  Unlike literature, which I fell for during college, my passion for the movies had always been there.  I began to realize that I could apply to cinema the critical eye I had developed for literature during college.  Deciding to take my new pursuit more seriously, I also bought a few introductory Cinema Studies books to supplement my viewings.  After my appreciation for the discipline increased exponentially, I applied to the master’s program in Cinema Studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design . . . and was accepted!  But before moving to Savannah, I deferred enrollment so my wife could fulfill her dream of working at Walt Disney World.  With my 1997 Mercury Tracer dragging the ground, overflowing with almost all our worldly possessions, we set off like the Joads to find the American Dream.  A thousand miles later, she found it, while I found work as a pharmacy technician (refer to abovementioned job description).

Once the pharmacy proved too much, my wife and I visited SCAD; after the standard tour, I met with SCAD Cinema Studies professor Dr. Tracy Cox-Stanton.  I enthusiastically shared my story: Cinema Studies had been my avocation, but now I wanted it as my vocation.  I spoke of Alfred Hitchcock, westerns, and my misery as another pharmaceutical “brick in the wall.”  She described the program, we talked about various films, and the conversation turned to her interest in the French New Wave.  I knew of it, but hadn’t seen any of the films from the movement, which I confessed.  She recommended I start with two of the most accessible: Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless (1960).  I arrived at SCAD that fall.

I had watched The 400 Blows that summer and appreciated it viscerally, but did not understand what auteur Francois Truffaut was getting at beyond his own biography.  I was reluctant and fearful to begin a Godard.  I knew him to be precocious and his films to be avant-garde.  My professor offered encouragement: “The thing you have to remember is that these are people with ideas having fun.”  I later watched Band of Outsiders (1964).  It delighted me (again, on a visceral level) and debunked my preconceptions about Godard.  I was struck by three particularly unconventional and playful scenes: Arthur (Claude Brasseur), Franz (Sami Frey), and Odile’s (Anna Karina’s) thirty-six seconds of silence; their Madison dance; and the trio’s record-setting run through the Louvre.  I “got” part of it: Godard and his actors were having fun.  But what were the ideas?  What did Godard intend with each sequence?  These sequences alone differ from most dominant narrative cinema, with their long takes and jarring sound editing.  And the character development turns its back on the emotionally complex art house standards explored by the French Poetic Realists.  The diegesis of Band of Outsiders seems idly wasted by these vapid characters.  The narrative plays with (and almost parodies) conventional expectations of characters setting out to fill a lack.

Godard’s manipulation (‘de-mystification,’ to borrow from David Sterritt) of narrative was further discussed that fall after I enrolled in “Critical Concepts in Cinema Studies: Narratology, Aesthetics, and Auteurism.”  After explicating The Third Man (1949) as an example of dominant narrative cinema, we viewed and analyzed Godard’s Contempt (1963) in greater detail than I can relate here.  In short, we discussed how the latter exposes how the cinematic apparatus can channel ideology onto spectators.  Godard shatters the illusory effect of the apparatus by reminding spectators they’re watching a film, which enables them to think more critically about how narratives manipulate: as Band of Outsiders had with me.

Once the quarter ended, I sought out another Godard film on my radar: 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.  “Oh, that’s a tough one,” I was warned, but the little plot I knew intrigued me: a Parisian housewife occasionally prostitutes herself.  However, the film is really “about” everything but.  You see, Godard’s films are themselves like waves.  They’re mercurial and deep, and with that combination, mastery becomes unobtainable.  You can try to surf the waves, but you’re never really in control.  This perturbs the “conquistador mentality” that’s deeply ingrained in our educational system, which affirms our need to conquer the totality of our respective disciplines.  Timothy Corrigan perhaps put it best when he wrote, “As the title indicates, the film is an epistemological project about ideas and knowing, but embedded within that suggestion is the somewhat ironic awareness that modern knowledge is shaped and frustrated by fragmented and reified subjects within a landscape of acquisition, enumeration, and accumulation.”1  Briefly, the themes of 2 or 3 Things vary and mix across a thousand topics, including, but surely not limited to: the cinema as an ideological construct, exploitation (of women by men, of consumers by capitalism, of Paris by local government, of France by the United States), the rise of Paris suburbs during the mid-1960s, the shortcomings of language, the struggle between subjectivity and objectivity, the confusion between culture and consumerism, the Nuclear Age, Marxism, Vietnam, and much, much more.  On attempting to explain the narrative of 2 or 3 Things, Amy Taubin wrote in “The Whole and Its Parts,” “Better to describe 2 or 3 Things as a machine that morphs the colliding meanings of words and objects with dazzling speed, and generates an astonishing array of metaphors, paradoxes, digressions, and, above all, dialectical relationships, between idea and action, word and image, sound and picture, interior and exterior, microcosm and macrocosm.”2  In fact, I must confess to understanding perhaps less than ten percent of the subtext of 2 or 3 Things.  But it remains arguably my favorite Godard film, possibly for that reason.

You see, unlike my suffering as a pharmacy technician, there’s a pleasure derived from the rigor of cinema studies, and from my new tasks as a cinema studies graduate student.  There’s a pleasure in ambiguity.  Rather than robotically counting pills into a bottle, spending a full evening unloading deliveries, or . . . cleaning, I now devote my time to reflecting on and writing about cinema history, theory, and criticism.  I can express myself as an individual.  And furthermore (unlike the pharmacy), graduate school properly trains me for my new vocation.  Without my own Alpha 60 or Hal 9000 monitoring the efficiency and precision of my productivity, I can cautiously and properly conduct my research: something Godard addresses in 2 or 3 Things.

In conjunction with Contempt, our class read V.F. Perkins’ essay “Moments of Choice,” which partly argues that directors prosper through their exploitation of seemingly insignificant details.3  The essay relates to what I just spoke of, and prepared me for 2 or 3 Things, which I’ve come to think of as Godard’s meditation on choosing.  2 or 3 Things opens with Godard’s primary color palette: red, white, and blue (signifying the French Flag, itself signifying French identity and loyalty, one of his formal preoccupations).  We meet the first of the title’s three “hers”: Paris.  Grounding his film in its historical present, Godard narrates (whispering), “On August 19, a decree concerning the organization of state services in the Paris region was officially published.  Two days later, the government appointed Paul Delouvrier prefect of the Paris region, which, as the official release claimed, now enjoyed specific new infrastructures.”  From these opening moments, I initiated an inquisition similar to my months earlier encounter with Band of Outsiders:  Why does Godard whisper?  Why does he record construction outfits?  What’s this about Paris?  Knowing what I did of Godard and the film, hypotheses emerged.  He’s comparing Paris to a prostitute.  “She” (Paris) is whored out by her pimp, the city’s technocrats.  His whispering (a moment of choice) draws the audience in and heightens their senses.  Hollywood films nowadays consistently feature either the slow, comforting drawl of Morgan Freeman, or Kenneth Branagh’s perfect elocution; both allow for effortless comprehension of every syllable.  Godard, however, makes the audience work for his narration.  As a narrator, he himself becomes a character, open to scrutiny, vastly contrasted against the traditional “voice of God.”

Godard exposes his artistic choices to the audience as we meet the second “her”:  “She is Marina Vlady.  She is an actress.  She’s wearing a midnight-blue sweater with two yellow stripes.  She is Russian origin.  She has dark chestnut or light brown hair.  I’m not sure which . . . She turns her head to the right, but that means nothing.”  And the third “her,” the protagonist: “She is Juliette Janson.  She lives here.  She’s wearing a midnight-blue sweater with two yellow stripes.  She has dark chestnut or light brown hair.  I’m not sure which.  She’s of Russian origin.”  Perhaps through educating the audience about his moments of choice, Godard additionally asks us to realize our own daily, domestic moments of choice.  To serve as my own example, I chose to study cinema, move to Florida, work at a pharmacy, attend SCAD, and write this essay for The Cine-Files.  I chose to watch The 400 Blows, Band of Outsiders, and 2 or 3 Things.  I’ve since chosen to watch Breathless, Shoot the Piano Player, Cleo from 5 to 7, and Alphaville, among others.  Through my choices, the French New Wave has framed my journey from prospective student, to student editor of this issue of The Cine-Files; but what of those indistinguishable, seemingly insignificant moments I’m unaware of?  I suppose that’s life: an infinite series of moments of choice.  Godard asks that we reject Sartrean “bad faith” by at least trying to acknowledge and assume responsibility for these choices.  He asks that we not passively exist as cogs and wheels, barcodes, or part-time prostitutes who need a few extra bucks for that odd commodity.  There’s great significance in even the most seemingly insignificant moments or intersections of our lives.

For example, later in the film, Godard devotes a scene to exploring a single minute.  He narrates, “This is how Juliette, at 3:37 p.m., looks at the pages of this object, which, in journalistic parlance, is called a magazine.  And this is how, some 150 frames later, another young woman, her fellow creature, her sister, sees the same object.  What is the truth?  In full-face or in profile?”  He’s again asking which perspective or angle most ideally captures the fabula.  He will later narrate how “Juliette and Marianne came to a garage where Juliette’s husband works,” then show an array of perspectives of Juliette and Marianne in the former’s car at her husband’s garage:  “Sense and nonsense.  How do you describe exactly what happened?  Sure, there’s Juliette, her husband, the garage.  But are these the right images and words to use?  Aren’t there other possibilities?  Am I speaking too loud?  Am I too close or too far?  For example, there is foliage, and though Juliette is no Faulkner heroine, couldn’t it be as dramatically valid as the foliage in Wild Palms?”  Here he most obviously and outright tells the audience his dilemma.  He again informs us that despite whatever “realism” effect, films are constructs, much in the same way our lives are constructs, determined through our own moments of choice.

An heir to Brecht, Godard suggests we should enjoy both the cinema and our lives, but shouldn’t just passively accept either.  We should actively participate and engage (“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said all those years ago).  Indeed, looking back on these last few years of my life, at how I’ve constructed it, I surely see my life as less like Modern Times and more like one of Godard’s cinematic essays.  I’m no longer the 21st Century version of Chaplin’s factory worker; instead, I’m a whispering, questioning voice, working to make sense of the world and to better define my own place in it.

Posted on May 28, 2012

1 Timothy Corrigan, “The Essay Film as a Cinema of Ideas,” in Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories, eds. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (New York: Oxford UP, 2010), 221.

2 Amy Taubin, “The Whole and Its Parts,” The Criterion Collection, last modified July 21, 2009,

3 V.F. Perkins, “Moments of Choice,” Rouge 9 (2006): (accessed April 29, 2012).

Scotty Barnhart was born and raised in Elkins, West Virginia.  He received his BA in English from Davis & Elkins College in 2009, and is currently completing his first year in the MA program in Cinema Studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is the Graduate Assistant for the Cinema Studies department, the Student Editor of the departmental blog, and served as Student Editor for Vol. 2 of The Cine-Files.