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Goodbye Language, Hello Communication: Jean-Luc Godard and Ryan Trecartin Find a Lingua Franca Beyond Words

Goodbye Language, Hello Communication: Jean-Luc Godard and Ryan Trecartin Find a Lingua Franca Beyond Words

“I think it’s a quote, but now to me quotes and myself are almost the same.” — Jean-Luc Godard responding to a question about quotations in “JLG/JLG.”

I try to explore language as something that extends into every aspect of a presentation. And so when a character has a sentence, the sentence has position, body language, a palette of accents and face all being used equally to read meaning. – Ryan Trecartin

“With language, something’s happening,” a woman says to a man late in the Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language.” The two fill an under-lit shot. The camera follows the man’s movements, tracking laterally with him. Here, something startling occurs. There’s a shot of the man, but also an overlaid image of the woman. The mere movement of the camera creates a superimposition in which 3D planes converge. Language precedes vision. Language accompanies it. Language surrounds it. So why is Godard saying farewell?

It’s fitting that Godard’s associative aesthetic generates associative thinking. The title suggests that Godard’s working in an elegiac mode. Yet the film is impishly playful, such as making a sight gag out of a sexual position and using scatological sounds. 

Godard has been saying goodbye for years now. In interviews, he talks about cinemas multiple deaths. His films are a series of deaths and re-births. “Numéro deux” is his second first film and first use of video. “Sauve qui peut (la vie)” is Godard’s self-proclaimed second film. The little-seen short, “Adieu au TNS,” is his farewell to the National Theater of Strasbourg. Love is dead in “Éloge de l’amour.”

In French, “langage” is the (human) ability to communicate in different languages. It has a different meaning then the word, “langue,” which is the “tongue” one speaks in — a type of language. Perhaps Godard is saying farewell to the conventions of (narrative) cinema, as we know it: a 2D story with characters (“I hate characters,” one figure says in the film). 

One thing is for certain: Godard is not leaving words. He loves them too much: their enunciation, typography, and especially as they are used in different mediums. In Goodbye, as with many of Godard’s (post-80’s) work, figures recite text. They do not engage in dialogue. If there’s any dialogue at all, it’s with the citations, the quotes are in conversation with each other. Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Claude Monet, and A.E. van Vogt all make appearances. A conversation is too neat though. Rather, Godard montages the quotes, seeing what comes out of the clash between the bits and pieces of passages. 

Godard’s emphasis on (alternative) forms of communication, to my mind, draws comparisons with Ryan Trecartin’s videos. These are two artists who couldn’t be more different in terms of aesthetic, age, and world-view. But their work intersects when it comes to communication, and the cutting-up and re-assembling of it. 

If words in a Godard film are a collage of references, words in a Trecartin video are one component of an ever-shifting expression of one’s identity. If Godard hates characters, Trecartin embraces them. In his Any Ever series, which consists of two parts, “Re’Search Wait’S” (four videos) and “Trill-ogy Comp” (three videos), there’s a bounty of them. Global Korea leads a horde of giggling Koreas (Argentina Korea, Israel Korea, USA Korea, etc.). There’s a character, Twi-Key, whose body is a black screen that projects logos, messages, even other characters. And another one, Brita Ceader, evaporates by the end of the series.


The Re’Search (Re’Search Wait’S), 2009-2010 from Ryan Trecartin on Vimeo.

These characters, and more, want to be in front of a camera. They dance. They sing. They thrash and break things. But, above all, they talk about themselves in a mash-up of corporate speech, tech. jargon, and Valleyspeak. “I love learning about myself through other people’s products,” says one character. “I’m finally just an as if. Sense me now,” says another. “Um, I decided to institutionalize my, um, my systematic yes,” says a third. Katie Kitamura and Hari Kunzru characterize these attention-grabbing figures quite nicely: “These characters are signs piled on signs.” 

An example of such a palimpsest, especially as it relates to words, occurs in the first video of the Re’Search Wait’S series, Ready. One of the characters, J.J. Wait, wants to quit his job because the company overworks him, and he never receives any benefits, such as sleeping with the boss. He says this while, appearing and disappearing on the screen in white, are his words, which bastardizes dirty talk with corporate lingo. Often in Trecartin’s videos the camera pushes-in (more like punches-in), but in this moment, it slowly crawls forward, moving closer and closer to J.J.’s face, which is now covered by a yellow lucha libre mask. 

The on-screen text is corrupt, convulsive, unclean. As the camera moves in, the text gets bigger and bigger so that only a single word appears: “Then.” I suspect Godard would appreciate this brief moment. Both Trecartin and Godard love, at times, not so much the meaning of words, but their typography, their look, the way they sound, words with so much ambiguity that they may not have any meaning at all. Or, they may have many meanings.

Trecartin works in the present. He extracts from the here and now, or re-works the past to make it the present. A humorous example happens in “Roamie View: History Enhancement.” J.J. lives in a room that is part office and part art gallery. On the walls he prints out sheets of the US Constitution. For every time “people” and “humanity” appear, he wants them replaced with “situation” (a Trecartin-ian word if ever there was one). He wants the word “God,” replaced with “the Internet.” “Constitution 2.0” should play over a house beat.

Such a moment marks Trecartin’s work as specifically American. Godard though is more international, more cosmopolitan, drawing from the past of art and science to create a youthful film, to re-organize language in general and cinematic language in particular. He creates something that is called “Goodbye to Language.”

This article was produced as part of the New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

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