Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Unseen Speaker

There is an image in many of Godard’s films where the face of the speaker is in some way obscured. This is different than narration where the audience expects never to see the speaker. It is more similar to Godard’s method of talking through an eyepiece and having the actor repeat what he says; though we see the actor’s image transmit the dialogue, it originates from an unseen speaker. Even if the speaker is not unseen, his/her face is often covered. I am trying to understand the role and impact of the unseen or obscured speaker in three ways, 1) a method used by Godard to demonstrate, as Douglas Morrey says in Jean-Luc Godard, “the violence which accompanies the process of learning.”(pg.68) 2) the attempt, as Godard says in Godard on Godard, to show how a person sees “what surrounds him.” (pg 241) and 3) the Brechtian alienation effect as described in Bernard Dort’s “Towards a Brechtian Criticism of Cinema.”
The first idea is from Morrey and I take it to mean that Godard’s use of an unseen speaker can be understood as a device which explores the idea of learning and knowledge by not giving the audience an image he/she can relate to within the given context or is expecting at all.
Rather than present us with images, sounds and ideas that can be immediately recognized and assimilated to our pre-existing categories of understanding Godard forces us to confront the difficulty of making sense of the world, the violence which accompanies the process of learning. Often Godard will cut into an image or a sound that is not instantly recognizable and presents us with a pure, inassimilable difference.

The above image from 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her can be an example of the first theory. The faces of the speakers covered and replaced by travel bags with logos on them achieve the end of difference and chaos in understanding what is happening.  
In the second idea, Godard’s own analysis from Godard on Godard (pg. 239-41) refers to his strategy for creating 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her:
I cannot avoid the fact that all things exist both from the inside and the outside. This can be demonstrated by filming a house from the outside, then from the inside, as though we were entering inside a cube, an object. The same goes for a human being, whose face is generally seen from the outside. But how does this person himself see what surrounds him? I mean, how does he physically experience his relationship with other people and with the world?
In Weekend, two laborers stop to eat sandwiches. The face of the actual speaker is replaced with the face of a different man eating a sandwich. The speaker is not seen as he gives a lengthy speech about war and injustice; the audience only sees the face of a different man eating a sandwich. (To see this scene, click on the link below.)
This seems to exemplify Godard’s desire to show how humans physically experience seeing the world around them. When we talk, we do not see ourselves talking; we see the person we are talking to, even if he is eating a sandwich.
The third idea is from Brecht as Dort describes his alienation effect as that which “allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar.” (pg. 238) And although Dort is skeptical of this working in the world of cinema (as opposed to theater), Godard seems to use this very method in La Chinoise, most obviously in the scene depicted below. (Jean-Pierre Leaud explains his idea of Brechtian acting as demonstrated by a Chinese protester.)

These three ideas may intersect and there may be more or better examples than the ones I give above. However, I hope that this explanation of the unseen or covered speaker begins to address an image that has been repeated and expanded on in many Godard films.


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