Wherein bon vivant Ben Livant and I (Dan Jardine) speak our minds about movies, mostly.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Welcome to Godard 101, an unofficial and unaffiliated online undergraduate seminar where Ben and I take on the great man and his works, doing our best to understand how Jean-Luc got from there to here. First up, Ben and I took a look at Breathless, the film that, along with Francois Truffault's 400 Blows, blew the roof off the joint back in 1960, kicking off the Nouvelle Vague and recreating cinema. Pretty heady shit. Then, we reviewed A Woman is a Woman, which you can find here. This was followed with an examination ofTo Live Her Life, Contempt, The Little Soldier and Band of Outsiders.
Up today: Lemmy Caution you, it is our future. Turns out, it's murder, baby.
Alphaville (France, 1965, Jean-Luc Godard)
Caw! Caw! That's the sound of the crow I'm eating. How nice to have it feed to me by this film in particular. Now I can sleep at night knowing that I personally have not dreamt any of the scenes of Alphaville. Of course, I understood nothing of the film when I was much too young to even be watching it and all these years I've rememberd nothing about the film... except the vibe, which is everything - so all these years I've remembered everything about the film perfectly. Ha! But let me get back to ingesting that jackdaw.
The violence in Alphaville works. It is conducted in the typical Godard manner of cardboard cut-out reflexive assertions and limp rag-doll repercussions. But this time the hostility is genuine and the stakes high. Interestingly enough, a number of persons are dispatched without individual agony and this absence of visceral effect would have sounded a false note if these persons were not anonymous agents of the state, surveillance drones of the machine. The passionlessness of the protagonist assassin is just as legitimate given his Noir gum shoe as spy status. It's all cold as ice. But there is violence in the violence, if you know what I mean.
For the entire atmosphere is absolute dystopia, totalitarian technocracy, a black box of Kafka on a tight budget. This is conditioning all of the action and giving it the requisite gravitas. Alphaville is a staggeringly good work for the way it achieves a science fiction premise and setting without any special affects or futuristic neologisms. All of the setting for the film is prosaically contemporary, regular stuff at the time. If anything, some of the Sam Spade stylings are a throwback. George Orwell meant 1948 when he titled his book 1984. Godard paints a terrifying picture of the future entirely with 1965 paint. So, yeah, we get the point. The future is now. So be afraid today, folks. Be goddamn scared you "One Dimensional Man" (Marcuse) sitting in the audience; capitalist, communist, robotic slave to the system either way.
But wait ladies and gentlemen. The finish is so upbeat, it's positively corny. Like Logan's Run and Blade Runner years later, the guy gets the girl in Alphaville and they do get the hell out of Dodge. The assassin completes the various jobs making up his mission, the outlander civilization from whence he came and now returns holds the promise of truly human existence. The social unit from Alphaville, Number 508, is rescued, instructed as was Lot's Wife to not look back and unlike that stupid citizen escaping Sodemm she doesn't. Instead, she begins to become an individual person. Slowly shedding the mind-control, she is like a baby finding her own words for the first time. To the man who is saving her she says: "I love you."
For all of this does Godard have his tongue firmly planted in his cheek? I think not. At least I hope not. I want to give the guy credit for holding out some hope. Not because it's hope he's holding out. Because he's holding out something. Like I said in my last GODARD 101 journal entry, it's not that I can't abide the pessimism or even cynicism in his art. It has been his refusal so far to respond to this in any sort of substantive way that I objected to before. I have felt that he hides behind the superficiality of cinematic manipulations that enable him to escape the responsibility of taking a stand of any kind. For all of his overt presence in the rhetoric of his films, he is semantically absent.
Not in Alphaville, however. The thing is in-the-trenches romantic. Shucks, the computer-king running the show with ultra-logic is defeated by... poetry; that's right, a verse riddle that effectively causes the electronic brain to fry it's own circuits and in the process exterminate all the hollow men trapped in town. Hot blood beats cold reason - so there! Godard wanted to call the film "Tarzan vs. IBM" (Wiki), can you dig it?
Listen, the faceless evil coming off the machine in the film is outa sight. Honestly, Alphaville deserves to be put in the company of Lang's Metropolis for this alone. Godard cobbles together a Matrix bad buy out of a shoe string and scotch tape - some lights and rotar blades, actually - and gets a seriously sinister "Wizard of Oz" up and running in a big way. The real stroke of genius is to have the machine's dialogue performed by some fellow with an artificial voice box installed to replace his cancer-ruined larynx. Downright disturbing.
The Dr. Frankenstein who built the monter computer is called "Nosferatu." Go for it Jean-Luc. Alphaville is a sci-fi horror film with a happy ending. The horror, 20th Century systematic, so drips off the screen, the implausibility of the kind-hearted conclusion we can forgive. No worries that the police apparatus in Alphaville is lethargic and impotent. It's for a good cause.
I've taken a little closer look at this review than I have past reviews, mainly because I don't want spend half of my review covering the same material that you do. I like your analysis very much, and we agree that this is a highly effective Orwellian/Kafka-esque nightmare. We also agree that the film's ending is not ironic. Like you, I believe that Godard is giving a tip of his romantic hat to the audience. There may be a small irreverent wink there, but he is not taking refuge behind irony. To do so would be to threaten the entire film with collapse, and such a move would be a betrayal of the healing powers of poesy and love, which he has been trumpeting throughout the film. I do have a few complaints about narrative pacing and poorly staged action sequences, but these are minor compared to the film's many examples of greatness.
Alphaville works because Godard marries form and content in a way that signals significant growth as a filmmaker. He blends the conventions of the sci fi and film noir genres (leaning far more heavily on the latter than the former) to the purposes of this dystopian tale, and in the process creates an Orwellian cautionary tale that, while a little creaky around the edges, has some real power.
The following laundry list of the noir conventions that Godard employs in Alphaville is representative and not exhaustive:
*gravelly voice over narration (both Lemmy and more distinctly Alpha 60)
*men in trench coats and fedoras, carrying guns
*shot in grainy black and white
*shot mostly at night, or in shadowy locales (his incredibly effective use of a naked light bulb, swinging pendulum-like in one memorable stairway scene is positively Wellesian in its brilliance)
*shot in an urban environment
*a "moody" score (Paul Misraki's emphatically noir-ian score is alternatively effective and amusing, sometimes supporting the narrative, and other times acting as a comic counterpoint)
*femme fatales abound (all those seductresses, third class, but also Natasha--a great name for a femme fatale in the Cold War era)
*an isolated, hard bitten hero (played very convincingly by Eddie Constantine. Now THAT'S the name of a noir hero. Movie trivia moment: Constantine played Lemmy Caution in over a dozen films, including a reprise with Godard inGermany Year Ninety Nine Zero.)
*an antagonist who not only represents "The Man" he IS "The Man" while not actually being A man.
*an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, entropy and decay (which Godard turns on its head with his unexpectedly happy ending.)
When Godard does move away from the conventions of the noir genre, he does so usually to pay the fleeting homage to the futuristic sci fi roots of the story, with the most obvious of these concessions being the film's antagonist, the all seeing, all controlling super computer named Alpha 60. Generally speaking, however, it is clear that Godard is not that interested in the sci fi aspect of the story, choosing as he does to ignore the story's futuristic elements. Lemmy rides in a 60s Ford Galaxy (indeed, everyone drives mid-60s model cars) the guns are clearly weapons are contemporary, while the few glimpses we get of the mighty computer technology is of this era as well. Certainly, this could signal the fiscal restrictions Godard was under as he shot the film. However, I think it also plays into the director's hands thematically, for--as you put it in your review--in Godard view, the future is now. By utilizing contemporary Parisian architecture and referencing modern art (particularly poetry), Godard is letting us know that he's not going to dress this up in futuristic garb; we cannot be complacent, and drift away on some (filmsy) cloud of cinematic illusion, because this shit is doing down NOW. What appears futuristic (the tranquilized citizenry, the byzantine bureaucracy, the intrusive technology) is kept relevant at least in part by this refusal to be, well, filmsy.
And for every flash forward to the present, there is a glimpse at the not so distant past. In one of many Orwellian manuevres (others include mind/emotion control through the alteration and obliteration of language), Godard consistently refers to ideas and images that characterize the Third Reich. The numbered tattoos of the citizens, the clinically cold poolside executions, as well as Lemmy and Alpha 60s conversations about eugenics are examples of such glimpses into the recent past. Indeed, the film's philosophical musings about love, poetry, logic and eugenics are reminders that we are in a Godard's world, which is a place that is more interested in Orwell than Asimov. Further, the creator of Alpha 60 is Professor von Braun (probably a reference to Wernher Von Braun was a scientist and significant player in the development of rocket technology for the Nazis who ended up going to work for NASA), who later we learn changed his name from Nosferatu, a (German) blood sucking monster of considerable cinematic fame.
Clearly, Godard knows and loves his noir, as Alphaville has atmosphere oozing out of every pore. Godard also keeps us off balance, tossing in the unexpected (seemingly random acts of violence) and the horrific (executions are held in a large indoor pool with synchronized swimming female assassins), while filming most of the picture in the murky grayness of the urban night. However, the narrative does occasionally clomp along in lead boots as Godard moves us from location to location. And while I concur that the depiction of violence is more convincing in Alphaville than it has been in most of Godard's films, there is still a clunkiness in his execution (heh) of the action sequences that I find at times a little distracting.
Still and all, despite these minor quibbles, Alphaville is a dark and disturbing dystopic vision. And while their careers both started strongly, when you consider how much better this film is that Francois Truffault's awkward and unconvincing attempt to cover similar territory at the same time in his adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451,it is easy to see why Godard became the more significant filmmaker.
Here I come with ho hum.
I like everything you say. And I do think that between the two of us, we've got a darn good review.
All I can think to address is what I am proud for having recognized way back with Breathless. The problem of violence remains. I came up with a rationalization for it this time - the clunkiness works with the dystopian theme - but your reservations are reasonable.
In general, how Godard presents violence (and that he does not present sex, for the most part) is problematic. Not necessarily "wrong," by the way, but in need of interpretation and explanation. We tend to feel that it is a weakness in his art, but it is open to debate. Hence, this time out, I was able to spin it in a direction that worked for me. Alphaville very much worked for me.
As for your minor complaint about the flat-footed story-telling, this I am less oriented to allow. I am convinced that Godard just refuses to buy into conventional narrative because of an intellectual predisposition not to need all the dots joined, all the blanks filled. This abstraction is not a weakness on his part. It is rather essential to his art.
I agree that it is part of his art, it is just that there are times when he is better at marrying it to the imagery/action/characters around them than others. For instance, I really dug most of the abstract conversations in Alphaville a lot, particularly the battle of wits between Lemmy and Alpha 60. Which reminds me (parenthetically) how cool was the scene of Lemmy's first interrogation, where the microphones kept swirling around him like ravenous birds of prey? Can you think of a bitter image for the totalitarianism of the state and the creeping paranoia of the citizen? This is one of many such outstanding images in this film. Another example: the chat that Lemmy has with Natasha while they are dining in front of the blank TV screen, where we are mostly limited to seeing their hand gestures; that was well crafted as well.
But there were just some scenes--like Lemmy's arrival at a meeting at Programming and Memory--that fell kind of flat for me because the abstract nature of the discussion was not married to any other aspect of the film that I could find interest in, so I felt that it ground matters to a halt. This is not a major concern overall, just a relatively minor nit that I felt like picking at. I didn't want us to be so completely in agreement that I put you to sleep, after all.
I said in my review that I think Alphaville deserves to be compared to Metropolis and I meant it. All these specifics you identify are definitely crazy effective film-making. Something you said, not sure what, must have triggerd in me the desire to pursue this idea:
What I wish to expand upon is the importance for the film of the poverty of the future world depicted. We've already addressed how the film is intentionally here-and-now - Jesus, New Wave Godard is always here-and-now, this is an absolutely vital feature of what he is all about - and this makes the dystopia that much more chilling for its suggestion of the contemporary.
But the dystopia is that much more chilling still for the here-and-now being so mundane and poor. Sure, there are a couple interiors set in what are obviously the most space-age, neato-keano corporate lobbies of the day, a weak effort to keep the sci-fi geeks in the audience happy. But there are basically no fancy digs, there is no trippy gear. Point being, the poverty of the film's budget is translated to the environment of the fictional world in an aesthetically and thematically powerful way.
Is the film just screaming out that it was made for 50 cents? Of course it is! But here's the thing - this sends the dystopian message that in the future, life will be impoverished. Not in the ultimately metaphoric way of just about every other sci-fi dystopia. Not morally bankrupt or emotionally broke or psychologically without value. No, literally impoverished. Poor, plain and simple. The absence of advanced, ostentatious technology and cultural trappings signals in no uncertain terms that the future society is not capital intensive, not wealthy.
Godard may have wanted to call the film "Tarzan vs.IBM" but I have to highlight something I just brushed over in my review. The negative object in the film is not just American-centered capitalism. It is also Soviet-centered socialism. Verily, I suppose the film is even more directed against the latter. Not the rich matrix but rather the poor maze is "Alphaville" in Alphaville.
To finish here, I hear you about things sometimes falling flat, grinding to a halt. And I adhere to your feeling about this. As I note in my term paper... sigh... there are always moments in a Godard film where the film threatens to stop in its tracks, stall, and this can be boring and/or irritating. However, just as I held that he does not join all the dots and fill in every blank on purpose, a technical/formal observation, I now make this same point on the conceptual/thematic level. Yes, he is sloppy, lazy even, can't be bothered, has a that'll-do streak fitting for a shallow pocketbook. But his pocketbook is shallow on purpose. Not just because he wants complete control over his artistic production. Not just because he is drawn to a frugal aesthetic (in some of his films). There is something deeper going on. He's a crappy story-teller on purpose. What is that purpose?
I really dig what you're saying about the poverty of the future as presented in Alphaville. The city may have a shiny veneer--those snazzy corporate lobbies you reference--but people's personal spaces are like those you'd find in a Raymond Chandler novel: Small spaces, starkly appointed and in a general state of disrepair. Also, Godard doesn't deny that there will be huge technological advances made, only that they will not be democratically distributed. Instead, in a nod to Orwell, they will be controlled by the faceless state. As you say, the film is even more of an attack on Soviet style communism than it is American style capitalism. Again, as with Orwell, often the most effective critiques of communism in practice come from those who are practitioners in theory.
As for your query, I could do some online research and give you an erudite answer, but I will simply wing it instead. Based on what I have seen, Godard's clumsiness in action scenes and his reluctance to compose a smoothly flowing story is borne out of his discomfort with conventional narrative cinema. On one level, Godard loves a conventionally well-made (like Truffault, he's a big fan of mainstream filmmakers like Hitchcock and John Ford), but at the same time, on another level, he sees the problems inherent in such an approach. These filmmakers do not challenge their audiences so much as entertain them, which explains their success at the box office, but also their limitations as artists. They are, to a certain extent, trapped by their success, in that in order to continue to make films in the style to which they have grown accustomed, with the budgets they need, these filmmakers must continue to be successes at the box office. Therefore, they have to continue to make the sort of cinematic comfort food for the masses that will be easily consumed and quickly digested. If they choose to make more difficult films, ones that for the audience to think a little more deeply about things, to confront aspects of life that might make them uncomfortable and challenge their assumptions about life, they would risk failure, and the loss of access to the elements of studio film making that they've grown accustomed to. Plus, they'd have the stigma of having lost favour with the public, of having become elitists, snobs, who talk down to or preach at their audience, and so on.
Godard therefore chooses to make films on the cheap, so he can retain control over their content, which helps explain why the films clearly look like they were made for a dime. They clearly WERE made for a dime. Thus, the argument goes, the action sequences look awkward because Godard lacks the funding to stage more satisfying or convincing ones. But I think this is a partial answer at best. There is an aesthetic here at work as well. He WANTS the audience to notice how "bad" these scenes look. Similarly, he makes strange leaps in his narrative, or inserts long rambling philosophical discourses at key points in the film in order to stir us out of our comfortable consumption of the film. These things are clearly purposeful. He wants us to be aware of the fact that we are watching a film, and to think about the things that we have been taking for granted in our film going up to now. He does not want movie watching to be passive and idle. He wants to stir us up, to awaken us. To get us thinking and talking, arguing and yes, even complaining, about the aspects of his films that bother us. If we want to have our dessert, Godard says, we had better be ready to eat our veggies. His movies are not merely a (bout de) souffle, not a mere trifle; they are a three course meal, and if we want to fully appreciate them, we had better train our palettes to dig his eccentric and elliptical recipes.
Natasha and Lemmy discuss the meaning of love in Alphaville: