(Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark.)
Alphaville is the first Godard film I ever saw, way back in the mid-80s. I saw it on a double bill with Alexander Nevsky, if my memory is accurate after 30 odd years. I remember liking Nevsky, though finding it all a bit strange; but Alphaville was a revelation. I had ideas about what Godard was supposed to be like - he was supposed to be difficult, possibly blasphemous (this is back around the time of Hail Mary - which I think was the second Godard film I ever saw, and came a bit closer to what I had been led to expect.) Instead, I saw this astonishing science fiction noir...
It is a beautiful film, with its rich play of light and dark, its bodies in rest and motion in overlit antiseptic spaces and dingy dark hallways, its faces, its eyes, especially Anna Karina's face and eyes. It's an overpoweringly romantic film - I walked out enthralled by Eluard and the staging of his poetry, Anna Karina’s voice, the light and dark, hands and faces, the strange contrast between Karina and Eddie Constantine - that sequence is, by itself, one of the most romantic, achingly sensual, passages ever put on film. I had never seen anything like it then, and haven't seen much like it since. But what might have been even more surprising was how funny the film is. Full of jokes, full of wit, visual, verbal, jokes coming out of the material, the references, the performances, staging, the setting. (That machine that asks you to insert a coin, then gives you a thank you token.) It's always serious, but never takes itself seriously - a pretty universal trait in Godard’s films. They are funny - they are full of serious things, conversations, ideas, images - but they are packed with jokes, visual and verbal puns, in jokes, references and allusions that become comical in context. (And it gets even funnier when you start spotting the things Monty Python stole - it's tattooed on the back of their neck!) It was a fine introduction to Godard - it conditioned me to look for beauty, romanticism, sensuality and wit, as well as Deep Thoughts and Art. (Which it has; don't discount that.)
And even more - it worked quite well, when I saw it the first time, as straight up science fiction. It holds up as science fiction now, both as pop fiction and for its ideas. It's ideas are legit, it’s image of the future: artificial intelligence, technology and technocracy, its particular brand of dystopia - a cool vicious embrace of science and logic, a technocratic tyranny, power diffused and de-personalized, a cruel, violent regime uncluttered by charismatic monsters. Dr. Von Braun is a cold dead eyed technocratic sadist, surrounded by dull technicians who follow him around like nervous interns. The only villain with any personality is Alpha 60 itself, a thing of rhythmic flashing lights, slide shows, and a mechanical voice. People have become zombies in this world, responding automatically - "Yes, I'm fine, don't mention it" - to any conversation; clapping politely at executions - their responses as automated as machines. Against this comes Lemmy Caution violent cool in a trench coat, cigarettes, and 45 automatic, crashing through this world with passion, emotion and art. This might be Godard's most Romantic film, too - in the sense of Romanticism as the embrace of passion, art and beauty, emotion and disorder against logic, order, science. Lemmy comes bearing pop culture props and poetry and represents the artist very well. He represents Godard very well - this is his quintessential mixture - pop culture and high art, science fiction tropes (high and low science fiction), plus noir, plus comics, plus high art, Eluard and Celine, and Cinema, always cinema - and maybe some general semantics to boot. All of it is fed in, all of it is taken seriously, and all of it is material for jokes. Nothing is allowed to settle in Godard's films - and it's that settling, that insistence on control, predictability, order, that Godard (and Lemmy) object to under the rule of Alpha 60.
Though in fact even the computer is more complicated that that. It is commanding and charismatic, in its way - almost Romantic, in a strange sense. A Satanic figure, undone by the hero - but compelling in itself. Satanic in Mick Jagger's sense, which itself is a Romantic notion of the devil - Satanic like Lucifer, bringer of light, trying to take the place of god, to rule all creation - not a bad description of Alpha 60.
And yet it’s a very ordinary monster, that computer - represented by just what you see there - lights, wires, boxes; sometimes by fans, or a simple flashing light, and always by a disembodied, mechanical, voice. This is another extraordinary quality of Alphaville - it is a very convincing science fiction film made up entirely of things in the real, contemporary (1965), world. It is probably the epitome of the type of film I referred to writing about Face of Another, films that shoot the real world to look and feel like science fiction. Alphaville is shot on the streets of Paris, in the buildings of Paris - but the glass and steel Paris, the modern Paris, of lights and machines and clean, modernist design. It looks other-worldly.
Godard constructs a futuristic world from this. Streets and cars and most of the actual technology are all contemporary, though shot and combined to look alien. Godard treats the world as it is like a science fiction place: flying in from New York (6000 miles away), becomes intergalactic travel. Only the computers are not part of the everyday world - but they are perfectly normal contemporary (1965) machines. Rooms full of banks of processors, wires, with keyboards and switches and card slots and flashing lights. You don’t see a lot of computers from 1965 - though it's interesting to consider that the back rooms where the real computing lives aren't that commonly seen now. We see the desktops and laptops and screens, keyboards and mice, the phones and tablets and all the other things people use - everything that interfaces with humanity. But even now, we don’t see the back rooms, where the infrastructure lives. Even now, it seems a bit alien when you see it (in Werner Herzog’s new internet film, say) - and not much different from what it looked like in 1965. Routers and processors and disk arrays and wires haven’t changed that much.
Though Godard does imagine the interface with humanity, though this didn't exist so much in 1965. It's an odd mix of analog and digital - invisible technology, disembodied voices, pervasive surveillance, microwave ovens - all made of sound and light. He warps it out of the real world, combining things in strange ways, showing pieces of the world, showing a world of sound and light, reflections and window panes, that subtly distort the world. Inside and outside, up and down, intermingle - it's an odd, translucent world, up on the surface....
And when the chance comes to use cinema to transform the world, he’s ready:
And so it is. A beautiful film, funny, fairly exciting, as adventure yarn (at least containing action scenes, half joke and half real excitement), imagining a dystopic future and what might be done about it, arguing what we have to protect - art, love, words - without quite (quite) disavowing what we could get from technology. And at times, almost exploding from sheer passion, desire and loss. Alphaville, the Capital of Pain, indeed...