Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965) Godard's blending of genres (in this case science fiction and film noir) in the telling of detective Lemmy Caution (American actor Eddie Constantine, who'd portrayed the fictional detective in a series of french films), acting as a secret agent code-named 003, under the assumed name of journalist Ivan Johnson "from the Outlands" of space (so he says) who comes to the capitol of Alphaville as an agent provocateur to investigate the power structure that is controlling the city and its populace.

Packing a gat and an instamatic camera—which he uses almost fetishistically to take pictures of almost anything—as an example of why he might be called a detective, Caution moves against the Future by, first, seeking a fellow agent, Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff) in Alphaville, after checking into a swank hotel featuring hot and cold running seductresses (third class) and a couple of paid assassins, who try to kill him.
No such luck. Caution comes through very well, thank you, you're welcome. He sets off to Dickson's last known whereabouts, where he's informed that another agent, Dick Tracy, is dead, and then briefed on the state of Alphaville, a technocracy run by a giant computer like the old days only "one hundred and fifty light-years more powerful" (that's a bit like saying someone is smarter "by miles," but I'm being generous—you can't measure capacity by light-years). One thing you learn about Godard—if it sounds good, he'll put it in, even if it makes NO sense, whatsoever. There will be "light-years" of that stuff later on, once Caution throws himself to the wind and confronts that computer, the Alpha 60, which speaks with a low mechanical throb of a voice with the occasional death-rattle.
The alternate title of Alphaville was "Tarzan vs. IBM." Apt. When Caution takes his circuitous path to Alpha's chief computer Alpha 60 for interrogation (he's given access to the computer? Don't they have security? Couldn't that have been done by Alpha 50?) he is asked the basics—Name, birth-place, age, make and model of car (?) and "what do you love above all" (Ivan Johnson, Nueva York, 45, Ford Galaxy, and "Money and women")—he is asked some "test questions" as a "control measure" like "what were your feelings when you passed through galactic space?" ("the silence of infinite space appalled me") "What is the privilege of the dead?" ("To die no more.") "Do you know what illuminates the night?" ("Poetry") "What is your religion?" ("I believe in the inspiration of conscience") "Do you make any distinction between the mysteries of the laws of knowledge and the laws of love?" ("In my opinion, there is no mystery of love.")
The home of ALPHA 60 (which looks like the establishing shot of
police HQ Jack Webb used in the '60's version of "Dragnet.")
Those are the test questions for a control measure? For who, Rod McKuen, Space Ranger?

That last one sounds like he didn't understand the question. Neither did I, and I would have asked a follow-up about what the computer thinks the laws of love are (although I know they were different in the '60's in some states), and if I DID have the opportunity to ask the computer questions, I would have asked him if I had an infinite number of marshmallows, how many Lincoln logs would it take to reach the Moon. Then, as the Irwin Allen sparks started to fly and the voice throbbed "Illogical! Illogical!" I would have cursed myself for not asking what the iteration of the word "marshmallow" was first. Probably shouldn't kick myself as I doubt that you could find the answer where the Alpha 60 was programmed—the "philosophy" section of the Hallmark card store.
It's Godard in a playful mood (which makes it hard for me to take Alphaville seriously, but then, it's always hard for me to take Godard seriously). Despite that playfulness and downright silliness, the film seems a little dirge-like in its execution. With a limited budget, he tries to make the most of the locations he can find...even if that future time feels restrictively contemporary, even for 1965. Anybody looking for "visions of the future" can go looking elsewhere. For Godard, there's no imaginative city-scapes or vehicles—Lemmy drives a Ford Mustang, the low-level "sporty" vehicle of the '60's—or anything that might be called visionary, the only thing futuristic is the threat. 

And that may be the future, itself. 

"Go ahead. Explain to me about evolution again..."
For the future is a killer of romance, or else a romantic figure like Lemmy Caution wouldn't stick out amid its clinical walls and banks of switches (in the words of Raymond Chandler) "like a tarantula on an angel-food cake." That pre-supposes that you buy a creature like Lemmy Caution as a romantic figure, rather than merely a figment of a romanticized version of the past, and cinema's past at that. Like Humphrey Bogart starring in "The Big Sleep-Mode." The juxtaposition is amusing, but Caution is as much a conceit as Godard's vision of a clinical future. Both are unreal. And is a cold heart better than cold steel? Seems more of a toss-Up, there's no dog to root for in this fight.

Me, I think of it as bargain-basement Blade Runner (without Ridley Scott's mis-representation of his own work—ie. his "confusion" that human assassin Rick Deckard is also a replicant, like the killing machine-men he's fighting—even saying it like that makes no sense as a concept). Caution is a old-school human railing against the new-math machine and all that it represents. But, the world of Lemmy Caution is no bed of roses, either, and for all the talk of love and romance, it is hard to see in Caution's face or actions. It makes Godard's little movie of somnambulists battling the machine a little hollow, and one is left with a feeling that you're not watching a revolutionary romantic's railing against a stainless steel future, and more a cranky old man yelling at the kids to stay off his lawn. But, one not need to blame technology for things turning bad, time corrodes everything, man and machine. It's the most basic thing in the world to not like the future—it eventually is going to kill us.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who has also seen 'Alphaville', I agree that the sci-fi elements of the story were confusing. I do disagree about the realistic setting, as I think it brought something different to the genre. If you're interested, here's the link to my review: