Alphaville—Étrange Aventure

ALPHAVILLE, Jean-Luc Godard—1965

PROLOGUE · SUR SET ÉCRAN— "I pity the French Cinema because it has no money. I pity the American Cinema because it has no ideas."

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At 21, I escaped the friendly dictatorship of my native Canada and I moved to California's dream—Santa Barbara. There I enrolled in the Film & Television MFA program at the (once) prestigious Brooks Institute of Photography. 

The $400-a-month room (a glorified walk-in-closet) in a wacky Australian-Mexican couple's dilapidated mansion came equipped with a mini-fridge, a stand-up shower and an ancient B+W television. So when I got my first glimpse of Alphaville (thank you IFC), I had no clue whether it was very old or very new. In fact, my guess was that it had just premiered. The film looked clean, vibrant, daring and ultra-stylized. Like nothing I had ever seen before. I was convinced that it would spark a revolution in filmmaking. 

Well I was right. It did spark a revolution. 32 years earlier. 

Jean-Luc Godard's name once graced coffee-table books, rare posters and film festivals around the world. The pretentious shits of cafe-society worshiped him as a God or at least made the attempt, until his forever-bad mood finally got the best of him and he Atlas-Shrugged the hell out of dodge. For real. Although he would occasionally come out of hiding to make a new mildly incomprehensible, heavily unwatchable film that provoked in me that same quip used on another Jean: "Never has so much intelligence gone into making us all stupid."—Voltaire to Rousseau (on the receipt of The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men)

And I really did try to watch them. But somehow they missed the mark. He had changed. And it happened somewhere between Au Bout de Souffle and Tous Va Bien. Like Don Draper, the 70's were not good to Godard (nor to his hair).

And as an artist, I think I know "the why" of it. I understand Godard's bad mood. In fact, he drew us a bloody roadmap. It's all played out in his incredible film adaptation of Alberto Moravia's novel, Le Mepris (Contempt). And I've met the same people. Had the same experiences. And died a thousand deaths on the altar of ART. 

But I came back to life.

Jean-Luc Godard did not. Someone, somewhere murdered this man's spirit.

Godard himself says, "Through most of my career I've made a decent living making movies that no one wants to see". And he's right.

Godard, Fritz Lang, Jack Palance and Michele Piccoli on the set of Le Mepris, 1963

Godard, Fritz Lang, Jack Palance and Michele Piccoli on the set of Le Mepris, 1963

Nevertheless, at the apex of his talent and focus, he created some of the greatest moving works of art ever produced—"truth 24 frames-per-second" indeed. So my snide, sneering sarcastic bullshit is really irrelevant. I'm just annoyed with him. And probably with myself for not seeking Godard out 20 years ago (like a Henry Cameron) and dragging his French ass back to the world that could, should and ought to be. A world where HIS movies were the blockbusters and for good reason. But for that, we would need a different sort of revolution. And Godard and I differ significantly on what that should look like. 

ALPHAVILLE · TARZAN V. IBM  — "One must confront vague ideas with clear images" 

I wasn't part of the Nouvelle Vague era that Godard ushered into existence. I discovered the man by happy accident. But in the 1960's, Godard was a heroic idealist of the first degree. But with a considerable flaw. He saw his creative endeavors as mirrored and measured against the various Marxist struggles of his day. A true clash of civilizations. From Algeria to Vietnam to France itself. In Godard's opinion, the capitalist world of American consumerism was as terrible for film as it was for peace and high-culture. And that if ART was to win, if IDEAS were to win—the politics of the Right had to be de-constructed and destroyed.

Did this mean that the dreams of his fellow Parisians must be curtailed for the sake of some collective utopia? Um. No. Not exactly. Not in Godard's mind. He was often purposely ambivalent as to his own strange pitch for Marxist ideology. And he often embraced criticism of the critique itself. 

Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine

So no, Godard was not much of a post-modernist by today's definition. Much too smart and talented for that. At least until he hooked up with Maoist fan-boy, Jean-Pierre Gorin and then things went downhill from there. But 60's Godard was more of the high-culture French bourgeoisie that Americans love to hate and yet depend on for a good chunk of what makes life worth living (Chateau Lafite & Anna Karina). As his films clearly demonstrate in their celebration of "Western Decadence" by way of Godard's adoring lens on love, beauty, poetry, art, music (Paul Misraki / George Delerue) and philosophy. Of course, Godard would tell you that he was just showing us how bad Western Imperialism was...by making it look so bloody appealing? Much like Fellini's attempt to indict Roman Cafe-Society with La Dolce Vita, which accidentally(?) promoted Italy as a tourist mecca for decades.

And yet despite Godard paying lip service (visual and otherwise) to the supposed anti-totalitarian (totalitarian) politics of his day—he was most certainly a lover of Liberté and all those corollary values that brought pleasure to our senses (like beauty).

Anna Karina-Alphaville

And while I adore all of Godard's films up until the end of his New Wave period, Alphaville stands apart. For if Le Mepris showcased Godard's frustration with Hollywood, corrupt businessmen and classless idiots, Alphaville features Godard's alter ego as the man against the machine itself. Tarzan vs IBM. And irony of ironies, it is that very struggle predicted by Godard that humanity is just beginning to face (Google?) while his chaotic Maoists still roam the streets trying to get away for the Weekend. (to Berkeley! to shut down Ben Shapiro)

Alphaville is masterful because it does more than show Godard's anti-totalitarian, anti-fascist streak. It gives us a poetic pathway, a story-telling solution to break free of our actual chains. It's Godard's swan song to the individual spirit which was once his own and should remain ours. And Godard did something that Orwell and Rand couldn't. He made fighting against the techno-fascist state of the future—sexy, slick and fun. And unlike 1984, Alphaville gives us a win. More proof that Godard was not "Hollywood" in the slightest, as HIS heroes are not destroyed. 

HARD BOILED LEMMY · THE INSPIRATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS  — "Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self"

Alpha 60: "What is your religion Mr. Caution?"

Lemmy Caution: "The inspiration of consciousness"

Alphaville Japanese poster

Eddie Constantine was the Los Angeles-born Hard-Boiled Detective super-star of French cinema in the 1950's and 60's. His most famous role was that of Peter Cheyney's FBI tough guy, Lemmy Caution. A role Caution would hold his entire life, starring in numerous Caution films from 1952 until 1991. 

Many of Constantine's Caution films are fantastic treats of French cinema and Parisian pop-culture. They should be seen. 

With Alphaville, fan-boy Godard takes "Lemmy Caution" out of his former slew of Film Noir spy n' crime thrillers, placing that exact same character into an entirely too-believable future dystopia. Lemmy's mission? Destroy a sentient, all-powerful super-computer, Alpha 60 and free the now mindless citizens of Paris from a never-ending nightmare. Naturellement.


Co-stars include Godard-muse (and ex-wife) Anna Karina who plays the part—and IS the part—as the Ideal Woman (Natasha Von Braun), still capable of experiencing emotion unlike most citizens of Alphaville. And of course, she understands the value of love and that immortal word that may still one day save humanity—"I" (shadows of Anthem, Ayn Rand 1938). 

Godard is highly effective in using Alphaville to demonstrate the essential nature of a totalitarian state and why it must be destroyed. And all done in his super seductive visual style—using natural light, color, shadow and modern architecture instead of our current reliance on CG. And the result is spectacularly unusual and surreal.

In Alphaville, we see dictatorship in action. The attacks on language, mathematics, history and finally—the human mind itself.  And we can see parallels to this line of thinking in today's world and yet, how ironic it is that modern France best embodies Godard's nightmare come to life, minus the computer (that's on the way).

While the theme of Alphaville is simple enough—the Individual vs the State—the soul of Alphaville is about a particular type of hero. The now despised and demonized American Man, at his apex. Tough, street-smart and ready for action. And how badly we need him today.

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For me, it was a rare thing to find a work of art that speaks so eloquently to the sublime nature of MAN as HERO. Godard does this and so much more in Alphaville and for that, he should go down in history as one of our finest artists. And tacked on to that is his role as a proponent (whether he likes it or not) of Western Civilization. So yes. I forgive Jean-Luc, for his mood, his attitude problem and for wasting the past 40 years trying his hardest NOT to make one last masterpiece.

Well, Alphaville and the rest of it was quite enough for one lifetime. He should be proud. And we should be grateful.

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"A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order." 

 

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