Godard's 60s: Alphaville

by eshman
May 27, 2008 8:11 AM
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One: a smart suit and a jaunty hat; a poker face and a smoking gun; deep shadows and a brassy, minor-chord score. Two: a menacing, artificial light and angular glassed buildings shot from low, jaunted angles; an otherworldy voice and strange syntax. As if dared to articulate genre in the fewest shots and with the fewest possible tropes, Godard casually establishes in a matter of seconds that Alphaville is both a work of noir and of science fiction (as if conjoining the two was the most natural thing in the world). Transposing popular B-movie actor Eddie Constantine along with his signature detective Lemmy Caution to a vaguely futuristic scenario, he then proceeds to drag and pull and tease both genres any which way his designs dictate. Even as story meanders and stops and is half-heartedly kicked forward, the persistent gestures to genre keeps things legible, somewhat familiar, even dramatic. A savvy, if masterfully economical recruitment of form as receptacle for philosophical inquiry, Godard nevertheless refined a lexicon for subsequent big-budgeted, high-concept offspring (Soylent Green, Blade Runner, The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey). It’s only fitting then that in its offhanded, thrift-store approach Alphaville is still cooler, stranger, and more prescient than them all.

Not only is the film lacking in special effects and futuristic sets—analog machines stand in for computers and selected mod-Parisian locations suggest an alternate (though cleverly contemporary) reality—but the visual strategy eschews exaggeration and space-suggesting cross-cuts. In long, handheld takes, Raoul Coutard’s camera explores every corner of interior space: into a building, through the lobby, up the elevator, down and around the hall, and finally squaring four close walls of a hotel room. Nothing’s not shown, nothing’s not real. Dramatic content—characterization, dialogue, gesture—makes metaphors that transcend the tactile space, but the mise-en-scène borders on documentary: sci-fi convincingly (not to mention cheaply) shot as cinema verité.

The presence here of Lemmy Caution and his anachronistic tough-guy demeanor evokes a certain nostalgia inherent to noir, but Caution isn’t technologically averse or totally resistant to change (he’s as easily intrigued and seduced as the next fellow). He’s simply an excellent judge and flawed representative of what is and is not human. Logically speaking, the world doesn’t need Lemmy, or any character for that matter. Except, of course, that it does. For whenever what’s inessential is forgotten or prohibited, as is the case in compulsorily rational Alphaville, what triggers and colors life is lost. A lone-wolf crusader for the sake of all that’s illogic—love, violence, impulsiveness, poetry, memory—Lemmy perfectly embodies Godard’s moral thrust and Alphaville’s enduring potency. Never simply old school or trailblazer, retro or progressive, just or unjust, good or bad, Lemmy is defiantly, consciously, irrationally, everything at once.

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