Age Against the Machine: “Alphaville” at 50

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Alphaville
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard–1965–98 minutes

“Tarzan vs. IBM” was the cheeky working title Jean-Luc Godard gave to his dystopian tale of a technocratic dictatorship that was released in 1965 as “Alphaville.” The enfant terrible of French New Wave cinema was still at a phase in his career, five years after his breakout film “Breathless”, where his aesthetics were accessible enough to produce an entertaining movie that also caught you up in an intellectual brainstorm whose message—that mankind is apt to surrender his self-determination in the face of its own technological bedazzlement—was pertinent then and even more vital today. Of course, it may seem silly to anyone born after a certain period (1980?) to think we need rescuing from a vine-swinging hero in view of all the great advances the Information Age has afforded. But in a way, the domination of a digitally-based power structure has been achieved in the half-century since by the deployment of a different battle plan. Instead of banning emotions like the authorities do in Alphaville, it turned out to be easier to indulge people’s vanity instead. The omnipotent supercomputer at the center of Godard’s film (who calculates “so that failure is impossible”) endlessly spouts off the most numbing blandishments this side of Mark Zuckerberg.

Of course, technology, like a lot of things, is what you make of it. It’s not as if Godard is averse to keeping up with technical advances in his chosen medium. The director is now 84 and recently released a dazzling (if typically uncompromising) 3D film called “Goodbye to Language” shot on various devices including a GoPro and a smartphone. But it was a half-century ago this year, some two decades before personal computers, where Godard first divined the potential grave errors of relying too heavily on one’s own machines. He cast American expat actor Eddie Constantine as a secret agent who infiltrates this nocturnal city-state to capture Professor von Braun, a renegade atomic scientist who has defected from the rival “Outlands”. Constantine retained the delightful character name of Lemmy Caution, a role he had played in a series of French pulp films. But this was a whole other ball of wax. Godard concocted a heady brew of hard-boiled detective plot points and science fiction iconography, with an extra-added sprinkling of philosophy and romantic poetry. Using no special sets, he and his go-to cinematographer Raoul Coutard created a fantastic futuristic city-state by shooting in the modern high-rise districts of Paris, a luminous B&W world of bleak boulevards, stark hotel interiors, sterile government ministries and the labyrinth of giant mainframes that culminate in the inner sanctum of Alpha 60, whose “1.7 billion nerve centers” of remorseless logic has been put to use in creating an acquiescent and nearly robotic population.

Constantine, with his gruff mannerisms and deadpan humor, keeps the film light on its feet even during the passages of weighty intellectualizing. An unpredictable rugged individual going up against mechanized conformity; it’s a tailor-made mission for the trenchcoated Caution, whose surname is quite the misnomer. Posing as a journalist, he blows into town, brushing off the scripted niceities of the hotel staff and resisting the advances of his assigned “seductress third-class” (“I can find my own dames”) and scorning the directive to report his presence with the proper authorities. He does not find it so easy to resist when his official escort around Alphaville turns out to be Natasha von Braun (Anna Karina), a cat-like beauty who is the daughter of the turncoat professor. Like other Alphaville residents, she has a serial number branded on the back of her neck and an impulse to say things like “I’m very well, thanks for asking” when no one is asking. But Lemmy has a hunch that in view of her parentage, Natasha may yet hold memories of pre-brainwashed times in the Outlands. This means she could be turned into a useful ally in infiltrating Alphaville’s central command and will also give him ample time to fall in love with her.

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Ah yes, “love.” Just one of many words that the state’s leaders have banished, along with “conscience” and “tenderness” and many others in the expected Orwellian fashion. The film turns on Karina’s nuanced performance, as she slowly awakens to possibilities beyond Alphaville’s remorseless edicts. Her soulful sphinx gaze and delicate body language are of course rigorously recorded by Goddard (they were married at the time but soon to be separated) and makes for a curious contrast with the craggy-faced, trigger-happy Lemmy Caution. It’s all part of the film’s crazy-quilt sensibility, one minutes he’s blasting away at the secret police with his trusty firearm (which, along with his Instamatic camera, never seems to need re-loading) and the next he’s producing a book of romantic poetry to see how Natasha will respond.

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But unlike later Godard films, the literary and political points don’t overwhelm. The transgressions of the Alphaville power elite are revealed gradually, even humorously. (Lemmy’s observation that “Everything that’s weird is normal in this whore of a city” is one of my all-time gumshoe one-liners). After a meet-up with one of his fellow operatives (a serio-comic turn by Akim Tamiroff) goes awry, he’s invited by Natasha to a gala at the Institute of General Semantics. This is capped off by a memorable firing squad scene at an indoor pool where emotion-loving dissidents are led out onto diving boards to share some final thoughts before being gunned down. It’s after this grim ceremony that Caution makes his first (unsuccessful) grab at the Professor, after which he is interrogated by Alpha 60, whose croaking basso profundo voice is by now well known to the viewer.

In two absorbing scenes, Lemmy Caution goes mano a machino with Alpha 60 and if any proof was needed that venal authoritarianism does not require some raving Hitler-type, here it is. It’s not just that Alpha’s “face” bears a strange resemblance to a malfunctioning box fan. It calmly declares that the essence of both capitalism and communism “is not an evil volition to subject their peoples… but the natural ambition of any organization to plan all its actions.” Of course, how could anything be less evil? This logic continues to suggest that the proper course in all matters is simply the endless self-perpetuation of all that favors oneself regardless of anything as quaint as the “common good.” So nowadays we have untouchable “too big to fail” financial institutions that run themselves like criminal syndicates, spying agencies that can snoop in on everyone to prevent a tiny number of wrongdoers, political parties that are openly in the bag to corporate interests and glitzy social-media behemoths that distract and flatter us all the way to the end of privacy. I could go on and so could you. Or at least some of you could, as younger generations seem to see little problem with the supremacy of technology over any of its potential pitfalls. We have developed a dislike of complexity just as the world has become insanely complex, making modern-day acquiescence to a permanent status quo seem more of a slow-motion crawl than the result of heavy-handed 1984-type rulers as seen in Godard’s film.

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“I’m too old to argue, so I shoot”—Lemmy Caution

Here, there is more of an immediate concern, as the paranoiac supercomputer and its minions prepare for an atomic attack on the Outlands. “It is logical to condemn you to death” announces Alpha 60 to Monsieur Caution but it may have proved to be not quite powerful enough for our humble secret agent. With a big FU to those who would “play the world when technical power is the only act in their repertoire”, Lemmy grabs Natasha and blasts his way out of town, hopefully one step ahead of the expected counter-attack. It may not be too late for us either, but I think we all need a little of that derring-do—or at least more critical thinking—so our own “journey to the end of night” ends not with more night but as in “Alphaville” with a hint of a new dawn.

On the set of Alphaville, Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution
Definitive gaze: Godard and Anna Karina on the set of “Alphaville”

“Good bye to Language” may be nearing its arthouse run in 3D but remains recommended for adventurous filmgoers. You may come out of the film a little cross-eyed (his visual bag of tricks include parallax images, double exposure 3D and extreme color saturation) but you may also feel challenged or even inspired, a far different prerogative than most 3D Hollywood fare, where the CGI tail is often seen wagging the movie dog.

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