Alphaville – Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution – L Godard (Fr; 1965) Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina
viewed: Star and Shadow Cinema 7th May 2023; ticket £7
back to the future – why/because…
At the start of the movie the distorted voice over in Godard’s ‘Alphaville’ observes: “Sometimes thought is too complex to be represented by the spoken word.” Hence we have ‘Cinema Godard’. Godard’s ‘Cinema’ of course uses verbal means (and graphics) to posit and develop ideas. But his films are also characterised by allowing us: ‘seeing’. Godard exploits both his film’s structure and visual imagery to represent things about about the world we live in. For instance he points up the contradictions of capitalism and Western life using the interplay and juxtaposing of the symbolic and actual images, to render complex ideas simply and immediately graspable. To see is to understand.
To create and develop his idea forms Godard brings into play the wide range of cinema resources. Graphics are an important part of the repertoire. Godard’s opening titles (and the accompanying sound) function as a portal into his films. Their purpose is to communicate to the viewer that they are entering into another world, a cinema of ideas. Godard’s graphic techniques are simple but work with effect. They exploit pace, scale, colour, animation of fonts in unusual ways, creating new ideations out of familiar material. Of course Godard’s playful graphics run through many of his films from intertitles to the end credits. In ‘Alphaville’ the opening credits effect a mood of pastiche. The credits are intercut with the leitmotif of a menacing (but obviously absurd and harmless) flashing light, which is overlaid with a parody of tense musical ‘stings’, such as used by Don Siegel in the ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. The names of the cast appear in random order flickering to life against images of two strange paintings. The music the paintings the computer style of the graphics lettering pre-empt a film that in look and play out is unabashedly absurd. But which in the philosophical traditions of absurdist art, contain a hard core social commentary.
Godard’s music is never used with the usual movie reasons: event affirmation and/or reinforcement of emotional mood. The purpose of this sort of music is to unify sound and image in order to exploit and overwhelm the sensory motor receptors of the audience. Godard’s tracks are used with opposite intent. He works to separate image and music. In Alphaville he separates them by use of humour as a device; the device of humorous exaggeration. His intent in this separation is to alert the audience to their susceptibility to manipulation, to prompt them into questioning the basis of manipulation. At moments of ‘high drama’ Lemmy Caution’s quest through Alphaville is rendered absurd by use of multiple repetitions of a discordant musical sting, of the sort used in ‘film noir’ to mark out a moment of dangerous realisation; but in Alphaville it’s used to signal to the audience the empty mechanics of the plot line. Likewise in Alphaville his repeated use of a soft romantic melodic leitmotif parodies typical ‘noirish’ male/female dyads such as those between Bogart and Bacall in Hawk’s ‘To Have and Have Not.’ (interestingly the age gap between Constantine and Karina is similar, but no one for a moment will imagine real attraction between them). The exaggerated lyrical score overplaying Lemmy and Natasha’s relationship works to effectively undermine if not dispel any notion of its credibility outside the demands of the script.
Encased in an absurd plot structure in which modernist quartiers of Paris double for the futurist city of Alphaville, Godard addresses one feature of the present that in 1965 he saw as a threat to our humanity. The increasing development and exploitation through computers of the logic underlying the development of capitalism. A logic that through the relational structures of capitalism – work – consumerism – the commodification of relationships – was to feed into and refine our own human psychic responses and development. The ultimate logic of capitalism is to reduce everything to the equations of maximal profit and structural efficiency. All the extraordinary advances in science and technology are immediately subsumed to the purpose of making profit and the development of monopolies is logically the most efficient means to maximise profit: Coca Cola.
Seen in 2023 Alphaville is as relevant today as in 1965 to the situation in which find ourselves as regards the development of computers and consequences that algorithmic logic have in controlling so many aspects of life: the economic – the social – the personal.
Godard focuses on the incremental development of the computer logic languages that were in 1965 starting to become an omnipresent in industry and government. Godard immediatley saw that it was only a question of when not if, that computers would enter the social personal and intimate zones. If the primary and secondary forms of capitalism worked to possess the body the next stage of capitalism would work to possess the mind. Godard understood when the power of computer logic was harnessed by large corporations to accelerate consumption, we would all to a greater or lesser extent become the slaves of capitalist algorithms. The latter statement may not be explicit in Alphaville, but it is implicit. What is explicit in Alphaville is Godard’s perception that only escape from mechanical enslavement lay in the very essence of our human nature: our conscience and our capacity to love. Our conscience sets us apart from machines because it is a personal moral sense of right and wrong, the capacity for taking responsibility for things we have done. As machines are not responsible for the things they do, they are programmed, conscience bypasses them.
And love. Love is illogical.
Just to return to the point made earlier about Godard’s use of film to make us see complex things simply. In one scene Lemmy chances upon an execution site. The execution ritual is set in a modern swimming pool. The condemned men step up onto a diving board, they are shot, they fall into the water their bodies retrieved by groups of synchronised female swimmers. The imagery is absurd, but in this visual concatenation of death and fetishistic spectacle is a condensation of the contradictions of algorithmic capitalism. It kills us but our dead bodies do not sink are kept afloat by the blandishments of beautiful models holding out the promise of life after death.