Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Day 25: Alphaville

My interest in seeing Alphaville was two-fold. It often comes up on lists of the best science fiction movies, a genre that’s been dear to me for most of my life, and it’s a Godard film. I’ve always been curious to see more of Godard’s films. Up until last night, I’d only seen Breathless, a movie that I enjoyed on a purely intellectual level. It’s been a long time, but I remember feeling that it was, basically, a movie about other movies searching for an identity of its own.

So, here’s the deal: Alphaville is a good science fiction film, but that’s not saying much considering the way the genre is often cheapened in films by a reliance on special effects and pretty lights. The story focuses on a film noir-ish secret agent who, sometime in the future, journeys to Alphaville with orders to kill an evil scientist living there. The film jettisons the standard trappings of sci-fi. Everything in the movie looks contemporary with the time the movie was made. This is an interesting choice, visually, since the landscape is so familiar, but the attitudes and structure of the society of Alphaville are not.

The whole time I was watching it, I was delighted by how the movie played with (and put the emphasis on) language. The whole movie is about the power of language: the way it shapes our worldviews, the violence found in the logic of scientific language, the illogic of poetry (and by extension, the illogic of emotion). The residents of Alphaville refer to the dictionary as The Bible (and words deemed too challenging are stripped from it on a daily basis). They are sort-of ruled by a computer, but the computer is really just an Internet-like compilation of information that makes decisions for the populace based on mathematically derived projections of how to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The citizens adhere to these decisions with apathetic obedience, even when other members of the population are killed for disobedience. Yeah, we’re firmly in Orwell-lite territory, but I enjoyed the way this movie sought to examine more deeply the effect of language control on the population. Godard’s random, chaotic style also makes this one of the only science fiction films (the original Solaris being another) that actually plays as strange as the otherworldly events it depicts. The film sometimes feels as if a foreign influence has infected it and it’s working hard to rid itself of the intruder, mirroring the plot.

But, having said this, Godard’s style makes watching Alphaville akin to being prodded in the ribs with a pointed stick every few minutes. Godard’s filmic digressions from the plot are rewarding when he focuses on poetry and language since these are thematically consistent, less so when the digressions are incidental to the internal concepts of the movie itself. The movie has an obnoxious score that has to be a (not funny) joke, punctuating everything in the first twenty minutes with loud, overbearing horns. There are random cutaways to blinking neon lights and other, even more contextless, meaningless insertions throughout the movie, the intentions of which I wouldn’t begin to guess. At times, the sound of the film erupts into beeps for no discernable reason. A fight scene staged in stills and a wildly cut-up car chase are as inept and misguided (and unintentionally funny) as anything in Zombi 3. There’s a mania to the film as it seesaws wildly from conventional plot mechanics to bouts of pretension.

Alphaville is a frustrating film. It’s occasionally great but often dull. I’m left, again, feeling intellectually satisfied by a lot of the movie, but angry at the idiocy with some of the choices here. What’s particularly frustrating is the fact that this incompetence gets in the way of some really fertile material. In addition, there are moments where the movie really connects with the illogic that must exist in a society founded on logic, solely due to Godard’s chaotic and ill-advised choices. Call it a wash. Anyway, I’m done thinking about this movie for a few days.


Duke said...

Nice review.
I wonder what Ash Karreau has to say about this. He has something to say about EVERYTHING!!!!

Ash Karreau said...

Just for that, I'm not saying anything. Wait, crap...

Click here to see hurricane Wilma pics said...

No really Ash, what do you think about this review?

Ash Karreau said...

Well, the review, as usual, is incisive and well-written. The film, however, is a waste of time, as is most Godard. I love the French New Wave, and I'm aware and humbled by his influence upon it, but I'm fairly sure any innovations he's contributed to the medium were caused by either accident or incompentance. That doesn't mean he hasn't made a few good, even great films, but Alphaville is not one of them. It did directly lead to a pretty decent Kelly Osbourne video, strangely enough.

And for the record, I didn't say anything about My Dinner With Andre.

David Wester said...

I suspect Godard is a pendulum swinger. That is, he is more interested in breaking the conventions of filmmaking than anything else. Usually, in my experience, this produces some good and a lot of bullshit. Then someone really good comes along and takes only the good stuff from the result and applies it to their own work in a compelling way.

Like, on the Once Upon a Time in the West DVD there was something about Morricone going to a musical performance made up of non musical instruments, noises like ladders and such. They then applied this idea to the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West.