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.

Corsetted madness

I just realized that I forgot to praise Tess for not having a scene where she protests the corset. But then, part of the problem with the movie was that she symbolically embraced it, so I'm not sure what to think.

The Perfect Snob

Head over to Hollywood Elsewhere for Jeffrey Wells's honest and thoughtful evaluation of "The Film Snob's Dictionary", a book coming out next year. He includes quotes from the book's introduction which, among other things, talks about the film's snob's pride in having "populist, un-arty taste". Though I don't think I've ever been a film snob (I'm more of the Scorsese-style enthusiast also mentioned in the introductory text), I'm no stranger to having pride in populist, un-arty taste. But this is a trait I've been moving away from in the past few years of my life. Super-arty things like Bergman's films or My Dinner with Andre hit me harder, emotionally, than anything else these days (though like any decent human being, I'll shout the virtues of the very populist Sergio Leone or Dario Argento to anyone who will listen and sometimes to those who don't care.). I'm not entirely sure why this is, other than I'm tired of seeing people wrestle over who gets to hold the gun at the end of the movie.

Anyway, this sounds like a book I'll have to pick up when it comes out.