Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Movie Notes: Alphaville (1965)

"Their ideal, here in Alphaville, is a technocracy, like that of the ants and termites."
Science fiction writing is some of the most visionary literature of the nineteenth and twentieth century; so it seems strange that it is so poorly regarded. Certainly some of the trouble must stem from the early sci-fi movies, which tended to be kiddie serials about rocket men. After that, science fiction, in general, got the reputation for being made for kids. In the sixties and seventies, however, there were a number of truly visionary science fiction films- the obvious touchstone being 2001. Unfortunately, I think Star Wars knocked things back a notch. It's an extremely entertaining movie, but not a film about ideas, like the great sci- fi films that followed 2001.

Alphaville was Jean-Luc Godard's only attempt at sci fi and it's sort of a strange movie. It's set in the future on a planet called Alphaville ruled by a cruelly logical computer; it was shot in 1960s Paris and almost nothing was done to disguise that fact. For instance, the hero's 'space ship' is a Ford Galaxy! And the main character, Lemmy Caution played by Eddie Constantine, came from a series of French B noir films, also starring Constantine. The story details how he falls in love with Anna Karina (who wouldn't?), here playing the daughter of an important scientist of Alphaville that he has to kill, and how love, poetry, and the human conscience threaten the computer and the society built around it. This is a world in which the word "why" has been outlawed, people are killed for crying at the death of a loved one, and the "bible", which is really the dictionary, is updated regularly because so many words are either outlawed or coined. In other words, it's a fairly plausible technocrati/totalitarian nightmare. The original title was Tarzan Versus IBM.

If all of this sounds a bit surreal, I should also mention the philosophical discussions about time with the computer and the executions in an swimming pool with the dead being retrieved by synchonized swimmers. It's all a bit outlandish and over-the-top, and I'd say it's as much fun as most of Godard's early films, at least for me. Critics often make much of Godard's Marxism, but here the theme is the imagination against all systems that privilege mathematical rationality over human emotion. The last act becomes something of a poetic manifesto, whose last line, intoned by Karina's character in the Ford Galaxy heading through "space" (the highways around Paris), is "Je vous aime". Here, it sounds profound.

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