Alphaville (1965)

 Godard supposes much for the future of the human race with Alphaville; that we will begin to trust machine senses and logic more than our own, that we will find art, poetry and language, even emotion itself obsolete in the face of new capabilities that our inventions afford us. Alphaville is tongue in cheek, filled with brazen hyperbole and recklessly blunt eyes turned toward human progress, and at the same time its exaggeration begins to look more and more accurate, its fears seem more and more realized, its cares become more our own cares, or do they become less? Is it a sign of Godard’s valid prediction if we find the film more relevant or less relevant? Does it mean we’ve overcome his fears or succumbed to them? Godard’s major fear seems to be that we will embrace, and grow accustomed to, our inability to be complete people without attachment to our technology. We think we can travel at 100 mph; we cannot, not without our cars. We think we can fly from city to city; not so, not without our airplanes. Great thinkers in history have always espoused philosophies of non-attachment and yet, as we move forward in humanity, we find that the prominent minds in our own societies espouse that we should become more attached, that we should become more assimilated with our devices; half man and half machine entities that rely on circuitry and mainframes to help us think at levels and paces that we have not yet begun to dream of. Will these levels bring us depth? Will the knowledge bring us wisdom? Will true love and the poets who spoke of it seem useless to us? Will we exterminate those who do not want to join our utopia of ultra-logic?

Godard’s version of Lemmy Caution is a hybrid of poet and secret agent, with a little more emphasis on the secret agent. By the film’s conclusion, he is anything but philosophical about the possible benefits of Alphaville’s highly controlled society, where words are wiped out by the day and their meanings destroyed until we are left with nothing but utilitarian basics. This new dark age that Godard sees us entering will one day need to be met with a renaissance of its own, where humanity and its spirit are reinvigorated to emerge once again, and he displays it with bold fashion in the film’s final action sequence. Alphaville is by its turns crushingly oppressive with its sections of Alpha 60’s view on reality and society, only later do we leave the cold and calculated brutality of its world and enter the lyrical reality of the visual poem that Godard has laid out for us. Though the thematic elements do get a bit muddled in these segments as we are shown Lemmy Caution’s world as one of brutality while espousing love, Godard of course means to see love triumph, eradicating Alphaville’s mathematical reality and censorship in favor of human expression. Godard embraces the last of his period of pulp, save for Pierrot le Fou’s reverence for comic books, Alphaville sees him at his most hard-boiled. Structurally the flick moves from a controlled rigidity to an opened human mind, to a short circuit. The film’s art direction, or rather lack thereof, is of prime interest here. Godard utilizes Paris as it is and somehow we are completely transported to the alternate reality of Alphaville. His use of the era’s most available high technology to prop the adventure, and the low tech use of closeups on neon signs, the light positioned behind a fan to represent Alpha 60 and his moving array of microphones. The grotesque voice of Alpha 60 announces the future of civilization like a prophet. No beauty, no humanity, no ability to express complex thought, only to relate complicated concepts and findings, Alpha 60 is the ideal machine for a world without hope, just sedate existence.

Godard’s fears for the future have continued on throughout his career, we especially see the lamentation of his prophecy made manifest in his work of the 2010’s. Goodbye to Language, in every way shows the same societal degradation that appears as a strengthening and progress. Alphaville questions the pillars of modern western society, as many of his films of the era did but in a profoundly different area of focus. If we are to become all consuming buyers and sellers whose entire lives are for sale, all at the behest of a thinking machine that performs the role of deity, the master mind behind it all, then Lemmy Caution’s reactions are as that of an organically grown man from outside of this controlled hyper-civility, the human spirit unbound. As those who weep are shot down and drowned, as those who hide evidence of human emotion under a mattress and are encouraged to commit suicide fade away, we are left with the fleeting feelings of the world of love and natural thought process we once knew; a thought process working hand and hand between a unified bodily system of mind, body spirit, the heart. As Alphaville’s most memorable moment, the thought police descend on our heroes as they utter illegal missives of what they feel. They enter a cinematic dreamscape far from the rest of the film. Godard would have been kind to allow the film to live in this place for longer, but that is for another film. For this film, we are in the throes of a society that would bulldoze the human being under its necessity for central planning, “great” men who stand above all and make the decisions for the masses, etc. We see brief glimpses of beauty and we relish them.