Friday, May 29, 2009

Tarzan vs. IBM: une etrange aventure du Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was an expectation-defying cherry bomb thrown in the face of conventional narrative cinema in 1960, combining a Brecht-inspired mistrust for escapist storytelling with a genuine love for Hollywood’s output. In the years that followed, he continued to turn out pictures that denied audiences the cinematic cliches and conventions they were used to. His ninth feature, Alphaville; une etrange aventure du Lemmy Caution, may or may not have been conceived as a form of artistic competition with his friend Francoius Truffaut, who would be summoned to Hollywood to adapt Fahrenheit 451. With this film, Godard would create his own dystopic science fiction story, but he would do it his way.

The film’s opening scene is a perfect signifier that we are not in for a traditional ride. Secret agent Lemmy Caution checks into a hotel under a false name. A pretty young chambermaid leads him upstairs to his room. Several members of the hotel staff offer to take his suitcase for him, and he grumpily refuses. To French audiences in the early sixties, this was nothing out of the ordinary. Eddie Constantine had already portrayed the hard-boiled Caution - a character originally invented by pulp novelist Peter Cheyney - in a successful series of Cold War espionage thrillers between 1952 and 1963. They had probably seen him behave in this fashion before.

It doesn’t take long, however, for things to swerve into uncharted territory. The chambermaid offers to run Lemmy a bath, then strips down to her underwear, exposing a number tattooed on her back. Out of nowhere, a fedora-hatted goon attacks Lemmy, smashing clumsily through three fake-looking and easily avoidable plate glass doors. Lemmy shoots him, while the chambermaid sits in the tub, barely batting an eye. She then tells him that she is a Seductress, Second Class. What exactly was going on here?

Without warning, Godard plucked a well-known b-movie character out of his established 20th century setting, and into an otherworldly futuristic one reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. However, in another expectation-defeating (and budget-saving) turn, it’s a future without gadgets of any kind. The film was shot in modern-looking locales around Paris. Alpha 60, the evil supercomputer that rules over the planet, is actually a window fan voiced by a man with an artificial voice box. To simulate space travel, the characters merely drive their cars down the highway, watching the street lights zoom by, and commenting on how lovely the stars look.

In terms of D.I.Y. aesthetic style, Alphaville’s closest cousin is probably Chris Marker’s La Jetee. However, where Marker’s film was a poingant study of love in the face of Armageddon, Alphaville is a fascitious spoof, albeit one grounded in a love for what it criticizes, with a few ideas of its own as to what those things mean to us as a culture. Characters make seemingly contradictory references to 20th century events: despite this being the future, Caution claims to be a veteran of WWII’s Battle of Guadalcanal. There are also (most likely deliberate) factual mistakes, such as when Caution and his partner discuss light years as a measure of time. The point of this crazy exercise, seemingly, is to show how willingly we as an audience will follow storytellers like lemmings off of a cliff, no matter what nonsensical horseshit they feed us.

The story is steeped in layer upon layer of wry meta-humor. Using found urban locations points out how the real future never ends up looking like the future of sci-fi cinema: as a result, most of them end up looking inevitably quaint and indicative of the time in which they were made. In Godard’s mind, there seems to be no point in spending millions of dollars on a picture like Metropolis, if 20 years down the line, audiences will have to make allowances for the sight of bi-planes flying around your art deco skyscrapers. This explains the presence of a film-noir gumshoe protagonist, an archetype that was already somewhat dated by 1965. To his wonderful credit, Constantine performs his role with complete, poker-faced seriousness, no matter how ridiculous his sitation becomes.

Caution’s surname is becomes an ironic joke in relation to his actions. In his mission to destroy the totalitarian Alpha 60, he shoots every complacent technocrat unfortunate enough to cross his path. What’s more, he ends up being fairly useless in his mission to thwart the evil supercomputer, which uses a death ray to annihilate everyone on the planet. (Humorously enough, the working title of the picture was Tarzan versus IBM - which just as well sums up the plot John Boorman’s Point Blank and Zardoz.) What Godard seems to be poking fun at here is how real life often reminds us of allegorical science fiction stories of literature and film, when it really ought to be the other way around.

The way in which we filter our experience of the world through escapist media is examined in numerous instances. Characters have names that are drawn from pop cultural sources to a distracting extent. Caution asks his partner about the whereabouts of Detective Dick Tracy. The inventor of the Alpha 60 goes by two monikers: Dr. Von Braun (after the Nazi-era rocket scientist) and Professor Nosferatu - two famed German boogeymen, one real, and the other fictitious. His assistants are dubbed Dr. Heckle and Dr. Jeckle, after magpies from the Terrytoons cartoons.

What’s fascinating about watching Alphaville today is that many of the concepts it pioneered as parodies of science fiction have been re-worked in serious films and other media. The Alpha 60 appears to be directly related to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL; its perverse plan to save the world by destroying it also employed by Adrien Veidt in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. And of course, Blade Runner, almost 20 years later, would once again meld dystopic sci-fi with film noir into a much more scarily possible setting. Despite Godard’s facetious treatment of the material, we still cling to allegorical sci-fi as an expression of the times. In creating a sci-fi story that went out of its way to be a product of his time, Godard ended up creating one that will always be ahead of it.


Blogger El Hombre Invisible said...

Good post. Good point, too, about the film remaining 'ahead of its time', somehow - by the lack of cheap sci-fi FX and laughable 'futuristic' costumes, perhaps, but mostly through Godard's unique vision. Although other works of his from the 60s may be more easily placed in their time, again, his unique approach to film-making renders them timeless, to my mind. I recently posted a piece on Lemmy, by the way.

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