Friday, March 15, 2019

Silence, Security, Logic, Prudence

(A few years ago I compiled about fifty film reviews for a cherished younger relative who probably did not follow up any of the garrulous recommendations of her senescent kinsman, so I think I will post selections now and again for the delectation of my one or two followers here. Also, it’s less effort than devising new content.)

Audiences in the pre-Star Wars era (or more properly the pre-2001: A Space Odyssey era, although Kubrick’s extraordinary vision, unlike the space operas of George Lucas, remains sui generis almost half a century later) used to put up with some pretty cheesy sets, costumes and effects in their science fiction—the original “Star Trek” television series was considered cutting-edge in 1966, but even then we could see that the instrumentation on the Enterprise bridge consisted of plywood and Christmas tree lights. So prolific French director Jean Luc Godard (not to be confused with Jean-Luc Picard) decides to do a science fiction flick, and he spends nothing on sets and effects when he makes Alphaville (full title: Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution), and that “nothing” is money well (un)spent. The result might be off-putting to an American audience today—hell, they weren’t exactly lining up around the block fifty years ago, and poor old Bosley Crowther, not surprisingly, didn’t know what to make of this shit—but after all, like the most intelligent sci-fi, Alphaville was not about how human beings will live in the future, but about how we’re living now.  That’s the “now” of then, of course, but the sterile, alienating future that Godard saw from 1965, and conveyed by means of shooting some of the most anti-human modernistic architecture of the “new” Paris (trends which have, mercifully, been held in check in Paris proper, which remains one of the fabled beauties among the world’s cities), will not look entirely unfamiliar to contemporary audiences.

We needn’t pay much attention to the story, which is the sheerest twaddle: I don’t think that Godard did. In brief, tough-guy detective Lemmy Caution, a character who had already been played by expat American actor Eddie Constantine in a dozen cheapoid French movies with titles like Dames Get Along, is plucked out of his accustomed genre and into this tongue-in-cheek, highly philosophical production, wherein his character is assigned to go undercover in Alphaville, a city on a planet in a distant galaxy (he arrives there by car).  No one’s striving for verisimilitude here, of course (if they were, you wouldn’t hear “light year” being employed as a measure of time), but particularly to French audiences accustomed to Lemmy Caution’s usual vehicles, this must have seemed like…oh, not just William Shatner cast as Hamlet, but William Shatner playing Captain Kirk as Hamlet and directed by Quentin Tarrantino. Gumshoes don’t get much more hard-boiled than Eddie Constantine, who has what you call a “lived-in” face. He looks like an iguana in a trenchcoat, suffering from a bad hangover. He’s up against the faceless masters of Alphaville, including evil Professor von Braun (a tip o’ the hat to then-NASA chief scientist and ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun) and his most fearsome creation, the supercomputer Alpha 60—depicted, oddly, as a backlit window fan mounted behind what appears to be a set of bedsprings—which is much given to croaking weighty Gallic aphorisms on the order of: “Once we know the number one, we believe that we know the number two, because one plus one equals two. We forget that first we must know the meaning of plus.” “Everything has been said, provided words do not change their meanings, and meanings their words.” “Sometimes reality is too complex for oral communication. But legend embodies it in a form which enables it to spread all over the world.” “Is it not obvious that someone who customarily lives in a state of suffering requires a different sort of religion from a person habitually in a state of well-being?” And so forth. These are not lines of dialogue that would have made it past an American studio script conference fifty-four years ago—or today. It’s all very French and, to my mind, more fun than a barrel of ferrets, but perhaps too weird for casual viewing.

At the time the film was made, it was an article of cultural faith that the mighty Computer (state of the art in 1965 deploying rather less processing power than my watch can draw upon today) could be laid low by the power of paradox (“So who shaves the barber, huh? Answer me that, ya big hunka vacuum tubes!”) or, as here, by human love. Since then, of course, automated systems have grown far more cunning, and if they’re still short of sentience, the average intelligence of the people who directly interact with these has gone way down since the pocket-protector and slide rule set commanded those heights, and the elements of human love, or its counterfeits, are likelier wielded against rather than on behalf of the human consumer.

You probably need to see Alphaville.